Music City aims to save our city’s music


Rudy Colombini has lived in San Francisco for damn near his whole life. He’s opened for Joan Jett, Elton John, Devo, Chaka Kahn, and The Beach Boys. He fronts a fantastically successful Rolling Stones tribute band, and now the rail-thin singer in leather pants has a dream: build a musical mecca in San Francisco that both pays homage to its storied history, and pays forward a lifeline to the current generation of musicians and artists here, most of whom are barely treading water in a stormy sea of affordability.

Columbini performing with the Unauthorized Rolling Stones The_URS_by_Stefan_3

Colombini is not the first person to have this all-inclusive dream. A few years ago, there was a push to create The Root, which was a beautiful, but failed, concept for a non-profit hub for music, utilizing city funds set aside in the early 2000s for this purpose. But he is the first person who’s had the property to bring it to reality. As a part-time broker and developer, Colombini owns buildings in the TenderKnob in which he’s creating his Music City.

In short, Music City is “affordable services for musicians, artists and students in San Francisco,” said Project Manager Ben Givarz over a beer at the Hemlock a few weeks ago. “We want to break down the barriers to affordability in this city so that regardless of your income you can come here.”

They’re doing this through affordable housing for local students and artists (Summer of Love); affordable hotel/hostel rooms for touring musicians or wayward travelers (the Encore Express Hotel, located on the top two floors of Music City); rehearsal studios beautifully lit and fully back-lined (drum kits, guitar/bass amps and PA in most rooms) that are available for shockingly low cost on a sliding scale down to zero; and a burgeoning radio station called Music City Radio broadcasting music happening in San Francisco (local and touring acts). Under construction are a cafe and venue, more rehearsal spaces, and a San Francisco Music Hall of Fame, to steep cafe and venue visitors in the past and present of the SF music scene.

The biggest asset here – and what the new Midway complex, though gorgeous, fails to address – is providing affordable housing. That’s the crux of the current crisis. While San Francisco has a complicated past full of gold-chasers, dream-crushers, and culture-crashers, it has also been a lush ecosystem of freaks and innovators. People have been pushing boundaries and chasing the edges of imagination for over a century. But, at a time when the average price for a one bedroom in the city has more than doubled since 2009, a lack of affordable housing means San Francisco musicians are moving (or have moved) to Oakland, Los Angeles, or Portland in droves. The city is losing its scene.

But, what is a scene? “Scenes are created just by getting people together. We’re not deliberately trying to create one, but it happens naturally,” says Givarz. “Community is a byproduct of centralized space.” Sharing a virtual community space under a single website and brand is one thing, but Music City does more: if you live in Summer of Love, or stay at the Encore Express, use of the rehearsal spaces is free; the venue/cafe and Hall of Fame are both embedded in a secondary set of rehearsal spaces. Music City encourages people to interact, to be in shared spaces and to create community. Local songwriter Jenna Lavoie, who moved 20 times in 2 years as her music career blossomed here in the city, is one such musician who has found a “sanctuary” in Music City.

“It was so wonderful to feel another element of support for musicians that came in the form of living space and creating space. Music City has created resources for musicians to expand and thrive.” ~ Jenna Lavoie

Lavoie performing at Music City StudiosMusic_City_by_Stefan_1

San Francisco is wrought with problems (not just for artists and musicians) and the path to fixing the problems is complicated. Strong policies protecting and creating affordable housing for both low and middle income residents will have to keep coming from City Hall, as well as continued support from the city’s Entertainment Commission who won this hard fought victory to protect venues against cranky new neighbors in luxury condos. But as we all know relying on government to act is like watching a freighting ship trying to make a u-turn. It takes time, it’s slow and the outcomes aren’t always great.

It’s comforting to know that in the meantime, Colombini is building his dream– part by part, parcel by parcel. On a tour a few months ago, he led a crew of 20+ musicians into the bare, unfinished work zone that will be the venue / Hall of Fame. With only metal framing to point at, he waved his hands from ‘room’ to ‘room’ excitedly building in our minds the details of his grand vision. “Can you see it?” I could see it, and it was the first time I’ve felt hopeful about music in San Francisco in a few years.

Columbini and Givarz give a tour to Balanced Breakfast SF membersMusic_City_SF_by_Cory_Sanders_12

(Note: If you are an artist/musician, take a moment to fill out the city’s Individual Artist Displacement Survey. Givarz told me that much of the slow progress on the city’s support for the arts has revolved around the difficulty in pinning down an accurate depiction of the problems faced: many musicians work day jobs to afford the city and so on paper don’t appear to be “struggling” as artists. This survey is trying to create real metrics for understanding the problem.)

As a bonus, check out this video from the TUNE UP SF series – co-presented by Music City and Culture Collide and shot in those beautiful Music City rehearsal studios – of UK-based punk pop noise band PINS.

Photos by Music City Art Director Stefan Aronsen and Cory Sanders