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Now in its seventh year, the San Francisco Noise Pop Festival stumbles across success

Wednesday, Feb 17 1999
If the trendmongers are to be believed, the San Francisco Noise Pop Festival should be dying, or even dead. When founder Kevin Arnold started the festival in 1993 -- as a single night of five bands at the old Kennel Club -- scruffy indie-rock music was in ascendance. Thanks to the post-Nirvana gold rush, little bands in little towns were enjoying a little success.

But six years later, with chirpy homespun pop fading back into the underground and grunge sponged off the pop landscape, Arnold is now one of the last of the true believers, still faithful to a world in which the split 7-inch single is eagerly anticipated, guitars aren't passe, and the wallet chains of scenesters swing free and sparkle.

But the Noise Pop Festival, now in its seventh year, isn't just surviving. It's thriving. The largest (nine shows over six nights, 37 local and national bands) edition of the festival yet has attracted corporate sponsors and A&R reps. The very term "Noise Pop" has become its own institution.

Arnold counts himself among those shocked by the situation. "It's hard for me to grasp the fact that people are like, 'Oh, we're gonna start a band, we're gonna be a noise pop band,' " he says. "I didn't intend to set up this golden ring for people to grab onto."

But now that bands describe themselves as "noise pop" in their press bios, Arnold's at the crossroads between acknowledging that he's helped create a genre -- the moody collision of punk and pure pop most of the fest's bands play -- and trying to make sure that the whole event doesn't become too big for itself. Early on, organizing Noise Pop was Arnold's one-man show. For the last two years, however, he has picked up local band manager Jordan Kurland to assist, and both wind up saying no to a lot of people who knock at their door. This could be the advent of Noise Pop Inc.

OK, maybe not exactly. But the growth of corporate sponsorship certainly adds a novel twist to a genre that's generally proud of its distance from big-money attention. This year, the Ultimate Band List, Live 105, and GoodNoise, among others, are assisting in putting the event together. Indeed, GoodNoise, a Palo Alto-based digital music Web site, is providing funds to fly Ohio indie icons Guided by Voices to play one of the festival's most highly anticipated shows at Bimbo's. GoodNoise will also be setting up a booth and raffling off Diamond Rio portable MP3 players to promote its Web site.

Actually, if you want proof of how much the festival has changed, just talk with Steve Grady, GoodNoise's vice president of marketing. GoodNoise, he says, isn't so much sponsoring the show as "providing the content of that evening"; they respect Noise Pop because it's "highly visible" and reaches an "opinion-leader community."

Corporate-speak like that is odd not just in terms of indie rock, but also when you consider the festival's founder himself. At heart, Arnold's just a fan. A 29-year-old UC Berkeley grad, he used to manage tours for defunct local band Overwhelming Colorfast, and now works as a database administrator in Silicon Valley. Sitting in a Polk Street coffeehouse, he's wearing a Sixteen Deluxe T-shirt and talks about music the way most fans do -- enthusiastically, and doubly so when it's about a recent discovery. And he still handpicks the Noise Pop acts, making sure at least one local band makes it onto the bill for each concert.

When he talks about getting Guided by Voices to play a show, it's not because he's hoping to leverage content to an opinion-leader community. He just wants one of his favorite bands to play his music fest. ("I wish we had something like that here," says Guided by Voices frontman Robert Pollard from his home in Dayton. "Around here, it's dead-ends-ville.")

Arnold doesn't see corporate sponsorships as a corruption of Noise Pop's ideals. When I semijokingly mention the term "Noise Pop Inc.," Arnold responds, "What's so wrong with that? I don't know if that is a bad thing. It certainly can't be a one-man thing forever. I think the sponsors are cool, [but] it's not like it's going to become the Pepsi Noise Pop Festival."

Still, Arnold has a brand name on his hands, which led to a few headaches when the Los Angeles-based Poptopia festival decided to book shows in San Francisco earlier this month, featuring groups similar in sensibility to those who play Noise Pop.

"The timing was off," says Arnold's associate, Kurland. "It's not like we have a corner on festivals with the word 'pop' in them, but having two rock-pop festivals in San Francisco in the shortest month of the year seemed like overkill." Paul Kopf, who organized Poptopia's local shows, says Poptopia will return here next year, though most likely in January to give both festivals some breathing room.

While major-label exposure is part of Noise Pop's attraction for bands, Arnold is insistent that his festival not become swarmed with industry attention. "It's not supposed to be attaining those sorts of goals," he says. "At the same time it is -- from the bands' perspective, it is a little bit of that. But it's more for music fans as opposed to music industry people in my mind."

Arnold's vaguely defined ambitions for the festival have spawned a sort of running joke over the years: After each year's festival, he claims it will be the last. So he sounds almost resigned, in a bemused sort of way, when he contemplates Noise Pop's future. "I figure we've got to have Noise Pop 2000 [and] 2001," he says. "Those both sound pretty cool. That's enough reason right there to try and do them.

"And then it's 10 years a year later, so you might as well try that too. There's no master plan.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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