Licensed to Play

Myrtle Beach Red Tap Entangles Local Musicians

Most people assume they have the right to dance in a honky-tonk or play music in a bar. Some local governments disagree. A decade ago, Arizona’s Pinal County tried to impose ruinous fines on San Tan Flat, a popular country and Western restaurant, unless owner Dale Bell kept his patrons from moving their feet when they danced. Now, the Myrtle Beach city government is threatening one of its own residents with fines and incarceration for the dubious crime of being a musician without a license.

Why should people have to pay and register with the government in order to play music, an activity which is clearly protected by the First Amendment?

According to WMBF News, this is a question musician Rich Johnson, a retiree from Long Island, would like to see answered. Johnson makes as little as $75 a night while playing music “a couple times a year” at a local bar. But the City of Myrtle Beach demands that he spend $100 on a “business license” or else face up to $500 in fines or a month imprisonment for each unlicensed performance.

A spokesman for the city defended this situation on the grounds that business licenses exist in other cities.

This is plainly silly. Most obviously, many cities and states do not, in fact, require musicians to be licensed. Charlotte, for example, has no privilege license restrictions. Austin requires no special license or permit for musical or other performances.  New York City only requires sound device permits if performers wish to use sound devices on the street or in public parks. No permit of any kind for street performances without such devices, let alone for the occasional performances in bars or other private venues. In Central Ohio, musicians and other performers are also free of onerous licensing requirements, and the city of Columbus might even pay them to perform in public.

According to the “License to Work” report from the Institute for Justice (IJ), South Carolina is the 10th most broadly and onerously licensed state in the country. The Palmetto State licenses half of its low- to moderate-income occupations, with an average licensing burden of $166 in fees. This excessive red tape directly harms the ability of law-abiding South Carolinians to earn an honest living.

Myrtle Beach has the opportunity to do better and set an example for the state. There is no good reason to charge retirees for the “privilege” of playing musical instruments at a bar. It is even more ridiculous to subject him to ruinous fines and jail time.

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