A couple hundred people used to jam into an illegal music club called The Loft, a tight space behind midtown Sacramento’s Time Tested Books. Funcastle, an unpermitted venue in a midtown bungalow, drew up to 100 people for shows during its three-year run. Huge crowds packed other now-shuttered venues over the years, places like Gallery Horse Cow, the Stucco Factory and Fool’s Foundation.
From the 1980s until just a few years ago, Sacramento had a thriving network of underground art and music venues, cultivating a strong punk rock and fringe arts scene. Artists say that scene is now in a lull and that not enough is being done to support a vital part of any city’s culture.
“Both the underground and mainstream need to coexist,” said Billy Lane, a Sacramento DJ who got his start at local do-it-yourself venues. “In one situation, you lack the safety and crowd control, but there’s something pure about a free space like that and an ability for artistic expression on the rawest level. It might hit, it might miss, but it’s happening.”
Many Sacramento artists have expressed a renewed desire to cultivate underground spaces – while ensuring those spaces are safe – after the devastating fire this month at an Oakland arts collective known as the Ghost Ship. The fire tore through the warehouse during an electronic dance music show, killing 36. Many of the victims were young artists.
Places like the Ghost Ship provide affordable space for artists to exchange ideas, receive feedback and hone their craft. Sacramento’s Warehouse Artist Lofts serves that purpose in a safer setting. But the 116 units in that R Street affordable housing complex were leased within hours, and many artists prefer the bohemian feel of illegal, dingier settings to its modern touches.
With rents quickly escalating in midtown – Sacramento’s hub for culture – artists said pressure is mounting for them to find places to live and work.
Sacramento’s rental market “is great news if you’re a landlord or a real estate developer, but it’s terrible news if you’re a struggling artist, or a struggling worker of any sort,” local historian William Burg said. “It doesn’t just hurt the individual artist, but the creative economy as a whole.”
Shelly Willis, head of the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, said her organization and local governments need to do more to support informal art spaces. That support could take the form of grants, help with guiding artists through the permitting process or offering incentives to landlords and developers to encourage constructing places for artists.
“If you don’t have those safe places, then you don’t grow as an artist, you don’t expand your knowledge of the practice,” Willis said. “You need to have the opportunity to talk with other artists, to create a community that gives you the confidence and strength to continue.”
Artists sometimes describe the permitting process to establish new venues as burdensome, noting the high costs of alcohol licenses and security. Most underground spots don’t pay for security, relying instead on systems of self-policing. Many are alcohol-free and are open to patrons of all ages.
One of the longest-lasting underground spots in Sacramento was The Loft, which ran for 10 years until it closed in 2002. Scott Soriano ran the place, and he said he made a conscious effort not to seek the city’s approval.
“I didn’t want the permitting headaches,” he said. “We didn’t ask the city to get involved because I’m sure we would have gotten shut down.”
Soriano said five fights broke out in The Loft during its decade of operation, and police visited only a handful of times. There was no drinking or smoking allowed and, like other underground spots, the club relied on donations at the door to pay the rent.
It also helped develop what Soriano called “bread-and-butter bands,” the kind of acts that were either not seasoned enough or considered too experimental to perform at sanctioned nightclubs.
“It gave people who didn’t have money, who were just starting out, a place to practice and perform where profit wasn’t the motive,” Soriano said. “You’re not going to get that with Harlow’s or Ace of Spades. There’s a certain amount of commercial appeal needed at a lot of those places.”
Liz Liles-Brown held more than 100 shows at her home on L Street between 2008 and 2011. She called the spot Funcastle and hosted a wide range of acts, from punk bands to DJs to a “percussionist from Japan.” Neighbors called the police dozens of times, but since Liles-Brown always closed down by 10 p.m. and drugs weren’t being used at the venue, she always got away with a warning.
“If someone started a band in town, they would play at my house,” Liles-Brown said. “Right now, we’re getting skipped over (by out-of-town bands) because there’s nowhere for underground, DIY bands to play. You need to create spaces where like-minded people can have fun and be creative together.”
Liles-Brown later co-founded midtown’s Witch Room, a legal venue that operated for just 10 months. “We couldn’t afford it,” she said. “It was too expensive; there were too many regulations.”
Sacramento city officials said their focus is on safety. Building inspectors and Fire Department personnel are tasked with examining venues in Sacramento, and the Police Department has a team of officers that patrols clubs. There are about 70 permitted venues in Sacramento and a two-year entertainment permit from the city costs $1,722.
Tina Lee-Vogt, a manager with the city’s entertainment and permit program, said the city has shut down events scheduled for illegal sites in the past, but that it doesn’t happen often. “Every once in a while a promoter from out of town will try to bring a big party to a warehouse,” she said. “We try to nip those in the bud.”
While Sacramento’s underground has never seen the level of tragedy that occurred in Oakland, the city has had art spaces go up in flames.
Gallery Horse Cow in West Sacramento, a renegade live-work space for local artists, was hit by a fire in 2009 after an electrical cord rubbed against a metal barrel. Gallery Horse Cow had previously been in a warehouse on the outskirts of downtown at North 16th Street and an initial space on Del Paso Boulevard in north Sacramento.
Following the West Sacramento fire, Gallery Horse Cow was shut down after city inspectors and the Fire Department reported such violations as hazardous materials and shoddy wiring.
The former Stucco Factory artist collective at 27th and R streets in midtown also succumbed to a suspected arson fire. The spot adjacent to the light-rail tracks is now home to a new housing complex, but from 1983 to 1993, the space was a hub for Sacramento’s avant-garde artists and other creative people.
Some members of the seminal Sacramento punk band Tales of Terror lived at the Stucco Factory, and the warehouse was also a home base for such revered Sacramento artists as Steve Vanoni, David White and Bill Yates. Actor Victor Wong, whose son Lyon played guitar in Tales of Terror, was seen as a guiding figure for the space.
Though the Stucco Factory lacked simple amenities, it supported a nexus of local artists, poets and musicians – many who were living hand to mouth. A retrospective of Stucco Factory artists was held in 1999 at the Center for Contemporary Art.
“It was a totally industrial space,” Vanoni told The Sacramento Bee in 1999. “Everything was covered with a fine dust, and when I turned on the lights, rats would run across the floor. All the windows were broken and there was no insulation. It was hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. There was no hot water and only a couple of bathrooms in the courtyard. But I had 4,800 square feet for $165 a month.”
On the musical end, underground venues often serve as incubators for sounds before they emerge in the mainstream. Punk rock was born through gigs in basements and other renegade spaces, and nurtured in Sacramento during the 1980s through Club Minimal, a warehouse space on the outskirts of Curtis Park that was often shut down by police until it received a proper dance permit.
Throughout the 1990s, Sacramento was home to an active rave and underground dance party scene at a number of illicit venues. One infamous series of parties was even thrown under the Yolo Causeway with the help of gas-powered generators, while a variety of warehouses and even a cabinet shop in north Sacramento served as makeshift spaces for all-night events.
Lane remembers one rave held in a laser-tag space that felt like a fire trap.
“It was a maze of plywood and spray paint,” said Lane, who now hosts a weekly radio show on 107.9 The End. “There’s all these kids smoking cigarettes, and it was a recipe for disaster – like if this place goes up in flames, it’s a wrap.”
That underground rave scene doesn’t exist anymore. Electronic dance music has since ascended to the mainstream pop charts, through such acts as Skrillex and The Chainsmokers, which recently performed at Cal Expo for The End radio’s Jingle Ball show. But the sound and ethos was forged in do-it-yourself venues and its spirit of experimentation.
And if the void in Sacramento’s underground continues?
“Sacramento will be lame,” Liles-Brown said.