Photo by Geoff Dude
Mosh pit at SOMA
The Scene. The Epicentre. Wabash Hall. The Muse. Xanth. The Old Krikorian Theatre. Porter’s Pub.
The list of all-ages and 18-and-up venues in San Diego that have come and gone over the past 40 years is too long to list here. San Diegans who regularly attend live shows have probably been to many of them, and have memories of seeing The Locust’s Gabe Serbian vomit onstage at The Scene or catching a legendary punk band at Wabash Hall. But one way or another, under-21 venues in San Diego have a way of coming to an abrupt end.
In some cases, they just run their course, as Wabash did last year after owner Ron Hall sold the building when he ended his screenprinting business. Yet in most cases, as with The Epicentre, it’s simply too difficult to make all-ages shows profitable, especially without a license to sell alcohol.
“There’s always going to be not a lot of them,” says Cory Stier, talent buyer at Soda Bar, who puts on shows at all-ages venues including The Irenic and The Che Cafe. “It’s usually because they don’t have booze. In L.A., they’re able to get away with it. For whatever reason, San Diego County is more conservative than the rest of the state.”
Under many circumstances, there’s no alcohol to be found at all-ages venues, which removes a major revenue stream for those businesses—and in the case of the need for code compliance or repairs, a means to pay for them. Venues that sell alcohol but allow entry to minors are rare. In most cases these establishments require some kind of barrier between those who drink and those who don’t, as is the case with House of Blues (which has a Type 47 license for venues that serve food). The Observatory North Park, which also holds a Type 47 permit, implements a simple wristband system, but has a no-tolerance policy toward underage drinking. Venues such as The Casbah or Soda Bar that have a Type 48 liquor license, however, are legally required to allow entry to only ages 21 and up. Those are the most expensive and hardest permits to obtain.
There are certain exceptions. SOMA recently held a test-run for serving beer and wine at a Descendents show late last year, with a temporary permit secured by ARTS (A Reason to Survive) and sales benefiting the nonprofit. And while The Irenic is governed somewhat differently, since it is a church that holds special events, it has temporarily halted the sale of alcoholic beverages at shows until it can be granted the proper permits to avoid legal repercussions.
The Che Cafe is the rare exception to the rule, having lasted for more than three decades without alcohol of any kind. However, three years ago it was threatened with closure by UCSD over needed fire-code-related repairs. In fall of 2015, however, UCSD and the Che Cafe came to an agreement to continue lease negotiations going forward, and the university agreed to assist the venue in getting the necessary repairs done. Yet were it not for the 120-day occupation of the venue by students and its unique history on a college campus, it might not have been saved.
Cheap Art at Che Cafe
The continued restrictions and limited options for young people when it comes to live music has some people worried. Jordan Krimston of local trio Big Bad Buffalo is 19 years old and started playing shows when he was in high school. But without venues like The Irenic or the Che, he sees diminishing returns for a music scene that’ll only continue to age.
“Obviously, young blood is directly correlated to the future of the music scene, but the kids that make up the all-ages scene are not consistently active within it,” Krimston says. “They come in waves. They move away to college. They have school. They don’t have cars. They don’t know their way around. The all-ages scene will always ebb and flow—that’s just the way it’s built.
“There are a handful of musicians my age—and a bunch of avid music fans my age,” he adds. “I would like to think that I’m not, like, a super-outsider for being into certain sects of the local scene. San Diego has a lot to offer but is keeping it hidden from younger generations. It perpetuates this stigma that San Diego’s music scene is terrible. Kids don’t go to shows because there aren’t many for them to go to, and then they move away without ever discovering the cool musical groups that San Diego has to offer.”
“Without live shows to go to, I would have kept playing baseball,” Stier adds. “I’d be on a Greyhound right now, probably trying to play in the minors.”
Live music for all-ages crowds isn’t strictly limited to clubs. Art spaces and galleries are other options for shows, and restaurants such as Panama 66 in Balboa Park also hold concerts that are accessible to younger attendees. Yet Krimston still thinks there’s more work ahead in order for San Diego’s music scene to flourish.
“There are a handful of people in the scene that have already started the good fight: Gilbert Castellanos starting the Young Lions series at Panama 66 is a great example,” Krimston says. “Tyler Ward and the San Diego School of Rock putting on San Diego-themed cover shows is another. San Diego seems to always be on the brink of something cool, and I truly believe that if a little bit more effort was invested into nurturing the all-ages scene, some sort of breakthrough would happen.”
Fewer restrictions on how venues can serve alcohol would be one better way to allow all-ages venues to survive longer, but Stier sees that as treating a symptom rather than the disease. Ultimately, it’s a matter of supply and demand.
“The bigger thing is that the country just doesn’t support the arts that much,” Stier says. “It’s really hard to make money off of it. As long as I’m still living, though, I’m still fully invested in it.”