Miles Deep

  • 04/05/2013
  • Terelle Jerricks

SoCal has one of the Deepest Talents Pools in America, But the Local Music Scene Makes it Hard to Breathe

By Melina Paris, Music Columnist

After publishing my feature story on guitar band Romero Y Perez this past year, I was struck by how unforgiving Southern California’s indy music circuit can be.

Here was a crazy awesome guitar band that could probably fit well on any Jazz stage or venue, yet most people won’t ever get to hear them because of the lack of musical infrastructure to expose and support independent artists.

There are a few ways for artists to create their own meal ticket, including:

  1. Creating their own music scene at a single location within a limited geographical area
  2. Joining an existing music scene according to their style and demographic

Romero Y Perez recounted their experience playing at small venues and the pay-to-play practice that seems to predominate. Pay-to-play is when musicians pay to play at a venue, instead of the other way around. This, despite the fact that Los Angeles has one of the deepest talent pools around. In fact, the deeper the pool, the more fierce the competition, which are precisely the conditions that lead to the unbalanced relationship between local musicians and venue owners.

It made me think about the specific challenges local artists face in simply making a living from their art, let alone becoming a commercial success. After talking to four local music promoters, I got an opportunity to look at the plight of local musicians from a different angle. I also gained deeper understanding of how challenging it is to foster a healthy ecosystem designed to nourish and sustain Southern California’s music scenes.

The promoter is the middle-man between the artists and the venue owners. Promoters do all the things independent bands tend to do for themselves, but generally, more effectively. They find venues, market the shows, manage the logistics of pay, equipment, staff, food and materials.

Promoters also negotiate the profit-sharing arrangement between the venues and artists. All the promoters I spoke with offer set rates with room for negotiation.

Merle Kreibich, the head of In House Music, has been producing jazz shows in and around Los Angeles for the past 20 years. A former Westin Hotel sales manager before changing careers into a jazz music promoter, Kreibich says the key to her success was her creating music scenes to sustain the music she loves: jazz. In the company’s early days, she focused mainly on hotels, since they already had the resources to maintain musicians in the way that they should.

“Working in a hotel, they usually have a grand piano on site, electronics and sound systems … and an area devoted to music,” Kreibich said. She noted that the hotels already had a built-in audience in the guests staying at the hotel.

“They would come down for the evening and have a wonderful time,” she said. “There was like a two prong thing happening there that was a benefit to the hotel. Not only did I get the community out to support the jazz artists, but now we had the hotel guests coming down and supporting them.”

Kreibich was successful enough to gain the confidence to branch out to smaller, mom-and-pop venues.

“They were the most challenging because they were focused more on ‘I have to make my money that night. We can’t really wait to build and brand this,’” Kreibich noted.

Kreibich, whose education background includes marketing, described it as a revelation the impatience and lack of marketing savvy of many restaurant and club proprietors.

“I realized from the beginning the reason lots of clubs were closing and jazz was not maintaining was because they had no idea of how to run a jazz club and how to market the music.”

Kreibich explained that one of her biggest challenges is balancing the interest of making money for the venue and fulfilling the artistic side of the musicians.

“There are things structured on the musician’s side that the musicians don’t necessarily like. [Like] when you say, ‘keep the original music at a minimum and play the standards… so that the consumer base can relate to you,’” Kreibich explained. “It used to be that you could get somebody very artistic that would come in and have a big name, but they would be so far out that they weren’t communicating or relating at all to the customer. Now, it’s similar because in order to get the gig, you have to present yourself as “entertainment,” that is the [label] the artist-musician have to take on.”

The difference between artists and entertainers is that people go to see artists because of who they are. People seek out entertainers because they are looking to be entertained. It is from this space that we get the Pay-to-Play system. Though Los Angeles is widely acknowledged in many artists circles for its deep talent pool, the people who could support this pool of artists are cultural luddites, accustomed to the meager offerings that their analog radio stations give them.

Event producer for Devourmedia, Aneesa Moore, sees this dynamic firsthand. Moore has been booking bands for the Blue Cafe in Long Beach since it moved to Pine Avenue from the Promenade in downtown Long Beach in 2010. The move to downstairs of the Mariposa is a significant change from their prominent location on the Promenade.

The Mariposa does salsa and meringue with a DJ, attracting a the Top 40 mainstream crowd while the Blue Cafe does live entertainment and music that includes old school hip hop, indie rock bands, psychedelic experimental, and ambient.

“It kind of throws off the people that come for the live music because they walk in, they hear the salsa/meringue, then see the crowd, they’re really confused,” Moore explained.

Moore described promoting music at the Cafe as like, “pulling teeth.”

“After living in Long Beach for over three years, I know the scene there and what people are into, what they’re willing to pay for,” Moore explained.

Moore’s demographic is generally younger and less disposable income. As a result, they tend to expect to go to a live entertainment venue for free adding an extra burden on sustaining a music scene.

“I just want people to support the music because for a lot of us, that’s work and that’s how we get paid,” Moore explained.

Part of the issue, at least as explained by the promoters I talked to is the lack of arts education that’s integral to the preservation of our cultural heritage.

Al Williams, a working musician and producer and promoter of several annual music events such as the Long Beach Jazz Festival says just as much.

“When I say people don’t seem to want the arts, they would if they knew what the arts were,” Williams explained.”The problem in America is that you’re not taught art, so therefore if someone is talking about hurting someone (doing something to somebody’s mama) or shooting a policeman or something like that that they relate to that because it’s what happens in their lives. [But] if there was art happening in their lives, they would look away from that and look more towards supporting what’s really important.”

The question of how to make Southern California more hospitable to its talent pool of musicians is a tough issue. As Kreibich explained, most venue owners are looking for instant profit when they introduce live entertainment and the local consumer base are generally oblivious of innovative work when they hear it and the effort it requires to deliver it to them.

But one thing that is for certain, the solution to saving Los Angeles talent pool, may well lie in the hands of promoters like Kreibich, Moore and Williams.

There’s opportunity for a win-win situation for music lovers and consumers, artists, venue owners and promoters.

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