What’s at stake when 18 to 20 year olds are excluded from the live music scene?

A number of years ago, I did what I could as a community columnist to stop the city of Savannah’s misguided ordinance change that excluded legal adults ages 18 to 20 from many live music shows. I’m not going to rehash all those arguments, but we had a pretty straightforward system that worked just fine.

It went something like this, in the days before the ordinance change:

  • It’s simply the nature of live music in America that bars are often the best — and in some cases the only — venues for certain types of acts.
  • At the discretion of the club owners, specific shows could be designated 18 and up.
  • The 18 to 20 year olds would sometimes pay a higher cover, since they wouldn’t be drinking and running up bar tabs. If not a higher cover, then at least they were there to fill out the crowd, buy sodas, perhaps buy merch from the band, and so forth.
  • The 18 to 20 year olds would typically have their hands stamped or crossed with big Xs so that it was immediately obvious that they were under 21.
  • If someone was seen drinking, they would be thrown out immediately, since it certainly wasn’t in the best interest of club owners to be anything less than vigilant.
  • And the adults and minors who really wanted to drink? They either got fake IDs, which imperiled everyone’s livelihood and which were routinely confiscated, or — much more often — they got alcohol another way in another place, maybe from an older friend, a sibling, a parent, a lax package store, and so forth and so on.

I guess many people really believed that keeping 18 to 20 year olds — legal adults that in Savannah include many members of the military — out of live music venues under these circumstances served some sort of larger purpose, but it didn’t. I know current college students who drive to Statesboro to enjoy the nightlife scene there (oh that’s a great idea for those kids to be on the road all night), and it seems like the teen party scene has developed even more. Now, instead of being able to interact with older adults while listening to live music and being eyed by wary bar security, those 18 to 20 year olds are a lot more likely to be partying on their own — or with other teens even younger. Another great idea . . .

All that to say that I was curious today to find that New Orleans is considering the exact same kind of misguided ordinance that Savannah embraced. From An Open Letter To The New Orleans City Council by Matt Rosenthal at Barryfest:

I feel this music scene is as important as any other artistic or cultural movement in the city.  But it is one that thrives in measurable part on the contributions and patronage of those under the age of 21. Any ordinance that disallows bars and music venues from hosting 18+ shows – such as those recently proposed by Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson – will devastate this growing community.  The new rules would create a climate disproportionately hostile towards bars that regularly feature live music events and put scores of New Orleans residents at an economic and creative handicap, disenfranchising both those below the legal drinking age and those above it.

When the 18-, 19- and 20-year olds in question are the performers, permitting them upon or around premises that serve alcohol provides a nearly endless list of accessible venues in which they, as young artists, can hone their craft and earn an honest wage.  As patrons, the tickets they buy and cover charges they pay support musicians of all ages; and the time they spend in bars is undoubtedly more highly-structured and well-supervised than time spent engaged in some of the popular alternatives available to people of their age.

One of the most frustrating developments during this debate in Savannah was that some of the more conservative voices in the community — the people that would say they were pro-small business, against intrusive government, and in favor of maximizing personal liberty — often supported the ordinance because it was being wrongly fed to them as some sort of public safety crisis.

Let’s hope Savannah repeals this misguided ordinance one day, and I sure hope a great city like New Orleans — where art, culture, and personal liberty have an especially high value — doesn’t make the mistake of driving a wedge between young adults and the city’s vibrant music scene.