San Francisco is often considered a mecca of culture. There are numerous bars, clubs and other nightlife locations that provide a platform for people to share and experience art, but one group may be left hanging out to dry: the under 21 crowd.
Music venues have been an integral part of San Francisco’s cultural landscape for years: from The Fillmore’s historic reputation as a hub for psychedelic music and counterculture in the 1960s to the growing popularity of The Great American Music Hall and The Independent. But as the music scene has shifted over the years, so has the business model for its venues. As a result, many locations have chosen to focus on more adult-oriented atmospheres and often set 21-and-over age restrictions for any potential patrons.
This leads to many underage youths who either attend shows regularly or play in bands themselves being unable to experience something some consider a fundamental part of their identity.
“It seems like a lot of all-age music venues in SF are disappearing, which is unfortunate,” said Izzy Maturana, a 19-year-old East Bay resident who has been playing music since she was nine years old. “It really wouldn’t hurt, no matter how many there are already, to create more.”
Though Maturana lives in the East Bay, she has played in San Francisco multiple times with her band Spit Tips. She says the difference between the music scenes in the East Bay and San Francisco for youth is quite noticeable, and that gentrification could be a key factor.
“I think that gentrification plays a big role in it. There’s not as much room for these spaces anymore now that property values have gone up so much in the past few years,” Maturana said. “This is also happening in the East Bay right now, but we are only seeing the start of it.”
Though they are becoming increasingly rare, all-age venues still exist in San Francisco, and those who run them have a firm belief in their importance for the city. The Honey Hive Gallery is one such venue.
The Honey Hive is an art gallery and music venue that was opened in 2013. Its mission is to “create strong ecological and social justice, through art, workshops, and through working with local poets and musicians,” according to its website. One of the goals of The Honey Hive is to help local up-and-coming artists get their footing for live performance.
Daniel Berliner, 28, is the owner and manager of The Honey Hive. He says the venue hosts between two and five live shows a week. He also believes that the current state of music venues in the City is troubling.
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“Even as far as your average venue in San Francisco, it seems like there are not a lot of places that are making an active effort to host live music,” Berliner said. “And as far as independent and local artists, there are really not venues especially for them.”
Berliner says that among these spaces, all-age venues are particularly scarce.
“All-ages venues in general are really limited,” he said. “You would imagine with a city of how many people San Francisco has there would be a lot more, but there are certainly not enough.”
Berliner believes that one of the big reasons many venues are not all-ages is because they rely on the sale of alcohol in order to make enough profit to stay in business and pay rent. One of the ways he works around this is by renting out studios within The Honey Hive to local artists.
Though Berliner acknowledges that is can be easier to maintain a music venue by selling alcohol, he maintains that his venue has actually gained respect from much of the community because of its commitment to allowing underage patrons.
“I think people tend to respect the shows and respect the space a lot more because there is no alcohol,” Berlinger said. “Most of the time people see the space in a bit of a different way than your average bar venue.”
Another all-age venue that provides a platform for young people to share their art is The Depot. Located inside San Francisco State University, The Depot is host to many student bands but also organizes performances from both local bands, as well as ones from across the country.
“Our primary goal is to support our students who are interested in the music industry,” said 27-year-old Nilo Amiri, the manager of The Depot and a senior at SF State. “Because most of our shows are all ages, they are free, and a lot of them are open to non-students as well. That kind of opens up a lot of room, especially for freshmen, and makes it a little bit more accessible for them to enjoy themselves.”
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Amiri believes all-age music venues are crucial in San Francisco, and provide an important outlet to help foster creativity in young people.
“I remember when I was younger where I grew up there were youth centers where we could put together shows and have bands come by, and that was a huge deal for me as an individual,” Amiri said. “I think that was a really great thing to have and here I am many years later working passionately toward working in the music industry.”
Amiri said she understands how difficult it can be to be underage and prevented from experiencing shows that could have personal significance.
“It’s tough when you feel excluded from being able to see your favorite bands or artists perform just because of your age,” Amiri said. “I think part of that might have to do with music shows being so linked together with drinking.”
Of the numerous bars in the City, a few of them double as live performance venues. One of these venue is the Milk Bar, located in the heart of the Haight district directly across the street from Amoeba Records.
As the name suggests, The Milk Bar is a bar first and foremost, but hosts live weekly shows in a designated space in the rear of the building.
Alec Arlen, 28, has been working at the Milk Bar for two years as a bartender and sound engineer. He says that although he’s glad all-age venues exist, he believes there are more benefits for venues that are 21 and over.
“It’s nicer to have an older crowd, you don’t have to worry about kids drinking or acting stupid and ruining shows,” Arlen said. “The only downfall I can think of is that there’s less people coming to the shows.”
Arlen believes that, in many ways, being able to see live shows is something that comes with age.
“Live music is kind of one of those things where the general rule is that you have to be 18 and up or 21 and over, and that’s just something you have to deal with” he said. “The music is still available for you, especially with all the media nowadays. You aren’t going to get the full experience but you can get a general idea of what it’s like.”
Nevertheless, there are still many young people who want to attend shows but are limited to certain venues based on their age. Some of them, like Maturana, oppose the notion that being able to see shows is earned with age. She thinks this kind of art is only worthwhile if it is open to everyone.
“I think it’s kind of a bullshit idea that people have to prove themselves and grow into things,” Maturana said. “It’s a societal construct that we happen to put into our DIY communities, and it shouldn’t even belong there.”
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