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by Calla Camero
How many minimum wage jobs does it take to pay the overhead in San Francisco while pursuing a career in pop music? For one three-man band that came to the city to develop a following, the answer was too many and never enough.
Originally from Hawaii, they call themselves “Bats in the Belfree” and headed east for California in January 2012.
Drummer Kimo Preis-Carpenter, 22, bass guitarist Riley Sieverts, 23, and lead guitarist Christian Vonham, 22, packed up their instruments and headed out for the city that launched the careers of Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead—whose members famously lived cheaply enough in the Haight-Ashbury to pay the rent and still devote plenty of time to playing and writing music.
That’s the climate they expected when they arrived in San Francisco, but the economic landscape had changed dramatically since the days of the Grateful Dead.
There were no more low-rent Victorians of the sort a band could share by pooling their resources. And club owners and booking agents, faced with their own skyrocketing rents, expected unknown bands to play for free, if at all.
“We saved a good amount of money before we moved to San Francisco,” Preis-Carpenter said. “We played at a bunch of venues in Hawaii long before the move so when we saved enough, we moved and lived off that for a while.”
In Honolulu, the band had a $400 weekly gig at a restaurant popular with tourists. Additionally, they’d book gigs at various nightclubs and coffee shops and usually got paid under the table.
They were mentioned in a few articles in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for winning a Battle of the Bands contest and opened for a few big Reggae names.
But the search for gigs in this city was nothing like it was on the islands. Competition was stiff and venue bookers even stiffer.
“Venues want to play good music, but more than that they want to bring people in,” Preis-Carpenter said. “We were an up-and-coming band that barely had a following.”
The band sent out emails daily to booking agents. Some arranged gigs, most didn’t and none ever paid.
Playing for ‘exposure’
Bookers like Larry Trujillo, who works for the Uptown Nightclub in Oakland, are inundated with requests from artists looking for gigs.
“I get about 100 emails an hour from bands trying to get spots to play,” he said.
Without a venue to hire them, exposure was impossible. Starved of income, the band’s savings account quickly diminished. While the band did secure a number of bookings—Milk Bar in the Haight, Zephyr Cafe in the Outer Richmond and other spots—none of the venues paid.
“It was as if booking us was them doing us a favor,” Sieverts said.
Even though they were told ahead of time that the shows would be unpaid, they still felt they needed the exposure.
“San Francisco puts you in a predicament because venues only wanted bands that had a following so that they could bring people in, but in order to accumulate a following we had to play and get exposure first,” Sieverts said.
And there is no pay structure for venues like Uptown Nightclub.
“We have nights that are free to the public and those are for the bands that do it for the love of music and are trying to build up a following,” Trujillo said. “Nobody has expectations—we don’t have any, [the bands] don’t have any.”
On the other hand, Trujillo said there are times that the band and the venue will negotiate the band’s pay before the band starts, but there is no guarantee of that pay following the show.
“Each deal is 100 percent different,” Trujillo said.
Can’t pay the bills on ‘free’
Eventually, Bats in the Belfree slowed down its search for gigs and started playing at house parties. While this approach was easier and helped them build a following, they were still playing for free.
It was time to find day jobs.
“Lucky for us,” Preis-Carpenter said, “San Francisco had a high minimum wage.”
But even a relatively high base pay didn’t help them cover their expenses with time left over for the band.
Between them, they juggled seven food service jobs. Sievert worked the Fillmore Auditorium—not onstage, as he would have prefered, but outside, providing the security detail.
After a while, the band’s music began to suffer as time for practices and performances shrunk to little or nothing.
“We realized that that’s just how it is,” Vonham said, “playing music isn’t valued like work anymore. We just had to find work that paid elsewhere.”
After working multiple jobs and getting nowhere, the men packed up their instruments once again and moved—this time to Los Angeles, where they hoped their career would ascend to the next level.
“Our end goal is to to inspire people in the way that our favorite bands inspire us,” Vonham said, and “to play music for people and get paid for doing what we love so we can focus all of our energy on the music and nothing else.”