Austin asks just how loud 'live music capital' has to be

A stricter noise ordinance proposal divides a Texas city known for its sounds.

If you know only one thing about Austin, it's probably the music.

On any given night, this city – the "Live Music Capital of the World" – cranks up the decibel levels and fills the air with blues, country, jazz, Latin, and rock.

But with the city's increasingly popular music scene has come an uneasy tension with homeowners and other businesses that are tired of the banging drum solos and razor guitar riffs spilling from clubs around the city.

Austin is considering a new noise ordinance that would bring noise levels down to 70 decibels – about the sound of a busy street at rush hour. In a city defined by its music, the proposal is causing many here to clamor in protest.

"At this proposed level, all we're going to be doing is watching Willie's lips move," says John Nelson, referring to one of Austin's most famous musicians, Willie Nelson.

Mr. Nelson, no relation to the country crooner, ran a sound company in Austin for 25 years, and says a crowded room can produce decibel levels of 75. Musical lyrics – to be understood – must be 10 decibels above that.

The city's current decibel limit is 85, but many homeowners and other businesses say it's too lenient and have been lobbying the city council to tone it down.

Nightclub owners and music promoters call the new limit "financial suicide" for an industry bringing millions of dollars to the city each year.

Because sound is based on a logarithmic scale, sound engineers say lowering the levels from 85 to 70 decibels is like lowering the speed limit from 65 to 15 miles an hour.

But a compromise is needed, says the city council, which plans to vote on the proposal in May.

Harold Piatt, the downtown area police commander, says he received 261 complaints about noise last year – with some coming as far away as 20 blocks.

Balancing volume and profits

At a meeting last week of club owners and promoters, he said: "We don't want to shut you guys down. But we have to find a reasonable balance." On a blackboard behind him, someone had scribbled the rock 'n' roll wisdom of KISS: "If it's too loud, you're too old."

Jean Graeber, who owns a condo on the city's famed Sixth Street, is not amused. She moved in five years ago and has spent $20,000 for soundproofing. She says some clubs are in constant violation, leaving her windows rattling.

"I resent being put in an adversarial role," she says. "They have as much right on this street as I do. I want them to respect my place here as well."

Typically, ordinances across the nation hold decibel levels to between 55 and 65 in residential areas. Les Blomberg, executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearing House in Montpelier, Vt., says it depends on how the area is designated, but he calls the Austin levels – both current and proposed – "outrageous."

Austin officials came up with the new levels after looking at noise ordinances across Texas. They range from 55 in residential areas to 85 in industrial areas.

But club owners and music promoters say the Sixth Street area should be held to different standards, like those along Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

Outdoor events threatened?

Many believe the new ordinance would also put an end to other outdoor activities, such as Shakespeare in the Park, the University of Texas Longhorn Band, and Fourth of July concerts.

"If this ordinance is passed, a lot of our cultural activities are going to stop," says Bruce Willinzik, who produces an annual arts and music festival in Austin.

He adds that music accounts for more than 11,000 jobs and, last year, pumped $616 million into the city's economy.

"We're not building a new convention center to show how wonderfully quiet Austin is," he said.

At that comment in last week's meeting, applause erupted – and a meter set up for the meeting registered at 86.6 decibels, a hair above the current legal limit.

Dirk Stalnecker, production manager at Stubb's BBQ – one of Austin's most popular outdoor venues – says that his first order of business with a band is to inform it of the ordinance, and that most have no problem with that.

But Tim Hein, of the Austin Marriott at the Capitol, says 55 percent of his rooms are effected by outside noise – most of which comes from nearby Stubb's.

"We are fielding lots of guest complaints about the noise," he says. "On the weekend, we hope they're here for live music. But on weeknights, most are business travelers."

After the meeting, James Fealy, assistant police chief, said the ordinance needs more work and he will recommend that the city council delay its May 23 vote.

David Thomson, of Emo's on Sixth, said he's glad there's more time to find a better solution: "We want to be good neighbors. But we also want to make sure everybody's in a good position to make money."

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