In a League of His Own, John Safari of OC Music League, Battling for Orange County Bands

John Safari Interview

by Sean Stroh

It’s easy to complain and forget but John Safari knew he had to do more than just that when he began to see the local music scene take a turn headed in the wrong direction.

A little more than two years after turning an idea into a reality with co-founder Kevin Martin, OC Music League has quickly made its mark on the county’s up and coming musicians.


OC Music League booimagesks shows for local bands–with a twist. Every OCML show is required to be free to the public and bands are never given a bill at the end of the night for simply performing a show. Since its inception, the company has teamed up with other promoters like Gig Boss and Twisted Soul Entertainment.

OCML also hosts a weekly event called DOWN Tuesdays, which highlight up and coming musicians at a local venue.

Coming Up Magazine talked to John Safari about the origins behind OC Music League, the problems with pay-to-play in today’s local scene and what a new band should do when interested in booking a show.

My first question relates to your relationship with Kevin Martin who co-founded OC Music League with you in 2013. How did you two meet and why did you ultimately decide to form this company?

We originally met right after high school but we never really hung out or anything like that. When I started booking concerts in 2013 he came to the second or third one. I was sort of running around like a chicken with his head cut off trying to keep up. He offered to help out and came to616 my next couple of my concerts. He already had experience dealing with shows and then we just figured out the direction we wanted to go. It was a conversation at the bar about what we were going to call the company. It kind of went along the lines of like the Justice League or the Music League–the idea of bringing all the people that were good in music together. That’s pretty much how it all started. In December 2013 we got all our paperwork done.  Our first show was a toy drive actually.

Could you elaborate on what pay-to-play is? I know that’s a big problem a lot of up and coming bands face especially at the local level.

Well, you can actually say it started back in the Payola days where people would pay to get spun by a DJ on the radio. Nowadays, with pay-to-play, you’re not going to go to The House of Blues and see only the best bands. All these venues now just have a price you can pay-to-play at the venue. It’s caused a lot of people to lose faith in the local music scene because they don’t think the music is that good.

Especially being in Southern California, where there’s lots of people who have parents with a ton of money, you’re not getting these quality shows when you go to a concert at some of these venues. Everybody kind of wants to jump ahead in line. It’s not uncommon for a new band to think “I’ll sign up to sell $1,000 worth of tickets to play the House of Blues on a Tuesday because then I can say I played the House of Blues. That means I’m going somewhere.” It’s 100 percent not how it works though.


You should be playing the House of Blues and getting paid to play there. It should not be the other way around. The real problem is that there are a lot of other promoters and venues that take this same business model and tell new bands “It’s 50 tickets to play at this show.” Because there were no other options for a long time, everybody started accepting it to get on a stage. A lot of promoters don’t even listen to the music they are promoting. They don’t know what they sound like at all.

So, the number one thing is offering these bands a fair option and the other component is education. We’ve seen a lot of bands now that will refuse to do pay-to-play shows because there are other options. It’s not just us that are the other option too and there are a few other companies following suit.

Is there a certain genre of bands you guys try to push or is pretty much open to any style of music?

We’re pretty much open to anything!

How many shows do you guys put on every month now? I saw that you guys initially began with 4 but have grown quite a bit.

The first year we did around 80 total and last year we did 204. This year, we are doing about 20-25 a month. In the summer it will be around 30-40.

You guys manage artists as well right?  

Actually the only band I manage at the moment is The Alienated. I do produce some other artists but I don’t really have time to manage too many bands.

In terms of the revival of downtown Santa Ana, are you happy with the way it’s being developed and sort of revamped? Do you think it’s been done in the right way?

Yeah, I am super excited about what’s being done in Santa Ana. That’s where our Down Tuesdays started. It’s come a long way since then. They just opened four new concert venues I believe. There’s a different room for every vibe now. You are going to start seeing some cool music festivals that don’t end at 10 p.m. because the noise outside. Now, there will be a bunch of room options that will let us go all night.


I saw that you recently threw brunch at 4th Street Market that doubled as a food and clothing drive for the homeless. Is that something you plan on doing in the future?

Yeah, except for this month, it will be the last Sunday of the month!

As someone who deals with these local bands directly and sees the difficulties they face in the live show aspect, what is your opinion on streaming services like Spotify. Do you think that streaming is beneficial to the up and coming artist?

I think it sucks. But at the same time if you do it correctly it can be helpful. I went to a seminar at NAMM this year that talked about three ways bands can benefit from streaming — videos, make a cover song and getting some songs on one of the bigger Spotify playlists.

For a consumer, Pandora is awesome because it handles everything for you but for the artist it does make it more difficult to stand out in the sense that there is just so much there.


Based on the work you’ve done and your own personal experience in dealing directly with these places, what would you say are some of the best local venues for bands to perform at in Orange County?

It kind of depends on what type of band and level you’re at but we just started booking this all ages DIY spot called Studio One Live Venue in Mission Viejo and I think it’s going to turn into one of the best spots for bands to play at. We don’t really have a good all ages venue anymore. We used to about 7-8 years ago with Hogue Barmichael’s and Chain Reaction but that’s changed.

I also always like doing shows at The Karman Bar in Laguna Niguel. It’s a good bar stage and has a decent crowd in there. The staff there is great too. We like to put three pieces of artwork each representing a local artist on the wall there every month in the back too. So we get to help with more than just the music there in a way.

Speaking of Chain Reaction, what do you attribute to its fall?

I think it’s worse than it used to be but a lot of it has to do with how the music industry has changed too. It’s not entirely on the venue. All the bands that played there just got a lot bigger and don’t play smaller venues anymore. They’ve been doing a lot of the pay-to-play there too though where people have to sell 40-50 tickets just to play there. A lot of people don’t want to go there and support that anymore.

What would you say should be the first thing a band should do when they are trying  to book a show and do so without getting ripped off?

Go out to a show amaxresdefaultnd be a part of the music scene that you want support from. Meet the other bands and go hang out at shows. That’s the easiest way to get booked. You can meet the promoter, see the way the shows are run and talk to the bands performing. At least know what you are getting yourself into.

This may be a bit difficult to answer but are there any up and coming artists in particular you’d like to give a little shout out too? Maybe some of the artists you’ve seen grow over the past few years with OCML?

Yeah, well of course the band I manage The Alienated. We’ve seen those guys go from a couple of local kids to now a band that just got back from a show in Seattle and are making a name for themselves up and down the coast.

There’s other guys like Bristol to Memory that aren’t necessarily up and coming anymore but are just one of the hardest working bands down here. And of course there’s some guys that have come a long way but still need to go a little further. Even some of the people from our own team like Thomas Monroe from The Sky Catching Fire as well as Chad Martini and Denver Steiner have gone from being super nervous on stage to being able to run a show which is super cool to see.

And one of the fan favorites is The Sly Digs. Everywhere they go people enjoy watching those guys.


Social Media Links

OC Music League Facebook

OC Music League DOWN Tuesdays Facebook

OC Music League YouTube

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