Editor’s Note: ‘Backstage Heroes’ spotlights the many movers and shakers working behind the arts scenes to make magic happen in the Bay Area. Guiding us is Hiya Swanhuyser, a veteran fan and all-around culture vulture who for nearly a decade helmed calendar duties for the SF Weekly, giving her rare personal insight into those toiling in the wings, but rarely in the spotlight.
Room 416 is the opposite of a nightclub: well-lit, designed for work, no beer on tap. Yet in some ways this formal, wood-paneled place in San Francisco’s City Hall is the most important room in the city’s nightlife. Among its regulars is Entertainment Commission Executive Director Jocelyn Kane, and although the longtime San Franciscan is a hyper-competent administrator with an Ivy League degree in public policy, there’s only one reason she’s here, and that is to rock.
“My first concert was Van Halen, in 1980," Kane says. "Or ’79?”
Kane loves loud music, then and now, and it’s fascinating to see how straightforwardly she brings that love into the otherwise quiet world of municipal government. “In the code sections, when people talk about the noise ordinances, what they’re really saying is they don’t like the sound they’re hearing," she says. "So I don’t say ‘noise.’ I say ‘sound.’ Words matter, as you know. I don’t want to look under the code section and see ‘noise.’ I want to see ‘sound.’”
In addition to being a fan, Kane is very, very good at “the business side” of music, the side most musicians will tell you they’re bad at. It’s a rare combination, and to have such a person in charge of regulating music is a boon many San Franciscans may not have considered, considering the alternative. In the late 1990s, Kane says, “The city agreed [with proposing Supervisor Mark Leno] that the place for regulation of nightlife was not the police department.”
No wonder it’s so hard to talk about whether, and how, and where music should get going, if those questions are in the hands of an enforcement-oriented police department with no interest in culture, let alone a mandate to grow and protect it. But Kane says in San Francisco, that’s how it had been dealt with up to then, “and where it typically is in cities.”
Example: The commission’s annual report found that San Francisco’s restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and outdoor performance spaces created 52,000 jobs in the city in fiscal year 2013-14. But that’s not the kicker.
“According to a 2012 economic impact study," she reports, "the sector accounts for $4.2 billion in spending by 80 million customers annually.” Did you know that? I didn’t, and it’s even my job to observe this “sector.” Without the Entertainment Commission, as motivated and managed by Kane, maybe no one would know.
When I visit Kane’s psychedelic-poster-covered office in City Hall, each cubicle featuring sheaves of backstage passes as decoration, it feels funny. To come to the seat of authority to talk about live music seems backwards. It’s certainly not very punk rock. When we say “fight the power,” don’t we mean... government power? Maybe it’s just part of the deep iconoclasm of this city, where Kane’s bright-pink hair is in good company with longtime commissioner Audrey Joseph’s tattooed hands, perfectly at home in Room 416 or walking the somber marble halls.
We talk about Kane’s time as a “little party promoter” in the '80s and '90s with her company Motogirl Productions, booking shows at the Voodoo Lounge (“sushi in the front, rock ’n’ roll in the back”) and co-producing Nadine’s Wild Weekend, among other festivals. She tells me her “pearls and pumps phase” after college devolved into an early divorce and quarter-life crisis, with the happy result of a lot of motorcycle riding, a musician for a boyfriend, and insight. “'I need to figure out who I am and what I want,'” she realized, “So I woke up. And I came off autopilot,” to find that the music world spoke to her, and was fulfilling in a way her life working for the Department of Parking and Traffic had never been: “'I can’t talk about residential parking permits at another party, or have another person yell at me about a parking ticket!'” The Entertainment Commission got started around the same time, needed staff members, and she realized it was a job made for her. She’s been here ever since.
“When Jocelyn decided to focus on the music scene, she started at the bottom and worked her way up, just like bands,” remembers Nadine Condon of the aforementioned Nadine’s Wild Weekend. “That's what makes her uniquely qualified to steward entertainment in San Francisco.”
Watching the commission in action in Room 416, I’m struck by the way Kane’s seat is literally in the middle of everything, and the way that from it, she looks up at the commissioners on one side and up at members of the public on the other. She serves them all, us all. “She may have a fancy-dancy degree, but she's one of us... a diehard lover of SF music to the bone,” says Condon.
That dual nature, it seems, is what allows Kane to remain between worlds -- reminding us what culture is worth, and turning noise into sound.