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Scene Change: How to Help the S.F. Music Scene 

Wednesday, Apr 9 2014
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A few weeks ago, we ran a cover story asking whether the music scene in San Francisco is doomed ­— whether high housing costs and the resulting exodus of musicians were drying up what has long been a famously vibrant scene. We got all sorts of answers, from "yes" and "no" to a whole lot of "maybe." We also heard about many efforts to improve the situation for music in San Francisco ­— as well as ideas for even more action. Together with local music nonprofit the Root, SF Weekly held a panel discussion at the Chapel last week to talk about the situation. Here, after much discussion, is a partial, incomplete guide to current efforts to help music flourish in S.F., as well as suggestions on what else could be done, given varying levels of resources and political momentum. San Francisco may not be what it once was, but there are plenty of efforts to keep its music culture lively. These are a few of them.

What is being done

Tech companies putting on local shows

A good example here is GitHub, a SOMA firm that built a serious performance space in the ground floor of its headquarters. This year the company experimented with an event in which it hired local acts to play while employees (and others invited from the community) work and/or socialize. The gathering started at 3 p.m. and ran 'til 9 p.m., and included food and drinks — plus people actually working. The lineup featured local psych duo Painted Palms and producer-DJ Avalon Emerson, among others, and GitHub paid them the same or more than they would earn playing in a small club. "At first, you're like, this is fucking weird," says local studio owner Patrick Brown, who helped GitHub arrange the event. "Are [people] not into this? Are they just staying on their laptops because they hate this? But then the band would stop playing and everyone would applaud." A follow-up is planned for this month.

Getting live music in more places

In 2011, the city created a new live-performance permit designed to allow cafes and restaurants to legally host live music with a minimum of cost and hassle. Only 34 businesses have acquired them so far, but one group is trying to change that. This week, the S.F. music nonprofit ULUV, run by studio engineer Michael Starita, will be leading an effort to inform businesses on Valencia Street about the permits and encourage them to host music in their businesses. Starita, who grew up in Louisiana, doesn't see why S.F. can't have live music all over its urban core the way New Orleans does. So ULUV will even offer turnkey solutions ­— booking artists and paying them, as well as setting up sound systems ­— for businesses that want them. "Creating more opportunities [for musicians] is the way to go, instead of trying to change these economics," Starita says. "I just really want to make sure that we sustain our culture here and that it's not just washed out."

Hotel tax revenue for arts nonprofits

San Francisco charges a 14 percent tax on hotel and motel rooms, and some of that money goes to arts nonprofits. In order to get a grant, the nonprofit has to be in S.F. and must have an annual budget of at least $35,000. Right now, most of the money for music goes to organizations like the SF Symphony (which got $626,100 for 2013-2014) and the SF Opera (which received $653,500), and to a host of smaller organizations that mainly present classical or world music. Venues like Red Poppy Art House and Stern Grove also received grants last year. But any S.F. arts nonprofit that meets the conditions can apply. Public workshops on the application process begin in September, and the deadline for submitting is mid-November.

What could be done

Creating a Nightlife District

The idea of setting aside part of the city for music venues has been around at least since the '90s. The area around 11th Street and Folsom was the initial suggestion; lately, some have pitched setting aside a corridor in the central Mission, or even farther east, near the warehouses along South Van Ness and Folsom, for this kind of development.

Why it would help: Clubs would have a place to locate without having to pay for expensive soundproofing, and could operate without fear of neighbors' noise complaints. Music fans would have a neighborhood to bounce from one venue to another.

Why it might not work: Much of the city, including the area around 11th Street, is already zoned for housing ­— so people either already live there, or will eventually live there. And as we've seen over and over again, neighbors generally don't like loud clubs.

Residencies for local musicians and artists

Some companies and organizations already have programs that give artists temporary support and publicity in exchange for doing something for the organization ­— performing for employees, educating customers, etc. Why don't more San Francisco companies do this for music? They could give musicians a solid stipend, get their name and work out there, and in exchange, have the artists play a show at lunchtime or happy hour.

Why it would help: Artists would get financial assistance and publicity. Even a few thousand dollars would help them pay S.F. rent. Meanwhile, local companies would get another perk for employees, with the side effect of cultivating their interest in the local music and arts scene.

Why it might not work: Companies may resist spending the money. In this tense climate, it's also conceivable that some musicians might resist being associated with tech companies ­— but money and support would probably help them get over that.

A dedicated housing and rehearsal space for musicians

What if there was a place where musicians could gather, relax, and rehearse ­— and where some could even live at subsidized rates? This idea has been circulating at least since the closure of Downtown Rehearsal in 2000, which delivered a catastrophic blow to the ecosystem of bands in the city. Building such a place is the ultimate goal of the Root, a Bay Area nonprofit dedicated to supporting local music. The Root's plans are still in the formative stages, and there's no guarantee that an eventual facility would be in S.F. rather than the East Bay. But it is working toward this goal. The Root plans to hold a music-themed walk and run in Golden Gate Park this fall to help raise money for its efforts, and it hosts smaller events almost every month.

Why it would help: Such a place could be a safe haven for musical gatherings in the pricey, noise-sensitive city, and would ensure that at least some working musicians still live in S.F.

Why it might not work: The Root started with some seed money, but much more will have to be raised before it could acquire a building. And even if the Root does manage to create such a facility, it may end up being across the bay.

About The Author

Ian S. Port

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