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Traveling Bands Do Not Cross

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

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Under the Yoshi's system, a performer of the stature of Chris Botti or McCoy Tyner, who would have done a full five nights at the Jack London Square club, in the old days, might now do two nights in Oakland, followed by three nights in San Francisco. The whole strategy hinged on the somewhat heretical idea that Oakland and San Francisco could actually be treated as two distinct markets — that tourists in the Fillmore wouldn't necessarily cross the bridge to catch a show in Oakland, nor would their counterparts in Oakland, Richmond, Berkeley, or Alameda have much interest in making a trek the other way. When the club first announced its plans, audiences, skeptics, and music industry gadflies immediately cried foul.

In spite of all the distrust, Yoshi's seemed to have a viable business model — sort of. Former Yoshi's SF Artistic Director Jason Olaine, who now works for Jazz at Lincoln Center, said that he had to treat the double-booking methodology as an ongoing experiment. "It's been tinkered with over time," he said. "One week in San Francisco followed by another week in Oakland isn't gonna work for a jazz artist, unless it's Wynton [Marsalis], Diana Krall, Botti, or Herbie Hancock — a pop jazz artist who can pull those kinds of numbers." He continued: "The last big run we did was P-Funk, and that would have worked, except we did one show too many. So we overshot a little."

He added that over time, he narrowed the double-booking to two nights per venue, and often tried to bill them as different experiences: Maybe he'd have Japanese pianist Hiromi play with an acoustic trio in Oakland and an electric band in San Francisco, for example. As Yoshi's kept refining the format, it became a good way to optimize revenue.

Other clubs followed suit. The New Parish, which opened in 2010, makes a point of sharing lineups with its sister venue, Brick & Mortar Music Hall, which launched the following year in San Francisco's Mission District. Live Nation and Another Planet have tried this practice, too, albeit sparingly. The current calendar for Another Planet shows that Wilco will play a show at the Fox Theater in Oakland on January 31 and a show at Davis' Mondavi Center the following night. Then there's Paul Simon, who can pretty much sell out any stage he chooses, and therefore has a lot of latitude when signing contracts; when he toured the Bay Area last spring, he played at the Fillmore, The Fox, and Davies Symphony Hall.

But O'Connor has found that in several years of hammering home the argument against radius clauses, he's been one of the few voices of dissent. According to Gallagher, the vast majority of clubs — "even little punk-rock hole-in-the-wall venues" — in San Francisco still employ radius-clause language in their contracts. Even the clubs that double-book usually still hew to the old contract language, be it a rule of ninety days, ninety miles for an A-list act (i.e., when there's a lot of money on the line), sixty days, sixty miles for someone slightly lesser-known, or thirty days, thirty miles, etc. The terms can be made flexible if the artist agrees to play for less money, thereby minimizing risk to the venue operator. But the anti-competitive sentiment remains, and, in O'Connor and Gallagher's estimation, it now has less justification.

Yet even Yoshi's hasn't abandoned radius clauses. It will book artists in both Oakland and San Francisco, so long as the performers agree not to play at another local jazz venue for ninety days.

At its core, the entire argument about radius clauses hinges on whether San Francisco and Oakland are, in fact, separate markets — an argument which is far from resolved among industry heads.

Proponents of radius clauses argue that despite all the development in Oakland in recent years, it's still tough to play within the ninety-mile radius without oversaturating your market. According to Scott of Another Planet, the prevailing rule of thumb is the more popular an act is, the more likely people will be willing to travel to see it. In other words, people are much more apt to hop on BART or cross the Bay Bridge for Lady Gaga than they are for an obscure indie band.

Rick Mueller, who books The Warfield, The Regency Ballroom, and, on occasion, the Oracle Arena for local music presenter Goldenvoice, said the rules are sometimes murky — a global headliner like Madonna or U2 would only hit one Bay Area venue, whereas someone with slightly less draw, like Paul Simon, could either choose to do one large venue (like the Greek) or divide his audience between three rooms, if he wants to provide his fans with a few different settings.

But it's a risk either way, radius-clause advocates say: Scott's general belief is that if an artist splits a run between the East Bay and San Francisco, he or she can expect about a 20-percent increase in sales. "So say an artist can expect to sell five hundred tickets on one play in a market," he explained. "If they play in Oakland and San Francisco, maybe we can get a 20-percent delta, or six hundred tickets. So they might do four hundred seats in San Francisco and two hundred in the East Bay." So while you can pick up a limited number of audience members by playing in their neighborhoods, no act can double its fanbase just by moving across the bay, he said. In other words, you simply can't create consumers out of thin air. "It's all supply and demand," Scott said.


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