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Local Artists and Performers Organize and Respond to the Live Music Bill

March 17, 2009

If the meeting last night at the Hexagon space on North Charles Street could qualify as entertainment under the proposed city council Live Entertainment bill—and given the presence of some 30 musicians, promoters, concert-goers, and people generally in favor of live entertainment, it is possible that it should—then anyone who lived within 10 blocks of the Hexagon would have had the right to protest the club.

Ten blocks from the Hexagon stretches roughly from Charles Village’s St. Philip and James Rectory at the north, almost to Mount Vernon’s Washington Monument at the south, encompassing part of Druid Hill Lake to the west, and all of Greenmount Cemetery to the east. Under the bill as it is currently written, if 10 people were found in that 10 block radius who objected to the Hexagon’s entertainment, the case would go before a yet-to-be-created Board of Licenses for Live Entertainment headed by a Director of Hospitality Services. The process would be repeated yearly.

The bill—officially Council Bill 08-0163 Live Entertainment – Licensing and Regulation – Hospitality Services – Promotion and Coordination—is still in the early stages, though. A series of public meetings will be held about it, the first March 18 at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School.

The legislation takes entertainment venues out of the purview of the Zoning commission and establishes a five-person board to regulate performances by musicians, plays, revues, circuses, acrobats, aerialists, dancers, magicians, karaoke enthusiasts, disc jockeys, readers of poetry, performance artists, stand-up comedians, and “similar activities” within the limits of Baltimore City.

Josh Atkins, one of the managers of the collectively run Hexagon, was hopeful about the possibilities. “It’s very vague in a lot of places,” he says of the bill. “It’s very possible that if we organize, we can craft this bill to make it beneficial for all the venues.”

Most were concerned, though, that the bill would, intentionally or not, destroy a grassroots music scene that Rolling Stone magazine last year named best in the country.

“If they do this, I am so out of here,” says Karl Ekdahl, another Hexagon manager. “If [the live performance scene] disappears, all we have left is crime and crack.”

This meeting was held at 7 p.m. Three hours earlier, another meeting was held at the Metro Gallery a block south, attended mainly by owners of bars, restaurants, and a disparate collection of venues that would fall under the new law. At that meeting, a new group was formed—the Baltimore Live Arts Business Association (BLABA).

At the evening meeting, after the bar owners had gone to work, it was decided that a second, as yet unnamed group of artists and fans should be formed. As a young woman in the back row put it, “I’m a performer and show-goer, therefore I give a shit.”

It actually seemed to be the sort of meeting the city is hoping for—the group will be dividing up tasks among committees to research the new bill and spread the word about it. “We need someone to figure out what they’re trying to say in their city council-speak, and say it back to them in city council-speak,” says Raven Baker, another Hexagon member (and a City Paper freelancer).

The group had a number of concerns about the bill, ranging from financial burdens to smaller clubs (the legislation doesn’t specify fees, but a note from the city budget research bureau put the possible costs above $1,000 annually), to the 10 person/10 block rule, to making sure venues wouldn’t have to close while they waited for license approval.

After suggesting some further organizing over e-mail, the last order of business was to find a name for the group. “This could be fun,” Baker says. “It doesn’t have to spell anything.”

A series of suggestions, as 30 people worked out acronyms:
Keri Griffith, Hexagon member (laughing): “Baltimore Live Arts Scene Team.” (BLAST)
Kevin Blackistone, Red Emma’s 2640 club: “Baltimore Live Arts Members Association.” (BLAMO)
Alan Partlow, musician, Bene Gesserit Witch (“It’s a novelty band based on Dune”): “Performing arts sounds better.”
Someone: “Upright Citizen’s Brigade!”
Someone else: “Taken.”

“We don’t have to think of a name tonight,” Baker says.

“If everyone can be here the same time next week, that would be awesome,” concludes Miguel Sabogal, Hexagon co-manager.

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