.Permission To Dance

Live music rules too strict, killing business, owners say

Walking up Madrone Street by the Sash Mill, you can hear a faint bass rumble. It’s late afternoon on a chilly Sunday in March and Woodhouse Brewery is hosting Soul Good Sundays, a Black and Brown artist showcase. On a small stage, Yendis Kane pumps up the crowd of around 50 people inside the taproom. DJ itsdannyboysun plays their backing tracks through a sound system as the crowd cheers. They just can’t be too loud—and there can’t be any dancing.

Last summer, an anonymous complaint shut down the outdoor music events the brewery held for three years. For weeks after, the business suffered.

“People just stopped coming,” says Will Moxham, one of the owners. “There was a solid month there where nothing happened. And people were like ‘Are you open?’” The shuttering of live outdoor events led some patrons to believe the business was done for good, Moxham explains.

Over the past year, multiple Santa Cruz establishments were forced to cease their live music or entertainment events for operating without proper permitting. Woodhouse, The Apéro Club, 11th Hour Coffee and even local nonprofit Barrios Unidos have felt the sting.

In all the cases, confidential complaints led to a crackdown by the City of Santa Cruz. As businesses struggle to bounce back from Covid-19 restrictions, some owners feel that the city is not applying the rules fairly and hurting local entrepreneurs. Others feel that the city is stifling live music and entertainment, and compare it to prohibition-era restrictions.

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We Don’t Want Another Nightclub

Moxham and his business partner, Tug Newett, sit down in their taproom on a weekday afternoon in front of their small stage. They have resumed hosting smaller events since October 2023. After the anonymous complaint in July, the pair were able to obtain an incidental entertainment permit from the city, which allowed Woodhouse to operate an “indoor stage/performance area [that] does not exceed 80 square feet and customer dancing does not occur,” according to a city zoning ordinance regarding live music in eating and drinking establishments.

The brewery opened its doors in November 2020, at the height of Covid-19 and just like many other businesses, began operating outside in its parking lot. Soon after, the owners incorporated live entertainment, including DJs and musicians. For three years they went unnoticed and were mindful of the businesses around them—the area is zoned for commercial use and not residential. 

“I rode my bike to every single business in this area [and] gave them our number. I saw how loud it was. I was like ‘Does this bother you?’ They [said] ‘No’, and so we went for three years. Nobody said a word,” Moxham says. 

“One person complains and puts you out of business,” he adds.

Nancy Concepcion, Associate Planner and Code Compliance Specialist for the city’s Planning and Community Development Department, says in an email that all it takes is one complaint for enforcement to occur.

“The city does not conduct proactive enforcement on these uses, so it wasn’t until we received a complaint that we conducted an investigation into the use,” Concepcion says.

Moxham and Newett say that due to the live music component of some of their events, the city compared their operation to a nightclub, like downtown’s Motiv. They reject that characterization, and point to the various community fundraisers and cultural events they host. Soul Good Sundays, for example, seeks to bring Black and Brown artists together in community.

“It’s not until they shut you down and compare you to a nightclub that you start thinking about what they [perceive] we’re actually doing here” Moxham says.

The business has lost tens of thousands of dollars in revenue, he estimates. 

The city’s current entertainment ordinance, which dates back to 1972, requires any establishment that has live music and “any form of dancing upon the premises by patrons thereof” to obtain a permit similar to that of The Catalyst or Motiv.

Other business owners who have also had their live entertainment shut down say the city’s ordinance resembles prohibition-era laws and hurts businesses trying to survive.

‘It’s the Footloose town’

Aran and Hannah Healey opened The Apéro Club on the Westside in August 2020. The natural wine bar occupies a small space at the end of an alley dotted with other similar shops. To boost business, they began to host local DJs and other entertainment. Patrons would dance to the music on the outdoor patio. Then, in January 2023 a complaint was made to the city citing the outdoor entertainment and that the business was operating past 10 p.m.

“I feel like I’m a criminal in my own town,” says Hannah.

The city’s entertainment ordinance stifles the ability to foster community and has affected their business, she adds. Aran says that since the enforcement, their revenue has decreased by about 35%. This was due in part because the city initially limited Apéro’s hours of operation to end at 8 pm after the complaint, which was what they were permitted for, according to the planning department. Previously, they were open until midnight on some nights.

“I’m not running a nightclub or a concert hall. To play music and have some people dancing while drinking wine, that just seems kind of normal,” Aran says.

In order to extend hours until midnight, Aran applied for a “minor modification” to their use permit. It cost him over $3,000 for the city application on top of another $550 to the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. However, he was only allowed to stay open until 10:00 pm. He says planning department staff have told them they are “being watched” on social media to make sure they are following the rules.

His ultimate goal is to be open until midnight, but according to city regulations, a conditional use permit can only be modified once every five years.

“It’s like they pick and choose where to enforce it, how to handle it, […] we’re at an impasse,” Aran says. 

“We live in the ‘Footloose’ town,” Hannah says, referring to the 1984 movie in which a small town bans rock music and dancing.

City officials recognize that in light of these shut downs—which they say are purely coincidental— the city’s ordinances around the issue need to be revisited.

City’s Compromise

Rebecca Unitt, the City of Santa Cruz’s Business Development Manager, says that her team, alongside city planning staff, have worked out a temporary solution for The Apéro Club. As of last week, the hours will be extended to midnight as a sign of “good faith” by the city at no additional cost to the business. The informal agreement leaves open the possibility of permanent extended hours after Apéro passes a probationary period.

“We discussed internally that if [they] want to be open until midnight, we could provide this sort of temporarily since he had just gone through the modification,” Unitt says.

As part of that agreement, there will be no karaoke, no DJs—other than a laptop connected to a small speaker—and definitely no dancing.  “Some movement can’t be helped, but the space should not become a dance venue” reads part of an email outlining the terms.  

Over at Woodhouse, Moxham and Newett are working within the parameters of their current permit, but are also exploring getting a special use permit to have outdoor music again. Moxham says that a required acoustical study may cost between $5,000 and $10,000.

“So basically they almost put you out of business, and I think in the end the simple solution could be to just have a city hearing,” Moxham says.

Nancy Concepcion estimates that the process for a special use permit may take up to six months and cost over $5,000. A public hearing and approval by the city’s planning commission is also required. Moxham says that figure is on top of the cost of a required acoustical study that is ambiguous in its nature.

In response to these business owners’ feeling that the city is making it hard for them to run successful establishments, Concepcion acknowledges that changes might be underway.

“It is anticipated that the city will undertake [a] review [of] the entertainment and alcohol ordinance in conjunction with the Police Department, to determine potential modernization amendments,” she says. 

Unitt agrees.

“We’ve realized, from these examples, that the current system for entertainment permits is not working optimally,” Unitt says. “Looking at making those changes in the city can be a slow process […] because they have a big impact.”

21 COMMENTS

  1. HOLY CRAP… we have some of the best musicians in the world living here. It should not take an act of God for the city to fix the matter and help small business owners thrive. Do the right thing City of Santa Cruz and get out of your own way. The process can be expedited if people make the efforts.

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  2. yes it happened in New Mexico about a small farm Gaia Gardens that sold food at farmers market in a booth at the entrance to the land, and fed several senior citizens, also gave food to food co-op door. This was all destroyed by one person who accused them of wild parties and creating a pagan scene. They would once a month make Pizza from garden vegetables as the “party”. People testified at meetings how they brought this empty lot to life and community feeling and even offered to have the neighbor to come in and pick food when she wanted and made a gate for her to come in and out but she persisted and was a retired lawyer and there was a very old ordinance about needing to be out of county and they were inside town and illegal. Ironically all the farms began in Santa Fe and historical in this endeavor, and people have home garden. The farmers ended up moving off the land and the little places the farmers renovated and tents for growing and had a trailer they revived by the old house became vacant. The farmers and volunteer farmers after two years of meetings and even funds raised to help them to develop things further all left the land. What had been done went back to weeds as time went on. The woman next door has her dust bowl once again to herself as her neighbor.

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    • That is so telling of such a sad state that our country has become now.
      Unbelievable that only ONE person can cause so much harm to a useful and loving community.
      How sad.
      I really think that these establishments should hold town meetings on these.
      We need music and dance in our community.
      What’s all this talk about ‘freedom’ when those hypocrites will not allow it for those that don’t look or dress like they do?

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  3. How sad Santa Cruz is becoming Footloose! i performed at a local restaurant and parked in the loading zone and was told by the establishment I could park there only to find a fifty dollar parking ticket that I could contest in person ! Fortunately the establishment paid the ticket or the fine would have set me back considerably. Santa Cruz is getting Weird in the most awful way and someone has to change City Hall! Get active and retake our town and organize! Support live local music in Santa Cruz

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  4. This level of shortsightedness by the City of Santa Cruz is devastating but not expected. It is my home town and my residence again since the pandemic, I was hopeful we are back to what’s expected by those in charge. Do the “leaders” of this city think residents who want to support the arts, music and small businesses that make this town unique are going to stick around in a Footloose town? They won’t.

    All of us pay taxes for local schools – some of us don’t have children. We are all investing in the community and the younger minds for our future. Why can’t our fellow community members and leaders understand that falicating live music and spaces for those who want to spend money a glass of wine or a beer in the evening is also investing in the community and future of this town. Those environments are appealing for people who want to engage with other locals and support the arts while putting money back into Santa Cruz by going out. However, this group is often overlooked and undervalued.

    This saga with permits is a mess but other small cities can do it. Why again is sleepy Santa Cruz circling the drain and falling behind? Residents will get tired of this ongoing drama and leave – they already are – and Santa Cruz is going to push out the very type of culture that makes it what it is. As a local, this feels so repetitive and “progressive” Santa Cruz could really step it up.

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  5. Thank you for posting this. Finally someone is saying something . From what I have gathered, it seems like the city is unwilling to consider this an issue for their community even though they’re taking money off multiple businesses trying to go through the proper channels for live music permitting… like any responsible business owner who should have the right to at least a conversation. Live music is and has been a huge part of Santa Cruz culture and is an attraction for many people not only during the summer tourist months. Additionally, the median age of Santa Cruz is going down.. newcomers want to enjoy what nature Santa Cruz has to offer while also having something fun to do past 10pm on a weekend. Can’t wait to see how all those new apartments down on Pacific do once all these young adults learn there’s a 10 pm curfew and the only place with music and dancing allowed are 2 massive music venues with generally non chill vibes.

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  6. I run the 11th hour open mic, and last year we got a super small outdoor stage, no dancing, just local up and coming musicians who want to practice and we still got shut down, even on beautiful summer days we now need to do it inside, which is crazy. Our weekly open mic every Wed starts at 6:30 and has a hard stop by 9, and it isn’t even that loud. It’s ridiculous that we can’t support our local arts scene.

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    • I agree with you but I don’t think it is nice to make fun of older people. Kinda rude. Wait, not kinda rude, is rude. We will be older one day and would not appreciate the comment.

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    • Most of the “Karens “ are not boomers. They are uptight millennials who think their child will have a lifetime of trauma if they hear music from two blocks away past their eight o’clock bedtime.

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    • I’m a boomer and I’ve been wondering why there aren’t enough live music and arts venues around!
      We boomers grew up with very loud and live concerts that shook the walls and the canyons all night!
      I was bummed to find that most places in this town close up so early and it seems like the sidewalks just roll up after 9pm on a Friday or Saturday.
      The only places open late w anything happening is a dive bar that’s filled w smoke:( and for me, that’s not happening!
      I think these hard working folks that have invested so much in their establishments are owed a lot more by the city than what they’re paying for.
      One person complaining should not be able to shut down a peaceful and respectful music venue.

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  7. I have run the trivia night at 11th Hour downtown for the past 1.5 years, which is once a week from 7-9pm. No music, no dancing, just dozens of happy, peaceful Santa Cruz residents answering trivia questions I read into a microphone each week with a little applause and cheering. One very angry neighbor shouting and berating staff and threatening us nearly shut the whole thing down for all of us. How does one “no” vote cancel out hundreds of “yes” votes for these events? We get that real estate is expensive, so only older people tend to be able to afford it and expect peace and quiet for their “investment.” But it also turns the town into a bit of a retirement community while pushing out young people who want to have community and culture and vibrancy.

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  8. The City of Santa Cruz desperately needs to review and amend their 1970s-era entertainment policy. Making small businesses jump through the same hoops as large music venues prevents Santa Cruz as a whole from being a vibrant, artistic, and desirable place to live.

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  9. You should credit SoulGood Entertainment and The Artist for this artist showcase.

    You also should name all of the artists shown in the photo.

    Please contact SoulGood Entertainment.

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  10. Hey Stefano Scalia,

    I’m a boomer who has played music at Woodhouse. Don’t jump to conclusions, Zoomer stooge.

    Word is that the complaint was made by another disgruntled establishment that had their music shut down as well. It’s more a case of if we can’t do it, then neither can you. The entertainment permit system needs an update.

    Don’t place blame on an entire generation when you don’t know the facts.

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  11. Stefano Scalia Don’t worry, your turn will come to have your children and/or their peers blame you for everything that wrong in the world

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  12. City of Santa Cruz: please update your outdated entertainment permits ASAP! These policies are from over 50 years ago and a lot has changed. These small businesses are not nightclubs; they’re cultural and community hubs where people of all ages come together. Families can bring their kids, and everyone can enjoy the music and sunshine while supporting local food vendors, artists, and performers. It’s good clean healthy fun for everyone. These businesses are what help make Santa Cruz a vibrant hub for artists.

    Do whatever you need to do, but the old-school rules about dancing need to go, and the whole process needs to be expedited. These businesses managed to survive through COVID and they deserve the support of the city.

    If any resident wants total silence, they may be better off living up in the mountains. I live across the street from a music school for kids, it’s very loud, and I would never think to complain. This is a city and noise happens.

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    • Thank you SS!
      So true! I agree with all of those thoughts.
      I’m a boomer and I absolutely love and miss live music and dance venues!
      One person should NOT hold that kind of power over a majority of funloving community members that enjoy music and dance, I don’t care what age you are.

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  13. Here’s another slant to argue for dancing in music venues… HEALTH! Santa Cruz likes to boast a healthy style of living in this beautiful area, yes? Yet, they enforce laws that keep its citizens sitting down while infectious dance music is pulsing through their veins. Inconceivable!! These laws are extremely unhealthy, not only for the angst your mind is suffering from but…

    “Dance clubs play several types of music, but dancing in a club setting is typically synonymous with fast-paced music and movements. According to Harvard Health Publications, you burn about 180 calories in 30 minutes of fast dancing if you weigh 125 pounds. If you weigh 155 pounds, fast dancing for 30 minutes burns about 223 calories.” **

    So these archaic laws are supporting an unhealthy lifestyle. Hmmm? There has to be a law about that. 😉

    Cheers!

    ** https://www.livestrong.com/article/299032-how-many-calories-do-you-burn-dancing-at-a-club/

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  14. The apparent fact that one lone anonymous curmudgeon can curtail / cancel the fun for many others seems sub-optimal.

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