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Traveling Bands Do Not Cross

How music industry rules are blocking artists from playing in Oakland.

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Though the specifics vary, at their core, radius clauses are designed to prohibit artists from two-timing — that is, playing multiple stages within the same market in a certain period of time. Traditionally, the industry standard has been "ninety days, ninety miles" — that is, acts are barred from playing within a ninety-mile radius for three months before or after a show. That's what many big music presenters still use, though Another Planet employs a sixty-days-sixty-miles standard, and the contract language at Slim's and Great American Music Hall eschews mileage specifics altogether and simply bans double-booking within "the Bay Area," including some, but not all, parts of northern Marin County. Essentially, though, Oakland, San Francisco, Marin, and San Jose have long been treated as a monolith, as though the entire Bay Area were one single market for music.

For Oakland, which is just beginning to establish itself as a place with a vibrant downtown, this means venue owners have a much harder time convincing booking agents to choose their clubs over the ones in San Francisco. New Parish owner Michael O'Connor, who opposes radius clauses as a rule, said he constantly has to prevail upon band managers and agents to do just that. "I'm having to articulate all the time ... that there are a million people in the East Bay, [and] that's enough of a market to call that a different market." He spoke gravely. "If this concept isn't embraced, then New Parish can't succeed."

Gallagher cited the example of a French band he scheduled to play Vitus this spring: "If they're weighing it from abroad, they're gonna want to play in the City. They're from France; they want to see San Francisco. So I know I'm gonna have to lock them in now because when [San Francisco bookers] find out they're gonna play an Oakland show, they're going to give the band lip about [radius clauses]."

But big clubs and show presenters — the ones who benefit the most from radius clauses — argue that they're less about predation than pragmatism. To that end, they're usually negotiable, explained Jodi Goodman, Northern California president of Live Nation, a large booking agency. "The fact of the matter is: Artists, agents and managers understand a market pretty well, and know where the sensitivities are, and what discussions to have if they themselves have an agenda that is counter to a radius clause," Goodman explained in a recent email. She added that a booker might reconsider those rules in the case of an artist who is big enough to sell out several venues in the same area without oversaturating his market. Take, for example, Paul Simon or Wilco, who both toured the Bay Area in recent years, performing in San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose.

There also isn't a monolithic bloc of Oakland club owners opposed to radius clauses. As Larry Trujillo, who books and co-owns The Uptown in Oakland, explained it, it's in everyone's best interest to keep supply and demand apace. "Basically, it all comes down to the size of the act, and to the relationships you have with the acts and other clubs," he explained. "If you're getting somebody big and putting down a big guarantee" — that is, paying them a lot — "you definitely don't want them playing in SF three days later, and vice-versa."

If a traveling act is planning to play a similarly sized venue in San Francisco, Trujillo said he knows it's best to wait for the band's next tour, both out of respect for his colleagues and concern for his bottom line. "That's how all the clubs survive," he said. "I've been doing this for 25 years, and after a while you get to know [other bookers]. We're not out to screw each other." In other words, such clauses can be a way of sharing risk.

However, the Uptown, a smaller venue, doesn't compete as often with San Francisco clubs for well-known acts as do venues like The New Parish. That club's owner, O'Connor, said that even when he's not sidelined by radius clauses, he's often left hanging until the last minute, waiting to see if a San Francisco show (or spate of shows) sells out before he books the band at The New Parish. Such was the case with the Portland electronic band Starfucker, which recently played The New Parish, Great American Music Hall, and The Independent. "I had to be the little bitch and wait," he said. "It's a dope show, they're a hot band, and it looks good on my calendar, but it's not gonna fucking crush."

Dana Smith, who booked Starfucker at Great American, corroborated O'Connor's story, saying that it was only after the San Francisco shows sold out that an Oakland date was added.


Given all this, East Bay venues have few avenues to try to play the system in their favor. Yoshi's was actually one of the first Bay Area venues to buck the trend, declaring boldly, when it opened its San Francisco location in 2008, that it would contract certain artists to "split a run" at the two clubs. In other words, possibly the best — and only current — way for Oakland club owners to get around restrictive radius clauses is to open a San Francisco venue, too. That way, traveling bands get to play in the bigger city, while still having a chance to reach audiences in the East Bay.

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