Entertainment Commission: Nightlife Heroes, or 'Instrument of Destruction'?

The-Dream performs at the New Parish in Oakland, 2012. The owner of the nightclub club recently continued his accusations of corruption at San Francisco's Entertainment Commission in his new music publication. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

SF Sounds is a new music publication, printed in a run of 25,000 and distributed for free throughout San Francisco. The first issue, released in September, is boosterish and basic. It previews shows and fluffs local artists with snappy interviews in the serviceable way one would expect from a handout underwritten by a managing partner at the Parish Entertainment Group, the umbrella company for venues including the Brick & Mortar Music Hall, a nightclub in San Francisco, and Leo’s Music Club and the New Parish, in Oakland.

That benevolent, advertorial bent is also the reason why its central editorial statement -- a screed alleging egregious corruption and conflicts of interest at the San Francisco Entertainment Commission, drearily titled “The Selling of Our Cultural Soul” -- seems so surprisingly vindictive.

The debut issue of SF Sounds, a paper underwritten by club owner Jason Perkins.
The debut issue of SF Sounds, a paper underwritten by club owner Jason Perkins.

The editorial in SF Sounds [PDF; 10MB] is unsigned, but when interviewed for this story, Parish Entertainment Group managing partner Jason Perkins acknowledges co-authorship.

Perkins' editorial aims at Commissioner Audrey Joseph, a nightlife veteran and celebrated figure in the LGBTQ community who was appointed to the Commission in 2003. It also lambasts the Commission for allegedly fast-tracking large venues operated by corporations like Live Nation and Goldenvoice, and for watching "idly" as venues like Cafe du Nord, the Elbo Room and Viracocha are "dismantled by rising rents and sound complaints."

His campaign has a vengeful tone: Beyond the strongly worded editorial, Perkins cries corruption in comments on articles about the commissioner’s new role as Director of Events at the Mission District’s historic Armory Building, and, to KQED, declares the Commission an "instrument of our destruction."

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And yet, amidst the current tech boom, Perkins' anger resonates with many local musicians and fans. Local clubs are in a bad way: In the past year, Cafe Du Nord's new ownership has done away with louder bands and introduced dinnertime music. Submission, one of very few places for all-ages events, shuttered. Yoshi's spinoff the Addition floundered, leaving behind massive debt. The Elbo Room is hanging on by a thread. Meanwhile, massive venues clamber to host the high-profile headliners for whom San Francisco is a crucial market. Both Perkins and Joseph style themselves as crusaders for local music; their clash exemplifies the fraught and emotional discourse surrounding an invaluable component of the city's cultural character.

At this precarious, transitional moment for San Francisco nightlife, it warrants investigation: is Perkins exposing a broken system? Separating his bluster from basic facts reveals some inaccuracies, but also some salient concerns.

Joseph being sworn in once again to the San Francisco Entertainment Commission in 2015
Joseph being sworn in once again to the San Francisco Entertainment Commission in 2015 (Courtesy: Audrey Joseph)

'On a rampage'

Strife between Perkins and the Commission dates back to 2013, when the club owner alleged that Brick & Mortar’s decibel threshold was downgraded because he declined to employ a security company tied to Vajra Granelli, at the time an inspector for the Entertainment Commission.

Indeed, his article rehashes the episode in stark terms, asserting that “32 clubs [were] forced to pay Inspector Granelli $64/hour to stay open and out of trouble with the Entertainment Commission.” At the time, the Entertainment Commission's executive director Jocelyn Kane defended Granelli in the press. (Reached recently by phone, Kane acknowledged that Granelli resigned amid the allegations; a subsequent San Francisco City Attorney investigation resulted in no charges.)

Perkins’ article also points to Joseph’s current position at the Armory -- a building best known for housing fetish-porn site Kink.com -- as evidence of a regulatory fast-lane in permitting the large space for live events, such as a Chemical Brothers show this past July.

“It’s shocking to me to see such incredibly bad governance and conflicts of interest,” Perkins says. “The thing that really struck was how naked it was.”

For her part, Joseph was flummoxed by the piece. “[It’s] full of inaccuracies and sounded like an attack on me personally,” she writes in an email. “It seems like Mr. Perkins is on a rampage.” In a later phone call, she adds, “I have no idea why he decided to attack me.”

Perkins' assertion that permitting the space was inappropriately exempted from public hearing doesn’t hold; the Armory hosts occasional happenings via one-time event permits, regularly applied for and granted without hearing. And to Perkins’ charge that the Armory is awry in the eyes of the Planning Department, a representative said that though the space is not approved for regularly scheduled music events, it operates in compliance with its Temporary Use Authorization.

Which isn’t to say that an aspirant 4,000 capacity venue employing a Commissioner doesn’t deserve scrutiny. Even while acknowledging that Joseph is allowed, by City Hall, to work in her field, critics quoted in extensive prior reporting on the Entertainment Commission call it an “ethical minefield.”

Drill Court, the new 4,000-person venue inside the Kink.com Armory
Drill Court, the new 4,000-person venue inside the Kink.com Armory. (Photo courtesy the Armory)

Consulting and transparency

For many years, in addition to the Entertainment Commission job, Joseph ran a consulting company. Last year, she consulted for the Armory; her 2014 Statement of Economic Interests form [PDF; 146kb] states that her eponymous company grossed between $10,000 and $100,000 in income from the Armory Community Center. (By phone, Joseph's own estimates hover around $14,000.) Joseph became director of the Armory on Jan. 5 of this year, and she acknowledges that her new role at the Armory forces her to recuse herself on Armory matters with the Commission, and excludes interactions with any and all city departments on behalf of the Armory.

Over email, however, the Planning Department’s Senior Advisor for Special Projects, Daniel Sider, writes in regards to the Armory’s ongoing efforts towards becoming a full-fledged venue that “[Joseph] works for the Armory and has been -- at least to the extent I’ve been involved with this case -- the primary point of contact.” That appears to violate the Commission’s Statement of Incompatible Activities [PDF; 59kb] and city ethics rules prohibiting inter-departmental lobbying on behalf of citizens. (Joseph denies directly interacting with the Planning Department.)

On her 2014 form, Joseph also reported a $600 gift in the form of festival tickets from Another Planet Entertainment, one of the large promoters she noted in KQED’s recent interview as a potential source of future bookings at the Armory. Earlier this month, Perkins continued his campaign against Joseph by formally complaining to the Ethics Commission about the free festival tickets. (The complaint has not yet been settled, but isn't without precedent; in 2009, SFGate reported on another complaint after Joseph appeared before the Small Business Commission to vouch for two hopeful club owners who she clearly identified as clients.)

Ethics Commission complaints and investigations are typically conducted confidentially, but Perkins is keen to take credit for his recent filing. Indeed, he makes a point of contrasting his belief in transparency with what he considers the Commission’s opaque dealings.

And that's the thing: attacks on the grounds of conflicts of interest and transparency tend to boomerang.

Ghost and Gale perform at the Brick and Mortar Music Hall.
Ghost and Gale perform at the Brick and Mortar Music Hall. (Travis Hayes)

As mentioned, the SF Sounds editorial is not bylined; Perkins’ name appears nowhere on the paper's masthead. Furthermore, there’s no acknowledgment that the Parish Entertainment Group’s managing partner underwrites the paper, which predominantly features ads and editorial copy promoting the company’s own shows. It also includes an interview with one of its own employees -- Gina Madrid, a.k.a. Raw-G -- without disclosure. And the editorial botches numbers, inflating the Armory’s capacity by 500, for instance. Also, it oddly claims that the Masonic Auditorium, operated by Live Nation, was not given public hearing, but records clearly indicate extensive -- and contentious -- public comment from members of the Nob Hill community.

Plus, the SF Sounds editorial doesn’t state that Joseph was offered any opportunity to respond. Perkins tells me that he reached out to Joseph “ten times,” but hasn’t forwarded the emails. Joseph staunchly denies receiving request for comment.

'We don't have the money'

Though SF Sounds doesn’t demonstrate the journalistic credibility that Perkins asks from other media outlets, a broader takeaway from his editorial does feel resonant.

The Commission’s stated purpose includes both regulation and promotion of nightlife -- a strange dual calling, whose inherent conflict has long been fodder for critics. Promoting nightlife entails enabling it to generate revenue -- not the strong suit of many much-beloved smaller clubs -- and trumpeting its cash flow: when asked by KQED recently how she viewed the local club scene, for example, Joseph emphasized its economic impact in jobs, payroll taxes, and dollars spent in the city.

Larger concert promoters like Live Nation and Goldenvoice, who book primarily touring acts, supply a sizable economic impact from concerts at the Regency Ballroom, the Fillmore, the Masonic Auditorium, the Warfield, and AT&T Park. In dealing with City Hall, these larger corporations are also able to hire consultants to navigate permits, and attorneys to challenge citations.

Small club owners, meanwhile, are the ones booking and paying local musicians. And some of them feel that the Commission’s oversight further burdens their struggle against the riptide of displacement.

Chris Corsano, Okkyung Lee, and Bill Orcutt perform recently at the Lab, where Executive Director Dena Beard says the Entertainment Commission has been inflexible, thus displacing experimental music from the city.
Chris Corsano, Okkyung Lee, and Bill Orcutt perform recently at the Lab, where Executive Director Dena Beard says the Entertainment Commission has been inflexible, thus displacing experimental music from the city. (Photo: The Lab)

“I’m not convinced that the City of San Francisco supports edgier nonprofit art spaces,” says Dena Beard, Executive Director of Mission District arts space The Lab. She commends Supervisor David Campos’ office, but says that the Commission was intractable regarding the Lab’s request to host one higher decibel level show per month.

“As a result, we’ve had to dissolve a significant part of our experimental music program, displacing those artists to smaller venues in Oakland and denying San Francisco access to some of the greatest sound artists in the world,” Beard says, adding, “It’s disheartening, to say the least.”

Don Alan, who’s owned Casanova Lounge and rock fixture the Hemlock Tavern for a combined 31 years, takes a broad view of the Commission. He speaks for the smaller clubs for whom live entertainment is more of a liability than a commercial asset -- especially when subject to the strictures of an inflexible bureaucracy’s microscopic oversight.

“People who run smaller clubs are more vulnerable to regulatory sources, because we don’t have the money to hire lawyers and lobbyists,” Alan says. “I’ve had problems. We had a bar where people played records. No one complained, but [the Entertainment Commission] said we couldn’t. They solved a problem that didn’t exist.” Referencing Granelli, he adds, “The guy who enforced it turned out to be corrupt.”

Of course, small club owners like Alan benefited when the Commission earlier this year joined several city departments in approving legislation aimed at curbing the damage of San Francisco newcomers’ complaints. The measure, spearheaded by Board of Supervisors President London Breed, obligates developers to disclose nearby nightlife to prospective tenants, and limits residents’ ability to file noise complaints against clubs that comply with their permits.

Alan adds of the Entertainment Commission, “I feel like if the Hemlock were under attack I’d at least have a forum. It used to be more vulnerable for us... Back in the day, you had police captains using their influence to push agendas. That made life very difficult for some club owners, but easy for favored ones. The Commission was set up to neutralize that.”

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Perkins, who finds the SFPD "to be far more ethical and have far higher standards of interacting with club owners," says he’d rather deal with the cops.

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