Scene Not Heard

Could there be a silver lining to the mass eviction of musicians from Downtown Rehearsal?

"The sky is falling, the sky is falling," Chicken Little sang, as he strapped on his Stratocaster and turned the volume up to 11. The Aug. 8 eviction notice served to the tenants of Downtown Rehearsal studios is the latest dagger in the side of the already woozy music scene. Because of the imminent sale of the Bayview building, all of the 155 rooms, which together house 400 to 500 bands and more than 1,500 musicians, must be empty by Sept. 25. A significant portion of the city's bands is about to be homeless. Get out your markers and start making those "Will play for food" signs.

And yet, is the sky really falling? Is this the day the music died? Or will musicians find a way to keep on rocking in the free world?


In the short run, things look pretty bleak. Most rehearsal studios have up to a two-year waiting list, which means many bands will be left out in the cold. When former MK Ultra leader John Vanderslice got his eviction notice, he called every studio in San Francisco, the East Bay, and even Marin, without finding a single opening. Another rehearsal spot, Lennon Studios, wants to expand to a bigger building, but its style of looking ("If you see a good building, let us know and we'll check it out," says manager Jimmie Crucifix) seems a tad lackadaisical. Patrick Dillman's nearby Yosemite Studios is itself being evicted; it seems some neighbors have been complaining about the noise.

Things might not be so bad if the Downtown Rehearsal bands hadn't been caught by surprise. When the Third Street building was first sold a year ago, studio manager Greg Koch told his tenants that he was being allowed to retain his lease. The bands breathed a huge sigh of relief. Even after Koch doubled rents -- for improvements that were promised but never came -- the bands gladly paid. Jeff Lebson of Four Percent Juice even felt a renewed sense of community: "[We said,] "Everything's OK. We're paying skyrocketing rents, but we weathered the storm.'"

What Koch didn't tell them, as he was raising their rents, was that the building's new owner was his own father, Teryl, which explains why he was "allowed" to keep his lease. And what the bands couldn't foresee was that, within a year, the Koches would sell the building out from under them, for a $16 million price tag.

Greg Koch's duplicitous dealings extend even further, tenants say. Besides rehearsal spaces, the Third Street building houses several businesses, including local beer distillery Speakeasy Brewery. Speakeasy is in direct competition with Koch's own Stone Brewing Co., the maker of the not-so-ironically named Arrogant Bastard Ale. When the building was sold a year ago, Speakeasy owner Forest Gray asked the younger Koch if there was any chance that his lease, which ran through February 2001, would not be extended. If so, he wanted to start looking for a new site so he could maintain his brewing schedule. Koch repeatedly assured him that his lease would be extended, Gray says. Now eviction is six months away, but Gray says it will take a year and a half to move his operation. (Koch didn't return phone calls to respond to the tenants' charges.)

The closing of Downtown Rehearsal will have a ripple effect on the city's music clubs as well, especially the small ones that rely on local bands to fill bills. Ramona Downey, booker for the Bottom of the Hill, says it has already affected several of her dates. "I tried to put the Loud Family on a show that would've been perfect for them, but they lost their space and don't feel they would be ready in time," Downey says. "Nobody wants to open for a national touring act and look and sound bad."

Even a bigger club like the Great American Music Hall, which doesn't book that many local bands, will have to change with the times. Booker Lisa O'Hara says it will be harder for her to put local groups on as openers. "The community is where bands develop their draws," O'Hara explains. And without those draws, a band can't get larger gigs.


In the long run, however, the closing could actually do the scene some good. For one thing, people are starting to get organized. On Aug. 16, online music site Listen.com held a meeting in its Potrero Hill headquarters for those who wished to "save music in San Francisco." More than 50 people came, including artists Paula Frazer, John Vanderslice, and Oranger; businessmen like Gray and Dillman; and Internet company employees such as Lebson, who rents space both as a musician and co-founder of Sfmusician.com, a resource site. At the meeting, Lebson says, "Half the people wanted to try to save the building and half wanted a new one. A lot of people have this romantic vision of the building -- you know, "Rock 'n' Roll High' -- but I'm more interested in finding a new space."

To do that you need money. Gray has recently secured a loan to relocate his brewery, and at the meeting a new plan was suggested -- a co-op, with the brewery and a performance space on the bottom floor and rehearsal spaces on the floors above.

A project of that size, however, takes a great deal of time, effort, and focus, something bands don't always have in large supply. Luckily, Listen.com Editor Nick Tangborn, "PR guy" Sean Garrett, and NoisePop organizers Jordan Kurland and Kevin Arnold have offered to spearhead the effort. Committees have been formed to focus on specific tasks, including keeping Downtown Rehearsal open, staging events and protests, creating a nonprofit music foundation, and finding immediate solutions to the rehearsal crisis. To gain more political clout, Sfmusician.com has placed a petition on its Web site that calls for part of San Francisco's $3.5 million arts budget to help fund a rehearsal and performance space; so far, more than 3,000 people have signed it.

A bit ruefully, local promoter and musician Ian Brennan surmises the closing may prove beneficial. "It may weed out the uncommitted -- those in bands because it gets them laid or because it's cool. And people will have to go underground to put on shows."

Anthony Bonet, assistant booker at the Bottom of the Hill, suggests that the closing is "an unfortunate ecological correction. Where would all these bands play anyway? I think of it as amputating a leg [that has] gangrene.

"This city's changed from "Let's check out a new band' to "What a tough week ... let's have fun, let's go see that Abba cover band,'" Bonet says. "Even national bands want the middle slot on the bill. No one wants to play at midnight. Everyone's going to bed early."

In the end, the music scene will survive only as long as people -- or rather non-musicians -- want it to. If no one supports the bands, it doesn't matter how much they rehearse.

One basic fact remains: There's a lot of money to be made in the rehearsal business. The average rent at Downtown is $500 per space per month. Multiply that times 155 rooms and you get $77,500 in monthly revenue. Per year, that makes a little less than a million dollars. That's for a space that demands very little upkeep. What a bargain. You'd have to be stupid not to finance that deal. Wouldn't you?

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