It’s been said: “Nothing is as certain as death and taxes.” Area musicians are feeling the threat and certainty of taxation, not from Uncle Sam, but from political rulers much closer to home; those in charge of the coffers at the City of Myrtle Beach.

Several weeks ago calls were made from the Myrtle Beach Business License office to Hard Rock Café, and presumably other live music venues in Myrtle Beach, inquiring about the business license compliance status of the bands and individual musicians that perform there. Incredulous Facebook posts followed, e-mails were issued, and text messages and tweets from concerned musicians, bookers and venue managers filled Cyberspace. The shock felt by some caused a ripple in the local music community as venues and musicians tried to understand the reality of what the city seemed to be implying; that is that anyone and everyone singing, or playing an instrument for pay within the city limits of Myrtle Beach, is required to have, hold, and present upon request, a valid business license, or face serious consequences.

“What?!?! For realz?” asked these musicians. “Yes,” says the city, for realz.

Word quickly spread among the live music community after a group e-mail was sent to some 16 bands and individual musicians by Financial Assistant/Live Music Supervisor, Robyn Morrison, of Hard Rock Café.

It reads:

“Hi all, I am contacting each band that is scheduled (or tentatively scheduled) to play Hard Rock this year to share some information I recently received. The City of Myrtle Beach is requiring all bands and musicians who perform within the city limits to hold a business license, even if the venue’s license is current and valid. Unlicensed performers may be fined up to $1,095.00 per instance. A uniformed officer may be dispatched to random venues at any time to ask the band to present a business license. If the band or performer is not licensed, that officer may issue a ticket to the band or performer. Please understand this will not affect how I hire bands. But for those of you, who choose not to obtain a license, please be aware that you may face fines any time you play at any venue within [Myrtle Beach] city limits. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Thanks to all – Robyn Morrison.”

To some innocents this was breaking news; to others this was old news making its annual springtime appearance. This is not the first time the city has imposed a crackdown on the musician’s license issue. For the sake of full disclosure, my band (the Paul Grimshaw Band) has held an annually renewable Myrtle Beach business license for more than a decade. I don’t particularly like it (does anyone like paying taxes?), but you can’t fight City Hall, literally, so I comply. In the city’s defense, this requirement is an ordinance, part of the municipal code, and is the same code found in most cities and small towns everywhere. It applies to anyone and everyone doing business in the city, whether earning $1 or $1 million. I live, work, and vote in the city, so I guess I really don’t mind. If a plumber, contractor, landscaper or any other self-employed sole proprietor needs a license, why shouldn’t a musician?

It’s a reasonable argument, and regardless of what any of us think about the issue, it’s the law. And similar laws are enforced everywhere, right? Not necessarily.

No License Required

Calls to several Grand Strand municipalities yielded some interesting information.

The City of North Myrtle Beach, home to the House of Blues, Pirate’s Cove, and many other live music venues, does not require a business license for musicians, confirmed by two representatives at the Business License Office.

Surfside Beach, also home to many live music venues, similarly does not require a business license for musicians.

Murrells Inlet (the Georgetown County side), home to the Marsh Walk and more live music per square foot then any other Grand Strand location does not require a musician to have a business license because it is not an incorporated municipality and Georgetown County does not require a business license for musicians.

But others do.

The City of Georgetown does require a license at $45 up to $2,000 in income, plus a small fee per $1,000 over that limit.

Horry County requires a business license at the reasonable flat rate of $55 (up to $250,000 in income). If a musician performs at The Boathouse Waterway Bar & Grill, which is located in unincorporated Horry County, then technically that musician would need an Horry County business license.

The City of Conway also requires a business license, at the reasonable rate of $62. Conway residents pay just $37, plus a small fee per $1,000 exceeding a $2,000 income base.

So, What’s the Real Problem?

Part of the problem is the City of Myrtle Beach hasn’t ever been diligent at enforcing its entertainer’s licensing ordinance, so it comes as a shock to so many that it even exists. What about strippers, deejays, fire breathers, magicians, artists, photographers, stilt walkers, clowns, and any number of Craigslist or eBay entrepreneurs? Are musicians being singled out? Maybe. But there’s no hard evidence. No musician we could find has ever said, “An officer came to my gig and asked me to produce a business license. I didn’t have one, so they shut us down and wrote me a ticket.” This is a scenario no one wants to be a part of, and to our knowledge it hasn’t happened, but it certainly could.

The city has, however, recently pressured some musicians into compliance, especially if the individual or band is performing on city-owned property, e.g. Plyler Park, Valor Park, the Myrtle Beach Train Depot, etc. Prior to a recent City Council Budget Retreat, the city parks had been exempt from the license requirement. That exemption is still in effect but will likely be gone by June, 2015.

A handful of oceanfront hotels and resorts are occasionally pressured by the city to get their bands into compliance, but not very often, and, again, to our knowledge no one has ever been ticketed. We asked Myrtle Beach Police spokesman, Capt. David Knipes, point blank, has the City of Myrtle Beach, in the last 10 or 15 years, ticketed any musician(s) for performing in the city limits without a business license and if so, how many? As police were still dealing the the fallout from Memorial Day weekend violence and the Atlantic Beach BikeFest, we did not get an immediate answer.

“We decided to go ahead and get ours,’ said Daniel Simons of the Pawleys Island-based band Paperwork. “Each of us in the band is getting one because we occasionally play in Myrtle Beach, and we all sit in with multiple bands.”

Why, you may ask, would a band from Pawleys Island need a Myrtle Beach business license? Because Paperwork performs in Myrtle Beach “occasionally.” “If an out of town band is playing a one-time-only show in Myrtle Beach,” said Mary McDowell, Assistant Finance Director for the City of Myrtle Beach, “then no, they don’t need one. But if they play more than once a year, or even once every year, then they need either a one-time permit [for each performance], or an annual business license.” Conversely, if you live in Myrtle Beach but only do business in Murrells Inlet, or North Myrtle Beach, for example, then yes, you still need a City of Myrtle Beach business license. Really? Yes, really that’s the law.

“Those living outside of the City of Myrtle Beach, who do business inside the City of Myrtle Beach would be issued a non-resident business license with a base fee of $235,” said McDowell. “If a band from out of state comes to perform at Plyler Park, for example, even once or twice a year, which is considered a “routine and regular basis,” they’re required to have this non-resident license whether they’re from Murrells Inlet or California.”

“If they’re based and live in the City of Myrtle Beach, they would be required to get a [resident] business license,” McDowell continued, “but if all of their income is being reported to another jurisdiction in which a license fee is being paid, then they would exempt that income and they would only [pay] that base license fee. For a [resident] deejay or band an in-city business license, based on $0 to $2,000 [in income, per year] is $155.”

But it only goes up from there.

The license fee is based on an individual’s or entities’ gross annual income (not their gross adjusted income), from the previous year, based upon their tax return. Bottom line: “If you’ve got a business, you need a business license,” said Myrtle Beach Public Information Officer Mark Kruea. “If you don’t have one, then it’s not fair to those who do. Babysitters, like an Au Pair, if they’re of certain age, eBay and Craigslist entrepreneurs, too – if they operate a business out of their home, then yes, they also need a business license.”

Local country crooner Brad Long just recently got his City of Myrtle Beach business license. As an employee of Carolina Opry he doesn’t need one, but as the performer Brad Long, playing at Bourbon Street Bar & Grill, and other in-city locales, he does.

“So you can apply for a one time permit, for $150, every time you play in the City, which would eat into your money pretty quickly,” said Kruea, “or you can get an annual city business license. If you’re a [resident] earning $10,000 it will cost you about 170 bucks. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.” True, assuming you’re not reviewed and audited for all the years you earned money without a license.

So What if I Don’t?

Lest Guitar Bob thinks this is something to ignore, he shouldn’t. This spring the city seems somehow more tenacious than in the past, and the potential for trouble for those out of compliance is quite serious – tickets, stiff fines, cancellation of gigs, and, theoretically, possible arrest, even jail time. “All of that is at the officer’s discretion,” said Kruea. “In just in the last 30 days we’ve fined 52 businesses a total of $4,000 for not having their business license. We’re not out there to arrest you, our goal is compliance, and we are out their enforcing it.”

So what if I do?

There’s a fear among many that applying will open a very expensive can of worms, one they cannot afford. You’ll be asked, “When did you open your business?” If you lie and say “yesterday,” you’re breaking the law, and have potentially been red flagged for an audit. If you tell the truth and say “ten years ago,” you’re subject to collection of three years of unpaid license fees, audits, reviews and additional fines, up to an additional 30 percent of the license fee per year, up to three years. This could mean thousands of dollars in fees and fines for each of the working musicians along the Grand Strand, whether they earn $500 per year as a sideline, or work full time. This discourages compliance, say many. “I’m not going down that road,” said a local musician who wished to remain anonymous.

“Any business holding or applying for a business license can be reviewed, or pulled for a random audit,” said McDowell “But there’s a statute of limitations; we can only go back three years. If you’ve been doing business in the City for three-plus years without a business license, we will collect for the current year, plus the previous three years, in addition to a penalty, which is five percent per month, capping at 30 percent of the license fee for each year [out of compliance].” Ouch.

“The bottom line is that any time a person or a business is operating anywhere, it’s incumbent upon them to make sure they are in compliance with not only federal and state law, but local law as well,” added McDowell.

After spending hours studying the law and interviewing those who interpret the law, we’re still confused on certain aspects and “What if?” scenarios, so it’s recommended that you ask your own questions and seek your own clarification on this issue.

So what’s fair?

It has been suggested by many that those involved in the arts should be exempt, because they’re providing a public service, entertaining residents and visitors. Or, that the city could adopt a simple flat rate annual $50 fee, or better yet follow the lead of North Myrtle Beach and Murrells Inlet where no business license is required for musicians.

It’s also been suggested that if a simple, easy-to-understand online registration and $50 fee were written into law, along with an amnesty for previous unlicensed years, compliance would go up dramatically, possibly close to 100 percent, and the city would earn more revenue than it does trying to enforce an expensive, complicated, unpopular code.

There’s no doubt that this perceived black cloud hanging over the working poor will have musicians looking over their shoulders, and that it will take some of the fun out earning a little side-money through musical performance. On the other hand, some would argue, getting paid to make music is a business like any other.

“In a way it’s kind of good,” says Paperwork’s Simon, though he and his bandmates still have unanswered questions. “We want to show that we’re professional, and it may weed out those who are not.”