It doesn’t take much to appreciate the role New York City’s vibrant nightlife has played on our city’s culture and American society as a whole. Just a cursory glance at our country’s musical canon makes clear that our artistic heritage traces a bold line through the Bronx, Harlem, Midtown, the Village, Sunnyside, Bushwick, Fort Greene, Sunset Park and Stapleton.
New York City, the Big Apple, the City That Never Sleeps, is built upon a vibrant artist community, born, bred and nurtured in the city’s incomparable nightlife.
Though most New Yorkers and visitors would identify the city’s nightlife as a vital component of our international standing, the city and local government have done little to support it. In some instances, the city has actually done harm.
The New York City cabaret law serves as a prime example. Written in 1926, the law required musicians who performed in cabarets to obtain a “cabaret card” “so as to curb the ‘wild stranger and the foolish native’ from ‘tumbling out of these resorts at 6 or 7 o’clock in the morning to the scandal and annoyance of decent residents on their way to daily employment.’” In effect, the law was a racist and discriminatory attempt to stop members of the jazz community – specifically black musicians – from enjoying full employment or even from co-mingling with white New Yorkers.
Cabaret cards were abolished in 1967, but the cabaret law itself remained, shocking given our city’s professed values of inclusion, expression and tolerance. Today, any nightlife establishment in New York City – including bars, restaurants, lounges and clubs – must obtain a cabaret license if it is to allow more than three people to dance. Due to arbitrary enforcement and the difficultly of obtaining the license, only 118 venues actually hold a license, exposing many underground clubs to dangerous risks of onerous fines or closure.
This law unreasonably hinders an extremely important component of our city’s identity and economy – our nightlife. By putting an undue burden on nightlife establishments, performers and musicians who would otherwise gain from the opportunity to perform live music are harmed. Therefore, the cabaret law must be changed.
Bur rather than simply repealing the law, city officials and City Council should use this moment as an opportunity to support the workers and performers who are frequently under-protected and vulnerable to exploitation. Repurposing the cabaret license into a workforce protection tool would ensure that individuals who work and perform in our city’s nightlife establishments receive the protections, wages and security needed to live, work and raise a family. If New York is to remain a cultural capital of the world, we must make sure that the very people who fuel our cultural and creative environment aren’t driven to other states to make a living.
Musicians in New York City – a group of individuals who earn a yearly median income of $30,000 in the five boroughs due to incessant pressure on the wage floor and exploitation by employers – are struggling to build careers that are economically sustainable and artistically fulfilling, largely due to this exploitive environment. Amending the city’s cabaret law would be a start, but our efforts must not end there.
The Office of Nightlife and the Nightlife Task Force
Led by Councilmember Rafael Espinal of East New York, the City Council is examining the creation of a Nightlife Task Force, as well as an Office of Nightlife, modeled on the “Night Mayor” and “Night Czars” of Amsterdam and London. Given the importance of nightlife to our artistic and economic vibrancy, Local 802 fully supports creating both a task force and an office. We believe that both could play an important part in determining the strengths, weaknesses and challenges this industry faces, as well as the opportunities that it presents.
However, we must not allow this office and task force to be constrained solely to supporting and encouraging businesses, venues and employers. Though small businesses and the challenges they face are undoubtedly an important part of the discussion, they are but a portion of the stakeholders involved. The performers and other workers who allow our city’s nightlife to thrive also face considerable challenges that are unique to the industry. As such, representatives from and advocates for the workforce must be included on the task force. Their voices, just like those of the New York City residents, business owners and other members of the industry, are vital.
While the current proposal justifiably identifies such issues as permit applications, quality of life, inter-agency coordination, violation enforcement and small business relations as important to a vibrant nightlife industry, issues directly impacting performers and other workers at nightlife establishments are conspicuously absent.
Though the musicians of Local 802 believe that the establishment of an Office of Nightlife will promote a more vibrant and healthy nightlife community, such an office must be explicitly charged with examining and addressing the concerns of performers and workers if it is to have the credibility needed to achieve those lofty, laudable and badly-needed goals. Without such explicit inclusion, any reforms will risk missing an opportunity to provide meaningful support for the entirety of the nightlife industry.
We are fond of calling New York City a cultural capital of the world. If that is to remain the case, we must ensure that our cultural workers are adequately supported. The city, our workforce, our musicians, our economy and our identity cannot continue to ignore the nightlife industry. If it does, when the sun sets, it will set on our economy and artistic community as well.