Commercial Noise

Among the most frequent sources of noise that we get complaints about through our Community Noise Survey and contact form are commercial venues such as bars, clubs, and restaurants, as well as some non-entertainment businesses such as automobile repair shops, carwashes, and garbage collection.

In most cases, if the volume level from a commercial venue seems too loud, it probably is — which means it is violating Providence’s sound-level ordinances and should be remediated by the relevant city authorities.

Rhode Island law allows only “ambient” (i.e., background) music in establishments with liquor licenses — any amplified “entertainment” beyond that is specifically prohibited without the permission of local authorities, in the form of an entertainment license.

Bars, clubs, and restaurants in Providence that want to offer so-called “public performance” of music — which includes recorded music, DJs, and live musicians — are required to obtain a separate entertainment licenses, which explicitly stipulates that licensed venues must adhere to city sound-level ordinances as a condition of maintaining their license.

This is not always understood, or at least acknowledged, by city officials (including the police), who often respond to resident complaints about excessive sound levels from businesses by saying that there’s nothing they can do because the venue has an entertainment license — implying that the license effectively serves as a permit to exceed the city’s legal sound limits. This is simply not true.

Providence noise ordinances apply to everyone, including businesses — there are no separate or higher sound limits for commercial venues, especially bars, clubs, and restaurants with entertainment licenses. Any city employee, including police dispatchers or officers, who claims otherwise is either not adequately informed or is deliberately ignoring the law.

But on the rare occasions when police actually visit a commercial establishment in response to complaints about sound limit violation, they often simply tell the owner or manager to turn the volume down, and seldom issue a citation. In the absence of any official record of an infraction, none is deemed to have occurred, and the venue is essentially “free” to continue violating city noise laws.

Beyond the obvious issue of perpetuating unhealthy sound levels for the venue’s staff, customers, and nearby residents, this informal approach to addressing excessive volume also creates another problem — it circumvents the role of the Providence Board of Licenses, which is the city agency mandated by law to enforce the conditions under which entertainment licenses are maintained.

The License Board can require licensed venues to engage in sound mitigation efforts (i.e., installing specialized equipment) or, if sound violations continue, simply revoke the entertainment license. In fact, city ordinances require the Board of Licenses to do so — it does not have the legal authority to allow ongoing sound violations, or issue any kind of “waiver” of the city’s sound-level restrictions.

If you experience what seem to be excessive sound levels producing by a bar, club, restaurant, or other commercial establishment in Providence, please contact the Noise Project and tell us the location, day, time, and any other relevant details.