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Monday, January 5, 2015

Music Heroes: Because What's a Hero, Anyway?

Posted By on Mon, Jan 5, 2015 at 10:17 AM

The Hotel Utah's legendary open mic night: just one of the under-sung pillars of the S.F. music scene.
  • The Hotel Utah's legendary open mic night: just one of the under-sung pillars of the S.F. music scene.

Welcome to the first installment of a brand new column here at All Shook Down, a space I'll be calling Music Heroes. I've been writing about Bay Area music for more than 10 years, so you can trust me when I say we have heroes around here — heroes who make live music happen. I've been admiring these behind-the-scenes types for forever, and I'm glad to have a chance to throw a little light on those who usually stay behind the curtains, behind the computer, behind the mixing board, behind the mop. We may not see them very much, but they have superpowers, and they're using them for good music.

To be blunt, people who run open mic nights are the biggest heroes of all, for musicians and plenty of others. Almost every independent form of self-expression relies entirely on the blank slate of the open mic's unregulated amplification and captive, often resentful audience. Writers need to read hesitantly, comedians need to tell painfully bad jokes, and those who strum have to bomb somewhere. In music, an exception is made for punk and its descendents — their mics are permanently open and the people who make those shows happen are also heroes.

Let's pause to clarify my disagreement with the classic Big Lebowski-style definition of anti-hero, sturdy as it may be.* In these columns, instead, I'll talk to and about the people in San Francisco who literally make live music happen, because they're real heroes, nothing anti- about it. They're the people who lose money on it. Who fold and unfold chairs for it. Who clean up vomit, fight the law, work to exhaustion, and rarely if ever get any credit for it. Open mic hosts of the on and offstage variety do all of the above and also wrangle drunks, 86 dicks, make the schedule work for everyone, and ask for money. So open mic hosts, I salute the fuck out of you. Without you, there'd be no music.

Other people make live music happen, too. Bar owners, for example, make more money if they don't have live music. If you walk in a place, and there's music, you can be sure the owner does it for the love and for the love only. Here is a person, you may say to yourself, who knows that without live original music in smallish venues, we'd be that much closer to living in a mall, everything optimally monetized. Watching the bottom line represents a strong economy, but we don't live in an economy. We live in a society. Watching live original music in smallish venues represents a strong society.

Who else makes live music happen? Sound engineers, aka "the sound guy." Nobody likes him, but everybody needs him (Sometimes he is, excitingly, a woman! Which works especially well for women musicians. Oh look, even I'm capping on the sound guy.) He doesn't, as a rule, make shit for money. I'd like to talk to "him."

Musicians themselves make music happen, obviously, especially when they also teach, encourage other artists, think hard, collaborate, stay in it for the long haul, and stand up for their rights. Musicians often get paid panic-inducingly small amounts, but they spend a lot, and get their instruments stolen out of the van as thanks. So in MH, I'll find musicians who go above and beyond, but I applaud every last one of them.

Independent booking agents, house show hosts, small-potatoes producers, record stores, record labels, door people, flyer artists, listings editors, social media ding-dongs, habitual audience members, music writers, whatever city department is responsible for issuing cabaret permits, and, often, the families of them all: That's who makes live, local music happen. I hope to talk to a lot of them, and in the process tease out why they devote so much time and energy to cultural production. The hookers-and-blow rock star lifestyle barely even exists these days — to such a small degree that the joke isn't funny anymore, in a world in which even mass-manufactured blonde pop star Taylor Swift is trying to figure out how to cover her assets. Now more than ever ever ever before, it's not for the money. So why?

Here's my other question: If all these people went away; if they all suddenly wised up and got a real job, what would our lives be like? We'll probably never know, because our heroes are out there, prowling the night, protecting us from evil.

* "Sometimes there's a man ... I won't say a hero, 'cause, what's a hero? Sometimes, there's a man. And I'm talkin' about the Dude here — the Dude from Los Angeles. Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there." 

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Hiya Swanhuyser

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