On January 2, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) put into action a rule that allows the organization to fine any club that permits underage performers.
Most performers and club owners agree the rule targets underage strippers in adult-only clubs, but has had a large impact especially on bands with underage musicians and contractors who have employees under 21.
“It’s created a criminal out of someone who wasn’t a criminal before,” Bruce Fife, head of the local musician’s union said.
Fife explained when underage strippers are taking a break from their shift, they are required by law to leave the establishment’s stage or floor. However, some underage strippers find they make more money performing table dances and other off-stage performances.
In July of 2002 Fife attended a hearing held at the OLCC’s office and was one of 12 in attendance not affiliated with the OLCC. He was also the only person directly representing musicians at the time.
A decision was made in August, which at the time allowed clubs to apply for exemptions for musicians. But due to the unconstitutional issues of allowing such exceptions, the OLCC broadened the terms of the rule, causing all underage performers to be banned from these establishments.
When asked about the origins and purpose of the rule, OLCC representative Ken Paulke pointed to the targeting of underage strippers.
“It was designed to keep underage performers out of bars,” he said.
Paulke said it would be unconstitutional if that was the purpose, so the commission put it under the minor performance ruling. He explained all minors are permitted to perform in bars when the business is closed.
This, however, is not helpful to any musician, as Fife explained to the OLCC in a meeting earlier this year, along with Portland State University music professor Darrel Grant, a union member and jazz pianist.
Fife argued the petition was not a legal document, “It’s just a sign of support. It’s purpose is to come up with a number or something to give them, saying look, this is how many people you’re putting out of work.”
Fife along with concerned community members, such as staff from The Crystal Ballroom, organized a concert at PSU earlier this year called the Barely Legal Show.
Four bands were featured, three of which had members that were minors.
It was at this concert a petition was started to change the ruling. Petitions have also found their way into music stores across town such as Music Millennium.
Members of the Portland-based band SYX have been part of the local musicians impacted by this ruling.
“The law is actually annoying,” Tim Steiner, a 22-year-old drummer for SYX said. “Before the law came into effect on January 2, there was a limited amount of places for underage musicians to play. Now, there are about five available venues. Most are out of reach for small bands. The law is driving bands out of state to play 21+ shows.”
This sentiment supports Fife’s statement of how “from garage band to record deal” the bar venues play a vital role in a band’s exposure and development.
“I haven’t talked to anyone who has said this makes sense,” Fife said. “This (rule) is an agenda that has come through legislation.”
20 year-old Ben Charles, the vocalist for SYX, has been directly affected by the ruling. Charles said the rule is “one more obstacle on an already unstable path. Nothing in this business is for sure and nothing is a guarantee. It is hard enough to succeed.”
The union’s plan, Fife said, is to re-petition the OLCC on their terms.
The union will be heard at the OLCC headquarters in mid-June.
As one of 18 states with alcohol regulations, Oregon’s Liquer Control Commission has encountered a lot of resistance over the years and this has been one of their numerous battles.
“There’s change in the wind,” Fife said. “This is a corporation under fire. They’re fighting for their lives.”