When Maggie Turner, owner of Tillie’s Bean coffee house, opened her mail October 16, there was a surprise waiting. It was a cease-and-desist order from the city of Minneapolis, saying: “During a drive-by inspection a billboard advertising live music was found. This is not permissible under the license you possess.”
Tillie’s Bean, located at 2803 E. 38th Street, is a quiet neighborhood coffee house. During the few years that they have been open, musicians have been allowed to perform in the evenings for nothing more than what they can collect in a tip jar. The city, however, regulates this the same way that they regulate paid musicians who are part of the attraction in a nightclub. That’s what brought the surprise in the mail.
“You just do what you can within the parameters of the law,” Turner said. “We honestly didn’t know it was an issue until we got the cease-and-desist.” In practical terms, this means Tillie’s Bean would have to apply for a license for live music, which costs $410 per year and $115 for the application. “We don’t make a lot of money with our live music to justify that,” Turner said. “We decided just not to have live music. We had to limit our evening hours because of that, since no one comes in without music.”
Jeremiah Bohn is a local guitarist who was upset at the series of events. He has performed solo at Tillie’s and with his band, BlueGreen, many times over the last year.
“In my personal opinion, Tillie’s is very important, as are all of our small local coffeehouses. They give young performers (and some of us not-so-young-anymore ones) a place to try out new material, to get used to playing in front of people, and to make connections with other musicians.”
Losing a place to play is far more than an evening’s entertainment to Bohn. “We’ve held an open jam session on Monday evenings at Tillie’s. It’s a really informal thing—no microphones or sound system, just bring your instrument and we all sit around playing songs, having some coffee, and talking. A real community-building experience.” Bohn also worries about the big picture, too: “This is a vital issue if Minneapolis wants to stay a vibrant music scene as it has been for many, many years.”
Coffee houses on both sides of the river regularly rely on live music to keep their doors open late into the night. The Acadia Café at Franklin and Nicollet in Minneapolis is well known for live music. “Music is a huge part of the business here,” said Bryce Robinson, a musician who also works at Acadia. “The owners here are really into supporting local musicians. It just makes sense, because it’s the music that brings them in here late and night and gets them to come back.” Music is also a big draw for the J&S Bean Factory at 1518 Randolph in Saint Paul. One worker there described live music as “What keeps us open at nights”. Musicians depend on having coffee houses as places to refine their craft and make a little money.
But it wasn’t just musicians who were upset at by the closing of Tillie’s Bean. In an e-mail addressed to his constituents, Councilmember Gary Schiff said that he had received a lot of calls and e-mails from his Ward, and that he was ready to take action. “The city needs to care and should still regulate dance floors or dance clubs that open in neighborhoods and the sound levels of amplified music, but I don’t think the city needs to worry about acoustic musicians in coffee shops. To solve this problem, I will be proposing that the city allows the use of up to three acoustic musicians in a coffee shop without requiring an additional license.”
This so-called “Coffee Unplugged” Ordinance will make a permanent change in the way Minneapolis regulates live music in small venues like Tillie’s Bean. That’s exactly what Maggie Turner was hoping to hear. “It’s not just about us,” she said, “it’s about the small places all around the city.” She laughs easily when she relates how big this has all become. “In all honesty, we didn’t go after Schiff or even think about changing the law. It was all of our customers and the musicians who did it on their own. I can’t thank them enough.”
Bohn, for his part, is very happy that something is being done about the situation, even if he still thinks it is a bit restrictive. “I’d like to say thanks to Schiff and his staff for looking into ways to fix this. I do hope they make the new ordinance Schiff is proposing a bit more flexible. I’d like (them to allow) four or five (musicians), personally. My quartet loves playing at Tillie’s. And we’ve had jam sessions with ten or fifteen people with no problems in there. Only allowing three musicians would strangle what is an amazing resource for young and old musicians alike.”
For now, what counts is that action is being taken and the matter is up for discussion. If all goes well, there could be live music again at Tillie’s Bean in six to eight weeks. And that means that the musicians of the neighborhood will once again have a friendly place to jam.