Music industry groups want more time on ‘agent of change’

June 06, 2017
Tom McCarthy Jr.
Future Islands performs at the Mohawk outdoor stage during the 2017 South by Southwest festival. The city’s proposed “agent of change” ordinance would apply only to outdoor venues.

After working for two years on a policy they hope will protect live music venues, two prominent music advocacy groups are urging officials to hold off on the measure slated to come before the Austin City Council next week.

The discussions originated around an “agent of change” policy to help prevent sound complaints about music clubs, an idea that gained traction after the 2015 Austin Music Census identified critical pressures facing Austin’s live music industry. Under such a proposal, the burden of soundproofing would fall on the new actor in any situation, whether a condo development moves in next to a music venue or vice versa.

The draft ordinance released Friday includes hotels, a recent addition that music groups applauded in light of the Westin hotel’s lawsuit last year against the Nook nightclub that predated it.

RELATED: Agent of Change: Why music venues say proposal isn’t enough

But the measure turned out to be much broader than industry officials expected, entailing an overhaul of the city’s sound ordinance — which Austin Music People’s executive chairman, Bobby Garza, described as “the ordinance that underpins the absolute health of the entire music ecosystem.”

In a letter read into the record at the city’s Music Commission meeting Monday night, Garza said a repeal and replacement of the sound ordinance “without the proper vetting is dangerous and has the potential for vast unintended consequences.”

Alex Lopez, deputy director of the city’s Economic Development office, said it was always the city’s intention to rewrite the sound ordinance.

There is no change to the current sound limit, 85 decibels at a venue’s property line, in the proposed code. But the proposal makes other changes, including extending the duration of an outdoor music venue permit from one year to two and sending appeals of sound complaint disputes to the city manager instead of the City Council.

Austin Music People and the Music Venue Alliance Austin are calling on the city to postpone a council vote until August. Their representatives are scheduled to meet Thursday morning with city staffers and Mayor Steve Adler.

Rebecca Reynolds, head of the venue alliance and an attorney who specializes in music law, said the proposed ordinance is “far more extensive than the very simple ideas that (city staff) have been circulating” and there’s no way her group could properly review the 21-page document before the City Council vote planned for June 15.

Reynolds is also concerned that the “agent of change” doctrine as written would apply only to outdoor venues, and the requirements on new developers building near venues are limited to an acknowledgment of sound conditions prior to building and disclosure of the proximity to venues to buyers or lessees.

Lopez described the acknowledgment and disclosure as “evidence” that venues could produce if sued by a neighboring hotel or residential development.

“It’s progress,” Lopez told the Music Commission. “It’s not exactly what everybody wanted. It is a good step in the right direction to start creating the protection that some of these venues need.”

Reynolds plans to establish an informal working group with neighborhood councils and venue owners to discuss the issue over the summer.

Mary Ingle, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, said Tuesday she thinks such a working group is a great idea.

“There are so many (city) departments that lack trust because they don’t try to build relationships with the community,” Ingle said. “They only build relationships with business.”