Monday, June 17, 2013

How The Courts Changed The Direction Of Music


Photo credit: Sean MacEntee
Talk about unintended consequences, sometimes a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil really does have an affect on the weather in Brooklyn. The Chaos Theory analogy may be a bit dramatic but it does illustrate how an action with one intention can greatly affect another action that’s seemingly unconnected. Take for instance the fact that over the years there’s been a number of court rulings that have had a profound bearing on the direction of music, even though the participants never dreamed that such a thing would occur.

This has happened in a big way twice before, and a recent court decision can make a third. Let’s explore them.

The Cabaret Law

In 1944 the United States Government levied a 30% tax on all establishments that had a dance floor, served alcohol and refreshments, and provided musical entertainment. This was known as the Cabaret Law and it was meant to raise much needed tax revenue for a government with a depleted bank account thanks to the Great Depression and World War II. In an instant, the Big Band era came to a staggering halt, as no venue could then afford to hire the most popular musical entertainment of the time, thanks to the effect of the tax. All the profit had been sucked out of the business.

What happened as a result was the rise of the more cerebral and anti-danceable Be Bop, a high concept art form to be sure, but one with a far smaller audience than its predecessor. The advantage was that clubs no longer needed a dance floor so the law was effectively circumvented.

The Cabaret Tax was dropped to 10% in 1960 and totally repealed in 1965, but the damage had been done and the course of music had already been changed several times. Ironically, cabaret laws still remain on the books in many towns and cities, which certainly does little to help either the music or club business.

The National Minimum Drinking Age Act

As well-meaning and safety conscious as it is, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 did more to change the music business of today than perhaps any event before the year 2000. Although establishing the drinking age is up to the individual states, the law provides a mechanism for a 10% decrease in federal highway funds if a state does not comply, which all did by 1995.

Until that point the drinking age in 29 states had been lowered to 18 between 1970 and 1975, mostly because of the cries from Viet Nam vets of “Old enough to vote, fight, and die, old enough to drink” (ironically pertinent even today). Because of all the thirsty youth, clubs featuring live music sprouted up everywhere and there was more paying work for bands of all types than ever before.

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