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Exit Music: Musicians Are Leaving San Francisco. Can the City's Legendary Scene Survive? 

Wednesday, Mar 12 2014
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We raised these issues with two dozen musicians, club bookers, promoters, DJs, and tech employees across San Francisco's various music scenes. We wanted to know if things were as dire as they sometimes seem, if those wondering about the future of independent creativity in post-tech-boom San Francisco are crazy or prescient. Their answers don't give a perfect picture of what's happening, but they say a lot about the state of music in the Bay Area and where it may be going.


WHAT IS REALLY HAPPENING?

Anthony Bedard, booker, Hemlock Tavern: People who play in the bands and people who would go to the shows — performers and audience both — some percentage of those people are moving over to Oakland. I don't think that can be argued or disputed.

John Vanderslice, musician and owner, Tiny Telephone Studios: We're opening the Oakland studio because all art is going to Oakland. Oakland is the future of all art in San Francisco. It has the space, it has the buildings, it has the infrastructure, and it has the energy. It has the vibe built-in.

Adam Theis, founder, Jazz Mafia: The moment where I really realized it all at once was, we had an orchestra rehearsal — it was one of these large groups, like a 20-piece or 30-piece band, and some shit was happening on the Bay Bridge. It was shut down. And two-thirds of my band just wasn't there. It was like, "Oh my God, everyone lives in the East Bay now." That was four years ago.

Justin Flowers, drummer and guitarist, CCR Headcleaner: Everybody's moving to L.A. or New York. Maybe Portland, maybe Austin. I'm actually the only one [in the band] that lives here now; everybody else lives in the same house in Oakland, on Telegraph. It's kind of where it's happening right now. I live in a utility room. I only pay $350 a month though, so that's pretty sick.

Robbie Kowal, co-founder, Sunset Promotions: We're trying to book bands for a show we have coming up. Usually it's easy — like I could think of five different bands that could fit that bill. But who is that next band? Where are they rehearsing? How are they getting gigs? The DJ scene is going to do fine, because all you need to be a DJ-producer in this city is a studio apartment and you can make music on your headphones and try it out at your local bar. If you're a band, you don't have to find housing for one person. You have to find housing for five people. Plus, then you've got to find a studio space, and those five people have to make a living to pay for the said expensive house and the studio space. I don't see how it's possible here. I don't see how any good, out-of-town band would want to move here in the first place, could move here if they wanted to.

Avalon Emerson, DJ-producer and software engineer: I'm sure the bottle-service DJ scene has never been better, or big-room tech-house DJs playing for the bros. But it seems more and more that as [local] producers start to get recognized for their DJing or their music, the call gets greater and greater to move to a city that inherently supports that kind of thing. [Oakland] is kind of a pit-stop until they eventually move to L.A. or New York.

Vanderslice: Any newcomer would be fucking crackers to try to set up in San Francisco.

Flowers: We came out here [in 2008]. [San Francisco] was attractive just because it was a big change. It was about as far away as you can get from Georgia. We'd toured out here before. It was never that hard to navigate the city. If I needed a new place I could talk to a friend and get a room for 600 bucks.

Bedard: You used to be able to skate by pretty easily. My bandmate in the Icky Boyfriends, in 1990 he was able to work a 15-hour-a-week job at the S.F. Public Library, pay his rent, and save money — living in a warehouse at Sycamore and Mission. When I first moved here [in 1989], apartments were 200 bucks a month. If you found out that some friend of yours was paying like $300 or $350 a month, you looked at them differently. It made you think of them as possibly being a yuppie.

Kowal: The only new local bands I'm seeing — and granted I certainly don't know everything — are people that already live here, and they work in some other thing and they get together because they want to make a band. These aren't pro musicians. And they would love to be if they could be, but you can't be here. It's impossible to be a professional band of musicians.

Paige Clem, executive director, The Root: A lot of people are having to keep a day job, and try to practice their craft at night — which, overall, is going to have an impact on the quality of the craft. Not through any lack of talent, but, I mean, people have to have the time to develop what they do.

Jason Perkins, co-owner, Brick and Mortar Music Hall: There's not nearly as many [clubs] as there were.

Theis: It seems like every month some little place that's cool is closing.

Lynn Schwarz, co-owner, Bottom of the Hill: When folks move in across from an existing nightclub, it puts that nightclub in jeopardy of closure.

Guy Carson, former owner, Cafe Du Nord: With all the development going on around us, it was going to be harder and harder to have a rock club on that block. There's [going to be] like 210 brand-new units on the same corner as a rock club. So the [business] model needed to shift, and I wasn't going ... to be able to do it. The new buyers have a new vision, which is going to be much better-suited to having all these new residents around you. It just gets harder and harder, having a rock club. And I will emphasize the word "rock" club, because I think there are different kinds of clubs.

About The Author

Ian S. Port

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