The Guest List

If you ask most local music fans what would improve the local music scene, “all-ages,” is usually on the short list of suggestions. “All-ages” can mean a lot of things, so I’d like to offer a working definition of the all-ages music events that the scenesters are talking about. All-ages shows are live music events with no age limitation to access the music experience; but more to the point, they are expressly purposed for young people to enjoy and participate in. Those who frequent all-ages shows would agree that there is a quality that is harder to define, beyond access to young people. The event is somehow “owned” by the participants; there is a sense of independence and propriety felt by both the performers and audience. What matters is the interaction between young performers and their peers, which is not open to scrutiny by outsiders.

The city of Ventura has decided that having a viable musician community here is a valuable part of the city’s character. Certainly, I agree and have participated in the ongoing conversation with the city to that effect during the last month. As a promoter and all-ages music advocate, I’ve always felt that all-ages shows build the foundation of a lifetime of professional performance, and launch music and performance-related careers. Providing the access and opportunity to perform for their peers creates a love of music that buoys the efforts of these kids to keep practicing, keep developing their skills and keep playing live.

In terms of economic development, all-ages shows are long game.  It should be evident that serious musicians and music professionals — the kind of economic drivers we want — do not start practicing at age 21. If you were to survey the pros, you would find that most of them share the traits of having started young, had the opportunity afforded them to practice extensively, and had regular opportunities to perform live for their peers. The urge to get better, to practice harder and dedicate one’s self comes more from the pride of (or fear of failing while) performing live; the more opportunities to do so we can collectively provide to young people, the more professional musicians our community will churn out. It’s no wonder that today’s famous performers tend to come from or quickly migrate to those cities with thriving local music scenes that happen to have lots of all-ages shows.

All-ages shows typically have very slim profit margins, with ticket prices limited to pocket money, most times with no sale of alcohol or other high-margin concessions. That makes it unworkable for most for-profit businesses, and thus it falls to those promoters and bands who do it as a labor of love.  If we collectively decide that we value all-ages shows because we see the longterm benefits of them, then we need to make it feasible for those who promote all-ages shows to make a dollar doing it. If we’d like legitimate businesses to put on these kinds of shows, we should be discounting permits and creating stated guidelines for all-ages shows to be in compliance with the law. Another option would be to incubate all-ages music, collectively providing support such as an all-ages cooperative music venue supported by the city. Local businesses that stand to benefit from a thriving over-21 music scene could sponsor all-ages events while promoting their own businesses. We could fund modest grants to promote all-ages shows. It doesn’t have to be expensive, just creative.

All-ages shows matter because music matters.  Allowing young people to perform and appreciate music on their own terms must be part of an overall strategy to develop professional musicians and serious music fans who contribute to the collective cultural offering of our community. I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t about charity or art for art’s sake; local music is good for business.  It gets people off the couch and attracts them to cultural centers where they will eat, drink and get parking tickets.  If we want that, we need to find a way to make all-ages shows happen; and merely hoping that they will under the current circumstances means that we will continue to have what we have now: not much.

Brian Parra’s Blackbird Music promoted several all-ages music venues, including the Livery Theater, in Ventura for many years.  Currently, he runs Saturday Night Sound, which is producing the Local Rock Picnic in Downtown Ventura, April 30.  For more information, visit www.localrockpicnic.com.  In the interest of disclosure, Parra works in the advertising department at VCReporter.