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Beer and Margarita’s, (Sort of)

 I recently wrote a piece on the "Death of the Record Store." I was very impressed by the amount of feedback that the article received, be it in the Sacramento Press, via email or in person. Inevitably the conversation led to fond memories about fun times and good music.

I was reminded particularly of the live music experiences I’ve had. Along with the demise of too many record stores, I contend there is a serious lacking in the quality and quantity of live music available today, especially in the smaller to mid-size venues, and towns.

While the experience of a big Grateful Dead show in Oakland was always a fun time, the smaller, more intimate performances of a Jerry Garcia Band show at the Keystone Palo Alto were just that much more special, at least to me. While I do not know the whole history of clubs in the Sacramento area, I do know that the options available for live music are not what they were 20 some odd years ago when I first arrived, due to the loss of clubs like the Palms in Davis (thankfully this venue just moved farther away and did not fully disappear), the Cattle Club here in Sacramento, and many others.

A good friend who broadcasts numerous live shows on KVMR 89.5 recently related a story from a booking agent about how 2008 saw the shutting down of at least 20 venues that put on regular shows featuring traveling musicians which might be seen at venues such as the Great America Music Hall in S.F. or Sierra Nevada Brewery’s "Big Room," or maybe Marilyn’s not to mention the numerous festivals that have called it quits. The result of all of this is fewer opportunities for musicians to pay the bills, and to make a living at their art!

This argument is leading to another of my favorite topics — beer and margaritas!   When I was in my prime clubbing days, the US had very different ideas about alcohol than we do now. While a senior in high school, I was 18 — old enough for the clubs in New Jersey and New York City. It was also a time when drinking was not stigmatized or regulated as it is today.

Of course the argument can be made that we are better off with stricter alcohol laws and attitudes. I am not here to argue that point, nor am I here to promote drinking. I am writing this article to point out that I feel these changes have had a major impact on music, primarily live music. Back in the day, a venue could open the doors, allow for a low cover charge to see a great act — known or unknown — because liquor sales would offset the cost of the band and pay the rent.

But that is no longer the case. The loss of the under 21 drinking crowd, combined with other changes, has curtailed the stream of revenue from alcohol sales. This used to be a vital source of profit, and without it, clubs and musicians have run into considerable financial strain.

No longer can "guarantees" be provided to bands, as the risk is too great for the promoter or venue. Bands being offered just "the door" as payment run a big risk, which often can’t be taken. The economics are basic: you have to have more coming in than going out, and the cost of traveling and playing is not cheap.

Think about it. A middle-aged band (or rather any musicians who really don’t want to spend the night in the van), 4 or 5 members: 2-3 meals a day, gas, lodging, whatever is owed to the booking manager or "roadie," bills piling up back home… If you are not earning, you are spending. You’re asked to pull into Sacramento on a Tuesday night, and hope that a hundred or so people will show up and pay to hear you play. Audience is the key, and while the risks are great for the band and promoter, likewise the risk is there for the attendee. One may pay $5 to go see an unknown commodity, but due to the higher price promoters now have to charge to attempt to cover costs, the $20-$30.00 fee becomes more of a luxury item for attendees, and risks become much harder to take. Thus the circle continues.

I think you get the idea; it’s tough and the reality is it often just does not work. Maybe you are lucky enough to live in towns like Nashville, Austin, L.A or San Francisco, which have a large group of top-notch local musicians able to play the clubs and then head home. The pay may be low, but so is the expense.

But that is not the case in many if not most places. Luckily we are in Sacramento, which while not a prime spot for live music, it is still a lot better than, let’s say, Boise, Idaho. Thanks to SF and Reno, artists do come to the area and we can catch a good show every now and then at a place like Marilyn’s or the Empire.

I have read a lot about nightlife on line at sp.com, but I’m not sure what to do to change things around to create the win-win-win needed (artist-promoter-attendee). What will be the next club we read about in the obituaries? Hopefully upcoming shows with the likes of Todd Snider, Devil Makes Three, The Black Lips and others will be well attended, not to mention keeping the flow going for local favorites such as Kate Gaffney. Let’s support music, whether it’s those who make it, play it, promote it or enjoy it. We are the water that makes the plant grow (I know), and while you’re at it, buy a beer or a margarita — after all we do have an ailing economy to support!


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