The kids are alright3/6/2013
Mike Barrett went to a benefit show at House of Bricks last year. Eight bands were on the slate for that night, but the one that Mike was most excited about was Dead Horse Trauma. Barrett, 20, had been a metal fan for as long as he could remember.
“When I was a kid, it was all Deftones and Slipknot all the time,” he said later. “Slipknot was really cool to me, because they were from here. It was cool to be like, ‘My brother went to high school with them.’ Dead Horse Trauma is going to be the same way someday.”
The first four bands of the night all put on a great show, and Barrett sat at the bar, listening and eating a hamburger from the Bricks’ kitchen. On this night, DHT was set to take the stage at 9:30 p.m. A half an hour before that, however, Barrett hastily scarfed down the last of his French fries, slammed his Coke and headed for the door.
“That sucked, dude,” he recalled. “They’d played a show at Wooly’s that same week, but I couldn’t go. They don’t play in town all that often, and I missed them twice in one week.”
Barrett had paid his admission to the show; he’d shown ID at the door and, by simply not having a colored wristband around his arm, he was easily identified as someone ineligible to receive alcoholic drinks. He’d bought food and a Coke, but after 9 p.m., Barrett’s money was no good.
“It just seems really arbitrary,” he said. “What’s so magical about 9 (p.m.)?”
He was quiet for a beat before answering his own question.
“Nothing. If DHT had played Wells Fargo (Arena), I could have watched them all night.”
Des Moines Municipal Code Section 10-8 is 950 words of lawyer-speak that outlines exactly how a venue that serves alcoholic beverages can conduct an all-ages show. Many of the stipulations laid out therein make sense: wristbands to tell the drinkers and non-drinkers apart; ID checks and appropriate security measures. But the largest point of contention in the code stipulates that anyone under the age of 21 can’t be in an establishment that sells alcohol after 9 p.m.
There are ways around the code, of course. Exemptions can be obtained under two sets of criteria: one for businesses whose primary income doesn’t come from alcohol sales, and one for establishments that are “designated venues.”
In both cases, however, the standards are stringent and exemptions are few. This is why almost all of the venues downtown that feature live music — including Vaudeville Mews, Gas Lamp and House of Bricks — feature all-ages shows that start as early as 5 p.m. in order to end at 9, or don’t have all-ages shows at all.
For opponents of muni code 10-8, the core issue isn’t one of economics for the venues. It’s about the health of the local music scene and the role art plays in a city’s makeup.
“What got cheated was the art form,” said House of Bricks owner JC Wilson. “More people are coming to shows. And who really benefits from that? The artist. Merch sales go up, CD sales go up. The shows felt better.”
One argument from 10-8’s opponents is that it minimizes show attendance, which limits revenues overall. Adults of legal drinking age and 18- to 20-year-olds alike might determine where they go on a particular evening based on the presence of live music. That results in more business for the venue, and larger crowds for the local bands. It’s an argument that, at least anecdotally, has traction.
When Wilson moved House of Bricks from Merle Hay Road to the East Village in 2005, his venue was an important step in revitalizing a downtown corridor that had long been barren after 5 p.m. Wilson has long been a tireless supporter of local music, and Bricks showcases one of the heaviest concert calendars in the city. In order to cater to as many music fans as possible, Wilson went to great lengths to make sure House of Bricks followed the code.
“If your place is a bar or tavern, (people) have to be 21 to be in it after 9 p.m. (Bricks) got an exception to the ordinance by creating another use for the space: live music venue. You had to have 200-some shows a year booked, had to have a dedicated stage and lighting; they had a long list of requirements. Slowly, attendance to shows went up. We noticed it; the numbers went up. We’re living proof, because we’re the only ones that had the exception.”
That exception disappeared when it came time for House of Bricks to re-apply for its exemption certificate.
“We said, ‘Hey, we’re willing to do it again,’ but one of the (changes) they made was that more than half of your sales had to be nonalcoholic. They were allowing ticket sales, T-shirts, pop, things like that, but our books still couldn’t do it.
“We asked them to relieve that a bit,” Wilson added. “But nobody warmed to that idea.”
Interacting with the city
In theory, municipal codes, just like the rest of a democratic government, are meant to reflect the will of the people. When it comes to making that will heard, there have been two entities in Des Moines in positions to act as megaphones: The Greater Des Moines Music Coalition (DMMC) and the Des Moines Music Commission.
Despite similar-looking names, the two bodies have always been separate entities; the former is a non-profit organization run by private volunteers, and the latter is an entity set up by the city of Des Moines and comprised of elected members for the express purpose of making policy recommendations to the city.
The DMMC in general — particullary to past and current board members, Jill Haverkamp and Justin Schoen in particular — has been a vocal opponent to 10-8 as currently written but has, up to this point, steadfastly refused to become an actively political entity and has refrained from lobbying city or state government directly on any matter.
As for the Des Moines Music Commission, the prevailing feeling among members of the local music community is one of confusion.
“(The commission) couldn’t even get a quorum together for the longest time,” said Wilson. “I don’t know where they’re at now.”
“The Des Moines Music Commission was set up to handle and manage (facilitations with the city), which is why the DMMC hasn’t really stepped into that role yet,” Haverkamp said in December. “But I don’t know where the Commission is right now.”
Indeed, the Commission appears to be defunct. The Commission’s page at dmgov.org shows only one board member whose term is still active, emails requesting information went unreturned as of press time, and the last meeting minutes that are publicly available are from April 2011. A perusal of those minutes, however, is telling.
After opening with talk of insurance for independent musicians and kiosks for posting of fliers around town, public discussion turned to the issue of 10-8 (sic throughout):
“(Local musician) Fix Brown II stated that he saw a very thriving music scene in 1997 to 2001 when minors was kind of allowed in venues past nine o’clock. The younger generation is key for bigger business and more people come to the venues.
“(Commission member) Brandon Findlay asked why he thought there was a drop in attendance during 2002 – 2007.
“Fix Brown stated the law changed.”
Reading the meeting minutes with nearly two years of hindsight, two things become clear: The Des Moines Music Commission had made genuine attempts to make changes to 10-8, and even the most incremental of those changes were met with strong opposition from one particular entity.
From the minutes (again with the sic):
“(Commission member) Tom Zmolek gave a brief update on the new designated music venue ordinance. He read the steps that need to be taken. The concept is in the City Manager’s office right now they had it reviewed by the police department. We just got back the review and it was very negative towards our ordinance. They knew that would be the case that the police would not be in favor of it. (…) Zmolek stated he could not answer for the police, but in his opinion the police will not like anything the Commission put in front of them.”
There, 10-8’s opponents believe, lies the problem.
“The ordinance shows that the police run the city,” said Vaudeville Mews owner Amedeo Rossi. “Nobody I’ve met with is opposed to (changing) this ordinance except the police. They have such a strong influence, and they treat it like a military operation. There can be only so many clubs that could get (exemptions). There are only four or six that could really even apply.”
“It’s (The DMPD’s) job to say no,” Wilson agreed. “If it resembles fun at all, it’s a safer avenue for them to say no. Several times I’ve heard the city council say, ‘Well, the police chief says it’s better this way.’ I’ve tried to assure them, but, still no. There’s a zeal there. The police aren’t amicable to compromise.”
Local police aren’t exactly shying away from the label of “fun killers.”
“That’s true,” joked DMPD Sgt. Jason Halifax.
“Truth is, we don’t have any kind of final say on city ordinances or policy,” he continued. “Often the city council will come to us for advice on matters where our expertise is greater than theirs. For things like liquor license renewals or the all-ages ordinance, we look at how many service calls we have to a location, the nature of those calls and what kind of history the venue has. We make our recommendations based on those factors.”
While the DMPD recommendations are just that — recommendations — they carry a lot of weight. Halifax said that he couldn’t think of a time when the city council acted against the DMPD’s advice.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say they defer to us, but when they ask for our recommendation, it’s usually something they listen to.”
But Wilson once again draws upon personal experience as a rebuttal.
“We don’t take our liquor license lightly. No venue does,” he said. “Three times (when we had the exception), Vice came in to spot check our crowds. Because you’re supposed to identify the (drinkers) in some way, and the under-age folks are still supposed to have an ID on them. We passed them all, so it’s proof that a venue can run a safe, responsible business with an all-age crowd.”
Eventually, the changes to 10-8 that Zmolek proposed were adopted by the city council in 2011. The changes were made in an effort to treat venues like House of Bricks and Vaudeville Mews as smaller versions of Wells Fargo Arena. By allowing them to operate under some of the same guidelines as the larger venues, it was hoped that more downtown establishments could earn exemptions and have all-ages shows run past 9 p.m. But at this moment only two downtown venues — Wooly’s and Java Joe’s — regularly schedule such shows.
At 9:30 on a Saturday night, Wooly’s slowly fills up. An all-ages dubstep show had been thumping along since 8 p.m. Initially the crowd was small — nine people in all at 7:45 — but as the night darkened, more and more young faces filed through the door at $10 or $15 a pop. By the time Cedar Falls DJ Trillabyte takes the stage, there were probably 300 people moving around on the floor. There was a lot of energy drinks and Coke, but not much alcohol. Upon asking random attendees how old they are, given the music for the evening, it’s not surprising to find their answers were: 16, 18, 17, 17, 20, 22, 19, etc. A bubbly 16-year-old confessed she doesn’t get out to shows often.
“I want to go to more, but there’s not much,” she said. Waving a hand toward the House of Bricks down the road, she shrugged: “That place only has metal, and I’m not really into that. This place is the only place I can really go to dance.”
Newly 21-year-old Will Stevens shares her frustrations.
“There’s this attitude in town like, if you’re under 21, you’re up to no good,” he said. “So if a band that I like comes to town, I always hope they come to Wooly’s. Or to West Des Moines.”
“In West Des Moines, there is no ordinance,” said Rossi. “In Urbandale, there is no ordinance. In Altoona, in Ankeny, there is no ordinance. So why does it need to be in Des Moines? Do we just have an innate distrust of people that are 16-20? If you’re a college student here and you can’t go see a show just because it’s after 9 p.m., that just doesn’t make any sense.”
Even venues that don’t have the exemptions can still have all-ages shows. Mews and Bricks both feature two or three a week. If Gas Lamp or The Standard wanted to have an all-ages show, they are perfectly within their legal right, as long as it ends before 9 p.m.
So why does section 10-8 matter if it doesn’t keep teens from going to live music?
“It’s hard booking shows sometimes,” said Metro Concerts Live’s Garrett Wilson. “You’re trying to convince this touring act to come through town, and you explain the ordinance to them, and it’s like, ‘What? Are you kidding me?’ It makes us look like a joke.”
And while 10-8 frustrates 20-year-olds who are forced to miss a show because they’re too young, some people 21 and older feel like the ordinance penalizes them for being too old.
“I’ve got a day job, man,” says Todd Meyer, 33. “I get off at 5, and if I don’t go home to shower and change first, the earliest I can be downtown is 5:45. So my options are to either go to Mews hungry and straight from work, or change clothes, grab a bite and miss half a show.”
Finally, some opponents believe that an adjustment to 10-8 would reap financial rewards for local businesses as well.
“Kids don’t eat dinner at 4 p.m.” said Ehren Stover-Wright. “If more venues can have shows from, say, 7:30 to 11 p.m. that’s more opportunity for families to come downtown and eat dinner before dropping the kids off at a show. Maybe they walk around the skywalk or the East Village for a bit and look at some of the local businesses. Do a little shopping. It’s all stuff that’s not happening now because these shows are starting during rush hour.”
“It wouldn’t really affect us like that, since we close early,” countered All Spice’s Amy Jensen. “So I guess from that standpoint, I’m for the earlier start times.”
However, as of now, the issue of economics is moot. The Des Moines Music Commission appears dead, the DMMC doesn’t view itself as a lobbying entity, and DMPD is happy with the ordinance as it stands. Even if the issue were brought up again in front of the city council, it’s unclear as to how the council would vote. Messages left with city council members went unreturned as of press time.
But for his part, Rossi thinks the best hope for any change in the ordinance lies with the people it’s designed to protect.
“It’s a stifling example of government regulation to youth,” he said. “It’s really too bad that youth sit around and take it. That they don’t stand up, and show that they deserve to be in these venues, and be treated at a higher level. It’s a pity that the youth don’t rise up.” CV