Did a Single Noise Complaint Shut Down Your Favorite Venue?

Probably not, but twenty complaints from the same resident just might.

In many cities and towns, noise ordinances are written in such a way that venues can be fined or shut down over as little as one or two complaints. While so many local lawmakers squeal about the need to lure “creative class” residents to their downtowns, surprisingly few people want a music venue on their block.

Police in Bellingham, Washington opened the books on complaints filed since the town issued new noise ordinances. One popular venue closed its doors after receiving more than two dozen visits from police. All of the complaint calls were filed by a single neighbor. Another club owner was arrested for disorderly conduct when he refused to shut off power to a mixing board. Again, every complaint with a name attached to it was filed by the same neighbor.

When we lived in Philadelphia, Lori and I frequented an acoustic listening room that rarely got loud. Yet, they were located just below some apartments in a historic building with some thin walls/floors/ceilings. I always wondered why someone sensitive to sound would actually choose to live upstairs from a concert venue. And yet, on almost a weekly basis, the venue’s owner had to fend off noise complaints from his upstairs neighbor — despite being located across the street from a louder Irish pub and a fire station with a piercing siren. We always said we would move into that apartment ourselves if it ever came on the market — but the venue ended up closing before that could happen.

Likewise, in California, Paul Kulak battled one persistent neighbor for years over a low key, acoustic club. Kulak’s Woodshed is still open, but only thanks to the direct intervention of fans, politicians, and other neighboring business owners.

As you think about your relationships with talent bookers, keep tabs on what’s happening in their neighborhoods. If a booker ever asks you to turn things down, remember that you can help yourself by helping them out. If you decide you need to kick all your knobs up to eleven, you could be part of the reasons there are fewer places to play in your town. (And if you really, really need to be that loud, you should just recognize that a venue with problem neighbors is just

On a related topic, here’s a thought I’ve had lately. The real estate boom (or bubble?) of the late nineties into about 2005 is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to closing venues. If you’re a property owner, you could make a whole lot more money by knocking down a club, like CBGB, and making space for a Banana Republic or some high-end condos. (I’ve gone on the record as saying that CBGB had problems way beyond its real estate dilemma, but this example fits really well.)

So, what’s going to happen in a real estate market that’s experiencing a downturn? Will property owners — unable to sell their underwater investments — look for creative uses of large spaces? Or, will they allow them to remain dormant in fear of the kinds of hassles we’re seeing in Bellingham?