After a year of unemployment, Colorado musicians are fed up with low rates and poor treatment by venues, according to guitarist Aidan Pagnani. So he and sax player Sarah Mount have been recruiting musicians to join the recently formed Colorado Musicians Union, hoping that they can prevent the music industry from going back to business as usual — characterized by what they say is rock-bottom pay (when musicians are paid at all), rampant mistreatment and even assaults on musicians.
Although the Denver Musicians Association has been around for decades, they note that it largely represents musicians working for larger organizations, not gigging artists whose careers are more precarious and who are harder to organize.
The new union, which has been coming together over the past year and a half, is now asking gigging musicians to do the following: refuse any contract resulting in under $100 per person per gig or $500 per band if groups exceed five members; push musicians and fan bases to build inclusive and safe communities that exclude fascism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, prejudice and harmful ideologies; and boycott or strike against any venue or business after a union-member vote demands it — specifically, boycott any bar that Jay Bianchi is affiliated with, including So Many Roads Museum and Brewery and Sancho’s Broken Arrow.
Bianchi is the Deadhead entrepreneur whose legacy as a king of jam-band venues has been sullied by accusations from musicians, employees and fans of various crimes and misdeeds. Sancho’s was Bianchi’s longtime Grateful Dead bar. After his Be on Key Psychedelic Ripple was shut down by the city and subsequently caught on fire, he opened So Many Roads with Tyler Bishop in 2020, taking a back-seat role in order to avoid the unflattering media attention that has dogged his venues for several years.
Huge swaths of the jam-band scene turned against Bianchi in the fall of 2018, after he repeatedly punched his club’s doormen at Be on Key. “We did punches,” Bianchi confessed to Westword at the time. “But I hit like a girl. I did punches to them, but it was not the strongest punches, and it looked worse than it was.”
Later, Bianchi yelled at and attacked Pagnani and his bandmates, who had played the club that same night. “Musicians feeling entitled and being bitchy caused me to react that way,” Bianchi explained. “It’s a cultural teapot. Sometimes things boil over and get weird. Maybe the combination of all those things caused that.”
That cultural teapot's whistle is now screaming. In the years since the confrontation, Bianchi has been blasted on social media by disgruntled musicians, including Mount, who say he failed to pay them or tried to pay less than he originally offered. More recently, two women accused him of sexual assault, as noted on the Colorado Musicians Union website:
Jay Bianchi has run multiple venues in Colorado for the last few decades. In that time, there have been a volume of complaints about his business practices — refusing to honor contracts with performers, failing to pay his venue staff and bartenders, physically assaulting performers, and curating distinctly unsafe spaces, both in terms of health code violations (e.g., most recently, several of his venues getting shut down multiple times for failing to follow COVID-19 safety protocols in 2020), and enabling spaces which harbor toxic community behavior. Horrifiyingly, Jay and his affiliates have been been most recently accused of nonconsensually drugging and sexually-assaulting or raping victims at So Many Roads and other locations...
One of the women who's accused Bianchi of sexual assault is Kylie Nicole, a former employee. She says that he sexually assaulted her and raped another woman on Halloween 2020. They went to the hospital, where the other woman underwent a rape assessment, and they filed a complaint with the Denver Police Department in November. But the DPD has not followed up with Nicole since February, she says.
"We haven’t heard anything for months," she says. "Neither of us have an attorney, because so far we’ve not heard shit from our detective. It’s been incredibly frustrating. I’ve been trying to keep my mind off of it through work and stuff, but that’s hard when I’m getting harassed by the fam." Since going public, Nicole says, she has been subjected to harassment from the community affiliated with Bianchi's bars.
According to the office of Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, there have been no sexual-assault charges filed against Bianchi; the DPD declines to comment on whether there has been a recent investigation into his actions. (The Denver Post, which first reported the sexual-assault allegations, says there is an active sexual-assault investigation tied to the Sancho's address.) And while Bianchi has a long criminal history, his record provided by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation does not include charges of sexual assault.
Bianchi vehemently denies the accusations of sexual assault, claiming that he has always spoken candidly to Westword about his various crimes and legal issues. While he says he has not been contacted by the DPD regarding the accusations, he adds that he wishes the police would dig into them. "I feel like it would be great if there was a criminal investigation, because that's the only thing that would prove that I didn't do it," he says. "So I guess the big question is, where is this criminal investigation? And why hasn't it proceeded? And what can we do to further that?"
While the investigation appears stalled, the Colorado Musicians Union is moving forward with plans to picket So Many Roads Brewing, at 918 West First Avenue, at noon on Saturday, June 12; in the meantime, it's calling on all musicians to quit playing Bianchi's venues.
“The boycott is against Jay himself,” says Mount. “But it's a little bit deeper than that, because he just is a very extreme version of what us musicians encounter way too regularly, as far as not getting paid out what we were promised, not getting treated with respect, sexism, discrimination, all these things. So the boycott is figurative, even though it is specifically against Jay Bianchi because of the latest scandal, it's also us Denver musicians standing up and saying, ‘Hey, we're done getting treated like this.'
“We can't be doing these three-hour sets, bringing our own sounds, you know, for fifty bucks," adds Mount, who plays with fifteen bands, including the Tivoli Club Brass Band and Sarah Mount and the Rushmores. "It's not okay. Yeah, the rates are all over the place, which is another reason why we're doing this — because we're trying to come up with a comprehensive pay scale based on the amount of musicians in the band, what it's for, whether you're running your own sound."
The pay scale structure devised by the Colorado Musicians Union is based on that of the Nashville Musicians Association, though the Denver artists are asking for $100 a night (or $500 for a band with more than five musicians), slightly less than the rates required by the more complicated Nashville union's wage scale. “Honestly, if you ask me, it's not that much to ask for," says Mount.
The two musicians say they were were inspired to act after helping the National Independent Venue Association and Colorado Independent Venue Association push out the message to “Save Our Stages" and secure federal funding for indie bars, clubs and theaters.
"NIVA is the Independent Venue Association," says Pagnani. "They are super-cool. A lot of our local venues are struggling with this crappy market that we are in, too. And as our rents have gone up, a lot of the small mom-and-pop bars and such are also subject to this, you know, high living costs. Bars are coming up and down faster than they ever have.
"So we really support that unionization of the independent venues," he continues. "We think that having a solidified body of musicians, music workers, and then a body of independent, small venues is a really good thing, assuming that they recognize the importance of paying their employees a living wage, and I think NIVA has made good indications of that."
CIVA, the Colorado chapter of NIVA, declined to comment for this story.
Pagnani says the goal is to create enough solidarity between musicians that they can effectively strike against venues that don't meet the union's demands.
"The thing we have on our side is the austerity of the market," says Pagnani. "The farther they push us, the more people are coming into our groups. And it's like nothing, absolutely nothing, can stop the power of a strike. A strike is the most powerful force on the planet."
Updated at 8 p.m. June 3: The original version of this story said that Nicole had undergone a rape assessment; that was based on the victims' statement on the Colorado Musicians Union's website. The union has since clarified that a second woman who says Bianchi raped her underwent that assessment; Nicole says she was sexually assaulted, not raped. The story also stated that both women were employees of Bianchi; one was not. This story has been updated to reflect those facts.