Culture Watch 

The California Music Awards move to Oakland; will a more robust music scene follow?

California Knows How to Party
Several decades ago Dennis Erokan had an idea. "In the late '60s, I was a high school kid in San Jose watching this fabulous music explosion going on in San Francisco," he remembers. "My friends and I were talking about how could we ever repay all these great musicians, and we said, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could give them an award?'" Erokan mulled that idea over for years, and in the meantime, he founded BAM Magazine, which was devoted to California music (the publication folded in the '90s). And then he got serious about his old dream of handing out awards: he pitched the idea to various Bay Area music companies, and they loved it. But he also had, as he puts it, "No money, no resources, no nothing."So he did what any aspiring award-show producer would do: he tailed concert producer Bill Graham backstage at a Bette Midler show, hoping for an audience. Instead he ran into Midler's manager, Aaron Russo, who loudly torpedoed his awards idea. As luck would have it, Graham overheard the exchange and rushed to his defense. "He turned to Russo very passionately," Erokan retells it, "saying, 'This man has the passion, the fanaticism; this is what makes San Francisco so great.' And then he turned to me and said, 'Anything you want.' I couldn't sleep that night."

And thus was born, 24 years ago, the California Music Awards (known until four years ago as the Bay Area Music Awards, or Bammies, now also known as CAMA), an annual music industry shindig that celebrates the musical accomplishments of the Golden State. This year on April 28, the show moves across the bay from its traditional digs in San Francisco to take root at the Henry J. Kaiser Arena in Oakland. Erokan promises that this year he's pulling out all the stops: the show will feature performances from stars like Victoria Williams, Chuck Prophet, Blackalicious, and Huey Lewis (um, yes). And although the Bay Area bands up for awards include the usual suspects--Green Day and Third Eye Blind--there are also nominations for a few of the Bay Area's lesser-known acts, including the Aisler's Set, Tin Hat Trio, Orixa, and the Mr. T Experience.

Go East
Why move the whole shebang to Oakland? Associate producer Michael Coats says the idea came out of reaction to the well-publicized indignities that San Francisco musicians endured last year : rising rents as well as the closure of rehearsal spaces, which forced musicians out of town. "There was a perception that the musicians of San Francisco were being roughed up quite a bit," says Coats. "We were sitting in our preliminary meetings and a light bulb went off over my head and I said 'What about Oakland? They're making a big push for the arts. Jerry Brown gets this--let's call him.'"

Did Oakland's mayoral staff have to think twice about helping a nationally publicized awards show come to town? No sir, they did not. "Within two weeks we had a deal in Oakland," says Coats. "They were receptive to the idea--they got it, they made it easy. Quite frankly, we felt the love."

Part of that love included the city making the Kaiser available for free (although CAMA will have to pay staffing costs), as well as paying for a few extra police officers to be on the beat that night and assigning city staff to work on marketing the show. Four thousand people are expected to attend at $25 to $135 a pop; KTVU and KICU will rebroadcast the show the following week. Oakland city staff also helped CAMA get sponsorship from the Oakland Port as well as local companies such as Albertson's (which in turn helped get them hooked up with Miller Genuine Draft). The CAMA is tickled pink that they get to use the Kaiser. "It's absolutely beautiful; one of the unsung theaters of the East Bay," says Erokan. "We said, 'Really? Do we get to play in this?'"

Of course, the love goes both ways. As part of the deal, CAMA is taking out an ad in a Tower Records publication that will be handed out in stores all over the state detailing the best places to shop, dine, and club in Oakland. Plus CAMA always donates a portion of the door profits to a number of local nonprofits; this year the foremost of the recipients will be the still-in-the-works Oakland School for the Performing Arts, a Brown initiative. And then there's the good publicity. "It's a very popular show and highly regarded," says Samee Roberts, Oakland's special events coordinator. "The opportunity to host celebrity artists is exciting for us; it's also an opportunity for us to continue our efforts to make Oakland a city that's more inviting and welcoming to artists--an artists' mecca, if you will. The publicity that the show generates is very positive and extensive, and we think it would be useful if Oakland can ride those coattails."

Are You Ready to Rock, Oakland?
CAMA likes to talk about its East Bay roots: Erokan came up with the awards idea in Oakland, many staff members are East Bay residents, and two of them were executives at BASS Tickets, which was headquartered in Oakland until 1989. They say they see the awards show as a chance to help reignite the city's once-great music scene, now in need of help due to the closure of many of the area's older clubs and concert halls. "There's a rich history of music in Oakland with hip-hop and jazz and blues," says Coats. He notes that with all the colleges and universities in the area that "you certainly have a number of young people who are probably music-starved. It would make sense to put some stuff in place for them."

But local arts activists argue that CAMA will have to do more to prove it's truly a friend of the East Bay arts community. CAMA producers plan to help local arts groups by allowing several music-related organizations to set up booths in the lobby during the show, but Dani Eurynome, who books bands for Oakland's Stork Club, says that most of the East Bay club promoters and bands were kept in the dark about this opportunity until plans for the evening were already solidified. While an awards ceremony may generate good press for the city, she says, she doesn't think it will do much to help bands or clubs who are already here. "It has nothing to do with local music and the arts scene," she says. "It comes in, and they have their acts already and they're already on major labels."

And while one night of good publicity may give Oakland a boost, Eurynome says that local musicians could use more extensive support from the city. "It's a flash in the pan," she says. "We want something more lasting." Like many in the Oakland arts scene, she has a long list of things the mayor's office could do to help musicians succeed: making cabaret licenses easier to obtain, providing grants to set up rehearsal spaces, and setting up small loans for people who want to open club venues are just some possibilities. And of course, last year's rising rents still loom in a city that has no tenant eviction protections. Last year was rough on both sides of the bay for musicians and artists. "People have definitely taken a beating, no doubt," Eurynome says, "but Oakland has more artists and performers per capita than any city west of Brooklyn. People are excited about possibilities."

That's the same vibe everyone seems to be feeling right now--local artists and CAMA alike. "There's a huge history there; why can't there be a huge future?" asks Coats. "It seems to me that the timing could be right for it."

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