By: Kristen Struckmeyer
Three men sprawl out of a cramped car and walk across cracks of faded grey asphalt in the direction of a brightly lit diner. Sporting collared shirts, dark pants, and coarse beards, their unspoken uniforms affirmed that they were a band.
As they drove through Castro Valley, bandmates Jason Bolich and Zach Rice of the band, Septacy, jokingly argue over their favorite album from high school. Their argument was briefly interrupted by a text revealing that two members of their group, Ricky Marasigan and Justin Vanegas, could not make it because of their tedious commute from Alameda. Patiently sitting in the back seat, lead singer Nick Redmond interjects only to fuel the growing flame between the two. He is tired and growing groggy from a 50 hour work week, and from the commute across the San Mateo bridge that he endured earlier that day.
“I have my choice of two bridges to get into Oakland for rehearsal,” Redmond said. “Both take me about two hours to get across, and I do that probably a minimum of twice a week. It’s not great.”
It is because of this constant stress of commuting, that it a rare and strenuous occurrence for all five members of Septacy to gather for an extended period of time. Septacy’s members have been playing together on-and-off for almost seven years, and despite these challenges they manage to centralize twice a week. The band congregates in a jammed studio in Oakland, which it shares among ten other musicians in an effort to minimize costs.
San Francisco has always been a city synonymous with music and culture; from the Jazz Age of the Fillmore to the Rock Era of Haight-Ashbury, music has always been at the heart of San Francisco’s vibrant spirit. Today, many fear that this city has transitioned into a junction between the growing tech boom and upscale development. This disparity has led to a widespread migration across more affordable parts of the Bay Area and has become a well-known reality among local artists in the evolving music scene. Commuting, housing and accessibility of venues are some of the major hurdles that musicians all over San Francisco and the Bay Area are experiencing.
There was a time in San Francisco when music was lived and breathed daily. But long gone are the days of indulgence for bands like Jefferson Airplane, whose members lived within a single dwelling where creativity flourished in unimaginable ways. When its members were in high school, Septacy was able to meet up regularly, considering its members lived five minutes from each other. After being pulled across the Bay Area, this is a luxury they no longer have.
“When you’re trying to make it as an artist the deck is really stacked against you,” Redmond said. “For us, our distance and housing is one of the many factors. Often [rehearsing] comes down to the other guys because they live closer together. I just won’t join in sometimes because it’s such a pain,” Redmond, who now lives in Daly City, said.
A lack of affordable housing is stripping San Francisco of its artists and culture, and its entertainment industry is crumbling as venues struggle to preserve local music and keep their businesses alive.
“At the end of the day music is a business,” Redmond said. “So depending on where you are, money is going to affect what you are doing. So the first thing venues are going to ask is how many people can you draw.”
Musicians and small venue owners play an imperative role in creating a sense of liveliness within a city. Venues act as an incubator for up-and-coming musicians and are a lifeline to the entertainment ecosystem; however, they require both artists and a faithful audience to stay afloat. As small operation venues are being nudged out of their nestled corners and off the stained city streets of the Bay, musicians are further strained to find a source of income. This interdependence between artists and venues makes it a collective struggle to sustain a living in the city.
For many reasons, San Francisco cannot sustain life for musicians in the ways it once had. In 2009, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors adopted the Music and Culture Sustainability Policy to help improve and promote the music and entertainment industry. According to the policy, “Music and cultural events and performances are a distinct and important feature of San Francisco that make it both an exceptional and a desirable place to live.”
Noting large obstacles for the music industry, this policy incorporates streamlined permitting, event planning, advertising promotions, and the provisions of low-cost housing available to musicians, artists, and performers. These modifications were intended to encourage and help facilitate public events and local performances. Yet, in the time since the policy’s approval, the city has been witness to the relocation and often closure of some of the most prominent venues and clubs in its limits.
On January 30, 2016 Septacy took stage at XOXO Nightclub for the club’s final show. The Oakland nightclub would soon be torn down in order to build rental properties. Development discrimination that favors an affluent group of citizens is a growing sore among Bay Area natives, minority groups and artists as they are pushed to the fringes of the city.
“We found that live music, especially in the Bay Area, is really not that profitable,” Micah Byrnes, co-owner of bar and club, San Francisco’s Monarch, said. “San Francisco’s just really not a live music city compared to other cities.”
San Francisco newcomer Alex Miller, has been deeply invested in all aspects of the East Coast music scene for over a decade now. After moving from Boston to San Francisco four months ago, Miller used his contacts to quickly get a few gigs working as a sound engineer at popular spots like Monarch, The Independent, and Boom Boom Room.
“There isn’t really a thriving local music scene in the city” Miller explained. “There’s a lot of money here in San Francisco … it just doesn’t seem like anyone is taking any risk or putting it towards featuring some of the local scene.”
For a small local band like Septacy this bears bad news and is a major factor in their ability to play shows and get their music out there.
“The thing I’ve found for us is getting our music in the hands of the right people” Septacy drummer Jason Bolich said. “No matter how many shows we play, unless there are people there who are willing to give your band a shot and put in the extra effort, it isn’t going to make a difference.”
Despite the pull to give up on local and small-name artists, creating and performing seems almost inescapable for a band like Septacy, which is willing to go through the extra hoops to be a part of something it loves.
“There are so many bands out there and there’s a lot of adversity in being consistent with your product,” Septacy guitarist Zach Rice said. “That’s one thing I get very down on myself about if I feel I’m not performing well. But it’s still worth it.”