Press: Local Nightclub Owners: Music To Their Ears

Speakeasy had offered all-ages music to its customers since its opening, but ran into some issues with the Washington State Liquor Control Board because of the way the cafe was laid out. But Speakeasy wasn’t the only local business that was affected by the Board’s stringent regulations.

Local Nightclub Owners: Music To Their Ears

By J. Martin Mcomber
Seattle Times Staff Reporter

The state Liquor Board wants to relax regulations that prohibit live entertainment at clubs and restaurants that serve mixed-age crowds. The proposed changes would open the door for all-ages shows at venues that had been all but off-limits to minors.

Mixing teens, booze and music has been a long-standing no-no for Seattle area nightclubs, but that’s about to change under a new proposal from the Washington State Liquor Control Board.

The agency plans to relax rules prohibiting live entertainment at clubs and restaurants that serve mixed-age crowds, opening the door for all-ages shows at venues that had been all but off-limits to minors.

Music would be restricted to dining areas, and the underaged would have to clear out by 10 p.m. if alcohol were being served. But for club owners, the new rules are a welcome relief.

“This will definitely put a spark in the local music scene,” said Rick Wyatt, owner of The Fenix in Pioneer Square. “This is one of the few states in the country where the music industry had been frustrated by so many regulations.”

A copy of the proposed rules will be mailed to to liquor-license holders this week.

Until now, clubs and restaurants couldn’t offer live entertainment before 9 p.m., and the shows were strictly for those 21 and over. The Liquor Board made exceptions on a case-by-case basis for low-key dinner music, but the standard was vague enough to land some clubs in trouble.

Belltown’s funky Speakeasy Cafe was forced to close down this spring after getting heat from liquor-control agents for holding all-ages shows.

“It ruined us,” said co-owner Gretchen Apgar. “You spend two-and-a-half years building an identity, and then you’re told you can’t do what you are doing. We went down hill and floundered.”

Public outcry caused the owners to rethink their decision, and the Speakeasy reopened July 9. Although Apgar had decided to replace live music in the dining area with silent movies, she was gearing up for a fight with authorities over what she considered stifling regulations.

The Liquor Board decided to ease the rules following a stinging federal court ruling last month that struck down a 60-year-old state law giving local authorities the power to license live entertainment at bars and restaurants.

The U.S. District Court judge called the law an unconstitutional violation of free speech.

“It was a major change, but a direction the board was going in anyway,” said Gary Gilbert, the Liquor Board’s director of enforcement. “We wanted to get out of the business of deciding what kind of music was OK and what wasn’t. Music should be music.”

The new rules would exclude taverns and bars that don’t have a “beer, wine and spirits” license, which requires that food be served.

The relaxed regulations couldn’t have happened at a better time for the city’s all-ages music scene, which was teetering on extinction after last month’s closure of the Velvet Elvis Arts Lounge and the planned departure of RKCNDY later this year.

While pleased with the proposal, the local music industry’s lobbying arm, the Joint Artists and Music Promotions Political Action Committee, doesn’t think the proposal goes far enough.

Executive Director Angel Combs said the organization wants Seattle to follow the lead of other large cities and allow all 21-and-over clubs to open their doors to a younger audience.

“This is certainly a step in the right direction,” Combs said. “But there is still an underlying attitude on the Liquor Control Board that as soon as you have minors and entertainment occupying the same space and liquor is served, then chaos will erupt.”

Wyatt says he plans to schedule more all-ages shows at The Fenix once the new rules are in place. But even though he could keep his bar open while the bands play, Wyatt said he plans to move cautiously.

“I will personally put on nonalcoholic all-age events,” he said. “It is a dangerous environment mixing alcohol and minors. Others may choose to do it differently if they feel like they can control the situation.”

The Liquor Board must have a public hearing and approve the plan before it would take effect. A hearing is expected sometime this summer.


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