On a recent Tuesday night, the basement entrance of the Copper Door hums with the noisy bricolage of a bar gig. The loud crack of pool balls scattering on green felt mingles with the buzz of drunk conversations, alt-rock blaring through the house speakers, and the tightening twang of tuning guitars. Sporting a white Stetson typically worn by 51-year-old MILFs at Stagecoach, the singer of a local country band checks the mic. A country night–especially one with a friendly, enthusiastic crowd–feels a bit unusual for downtown Santa Ana, but the bar is bustling with fans and weekday regulars before the gig has even started.
As the crowd builds, three guys sipping beers in matching backward black-and-orange ball caps are huddled around a laptop. OCML is printed across each one in bold orange lettering. Focused on the glowing screen, members of the Orange County Music League put the finishing touches on the set times for tonight and many nights afterward on their increasingly busy calendar of weekly shows throughout OC. Whether pushing reggae, rock, metal, hip-hop or country, every OCML show is required to be free to the public and reliably curated. Most important, bands are never charged for the pleasure of playing.
"All these bands have to sell tickets to make the venue owner or the promoter money, and he's not promoting them," says John Safari, OCML president and co-founder. "So the good bands aren't signing up for that, and the bad bands are because they can't get any other shows with good promoters because there aren't enough good promoters."
Pay-to-play gigs are definitely the scourge of any local music scene. And in Orange County, if you're willing to trade a 30-minute set time for a fat wad of ticket money (and your dignity), there's a promoter out there willing to work with you. OC's anemic list of local venues and endless supply of janky show salesmen enables a stream of naive bands and their dutiful fans to get suckered. We often hear stories about bands that manage to hustle each of their 50 friends for $10 on a 75-ticket quota–and are still required to pay out the rest before they can plug in. So-called headliners wind up playing to empty rooms when fans who only paid to see their friend's band decide to jet before 10 p.m. However, the group at OCML have spent the past two years fighting against pay-to-play's greedy perversion of the local scene.
"I'm not even a fan of the phrase 'support local music,'" says OCML member and singer/songwriter Chad Martini. "Rather than enjoying the actual night, it's like, 'I guess we'll support this guy.' I'd rather say, 'We're here to enjoy local music.'"
Safari and Kevin Martin co-founded the OCML collective in 2013. At the time, Safari was developing a local clothing company and throwing shows with his company, G&B Productions. He met Martin at the first show he threw, at the Tiki Bar in Costa Mesa. Martin, who started the annual DIY festival called Bradstock in Lake Elsinore, helped him run the show that night. Eventually, he and his company, Pedropalooza Productions, joined forces with Safari. The crew has now expanded to 15 members. It has teamed up with like-minded promoters such as Gig Boss, Twisted Soul Entertainment and Slater Alligator to co-host free events. The idea, Martin says, is mutually beneficial and helps the long-term success of the scene.
"We should be competing together because if more people come to our shows, then more people are gonna come to your shows, and vice versa," he says.
Gradually, OCML has been able to lock in several regular shows including those at the Copper Door (DOWN Tuesdays), Hogue Barmichaels in Newport Beach, the Karman Bar in Laguna Niguel and Anaheim's revived roadhouse the Doll Hut.
As Safari and Martin's mission to create quality, low-cost shows continues, plenty of local artists have started to take note. One of them was Martini, who was booked on an OCML show and began popping up at every gig they threw, whether he was playing or not. If a band couldn't make it that night, he was right there to fill their slot.
"I'd bring my guitar in my car just in case one of their acts bailed," Martini says. "And so they just said, 'Why don't you just be part of the team?'"
Martini agreed without giving it much thought, but he says he hasn't regretted it. The sames goes for other members/artists, including Jennalyn Alzono and Erica Torres of local band Golly Gee Whiz and OC singer Erin Mendoza. Other key members are creative designer David Martinez and Nolan Davis, whose company, RAD Music, handles the OCML's CD samplers, which feature many of the artists it works with. The next compilation, due out this spring, includes tracks from the Originalites, the Alienated, Bristol to Memory, Hemorrhage, among others.
This summer, Safari and company are heading on tour with several of their affiliated artists to personally deliver compilations to 22 stores on the West Coast, traveling from Washington to Arizona.
"We'll have the record stores promote it because we're dropping off the sampler, which will also make people look for the sampler the next time it goes out," Safari says. "You gotta get back to meeting your fans; they're way more inclined to follow you if they know you."
Of course, spreading the word to artists here who've been burned by pay-to-play or just not actively participating in the music scene takes up most of their time. Building a community requires other artists to get on board, to show up at concerts when they're not playing, and to promote OCML shows on social media whenever possible. Nurturing the community aspect of every show and focusing on making shows that supply fun over financial gain is vital for a group such as OCML to succeed. But even though having a league is important, it doesn't mean anything if you don't have the right players on the field to achieve the ultimate goal of a good time.
"That's the whole reason we do it," Safari says. "So people can have fun and the bands can get fans and have a good time. So if that happens, the money is really not that important, which really separates us from most promoters."