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Tales of a Blank Box: Perfect for All Shows but Always the Same, The Independent Is the Zen Master of Clubs 

Wednesday, Feb 19 2014

The Independent is a room on Divisadero Street with a bar on one side, a stage on the other, and a fair bit of empty space in between. The walls are mostly black, with a little wood trim here and there; the overhead lights, when they're on, glow red. Serious-looking black speakers dangle from the ceiling. You enter through a hallway hung with pretty photographs of people who have been here: Beck Hansen, Maya Arulpragasam, Jimmy Cliff.

The Independent is a club. It's a room where people pay to see music performed. But a good club, at least for those inclined to feel romantic about such things, is more than a place where artists entertain an audience. A good club is a community center. A second living room. A haven. Maybe sometimes even a temple.

In the 10 years since the Independent came to Divisadero Street, it has become all of these things, and more. Its stage has hosted some of the era's most important and most successful musical names — both when they were just barely known enough to fill the room, and when they were so huge it became nearly impossible to get inside. It has nurtured some of the city's most vibrant artists. And, of course, it's been a catalyst for the dramatic transformation of the entire Divisadero corridor: Where gunshots once rang out in the afternoon, strollers now roam, toting toddlers licking ice cream cones. Across the street at La Urbana, a Mexican dinner for two can easily set you back $100.

All of which seems a little bit amazing when you consider the Independent from a less-romantic perspective. Far more so than other, similar venues around the city, the Independent is a utilitarian space — a room for loud music and drinking, but little else. The Fillmore and Great American Music Hall boast ornate chandeliers and balconies, not to mention kitchens. Bottom of the Hill has its tremendous heritage hung on the wall in the form of old show calendars and warped décor. Bimbo's is gorgeous; Slim's is edgy. But the Indy, as fans call it, is basically a blank box. There's almost nothing on the walls, and the room seems to become a void the moment anyone takes the stage. Its impression comes from the lack of impression it leaves. The Independent asks you to focus on nothing but what's happening onstage. And maybe that's part of what's so great about it.

The place was never quite brand-new. The Independent has worn that name since February 2004, but it's been a music venue for at least a half-century: As the Half Note, it hosted jazz greats. As the Kennel Club, it saw the birth of the Noise Pop festival. When an independent promoter named Allen Scott bought a club then called the Justice League with some partners, it was in rough shape. The bar was in the middle of the room, the soundboard was on the lower level, the floor was hard concrete, and the neighbors in the apartment building behind had plenty of complaints about the noise.

Scott was looking for a room where he could do his own shows and give artists and fans a better experience. He'd planned to run the club alone, but big changes were happening in the local concert industry. Gregg Perloff and Sherry Wasserman, concert veterans who'd trained under Bay Area live music impresario Bill Graham, had been assimilated into the Clear Channel empire in 2000. They were looking to get out — and in July 2003, they quit Clear Channel and quickly lined up a huge show of their own: Bruce Springsteen at AT&T Park. It was the debut event for Another Planet Entertainment, a firm Perloff and Wasserman named in honor of their sharp differences with Clear Channel. (When the two refused to go along with corporate mandates, their bosses would exasperatedly ask if they were from another planet.)

Perloff asked Scott to join the young company even before he knew about plans to open the Independent. Scott then faced a tough decision: run the club on his own, or join two old hands with a world of connections. He picked the latter. The Independent's name, already chosen, had a new resonance. The fledgling Another Planet now had a contract to promote the 8,500-seat Greek Theatre on the UC Berkeley campus, and a 500-capacity club in San Francisco. And the Bay Area had a new concert promotion company with no ties to a conservative media behemoth based in Texas.

As little money as possible was spent turning the Justice League into the Independent. They invested in the sound system, lights, and soundproofing, but little else. Scott remembers a club partner sanding down the old men's urinal trough in the backyard instead of buying a new one. "The room itself had a great energy to it, because it's a square box with perfect sight lines," he says. "If you were at the Justice League for a show, you wanted to see a show. There wasn't separate rooms where you could go and yap with your friends.... On the flip side, it was very hot, it was very crowded, the bar was in the middle."

Scott and the Another Planet crew slaved to get the club revamped for its debut, even sometimes sleeping on the stage. The fire department came to approve their work while the opening night headliner, I Am Spoonbender, was sound-checking. "We had put a bunch of money into the lights, because we wanted the best lights, best sound of any club in S.F.," Scott says. "It was a little rough at the time around the edges, but that's what we wanted. And then I Am Spoonbender came in and they did not use any of our lights — they used all floor lights that they brought in. I was like, 'Oh my God.'"

It didn't matter. In February 2004, the 40-something-year-old music venue was reborn, and a new era of show-going on Divisadero Street began.

Glance at the photos on the way in, or peruse a list of the acts who've played that broad stage in the black box, and you're looking at a mini-history of what's happened in popular music over the last 10 years — as well as what's happened to San Francisco. A room that started with jazz, and once hosted lots of funk and hip-hop, has, along with its city, grown pricier and whiter, catering to more indie rock and electronic music. Legends like LCD Soundsystem, which once co-headlined with !!!, have retired. Other legends, like Levon Helm, have departed this realm. Fun. played two nights on the brink of attaining global fame; Phoenix played long after reaching festival-headliner status, with frontman Thomas Mars serenading his wife, Sophia Coppola, from the floor beneath her perch in the VIP area. Dave Chappelle drew lines around the block. A party on Barack Obama's first election night turned into a neighborhood-wide street celebration.

And the Independent has, more so than many clubs, succeeded in its goal of making a suitable home for many different kinds of music. On a recent Monday, the caustic electronic giant Skrillex earned the club its first noise complaint in years. The next night, Los Lonely Boys drew a middle-aged rock crowd to the same room. "There are certain venues that you walk in, it's like, 'Oh, this is really appropriate for this music,' right?" Scott says. "We tried to make a room that literally every genre of music, every band that goes there, feels like it's their room."

The strategy has worked: The Independent has been making money since its second year. Each year has been more successful than the last, Scott says, with 2013 being the club's highest-earning year ever. A million people have come through in the last 10 years. It now puts on about 275 shows a year.

As the Independent has matured, its parent company, Another Planet, has grown into other venues. Local promoters all compete for the best acts, and the Independent's bookers can dangle the prospect of future shows at the Fox Oakland, the Greek Theatre, or even the Outside Lands festival in front of prospective performers. Quixotically, the structural changes that have diminished the music industry's giants have actually helped midsize artists and venues. "With what's happening with the Internet, it's kind of leveled the playing field for everybody," Scott says. "There's more music than ever that can sell out a club like the Independent or the Fox." Couple those changes with the boom that's brought thousands of young, moneyed new residents to San Francisco, and it's not really a surprise that the Independent has been successful from a business perspective.

Clubs, though, are about more than money in and money out. You don't go to a show for an expected, linear exchange of money for entertainment. You go for a surprise, for invigoration. You go to feel something. Some clubs seem especially to help that happen. This week, the Independent will host an impressive lineup of performers for its 10-year anniversary party, including Girl Talk, Allen Stone, DJ Shadow, Two Gallants, and more. The biggest testament to the success of this blacked-out room and its broad stage won't be in those artists' mere presence. The testament — the real explanation for these noteworthy last 10 years, and maybe the last 50 — is how easy it will be to enjoy what they do.

About The Author

Ian S. Port

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