D.C. Council member Jim Graham introduced legislation last week to license, regulate and impose special requirements and restrictions on nightlife event promoters and promotion groups. His proposal would arbitrarily impose limits on common marketplace activity, inhibit community-centric gatherings and stifle cultural event innovation.
I should know – I was a nightlife special event producer and promoter for two decades.
Graham’s bill would institute mandatory licensing, permit fees, training classes, acquisition of a minimum $3 million in personal liability insurance and other requirements. Creation of a new licensing category will inevitably lead to additional protocols, restrictions and costs and result in bureaucratic expansion of hurdles and hoop jumping.
The world of event concept and promotional marketing would suddenly become complicated and less diversity in entertainment options would result. All without real benefit.
Graham indicated his proposal was in response to three incidents resulting in violence at or near local nightlife venues over a period of more than two years. Graham notes that these random occurrences were associated with promoter-organized events.
Given the longstanding and pervasive engagement of promotion groups representing both large “corporate” entities and small informal shared-interest collaborations at hundreds of venues throughout the city, this is tantamount to observing that a single plane crashed while all other flights safely landed. More violence occurs in or near Metrorail stations than nightlife venues.
Every night of the week, scores of independently marketed events occur without incident. Claiming that they are the exclusive or even preponderant source of problems is misleading.
Many establishments rely on promoters to host events and invite guests. Owners, operators and managers at many of the city’s largest and most prominent venues started in the business promoting events.
What is notably odd about establishing an implied shared responsibility for venue operational management is it is entirely counterintuitive. Current law is clear – venues are responsible for regulatory compliance and are liable for incidents. Simultaneously diluting venue responsibility while extending it to encompass event promoters is wholly inappropriate. Licensed businesses are, and should remain, legally liable for operational performance.
Some of the few instances of violence have occurred at venues with weak management or inadequate security who have mistakenly and illegally “handed over” at least partial venue control to non-employees. The solution is not diversion of responsibility, unrelated licensing requirements or paper shuffling. Regulatory administration should be focused on improving management training and providing technical assistance, in collaboration with industry groups, as is better provided in other jurisdictions.
Event marketers not employed on an in-house basis – which would exempt them from the law – should not be held legally liable for management responsibilities beyond their control.
Conversely, the law is easily circumvented by hiring of promoters as employees – as many already are – eliminating special requirements. Even a charitable component could waive them for independently promoted events under the loosely defined standards.
The most compelling argument against this proposal is one unconsidered. Many specialty events are organized and promoted by small informal groups of demographic, cultural or ethnic affinity, usually hosted at smaller bars and restaurants. Whether a gay retro-era dance party, a homeland-nostalgic international music event or similar gatherings promoted through social media networks and with a cover charge to finance DJs or talent or marketing expenses – host groups with the singular ability to promote these events would be subject to the proposed requirements.
This promotional model – including some of the most innovative and culturally contributing events – would no longer be functionally possible. The city would lose part of its soul and unique venues would lose needed revenue.
The simple fact is, inevitably and unfortunately and rarely, patrons will get out of hand and bad things will happen. This will occur at businesses not given due credit for responsible management and it will occur at less experienced locales. Bottom line, though, the issue is not how an event is promoted, but how the establishment is operated.
That is where the focus should be.