- The Bay Area Scene: How it works
- The Bay Improviser Calendar
- Curating A Music Series:
- Values: Cross-pollination of styles, opening new spaces, creating opportunities
- Techniques: finding the right venue, dealing with the owners and booking
- Money and Experimental Music
- Questions For The Readers
For those who don’t know who is Rent Romus , he is a musician, composer, curator and record producer among other things. Today we are focusing on his work as curator, which has helped fuel the Bay Area’s Experimental Music Scene for a long time. As a taste of his expertise he is now curating the Luggage Store New Music Series, the SIMM Music Series and the Outsound New Music Summit, and yes, he still has the time to run his 24 year old label, Edgetone Records, AND to make whole lot of really fine sounding music.
In this interview we talk about what makes the San Francisco’s Bay Area experimental music scene so attractive to musicians around the world and why is it so vibrant: you can find concerts every single day of the week, and often times you’ll even find 5 or more taking place on the same day! We also dig deep into Romus’ approach at making a music series work for which he provides many valuable insights. At the end we talk about the relationships between money, music and community, a subject that is sure to spike some controversy.
That being said, read on and don’t forget to check the question for the readers!
Rent Romus talks about the Bay Area’s Experimental Music Scene and Curating a Music Series
Diego Villaseñor: Can you tell me about the Bay Area improvisation and experimental music scene? It’s history, how was it built and how it works?
Rent Romus: Well the scene here gets fed regularly by new people coming into the community because of the Mills College master’s program. Mostly because the program is focused primarily on new music. I mean, the entire faculty, they’re all well known improvisers and instigators of creative sound. All the way up to Chris Brown who runs the program. There is a long history of that. Anthony Braxton came in 82 and was a resident for a long time. Pauline Oliveros who actually started out in the Bay Area during the 60’s was an important player in the development as well.
Some of the other school programs during present day have also helped as well. U.C. Berkeley for example supports the center there at Arch Street, the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT). Have you been to that venue? It’s right outside the campus. Pauline Oliveros started it along with other colleagues. They have regular concerts there. David Wessel who just passed away this year he was heading up the program from my understanding. These programs I mention have helped in many ways to fuel the scene over the last thirty to forty plus years.
I guess what I’m saying is the attribution of those programs has made it so that the scene here is constantly growing and building. Yeah you have people leaving but then new people come in, so I’m never, as a booker, running out of people looking for gigs, ever. I’ve got a constant flow of emails from new people I’ve never heard of, who are coming in looking for shows which leads me to believe that there’s a lot more musicians here I still haven’t met. To me this is like a Mecca in the United States for new music, creative improvisation, avant-garde, whatever you want to call it. I think that this is really has become a hub over time on the West Coast. Have you seen Bay Improviser?
Diego: Yes, the new music calendar for the Bay Area.
Rent : There you can see a lot of venues that are very active, it’s huge! And I’m sure that if you looked at the calendar you’d see some nights where there’s seven or eight different shows happening simultaneously. Which it’s good on one side and it’s frightening on the other. There’s always this worry about audience and stuff. I could go on forever but…
Diego: So the key here is that the universities drawing in the musicians, the venues act as outlets for creative expression and the curators like you are making this venues available for them.
Rent: Right, and you do not only have students, but also, because of the influx and the notoriety, other musicians from other parts of the world also end up, either coming to visit like yourself or living here for a time and enriching the community even more so. For me it’s really exciting all the time because I love having the academics and the non-academics working together hand in hand creating really great sounds.
Diego: Yeah and a very rich dialogue gets established between all these cultures and all these different fields.
Rent: Yes there’s a lot, it’s very multicultural here compared to other parts of the country which is another thing I really love and never ceases to amaze me: how different people coming from all different places can converge together and speak the same language musically. It’s a great experience, I love that.
Diego: And what’s the role of Bay Improviser?
Rent: Well I think it’s been the glue. With the advent of the Internet it’s been a way to bridge all of those different areas of exploration all those different genres. It’s allowed people to have a place to promote their music one because none of us have any money to spare. Most of us, we have to rely on free advertisement and the Bay Improviser Calendar has been a solution since the early 90’s. It is John Lee who runs it, and he has this love for what we do and I appreciate him deeply for it. And, even though we’re not all you now “kumbaya” and love with fractures in the community like any other, there are people who want to have their own thing and not be connected to anyone else. But lucky for us Bay Improviser bridges all those silos all those separate individual columns of people. Because sometimes you get the harsh noise people who may not want necessarily to mix with the free jazz people. But what Bay Improviser does is it brings everyone together by letting us get to see each other’s shows and sometimes we get cross-pollination.
Diego: Yes, a creative mixture of styles and genres, that may often lead to new paths in music. Speaking of which, can you tell me about the Luggage Store Music Series, because I know that cross-pollination is an important aspect of the way you are curating this series.
Rent: Yes, I started with Ernesto Diaz-Infante, a dear colleague who also helped bring me to the scene. His whole thematic was cross-pollination. When I came in to help him with the series, he wanted to have different musicians from different viewpoints coming together on the same night and play. So that’s why I continue this direction by having for example, an electronics drone set and a little acapella vocal set on the same night. They are totally different but we’ll put them on the same night and that way we get our audience to experience both.
Diego: I find that to be really refreshing because the ear does not get saturated by listening to only one kind of music.
Rent: Other communities are struggling to find a connection like that. It’s a lot harder. They don’t have that, that´s why Bay Improviser is a very important tool that’s helped to connect us all.
Interviewer: So the Luggage Store was one of the pioneers in programming experimental music?
Interviewee: Yeah. The series was started because, as you know, a lot of the times we can’t really play in the clubs, it’s hard. Often the folks in our community will get a series at a bar or club and maybe it’ll go on for a couple months, but soon they’d have to deal with the bar owners or the bartenders because it doesn’t quite fit the profit model. They can’t sell drinks fast enough, people want to listen, you know, so we’re relegated to galleries and to alternate spaces. And the Luggage Store Gallery, they always supported new and interesting music from the time they started over twenty years ago. Right now the series at the Luggage Store is currently the longest standing new music series… probably in all of the West Coast actually now that I think about it.
I stumbled on it in ’99 and then a few years later started helping Ernesto out, maybe on 2002 or 2003. I’ve been running it ever since, along with all the folks that help me create Outsound which is what came out of all that.
Before the Luggage Store, I also ran a monthly series that’s still running today and now it’s twice a month at the Musician’s Union Hall, the SIMM Series. In the beginning of my career I wanted to play as much as possible but had very few options, I then created the SIMM Series so that I could actually have a gig for myself. It’s morphed now and I hardly ever play my own series anymore.
Diego: So for a scene it is really important to people like yourself who are constantly making available new spaces for musicians.
Rent: You know I’ve always been like that, since I was sixteen years old. I have this need to put on shows and support my fellow musicians. It’s a sickness I guess or whatever you want to call it.
Diego: A healthy sickness.
Rent: Yeah, you know, it’s an obsession, I can’t stop doing it. I thought about it, I thought about stepping away and quitting sometimes, but I just can’t do it. I guess it’s terminal…
Diego: What are the biggest challenges to booking shows?
Rent: Oh, well, keeping up the pace. On the one side keeping up with a promotion and the other trying to communicate you know what information I need from the musicians in order to help…Oh, and also how to communicate what we’re trying to present. I get a number of booking requests by chamber music or classical cello quartets or rock bands that could easily play at any of the bars in town, but they don’t quite understand what we’re trying to do. Also musicians need the knowledge, the business knowledge for how to ask for a show. I’ll get people that say “hey dude can I have a gig”, you know, but compare that to an entire C.V. with links and everything. I prefer at least a paragraph, an introduction, and some way I can listen to the music.
Also, the Luggage Store series is in a very weird position. We’re not just a series that only books creative music. We’re also kind of an introductory performance space. Because there are many musicians out there who have this desire to play but don’t know where to go or how to get there. So we’ll book musicians that are kind of starting out with experimentation… maybe they’re a little more “composed” or more “straight ahead” in terms of their style or what they’ve done in their past but they are trying to explore. So I open the door to those folks because I’ve seen people grow or change (including myself personally). The Luggage Series is very important in this sense…It’s a feeder program to bring people into the fold and into the community so they can grow and flourish.
Diego: How can you do it all by yourself?
Rent: I used to, but I think you need at least two. You need to have a friend. Especially on a weekly series; it’s really hard to do a weekly by yourself. What if you get sick or your car breaks down or you’re just really tired that week, you know. It’s really important, actually, to realize that the essence of community is to reach out and get other people involved.
Like Outsound, there’s eleven of us on the board and we’re all curators on some level. Everyone has had their hand in booking and creating shows for others. And that’s one of the prerequisites to be officially part of Outsound, to actually show altruism by showing support for your fellow artists, which is not always the case. I look for that and it’s not too many who have it, but we get a couple people who do, like Matt Davignon who helps me with the Luggage Store and is very very supportive of the scene. And you know, doing it alone defeats the purpose of community anyway, right? Doing it all by yourself it’s not really community anyway.
Diego: In a way free improvisation is about community: about sharing the stage with other musicians, and sharing the experience with the audience.
Rent: Yeah exactly! Right right right.
Diego: Do you find it hard to convince venues to open their doors for this kind of music?
Rent: Sure, but it depends on what their level of involvement is. Take the Luggage Store as an example: those folks who run the Luggage Store, bless them, they let us have free reign of our bookings. They are open, they gave us the space, they open the door and of course they’re welcome to attend, occasionally they might make a suggestion but they don’t impose themselves on the vision. They trust that what we’re doing will reflect well on their space and so far so good. And of course they’re also very nice people and they really believe in art for art’s sake and they’re not just not just visually oriented they’re oriented to all forms of expression: jams, poetry, spoken word, political activity and so forth.
Diego: Trust is the word.
Rent: Right. Also, our policy is to leave the space better than we found it, to make sure it’s clean and everything is in it’s place.
Diego: Do they just lend you the space or do they rent it?
Rent: We pay a percentage to them from the door so it’s a very small percentage and then the rest goes to the musicians. It’s a door split. Yeah we couldn’t afford, given the economics of the situation, to pay them a set rental: That usually pretty much kills most series of new music.
Diego: So probably the best thing, if someone wants to do this in some other part of the world, would be to find these kinds of gatherings, find gallery owners that would be willing to trust the curator and not spend their time trying to battle or convince the owners that want to have total control.
Rent: And also, to find a place where the economics don’t get in the way of the art. Where money is involved there’s always going to be problems. So it has to have a secondary importance. I think that’s the key. No one’s getting rich off this music and I think that’s wonderful. I mean I understand people need to make a living, and believe me I wish I didn’t have to work a day job, but on the other hand because money is not part of the scene, like it is in other scenes, there is more of a community, there’s more support for each other.
Diego: That’s interesting.
Rent: The communal element is really important. In a society like this it’s a little strange. You know because everything is so capital oriented. Everything is so contrived by, and controlled by, and valued by the dollar. Creative music in this country isn’t part of that! It’s outside of that box! This makes for an interesting set of people, I think, too, because they have to change: if they come with that mindset of capital, of money oriented world, then, when they come into the scene they realize oh, there is more to life and to this world than money… I mean, sure, “should musicians be paid?” Yes, they should be paid because it’s a value thing, it’s a respect thing, but in terms of huge amounts of money, that’s unrealistic. I am by no means saying that artists should not be compensated in some form for their art. Hell, if people brought bags of groceries I’d accept that. Hand it out to the musicians, you know. But it it’s only secondary to the actual music.
Diego: Yeah, I mean, I don’t think it would even work if one came into this scene trying to make money out of it, that really defeats the purpose of this music.
Rent: They’d end up being alone. There’d be no place to play.
Diego: Yes, and to me the whole purpose of doing this music is to be spontaneous, which is an attitude that opens the performers and the audiences to a very intimate experience, to the mutual sharing of a moment, the very delicate event from which this music is being created.
Rent: That’s what I really love.
About Rent Romus
Rent Romus on Bandcamp (selected links)
Questions for the readers:
Feel free to respond to any of them in the comments section.
- What makes your particular scene healthy?
- What kinds of venues do you find most appropriate for experimental music? And what kinds of the deals do you make with the people that run them?
- What have you found that works best at providing an economic return for your music? (We are certain that making money is not the point of this music, nevertheless we have to survive.)