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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

When Pork Belly Replaces the Punk Club: Fears About the Future of Music in Affluent S.F.

Posted By on Wed, Jun 6, 2012 at 11:35 AM


Two news stories yesterday seemed to point to a blander, more expensive music scene in San Francisco's future, as the full-time freaks and out-of-the-way spaces that host them disappear amid the city's next wave of affluence.

The first was a New York Times piece about the onset of San Francisco's latest tech bubble (symbolized by the relocation of Twitter to that massive art-deco building in mid-Market), and the attendant fears of gentrification, price inflation, and the general driving-out-of-San-Francisco of anyone who isn't young, single, and/or getting paid a tech-company salary. An old story, but still a painful one for anyone who pays rent here. One accompanying photo showed a group of young people -- two startup workers and a college student -- eyeing $3,900-a-month apartment in the Mission District. Puke.

The other story, and this will strike closer to home, was the announcement of Noise Pop's latest event, which the company had teased for quite a while on Twitter. After all the buildup, what did we get? A new medium festival of sorts? Something to fill the time gap between the original Noise Pop in February and its big cousin Treasure Island in October?

Not really: Noise Pop announced a one-day afternoon party at the Speakeasy brewery where, for the not-inconsequential sum of $50, $60, or $85, one could watch mild S.F. indie-pop band the Dodos and some other local* groups, all while munching on small portions of food from eight chefs at some of the city's trendiest restaurants -- places like Flour + Water, Commonwealth, Beast and the Hare, and Bar Crudo. Oh, and you'll still have to pay for your own beer.

The notion of pairing food and music is interesting, and several people, most notably those over at Turntable Kitchen, have honed it to a fine art. Noise Pop's recent festivals have also included dinners on the side, where, for a sum, attendees can eat a meal specially prepared to go with the chosen record of the evening. Outside Lands has made a point of bringing in the city's best restaurants, which only makes sense, because everyone will need to eat at a 12-hour festival, and they might as well eat good food.

But while there's nothing wrong with good food and music pairings on their own, it's hard not to see these new music events as mirrors of the broader social and economic trends of San Francisco. And those trends seem far more likely to dry out out the city's musical culture than enrich it.

Here's how it goes: Creative people -- not web designers or software developers, but artists, musicians, activists, writers, and other colorful types -- tend not to make much money. As this city becomes less and less affordable, those people leave. And when those people leave, whom will the city's entertainment events target? The people who can afford to stay: Young, well-off tech workers or high-income young couples, whose tastes and lifestyles are cushier, more conservative, less driven by purely creative aims, and, often -- if only in comparison with the people they've replaced -- dull.

These bougies-in-training will want events to practice their conspicuous consumption, whether on food, booze, music, or all at the same time. And they'll get it at events like Noisette. This kind of high-minded consumerism -- fun as it is -- will become the norm, even more than it already has. So while it was once a respite for low-income creatives and real deviants, who would pay $5 or $10 to go a show or a party (at the Eagle Tavern, or Annie's Social Club, or Kimo's, remember those?), swill cheap whiskey, and watch something freaky and loud until early in the morning, San Francisco will slowly become one big pork-belly party, an amusement park for well-off residents to discover some new consumer good to become picky over, or for bridge-and-tunnel types to visit on the weekend, go to an overpriced club, and meet a hookup. Big concerts will draw kids from the 'burbs paying $50 or more a head. They'll never believe they could be rich enough to actually live here.

The freaks and creatives won't go too far -- they'll go to Oakland, where there's much more space, at much lower cost. The kinds of reckless energy that powered San Francisco music from the '60s through the '90s will trickle away, as much of it has already. And the city will be worse for it.

The Noisette event in August will probably be a success, and the people who go will probably enjoy it. The larger changes that make such an event possible aren't Noise Pop's fault, and as the company ages, it makes sense that its events will increasingly target older, higher-income, audiences.

Still, it's difficult not to see Noisette as a harmless-in-itself symptom of the larger problem with San Francisco: That the people in power don't care as much as they should about preserving the kind of cultural vibrancy that only comes when people with less-than-huge incomes can stay here. Music events that are raw, radically new, unpredictable, or even a little scary will find fewer venues and smaller audiences in San Francisco as the cost of living goes up. Expensive pairings, exorbitant concerts, and elite nightclubs will replace them. And for a city with such a rich history, that's a sad future to imagine.


*Correction: While the Dodos and Dan the Automator are based in the Bay Area, the other performers at Noisette aren't.

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