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Letters for the Week of June 29

Readers sound off on jazz, unions, and M.C. Hammer.

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"Jazz Musicians Sing the Blues," Music, 6/15

Other Musicians Are Struggling, Too

I am happy to hear that the jazz community is fighting for a living wage for their profession. There are many musicians who don't play jazz but are still professional players, and most of us don't even get a guaranteed wage. I would like to see this movement expanded upon to encompass the entire city — or Bay Area for that matter.

Bob Sanders, San Francisco

Jazz Is Dead

A lot of contradictions, but everyone has some good points.

It seems the most fair thing would be if the customers actually pay for the music. This could be done with an admission charge, or a cover charge added to their bill, or a minimum. The musicians could get the door or cover and the owner gets the sales of food and drink. (The tip jar is actually a small step in that direction, in that that money is paid by the people who really like the music! But it's limited by being strictly voluntary.)

Charging for the music seems like a win-win. Why is no club doing it? Because it probably doesn't work. I assume the experience has been that charging such music fees keeps too many customers away. All the clubs need to do it. If just one club offered a no cover/no minimum free admission, that club could probably gain customers at the expense of the others. You know jazz is not this country's favorite music anymore. There's a pretty limited audience and an even smaller one willing to pay admission fees to get into bars and restaurants.

Same thing with a musicians boycott. Unless they all do it, like in the days of powerful musician (and other) unions, the ones who boycott will be replaced by those who don't boycott.

So, jazz in clubs really doesn't have much of a future, other than the state it is in now. Dixieland jazz used to be a paying profession for musicians, and now it is only played for fun by hobbyists. Things come and go. Jazz festivals, cruise lines, recordings, and teaching seem to be where it's at for pro jazz musicians these days. It would be nice if it were otherwise, but that also applies to many even bigger issues in our current life, like affordable rents and low pollution. Good luck and best wishes to all who love to play and listen to jazz.

Steve Newman, Santa Cruz

Boycott Disco!

Be careful they don't all go back to disco — it nearly killed off live music in the late-Seventies and early-Eighties. Urge your friends not to pay a cover at clubs that have canned music — if the public demands quality live music, the bar owners will have to cave in. Boycott disco!

Marcia D'Orazi, San Francisco

Let's Work Together

One thing I want to make clear is that we are not trying to wage a war against venue owners. It is simply a matter of working together to find a fair wage that won't break the clubs but also won't exploit the musicians. Right now it is skewed to benefit the venue owners at the expense of the musicians. They don't realize the time that musicians put in outside of the actual "gig," so therefore they don't consider any of that in the pay. Bottom line is that they depend on us as much as we depend on them, so it only makes sense to sit at the table with us to discuss this further and try negotiating a wage that works for everyone.

Caroline Chung, San Francisco

Get Involved

This conversation has been happening continuously since 1978, when a change in labor law freed venues from having to pay musicians anything.

Since then, musicians have been undercutting each other in a race to the bottom, and now most musicians in the whole United States have the choice of performing for nothing or next to nothing, with no guarantee, or not performing at all.

Musicians are more likely to be valued for the free advertising they perform on their own time and at their own expense than they are their music. Not only are they the cheapest advertising a club owner could hope for, they are given no guarantee, and are often expected to bring the club the majority of its customers.

Of course, it varies from club to club, and some do treat their musicians respectfully, honoring the fact that they are professionals providing a service, one that requires roughly five hours of unseen preparation for each hour on stage.

For the most part, however, most clubs, being businesses, grab whatever financial advantage they can, and the public is none the wiser.

It's been over thirty years. How much longer are we going to sit around complaining about it? Musicians have fought larger battles together, and if we spent even a fraction of the time working for positive change in our music scenes relative to the time we spend complaining about them, real change would become a real possibility. So, get involved. This won't happen without you.

Fair Trade Music is about educating the public regarding the rampant inequity surrounding musicians performing in clubs, and giving them a better alternative. It's also about helping musicians understand that despite what venue owners and high school counselors may tell them, what they do is a service that has real value, not just a narcissistic hobby.

Fair Trade Music is by musicians and for all musicians, regardless of union membership.

Jake Pegg, Portland

Coordinator, Fair Trade Music PDX (FairTradeMusicPDX.org)

Set Your Own Standards

Many thanks to Rachel Swan for writing this story. I had no idea the pay for jazz musicians was so low, and I'm a singer-songwriter who's used to being asked to play for tips by cafe owners who want live music to draw business.

Here's the bottom line, in my opinion: If accomplished musicians refuse to work for free, or nearly free, they'll no longer be exploited. They'll play fewer gigs, and get less exposure, but when they do play, they won't feel cheated.

It's a personal decision each of us must make.

Steve Taylor-Ramírez, Berkeley

It's All in the Name

If this was just about random clubs, the point about thinking of art instead of wages would be more convincing, but the fact that the Fillmore Jazz District came about through considerable public expense and with a clear cultural as well as economic purpose (which the clubs which benefited from that investment presumably signed on for) does, it seems to me, imply that the musicians who create the jazz in question should be fairly treated. Unless, of course, it was never really about anything other than the prestige the word "jazz" brings.

Ian Carey, Oakland


"It All Comes Down to the Unions," News, 6/15

Talk Is Cheap

1. Why does Mayor Quan ask everyone to sacrifice except the operators of social programs, who get millions of dollars in grants every year?

2. For about a year the police union has stated it will move on pension contributions if the city will guarantee staffing levels. That's what residents need, too, more police. Cheap talk about how lower salaries would allow for more police means nothing without solid guarantees that we will indeed have more officers.

Charles Pine, Oakland

Selfish

What else is new? Every state, county, and city worker is grossly overpaid in salary and benefits based on current revenue. They all want to live on the long-gone real estate boom tax revenue. And what do they do? They bury their collective heads in the sand and collect their overpaid salaries while parks go to hell, citizens are exposed to more crime, and schools cut services to students and raise tuition all so the greedy worker can live on their fantasy contracts. Selfish!

Don Sandri, Hayward

Cut the Mayor and Council's Budgets

First, the tax ballot measure is only to support hiring more police officers, why would citizens vote for paying for more police? Where is that helping the deficit? Second, since 2002 the civil service employees have already given over 8 percent into their retirement and a 5 percent decrease in pay with the twelve shutdown days and (COLA) salary freezes. As of 2011 they want to take an additional 5 percent for retirement, a 5 percent pay cut, and additional shutdown days. People are already losing their homes and now they really think that people can survive with additional pay cuts?. We are talking about employees that live in Oakland. Truth is, most police don't live in Oakland, don't pay taxes in Oakland, and don't care about what's going on here — they come and get a paycheck and spend it where they live. The non-sworn employees in Oakland are so far behind in salary compared to others cities; we are talking about people who work 37.5 hours per week, not forty hours — with the imposed shutdown days and the extra pay for retirement taken out, they are making less than they made back in 2002. The port kept their COLAs, police and fire kept their increases, even city councilmembers received increases. Where is the "fair share?" The mayor and the city council members should do their part and go back to being part-time, since they all have other income streams, get rid of some of their staff, and perks, etc. Then we should talk "fair share."

Patrice Cotton, Oakland


"Shared Sacrifice," Seven Days, 6/15A New Low

The hypocrisy of politicians has reached a new low. Stick it to the poor and close parks rather than irritate a union. Pass a DOA budget you obviously never spoke to the governor about, then claim you are obeying the will of the taxpayers to pass a budget on time — which just happens to coincide with the June 15 deadline for losing your paycheck.

What's frightening is that these folks are too dumb to figure out that the unions are stuck voting for Democrats, so they could do the right thing and get some respect from the voters. That's what I thought Brown was going to do when I voted for him. My mistake. I have decided there is basically no downside left to a California state bankruptcy. We need to have a serious discussion about that. These guys could only spend what they take in, which is plenty, and we would eventually have far more revenue, since we would pay no interest. I figure I would lose about $1,000 per year in services I pay about $12,000 for. I'm an independent, but in California elections, I will be voting Republican for years, much as I hate the thought.

James Moore, Tujunga, California

Everyone's Making Sacrifices

I was quite disturbed by Robert Gammon's article in which he seems to be treating public workers like the Commies of the Fifties. While the public workers are not the cause of the state's financial woes, Gammon and others continue to blame them. So, he argues, it is unreasonable for elected officials to ask taxpayers who are suffering through this recession and who "bear little to no responsibility for the state's financial woes" to pay more in taxes to support these profligate workers. He forgets that public employees are also such citizens. They, too, are sacrificing, though neither are they the cause of the state's financial woes — that honor belongs to the real estate market and the national recession. State (and local) employees have faced salary freezes and furloughs when they have not lost their jobs to "cutbacks." They, too, are reeling. They, too, have watched their homes lose value. They, too, are having trouble making mortgage payments because of their reductions in salary. Maybe not some, such as the prison guards and police (who are resisting cutbacks), but these are not the vast number of public employees and should not be used as a "stand-in" for all those who have, in fact, renegotiated contracts and accepted reduced pay and pension benefits. They, too, are among the middle- and lower-income families who are suffering, not those who are the cause of the economic collapse.

Rachel Kahn-Hut, Oakland

Do Your Research

Robert Gammon's comments on state worker wages and pensions were totally bogus. I'm a state environmental scientist, and my wage and pension reality is nothing like what he stated in his Seven Days column. I make 25 percent less than my federal government counterparts, and half of what I would make in the private sector. I haven't had a raise or COLA since 2007, and won't get a raise until 2013. That raise will only be 3 percent, so I won't even keep up with inflation over the life of the contract. In fact, adjusted for inflation, I'm making 30 percent less than I did in 2000. My pension contribution increased to 8 percent of my paycheck in May — a 60 percent increase. I got stuck with a 15 percent paycut for two and a half years, and will have a 5 percent paycut until next April. Where's the sweetheart deal he's talking about? I'm not getting it! The column totally ignored both the large concessions we made in our last contract, and the times in the Nineties when we paid into our pensions while the state paid nothing. The next time Robert Gammon writes about state workers, he needs to vastly improve his fact-checking instead of simply taking a page out of the Republican playbook and dumping on us for no reason.

John Budroe, San Pablo

Now It's UC's Turn

UC President Yudof needs to support Governor Brown with wage concessions. Californians suffer from the greatest deficit of modern times. UC wages must reflect California's ability to pay, not what others are paid. Campus chancellors, tenured and non-tenured faculty, UCOP are replaceable by more talented academics. UC faculty, chancellor, vice chancellor, UCOP wage concessions:

• No furloughs.

• 18 percent reduction in UCOP salaries and $50 million cut.

• 18 percent prune of salaries for campus chancellors and vice chancellors.

• 15 percent trim of tenured faculty salaries, increased teaching load.

• 10 percent decrease in non-tenured faculty salaries, and increase research, teaching load.

• 100 percent elimination of all Academic Senate, Academic Council costs, wages.

Overly optimistic predictions of future revenues do not solve the deficit. However, rose bushes bloom after pruning.

Milan Moravec, Walnut Creek


"Hodo's Tofu R&D for Bakesale Betty," What the Fork, 6/15

Veganize It!

Betty's business is, obviously, flesh-based so it is good to see that Hodo was able to convince her to offer a vegetarian alternative. That said, I find her unwillingness to imagine a sandwich free of animal ingredients (she suggests it would take two years to replace buttermilk with a plant-based alternative and for finding a different bread roll) a bit strange. There are hundreds of talented chefs and cooks in the Bay Area who could help her do this in about two minutes!

Vegan food in Oakland is booming; chicken is no longer a growth industry in a world waking up to the environmental and personal health toll of meat animal production. Veganize it, Betty!

Justin Eichenalub, Oakland

Vegan's a Moneymaker

If they paid more attention to the market, they might not be so lazy about the dairy ingredients which would be very easy to eliminate. The underlying fact around here is that "vegetarian" restaurants usually fail quickly in Berkeley, but vegan restaurants are usually successful in recent years. Why? New vegetarians who try new products often go vegan within a short time. Plus, if not strictly vegan, there is an underlying fear that the food may secretly contain hidden animal products not listed.

Until they make it vegan, I will be happy to try the savory tofu from Hodo without the sandwich.

Sennet Williams, Oakland


"A Tale of Two Cities," Last Call, 6/8

Slow Service

I loved Disco Volante's food and drinks, but service was uber slow. I'm talking painful, oh-yeah-you-wanted-a-drink, fifteen-minute vodka tonics slow. Also, I think it'd be a bit of a stretch to call the menu extensive with four entrées and a smattering of daily specials. Nonetheless, the food was fantastic and the tequila old-fashioned will burn your lips in a delicious way ... just be prepared for a long, long wait at your table. I really wanted to love it. I really did.

Kristen Haney, Walnut Creek


"Beautifying Albany Beach," 6/8

Let It Be

I like the wild feel of the park as it is. I am worried that it will, ironically, become a less inviting place once the "makeover" is finished. It is a quirky, quiet, peaceful place. I like the art and the ambiance. Change may be inevitable but it doesn't always mean for the better.

Sarina Seaton, San Francisco


"Yelp and the Business of Extortion 2.0," 2/18/09

Yelp's a Mystery By Nature

It is the nature of an industry that has a secret and complicated algorithm to leave many questions unanswered on how it works. Since this algorithm changes often, and since each search partly depends on human interaction, it is easy to assume that fraud is at play. The best thing to do if you are a business owner is to follow the best practices guidelines of Yelp's marketing department in order to make sure you are doing the best possible thing when faced with negative reviews.

Marco Castillo, San Diego


Miscellaneous Letters

Stop! Hammer Time!

On a recent, long-overdue return visit to Oakland and Berkeley, I enjoyed reading the Express. During the 1960s, I had attended Oakland City College (now relocated from its original location on Martin Luther King Jr. Way and renamed Merritt College).

Just as Oakland has its Jack London Square named after the popular writer, it occurred to me that it would be nice to have one of your streets or parks named for another accomplished artistic son "from the Oak Town." How about honoring MC Hammer with a street or a park? Perhaps Lake Merritt could be renamed "Lake Hammer." All over this country, there are streets, avenues and boulevards named for Dr. King. Oakland could score another first with an "MC Hammer Avenue."

Laurence Wiig, Hillsboro, Oregon

Defending Social Security

In the World of GOP newspeak, Social Security and Medicare are called entitlements. The Republican noise machine would like you to believe they are welfare programs doled out to us undeserving, ungrateful peasants by the largesse of the Mama State.

Check your annual Social Security statement to see who is really paying the bills. After paying into the system for 40 years it amounts to a six-figure number you have paid. How do Republicans and the Tea Party get welfare out of this?

The hefty amounts we pay in are obligations and the $1,000 a month we receive back from Social Security is definitely not welfare.

The Republican Party is using the bait-and-switch trick to cover up the money they've squandered on senseless wars, tax breaks for the wealthy, and the corporate welfare they so eagerly promote.

The GOP's off-the-wall comments hold no validity and are only an affront to the millions of American workers who pay for every cent of Social Security and Medicare they receive.

Ron Lowe, Nevada City

Don't Blame the Venue Owners

As a working and mildly successful jazz musician in Philadelphia, I want to thank you for pointing out what seems to be the current state of music in America. However, I am not sure you covered the full scope of why things are as they are. The article did come off a little against the owners, and while there are many devious, scummy owners out there, I do not think they are a majority. There was mention of the club owners being small businesses and not patrons of the arts. I was not sure what you meant by this. They are in business to make money, not lose it. They are not patrons of the arts. They may be personally, but they should not be considered as such when they are the one owning a business. I think the real problem for the musicians in this article is they never should have named the community the Fillmore Jazz District.

This concept and problem is nothing new to me. It is part of the reason I decided to go back to school to be an English teacher (and as it stands now, yet another poor decision/investment). It is also the reason that I have taken a lot fewer gigs and removed myself from the scene somewhat. I have to agree with many of the club owners. Why would you pay someone to play at your restaurant or club (most often as background music, which can easily, and in my opinion, be much more enjoyable if a Sinatra or Ahmad Jamal CD was playing) if you weren't going to bring anybody into the club to make them any money? It makes no sense to ask the club owner to pay $300-$400 when they are only making $500-$800 on a weeknight, which I believe is truly what they are making. There are many factors that have gone into this decline. First and foremost, the musicians have done themselves in. Most people who do the restaurant gigs are just doing them for money (which is the point), but they look like it. They look unenthused and they do not take the gig seriously. Watch a group playing jazz at a restaurant and see how long it takes them to come up with another song after one is finished. Notice how uninspired their solos are. Notice how intros and outros are poorly planned and even more poorly executed. Heaven help if a less accomplished singer is on it. 

Furthermore, the cities themselves have done themselves in. If I think about asking someone, "Hey, come check out my original jazz project. You can drive down to the city, which will take you a half-hour, possibly fight traffic, have nowhere to park (so you will pull into a lot and pay more money), pay a cover and be expected to eat or drink something. Oh yeah, and the gig starts at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. Then, you can drive home another half-hour and get up at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. to go to your job. Or, better yet, take public transportation and pay a fortune for that and be restricted as to how late you can stay." No one would come, and no one does. Musicians do not even support each other in my hometown of Philly. Not to mention that, the city has removed dozens of free parking spots and made most of the meters go to 10 p.m. or midnight on a weeknight!

And I dare these musicians in the article to go on strike. There will always be someone who will do it for cheaper or for free. Heck, I do most of my gigs for free. In fact, I lose money because I pay the musicians who play with me and I buy drinks. There will always be the hungry college kid who just wants the gig or the experience, or the weekend warrior who just wants a gig, or the rich kid who just wants to play and has mommy and daddy to pay his rent. 

It has always been my contention that musicians (especially jazz or improvised or original) need to give the public and club owners a reason to want to pay them their hard-earned money. I tried to do that with Ellipsis (my band), but we were only mildly (and that is being generous to my ego) successful.

Also, I do not believe we need to be compensated because of all the time we have put into practicing. People make that argument and it is a joke. It is our choice to spend our time as we please. Just because we practiced four hours a day or eight hours a day does not put a value on what we are worth. I believe some people forget the fact that making money as an artist is a relatively new thing. When Mozart or Haydn or Beethoven or Pissarro or Cezanne were creating, they either held jobs, were poor, or in many cases, had jobs for a court, or a wealthy patron. Even Thoreau, Emerson, etc. had other jobs. They were teachers or lecturers. They did not make their money solely on publishing like Fitzgerald (who squandered it all), Salinger, or even JK Rowling have in recent times.

It is a complicated issue, and thanks for bringing it to light. However, I just never want it to come across as the poor, needy musicians who "have it so good" are whining, because believe me, most people think just being a musician means you are getting lots of money, sex, drugs, and living the high life.

Justin Leigh, Philadelphia

Corrections

Our June 22 article "Shiny Buildings, Shady Dealings" misstated the cost of the Performing Arts Center. It was $22.6 million.

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