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The outdoor music blow-up that didn’t need to be

City officials took up proposed limits on amplified music without really understanding the impact.

Illustration: Knobs on a mixing board are overlaid with a map of the East Side’s Atwood neighborhood. Mixing board photo via Haldamyr on Flickr.

Madison Common Council Alder Brian Benford says he plans to withdraw a resolution that would ban amplified outdoor music at venues participating in the city’s Steatery program, if those venues are within 100 feet of a residence. 

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The Madison Arts Commission met on Monday, August 23 to discuss the resolution. The meeting’s public-comment period highlighted how much the proposal has upset local musicians, venues, and and their supporters. It also revealed that Benford and city staff didn’t know how many venues the proposed restriction would impact. 

MAC didn’t formally have the power to do anything but issue recommendations to the Madison Common Council, which initially was scheduled to take it up at its August 31 meeting. MAC members drafted a memo to the City Council that supports keeping amplified music at Streatery venues, while also looking into some of the complexities of keeping the peace with neighbors. 

Benford, who represents Common Council District 6 on the near-East Side, wrote the resolution after some homeowners in his district complained that outdoor music at the Harmony Bar was too loud. At one home that backs right up to the Atwood Avenue venue and walnut-burger institution, residents said their infant child could not sleep because of the volume of the music. Benford, a father of five, sympathized. He pointed out that the neighbors had previously supported the Harmony and had never complained about sound from its indoor shows, and that the venue’s outdoor shows were a new development for longtime residents in the area. Benford doesn’t claim that there’s a widespread problem with music at Streatery businesses bothering neighbors.

Initially, Benford tried to get the neighbors and Harmony Bar owner Brennan Nardi to work the issue out amongst themselves. He only advanced his resolution when he felt that wasn’t working. Both Nardi and the complaining neighbors attended the MAC meeting. It turned out that their failure to resolve the issue came down to a communication snafu. By the end of the week, Benford planned to sit down with the parties involved. If they could come to an agreement, Benford said, then he would pull the proposed resolution. He’s considered keeping it on the Common Council’s agenda to drive conversation about the potential conflicts involved in the Streatery program, but says he doesn’t want to push through the policy now that he’s learned more about its likely impact. Over the weekend, Benford decided once and for all to pull the proposal and the Harmony Bar’s Facebook page posted a statement saying the venue was “constructively working toward a solution that addresses the noise level concerns,” and asking for people to treat the complaining neighbors with respect.

“It was never my intent to try to block music or to impede musicians’ rights to survive, especially now during COVID,” Benford says. Benford is the son of a jazz singer, and he says that he’s proud to represent a district where many local musicians live. “I [don’t] mean personally to sound flippant, but if anyone really knew me, you’d almost be on the floor laughing at the notion that I’d try to hurt musicians or the arts,” he said.

As word of the proposal spread earlier this month, musicians and their supporters grew concerned that the proposal would deal a large blow to outdoor music in general. Commenters on the ever-combustible SASY Facebook page voiced overwhelming opposition (the phrase “music Taliban” came up in there somewhere), and the social accounts for Mickey’s Tavern encouraged people to attend the MAC meeting and speak out against the resolution. 

Benford’s resolution would not destroy outdoor music in Madison (as initially written, the new rules would apply only to places taking part in Streatery), but it was crafted without any input or consultation from local musicians or venue owners—and it advanced before city officials understood the scope of its impact. Benford initially thought the proposed new rules would only block amplified music at “a couple of places.” But during the MAC meeting, Angela Puerta of the city’s Planning Division (who is also a musician, and works on the Greater Madison Music City project) and city Arts Program Administrator Karin Wolf said it could actually affect 30 or 32 businesses. Puerta screen-shared a map that illustrated the complexities of figuring that out.


City planning staff created a map that attempts to show where Streatery businesses are located and where they might be within 100 feet of a residential property.

City planning staff created a map that attempts to show where Streatery businesses are located and where they might be within 100 feet of a residential property.

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Nearly 200 businesses around Madison participate in the Streatery program, which city officials created to give local restaurants more flexibility and space to operate during the pandemic, most expanded outdoor seating in private parking lots or the public right-of-way. Figuring out which businesses fall under the scope of Benford’s resolution is actually pretty tricky, explains Meghan Blake-Horst, the city’s Street Vending Coordinator. When the city allows a business to participate in Streatery, it draws the boundaries of the zone that business can use for additional seating. These boundaries might be different from the business’ actual property line. The proposed resolution would ban amplified outdoor music at a business if its Streatery boundary (not its property line) is within 100 feet of a residential property line. Got that? So,to figure out where that resolution applies, city staff will have to cross-reference Streatery participants with a list of businesses that already have an entertainment license, then do some tedious digital mapping and measuring. 

“It seems like a simple question, but it’s actually far more complicated than that,” Blake-Horst says. “The resolution says 100 feet from the Streatery line, not the property line, so we have to go into every Streatery approval to determine if it’s 100 feet from the Streatery line to the adjacent residence or other buildings next to it.” Blake-Horst has personally observed “at least 20 businesses” in the Streatery program that have live music outside. On top of all this, different rules apply on private property and on public streets or sidewalks, adding another layer to the enforcement of any new rules.

There is also uncertainty about which types of residences the proposed rules would actually encompass. Benford initially seemed convinced that it would only apply to places within 100 feet of a single-family house, exempting Streateries near apartment buildings. But the wording of the resolution doesn’t draw that distinction. It applies to venues within 100 feet of a “residential dwelling unit,” which could be a house or an apartment. Conversely, if it’s important to protect homeowners, why don’t renters deserve those same protections? 

During the public comment period at last Monday’s meeting, a few people asked why existing city rules aren’t enough to take care of the problem. The Streatery program already limits amplified music to between 3 and 8 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays, and 3 and 9 p.m. on Saturday evenings. The city already has a noise ordinance. This will largely be a moot point once it gets too cold out, or as more people decide they feel safe at indoor shows. Streatery is set to expire in April 2022 unless the Common Council decides to make aspects of it permanent.

The more you pick at the proposal, the more it seems like an attempt to settle a specific dispute between one business and its neighbors. I genuinely don’t think Benford is hostile or indifferent to music—he seems to be coming at this with real compassion for all involved, and genuinely pained at the idea of a baby not being able to sleep because of loud music—but he also was not positing a broader policy problem that would justify a broad policy proposal. 

Artist and MAC member Yvette Pino pinpointed this tension during the August 23 meeting, saying: “I’m concerned that this has become a platform for arbitration rather than a place where we’re considering a recommendation for policy.” Another MAC member, Bethany Jurewicz of Garver Events, called the resolution a “broad-stroke resolution to solve a neighborhood problem,” and worried that it would start the city down a “slippery slope” toward creating more restrictions upon entertainment licenses.

Liz Granby, who books music at Mickey’s Tavern, said during the MAC meeting that the conflict highlighted the responsibilities venues have to work with their neighbors. “It’s something that you just have to be cognizant of as a business,” Granby said. “However, I think rushing this broad stroke and banning everybody that’s involved in the Streatery program is just kind of ridiculous.” Mickey’s has used the Streatery program to expand its patio space into a small back parking lot, and has been hosting outdoor music this summer. There is also an apartment literally upstairs from the bar, which just highlights why it’s important to figure out whether the proposed rules would apply to venues with apartment-dwelling neighbors. Granby told me after the MAC meeting that she hadn’t even heard about the proposal until the preceding Thursday.

More of the debate was about the overall importance of music and the dangers of limiting opportunities for musicians and struggling businesses. “I make about half of my income through live performances—the other half comes through teaching,” musician Kyle Rightley said during public comment at the MAC meeting. “This means, for me, my ability to pay my rent and put food on the table is directly attached to the number of paying performances that I can do in a year.” Rightley said that he “fully empathize[d] with the desire for peace and quiet,” but in a level-headed way he expressed the real fears that this resolution stirred up.

It’s no surprise that the resolution became so contentious so fast. Musicians in Madison genuinely did not have enough paying opportunities even before the pandemic, so anything that limits those opportunities further will register as a threat. We’ve gone through more than a year with basically no live music. The fate of the usually busy fall concert season looks uncertain, as large touring acts cancel or modify their schedules over COVID concerns. The county’s revived indoor mask mandate is creating additional headaches for the performing arts. People are still worried about losing their favorite venues, though Madison’s small venues have pulled through the crisis so far. People are itching to play and itching to see live music. Opening up more outdoor spaces seems like a good happy medium as people weigh their varying comfort levels with going back to indoor events. 

There’s also a massive disconnect between how much musicians (and all artists) contribute to Madison’s culture and economy, and how little of a political voice they have. Despite the various music initiatives that city government has funded over the past decade, musicians often don’t have a lot of involvement in shaping city-level policies that affect them. The language of zoning and permits and so forth doesn’t map neatly onto the ways in which musicians (or many venues, for that matter) actually operate. In the past, there have been genuinely NIMBY-ish pushes to restrict music in Madison. Policy proposals that regulate music rarely feel like they have much to do with the needs of musicians—more often, they seem to emanate from an indifferent bureaucracy, or from affluent killjoys storming out of their $400,000-plus properties to brandish their decibel meters. 

So, this ground was sour long before Benford introduced his resolution. Musicians and fans also know that their interests will often butt up against the desires of homeowners—some of whom have reasonable complaints, and some who just want the advantages of living in a city without any of the trade-offs. They’re always wary of giving ground in the face of noise complaints. On a practical level, it’s also hard to find desirable locations for music venues or even outdoor music that are completely removed from residential areas. To adapt to the pandemic, it’s reasonable to accept that we’ll use space differently. 

Benford says that the debate over the past couple weeks has been a “wake-up call” about the difficulty of balancing residential interests with the need to support the arts. 

“I guess what I walked away with is yeah, we really do need to support the arts and create more opportunity and pathways, but I think there’s gotta be more intentionality,” he says.


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