Square Fest a good sign for Savannah music scene, but teens need more such chances to engage

Let me begin this post by distinguishing among three age groups:

1. Savannahians over 21 obviously have the right to buy and drink alcohol in restaurants and bars.

2. Those between 18 and 20 cannot buy or consume alcohol, but they are legal adults. Many live on their own and have jobs. Some are married. Some are members of the military. Some are college students. There certainly are some 18-year old high school students, but they’re primarily living still with parents and subject to their parents’ rules.

3. Those teens 17 and younger who have not reached the age of majority. They are still minors and subject to a wide range of restrictions that do not apply to those 18 and up.

David Collin Ballantyne of Word of Mouth, photo courtesy of Ann Sosbe at One Horse Photography (click to enlarge)

I emphasize those three categories because of the low sophistication level of the public discourse a number of years ago when the city of Savannah completely banned 18-20 year olds from most live music venues. (People who should have known better kept lumping everyone under 21 into the same boat and kept talking about “teen clubs” without any apparent grasp of the differences between high school kids living at home and young adults living entirely on their own.) Like in many other cities, Savannah’s key music venues are primarily bars, which obviously can’t serve anyone under 21. But many of those bars used to allow 18-20 year olds in the door for music or other entertainment (the lines of “live entertainment” got blurred over the years to include DJs and dance clubs, in addition to bands). The young adults simply had their hands stamped to mark them as underage; bar staff or security could see at once if they were drinking. The system worked fine.

Bars obviously weren’t required to allow 18-20 year olds in the door — and some bar owners preferred not to. But the additional cover charges could help provide revenue for bands and help fill up clubs on slow nights. The non-drinkers would still buy sodas, still by merchandise, still spend some money that otherwise wouldn’t have helped support either the venues or the performers. And the young adults then had something legal to do while under the constant watch of the establishment’s employees, who knew they could lose their jobs if underage drinkers were found on the premises.

Photo courtesy of Ann Sosbe at One Horse Photography (click to enlarge)

That system allowed those 18-20 year olds engage directly with the local music scene.

Savannah city council voted to ban that simple practice under an illusion of crime control. I noted at the time that the ban opened a can of worms since it exempted restaurants that had live music and largely functioned as bars late at night. And, sure enough, a year or so later council members became aware of the contradictions and made the law even more restrictive with a complex bureaucracy of bars, restaurants, and “hybrids” — establishments that function as restaurants until a certain hour of the night and then function as bars from which anyone under 21 is banned.

At the time, Savannah officials made a big deal about how allowing 18-20 year olds into alcohol-serving music venues violated state law, but no one else in the state seems to think so. Athens clubs can let 18-20 year olds in Check out the policies at the legendary 40 Watt), and I know plenty of under-21 Armstrong students who drive on weekend nights all the way to Statesboro to hit the clubs there.

There are a variety of issues involved with rolling back the clock to ordinances that are less restrictive of legal adults aged 18-20, but the various problems are easily distinguished. We don’t have to open the door so wide as to include dance clubs and DJs. And we don’t even necessarily need to get rid of the hybrid distinctions or get rid of the bar cards.

But we need to do something. Enough years have gone by that the affected teens and young adults don’t even necessarily know what they’re missing, so it’s up to the rest of us adults to push the issues.

Lloyd Harold of KidSyc@Brandywine at Square Fest, photo courtesy of Ann Sosbe of One Horse Photography

So consider all that

as background to my City Talk column today about the wildly successful inaugural Square Fest in Forsyth Park on Saturday: Square Fest’s success and the need for a more accesible music scene in Savannah. After congratulating the bands and organizers, especially Amanda Hollowell, I spend the second half of the column talking about the challenges of getting young people — especially aspiring musicians and music fans — more plugged in to the local scene.

I checked in at Square Fest several times through the day. I hardly knew anyone there in the early to mid-afternoon, when the crowd seemed largely seemed comprised of teens and parents. By the end of the show, when the 8-piece Word of Mouth was performing a strong final set, there was a great demographic mix all around the park, including a broad age range. Even if we give 18, 19, and 20 year olds easier access to the music scene, that won’t meet the challenges of creating more chances for those 17 to plug in. So we need to keep thinking about ways to facilitate truly all ages events like Square Fest. (The 4th of July Hairy Chest Fest at Taco Abajo is a model worth noting.)

In the column today, I mention in passing a couple of logistical issues that Square Fest will need to address. I didn’t have space to delve into that in the piece, but Square Fest for next year must have a better sound system. And I would suggest moving the event to after Labor Day. Organizers got lucky with the temperate weather this year, and lots more SCAD students are residing in the city in September. I don’t know any details about the festival’s funding, but clearly a gathering like Square Fest needs considerable resources. I hope it will qualify beginning next year for some city arts funding, like some other festivals receive.

Again, congratulations to all involved!

And special thanks to Ann Sosbe of One Horse Photography for letting me use a few of her Square Fest pics for this post. Ann takes some beautiful photos, including lots of great band shots. Check out her galleries.