Music News


State in an All-Age Rage

When is a concert not a concert?
What's the difference between a "bar" and a "concert facility"?
If you're younger than 21, will the only way you'll soon be able to see rock is to drive to a quarry?

These and other questions are up in the air right now as the Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control begins to throw some muscle into Statute No. 424423 of the Alcoholic Beverage Codebook.

In a nutshell, the problem is this: Certain venues that feature "all-ages" shows (where anyone older than 21 must show ID in order to drink) have allegedly served minors. This, obviously, is a no-no, and the DLLC is cracking down on the law that defines a facility's "primary use." In other words, does a bar, theatre or nightclub qualify as a "concert facility"--which would allow it to serve booze while still having minors on the premises--the same way a larger place (Desert Sky Pavilion, for example) does?

If it is decided that smaller venues, where capacity is less than 1,000, are not full-fledged concert facilities, the only way anyone younger than 21 is going to witness any live music is for the place to put on an alcohol-free show. And then, presumably, another show for adults only. But the two-shows-a-night program just isn't feasible for a lot of groups, and clubs can't make enough money from one-off, no-booze shows to put them on. Therefore, bands that don't draw in huge numbers may no longer come here, and a large hunk of the album-buying public (which is younger than 21) simply won't see any live music.

And now we're back to the confusing world of semantics; definitions as interpreted by the government and club owners. When is a door not a door? When it's ajar. When is a concert not a concert? Well, if you're younger than 21 and there's a jar containing booze in you're hand, never.

Myron Mussfeld, chief of investigations for the Department of Liquor, elaborates: "The pertinent part of the statute says you can't have a minor on the premises during the hours in which the primary use is the selling and dispensing of alcoholic beverages. That's been on the books since '82, I believe. Then about three years ago, some of the [club owners] took their clubs and divided them, almost like putting a chalk line down the middle of it, and said, 'In this area, I'm not selling, serving or dispensing alcoholic beverages and I'm letting minors in there. And on this side is my drinking side.' That went okay, but then the director that we had at the time didn't like that, and you had underage people in the same building, using the same rest rooms, so it was a tough situation. So he had the attorney general redraft the law, and it said a person could not designate an area as a nondrinking area simply for the purpose of allowing minors."

Mussfeld says that everybody respected the redrafting until recently. "They've [the club owners] started testing it, saying, 'Well, I'm having a concert tonight, therefore my primary use of my premises is as a concert [venue] and I can let everybody in.' It's them who are interpreting it newly, 'cause we have always said that is not the case."

So just when are you at a concert? Even for the chief of investigations, there are no easy answers.

"Some bars are large enough to be what we could call literally a concert venue as opposed to someplace that just has a band," he says. "Someplace like the Celebrity Theatre is an obvious concert facility. They don't do anything but concerts; that's what it was made for. A bar was made to be a bar, and then they book in some acts. Well, that's a bar, an adult-entertainment bar that's booking in music. Just because they say, 'It's five bucks at the door, so that's a concert,' I find that absurd."

Jim Torgeson, co-owner of the 968-capacity Electric Ballroom in Tempe, finds the whole thing rather absurd, if not downright dire.

"Well, let's say it's an all-ages show like Sugar [the band recently performed there to a large crowd]. They [the government] could come in, they could close me down, charge me a $2,500 violation for having someone under 21 in the room as long as there's any liquor in the room," he says. "If there was no liquor, I'd lose thousands of dollars trying to operate. So Sugar comes in, and that's not a legitimate concert? People were not there to shoot pool. . . . My main concern is having music; if I wanted to open up a bar, I'd open up a bar. He [Mussfeld] goes, 'If you were a thousand-seat minimum . . . ' To go to a thousand seats, you have to change your building classification; to do that change, you have to have square footage or conform to a whole different set of building plans. "What's going to eventually happen is that most of your midsize acts, acts [that draw] between 300 and 1,500 people, are just not going to play Arizona. What they're [the liquor department] doing, out of their own ignorance in being unable to determine what is a legitimate concert, they're affecting hundreds of people's livelihoods. This thing could put us out of business, on the grand scheme."

Mussfeld (who doesn't believe that the crackdown would have any major effect on the music scene here) says he's not unsympathetic. "I understand the argument when a guy says, 'I seat a thousand people in my club, I'm bringing in a Johnny Cash, does that exclude me?' No, but everything isn't black and white, and that's in that gray area that we need to close in and define. If we have to do it along the lines of how many you seat or the price of a ticket, we'll do that."

Boston's owner Al Nichols says his club's indoor capacity is roughly 400; outdoor capacity is about 1,000. Nichols has put on many all-ages nights, and, like Torgeson, thinks the state's crackdown "is going to kill the music scene in Phoenix. I think the smaller bands that draw three to five hundred people are going to bypass the city and go on to other states because their audience is primarily kids."

According to Mussfeld, this isn't something that will blow over. While his department's enforcement to date has consisted of going "out to the few places that have been doing this [abusing the law] and telling them, 'That's not the way we interpret the law, and we think you should change the way you're doing business,'" things may not stop there.

"This is causing us to take a look at legislation," he admits. "Maybe we're going to have to have a legislative change; that might be the solution."

Governor J. Fife Symington III has been a champion of getting government off the backs of business--well, big business, anyway, the kinds that make massive campaign contributions. It will be interesting to see whether his laissez-faire philosophy extends to smaller businesses. Can fans of Citizen Fish be Fife's constituents, too?

Want the state to face the music? Call the DLLC at 542-5141. Or, better yet, write the Department of Liquor Licenses and Control at 800 West Washington, Fifth Floor, Phoenix, AZ 85007.

And on a Lighter Note: Yes, it's that time of year again for happiness, good cheer and peace among all men, but what about dogs? Why not cut them into the party? One benevolent master is our old pal Tim the Photographer, who took his faithful, loving mutt Weegee down to the pet store for a photo-op with the fat man himself. "She was pretty joyous, pretty excited," says Tim of the session. He also reveals that the Weeg, who will be unwrapping a "vegetable stick" on Christmas morning, is in tune with the season. "This year, she definitely knows something is up." She's not the only one.

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Peter Gilstrap
Contact: Peter Gilstrap