There are a bunch of people congregating in the dark crevices of a Los Angeles blues bar, plotting to subvert the system, overthrow the music-industry machine and lift up the downtrodden. Most of whom have played in this bar too many times to count. But instead of talking about music, these co-conspirators are talking about a music-business revolution.
Cevin Clark, owner of Harvelle's in Santa Monica, the oldest existing blues club in Los Angeles, enlisted the prestigious law firm Gibson Dunn, working pro bono, to determine whether he can turn his business into a nonprofit. The idea came from the success of the club's Tuesday-night Service Your Soul music residency with rock/blues band Hunter and the Dirty Jacks.
The $3,000 raised through the cover charge since January has provided more than 4,000 meals. Clark and his cohorts are hungry to do more, not only because it makes them feel golden, but because more help is desperately needed.
It has been a year since the idea was originally hatched, and the do-gooders are excited to bring their new program, also called Service Your Soul, into Long Beach's Harvelle's location (below the Congregation Ale House) every Sunday. "We want to expand because more needs to be done," says Hunter and the Dirty Jacks guitarist Jon Siembieda. "We're just scratching the surface."
The Sunday-night residency features not only Hunter and the Dirty Jacks, but also Roy Gaines, a blues singer and guitarist who has backed Big Mama Thornton, Junior Parker and T-Bone Walker. Buffet-style soul food included in the cover charge sweetens the deal, as well.
After hiring the band to take over Santa Monica's Tuesday residency in late 2012, Clark approached Hunter and the Dirty Jacks about playing a pub crawl that December. The annual event donates proceeds from participating bars to West Side Food Bank to help feed the needy during the holidays.
Because of conflicting schedules, the band couldn't participate. But the gesture sparked another idea with year-round impact. Siembieda wanted to go bigger. "We were talking, and I said, 'Problem with this is that it only happens during the holidays,'" he recalls. "'But people have these problems every day.'"
From that, the regular Service Your Soul fund-raiser and food drive was born, with 100 percent of the night's cover charge going to the 501(c)3 nonprofit Feed Your Soul–which started with a few people and 100 burgers, then grew to provide meals for many more.
According to the most recent information from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Los Angeles' homeless population rose 15 percent from 2011 to 2013. More than 57,000 included themselves among the displaced during a one-night count last January.
Feed Your Soul teamed up with Ocean Park Community Center, which runs four shelters for the homeless and two for female domestic-abuse victims and their children. Both organizations help with transitional services to relocate the displaced into housing and to acquire skills to re-enter the working world.
At the initial meeting with Clark and Siembieda, Feed Your Soul's executive director, Lindsay Hirsch, brought along Sara Levy, executive director of Magic Music Foundation, in case what the band and Clark proposed to do wasn't a good fit for her charity. Magic Music Foundation provides foster children and the needy with musical instruments and lines up volunteers for lessons. The band and Clark decided to take on both.
"It's been great," Hirsch says about the money coming in from Harvelle's. "It's very generous and creative."
Hunter and the Dirty Jacks bring in additional bodies to help scoop the soup and entertain the crowds, including many of the guest artists who sit in with the band. Eric Sardinas served homemade mashed potatoes and chicken. Walter Trout and his family dished up Italian food.
Others who have volunteered time at the shelter include Coco Montoya, Shawn Jones, Guitar Shorty, Jimmy Vivino, Johnny Stachela, Dennis Jones, Whiteboy James & the Blues Express, Johnny Rivers, Southland Jukes, and more. After they're done serving some grub, they pull out their instruments for simple, stripped-down acoustic sets, creating a lighter mood and a more social atmosphere
The time Clark and the bands spend with the people in the shelters has made for a much more personal connection to the cause. Clark's perception of the homeless changed after meeting displaced couples with young children, realizing that too many people are just one paycheck away from not making the rent, he says. He has taken his children to volunteer, as well, teaching them lessons about gratitude and compassion in the process.
One woman the band members met at a shelter had recently been released from foster care and had nowhere to go. Onstage during a Tuesday-night show, the band told audience members about the pregnant woman's plight, and fans pitched in for a deposit to help get her into government-assisted housing. She would have been homeless without the support.
Another time, lead singer Hunter Ackerman told the weeknight crowd about a man the band had met who had suffered from brain trauma and whose only comfort was listening to blues and classic rock on his iPod, which had been stolen. People opened their wallets again to help the man rock again.
Aside from helping others, Clark says, there are other advantages to obtaining a 501(c)3 status for the club, such as having more resources available, tax write-offs and free publicity. That money can instead help the needy, and the nonprofit status can help make sure the club sticks around to help preserve "the soul of American music," Siembieda says.
"This is not a scam," Clark says with exasperation, knowing full well he will have many questions to answer and his share of skeptics if his idea comes to fruition. If Harvelle's becomes a nonprofit, he will become a board member and remain as a staff member who receives a modest salary.
The organization pledges 100 percent transparency, unlike other businesses in the music industry that claim to be nonprofits but really aren't. (We're looking at you, ASCAP and BMI, which are not classified as 501 corporations and do not support any charities but represent themselves as nonprofits.) Clark hopes his business model, if it works, will catch on. His dreams for Harvelle's include being able to service more shelters, maybe even build some, he says.
The even-more-ambitious dream is to create a Service Your Soul record label with artist management, which will be–you guessed it–nonprofit. "We're not just promoting the music for the music's sake," Clark says, "but we can connect people through music and give them a sense of community, too."
So the artists will still make a similar amount in royalties, but instead of the chunk that would normally line the fat pockets of a record label, it will be used to benefit the artists, with a percentage going toward putting nourishment in someone's stomach. "We're trying to create an ecosystem of music within blues and rock," Siembieda says. "It's about helping the artists and helping people."
"This patchwork system the way it's been working is very greed-based," Clark says. "There are a lot of people who are falling through the cracks."
Clark, Siembieda and company want to spackle in harmony.
For more info on this week's Service Your Soul Sundays, click here.