By Robert J. Hansen | OBSERVER Staff Writer

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg delivers the first of his three State of the City addresses Aug. 21. Robert J. Hansen OBSERVER
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg delivers the first of his three State of the City addresses Aug. 21. Robert J. Hansen OBSERVER

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg held the first of three State of the City addresses Aug. 21, discussing how the city can take a more entrepreneurial approach to live performances and activate underutilized spaces in Sacramento’s commercial corridors.

“We are a proud, increasingly diverse city, but the music scene still looks like the old days of the jazz jubilee,” Steinberg said, speaking from a vacant building across the street from Downtown Commons.

Eighty-six percent of Sacramento musicians reported four or fewer opportunities a month to play in front of a crowd, according to the Sacramento Music Census, which was released Aug. 21. Regulatory barriers and confusion about permitting dominated the concerns in the census, Steinberg said.

“If we are going to be a city that encourages and nurtures a creative economy and insists on genuine equity, we need our regulatory environment to reflect that,” Steinberg said.

Scott Ford, economic development director for the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, sees an opportunity to rethink and reimagine Sacramento.

“The city has changed, the mindset here has changed,” Ford said. “I mean, this is a yes-we-can city now.”

Tina Lee-Vogt, the city’s nighttime economy manager, discussed safety concerns with the idea of making permits easier to obtain.

“It’s a balance of safety and vibrancy,” Lee-Vogt said. “One of the things you never hear people talk about is how thousands of people go to venues.”

Lee-Vogt said thousands of people empty out on the streets every night from Badlands, Mercantile Saloon and Rosco’s, and go home safely every night.

“There’s a lot of different things that we put in place that address safety,” Lee-Vogt said. “For us, it’s about planning. It’s about how we do traffic management, how we do conditions for venues and how we make sure those conditions are appropriate.”

Safety is not just about the police or the fire department, but laying a foundation for people to go out and come home safely, she said.

Megan Van Voorhis, director of convention and cultural services, said the census findings consistently indicated artists need more opportunities.

“Many of them are not connected at all to professional services or business industry services,” Voorhis said. “Most of them do it on their own.”

Julia Heath, California chapter president and national membership director at National Independent Venue Association, said that despite a vibrant creative scene, Sacramento’s venues and music businesses have never fully been recognized.

“I don’t think its potential has ever been acknowledged on a real conversational level,” Heath said.

Black California Chamber of Commerce President Jay King said he thinks that if Sacramento is to have a strong creative economy, it must do better to include creatives, including musical artists having trouble finding places to perform. Anyone who wants to perform music professionally in public needs to get city permits. “Even $500, that’s too much,” he said. Steinberg said a special event permit in Sacramento costs more than $1,300. “Don’t kill creatives before they get started,” King said.

If the musician-to-venue and industry resources ratio is out of balance, as it is in Sacramento, it can be considered out of balance in terms of the local music scene and industry dynamics, according to the census.

This can impact the availability and accessibility of venues for musicians to perform, as well as the availability of resources such as funding, marketing, and a general lack of opportunities for musicians and industry professionals, the census said.

More than 1,000 musicians, artists, stakeholders and business owners responded to the city’s music census, which revealed that 78% of the respondents were performers, 7% operated music venues, and 15% were involved in recording, merchandising and other aspects of the music business.

“There are so few venues to work with, you kind of have to accept what you can get sometimes,” a census respondent said.

For comparison, venues and the music industry make up 29% of the music ecosystem in Austin, Texas, and 31% in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

“The venue capacity ladder is not balanced and specifically lacks venues with capacity between 101 and 500,” the census said. “With such a small venue/presenter portion of the ecosystem, it’s not surprising that creatives need more opportunity.”

Steinberg proposed the following seven changes to Sacramento’s city ordinances, guided by the music census:

  • Streamline permitting for special events, entertainment licenses, activations, films, pop-ups and whatever else creatives can think of.
  • Establish a single point of entry through a city entertainment division. Establish a time-certain and transparent process.
  • Make the entire process online. Sacramento can easily leverage existing city technology to make this happen.
  • Take an online permitting process and decrease the permit approval time for smaller events. No more than 10 to 14 days for small low-impact events, 30 days for mid-size events, and if the event requires it, within 60 days.
  • For vacant spaces, create easy-to-obtain new pop-up permits. “If you want to activate a vacant lot, or a space like this one, you need to go through some additional checks, have a safety plan, a noise plan, and a traffic plan if necessary, but get it all done up front with a simple single application at the beginning of the process so there are no surprises closer to the event date,” Steinberg said.
  • Reduce costs. “We can justify doing so by reducing the amount of time our staff has to spend by a more efficient process,” Steinberg said. “San Diego costs $367 for a one-time special event permit, San Francisco is $510. Sacramento is $1,331.”
  • Finally, public safety must be considered. Streamlining must be coupled with a bad actor policy that establishes clear guidelines and ensures that regulations effectively discourage harmful and unsafe practices without burdening those who act responsibly. “Changing the regulations in a responsible way is only one big piece,” Steinberg said. 

The mayor is working with the Downtown Partnership and the city’s office of arts and culture to bring an online booking provider to Sacramento.

“Together we can seed new real-time ways to incentivize artists and new venues to sign up,” Steinberg said.