Seven wonders of the live-music world
Demystifying the local scene with a little help from Sacramento musicians, promoters and venue owners
It's that time of year when the heat pours on, the Delta breeze kicks in at night and Sacramentans emerge from their air-conditioned abodes to hit up some live-music gigs. It's a great opportunity to step back, grab a brew at the bar and take stock of the local music scene. I spoke with a handful of local live-music-venue owners to chat truth and reality when bands are on their stages.What kind of music does Sacto listen to?
It's not just a pickup line. The answer defines us.
I’d always pegged Sacramento as a metal town. I grew up in the burbs, where shredding to the nth degree and “dropped” guitar riffs ruled the day. But the central-city grid was more punk, independent, experimental. The Cattle Club rocked, and West Coast Worldwide was hardcore. Hip-hop bands would play on the same bill as rock bands at bars such as The Distillery. Cross-pollination was the word.
“I do not think there is one dominant genre,” agrees Eric Rushing. He’s been booking shows in Sacramento for years. You may know him as one of the guys in charge of live music at Ace of Spades and Assembly Music Hall, but you also might recall his days booking at The Boardwalk, when it was the premiere all-ages venue in the region.
Over the past couple years, Ace and Assembly shows have been sold-out regularly. The latter venue’s been a spark on K Street; all sorts of crowds line up to enter on any given night. “We have had tons of success with pop, rock, metal, hip-hop, country, reggae—and the list continues on,” he explains.
So, there you go. It’s not just all Juggalos and Autumn Sky groupies. But are all genres created equal?
The backbone of Rushing’s promotions over the years has been new hardcore-style rock bands. These louder, aggressive acts draw young crowds that will often queue on R Street outside Ace of Spades hours ahead of showtimes. Hip-hop and indie artists may be popular in Sacto, but these hardcore-scene kids own the day.The price of a three-band show on a Friday night should be …
Liz Liles has been in bands for years and now co-owns a venue, Witch Room, on 19th Street in Midtown. She understands both sides of the struggle: As an owner, she needs to make a dime to pay the bills, but as fan and bandmate, she also wants to keep things affordable so people can come to the shows. On top of that, she personally wants to be able to pay for interesting new bands to come to Sacramento.
It’s a quandary. Those interesting new bands require guaranteed pay, often up to a few thousand a night. Witch Room doesn’t have the coffers to fork out that kind of cheddar. And her audience likely will balk at paying for $15 a show, she says. “This causes a bit of a dilemma for independent venues trying their best to bring the best acts into town,” she explains.
So, what’s that magic cover-charge number for good local show on a Friday night?
“Eight dollars,” she says. “I know this will cause eye rolls, but that’s three bands that spend time and money to buy gear, practice and get to the show. Also, it’s Friday night! You will drink and have fun no matter what!”
Gabriell Garcia, who recently purchased Blue Lamp with her husband, Ben, agrees that the sweet spot these days is between $5 and $12.
“We have no partners, it is just Ben and [me], and at this time, we do not make any money,” Garcia says. “Sometimes I even use my tips when I bartend to tip out the bands.”
“We hope to build a great venue and bar that will pay off in the end,” Garcia says.
Speaking of pay: $10 for a Friday-night gig makes sense. If you can afford 10 bucks on beers and cigarettes, you can afford to pay up for local bands.All the coolest bands (still) skip Sacramento for the Bay Area
“That is very untrue!” says Rushing. With a bullet.
It’s helpful to look at the local music scene in three levels. First, there’s the big leagues, the Kanye West and the Black Keys-type acts. They sometimes pass through Sacramento, usually at the venue that will forever be known as Arco Arena, typically on the third iteration of a tour. Proponents of the new Sacramento Kings arena argue that a downtown “entertainment and sports complex” will change this (more on that later).
Then there’s the low-level independent venues such as Witch Room. And, finally, the midlevel venue. That’s where Rushing comes in. Ace of Spades boasts a 950-person capacity, and Assembly is a notch over 600. These size rooms drive the music scene: They’re small enough to keep the tickets well below the $85 Black Keys price, but large enough to draw top-selling talent such as rapper YG and singer Christina Perri.
“We actually are getting stuff that isn’t even going to the Bay Area these days,” Rushing says. “On the other hand, there are still the occasional acts that skips over Sac.” But he says he’s in a unique position to begin recruiting these artists to this market. “Bands like Beats Antique, I bugged for three years until they recently booked a date in Sacramento and sold it out the very first time.”The all-ages music scene is dead
An angry mob nearly went Casino and put my head in a vice after a 2008 SN&R cover story on the death of the all-ages music scene (“All-ages all over?” May 6, 2008). Yeah, that was my story. Detractors pretty much thought I was an idiot for declaring the scene dead back then. Thankfully, I was wrong. It survived. (Somehow?)
“I feel like the music scene is on an upswing,” says Garcia. She attributes this to a healthy supply of venues that host gigs on a regular basis.
But what about the all-ages or 18-and-over crowd? We’ve seen the demise of such strongholds as Luigi’s Fun Garden in recent months. Do spots like Witch Room, The Colony, Midtown BarFly, Naked Lounge Downtown and Shine ensure that the younger locals will have plenty of options for years to come?
Witch Room co-owner Olivia Coelho takes offense at the idea that the scene is dead. “Who are you talking to? What scene? There is an entire range of ’scenes’ that are building, growing, flourishing,” she argues. “Does a scene have to be one type of music? The beauty of Witch Room is that there is a vacuum in Sacramento where bands are too tired of playing for free in someone’s basement, but they can’t yet book out Harlow’s or Assembly. We fill that vacuum.”The city loves to hassle musicians and venue owners
What's the hardest thing about live music? “The rules,” says Liles.
She and other musicians like to point to the city’s rules for all-ages gigs. Namely, that these shows for concertgoers under 21 years old need to be done by 10 p.m.
The argument goes like this: Why kick young adults out of a show, where they’re staying out of trouble on a Friday night and doing something safe, and onto the streets, where they can get into all kinds of problems?
“But I wouldn’t say the city has it out for live music,” says Coelho, who’s worked with staff at City Hall and the police department for years as a venue owner in Sacramento. “I get the general feeling that they want us to exist, they realize that [music] makes the city more enticing and vibrant, and also brings in revenue to the coffers that is always desperately needed.”The music scene is easy money
Running a music venue isn't like owning a coffee house or a bar.
Liles has a full-time job at B Street Theatre, along with Witch Room co-owner Liz Mahoney, who also does paint jobs on the side.
Garcia was a bartender for nearly 20 years, and her husband was in a touring band for almost a decade. Now, she likes to joke that she’s the owner, booking agent, bartender—and also the janitor, accountant and more at the new Blue Lamp.
And, of course, local bands aren’t making a living doing gigs. So why do they do this?
“Because it’s my passion,” Liles says. “I don’t care if I ended up now working 100 hours a week. I love it and will continue to try my best to bring music in a legit manner to the city I was born and raised in and plan on dying in.”The new arena and downtown is going to blow the music scene's mind
Mayor Kevin Johnson and Co. don't refer to the Sacramento Kings arena as the “entertainment and sports complex” without reason. They argue that after years of top-notch acts skipping Sacramento, we'll be getting a taste of Beyoncé and Rolling Stones gigs.
I’m not here to debate that—the proof will be in the promoter’s pudding. But will the new arena usher in a more vibrant downtown music scene?
“I think the music scene in Sacramento is definitely changing and shifting back to a centralized downtown scene again like it was more then 10 years ago,” Rushing observes. Gone are the days of The Boardwalk ruling the young-kids scene. Or even smaller bar-venue type spots like Fire Escape Bar and Grill in Citrus Heights. “Things have shifted.”
So much so that Rushing and his partners are opening a new spot, a country-music bar and venue on J Street called Goldfield Trading Post, next month.
“I think that there will be lots of surprises in the market, especially with a new arena and tons of redevelopment,” he says. “I just hope that it doesn’t become oversaturated.”
Oversaturation is years away, if it ever comes to fruition. Even with another rumored forthcoming venue on the 700 block of K Street, just next to the future arena, and old-school spots such as Harlow’s Restaurant & Nightclub and Marilyn’s on K, the city’s showgoers seem plentiful, eager—and growing.