When Montauk rocker Nancy Atlas began to play a song from George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” at a gig at Montauk’s Surf Lodge earlier this spring, the last thing on her mind was decibel levels — after all, Ms. Atlas and her band had never received a noise summons in 20 years of playing music on the South Fork, and the song they were playing is a subdued one by any definition.
But a noise summons was exactly what she received, and her reaction to the summons on social media has sent a stir through a tight-knit community of musicians who’ve long borne the brunt of town restrictions, free music showcases where there’s little if no pay and of venues that don’t have adequate soundproofing.
Musicians showed up en masse to the East Hampton Town Board’s June 14 work session to air their pent-up concerns.
Much of this came to a head, said East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell at the work session, because the Surf Lodge had actually approached the town about six weeks ago, in the course of resolving numerous long-standing issues, about what to do about the fact that they hadn’t checked off the checkbox on their State Liquor Authority application that said they have live music.
Mr. Cantwell said the town then asked the SLA to give them a list of other venues that aren’t registered for live music with the SLA, in an attempt to work with the business community to legalize their business practices. The town cannot issue summonses to venues who are not listed as music venues with the SLA, he said, but they can write a referral to the SLA asking the state agency to look into the discrepancy.
“After the issues that occurred last summer, people said ‘please, we need help,’” he said. “People made a lot of suggestions, one of which was to make referrals to the SLA. In the case of overcrowding, we want the SLA to know. We want businesses to be successful and we like live music, but it’s gotta be done in a way.”
But musicians and restaurant owners didn’t see the town’s actions as benign.
“There used to be a civility to the process. There used to be a warning,” Ms. Atlas told the town board. “There’s no chance to comply, no chance of even keeping the music within the decibel level.”
“Live musicians — we’re not the cause of this,” said Alfredo Merat. “We’re here to be good citizens. The level used to be 100 decibels, but now we have 50. I’m louder when I snore, I’m told. An iPod with a speaker could be louder than a band.”
Mr. Cantwell said that there were 250 noise complaints filed with the town last year, of which just 50 were deemed to be justified by the town’s police department.
“That’s a pretty good compliance rate in my view,” he said. “Of those 50, over a dozen were from one location. There’s some elements of the basic structure the town has that works. It’s not completely broken.”
“I understand what’s happened here and the complaints — the Surf Lodge is the epicenter of what we’re here for today, to some extent,” he added. “Licensed locations have had music for years without incident. At some venues at certain times it is an issue.”
Arden Gardell, whose family owns 668 The Gig Shack, said his liquor attorney has told him that “what East Hampton Town has requested of the SLA and SLA’s actual behavior in following up is almost unheard of…. The SLA is not pursuing this in any other community.”
“Your administration continues to have the most extreme restrictions,” He added. “I ask that you start to build a little more openness and look at things a little more realistically. I have cops outside my place at 8:59 because music is supposed to end at 9.
Mr. Cantwell said the town does intend to enforce the time restrictions in the code.
“Are we stricter? Absolutely. It has made a meaningful difference in the town of Montauk,” he said. “In terms of 9 o’clock means 10 o’clock, we’re not doing that anymore.”
Montauk Chamber of Commerce Director Laraine Creegan said that Montauk wouldn’t be Montauk without music.
“The Montauk experience, for all of us, is very important,” she said. “We, the chamber, and all of our members support music in Montauk. Music for most of us is a very, very important part of our lives. Imagine, as John Lennon would say, no music.”
Town Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc, a guitarist who majored in music, said he took it personally when he began to hear murmurs in the community that he was part of an effort to “ban music.”
“I read on Facebook that I’m banning music,” he said. “Everyone in my family plays an instrument. To me that’s the last thing on my mind. Music brings so much to humanity. When things get out of balance, we’re looking to find balance. It doesn’t mean banning live music.”
Many of the musicians who showed up also aired grievances about the Montauk Music Festival, held each May by The Montauk Sun for the past seven years, which has a long history of asking local musicians to work for free.
“I will not work for any enterprise where musicians are willing to perform without compensation,” said Randolph Hudson. “The Montauk Music Festival is prima facie proof that the road to hell is paved with good intentions…. The music festival makes money for everyone except the musicians and songwriters. The only industry not making money is the Montauk music industry.”
Sarah Conway also pointed out that musicians are paid at the nearby Sag Harbor American Music Festival in September.
Mr. Cantwell said that the town’s only role in the Montauk Music Festival is to grant the organizers an assembly permit, and he believes musicians should work out their issues directly with the Montauk Music Festival’s organizer, Kenny Giustino.
Musician Bob Stern suggested that venues should do their part to provide sound abatement, and suggested venue owners google “sound abatement solutions for outdoor music venues.”
“We’ve been through this sound rodeo before with The Surf Lodge,” he said. “There is sound abatement technology you can use. Not only does the town owe the musicians something, but the venues owe the musicians something — to be properly outfitted to do their job.”
“Part of the reason I’m angry is because I felt completely blindsided last month,” said Ms. Atlas. “I make my living in a very short amount of time. That’s no joke. I have high taxes and I have three children. The clientele that come (to The Surf Lodge) can afford to have me play at private events. Part of the reason these issues are really serious is because they’re getting six tickets and now they’re in front of the SLA. Mine was not a valid ticket. I’ve done this 20 years and I’ve gotten this one ticket. The environment out here is really bad. I’ve gotten phone calls from people I don’t even know that have restaurants who are calling me saying ‘oh my god, what do you know?’ It feels like the Kraken has been let out.”
With regard to the music festival, Ms. Atlas said she just wants to see local musicians respected. She said she can’t find a paying gig in Montauk during the week of the festival.
“I can’t work the week before Memorial Day. Are you kidding me?” she said. “That is one of the 15 weeks that I have out here.”