Along with unpacking their luggage, tacking up posters on the walls of their dorm room or apartment, and locating the best cheap burrito within walking distance, one of the first things most incoming student who are new to town want to learn upon their arrival to Savannah is where to hear live music.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of these students may be shocked to learn the answer: if you’re not at least 21 years old, then in most respects, you’re out of luck.
That’s because several months back, the Savannah City Council —at the impassioned behest of both City Manager Michael Brown and former Chief of Police Dan Flynn— voted to rescind a long-standing ordinance which afforded minors (in certain instances) entrance to bars or nightclubs which serve alcohol, as long as said establishments offered a few particular types of bona fide live entertainment and enforced standing liquor laws.
For almost one and a half decades, this common sense approach struck a balance between commerce, personal freedom, and the importance of providing cultural diversions to enhance the quality of life of all Savannahians — regardless of how many trips they’ve made around the sun.
During that sorely-missed time period, a small number of bars and clubs which are known for presenting local, regional and national acts in a variety of genres chose to accept this responsibility, and allowed underage people (primarily between the ages of 18 and 21) to mingle in a concert-type environment with those old enough to legally imbibe. By and large, the negative fallout and/or infractions which came as a result of such endeavours was minimal at most. Nevertheless, the law was struck down, and in the blink of an eye, hundreds, if not thousands of young people who were either just getting turned on to (or had long ago become accustomed to) the joys of live music were instantly denied that opportunity.
For someone like SCAD student Stephanie Adamo (who just turned 20), being unable to simply go and catch a live show by a rock band was a jolt.
“I grew up in central New Jersey, so I was only a train ride away from either Philadelphia or New York City. I would go see shows in both of those towns all the time. Pretty much all the venues I would go to were either open to all-ages, or 16 and up.”
She says that although she was able to attend a number of club and bar shows here before the so-called “Minors Ordinance” was done away with, many of her fellow students who started school after her were not so lucky. According to Adamo, that has colored their perception of Savannah in a somewhat negative way, and left them at a real disadvantage as far as enjoying our ever-growing local music scene.
“When I first got here, that law was still in place,” she recalls. “Then all of a sudden it was gone, and it felt really strange to have that option just taken away from you. “
To say that Adamo is way into music —and specifically, underground or alternative music— is an understatement. In addition to being a student at SCAD, she serves on the managerial staff of the art college’s internet radio station. As promotions director, she is charged with finding new and inventive ways to let the public know about the school’s (regrettably) low-profile website, SCADRadio.
From her vantage point, she sees a correlation between the lack of access young students have to the nightclub scene and the interest they show in local music.
“I was noticing that a lot of our own DJs and freshmen didn’t know what was going on around town at all when it comes to local songwriters or bands,” she laments.
This lack of interest and sense of stasis is felt on both sides of the stage as well.
“It’s really bullshit,” says one local musician who asked that his name not be used. He is over 21, but most of the members of his band are not. The band has developed a small, earnest following of friends and fans, but can’t help feel that they have somehow plateaued, only a few years into their development.
The music they write and perform is too hard and heavy for most of the venues in town that do allow those under 21 in to see shows, such as The Sentient Bean and Coastal Coffee. By that same token, the few area venues that cater to the type of music his band plays are strictly 21+ rooms.
However, the stigma around shows attended primarily by underage patrons is off-putting to many of legal age. That’s because the financial risk required to open a legitimate all-ages venue is so great and the odds for long-term success so small that most concerts of this sort amount to little more than glorified house parties.
“How exactly are we supposed to get better at what we want to do, when we literally have to wait years for the people who like the band to be able to get in to see us play in a real club?” This local musician asks. “Playing parties is one thing, and every once in a while a real show’ll come up where kids can get in, but we want to be taken seriously, and at least around here, if you want to be taken seriously, you need to be playing in real clubs.”
To clarify, it’s not a matter of musicians themselves not being allowed to play in local venues. According to Savannah law, musicians booked to play at a club that is primarily classified as a bar need only be 18 years of age. It’s just that their friends, relative and fans can’t pay to come in and see them do their thing unless those audience members are at least of legal drinking age. And therein lies the rub.
Susanne Guest, owner of The Jinx, was one of the few bars that regularly allowed patrons 18 and up to see certain shows. She’s blunt when asked how the change in law has affected her business.
“There’s been a lot of heartbroken kids at the door, but other than that, I haven’t seen a decline in sales at all. If anything, this August was much better for us than last year.”
Furthermore, she puts a unique twist on the whole situation:
“I really feel for the kids, but at the same time, I went through all those years of not being able to get into bars. But now, at 34, I’m at a disadvantage because there are some major, national bands that only want to play in all-ages rooms. They literally won’t play my club because we legally have to be 21+. This may come across as a rather selfish thing to say, but in Savannah, it’s not just 19-year-olds who can’t see the shows they want. (laughs) I mean, I really wanna see Agnostic Front, but they won’t play my club unless it’s all-ages.”
For now, the only legit places in town where underage folks can reliably get in to see live music are bona fide restaurants that make at least half of their profits from the sale of food, or venues which don’t serve alcohol at all — such as coffee shops like The Sentient Bean , or both The Metro Coffee House and Coastal Coffee. The basement of Sweet Melissa’s Pizza has also become known as a popular stop for hardcore, punk and emo bands.
Currently, the only freestanding dedicated all-ages music venue anywhere nearby is Studio B in between Hinesville and Glennville on a stretch of rural highway. A massive, brand-new community center with a huge stage and PA system, it caters to loud, aggressive screamo and metalcore acts, but despite its almost ideal setup, its odd location and hush-hush MySpace-o-centric advertising campaign has resulted in no more than 80 kids showing up for any concert in this 600-capacity venue.
At this point in time, the best hope for underage music lovers comes courtesy of SCADRadio, which has just announced they are starting a series of free, all-ages shows featuring both local indie bands and nationally-known acts in a variety of genres. Their first show (featuring Sinister Mustache, i am not a little bus, and Seven Gates To Elsewhere) is scheduled for October 10 at the school’s Orleans Hall, and is open to the public.
“When we decided to do this,” explains SCADRadio General Manager John Baxter, “we realized that a lot of students—even those who consider themselves big music fans— just wait around for their favorite bands to come to Atlanta or Jacksonville. People complain that no good shows come here. These shows will be free, and hopefully it will show young people that we have great bands now right here in town.” ç
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