Following public outcry, Squilla says he’ll withdraw venue bill

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Councilman Mark Squilla and a roundtable of music industry representatives | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Councilman Mark Squilla and a roundtable of music industry representatives | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN

“We don’t want to discourage artist expression,” Philadelphia City Councilman Mark Squilla told a room of Philadelphia music industry representatives gathered this afternoon. “That’s the last thing we want. By no means am I anti artist or anti-venue.”

The Councilman, understandably, has had a rollercoaster of a week, following the colossal public outcry over a bill he introduced that would increase restrictions on Philadelphia music venues. The bill came to light last week following a report in Philly news website BillyPenn, and within 24 hours was massively trending when an outcry from the local music community went national – musicians our Bill Chenevert talked to called it “impractical” and “insane.”

Today, Squilla said he would withdraw the bill and start over from scratch.

In front of a spectrum of representatives from across the Philadelphia music industry – including performers, venue owners, educators, non-profit organizers, as well as City Councilman David Oh – Squilla was humbled and apologetic as he explained his intent with the bill and how it got away from him.

“There’s no way the city was going to create a registry,” Squilla said, in reference to a provision of the bill that would require venue owners to collect names and addresses of performers. The music community, in their outcry, called it Orwellian. “But I don’t know that I would have picked that up from reading [the bill].

“To me, [the bill] wasn’t affecting venues, it was only affecting the people operating without a license,” Squilla continued. “I missed the boat on that, and will take full responsibility.”

He admitted that “I honestly looked [most closely] at the language I was interested in, closing the loophole.”

That loophole, which Squilla referenced in his response to the social media backlash, basically has to do with event licenses. Right now, if a venue throws a music event where no musicians or DJs are employed – say, livestreaming a concert, or a dance party set to a Spotify playlist – that venue isn’t currently required to get a license by city law. He wanted to change that as a means of leveling the playing field.

Squilla said that his district contains more venues than any other in the city, and said he is a firm supporter of the arts – citing the Painted Bride as one of the organizations he sits on the board of. He admitted, though, that the experience with Bill 160016 opened his eyes to the concerns of people who work at a hands-on level with music.

“There’s a distrust between some performers and the government, a feeling of ‘big brother watching you,'” Squilla said. “That was not my intent.”

Responding to the rumor that the bill was motivated by a shooting in front of The TLA last fall, Squilla said “obviously not. The TLA has an event license, and this was for venues without licenses.” But requirement for collecting contact information was under a section of the bill that would apply to any license-holder. Basically, the language of the bill gets into muddy waters, and Squilla said it would be “most prudent” to withdraw the bill entirely and revisit the issues he’s most concerned with under a new legislation, with input from music industry experts like the group assembled this afternoon.

Councilman Oh chimed in to explain that the reason the loophole even needs revisiting is because if a license isn’t required, a venue has nothing to lose. Right now, if residents complain about a business – over noise violations, for instance – the only recourse the city has would be taking their license away. If a venue doesn’t need to have a license, “There’s no accountability,” Oh said.

“It’s not as easy as it sounds to create laws that protect everyone,” Squilla said. “We can vet something, introduce it, and then something happens down the line where we say ‘wow, I never thought something like that would happen because of the bill.'”

Squilla also said the bill, when he revisits it, will address the license fee. Under the legislation introduced on the 21st, it would have been raised to $500 over two years instead of the current rate $100 per year, but many small venues saw this as a direct hit on them. Squilla said he will modify it so event licenses are now $200 over two years – the same cost, spread out over a longer period of time.

He and Oh also said that future legislation surrounding music would use a music industry task force – which is in the early stages of being assembled – as a sounding board.

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