Philadelphia

Philadelphia Could Make Musicians Register With the Police

New bill calls for performers to hand over personal information; cops could revoke venues' performance licenses.

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Philadelphia Councilman Mark Squilla has

Got a license for that?

introduced a bill requiring the proprietors of any performance venue (including concert halls, nightclubs, bars, and even restaurants) to submit the names and contact info of any musical act (including DJs) into a city-wide registry. 

As reported by BillyPenn.com:

The proposal, which was introduced last week and is headed to a committee hearing, would directly involve the Philadelphia Police Department in the approval process for so-called "Special Assembly Occupancy" licenses — giving law enforcement de facto veto power over whether shows can be held at venues that hold 50 or more people.

The bill broadly defines "performance act" as follows:

"Performance Act" shall mean any person or group of persons engaged in the act of singing, disc jockeying, rapping, dancing, playing musical instruments, and/or acting for an audience or group of patrons. The term shall also include the presentation of streaming or recorded audio or video, whether or not obtained for a fee, where such audio or video is offered primarily for listening or viewing. 

Squilla denies that any "specific music acts created this issue," but he told BillyPenn that police access to performers' personal information "enables them to review past performances to see if there were any public safety issues."

But Sean Agnew, a Philadelphia-based promoter, says venue owners almost never deal directly with artists and that such arrangements are made between agents, managers and people like himself. Agnew told BillyPenn he "books 600+ shows a year" and "can't imagine a band's representatives wanting to give their clients information over to the police without a really good reason." He adds, "I'm just trying to think of a situation where the police want the addresses and numbers of the 10+ members of Arcade Fire … Seems really intense."

Writing on his Facebook page, Councilman Squilla denies that a city-wide registry of performers will result from this legislation and insists "this provision is NOT intended to restrict artistic expression or any kind of entertainment but rather is aimed at addressing public safety and quality of life issues."

So what exactly is the bill's intent? Squilla explains:

The primary goal of this bill is to close a loophole in the current legislation that has allowed venues to operate without a special assembly license (SAOL). SAOLs are required for certain venues that have live musical and other entertainment. We learned that some operators were able to avoid obtaining an SAOL because there was no live music or a DJ but music was streaming or playing from an iPod or iPad.

Got that? It's about ensuring public safety through enhanced licensing and making sure bars that don't even use actual DJs to amplify music aren't exempt from ponying up the requisite cash. Just in case you missed the point, the bill raises the license application fee from $100 a year to $500 every two years. 

Philebrity.com describes how the proposed law would work in practice:

You used to be cool, Philly.

It would effect small shows and promoters who'd have to deal with all of this plus their rising fee costs, and it would also seemingly create a Brazil-esque mountain of bureaucracy and paperwork for the city to have to deal with, not to mention he Philadelphia Police Department using their resources to work on license approvals.

A representative of the Pennsylvania ACLU told BillyPenn, "This bill reflects a strange expansion of police duties and a dangerous muddling of the line between law enforcement and business licensing." 

Writing at Philly Voice, Aubrey Nagle quotes Avram Hornik, whose company manages several Philadelphia performance venues:

"[Police are] not trained for it. They have enough responsibilities to police the city and keep the city safe—why do they have the responsibility for deciding if something is a risk or not?" Hornik said. "And if they don't affirmatively say it's safe, then if something goes wrong, they're responsible."

"The way this is drafted, it puts everything in the police's court for everything that happens in his or her district."

He added that the process would be susceptible to "prejudice, censorship or bias," and that the lack of communication with those in the entertainment industry leading up to the bill's introduction is frustrating.

It is hard to choose which way to define this story. On one hand, it seems like a classic example of a legislator acting out his puritanical fear of young people and their popular music. On the other hand, it's an all-too-familiar case of the government chiseling into people's ability to do business unencumbered by a plethora of occupational licenses and cumbersome regulatory hurdles that enrich no one but the agencies tasked with enforcing them.

Further, if enacted, the law would be yet another in what Reason contributor J.D. Tuccille calls "the spiderweb of laws, rules, and regulations that turn the majority of Americans into criminals." Politicians like Squilla might think his bill is an innocuous improvement to city code, but such laws are always ultimately enforced by the barrel of a gun. Philadelphia's lawmakers should seriously consider whether such potential confrontations are really worth the cost of making sure a bar's iPad is appropriately licensed.