OPEN MIC: Despite a reputation for excessive red tape, the city of San Jose has eased restrictions to encourage more live music like this show at Pagoda.
A few years ago, about 10 venues hosted live music in San Jose’s downtown—a decent number for a run-of-the-mill suburban town, but hardly impressive for a bustling metropolis. Security was tight then, too, as the city required two bouncers for every 100 patrons based on the fire marshal’s designated maximum occupancy. This was done partly to alleviate a pervasive perception that the heart of the city was unsafe.
For Lee Wilcox, a city-employed liaison between downtown businesses and the city manager’s office, that wasn’t a robust enough live entertainment offering for a place the size of San Jose. Business owners he talked to overwhelmingly agreed.
Wilcox teamed up with the San Jose Downtown Association and individual arts advocates to breathe some life into local entertainment—and to convince the City Council to lower the price of entertainment permits and cut down on the number of security guards a place needed to run a live event.
The plan worked well enough that the city changed its tune. After years of prodding, city officials agreed in 2010 to make it cheaper to get entertainment permits, changing them from two- to four-year agreements and doing away with them altogether if a venue is small enough.
The savings for various types of permits ranged from about $500 to nearly $2,000. And instead of two bouncers for every 100 patrons on the max occupancy, the city agreed to drop it to one per every 50 people actually onsite. The revision also allowed security guards to start their shifts when entertainment actually began—or 9pm at the latest, whichever came first—instead of at the venue’s opening.
It was the second time the city had updated its entertainment ordinance since creating it in 1997 to curb cruising, public nuisances and underage kids staying out late at night.
Despite notable closures downtown since the latest revision a couple years ago, such as Voodoo Lounge and Toons, the number of regular live music events has tripled, Wilcox says. The musical landscape began to shift, grow and make way for the hint of a revival in local grassroots talent.
“Downtown stakeholders really just wanted the city to listen to them, to let them have the freedom to create more opportunity for live music,” Wilcox says. “The city did listen ... and we’re now seeing more of those opportunities in place.”
Chris Esparza, 45, who for years ran some of the biggest music shows, festivals and established nightclubs in town, has watched the city’s art culture ebb and flow the better part of two decades. What a city of San Jose’s size needs, he says, is every step of the stairway, from open mics to sold-out shows at massive arenas.
“For years, half the staircase was missing,” Esparza says. “As the ecosystem goes, we’re still hurting a little bit on the venues. We need more mid-sized ones and, yeah, more of the smaller ones to give people a chance to start somewhere.”
An example of the outgrowth of live music is the Sept. 22 Silicon Valley Sound Experience (SVSX) music festival taking place at venues throughout downtown San Jose. (Disclosure: Metro is sponsoring the event.)
A strong musical, artistic culture incorporates more than just the nonprofit-driven opera, ballet and other well-established performance arts, Esparza says. But San Jose’s still a little slow to the take, he adds.
Toons, Voodoo and the 23-year run of Music in the Park have all gone away in the past few years. Esparza considers the present music scene much livelier than when he first moved to San Jose in the early 1990s, back when he started his first nightclub. Then, he recalls about three other venues that hosted live music two to three times a week. A decade ago wasn’t much better, he says.
South Bay born-and-bred singer/songwriter Chris Reed, 29, echoes Esparza’s sentiment that civic leaders need to have faith in the creative force of Silicon Valley, which is better publicized for technological than artistic breakthroughs.
“This year alone, I have noticed that the entire art community here in San Jose has started to become a little more mainstream,” says Reed. “The music culture [here] is unlike most cities. It’s just a shame that there are only a few places. There is certainly no shortage of talent.”
Roger Springall, who owns the live-music-friendly coffee shop Caffe Frascati on South First Street, agrees that it’s just a matter of giving creative types a place to go and letting business owners enjoy enough freedom to host them.
“One of the reasons I opened Caffe Frascati was because there was nowhere downtown that was under-21 friendly where I could have a beer, he could have a soda and we could hang out and see great local musicians performing,” says Springall, whose son was a teenager when Frascati, formerly Cafe Trieste, was founded four years ago. “It would be great to see downtown San Jose become known as a place where you can always find good local musicians performing.”