New York’s guidelines require live music to be ‘incidental’

Writes the New York State Liquor Authority of Phase Four guidelines for restaurants: “Only incidental music is permissible at this time. This means that advertised and/or ticketed shows are not permissible.  Music should be incidental to the dining experience and not the draw itself.”

In an inversion of normal that is par for the Covid-19 course, emails from several local venues in recent weeks have explicitly requesting that their events and who is performing and when not be mentioned. Actual billable hours are being spent on audience deterrence and show denial. The state is serious about enforcement. 

The edict has created a don’t-ask, don’t-tell promotional climate for venues and artists, all inference and insinuation. The language of the regulations has stretched a lot definitions to their snapping points. For instance, can death metal or free jazz be considered incidental to anything?

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Under the stewardship of musician/owner Neil Howard, Colony in Woodstock has been a forward-looking venue from the outset of the crisis, both in terms of compliance (Colony canceled a long weekend of sold-out shows in early March, more than a week before they were required to) and in terms of finding a way to keep the music, and hope, alive. With their virtual open mic, they were early-in on novel streaming solutions in the spring, and since summer, they have been cautiously programming live music in their adapted outdoor space.

“Obviously,” says Howard, “the rules have been changing quickly, and we have been in contact with the State Liquor Authority constantly to make sure that we are doing everything right. We are allowed to serve food and drink to customers and along with that, appropriate music. We are not allowed to say who is playing, or at what time, but since we have set up a nice outdoor environment where folks just want to relax and feel normal, the actual nature of the entertainment is less important than it used to be.”

Many have wondered whether the reduced terms of music programming — fewer venues, fewer shows, smaller audiences, stricter decibel guidelines for most venues, less money — would create more intense competition among musicians and reduced opportunity for lesser-known acts. Howard suggests otherwise.

“It really works in terms of exposing lesser-known artists to eager and listening crowds, along with bona-fide world-class performers who surprise casual diners not expecting anything special and walk away astounded by what they have just heard. It’s an incredible and new thing. Before, people came out to see what they knew and liked already and perhaps didn’t have much of an adventurous spirit to hear new music. This season it has been just live music that people want to hear, nothing too specific, but they love hearing real live music no matter what it is, which is good for the artists.”

It’s a precarious situation, and not sustainable, but Howard implies that some venues are finding a balance with a few surprise, silver-lining benefits. “We have been doing ‘incidental music’ since July with very little fanfare and no advertising and some oblique social-media references, and great musicians have been playing here all summer, making pretty good money and going away happy. The idea of announcing a big-name act and having a bunch of people show up all at once and being required to serve everyone food along with their drink, capacity restrictions, social distancing, all of it, it would be a nightmare to deal with the crowds that we used to work for and dream about getting. It is not ideal, of course, but in a way it all works out for the moment.”

Howard sees the positive side. After all, he says, we’re all in this together. And we’ll all get through it together.

“It is exhausting, challenging of course, exhilarating in the sense of a challenge to be met and in the most basic sense a creative conundrum to be solved,” Howard says. “As much as we have seen some people implode and react to the current world with fear and bitterness, we have also seen people step up in a big way to not only do what is right but to try to do it in a creative and positive way. That is the club we are trying to be a part of, the ones who simply deal with the situation at hand with grace and optimism because what else is there?”

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