San Francisco these days seems like a never-ending battle between the haves and have-nots. More frequently, the former are growing in population, while natives, artists, and everyone else without a six figure paycheck banter and brawl over the remaining affordable housing options.
Venues and legacy establishments are becoming endangered, and while legislation is in motion to preserve and protect many of them from new condo developments by way of London Breed’s December proposal, the city’s dwindling focus on the arts threatens the livelihood of creators in San Francisco — particularly those working in music.
San Francisco isn’t so much a city for The Weird and the Sublime anymore; it’s a city for those who are too busy posting about The Weird and The Sublime to experience it without a glass screen involved.
However, you can’t keep true artists from creating. Still, relentlessly, against the grain and pushing through struggle, musicians keep at it. Maybe that type of drive is indefinable by words, but one thing about it is certain: often, it doesn’t have much to do with money.
It’s hard enough to make a living as a musician anywhere, let alone the most expensive city in the United States, so when a gig is offered, regardless of where it is, it only makes sense to take it.
The Battery, a posh private club tucked away in the FiDi, has begun staging intimate (free) performances by local (and touring) musicians, excellently booked by eight year Noise Pop veteran Stacy Horne.
Under her planning, members of the selective club can experience the best that the local live music scene offers without leaving the club — and without shelling out anything extra for a ticket.
The Battery tries to schedule one music show a week (with the exception being Noise Pop, where there were three on the calendar). As Horne explains, the bands who play in the tiny Library Room get the chance to perform for “a new audience” — or, one that probably isn’t normally likely to pay to go to their live show.
“It’s something that I’ve felt is a really positive thing for here,” she says. “Our members are not necessarily going to clubs themselves or knowing about the bands playing but they are finding out about new music when bands play here.”
Standing inside an intimate lounge at The Battery, I’m waiting for Andrew St. James to step to the mic. He doesn’t seem like he feels out of place. I probably don’t either, despite the fact that I’m suddenly hyper-aware that I’m surrounded by some of the wealthiest people in San Francisco.
Andrew St. James is very good.
His voice must draw frequent comparisons to Mississippi John Hurt, or, more modernly, The Tallest Man on Earth’s Kristian Mattson, but St. James’ band as a whole is more full-bodied. Harmonies envelop his gravelly baritone, and sweeping drum brushes add depth to the already soulful folk.
It’s a bit ironic, maybe, to hear music traditionally born from struggle played exclusively for the disproportionately wealthy. But as Horne explained to me later, the chance to see free, high-quality live music is a perk of being a member. Battery clubbers don’t really pay extra for anything, even when the band is high profile.
“All the music and talks and film we do are free. Even if you’ve seen an artist before, if you’ve seen them in that room it’s really intimate and special,” she says. “We’ve had some really amazing bands in that room — Ben Gibbard, G. Love, and local bands like the Dodos. You know, bands that you’d see at the Great American. To see them in such a tight space is really special.”
It is special — it’s so special, it’s a perk many can’t afford.
So here we are, one year after Dan Strachota’s proposal for a change in the relationship between the tech industry and San Francisco’s live music and nightlife scene, and not much (save for Breed’s proposal) has yet been initiated.
The Battery benefits from the wealth of the area’s artists, local venues, and organizations that have facilitated their growth. It only seems fitting that the club helps to strengthen the foundation that cultivated them.
The club already does a considerable amount of philanthropy for those displaced by the housing boom (which is very commendable), but it doesn’t appear that anything is in place to support the city’s floundering live arts scene, aside from actually contracting musicians for one off shows.
“I think we’re providing artists the opportunity to get in front of different crowds, different audiences
That’s important, but it’s more of a band-aid for a broken leg. Certainly, the burden of sustaining the arts in San Francisco doesn’t fall on The Battery — truly, all music lovers should go to more shows — but the club is in a unique position to do some real good for the community.
Even if the club asked for pay-what-you-want donations at each show, the Battery could at least make a meager donation to one of the many music non-profits fighting to bring free and accessible live entertainment to the city. There are plenty of them around — Oakland Drops Beats, which routinely schedules a free all-day live music crawl for the public, Project AMPLIFI which holds informative discussions about sustaining live music in SF, Zoo Labs which (as Strachota mentioned) brings in musicians to teach them how to produce their own music, 924 Gilman’s Alternative Music Foundation, which aims to bring live music to an all-ages venue run by volunteers in Berkeley, or hell, even the California Music and Culture Association, which always takes donations.
Ultimately, it looks like The Battery and its members are reaping the fruits of the land without attempting to maintain it at a time when the city could really use some sustainability when it comes to our arts.
After all, the culture in San Francisco is a big reason so many millionaires found the area so attractive anyway, isn’t it?