Getting the OK to Host Shows: A Step-by-Step Explainer

venueTrash Talk plays the Middle East Upstairs, October 2016. Photo by Nick DiNatale.

It sounds like a dream job, right? But hosting live music—even at your bar or restaurant—is kind of a tricky process.

We caught up with the License Commission to find out exactly how you do it.

If you want to join the ranks of iconic Cambridge venues like the Middle East, you’d better stretch those paperwork-filing muscles.

First things first: You need to see if the area where you intend to offer live music is zoned to allow it at all. All clear? Great! Now, you need to get an entertainment license from the city. You’ll have to fill out the form with info like the kind of venue you hope to debut—bar, restaurant or theater, for example—and the type of entertainment you want to offer. The state of Massachusetts actually requires licenses for everything from karaoke to pool tables to wrestling exhibitions. (No, seriously—the entertainment license application packet has boxes you can check for wrestling, beauty contests and even magic shows.) Keep in mind that if your space is in an area that isn’t zoned for entertainment, you won’t be able to get a license without obtaining a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

For live music permits, bar and restaurant owners must apply for a license in person. In order to submit an application, the venue needs to provide detailed information about the floor plan, and all require a License Premises Inspection Approval Form, which shows that city inspectors have signed off on using the space for entertainment.

Applicants may also need to file a Certificate of Use and Occupancy, corporate papers and the deed or the lease to the building, as well as show they have any other permits the city requires for their particular operation. Yeah, it’s a lot of paperwork. After the application is submitted, the Board of License Commissioners may want to hold a public hearing so that neighbors and other community members have the opportunity to weigh in on the venue’s plans. And depending on the type of entertainment you want to host, the hearing may have to be advertised to notify abutters, which means additional hearing and advertising fees. The applicant is also expected to inform neighbors on their own. Altogether, the whole process can take an estimated four to six weeks.

According to chair of the Cambridge License Commission Nicole Murati Ferrer, the group reviews the impact adding entertainment will have on the neighborhood, including if it will endanger public health, unreasonably increase pedestrian traffic and noise or increase “the incidence of disruptive conduct in the area in which the premises are located.”

The commission also considers input from neighbors and abutters before electing to deny an application, grant it as requested or grant it with conditions.

If approved, the fee for an annual entertainment license can top $1,000—and that’s in addition to the administrative hearing and advertising fees associated with the application.
Inman Square bar and restaurant The Rising applied for a live music permit to bring bands to the neighborhood shortly after opening last year. Luckily, since it’s the sister establishment to Phoenix Landing in Central Square, the owners already had a lot of experience with bringing live music to Cambridge.

According to general manager Ian Doody, the staff in the licensing department was very helpful when the bar’s managers were figuring out the application process. He says the Rising also really values the input it gets from neighbors. “We rely on feedback from the neighborhood,” Doody says. “If they don’t tell us it’s too loud, etc., we won’t know.” He adds that the staff regularly walks the block when music is playing to check volume levels and recommends that any venue looking to add live music reach out to neighbors first to get a sense of how they feel about the plan. “It always helps having neighborly support when applying for anything from the city,” he says.

In general, he believes hosting live music at the Rising has been an asset for the entire neighborhood.

“It’s a great addition to Inman Square and hopefully directing more foot traffic in to get smaller businesses in the square noticed and more frequented.”

This story originally appeared in the July/August issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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