By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
By Emma Silvers
By Alee Karim
Berkeley has 924 Gilman. Seattle has the Vera Project. Los Angeles has the Smell. Each of these dedicated all-ages spaces has provided more than just a place to see cool bands until you get a fake I.D. or hit 21. They've encouraged intergenerational involvement in creating that city's music history. They've helped launch careers, both for the acts that played there (the likes of Green Day, Pretty Girls Make Graves, and No Age got their starts at these clubs) and for volunteers who learn about the concert industry and community organizing by putting on shows.
These clubs also inadvertently put regional music scenes on the national map, working as curatorial hosts to genres that later blew up, from East Bay punk to Northwest indie pop and L.A. noise rock. They foster strong grassroots communities separate from the commercial and bar cultures that surround them. And they've helped larger venues by giving baby bands a place to hone their chops. "It really helps the legit venues in the long run when there are kids that come up through that scene," says George Chen, who has been promoting all-ages shows in the Bay Area since 1995, currently with the organization Club Sandwich. The novice acts sharpen their live skills, so by the time they're booked at, say, Bottom of the Hill, "they already have that [performance] ethic in place."
These teenager-friendly spaces are so beneficial to the entertainment world that there's even a national organization, the All-Ages Movement Project (AMP), dedicated to studying and supporting them. (Its Web site, www.allagesmovementproject.org, is a valuable resource on the topic.)
So with all this emphasis on the importance of these music venues, where is San Francisco's dedicated all-ages hub?
The answer is that we don't really have one — although the volunteers behind Thrillhouse Records are working on changing that.
Sure, we have venues — from the Fillmore and the Warfield to Bottom of the Hill, Slim's, Thee Parkside, and Great American Music Hall — that are either always all-ages or at least keep a handful of shows open to younger fans. But most of them deal in touring acts or, at the very least, with local artists that have a proven draw. They wouldn't be considered breeding grounds for a fresh, homegrown scene — one created and supported by locals. And that's a problem. "Without spaces where young artists are incubating, the music scene as a whole isn't being regenerated," says Shannon Stewart, AMP's former national coordinator. She adds that such regeneration doesn't happen through "a huge, corporate-sponsored venue where people pay $18 to see whatever act is stopping through town."
San Francisco has a number of fly-by-night venues — art galleries, bookstores, apartment basements — that fill the void with occasional, sometimes-illegal performances. They provide valuable alternatives to the bars and clubs, but they weren't built to be consistent music venues (places like Adobe Books, Artists' Television Access, and Million Fishes have been great for DIY shows, and in the past, Epicenter and Mission Records encouraged this sort of scene).
Fire marshals often do sweeps of these unofficial outlets, forcing the hosts to quit putting on shows or to change their setups completely. Sub-Mission Art Space – formerly Balazo 18 Art Gallery – was out of commission for almost a year after a visit from fire marshals and building inspectors. Fully permitted as of last fall, the arts and culture center is back to hosting regular all-ages shows brought in by various promoters.
Thrillhouse Records was another poorly kept San Francisco secret for all-ages shows. The Outer Mission's nonprofit record store booked regular gigs until the fire marshals put the kibosh on things last summer. But the setback could prove positive in the long run. Fred Schrunk of the Thrillhouse collective says the group is looking to expand its volunteer efforts into creating an all-ages music space. Sitting in the Thrillhouse kitchen, he emphasizes that the idea is still very embryonic. But the Thrillhouse folks have monthly Monday night meetings to discuss basics from location to fund-raising, and have invited speakers from Gilman and the San Francisco Entertainment Commission to offer their insight. "Not much has been hammered out," Schrunk says, "but we're trying to create a real all-ages space. Not just a place for kids, but a place where young people can go and that people in their 30s and 40s can also feel a part of."
Schrunk helped start Thrillhouse two years ago, and in an era where most record stores are struggling, it's impressive that his shop is surviving on a base of volunteers. Thrillhouse "seemed like it would be a lot harder than it was," he says, "which is what gives me faith in this all-ages club."
Jocelyn Kane, deputy director for San Francisco's Entertainment Commission, says she's supportive of Thrillhouse's desire to go legit with a performance space; she spoke at its last meeting. But she adds that in her 20 years in San Francisco, there has yet to be a dedicated, lasting all-ages venue here, although she talks to at least one group a year interested in putting one together. The biggest problem, she says, is the lack of a sustainable business model. All-ages venues, by their very nature, can't rely on the revenue stream alcohol brings to bars, cutting off a hugely valuable cash flow. "As an economic model, it's a very difficult sell," she says.