A sound proposition

Pub date December 12, 2006
WriterJosh Wilson
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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There are huge, expensive, city-sponsored monuments to the arts lined up on Van Ness Avenue, opposite City Hall, and I’ve seen some of the best music in the world performed there.
The formidable San Francisco Symphony took a run at Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring at Davies Symphony Hall years back — a feat not dissimilar to juggling chainsaws while riding a unicycle along a plank over a pit of alligators — and pulled it off with both precision and gusto. And more recently, the San Francisco Opera made me, a lifelong doubter of wobbly-voiced wailing, an instant convert. The occasion was a spectacular staging of Billy Budd, Herman Melville’s great tragedy of miscarried justice as hauntingly rendered by Benjamin Britten.
The opera and the symphony — though deriving much of their revenue from foundations, corporate sponsorships, and ticket sales — also enjoy considerable subsidization from government. According to the SF Symphony’s IRS Form 990, it received almost $800,000 in government grants in 2005 alone.
These subsidies are good, but there needs to be a lot more of them — and they need to serve all citizens of San Francisco much more effectively. It could not be said, for example, that a typical Friday night at the SF Opera is either affordable or appealing to a significant portion of the city’s residents.
And it’s certainly not true that there isn’t enough music and art in San Francisco for all its citizens. This place is bursting at the seams with creativity. You could put on a live performance by a local band or DJ crew in Justin Herman Plaza each week for a solid year and not run out of talent.
In fact, that’s not a bad idea! Why not, as a matter of city policy, support the staging of one free, live, outdoor musical performance per week year-round? We can keep it cheap. Once you bring things inside, it gets a bit expensive, stops being DIY, and starts meaning forms, insurance, and union-scale wages — all substantial barriers to entry for your local experimental jazz combo. The space would, in fact, have to be donated — not impossible, but not always likely.
So outdoors it is. Rain or shine. Bring your own PA. Do your own flyering. According to Sandy Lee of the Parks and Recreation Department, the nonprofit rate for using any outdoor musical facility is $500 for as many as 1,000 people. If you want to do one show weekly for a year, that’s $26,000 total. I’ll wager that San Francisco’s major arts funders could easily cover that annual fee through a matching grant program paid directly to Rec and Parks.
That’s a bump on a log in the world of arts funding, and such an arrangement isn’t unprecedented. San Francisco’s Hotel Tax Fund picks up the user fee for the Golden Gate Park Band, which has a regular Sunday gig April through October in the unremodeled band shell in the newly remodeled Music Concourse.
So we’re certain just about everyone will agree that more free live music outdoors would also be pretty much awesome. Now we get to program 52 weeks of free live music in San Francisco. Booking, or perhaps curating is a better term, would be done democratically, ethically, and, of course, pro bono by volunteers called up from the performance and presentation community. Local venue and club bookers, noncommercial and — ulp! — pirate radio DJs, festival programmers, musicologists, and the like. Remember, we have 52 weeks to fill, so there’s room for everyone.
At this point it’s clear that there would be hang-ups to unhang. There would be the danger of favoritism and payola in the booking — underpaid musicians and bookers are often hungry and desperate. There would definitely be aesthetic disagreements. Where, for example, will the punk and metal bands play? The thumping DJ crews? Lee noted that the department is “very sensitive” to NIMBYs opposed to amplified music.
Nevertheless, she said, the city is full of outdoor venues for amplified music, all available for the $500 nonprofit use fee. These include McLaren Park, the Civic Center, Mission Dolores Park, Union Square, Justin Herman Plaza, the Marina Green, and Washington Square. In Golden Gate Park the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival has sprawled magnificently across the Speedway, Marx, and Lindley meadows; both Reggae and Opera in the Park regularly occupy Sharon Meadow; and the band shell, a.k.a. Spreckel’s Temple of Music, is also back in action after being closed for three years during the de Young reconstruction.
“The band shell is open to any group that wants to perform there,” Lee said, and that’s a great place to start.
Get city backing for a pilot program and set up a spring-to-fall season similar to that of the Golden Gate Park Band, whose musicians are volunteers. Shoot for radical diversity in the booking to get a true cross section of the city’s ethnic, cultural, contemporary, and historic musical palette. Schedule performances opportunistically: during lunch hours downtown, at 2 p.m. on a sunny Saturday in the park. Stage local music showcases on weekends or holidays for full afternoons of free music. Pick the lively bands for fog season so folks have a reason to jump around. Switch venues each week to keep the NIMBYs off balance. And remember that commercial radio stations would have to pay the commercial user fee of $5,000 if they want to get in on the game. This will keep things focused on the grassroots.
We must create an expectation for this kind of low-cost local arts subsidy. It’s true that music and culture thrive like weeds in the cracked cement of oppression. But keep in mind that $26,000 for a year of venue-user fees for local music is 3.25 percent of the symphony’s government subsidy. The city can take an unprecedented step in support of genuinely accessible, relevant arts programming. At a time of gutted arts funding around California and the nation, San Francisco could set an example for pragmatic, affordable, nonelitist, human-scale public arts for the entire community.
The only thing stopping us is cultural elitism, NIMBYs, and acres of bureaucracy. Piece o’ cake! SFBG
•Project Soundwave’s experimental, participatory music showcase
•Godwaffle Noise Pancakes at ArtSF and beyond
•Resipiscent Records release party, Hotel Utah, Oct. 20
•Sumatran Folk Cinema and Ghosts of Isan, presented by Sublime Frequencies at Artists’ Television Access, July 14
•William Parker Quartet, Yoshi’s, May 24. Jazz wants to be free!
•Experimental music showcases staged weekly at 21Grand
•Deerhoof! Castro Theatre, April 27
•Gong Family Unconvention, the Melkweg, Amsterdam, Nov. 3–<\d>5, featuring Steve Hillage playing his first rock guitar solo since 1979, Acid Mothers Temple with the Ruins guesting on drum ’n’ bass, and local guitar superstar Josh Pollock invoking the spirit of Sonny Sharrock with Daevid Allen’s University of Errors (a truly explosive combo including ex-local DJ Michael Clare)
•Hawkwind, the same weekend as the Gong Uncon, in nearby Haarlem, full on with alien dancers, lasers in the stage fog, and Dave Brock announcing the encore: “If fuckin’ Lemmy kin play ‘Silver Machine,’ we kin fuckin’ play ‘Motörhead’!”
•Noncorporate radio in San Francisco: KUSF, KPOO, Western Addition Radio, Pirate Cat