university california press, oakland

KC Turner: Bringing it all back home

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NEW BEGINNINGS ‘The moment of doom was March 7, 2020. That was the last live show I put on,’ Turner said. ‘It’s what I do for a living and, not to be too precious about it, it feeds my soul.’

California’s lockdown had a chilling effect on the state’s live-music scene. Like everyone else, the pandemic took KC Turner, the man behind KC Turner Presents, by surprise. Turner prides himself on providing intimate experiences for artists and fans, so he had to readjust during the pandemic.

“I make my living promoting concerts, and that came to a screeching halt,” he said. “The moment of doom was March 7, 2020. That was the last live show I put on. The next few weeks were spent trying to wrap our heads around the situation. It was daunting. I spend a large part of every morning answering emails from managers, artists and fans. It just stopped. It’s what I do for a living and, not to be too precious about it, it feeds my soul. I got unemployment and spent time planning for the future, but the lockdown went on and on.

“In the summer of 2020, Megan Slankard, one of my favorite singer/songwriters, told me about someone bringing music to people on their doorstep. That got me thinking about backyard concerts: private events, with 10—maybe 15—people, if you had a big yard. We’d have strict rules; everyone masked and socially distanced. I have battery-operated BOSE speakers, so we wouldn’t need to run a cord into your house. We could do it for a flat fee, and pay artists. I could get off unemployment and bring joy to live-music fans.”

As soon as Turner put the word out, the shows filled up. In September and October 2020, he put on 35 private shows, with local artists including Poor Man’s Whiskey and Tim Bluhm, from Mother Hips. Everyone in the audience split the cost, so shows were affordable. After taking the winter off, shows resumed in spring of 2021, with local and nationally known acts like John Doe, from X, and Glen Phillips, from Toad the Wet Sprocket. “I’ve put on over 170 of these shows, from Morgan Hill and Santa Cruz to Saint Helena and as far east as Davis,” Turner said. “Reuters came and filmed us. We had stories on CNN and in many newspapers. You usually have to beg for press, but they were coming to me, maybe to have a positive headline.”

When Turner moved to California in 2005, he had no goals. “I’d finished college in Missouri,” he said. “I had a friend out here. He offered to rent me a room in his Petaluma house. When I saw San Francisco for the first time, I thought how crazy awesome it would be to actually live here. I packed up my car, my dog, a small PA and my guitar, and moved to the Bay Area.”

Turner soon befriended the owner of Finnegan’s Marin, in Novato. Since he was a songwriter, he asked if the bar was interested in having a weekly open mic night. “I had a little PA, and when he asked me how much I wanted to get paid, I told him 50 bucks. That was in November of 2006, and I hosted it every Monday until June of 2012. I used Craig’s List and MySpace to promote it. That was the start of my 10,000 hours behind the live-music scene and as a show producer/promoter.”

While Turner ran the open mic, he also hosted house concerts in his apartment. “I’d invite songwriters in and ask people to donate 10 bucks or whatever they could afford,” he said. “Soon, people came up to me saying, ‘Why don’t you host at my house, it’s bigger.’ I was still working a day job. I went down to SXSW, in Austin, in spring of 2010. People were saying, ‘You’re the guy hosting the house concerts in San Francisco.’ The iron felt hot. I quit my day job, and became a full-time concert promoter. I was soon managing artists, running house concerts, open mics at several venues, and booking shows. I was so nervous about my first show at Cafe Du Nord, I went down to Colma and visited Bill Graham’s grave. I asked him to help me sell tickets. We sold out.”

Turner is also a singer and songwriter. Before his career as a promoter, he toured the country from the East Bay to Chicago. In 2021, he produced an album, I Wanna Be Your Guy. He sold it at live dates and it’s available on his Bandcamp page, but for now, songwriting has a back seat to his job at KC Turner Presents.

“I’d like to make time for songwriting, but I have a more-than-full-time job,” Turner says. “As much as I like writing and performing, I like creating a space for people that have dedicated their lives to music. There’s a talent to putting them on the right stage, in the right venue, so they can deliver their art to the ears of the people who need to hear it. It takes a lot to micro-manage the details, hoping people will say, ‘That’s the best show I’ve ever seen.’ There are many factors that lead up to that experience. It’s my job to make sure it all lines up. I want to create memories people will cherish for the rest of their lives.”

You can find the schedule for KC Turner Presents at: kcturnerpresents.com/calendar