Many American cities are known for their music scene. Nashville is the home of country; Atlanta’s the birthplace of trap; Memphis represents the heart of the blues.
San Francisco’s music scene, however, stands out for it’s diversity. Crowds have flocked to San Francisco for everyone from The Grateful Dead, to The Dead Kennedys, to E-40 over the years. In this city, every venue fills a crucial niche in a broad mosaic of musical styles. Within weeks of the pandemic, however, many of those vital community spaces closed their doors for good. The ones who remain are struggling to stay afloat in an environment where dancing, shmoozing, and boozing are off limits for the foreseeable future.
On Feb. 9, San Francisco supervisors moved to save those venues by voting unanimously to create a Music and Entertainment Venue Recovery Fund. Matt Haney first proposed the legislation in December of last year.
To qualify, venues must meet two of five criteria: (1) be in imminent danger of closing, (2) have a capacity smaller than 1,000 guests, (3) be an official legacy business, (4) be at least 15 years old, or (5) be important to a designated cultural district. By setting these qualifications, the legislation is intended to help the music venues in greatest need.
“What this pandemic has done to our economy and our way of life has been nothing short of a nightmare, and for our city’s venues, there has been no reprieve,” Haney said in a press release. “They were the first to close and will likely be among the last to reopen.”
Many San Francisco venues were already set to receive some of the $15 billion Save Our Stages federal stimulus, a segment of the initial $900 billion coronavirus relief bill. Others will receive some portion of $1.5 million allocated to nightlife through the mayor’s office as part of the San Francisco Relief Grant Program. But existing relief has not been nearly enough for many local venues that either didn’t qualify or are still waiting to receive that aid. In an interview with Datebook, Matt Haney said he wanted to make sure the city’s most historic venues have extra support so they “don’t get left out.”
Some local entertainers, however, aren’t relieved just yet. Many of the city’s most inclusive spaces for BIPOC and queer folks have closed with little attention from city government, as documented by groups like the Bay Area Queer Nightlife Coalition. In July they conducted a survey to see which venues locals considered the most safe and inclusive, and many of the spaces celebrated by city supervisors received some of the lowest rankings. The Eagle, for example — which nearly has historic landmark status — received an overall 1.9/5 for inclusivity, with only 19 percent of Black respondents saying they felt welcome in the space. (The Stud, on the other hand, which tops both lists for inclusivity and safety, closed within weeks of Shelter in Place orders).
“The problem with historicity is that history favors the elite who have had access for the longest period of time, and have had the resources to maintain power and control,” says Coalition member, drag queen, and musician Freddie Seipoldt. “I’m hoping they take into account data like the queer nightlife survey and give priority to spaces that have been meaningful to marginalized groups.”
Whether the relief can truly get to the hands of the neediest and most culturally vital spaces is yet to be seen. But for many of San Francisco’s famous music halls, hope may be on the horizon.