For musicians, age can be an obstacle | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

For musicians, age can be an obstacle

Bands like The Nox Boys have to fight to establish themselves in a world where being under 21 is a liability

Zack Keim would seem to have a head start on the garage-rock competition. His band, The Nox Boys, has already released its debut LP on Get Hip Records, toured the East Coast and has sold out Pittsburgh venues — and he's only 17. But that last part can sometimes be more of an obstacle than an advantage.

Many of Pittsburgh's premier small venues for ragged-edged garage punks — and any up-and-coming bands for that matter — strictly enforce an age-restriction policy. And one all-ages venue, Garfield Artworks, will reportedly be closing its doors this weekend, limiting young musicians even more.

Keim has played a few shows at Garfield Artworks, and he noticed that it became a common outlet for some of his younger musician friends.

"A lot of my friends, after we started playing, they started to have shows at Garfield Artworks ... that was the only place they could play," Keim says.

Most think of 21 as the magic number for legal alcohol consumption and admittance to Rivers Casino, but to youth entrenched in local music scenes, the number may be a barrier to seeing or performing with some of their favorite artists.

For Keim and The Nox Boys, whose other members are recent Fox Chapel High School graduates (aside from Bob Powers, a 1970 Fox Chapel grad), age can significantly limit their gig opportunities.

click to enlarge Small stages often aren't all ages
Illustration by Nathan Mazur
Small stages often aren't all ages

"I get a lot of emails from the promoters and club owners — I'm signed up for their mailing lists," Keim says. "[Take] Jeff, the Brotherhood: I would really love to open for them, but they're at Club Café. We can't open for them, 'cause we're underage."

Among the city's most prominent small to mid-size venues, some (such as Club Café and Brillobox) enforce a blanket 21-and-over restriction, while others (Mr. Small's, Altar Bar) offer designated areas for patrons under and over 21. There's a smattering of small venues like the DIY Mr. Roboto Project and the upstairs concert room at the Smiling Moose that regularly offer all-ages shows.

Garfield Artworks, an art gallery in Garfield that's been open since the early 1990s, hosted shows regularly for the past decade, but has no events scheduled after Rachael Sage's show on Sun., Dec. 7. It's been reported (including by PittPunk.com and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) that this will be the final show at Garfield Artworks. (Promoter Manny Theiner declined to comment for this story, and gallery owner Smith Hutchings could not be reached as of press time.)

Pittsburgh's age-restricted performance spaces tend to thoroughly enforce their age policies, but Keim says that his experience from touring in other states has been a bit more flexible.

"We had two shows in New York City which were 21-plus, and we still played," Keim says. "They had an underage band play, but we couldn't bring anyone underage to the show."

New York, known for some of the most lenient liquor laws on the East Coast, legally permits minor performers in an establishment that would otherwise prohibit the sale of alcohol to them, along with permitting the consumption of alcohol on private premises with parental consent — a policy adopted by 29 states. Keim's home state finds itself on the complete other end of the spectrum.

"Pennsylvania has some of the strictest liquor laws of any state — which include super-strict policies on anything involving minors," says Michele Mengel, promotions coordinator at Opus One Productions.

According to Pennsylvania law, performers younger than 18, like Keim, can't legally perform in establishments with a liquor license — unless they're students receiving instruction, are uncompensated, are under proper supervision and give notice to the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement ahead of time. But as the liquor code states, "persons over the age of eighteen (18) are permitted to perform as entertainers in licensed establishments [Id.]; whether a parent or guardian or someone over twenty-five (25) years old who qualifies as a ‘proper supervisor' would need to also be present depends upon the situation."

Opus One, which books shows at Club Café, Mr. Small's and Brillobox, essentially treats the 21-and-over venues as bars first and performance spaces second. Many of the all-ages policies employed by larger clubs lose their effectiveness in smaller venues. Though many local venues have implemented a segregated wristband or marker system to designate who can and cannot be served alcohol, the smaller bars would be highly inconvenienced to create such distinctions.

"For a tiny place like [Club Café], we can't separate an above-21 and an under-21 area," Mengel says. "And most of the same reasons why we can't allow minors are the same reasons why other bars on East Carson also can't allow minors."

click to enlarge The Nox Boys Zack Keim
The Nox Boys (Zack Keim, second from right)

But age restrictions aren't just limited to the smaller bar-venues in Pittsburgh. On rare occasions, Opus mandates a restriction for typically all-ages venues. In September 2012, for example, Nick Lowe played a 21-and-over show — at Mr. Small's. And in some cases, the cutoff isn't even the drinking age — last month's Skrillex show at Stage AE was limited to concertgoers 16 and over. Given the recent negative injury and health concerns associated with big EDM festivals, the move seems like a safeguard against similar incidents occurring here, but other shows within the genre haven't been restricted. Bassnecter and The Glitch Mob, two other electronic darlings, also played Stage AE in October — yet their shows were all ages.

But according to Mengel, "it's usually the artist's decision to play an age-restricted show at a venue that is generally all-ages."

Despite the pretty cut-and-dried liquor code, one Pennsylvania father is actively lobbying to get the state law changed.

Todd Bedard, from just outside of Harrisburg in New Cumberland, used to take his 12-year-old son, Logan, to Pete's Olde Town Bar and Grille to perform. Logan played drums at Pete's for local musician Shea Quinn, but state police put an end to this, and the restaurant was fined $250.

After the fine, Bedard contacted his state representative, Sheryl Delozier — who also happened to see one of Logan's performances at Pete's — about easing the law to allow minor performers, if they're supervised by a parent or guardian and don't receive compensation. Bedard says that Delozier recognized the innocent nature of Logan's time at the establishment.

"She saw the performance and understood what we were doing — saw me drinking iced tea, and him drinking soda and doing homework between sets," Bedard says.

Delozier introduced House Bill 1943, which would relax the law, this January, but it never made it out of committee during the limited fall session. Bedard plans to meet with Delozier after the holiday break to see about reintroducing the bill in 2015.

Bedard stressed that he's simply asking for consistency in the law, since his son is legally permitted to eat in Pete's but violates the law once he gets on stage to perform. He doesn't see how Logan's situation should be any different from child actors performing in dinner theaters that serve alcohol — or even minors eating in a restaurant with their family.

"They're not supposed to serve my son whether he's playing music, or whether he's sitting with me in a restaurant," says Bedard. "That's not really going to change much."

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