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The State of Live Music at UCSD

A detailed look into the changes in store for live music at UCSD

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Rhyan Santos, courtesy of the Frights
    Shake-ups to live music at UCSD involve the Che Cafe, Porter's Pub and the annual Sun God Festival.

    Who knew 2014 would usher in such a wave of change for fans of live music at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD)? The Che Cafe, Porter's Pub and the annual Sun God Festival all became the focus of student-led advisory boards and administrator scrutiny alike. With more changes in the wind in 2015, SoundDiego takes a look at the state of music on the La Jolla campus.
     
    The Che Cafe

    The first and largest development to drastically affect the school's musical landscape last year involved the Che Cafe -- the school's iconic all-ages cultural center situated in a small 73-year-old building -- which, in its 35-year history, has hosted shows by Green Day, Billy Corgan, Jimmy Eat World and Nirvana among countless others. It has faced legal action in the past -- most notably in 2012, when it failed to stay current on insurance premiums. After the co-op raised enough money to settle the issue, it remained afloat. But in 2014, the club appeared to be in a much more dire situation. 
     
    The University Centers Advisory Board (UCAB), which is a student-run committee, provides (or cuts) funding for on-campus services, facilities and centers that are funded by student fees. Since the Che Cafe is a student-run club and funded in part by student fees, it falls under the University Centers umbrella. 

    On May 23, the board voted 9-4 in an executive (private) session to redact the Che Cafe from its 2014-15 budget -- which effectively made it possible for the Graduate Student Association (GSA) to vote to decertify the club as a cooperative and for the university to terminate its lease. The board cited safety hazards and imminent, extensive repairs ordered by the campus fire marshal and an overall lack of current student interest in the club as reasons for the vote. [Read the original SoundDiego story on the vote here.]
     
    "The students themselves are evaluating what they want and need, and what they can afford within their budget," UCSD Public Information Representative Christine Clark told SoundDiego in May. Indeed, a UCSD-conducted survey of 1,800 students resulted in 82 percent admitting they had never been to a show at the Che.

    As expected, on May 19, the GSA voted (in a private session) to decertify the Che Cafe as "not acting in the best interests of the students." The GSA then voted 24-2 on June 2 that the university should terminate the club's month-to-month lease, and on June 13, the school did just that. 

    UCSD administrators and the UCAB have claimed from the very beginning that the Che Cafe's lack of adherence to safety and state fire codes are its main points of emphasis, and more than justify the shuttering of the building. The repairs ordered by the school's fire marshal -- the installation of an overhead fire sprinkler and fire alarm system -- were subsequently estimated by a private consulting agency (ISES Corporation, which identifies and quantifies facility maintenance needs) at more than $700,000 to bring the small wooden structure up to California Fire Code.

    However, the club's representatives claim that they were only "recommended" upgrades -- not mandatory. They point to a fire marshal inspection on April 17, 2014, and the following letter they received from the school's associate director, John Payne.

    Payne wrote, in part: "The fire marshal was extremely pleased at all the efforts that have been made and has signed off on the inspection. Other than one minor item in the Darkstar space, the facility is looking good in terms of fire safety.… Once again, thank you for all your efforts in keeping a safe facility."

    The co-op maintains that while the California Fire Code (which the statewide UC system adheres to) specifies that new buildings (as of 2003) with occupancy loads of 100 people or more are required to have an automatic fire sprinkler system, the code exempts all existing buildings similar to the type of the Che Cafe from the retrofit requirement.

    In the Che Cafe's recent statement to the Associated Students (AS) and the GSA, venue officials maintained that the safety of the building is up to snuff: "There is absolutely no legal basis in the fire code for requiring that the C.H.E. Cafe facility be shut down. There is no legal and industry expert consensus that any urgent safety problem exists if a building of our type does not have an automatic sprinkler system -- providing that all other code requirements for fire extinguishers, exits, exit signage, etc., are met."

    Still, university administrators think otherwise. UCSD Executive Director of Marketing, Media Relations and Public Affairs Jeffrey Gattas told us: "The safety code [the Che Cafe representatives] keep referring to is the absolute minimum standard. All student life facilities should have a sprinkler system -- not to mention a 60-year-old concert venue, situated in a group of trees. It's a very old wooden structure, and people get packed in there. They can keep going back and forth with what the fire marshal reported, but that's the minimum standard. A concert venue needs a fire sprinkler and fire alarm system."

    In July, the co-op went on the offensive and sued the school for the "unlawful" termination of its lease and alleged collusion between the GSA and UCSD to decertify the club [read the SoundDiego report here]. After considerable legal wrangling over four months, San Diego superior court judge Katherine Bacal ruled on Oct. 21 in favor of UCSD, arguing that the co-op had not requested the proper dispute resolution procedure it was required to make per the terms of its lease -- which ultimately means the university is now free to terminate the lease at any time. The Che Cafe immediately appealed the ruling. [Read the SoundDiego report here.]

    All along, there has been a considerable uproar from patrons, musicians and students (former and current). Petitions, emails, letter campaigns and even marches on administrator offices have attempted to cement the club's importance as the school's first "safe space" on campus and relevancy as its original cultural center.

    Toward the end of 2014, a campaign was undertaken by the performing arts community to boycott any artistic engagements at the school until the club is allowed to remain fully functional at its current building. Members of such bands as Pinback, Rocket From the Crypt, Rage Against the Machine, Dead Kennedys and the Locust have all rallied to its cause.

    "The university only understands and speaks a language of finance," the boycott's co-organizer Mar Moreno told SoundDiego in December. "While this is unfortunate, we need to start talking to the university's pocketbook, and to a lesser extent, its reputation in the broader community. We are asking all members of the arts community to not participate in any artistic engagements on the UCSD campus. It is important because the arts community is influential and has substantial relationships with the university community. Less ticket sales and lower attendance at events on the campus will send a strong message of disapproval of the administration's mistreatment of the Che Cafe."

    Within the last few months, the co-op entered into a potentially constructive dialogue with the university and its new vice chancellor, Juan Gonzalez. On Dec. 5, Gonzalez issued a "proposed agreement" to the collective, agreeing to the Che Cafe's request for the university to "defer service of the write of possession to allow time for the Associated Students to offer its opinion about the future of the facility." Both the AS and GSA formed ad hoc committees to address the issues surrounding the collective. In January, the committees announced they would be working together to issue a joint report.

    On Feb. 9, a compromise solution was agreed upon: The AS and GSA proposed closing the Che Cafe building for 18 months and requested the collective to program outside the building until the end of spring 2016 -- "at which time metrics regarding student involvement in programming (sign-in sheets, ticket sales, etc.) can be evaluated for further action." [Read the proposal in full here.]

    The proposal requested that the co-op enter into an interim re-integration program starting this fall -- which means the club would be required to host several events elsewhere on campus, at Porter's Pub, the Loft, the Sun God lawn, Revelle Plaza and other locations.

    Starting at the end the 2015-16 school year, it was proposed that the collective would possibly be allowed to program at the Che Cafe building, "provided that: (1) financial stability and sustainability has been achieved, (2) student involvement has improved, (3) funding has been secured to repair the Che Cafe and (4) renovations and repairs have been completed."

    The presidents of the AS and GSA issued a joint statement on March 2 asking the collective to embrace the proposal and work with them on demonstrating "that they can serve as a student-centered organization." They also requested that the co-op vacate the building so that "safety concerns with the building can be addressed." [Read the statement in full here.]

    Representatives for the Che Cafe balked at the proposal and issued the following response on Feb. 25.

    "The C.H.E. Cafe Collective is opposed to any solution that includes the collective leaving the C.H.E. Cafe Building. To leave the building would be tantamount to forfeiting the property. The UC San Diego administration has a history of refusing to allow organizations, such as the Craft Center, to reclaim buildings after they have left. We also feel the reasoning behind the request to leave the building is problematic. There is not a need to vacate. No safety issues with the building have been properly demonstrated, and student support of the C.H.E. Cafe Collective is strong and continues to grow with each meeting and event that is being held at the C.H.E. Cafe building."

    The press release went on to say that the co-op would continue to work with AS and GSA to halt the eviction process. However, according to a March 3 post on the group's official Facebook page, the university has since asked that they "voluntarily vacate the building by March 14, 2015. Failure to comply with this notice will result in a posting of the court-ordered eviction."

    It looks like the Che Cafe collective is still booking shows, albeit at other venues: On March 17, it's presenting Crime Desire, Drug Control, Sustivity, Slums of the Future and Clayface at Legend Records in Pacific Beach.

    SoundDiego will continue to provide coverage on any future developments.

    Porter's Pub
      
    Porter's Pub, another (bigger) live music venue on campus, is facing an uphill battle as well. In November, news broke via the UCSD Guardian that the UCAB had decided not to renew the lease with the business' current owner, Stephen Lawler. It was a surprising move, as Porter's routinely hosts much bigger shows at its venue -- including Too Short, Run the Jewels and Bad Suns, among others (all in 2014 alone). The issues at hand, as announced by the UCAB, were the pub's lack of student-run events and lack of food sales -- which, in an official UCSD statement [read it in full here], are required to consistently outpace alcohol sales. 
     
    "The decision to begin seeking out a new tenant for the pub space was made by students from organizations across campus, taking into account a range of factors," the Nov. 4 statement read. "Retail sales, input from student organizations and individual students, lack of student access to the space, student satisfaction with food at Porter's Pub, as well as repeated breaches of campus and University Centers policies were all significant factors in the decision to not renew the lease for Porter's Pub after May 2015."
     
    The move came as a shock to Lawler, who has owned and managed Porter's Pub since 2001, when he purchased it from Robert Porter. As for the food sales component of the argument, Lawler just can't wrap his head around it, citing an inability to truly be competitive. 
     
    "We sell our food pretty cheap," Lawler told SoundDiego. "We don't gouge students -- we sell $3 and $5 meals. I'm not going to sell an $8 hamburger. They say food sales are down, but what about the other 15 restaurants they put in around [the pub]? They put in an Asian restaurant right next to us which primarily sells Thai food. Well, guess what? Forty percent of UCSD's students are Asian. And you know what? They told me I can't sell Asian food. I sell sandwiches -- but guess who sells sandwiches now? The Asian restaurant -- and the coffee cart nearby sells sandwiches, too!"
     
    UCAB chairwoman Claire Maniti dismissed Lawler's claim that he doesn't stand a chance.

    "Centers, which house competing retail interests, have to allow for vendors to retain distinct services and food options," Maniti said. "While there is an Asian-fusion restaurant in the same portion of the campus, this should not significantly affect food sales for Porter's. [The Porter's Pub] menu, which focuses on pub food, should offer the vendor a distinct niche within the spectrum of vendors. Having different menus is better for vendors competing for customers. While a large percentage of UCSD identifies as Asian or Asian-American, this does not mean that Asian-fusion restaurants are going to be more of a draw for Asian students than any other type of vendor. UCSD students eat all over campus."

    But food sales are just one part of the issue. According to the UCSD statement, 31 student events have been held at Porter's Pub in 2014, which they consider to be inadequate pursuant to the current lease agreement. Lawler provided a calendar showing that the pub has hosted at least 56 student events last year. He said that number also doesn't take into account the numerous events not listed on the calendar.

    "The lease requires me to do 12 shows a month -- and we have yet to meet that requirement," Lawler said. "And it's because we leave room for students to use the venue. I turn away business to make sure we have room for the students. And there's a lot of stuff going on at Porter's that doesn't even make it on the calendar. We got a wine society that meets there, the UCSD Brew Club, the Board Games Club, the Koalas meet there -- everyone meets there! It's the place to go on campus."
     
    Maniti offered an explanation for the vast discrepancy between the number of events Lawler listed and the number they specified in their official statement.

    "University Centers has a record of all student events at the stage room which were reported by student orgs and Porter's, but only for events which were properly documented," Maniti said. "Documentation of events which happen at University Centers is necessary, so that student organizations can receive funding for their events at these spaces, have insurance required by the university and fulfill requirements of CSI (the Center for Student Involvement). If University Centers' list does not include all of the events on the vendor's list, this is a major issue -- that discrepancy is coming from a lack of proper documentation."
     
    The official UCSD statement on Porter's Pub mentions that the university will allow Lawler to apply for a new lease with the school, which he told SoundDiego he is hopeful about and is currently in the process of.

    "I love the place … I cried for the first three weeks after I found out they weren't renewing the lease," Lawler said. "Everyone knows I love these kids. And no one loves this place more than me. It's my life."

    Questions abound from Lawler and representatives of the Che Cafe as to why, out of all the facilities on campus, those venues are being targeted.
     
    "I don't think the students on the UCAB board are intentionally working against these spaces," Che Cafe core member (and member of local folk/punk group Sledding With Tigers) Dan Faughnder said. "But my belief, as someone who's watched a lot of this unfold, is that these are well-meaning students who are being fed bad information and are being used to achieve the administration's goal. The culture on campus is moving very quickly to one of corporatization. Before the Che, the UCAB board voted to replace a local/fair-trade coffee shop with a Starbucks, and if you walk around campus, it's very sterile."
     
    Maniti emphatically denied any administration influence or power over UCAB proceedings.

    "UCAB is a student-run, student-majority board: Of the 17 voting members on the board, 14 are students. Given that the majority of University Centers' budget is generated through a student fee, it's incredibly important that students and student priorities dictate decisions made by UCAB. Influence by administration runs counter to the idea of a student advisory board. UCSD administrators have no vote on the University Centers Advisory Board, and their only options in providing input are through speaking as a member of the public or through presentation.… The role of a student advisory board is to retain autonomy of student priorities and interests, separate from those of the administration, and UCAB as a board is not bound to any agenda or interests beyond those of students."

    As of the time of this article's writing, Lawler has submitted a new lease application, and UCAB is currently in the process of accepting other applications for new tenants.

    Sun God Festival

    While the annual Sun God Festival ranks as the school's largest and most eagerly anticipated event each year (it has hosted Diplo, Juicy J, New Politics, the Colourist, Joey Bada$$ and Ty Dolla $ign, among others), it also serves as a yearly wakeup call to administrators and students alike: According to UCSD's official Sun God Task Force findings from Aug. 31, 2014 [read them in full here], 74 concert attendees were treated for overdrinking in festival detox centers -- with 21 hospital transportations and 10 individuals arrested or cited for drug-related offenses. One student, Ricardo Ambriz, died from an accidental drug overdose in the early morning hours after attending the festival [read the NBC 7 report here].

    In the past few months, the Sun God debate has raged between administrators, the Sun God Task Force and fans/patrons of the traditional event. Rumors swirled that the entire format of the festival would change from an EDM/hip-hop no-holds-barred party to a more conservative effort with country music artists -- perhaps even with no headliners at all. Maybe even the whole shindig would be canceled.

    However, UCSD announced in December that the 2015 Sun God Festival would be held May 3, with doors to open at 2 p.m., acts scheduled to begin at 3 p.m., ending -- at the urging of the task force -- at 8 p.m., instead of midnight, as was the case in the past. And about all those rumored changes? Associated Students Concerts and Events Vice President Seraphin Raya told SoundDiego that Sun God will be staying the course, in most regards.

    "We've been noticing a trend of drug activity with EDM shows on campus, but we're not cutting it out… We're looking at creating a festival with less of a party vibe and one that's more about the music, so we're trying to avoid artists that have a crazy, go-hard party following," Raya said. "But, yes, we are still looking at hip-hop and EDM artists as well as indie-rock artists -- and trying to make sure it's well-balanced. We also have a huge variety of entertainment on the field that will make the festival more interactive, such as carnival rides, a Ferris wheel, carnival games and nonmusical performers."

    Raya also confirmed that they have done away with one of the three stages -- the dance stage -- but that's mainly to benefit the booking aspect: "With the festival being shortened and with one less stage to book, our allocated budget is being split less ways, so more money can go into each slot. We're looking to bring in huger acts. An offer has already been confirmed for the headliner, and we're working on contracts at the moment. I think the headliner will draw a lot of excitement when we make the announcement -- this person is definitely a household name."

    With the ongoing issues facing Porter's Pub and the Che Cafe, critics of Sun God are increasingly pessimistic.

    "I just think it's a beautiful, scary, borderline hilarious representation of the shifting priorities on campus," Faughnder said, laughing. "People have died at Sun God. Died. How messed up is that? I don't even begin to understand this school any more."

    Whatever the case, 2014 may have been the beginning of a cultural shift at UCSD (depending on whom you ask), but 2015 may have more changes in store. As music fans and frequent show-goers, we sure hope they're for the better.

    Dustin Lothspeich plays in Old Tiger, Diamond Lakes and Boy King. Follow his updates on Twitter or contact him directly.