Catonsville’s main corridor is lined with music shops selling various instruments, gear and vinyl records. Those who pass through may spot the historic Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe, Bill’s Music House and The Piano Man along Frederick Road. The town plays host to summer concert series and barbershop choruses, and restaurants there feature musical performances on weekend nights.
The proliferation of musical resources earned Catonsville state recognition as “Music City, Maryland.”
But live music is forbidden in Music City, according to Baltimore County’s zoning regulations. A bill proposed by Baltimore County Councilman Tom Quirk aims to change that.
The current zoning laws are “fairly antiquated,” said Quirk, who represents the southwestern part of the county. “Business owners just want more clarity so they can play by the rules.”
As it’s written now, live music in the county is only allowed in areas zoned as business major, which doesn’t include businesses along Frederick Road, in nightclubs and some breweries. Quirk’s proposal would set up a permitting process for businesses to hold live music performances, bringing current practices above board.
Catonsville and Arbutus businesses “want to have more live music, but they talk to their attorney and their attorneys are saying the current zoning they have doesn’t allow” for it, Quirk said.
Baltimore County Police spokeswoman Officer Jennifer Peach said noise complaints are rarely documented. Laura Bacon, a legislative aide with Quirk’s office, said complaints about an establishment’s live music “doesn’t happen very often.”
Businesses that host live bands typically self-correct if neighbors complain, Quirk said.
Those businesses “want to be good neighbors," he said. "The communities that surround them are the consumers, the customers. A lot of this takes care of itself.”
Restaurants like State Fare, which opened earlier this summer, host local bands outside Friday and Saturday evenings, and indoor performances “every few weeks,” State Fare manager Spencer Stevens said.
“We’ll shut down everything and essentially turn it into a venue,” Stevens said.
The restaurant hasn’t received many complaints about the noise and any issues are resolved “very quickly,” he said.
The live music gets “the people to stay out here hours after we’re finished. They’ll be out here ’til midnight sometimes, because people want them to keep playing,” Stevens said.
But shortly after Quirk initially proposed the bill, local musicians took to Facebook to rail against it, particularly the notion of a permit fee for businesses, saying it could lead to fewer performances due to what some called an onerous permit application process.
Quirk’s office subsequently amended the bill, removing the permit fee, although Quirk estimated the cost would have been nominal — around $25.
Establishments that seek to host ticketed outdoor music performances would be subject to all applicable taxes, including the county’s 10% amusement tax. Venues that sell performance tickets already are subject to that tax, and the bill proposes no additional fees.
If the bill passes, businesses that host live bands will remain subject to the county’s noise ordinance. Those in violation are guilty of a misdemeanor and liable for a fine up to $500, or no more than 90 days in jail for the first offense.
County police enforce the current law, Bacon said. If the bill passes, violators who do not secure permits for live bands would be penalized by the county’s code enforcement office. In general, violators of county code are subject to a $200 fine a day per violation.
A provision in the current draft bill that would cap an establishment’s music events at six per year will be removed from the final legislation, Bacon said.
But as Catonsville seeks to establish an arts and entertainment district, the amusement tax may become moot, Bacon said. That state designation provides an exemption from amusement taxes levied for establishments and qualifying artists in those districts.
Language in the bill outlining requirements for the permit application that opponents deemed cumbersome also was pared down. The new draft simply requires “supporting information required by the director” of permits, approvals and inspections.
The amended draft will not be available online until the council reviews it, Bacon said.
The County Council is expected to vote on the proposal at its Oct. 7 meeting. If adopted, the bill would go into effect Oct 21. Quirk said he expects it to pass.
Quirk said the bill was about “checks and balances,” but also “we certainly don’t want to discourage live music.”
“I think it’s gonna be good,” he said, adding that he hopes it can be duplicated in other places.
“We’re trying to bring music back to Music City,” Stevens said of ongoing collaborations between State Fare and Catonsville music shops to promote more musical performances throughout the area. “Because I think it got lost, like, through time. I’ve been living here for 15 years; I didn’t realize it was Music City, Maryland, myself.”