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Putting entertainment on the menu: Baltimore County seeks to boost musicians, restaurants with more live music

Alison Ramírez, singer-songwriter, plays music near her Woodberry home. During the pandemic, Ramirez participated in a virtual music festival, and shares her music through online streaming, but is looking forward to doing live gigs this fall. March 21, 2021 p1
Alison Ramírez, singer-songwriter, plays music near her Woodberry home. During the pandemic, Ramirez participated in a virtual music festival, and shares her music through online streaming, but is looking forward to doing live gigs this fall. March 21, 2021 p1 (Amy Davis)

With the goal of supporting two industries hit hardest by the pandemic, the Baltimore County executive aims to change zoning rules and set up a permitting process for more restaurants and bars to host live music.

The NOTE Act — it stands for New Opportunities for Tourism and Entertainment — would enable hundreds more restaurants and bars to hold live musical entertainment by amending zoning rules in areas where live music is currently prohibited. It’s modeled after a 2019 bill that changed zoning rules in Catonsville and Arbutus.

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County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. is pushing the bill, which he says supports his goal to make Baltimore County “a world-class tourist destination.”

The County Council will discuss the bill at its meeting April 13.

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The bill could be a boost for struggling entertainers who seek to perform at so-called “menu venues,” bars and restaurants.

Alison Ramírez, an up-and-coming singer, songwriter and guitarist better known as Peach Face, cut her teeth playing open mic nights at bars and opening for bands at The Depot and Ottobar in Baltimore City.

“Being able to look out and see people, see the reactions to your music, seeing them sing along and hearing the crowd … I definitely miss that a lot," said singer-songwriter Alison Ramírez.
“Being able to look out and see people, see the reactions to your music, seeing them sing along and hearing the crowd … I definitely miss that a lot," said singer-songwriter Alison Ramírez. (Amy Davis)

The money she brought in was sporadic, she said ― anywhere from $25 to $500 per gig, depending on ticket sales, other performers and what night she was playing. But she could also network and collaborate with other Baltimore artists.

The pandemic stalled all that. She has missed the connection with the audience the most.

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“Being able to look out and see people, see the reactions to your music, seeing them sing along and hearing the crowd … I definitely miss that a lot.”

This month, the governor and county executive eased pandemic-related restrictions on bars and restaurants, allowing them to operate at full capacity while continuing to require masking.

Boosting local artists is central to the county’s tourism plan. A county-funded study by Johnson Consulting in 2019 recommended the creation of new arts and cultural districts throughout the county, similar to the Arts & Entertainment District established in Catonsville in 2019. That district, permitted by state law, offers incentives beyond county zoning changes, such as tax breaks to attract artists and development.

The Maryland State Arts Council has given $7 million in emergency grant funding to artists and art organizations since March last year, said Steven Skerritt-Davis, Arts Council deputy director.

The nonprofit will be distributing $5 million more after the General Assembly approved a state relief bill.

Baltimore County, for its part, handed out $1,000 grants to around 200 artists last year.

According to 2017 data from the nonprofit National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, the arts, entertainment and cultural industry generates $11.7 million to Maryland’s gross state product and creates 81,000 jobs.

In a survey of 27,000 artists nationwide conducted by the Washington-based nonprofit Americans for the Arts, 63% reported they had become fully unemployed during the pandemic and 79% said there is less work available to them.

Artists who are Black, Indigenous and people of color have seen higher rates of unemployment than white artists.

The Maryland Arts Council is seeing those trends play out in the state, Skerritt-Davis said.

“The arts sector has borne the brunt of the pandemic, from independent artists losing out on most, if not all, job opportunities to organizations and venues that have been shuttered for months,” he wrote in an email. “However, we’re also seeing resilience, innovation, and positivity that bode well for a strong recovery.”

For restaurants and bars eager to bring customers back, some are looking to live entertainment as a way to bring in more foot traffic.

“It very much can be” a draw for customers, said Evan Brown, owner of State Fare, a bar and restaurant in Catonsville.

“It’s gonna be really good for the summertime” if pandemic conditions allow, he said.

Some residents, though, are wary of looser restrictions that would introduce more noise to their neighborhoods.

In Catonsville, the county’s first state-designated Arts & Entertainment District, businesses are planning expansions and rooftop decks to make more room for live entertainment, said Barbara Cox, president of the Baltimore County Arts Guild.

“We really think it will help both businesses and musicians get back on their feet,” she wrote in an email.

Scott Fisher, co-owner of Fishhead Cantina in Arbutus, said “sales were astronomical” when he started ramping up the bar’s live entertainment about seven years ago.

In normal times, national bands would bring in “hundreds of new customers a week,” Fisher said.

But the bill could present drawbacks if neighbors aren’t on board, he said.

Fisher said the restaurant has gotten complaints about the noise level during live shows, although the closest homes are several streets away.

Restaurants and bars that host live bands will remain subject to the county’s noise ordinance. Those found to be in violation are guilty of a misdemeanor and liable for a fine up to $500, or up to 90 days in jail for the first offense.

In Timonium, issues over noise levels from live music at Hightopps Backstage Grille spurred the nearby Stratford community to execute a covenant with bar operators in August last year.

The covenant sets limits on how late the concerts can run and compels Hightopps owners to give neighbors notice before holding a concert.

“I’m all for restaurants succeeding … and being able to have some extra ability to have live music,” said Joe Reister, president of the Stratford Community Association in Timonium, which sits about 350 feet away from the bar.

“They just need to work with the surrounding communities to make sure they can do it without impacting the quality of life,” he said.

It’s unclear how many businesses would seek to take advantage of the eased zoning restrictions. The bill’s predecessor, which targeted Catonsville and Arbutus, was in effect only a few months before the pandemic shuttered businesses, so not many permits were issued.

Hosting concerts isn’t always lucrative for the restaurant, given the money spent to hire musicians, technical crew and security, Fisher said.

“You have to be prepared to lose [money] one night and make it back the following night,” Fisher said. “It’s a tough dance.”

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