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Will Corporations Ruin Live Music in the Bay Area?

Promoters say that corporate saturation in San Francisco concerts means costlier tickets, boring music, and shutters for independent venues. What does it mean for the East Bay?



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In his brief time at Slim’s and Great American Music Hall, Anthony Bedard booked several all-local bills that reflected his deep knowledge of the Bay Area music scene. - PHOTO BY LANCE YAMAMOTO
  • Photo by Lance Yamamoto
  • In his brief time at Slim’s and Great American Music Hall, Anthony Bedard booked several all-local bills that reflected his deep knowledge of the Bay Area music scene.

The UC Theatre
launched with the explicit intention, according to Smith, of showing that San Francisco and the East Bay are separate markets for prominent touring outfits. He describes the venue — which opened in 2016 after more than $6 million in renovations, under the umbrella of The Berkeley Music Group, a nonprofit founded by longtime Bill Graham Presents officer David Mayeri — as the counterpart to the Fillmore, which also has a capacity of 1,400.

"Managers and artists want to see them as two plays because the Bay is beautiful, you only go seven miles across a bridge, and you probably keep the same hotel room," he said. "But the corporate buyers don't like it. They don't approve."

As Smith sees it, the East Bay's position is similar to San Francisco before the corporate saturation. He pointed to small rooms such as The Golden Bull and Elbo Room Jack London (formerly the Night Light) as the ground floor of local scenes, with the larger-capacity Starline Social Club and New Parish available to bands rising in popularity. New venues, such as the 500-capacity Cornerstone in Berkeley, are opening. G-Eazy, the breakout East Bay rapper, recently recognized the New Parish for hosting him early on — from the stage of a sold-out show at the Fox Theater.

Smith argued that the East Bay's music ecosystem not only rivals San Francisco, it makes San Francisco look "irrelevant."

He even quipped, "Well, I don't think there are local acts in SF anymore."

Smith, formerly a talent-buyer for Parish Entertainment Group, said he loses 85 to 90 percent of the touring acts he bids on to San Francisco. Radius clauses, long a prickly subject in the local music industry, sometimes prohibit touring artists from playing both sides of the bay. But, he noted, bands have also recently sold-out back-to-back shows at The Fillmore and The UC Theatre. Although corporate buyers in San Francisco are currently willing to outbid independents in the East Bay to such an extent that they undercut their profits, Smith reckons that it won't last, if only because there are more people in the East Bay, with fewer and fewer reasons to cross the bridge. "They can't lose money forever," he said, adding that, "We're good — we've already found our market."

Kevin Arnold, founder of prominent independent booking group Noise Pop, which has close ties to Another Planet, said San Francisco's corporate saturation is part of a national trend. "You can't really deny that it does typically result in costlier tickets (especially fees) and (subjectively) less exciting bills overall," he wrote in email to the Express. But Arnold, like Smith, cited the relative independence of East Bay venues optimistically. He likened it to how, in the record industry, indie labels vie against major labels: "There are always avenues for a small and nimble indie to outmaneuver a big player if you look hard enough for the gaps and opportunities in the market."

To critics, though, Great American Music Hall and Slim's partnership with Goldenvoice looks like capitulation, not a savvy maneuver. Jason Perkins, managing partner of the Parish Entertainment Group, which runs The New Parish and the Brick & Mortar Music Hall, noted that Goldenvoice assumes little risk by contracting to book Slim's and Great American Music Hall — certainly not the risk incurred by buying or developing a new venue. According to Bedard, the agreement expires in a year. (Bell, of Goldenvoice, declined to comment on the deal's details.) If for some reason it flops, or is rendered obsolete by another acquisition, Goldenvoice walks away relatively unscathed, but the venues are set back dramatically. "One of them is getting a great deal here," Perkins said.

Holliday recently announced her departure from Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, the free, multiday festival that's drawn hundreds of thousands of people each year to Golden Gate Park since it was founded by venture capitalist Warren Hellman in 2001. She referred cryptically to soon-to-be-revealed projects. Though she hasn't operated much in the East Bay, she echoed Smith's insistence that it's a separate market from San Francisco.

"It's not good to have three major promoters buying talent in one region," she said. "It's time for an independent to make a difference again. If I felt competitive, I'd do it myself."

After Holliday accepted Bedard's offer to help her book Hardly Strictly Bluegrass back on New Year's Eve in 2011, the Hemlock booker proposed more than 20 local bands to her. He burned CDs for each one, packaging them in biographical information. Among her selections were Conspiracy of Beards, the a capella Leonard Cohen covers choir, and, more surprisingly, the experimental guitarist Bill Orcutt, who's known for his lashing improvisations. Orcutt happened to also be playing at The Hemlock the night Bedard and I spoke, a sold-out weeknight gig. And when the big red arrow on the wall flashed, signaling the start of his set, Bedard rose from his barstool and walked inside to watch.


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