Catonsville in Baltimore County is home to several well-known music stores. The town takes pride in calling itself “Music City Maryland.”
But that moniker falls a bit flat because currently it’s illegal for bars and restaurants along the town’s main drag to have live music.
Evan Brown, who recently opened State Fare, a bar and restaurant on Frederick Road in Catonsville, said even though he’s legally not supposed to, he has had groups perform.
“We definitely have,” Brown said. “We shouldn’t be telling people that. But definitely we have music here. But we’d like to do it above board.”
Brown said live music is excellent for business.
Down the street from State Fare is a Catonsville landmark, Appalachian Bluegrass. The music shop was opened by owner Emory Knode’s father in 1960. Knode said he has live shows from time to time.
Knode said, “I come from the school, ‘ask forgiveness rather than permission.’ We’re a music store. We’ve been doing what we want to do here for a long time and no one’s ever complained about it.”
The irony is not lost on anyone, including Appalachian Bluegrass customer Jeff Levine, that a town that calls itself Music City Maryland has a dearth of live music.
“It seems like an oxymoron that you wouldn’t be able to have live musical entertainment in a town that thrives on music as a business,” Levine said.
It comes down to a zoning issue.
The businesses along Frederick Road in Catonsville can’t legally have it because they are in a business zone that does not allow it. Neither can establishments in nearby Arbutus, which has the same zoning issue. County Councilman Tom Quirk, who represent both Catonsville and Arbutus, said that is an antiquated part of the county code. He is proposing legislation that would allow those Arbutus and Catonsville businesses to have bands.
“We totally support live music,” Quirk said. “We just want to make sure it’s live music that the community doesn’t find, you know, blaring music at 3 in the morning. Big problems that are created that don’t exist today.”
Quirk’s legislation requires establishments in Catonsville and Arbutus to get a permit to have live music.
But local musicians sounded off on Quirk’s Facebook page opposing that. They feared requiring permits would actually have the opposite intended effect. Bars wouldn’t want to have to deal with that hassle. So Quirk said he is changing his legislation. The bars would still need to get permits, but they would be free and simpler to get.
Quirk said, “I know some people have expressed that the process might be a little more onerous than they want. I am totally open for a ‘hey how can we simplify it’ as well.”
The Baltimore County Council will take up Quirk’s bill at its October 1 meeting.
But there’s more at work than Quirk’s legislation. In Catonsville, they want to create an arts and entertainment vibe.
Baltimore County next week will apply to the state to become the county’s first arts and entertainment district. That designation brings tax breaks for arts organizations
Kirby Spencer, vice president of the Baltimore County Arts Guild, said she believes that designation would lure investors to Catonsville. For instance, there is a vacant building on Frederick Road. It was once home for Plymouth Wallpaper Company. Spencer hopes tax breaks might give a developer the incentive to put a concert hall there.
“They have an opportunity to really reduce that bottom line cost of that business when not having to pay the amusement and entertainment tax,” Spencer said.
There are 28 arts and entertainment districts throughout Maryland.