Doing DIY Events Legally

Rick Scianablo is the manager of Studio Blue Providence, a local recording studio. So he knows bands, and thinks bands need places to hone their craft. “We’re a creative city, and creative cities need to give bands a place where they can practice in front of an audience and get good enough to play in a venue.” Often, that place is a DIY concert, one that is held in someone’s home rather than in a club or bar. These at-home concerts provide intimate spaces for bands to reach the next level, or for audiences to experience a performance up-close. “Musicians have [special] moments when they play together, and people might want to be part of that. That’s part of living in a creative city.”

But a DIY event isn’t as simple as it sounds. The homeowner has to have a license for the event, he can’t make a profit and he can’t sell alcohol and has to be careful that it doesn’t get into the hands of minors. Scianablo says that getting a license can be a complicated process, though. “If a guy wants to do a DIY event by the books and tries to get a license to have an event in his garage once a

Photo: Studio Blue, by Studio Blue

Photo: Studio Blue, by Studio Blue

week, the inspector might find that he doesn’t have enough exits or maybe his windows are blocked or maybe his fire alarms aren’t working. By doing it right, who knows what he could be opening himself up to. So people decide to ask for forgiveness, and that causes a problem.”

Robert Mitson is an attorney familiar with the laws surrounding house concerts and he says that the real issue is whether or not tickets are sold. “Charging for an event makes it a commercial enterprise, and the zoning laws might not allow for that,” Mitson said. Capacity, fire safety and public safety also are concerns. But care must be taken even with free or donation-only events. “It’s a good idea to inquire at the municipal level about capacity, the permitting process and noise. It’s dangerous to assume you can have these parties under the radar.”

Scianablo just experienced a related problem when his studio was doing a live recording of a band. “We were doing free videos for bands of their performances and we would invite people to watch.” As a result of this small audience watching Scianablo operating in his studio, he got a ticket for having an event without a license.  “We really weren’t doing anything wrong, but unfortunately, it cost us a bunch of money,” he said of his decision to take a plea deal because he couldn’t afford to go to trial. He was told by the police that there were too many people at the event and it was against the law to host something that resembled an event without a license. But when he asked for clarification on how many people were too many, no one could tell him.

Scianablo thinks people should be able to have DIY events legally without being held to the same codes clubs are held to. “It doesn’t seem fair,” he said before musing on how bands without a venue can perform. “There’s no noise venue,” he gave as an example. “These bands didn’t develop in event spaces. They developed in DIY spaces because that’s their home.”

He paints a vivid and exciting picture of musicians playing together. “We just play music and hang out, but we don’t advertise it. We can’t. It would be illegal if we did. In a creative state, that doesn’t seem creative, but that’s what we’ve got.”
Mitson, however, has a very creative solution to the problem of the noise nuisance that can come along with DIY events: silent discos. “It’s a music event where people are given headphones so they can listen to the music. They avoid conflict with the city, they avoid conflict with the neighbors, and if they want to talk to each other, they just take the headphones off.”

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