Music and…: Five Ways to Think About the Crackdown on SF Venues
March 8, 2010
Written by Ben Van Houten
In the midst of enjoying a series of sold-out, locally-headlined shows during last week’s Noise Pop festivities, there was just enough of a gap between bands, drinks and good times for me to have a real downer of a realization: if the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) has its way, many of the great venues hosting Noise Pop shows would be put out of business. Places like Bottom of the Hill, Cafe Du Nord, Slim’s, and the Great American Music Hall. Chances are pretty good that if you’ve been to see a show recently, you’ve been to a venue under attack by the ABC. If you’re under 21, the places being targeted account for most of your concert-going options in the City. And therein lies much of the problem.
As many local media outlets have covered, for well over a year the ABC has been pursuing enforcement actions against local clubs that offer all ages shows. In several of these cases, the ABC alleges that the clubs have failed to meet conditions that are part of their liquor licenses, conditions that were either forced upon the clubs (that no one could have expected them to meet) or that the clubs never agreed to at all. Unbelievably, at the heart of a number of these enforcement actions is the claim that venues should be making as much money from food sales as they do from alcohol sales if they want to hold all ages shows.
January’s Flux Summit, titled What’s Shaking Down SF Music Venues?, was a welcome sign of increased action by local venues to distribute information about the attack they are facing (video from the summit here). With the stakes so high for some of the City’s best clubs, though, it’s a little disheartening that more people aren’t already aware of what’s going on. And yet, it’s not difficult to understand why many aren’t engaged in issues of regulatory enforcement, entertainment business licensing, and disputes over food-to-alcohol sales ratios. On the surface, these problems aren’t particularly accessible, compelling or sexy. The reality, however, is that the crackdown on SF venues isn’t just about local indie music. Instead, it touches on a number of concerns that should matter to a broad swath of San Franciscans.
In that vein, I offer:
Five Ways to Think About the Crackdown on SF Venues.
1. This isn’t just an indie music issue. It’s a performing arts issue.
Few things depress me more than the disconnect between indie music and the rest of the performing arts world, a topic worthy of a separate inquiry altogether. In any event, while I don’t expect fans of opera or classical music to see the venue crackdown as the first step toward an ABC attack on the War Memorial or Davies Hall, supporters of a vibrant performing arts community in San Francisco should be concerned about a coordinated assault on a segment of this community. Even if it’s not one’s particular cup of tea, live pop music is an important piece of our cultural fabric, and a vital art form. For some, it’s the only art form worth experiencing.
Moreover, it would be wrong to call the ABC-targeted venues just pop music spaces, as many of them also regularly host performances well beyond contemporary pop, like the Bluegrass Festival shows at Cafe Du Nord and Slim’s and Allen Toussaint’s concert last week at Great American. This is to say nothing of the many benefits and personally-important private events these venues have held. I went to a wedding at the Great American a month or so ago, a venue picked by the groom because of the many important musical experiences he’d had there.
2. This isn’t just an indie music issue. It’s a youth activities issue.
In the number of news stories written about the ABC’s crackdown, I haven’t seen the ABC offer any semblance of a justification for its attack on local clubs. Where is the statistical evidence that this crackdown is a reasonably targeted solution to a serious public safety issue? One suspects that if there really were even anecdotal examples of underage drinking or alcohol-related deaths connected to local clubs, or any other explanation for this bizarre assault, the ABC would have trotted them out by now, if only to justify their efforts to the state’s taxpayers. Instead, the silence is deafening.
On the flip side, I can identify with the young people who would suffer if the City’s all ages venues were forced to shut down. I was one of them, seeking refuge in all ages matinees at Bottom of the Hill and a perhaps embarrassing number of ska and punk shows at Slim’s. Young people have far too few options for entertainment in this City as it is (note for separate investigation — how do kids survive without Japantown Bowl?). Taking away some of their few options for safe, affordable, artistically-enriching fun is a big, big mistake.
3. This isn’t just an indie music issue. It’s a state interference issue.
The thoroughly arbitrary way that the ABC has pursued action against local music venues is further disconcerting because it’s difficult to see why the ABC would be limited to venue micro-management. Indeed, recent reports have exposed the ABC’s crackdown on the Bay Area’s celebrated mixologists, threatening local bars and restaurants that create their own infusion liquors. The infusion debacle contains all of the hallmarks of the ABC’s pursuit of venues: a heavy-handed approach that serves no clear public interest and that threatens to silence an area of local innovation and creativity.
There’s also no reason why the state agency should be expected to limit its assault to the Bay Area. As far as I can tell, there’s nothing particularly unique about San Francisco’s venues, such that folks in Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento and elsewhere shouldn’t be worried about their local clubs. Indeed, rumblings emerged at the recent Flux Summit that the ABC is beginning to pursue actions against venues in other areas. If this effort isn’t stopped here, club owners around the state could find themselves defending their livelihoods in expensive litigation.
4. This isn’t just an indie music issue. It’s a business issue.
Live music may be hurting like every other industry, but the City ought to be concerned about the potential loss of tax dollars from the decimation of a bunch of long running live music establishments — to say nothing of the many people who would be out of jobs, or the risk that large numbers of musicians might be forced to bypass the Bay Area on their tours. How can the Mayor’s Office continue to ignore this problem, even if only from a dollars-and-cents perspective? Where is the Convention & Visitors Bureau on this?
5. This isn’t just an indie music issue. It’s a Future of San Francisco issue.
At its core, the question of whether we, as a local community, are willing to stand up for local music venues is really a question of what kind of city we want to have in the future. To allow the ABC to continue its quest unimpeded is to issue a death sentence to some of the City’s legendary venues, and with it, to declare that, unlike other world-class cities, San Francisco does not want to be known as a live music-friendly community. It’s also a middle finger to the City’s history of pioneering rock music.
I’d characterize the ABC’s position as a victory for NIMBY interests, but that wouldn’t give enough credit to the many venues that have worked hard to make sure that they are well-integrated into their communities, and respectful of their neighborhoods’ needs. There’s a reason that places like Bottom of the Hill and Du Nord haven’t engendered neighborhood backlash, and it’s not because they don’t have residents near them.
To the extent that the ABC’s enforcement actions are based on conditions that clubs agreed to abide by (even if everyone involved knew full well that they couldn’t be met), I am sympathetic to the idea that the agency is just trying to enforce agreed-upon rules. It would be foolish, though, to divorce these enforcement actions from their obvious consequences. If the clubs can’t survive with the rules enforced, then the rules shouldn’t be enforced and the system should be scrapped.
To that end, since these issues first came to light, and following an administrative court ruling favorable to the Great American Music Hall, there has been increased talk of revamping the liquor licensing system. Revamping the system seems like a sensible idea — the City’s rock clubs shouldn’t be forced to abide by rules intended for restaurants — but, despite expressing an interest in systemic reform, the ABC has appeared unwilling to stop its ongoing enforcement actions in the interim, forcing venue owners to continue to pay legal fees to fight their individual cases.
Additionally, simply promising change doesn’t tell anyone exactly what kind of change will be made. Given the ABC’s current position, seeking to impose and enforce bizarre and arbitrary rules, it’s tough to have confidence that the agency will seek to create a system that’s any more workable or reasonable for venue owners. Change in the right direction will require an informed public holding the state accountable for its actions. It’s not the most exciting stuff, but it’s a battle local music fans can’t afford to lose.
For more information about these issues, I’d encourage you to join the California Music and Culture Association and Stop the War on Fun! on Facebook, and follow the DNA Lounge’s blog as well. We’ll continue to track developments in these issues as well.
“Music and…” is a new monthly column from The Bay Bridged Programming Director Ben Van Houten exploring significant issues impacting music, culture and digital media.