By David Freeman
When I first heard about House Bill 561, it was via a “call to arms” from fellow musicians. But when someone cries, “FIRE,” I actually look first to see if anything is burning.
It’s real easy in Pennsylvania to check things out. You can go to the PA House website and look at the actual legislation. I’ll save y’all some time. Here’s what PA House Bill 561 proposes:
“Notwithstanding any provision of law to the contrary, a hotel, restaurant or club licensee may permit a minor of any age to perform music if the minor is not compensated and the minor is under the supervision of a parent or guardian.”
Full disclosure here: I emailed my favorite Pennsylvania state senator first, before I read the bill. And here’s what I wrote:
“Just heard about PA House Bill 561, apparently as passed it enables minors to perform music so long as they’re not paid. Please tell me I’m missing something and/or that you would not support a bill where anyone would be precluded from earning money for a skill that others are compensated for. Looking forward to hearing back from you.”
So I am guilty as charged; lock me up for caring about kids, but not enough to find out if they’re actually in danger or not. I’m guilty of something else too: I started playing in bars in PA when I was fourteen. Hopefully, the statute of limitations is over.
Simply put, since Prohibition (that was in the 1930s), it’s been illegal for anyone under 18 to perform in a venue licensed to serve alcohol. Now you might ask is this really a “law” or just one of those “suggestions” that have a degree of interpretation. Well I found out it was a law when one of my favorite venues in the Poconos got hit with a $1,000 fine for allowing a really cute 8-year-old girl to perform on their stage in front of maybe ten people. Of course, Mom and Dad were super proud, and they posted the video to social media and tagged the establishment. That’s when the Liquor Control Board “tagged” the owners of the establishment with a fine.
Back to HB 561, I received an immediate response from a staffer of my favorite state Senator, something Attorney Bryan Tuk has yet to do towards my inquiries regarding his stance [which was explained in this Pittsburgh Current Op/Ed]. The Staffer informed me that the PA LCB’s Legal Counsel included the clause, “Notwithstanding any provision of law to the contrary,” to prevent Federal or State Labor/Child Labor Laws from being usurped by this bill. That’s what Legal Counsels do: they prevent people from doing dumb stuff that gets them in trouble.
So it seems logical to me, kids now legally perform at open mics or jams in Pennsylvania for the first time in my lifetime, so long as they brought a parent. We all know that kids 16- and 17-years-old can get working papers and earn at least minimum wage — because that’s been the law for a while. We also know that if you’re over 16, you have to be paid for your work — because that’s been the law for a while. What puts kids in jeopardy are those “under-the-table” jobs. I know, I did them, and let’s just say I wouldn’t want anybody’s kids to go through what I did.
I even read State Representative Sheryl Delosier’s reasoning for writing the bill: she’s got talented kids in her district and she thinks they should be allowed to perform. I’ve never met the Representative but I for one am grateful she’s thinking about what is safe for kids and the performing arts.
So, what I didn’t know or could believe was that somehow a straightforward logical piece of legislation could be construed to be bad. I mean there are crazy people everywhere, but who could possibly imagine that a bill that creates an opportunity for kids to legally perform would provoke headlines and social media posts stating every musician in PA would be forced to stop playing and watch children be enslaved and play music for free.
Now that this craziness is getting traction, it’s time to speak up. When people in Nashville – a town that band musicians from playing on the street – is going to lecture Pennsylvania on how to treat musicians, it’s time to say something.
I for one am glad that kids are getting a chance to perform. And if I see any of them playing on stage with shackles, I’m calling child welfare services. Here’s hoping you do the same.
Dave Freeman is a singer/songwriter who grew up in the Bethlehem Area School District. While tackling life the music business, he’s been involved in a varied group of advocacy causes, including music and the arts, child welfare, and community planning. He currently lives in Florida and still performs in Pennsylvania.