As a seasoned music fan who has had the misfortune to follow bands into too many shitty night spots and bars to mention, I was overjoyed when I first heard California state officials had gone on the attack against a bunch of Bay Area venues. They were probably fighting against over-aggressive bouncers and surly bar staff, right? Maybe they planned to clean up the sweat-soaked walls, broken toilets, and sticky, drink-stained floors. Or perhaps they were leading a crusade against those stingy, undersized plastic beer cups. Yes! Go for it, fearless warriors of law and order.
But then I discovered the big problem was that the venues weren't selling enough burgers and fries. Huh? Indeed, it turns out that the dispute between the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) and several of San Francisco's finest music venues (who, it should be noted, are guilty of none of the above crimes, including the food part) makes almost no sense to anyone outside the administrative body that started it. Nevertheless, it could yet rip the heart out of the city's vibrant live music scene.
The root of the problem lies in an odd quirk of California law, which divides liquor licenses into just two classifications: bar or restaurant. If you're licensed as a bar, you aren't allowed to admit minors. So, to be able to put on all-ages shows, music venues are required to operate as "restaurants" in the eyes of the law. How do they do that? Simple: they serve food. This is how places like Bottom of the Hill, Cafe du Nord, Great American Music Hall, and Slim's have operated for years, serving up a steady diet of tunes (and grub) without significant incident or complaint from pretty much anyone. But last year, out of the blue, the ABC went on the offensive, accusing these four venues of petty problems such as not making enough of their income from food or changing details of their operating conditions, all with a view on forcing them to comply with tough new regulations the ABC appears to be improvising out of thin air. "If the ABC simply enforced the law as it is written there would be no problem," explains Guy Carson, co-owner of the Cafe du Nord. "Instead, it is rewriting the rules as it goes."
The venues are stuck: either they comply with nonsensical rules that will very likely force them out of business, or they continue to fight the ABC in court, spending thousands of dollars they don't have, which will very likely force them out of business. No matter that these local employers are already struggling to survive in the present economic climate. No matter that they are essential parts of the city's cultural landscape. No matter that no one (other than a few bureaucrats in Sacramento) seems to have a problem with the way these venues are being run. "We are a barely profitable, small business that does what we do for the love of music," explains Lynn Wilkens, co-owner of the Bottom of the Hill. "Our legal fees have mounted this year to more than we make in profits. Already! We'd really like this to end now, and it has to for us."
A flurry of news reports highlighting the battle earlier this year seemed, at first, to move the dispute in a positive direction, with the ABC making noises that it would seek to negotiate a remedy to the problem it had created. But now the venues believe it was simply stalling. "Despite reports from Mark Leno's office and the ABC in regards to 'working towards a solution,' the ABC is not letting up on this," says Leah Matanky, publicist for Great American Music Hall and Slim's. "They have pushed our hearings back to an unknown later date in hopes that the press and attention will go away and then they can pursue their mission to shut us down without all the public outcry." In the meantime, the venues are still spending money on lawyers; Carson describes the situation as "being in limbo, backing up legal fees."
The good news is that all four venues are still open, and determined to stay that way. But they need your help. "The fight is nowhere close to over and we still need all the support we can get from the public," says Matanky. So what can you do? It's simple. First, you can contact the ABC and your local political representatives to let them know how you feel. Second, you can help the venues financially by going to shows. And third? You can even buy the T-shirt.
Fight the ABC? It's as easy as 1-2-3.