The Guest List

The Guest List

A couple of weeks ago at Zoey’s, at the behest of Eric Wallner, the creative economy specialist for the city of Ventura, I was the token earnest singer-songwriter among the punk rock and hardcore promoters who gathered to discuss the future of Ventura’s music scene.

Local musician/journalist/powerhouse Chris Jay’s foul mouth made everyone feel immediately welcome, and the brainstorming began. Particularly charming was the list of problems, wherein “lack of underage venues” and “aggressive police presence” was followed immediately by “cover bands.”

I spend a lot of time in Austin, Texas, a city in which it’s impossible to walk down the street without tripping over four or five world-class musicians. So I thought it might be helpful to learn from the successes of “The Live Music Capital of the World.”

Some of what makes Austin special simply doesn’t apply to Ventura. I spoke to Rusty Chrome (aka Rusty Villa), a veteran of the Ventura scene who moved to Austin a few years back. He explained that one major difference between Ventura and Austin is that many people who are important in business and politics there attended the University of Texas between the 1970s and the 1990s, the heyday of Austin music. So there’s that. And also, the continuing benefit of Austin’s status as a college town cannot be underestimated.  

The city of Austin is actively involved in all things musical. According to Sara Hickman, reigning Texas State Musician, there is “constant discussion” at the Austin City Council about music issues. Mark Hallman, owner of The Congress House Studio, told me that that the state of Texas offers a sales tax exemption for equipment used in making commercial music, which makes a difference in a tight economy.

Both Rusty and booking agent Gigi Benno make the point that cheap housing has been crucial to musicians’ ability to remain in Austin. (Thank you, Ventura, for the WAV! More of the same, please!)

Austin benefits greatly from the big festivals — SXSW, Austin City Limits, Fun Fun Fun Fest — which infuse the town with multiple weeks of music-loving tourist dollars. Many who come for the festivals come back throughout the year.

Rusty allows that as much as the locals want to “keep it Austin,” they recognize the need to welcome the outsiders. Conversely, he’s pretty skeptical about the Ventura scene, feeling that the locals have not been groomed to support it.

At the airport in Austin, everyone who arrives is greeted right away by live music. (Folksinger Matt the Electrician tells a funny story about the pros and cons of the “airport gig.”) Locals formed SIMS Foundation and the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM) to help with mental health and medical issues. Austinians host multiple “School of Rock”-type camps for kids. The coffee shops, clubs, bookstores, churches and libraries all make music part of their regular programming. Danny B. Harvey, who plays with me when he’s not on the road with Lemmy Kilmeister’s trio The Head Cat, says that nearly every time he does a show in Austin, the staffs at clubs make a point of passing the tip jar around to shake more money loose for the band — which brings up the downside to being a musician in Austin. There’s deep creative satisfaction and wonderful civic support, but zero money. Also, increasingly, the noise code is an issue. With each new high rise that goes up, a new battle begins with a small venue that has always hosted bands on the patio. 

Hallman says, “They will shut down an 80 db outdoor folk music show, and allow hundreds of 120 db leaf blowers to thrive.” Ventura and Austin are very different places, and Ventura must find its own approach. But it’s heartening to know that my Austin friends liked the ideas we’ve come up with so far (though Rusty was characteristically dubious: “Free parking? Where will they find angst?”). Harvey recommended, as well, an online local musicians’ forum. Hallman suggested a regular opportunity for musicians to address the City Council, and Hickman said we might want to duplicate an annual Austin compilation CD that goes out every year from the Visitors Bureau.

 Now, about those cover bands?  That’s another topic altogether.

Rain Perry is an award-winning songwriter and author of the autobiographical play Cinderblock Bookshelves: A Guide for Children of Fame-Obsessed Bohemian Nomads. Her song “Beautiful Tree” is the theme for the CW Series Life Unexpected.  She divides her time between motherhood and the lucrative world of independent  folk-rock music.

The Guest List

The Guest List

 

 Note: The Guest List is a new biweekly column that allows musicians to rant about the local music scene.

Upper-echelon American "pocketization" continues to trudge forward during this economic downturn, leaving states and cities to figure out how to maintain, even increase, cash flow while competing for tourist dollars. Unfortunately, thick-headed city officials all over America think city branding sounds like a viable option.

City branding is the packaging, marketing and sale of a city’s image. Ventura has been trying for years to pass itself off as a sort of Bohemian-artsy city where the goods are quality, the cuisine is all worldly and there’s never a shortage of wave paintings to be found on the Main Street strip. There was never any denying that the talent of Ventura rests with its variety of musicians – an eclectic mix ranging from screamy, dreamy tighty-pants rockers to well-whiskey bar blues soothsayers. Recently, there was a "who’s who" meeting of Ventura’s musical minds to discuss how the city could aid the scene, and the short list of invitees suggests that Ventura already knows what it wants its brand to look like. So where do we start with this?

Planning a yearly event to "showcase" Ventura’s musical talent, as was suggested, is just another battle of the bands that will end with the same array of red plastic cups and no musical progression. A city’s power lies in its connections to municipalities, lawyers and its persuasive edge over local businesses and landowners. Oh, how it hurts to admit we need their help. As much as many of us would like to host shows at local venues for the fun of it, revenue is key here. No money, no venue. No venue, no show. No show, no people and no fun. Also on that note: no beer, no money. So there you have it: the big balancing act.

There’s been a cry for some time to host all-ages shows. Those who have tried, have encountered insane numbers of rules about hosting all-ages, or even 18 and older shows, when alcohol is being sold on the premises. What’s needed is an idea that promotes longevity and can sustain itself with only an initial push from city officials. Almost 10 years ago, I played a few shows at the Santa Paula Community Center and left wondering where Ventura’s center was. I may be overly optimistic, but when I imagine a community center, I imagine a place with a multitude of uses, all of which are enriching and positive for the city. Revenue would come from renting the space. Events would be all-ages and controlled by the city, which means a possible discount from the big bad beverage commission on a night that might require the portable bar to be rolled out.

Now, do I really think it’s a plausible idea for the city to go out and find proper land and put up the mess of money it takes to start chipping away at this thing? Short answer is yes. Why not? Let’s have fundraisers, bake sales. Hell, let’s auction off 20 questions for the mayor, anything to meet our goal. More has been done with less in this world. If we’re to band together as a community of artists and show we really care about our respective crafts and the lasting nature of creativity within this city, we need collective ideas that include everyone outside of the circle. We don’t need a temporary city brand that makes quick money for a marketing firm and, if we’re lucky, the city. We need to meet at a round table and discuss what is realistic and beneficial for the long term. Or else, we could all give in and become graphic designers.

 

A soft-spoken, semi-serious, courteous man and Ventura native, Josh Hayes is deeply committed to art and dreams. But not so committed that he excludes a happy life outside his sleeping hours.

 

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