By Seth Daniel
If a local restaurateur were wanting to have an acoustic live music show, in the past that would mean taking a trip to City Hall and sifting through red tape, yellow tape and Scotch tape to get a permit for a measly two-hour set with a musician or poet.
It was hardly worth the effort, and therefore Boston often became known for being a city without the courtesy of live music in its restaurants and establishments.
Now, with little fanfare, such restrictions have come to an end with the codification of the Acoustic on Main program that was signed into law by Mayor Martin Walsh in December, and is still working through an official pilot program.
On Tuesday morning, Council President Michelle Wu and ISD Director Buddy Christopher met with several musicians and restaurant owners in the Boston Chops South End location, where the call for this change started, to talk about the citywide program and what it will mean for business districts in the South End.
Brian Piccini, a co-owner of Chops, said they had been part of an initial test run of the program, completing 14 performances over a two-week period – with everything from someone playing a grand piano to an a cappella group to a single violinist for brunch.
“Not having to go down to City Hall to get a permit means less time you have to be away from the restaurant; not jumping through hoops is refreshing,” he said. “I am glad they moved the end time back to 10 p.m. because the way our business blossoms nightly is that at 9 p.m. – when the initial program shut down – was difficult because that’s when every seat was filled. Transitioning the music out then was difficult. The people coming in at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., also, weren’t ready for live music. It was definitely a process before. Doing away with that is a positive thing on that front.”
He said they likely wouldn’t use the program during peak weekend dining times, but would certainly feature it at their brunch and in off times to drive up customer volume and interest.
Wu said the only restrictions are that there can be no more than five members performing and that the only microphone used would be for the singer. Beyond that, there can be no amplified instruments, but there can be drums and acoustic guitars and other instruments. If a restaurant has a patio or sidewalk seating, they cannot have performers outside, but they can open windows to let the music flow out onto the outdoor seating.
She said the program is available for any business, not just restaurants, that are located in a traditional business district – such as Washington Street, Columbus Avenue or Tremont Street. The hours of operation are between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m.
The beauty of it, for many in the business community, is that those are the only rules.
There are no permits needed and no inspectors have to come visit prior to to a performance. Really, if you want to do it, one does it.
“The neighborhoods are the vibrancy of the city and we want to support you,” said Christopher at the meeting. “We want you to chart your destiny and not us…This is just still in our initial pilot phase even though it’s an ordinance. However, this will be on you as business owners to shepherd it through in it’s first year. It is still a pilot program in its first year citywide. After the pilot, we’ll evaluate it and we’ll turn it into zoning.
“Also, this if for any business in a business district,” he continued. “If you have a hardware store and want to bring in a quartet to entertain people while they buy paint, have at it.”
He and Wu also emphasized that the program isn’t limited to music, but also applies to poets, comedians and spoken word artists – among many others.
“The Mayor wants this to be a success,” Christopher said. “It’s a philosophical position he’s taken. I’m sure these regulations, such as for permits to have music, were well thought out and important at one time. They no longer apply now.”
Christopher stressed that there won’t be inspectors coming out searching for permits or trying to catch storeowners or restaurateurs doing something wrong. He said it is a deliberately hands-off approach that relies upon business owners to police themselves and do things responsibly. If they don’t, he said they’ll likely get complaints and then they would get a visit from ISD.
“I don’t want a big heavy metal band with amplified instruments coming in and destroying the neighborhood,” he said. “The regulation says one mic for the singer. Do it responsibly. If we get complaints, we’re going to come visit you. You know your clientele.
“We’re leaving this very open ended so it doesn’t get interpreted and then start regulating itself,” he continued. “That happens a lot with City ordinances – that they get interpreted a certain way and it grows into regulation. We are trying very hard to not let that happen to this initiative.”
Said Wu, “We don’t want to dictate to you. We want you to do this. It’s great for the businesses and also the artists. It will give so many musicians and artists and comedians and poets so may more opportunities to showcase their talents…We do want where possible to please pay the musicians and pay them a living wage and support the economy in that way.”
One of the major concerns at the meeting was that many hadn’t heard about the pilot or the ordinance, and so there was a sense that most business owners who qualify to have performances don’t know that they qualify.
“I feel like a lot of restaurant and business owners don’t think this is real,” said Kristin Phelan, president of Washington Gateway Main Street. “The owners don’t know. What I feel you most often hear is, ‘You must be kidding me; this can’t be real.’ We need to make sure all the businesses know and understand about what this is and can be.”
Jenny Effron, director of Washington Gateway Main Street, said the organization supports the program and hopes that it continues to take root in the very district that gave birth to the idea.
“Washington Gateway is really excited this is going into practice,” she said. “This can be a really big boon to small businesses. We certainly want this to be the neighborhood where it really takes off.”
Both Wu and Christopher stressed that anyone can have the acoustic performances starting now, no permits necessary.
City officials said they are working with the Musicians’ Union to compile a database of entertainers, with genre, who are interested and available for hire. That would be a resource for businesses to use if they are interested in bringing in a performer.