Yesterday was the Common Council Planning Committee’s meeting and public discussion pertaining to the Albany Cabaret License legislation that would see changes to the way live entertainment is regulated in the city of Albany.

=== Download latest revision (PDF) as of 2/16/2012 ===

The idea was to make the process simpler and to tie it to the actual business rather than the land. Currently, a cabaret license is obtained through a clumsy process that results in a one-time $125 fee and is granted to the physical land. Which means that not only does it transfer to new businesses, but also new landowners. This new law, which if approved would go into effect April 1st, would hold specific businesses and business owners accountable for obtaining and renewing their cabaret license annually.

The most alarming aspect was addressed in a revision made two weeks ago. Basically, the application process was going to occur behind closed doors at the City Clerk’s office. That lack of transparency caused many, including myself, to remark that it made the process seem dirty and as if they were trying to pre-emptively shut down what they deem undesirable businesses, which would lead invariably to discriminatory practices muddied with political and racial biases. Thankfully, someone listened, and the process now has been completely changed to include input from various agencies and open it up for public comment.

The other major downside was the cost. Originally the range was a minimum of $300 to $900. The price has been brought down drastically, and is tiered according to capacity:

Up to and including 150 persons $150
151 to 300 persons $200
301 to 500 persons $300
501 or more persons $500
for each year or fraction thereof.

Note: if a venue has multiple rooms where events can be performed, there is a surcharge of $60 for each additional performance space.

Still very expensive for small businesses. One of the points I made to the committee was that many folks (and unfortunately one mustached member of the council whose name I unfortunately didn’t get) have this idea that businesses can afford whatever the city throws at them, what I referred to as a “tophat and monocle” image of small business owners. The reality is far different, particularly for those that own small coffee houses in the city limits.

One of the compromises in a recent revision attempts to address this. From Section 111-72 B:

B. Licensed premises that do not serve or sell any form of alcohol and whose amplification is only necessary for balancing acoustic instruments by means of a public address system or amplifier shall pay a fee of $50.

Again, it’s an earnest attempt, but done by people who don’t have a real working knowledge of  what’s going on in the city and a general trend throughout the country. Many coffeehouses do in fact have liquor licenses in order to supplement their income. There’s also the rise of the Wine Bar – we’re having one opening right here in downtown Troy run by city booster Vic Christopher – that’s serves as more of a cafe than a bar/tavern. So while it’s a step in the right direction, there’s still some work to be done.

While most of the revisions were for the better, there was one that seemed to be shoe-horned in by a misguided council member reacting to some anecdotal circumstance:

C. For the purposes of this chapter, a premises owned or occupied by a religious organization which permits musical entertainment, singing, dancing or other forms of amusement in said premises that do not coincide with a religious service shall be deemed to be  conducting a cabaret hereunder.

So basically, if a church is having a mixer, technically that can be construed as not “coinciding with a religious service” and subject them to needing to obtain and pay for a cabaret license. What I stressed to the members of the Committee and all present is that sometimes with a law like this, less is more. The easy way to fix this wouldn’t be to add more qualifiers as to what would be deemed as coinciding with a church or religious service, but to instead provide an exemption to all religious organizations. As hard as these fees will be for small businesses, it will be even harder for churches to cover them; they provide an invaluable service to underserved communities and, as such, rarely see the kind of cash flow that would justify the city charging them annually for a cabaret license. It would amount to the city looking like cruel overseers trying to draw blood from a stone, and all because one committee member was privy to an isolated incident.

This change is akin to someone getting cut off in traffic and, in response, trying to get legislation to make it harder for drivers to make a lane change. In that sense it serves as an apt metaphor for this whole process, which in my public comments I compared to taking a hammer to a housefly. Through the public’s input, however, we have seen a lot of changes made to the legislation that would make it more affordable and the process a lot more transparent and reasonable.

There’s still work to be done, but they’re getting there, thankfully.

As for Occupy Albany’s dog and pony show outside…ugh. Ugh ugh ugh. “Don’t tax the music” and “they don’t care about us” was the song being sung when I entered City Hall at 4:45pm and when I left at 6:00pm. The vast majority stayed outside, with only a handful coming in towards the end to get a sign onto television. They didn’t hijack the problem so much as embarrassed themselves by showing a fundamental ignorance or intentional misrepresentation (which would be worse) of the issue. It’s not a “tax on music” or “personal expression” as they were stating, it’s a tax on local business. Unfortunately the news cameras went right for them, which I saw coming from a mile away and had confirmed by several annoyed Facebook posts from people present at the meeting who watched the evening news.

My response: whatever. The circus ringmasters in television news media are naturally going to try to draw everyone’s attention to whoever’s rolling up in a clown car, so as cynical as it may seem, we can’t be too surprised. The good news, though, is that this process is moving forward in a positive way and there’s still time to provide more feedback and pressure to get the necessary changes made to make this a fair, affordable, and wholly transparent process.

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