The recent closure of Blake’s in Berkeley was met with nary a peep in the online indie music community. The East Bay Express’ excellent Ear Bud blog covered the story, as did various local news outlets, but the silence from local bands and indie music fans was notable. While I never really cared for much of their programming calendar, it is striking that with the club’s closure, the options for live indie rock music in the downtown Berkeley area have dwindled to two. At polar ends of the spectrum, no less, are Amoeba/Rasputin’s occasional in-store performances and the Greek Theatre. Berkeley bands, best of luck getting from one to the other.
To be clear, depending on how old you are and how far you’re willing to travel, Berkeley residents can still enjoy the Bay Area’s wealth of live music options. Two great venues, 924 Gilman and the Starry Plough, bookend the city’s limits, offering up an admirably DIY scene in the former and tasty beer and burgers at the latter. Further on, Oakland’s got a number of venues and performance spaces, although the city’s fighting its own East Bay version of the “War on Fun” that has seen 21 Grand closed and others placed in increasing jeopardy. And SF venues are BARTable if you leave before the headlining band (and, depending on where you are, possibly one of the supporting bands as well).
Regardless, there’s no rock venue close to the esteemed university campus and throngs of students that to my mind make the city of Berkeley actually Berkeley, which is a shame on the one hand and a missed opportunity on the other. It’s a shame because a city that rightly prides itself on a history of free expression and an independent creative streak does itself a disservice by not providing accessible outlets for its young local musicians and interesting all ages forms of live entertainment for its young people. It’s also a business opportunity lost because, hello, there are a zillion young people running around and surely a hundred of them could be convinced to go to a smartly booked all ages performance space to see some cool bands.
It would be one thing if the student body weren’t teeming with talent, a point easily refuted by the surely dozens of great bands with Berkeley roots. In the last five years, for example, The Morning Benders, Port O’Brien, Tempo No Tempo, The Splinters–that’s four just off the top of my head. Add to that a great college radio station that champions local talent every day, and the supply is already there, to say nothing of the numerous other local bands who would surely be excited to expose a new audience to their music.
From a business case perspective, the sales pitch is simple. Put a well-run venue close to campus and keep costs cheap and surely students will come. Make it all ages if possible and I don’t see how it can fail.
If it’s so simple, though, why hasn’t it already happened yet? The following possibilities immediately come to mind: high rents and noise restrictions in the downtown area, the difficulty of securing licenses to open new businesses from the Berkeley City Council, and the divergent interests of long term Berkeley residents and the city’s student population.
But it’s not like Berkeley is anti-arts. There are established theater, jazz and folk venues, and the university hosts shows of all different kinds. Surely, then, there’s enough space to support rock and roll as well.
I’m curious to know your thoughts. Why doesn’t Berkeley have a dedicated rock and roll space? Does Berkeley need a rock venue, or are Oakland and SF options sufficient? If you’re a Berkeley student or resident, would the existence of a rock venue in Berkeley matter to you? Post your thoughts in the comments.