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Boston should help make indie shows happen safely

Boston police apparently are trying to infiltrate small, unlicensed rock shows, allegedly using fake Internet personas that speak in dated slang. According to a recent article in Slate, one band received a message asking, “What is the Address for the local music show tonight?” Asked another, “whats the 411 for the show saturday?”

The scheme, as reported by writer Luke O’Neil, seems half-baked and heavy-handed. Asked by’s The Hive to respond to O’Neil’s report, Boston Police said merely they “can’t confirm that information.” Yet behind all the skulduggery are entirely legitimate concerns about fire hazards and other threats to public safety, and the police and other city officials can’t just turn their backs.

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But they should try to engage with the city’s growing underground music community first. The shows, which fall somewhere between house parties and commercial concerts, fill a gap in the city’s nightlife scene, where high cover charges and drink bills can be as much of a bar to entry as the dearth of events open to fans under 21. The underground concerts give exposure to up-and-coming acts, creating the buzz necessary to attract fans who can then download the music.

Nonetheless, anyone hosting such a show must agree to reasonable safety standards. The city should provide potential hosts with clear guidelines on appropriate crowd sizes, numbers of exits needed for any room in which a show takes place, and necessary safety equipment. The hosts should then be required to sign an online agreement to follow the rules. If they either fail to register or break the rules, the city should be prepared to crack down.

While the city’s first concern must be safety, a little sensitivity to those hosting the shows is in order, as well. Boston’s rents are high, liquor licenses are expensive, and businesses need special permits for entertainment and for dancing. Against these obstacles, there’s a reason do-it-yourself concert promoters look around basements and think, “There’s a band; here’s a room; what’s the problem?”

Likewise, however, the organizers must demonstrate proper concern for their guests’ safety, especially the threat of fire. Defying authority has been part of rock and hip-hop music from the beginning, and the very fact that these shows are underground may well be part of their allure. Yet just as house parties can sometimes get out of hand, concerts may attract scores more fans than anyone expected, as word spreads via social media. Some rules are in order. Crowds must be kept to a safe limit. Neighbors shouldn’t be disrupted. Drinking can’t get out of control. A little understanding from fans and organizers, as well as police, will allow the city’s underground music scene to reach its full creative potential.

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