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A Threat to Local Live Music

July 30, 2008 - Jim Price
The next time you turn on your television or stereo system, take a moment to step outside of your home, and see if you can hear the sound of that television or stereo outside of your residence.  If you can hear either, consider this: If your residence was licensed by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, you would be in violation of the law for that loudspeaker on your television or stereo being audible outside your premises, and you would be subject to a citation and/or fine.  According to Section 5.32 of Subchapter C (Amusement and Entertainment) of the Pennsylvania Liquor Code:

“A licensee may not use or permit to be used inside or outside of the licensed premises a loudspeaker or similar device whereby the sound of music or other entertainment, or the advertisement thereof, can be heard on the outside of the licensed premises.”

And note that the law doesn’t state anything about the volume of such a loudspeaker, loud or soft.  If it can even be heard outside of the establishment, it is in violation of the law.  Zero tolerance.  In essence, a liquor-licensed establishment is held to a stricter standard for noise tolerance than homeowners, other businesses, churches, ballparks, or even the neighborhood teenager driving around the block with his booming car stereo system.  If an establishment’s jukebox, television, radio, deejay, karaoke or live band loudspeakers can be heard outside its premises at any level, it is in violation.

The law’s purpose, of course, is to protect surrounding residences from noise pollution emanating from liquor-licensed establishments.  And clearly, if an establishment is blatantly encroaching on its neighbors with noise problems, it should be cited and penalized for that violation.

The problem is that at least on the local level, enforcement of this law is strict and arbitrary, and seems to mostly target liquor-licensed establishments that run live bands.  Even with band amplification turned down to its lowest levels, it is nearly impossible for most venues to totally conceal the sound of live band entertainment from the outside world, so they’re an easy mark for zealous Liquor Control Enforcement (LCE) agents.  This year again, several area live music nightspots have been hit with noise violations in the latest LCE feeding frenzy, including some venues not even located near residences.   

And this year, with rising gasoline prices and economic issues already hurting attendance at live music venues, this current wave of noise law crackdowns is forcing some area venues to discontinue live music altogether.  This, in turn, results in fewer opportunities for bar staff, bands and musicians, and production (sound and light) people to earn income; and also impacts music stores, music publications and press, and other music- and bar-related businesses.  It hurts livelihoods.

There have been efforts in recent years to encourage legislators to change the noise provision of the Pennsylvania Liquor Code, so that a more reasonable minimum decibel level would be established for licensed establishments to adhere to.  Thus far, those efforts have all fallen short. 

In other cases, a few local municipalities where targeted venues are located have successfully petitioned the Liquor Control Board for exemptions from its noise regulations, with the municipalities’ own noise ordinances taking precedence. 

With a change in the Liquor Code noise provision not likely any time soon, this latter option – working with municipalities to have noise issues overseen on the local level – may be the only hope that targeted venues have if they wish to run entertainment, short of shelling out megabucks to totally soundproof their establishments from the outside world.

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