Traveling Bands Do Not Cross 

How music industry rules are blocking artists from playing in Oakland.

Page 4 of 5

But opponents of radius clauses argue that artists may actually be better off playing multiple venues and treating the Bay Area as a collection of microscenes. A fitting example is Living Legends rapper The Grouch, who fared better splitting his 2010 "Grouch Stole Christmas Tour" between The New Parish in Oakland and The Independent in San Francisco than he did playing exclusively at the Fillmore the following year. According to O'Connor, he sold out both the Oakland and San Francisco clubs in 2010, with a cumulative audience of about nine hundred; at The Fillmore, he only sold four hundred tickets. Or take Starfucker, whose booker, Avery McTaggart, said is having increasing success booking in Oakland and San Francisco. "A band like Starfucker, which has historically played midsized venues in San Francisco, can now sell out in Oakland," he said confidently.

In fact, O'Connor argues that many artists have distinct fanbases on different sides of the bay. Take electronic band Little Dragon, which has its own cult of adoration in San Francisco, but also appeals to the multiracial house scene in Oakland. "That whole People Party scene definitely loves Little Dragon," he argued. Starfucker, too, evidently has its own draw in Oakland; another example of a band cleverly appealing to different niches might be the Brooklyn-based Afrobeat band Zongo Junction, which a few weeks ago played one show at Slim's to a crowd of twentysomething hipster types and another the following week for Ashkenaz' older-skewing, world-music-oriented clientele.

O'Connor and Gallagher consider the success of these bands' approaches as evidence that the Bay Area actually comprises several discrete markets. To them, the logic is simple: excepting the very biggest acts, people don't travel far for live music, so it behooves most artists to work on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. Put another way, you're more likely to go check out a show if you can ride your bike there. And furthermore, O'Connor argues that any area the size of Oakland — with its own downtown, its own professional sports teams, and a large university nearby — deserves to be its own market.

Many venues also promote their shows exclusively on one side of the bay — an indication that even they see the bridge as a big enough geographic barrier for audiences not to cross over. "It became obvious to me that these places were two different markets about fifteen years ago," O'Connor said. "There's been more musicians living in Oakland than San Francisco for a long time. There's a bigger metal scene, and a bigger hip-hop scene."

For that matter, he maintained, the only thing that Oakland doesn't have going for it is name recognition. Because bookers and agents consistently overlook it, mid-to-large-size venues like Vitus and The New Parish face much bigger challenges than their counterparts across the bay.

Ultimately, O'Connor said that if New York promoters can make sharp delineations between Brooklyn and Manhattan, then the same can definitely be said of Oakland and San Francisco — and that may actually be a conservative analogy, since Brooklyn and Manhattan are, in many senses, closer together than their West Coast counterparts. "Brooklyn is literally ten minutes away from Manhattan — possibly eight minutes," O'Connor argued. "That's a bike ride, a $1.50 subway token.

"Whereas Oakland and Berkeley are half an hour from San Francisco in a car, or $6 by public transit, and you can't bike," he continued. "That means if you're in the East Bay, you want to stay in the East Bay."

And with transbay BART service ending at around midnight, it's hard for folks from the East Bay to get to and from a show in San Francisco without having to drive (and therefore stay sober). As Gallagher argued, "until BART opens up, it's not the same market."

But at the end of the day, the truth about whether Oakland and San Francisco are, in fact, the same market is, of course, probably somewhere between these two poles. (Trujillo, in fact, said he sometimes likes to think of the Bay Area as "one-and-a-half markets.)

But here's the thing: Because radius clauses have been industry standard for so long, there's no viable means of knowing the truth. As long as such limits on competition exist, no one has the chance to figure out by trial and error where exactly the sweet spot is between under- and oversaturation.

Which is a shame for Oakland. In the most fatalistic view, the city can invest all it wants in infrastructure, but it will ultimately always be relegated to second-best by virtue of the system in which it exists. And though there are several ways East Bay venues could overthrow the radius-clause standard, each has its own challenges.

First, club owners could sue. O'Connor has threatened to do just that. He said in a recent interview that he's considered launching a class-action lawsuit to demand that Berkeley and Oakland be designated as separate markets. But San Francisco attorney Joshua Koltun, who specializes in anti-trust and media law, warned that unfortunately, it would be pretty hard to litigate — the onus would be on O'Connor to prove that San Francisco clubs weren't just using contracts to protect themselves, but that they were also acting collusively to shut Oakland out.


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