21 To Drink, 21 To Listen: Iowa City's Live Music Problem

The marquee at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City

hide captionThe marquee at Iowa City's Englert Theatre on April 1, 2009.

BarefootAdrianne/flickr

Despite a population of just 60,000, Iowa City has a large arts community. Home to the Iowa Writers Workshop, where almost 30 Pulitzer Prize winners have either studied or worked, this college town is also one of only four cities in the world to be named a "City of Literature" by UNESCO. Its placement between Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Chicago also makes it a convenient stop for touring bands. In the next month, Joan Baez, Carrie Underwood, Ghostface Killah and Iron and Wine will all play venues in town.

Over the summer, however, the passage of a new law originally intended to prevent underage drinking has stifled attendance at live performances. The legislation has become a hotly-debated topicĀ in town and has forced city council members and venue owners to meet at the bargaining table to find a solution.

Matthew Hayek, born and raised in Iowa City, is the town's Mayor. He explains that the unusually high levels of binge drinking at the University of Iowa forced the city council into action.

"The undergraduates at Iowa binge drink at a rate more than twice the national average for college campuses," he says. "So the city council, along with the university's strong support, decided to make the bar entry age the legal drinking age, which is 21. It's a law that only goes into effect at 10 PM, so at 10 PM if you're under 21 you have to get out of the bars."

Because most music venues in town serve alcohol, this effectively keeps anyone under 21 — a significant portion of the town's college students — out of shows that stretch past 10 PM.

According to Hayek, the law was never intended to harm the music scene (Hayek says that he loves live music and attends concerts when he can), but it has proven problematic for bars whose ticket proceeds go towards paying their musicians. What's more, the dip in attendance has made it more difficult to bring big names to Iowa City. Sam Locke Ward, who books bands at local venue The Mill, says that, though he understands that the law wasn't aimed at live music, that's little consolation for a bar seeing smaller crowds.

"The law wasn't set up to even affect the music scene. It was a side effect of it," says Ward. "It's enough of a drop that it's harder to bring national acts through. It's tough because I understand their opinion, but I don't think the way they went about it really curtailed drinking at all."

Ward thinks that instead of preventing underage drinking, the new law has just pushed it out of the public eye.

"Really it just means you can't see it anymore," he says.

Hayek says though some minors may just be drinking elsewhere, the law was needed in downtown Iowa City.

"The scene downtown was ridiculous. I mean, we had people throwing up all over the place, fights, cops were always there," he says. "Half of all 911 calls in the downtown area were alcohol related and 19-year-olds were the most frequent victims. [It was] just an out of control situation, and it's abnormal even compared to other college towns. We know that the new ordinance has calmed the situation down, and sure some people have chosen to do what they were going to do elsewhere, but it has helped the problem."

Still, the law may not be permanent. On November 2nd, Iowa City voters will have the opportunity to overturn the age restriction. But even if they vote to keep it, the city council is already working on two ordinances to protect live music.

The first allows for bars to physically separate the "dry" and "wet" areas of a bar, preventing hand-offs to underage drinkers. But this would only work in larger spaces, and many of the town's venues are tiny.

The second ordinance is called the "entertainment venue exception." City council members and venue owners have come together to outline a very specific and narrow definition of what a music venue is.

Mayor Hayek explains:

"A music venue is one defined as having a dedicated stage, with professionally installed lighting and sound that holds live performances (including comedians and poetry readings, but not DJs) 150 nights a year. The venue must have salaried employees whose job it is to book acts, and a portion of the door proceeds must be shared with the artist."

The ordinance would allow 19 and 20 year olds to remain in these venues until midnight, when most shows end in Iowa City.

Andre Perry is the executive director of the Englert Theatre, which opened in 1912 and is the last remaining historic theater in Iowa City. Perry helped to shape the "entertainment venue exception," which he believes is a fair compromise.

"I think it's crazy to be in college, and not be 21, and not be able to go see a show. I think that's insane," he says. "The exemption is something I'm cool with. It's not what I would do if I were the mayor of Iowa City, but given where the council is and where we are, I think it's a very fair compromise. It's a really good example of two sides coming together and working something out"

Mayor Hayek says that he expects the "entertainment venue exception" to pass some time in October. He says that the council had always intended to protect live music in its local venues.

"Number one, music is a huge part of our culture locally, and number two, it's not an area that has been associated with illegal underage drinking. People don't pay the cover to see a band and then start taking Jello shots in the corner. So because these music venues have not historically been a problem for underage drinking, we didn't want to throw the baby out with the bath water."

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