.All Ages: No Venues

It’s hard to blame Rory Koff for feeling a little boastful. What musician wouldn’t brim with pride upon receiving a platinum record? “I gotta brag a little,” he texts me, not long after we finish speaking on the phone. “Look what I just got.”

Attached to the message is a photo. In it, Koff stands in his living room holding his framed metallic disc. In the bottom left of the frame is another photograph: one of Koff from 20 years earlier along with his band, No Use For a Name. As of 2017, No Use For a Name has sold more than a million records—an incredible threshold for any artist, let alone a band from San Jose.

The scrappy group started in San Jose in 1988, when Koff was just a sophomore in high school. It didn’t take long for the four-piece to hit upon a then-novel sound—mixing classic rock and ’60s AM radio melodies with punchy, precise metal riffs, and refracting it all through the prism of punk. In just a few years they were signed to San Francisco label Fat Wreck Chords. Soon after that, they were known worldwide.

Palo Alto’s all-female band The Donnas began when its members were in high school in the ’90s. They went on to land a contract with Atlantic and move to Southern California. Even as music distribution has moved to Silicon Valley with the advent of iTunes, Pandora and Google Play, the lack of a feeder system and support infrastructure often mandates a trip down Interstate 5 to make it on to the Bay Area’s digital music streaming servers.

While a number of South Bay-spawned acts—like Antwon and Giraffage—have relocated to Los Angeles in recent years, with the aim of building a following and making vital industry connections, Koff credits the start of his band’s career to a show at San Jose’s now-defunct all-ages venue the Cactus Club.

“We were so excited,” he says, recalling the anticipation preceding the show. That night he and his bandmates were opening for Southern California punk group Agent Orange. At the time, Agent Orange were both influential and squarely in their prime. Knowing that this was their shot at making inroads with an active and relevant band of their genre, Koff had a bit of the pre-show jitters. Fortunately for him and the band, they made an impression:

“In just a year, or a year and a half, we recorded a demo and put out an album. Then [Agent Orange] invited us on tour. It steamrolled pretty quickly from there.”

It was that one show at the Cactus, a 16-and-up club that occupied the space now filled by Club Miami in San Jose’s SoFA District, that kick-started No Use For a Name’s platinum-selling career.

Opened in 1988, the Cactus Club was San Jose’s connection to the national music scene. Nirvana played there (check out the bootleg). Rage Against the Machine, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Weezer and No Doubt all rocked the midsize venue when they were still up-and-comers.

In recent years, any number of San Jose bands could have been the next No Use For a Name, were it not for one thing: the Cactus Club shut down in 2002. And in the 15 years since, San Jose, the self-styled “Capital of Silicon Valley,” hasn’t had a single consistent venue available to its young musicians. That’s a problem for everyone.

The absence of an all ages rock, pop and hip-hop venue—like the former Cactus Club—hurts Silicon Valley’s music scene. Photo by Greg Ramar
The absence of an all ages rock, pop and hip-hop venue—like the former Cactus Club—hurts Silicon Valley’s music scene. Photo by Greg Ramar

The Ritz—San Jose’s premier full-time club venue for national rock, pop and hip-hop acts—sits just across the street from where the Cactus used to be. While the establishment has found success bringing exciting and relevant live acts to San Jose in recent years, there’s a catch. Unlike the former Cactus Club, The Ritz allows only patrons 21 years of age or older. The same goes for BackBar SoFa, which occupies the space directly behind the former Cactus.

The fact of the matter is that for venues, the money is in alcohol sales. The dependency has become more acute as the live music industry competes with new forms of digital entertainment and bands must rely on performance revenues rather than the sale of recorded media. For operators, it’s not even about making a killing at the bar: alcohol sales are often the only thing keeping the lights on. That means that any venue owner with an eye on his or her bottom line needs to sell booze. As a result, shows with cheap tickets catering to an underage crowd are rarely a good idea from a business perspective—something Dan Vado learned the hard way.

“When kids were coming to see their friends play, they weren’t buying comics,” says Vado, owner of SLG Art Boutiki—a comic book shop, cafe and live music venue located on Race Street. For the past three years, Art Boutiki has been hosting shows and events in its 150-capacity room.

When a live music establishment sells alcohol—especially spirits—it makes it significantly harder for that business to allow minors through the doors. Vado has beer and wine at Art Boutiki, but crucially he also sells pizza, snacks and comics. By offering food along with lower-ABV drinks, Vado can allow younger patrons in while giving adults a place where they can enjoy a few grown-up beverages. From a business perspective, though, he’s decided to largely steer clear of shows for the underage crowd.

“A dollar for a bottle of water was even too much for some of these people to pay,” Vado says referring to teens. “It was very difficult to justify using the time.”

The Cactus Club’s demise can be attributed in part to its failure to sell enough pizza. It was licensed to open as a pizza restaurant and its failure to comply with use permit technicalities proved a convenient way to force it out of business amidst the city’s police crackdown on clubs and the SoFA District’s gentrification.

For its entire 14-year existence, the Cactus Club had operated under a Type 47 liquor license—essentially a full-service restaurant license. This meant that the club could sell alcohol (including spirits) even with minors in the building, provided that a majority of its sales came from food. When the hammer fell on the club, food sales dipping below the 51 percent threshold were one of the nails in its coffin.

Cafe Stritch has a full bar, but it also has a full kitchen. That means it can allow anyone inside, so long as servers are diligent about carding. But Stritch focuses almost exclusively on jazz. Every once in a blue moon the venue will host a rock or hip-hop show, but even calling those rare is an overstatement.

For his part, owner Corey O’Brien doesn’t want to serve food at The Ritz, and therefore won’t be going all ages. That’s never been his thing, neither here, nor at his previous venue, the Blank Club (now LVL 44 on South Almaden near the former Greyhound station), which served up punk rock, cheap beer, stiff drinks and little else.

“We have a 48 license, so it’s 21-and-over all the time. There’s no way around it,” O’Brien says. A Type 48 license (“on sale general public premises”) is a bar license and specifically designates the club as 21 and over. There are no exceptions.

Even though he isn’t able to offer up his club for the cause, O’Brien still cares about the city’s dearth of spaces for young musicians and their fans. “We need all-ages venues here,” he says. “It’s part of the whole ladder system.”

What O’Brien calls the “ladder system” is the heart of the issue. All-ages spaces don’t just help specific musicians like Koff and No Use For a Name. They establish a network between venues, musicians and residents, putting them all on the same ladder. Dedicated musicians and their fans are a lot like smokers: most start young.

With a functioning ladder system, budding musicians can start out playing smaller rooms—all-ages spaces that tend to be easier to book than a big club. Underage fans can attend and an underage band can stay and schmooze instead of having to leave immediately after their performance, as they would in an 21-plus venue. From there they climb the ladder, with the goal of one day reaching one of the higher rungs. There they can connect with national touring acts, which in turn can connect them to the world stage.

This system isn’t just about the musicians and the fans. It’s also about training an entire generation to appreciate live music, which keeps clubs in business and gives bands a reason to make a city with a strong scene a destination on tour.

This is the system in place in just about every major city around the world. But in San Jose, it’s been cut out at the root.

Dan Vado states the problem clearly:

“It always felt like younger people weren’t going to shows because for the most part they can’t.” Simply put, there’s nowhere for them to go.

Even though Art Boutiki holds occasional shows for local bands, the venue only hosts around 10 concerts each month. It also has no connections to national booking agencies, which means that local shows are always just that: local. Besides, most shows are booked with the 30-and-over set in mind. Art Boutiki neither is, nor wants to be, the kind of place that the area’s youth need.

And though things have been going well for The Ritz, O’Brien knows its continued existence hinges on people in the South Bay both seeing and playing live music. Alcohol sales may pay the bills, but if there’s no permanent culture of live music there will be no one to buy that alcohol at clubs like The Ritz down the road.

“We need different size clubs,” says O’Brien. “We need all-ages clubs, we need 21-and-over, and we just don’t have it all here. That’s why the scene lacks here.”

Of course, just because there are no dedicated, above-the-board venues for young local bands doesn’t mean young local bands aren’t playing shows. They’re just being held in the types of places minors have always congregated—basements, practice spaces and (in one case) the back of a porn shop.

“Most of the shows I would go to when I was younger were at peoples’ houses,” remembers Erfan Moradi.

Moradi heads local cassette tape label Fourth Row Records, and first attended a show in San Jose at the age of 14. With nowhere else to book, the show was held at a friend’s grandmother’s house.

“There’s no formal all-ages spaces that I can think of,” Moradi says of San Jose. “We just completely lack spaces where we can put on shows safely without the worry of them getting shut down.”

Now 20 and attending UC Berkeley, Moradi says local shows aren’t just about seeing bands—they’re about community, and acceptance, and are critical for personal development.

“Having DIY spaces was really formative for me,” Moradi says. “It allowed me to find folks that were like-minded and eager to build a space that was accessible, comfortable, inclusive, accepting. All stuff that a 14-, 16-year-old who is having a hard time needs.”

“That statement is very accurate,” says Matthew Martinez.

Matthew is 17 and plays in Sunday Drive, an exciting and talented young group from San Jose. He and his bandmates are part of a generation that has never had an accessible place to play in their city, or the greater South Bay. But that hasn’t stopped them from playing anyway.

“To me, live performances are everything,” Martinez writes in an email. “Finding places to host shows can be very difficult, but as a band we’ve always had the DIY mindset. If there aren’t venues available, make one.”

For 15 years now, this is exactly what San Jose’s youth have been doing: making their own venues out of houses, DIY spots and warehouse space. Places like Trash House, House of the Dead Rat, Kitty Castle, Casa Chikimalas, Texas Toast House, Gingerbread House, Playback Studios, The Dojo, The Cuddle Space, and Arrows to Eden—the back-of-a-porn-shop venue mentioned above.

In lieu of real venues, places like these have often become the only option available for musicians in the area. But houses and DIY spots are like a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. None of these makeshift venues can openly advertise their shows or their locations. This makes them all but inaccessible to anyone not already in the know, cutting off potential fans before they even have a chance.

Spots like these are also, by necessity, transitory. People move, get priced out, and, increasingly after last year’s Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, get shut down by the police. In fact, as of the time of writing, seven of the 10 DIY venues listed with this story no longer exist. At the outset of 2018, the pool of spaces available for young musicians in San Jose is smaller than ever.

All ages shows live on in the South Bay, they’ve just been pushed underground—sometimes literally, as was the case with basement concerts at The House of the Dead Rat. Photo by Murray Bowles
All ages shows live on in the South Bay, they’ve just been pushed underground—sometimes literally, as was the case with basement concerts at The House of the Dead Rat. Photo by Murray Bowles

Halfway through its second decade without a real all-ages venue, the city and surrounding region has lost a lot of momentum and will need to play catch-up if it ever hopes to build a truly self-sustaining music scene, according to Tommy Aguilar.

“We’re losing generations,” says Aguilar, a cultural producer and artist in San Jose. “How do you foster a very deep, culturally vibrant city? You gotta get the young.”

For almost a decade Aguilar worked at MACLA—Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana—a Latino-oriented arts nonprofit headquartered in the SoFA District. While there, he booked all-ages shows featuring young punk, metal and hip-hop groups.

“I never really turned anyone away,” he says, emphasizing the important role all-ages venues play for both young artists and their fans. Playing on a real stage with a real sound system in a dedicated venue gives budding musicians a chance to learn the ropes while showing their following the value of live performance. “I’m all for the romantic idea of the garage party, the house party. But you need to be on a stage, plugged in with a sound engineer. You need to learn the ways.”

These days Aguilar works solidly in the 21-and-over space with DJ collective Sonido Clash and event promoter Universal Grammar. Still, he believes something needs to be done to foster an all-ages scene—and he says nonprofits, like MACLA, will have to play a role.

A little over a decade ago, local record label owner and musician Mike Park went the nonprofit route. In fact, he went 1,200 miles down that route.

During the summer of 2005, the Asian Man Records founder and a number of musicians (including current Blink-182 guitarist Matt Skiba), bicycled the entire West Coast—from Seattle to San Diego—all to raise money for a nonprofit all-ages space in San Jose. It took a full month for the musicians to travel the distance. By the end, they had raised $80,000. Notably, none of the major tech companies in the area donated to the cause.

After completing the ride, Park and his nonprofit began looking at what they could do in San Jose with the money.

“There wasn’t much,” he says. “Even if we got a space, after paying deposits, insurance, getting the zoning, we would’ve lasted three months and all that would have been gone.”

In order to make that $80,000 work for the area’s youth, Park’s dream venue needed city involvement, which was sorely lacking, he says. Park describes his experience dealing with San Jose officials as “a lot of unanswered emails and a lot of apathy.”

Unfortunately, that apathy still seems to be the norm. When reached for comment on the historic lack of these spaces, the city’s cultural affairs director, Kerry Adams-Hapner, declined to speak on the issue, sidestepping it entirely by bluntly stating that it was not in the “purview of the office” of cultural affairs.

For his part, Aguilar would also like to see more action from City Hall. “The city has to step up,” he says. “We don’t have anybody championing music on that city level.”

That may be changing, however. Silicon Valley Creates has proposed a Japantown space for artists, a “model for supporting arts and creativity in the 21st century.” Crucially, though, current plans do not include any kind of venue space. Instead, the plan seems to double down on the city’s ill-considered decision to view artists of all stripes as “creative entrepreneurs,” rather than address the specific needs of the city’s young musicians (in this case, a place to play).

Despite the cultural affairs department’s boilerplate non-answer on the subject of all-ages spaces, San Jose clearly has a related problem on its hands: blight. In November, the City Council voted to create a pilot program to address the issue of the countless blighted buildings downtown. The program creates a registry of empty storefronts and levies fines against property owners who let them sit unnecessarily empty, in the hopes that it will push them to start renting.

While ostensibly unrelated to the city’s lack of all-ages venues, this initiative might just create some meaningful action. If this program leads to the creation of even one semi-permanent all-ages venue downtown, it could finally break the curse that has held the city for the last 15 years.

In the meantime, see you at the house show. DM a punk for the address.    

Mike Huguenor
Mike Huguenor
Arts and Entertainment Editor for Metro Silicon Valley. Musician and writer, born and raised in San Jose.


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