Ousting the Merry Pranksters: How Tech Culture is Eroding the Bay Music Scene

 

San Francisco has always been a lightning rod. Since the Gold Rush days, The City by the Bay has been looked upon either admiringly or with disdain for its progressive, radical and self-proclaimed enlightened culture.

Even in those days, one could pretend to be enlightened, yet still order an assassination or make money selling women into sex slavery. There were the rich railroad barons on the top of the hills of the city, yet also chinese immigrants trapped in the slavery dens of chinatown.

Today, San Francisco stands as the current capital of Silicon Valley. The city’s tech industry has made tremendous strides in making the world a better place, yet has also caused soaring housing prices within the area. Both natives and newcomers complain that The City seems to be pricing itself out of existence. Renters, shopkeepers, and low-income residents aren’t the only people howling that San Francisco has rapidly changed for the worse. The most vocal opponents have even resorted to throwing rocks at the increasingly ubiquitous Google buses to express their anger.  A quieter despair is also emerging from The City’s legendary arts community, its music scene in particular. From the Barbary Coast, to the Beats, to the Counterculture, to today’s tight-knit folk-rock scene, San Francisco has always been in the vanguard of the Next Big Thing, not only in entrepreneurship, but also in culture.

But, if the Young Bohemians of the newest wave in the arts can’t afford to pay rent in Twitter-era SF, and if the iconic arts institutions that underpin these creative folks are being priced out of town, how long will SF remain SF?

To separate the hysteria from the truth, the claims from the facts, I decided to survey a key market segment of The City’s cultural economy—its century-old and highly sophisticated supply chain of performed and recorded music. I approached San Francisco’s music trade, speaking to music distributors, record companies, music stores, members of some of the hottest new bands, and various local government officials involved in the scene. With each interview I felt I was compiling useful information, but understood less about the ways in which the city was actually suffering. Even in people’s positive stories of cultural growth and expansion, there was a weariness to make such proclamations.

Now I can’t claim to be a San Francisco native. I’m utterly suburban, growing up a solid 50 miles south of The City. And yet, even a peripheral observer like myself can see the remarkably quick sanitization of a city that has long rooted itself in whimsical irreverence and a friendly sense of enlightenment. Separate worlds now vie for space in San Francisco; the starving artists, the tech-rich incomers, the small business owners, all functioning adjacently to each other.

But at what cost to that which made The City great—and that which drew all of the young techies there in the first place?

Here’s what I found:   

When Silicon Valley’s high tech industry, largely located in the South Bay until the dotcom bubble started drawing in non-tech types in 2008 and 2009, started migrating north to San Francisco at the beginning of the new century, the price of housing and the dearth of available land within the city limits was already an emerging crisis. SF may appear expansive in photographs, but the fact is that The City’s official population of 852,469 is crammed onto the tip of a small peninsula of just over 230 square miles. By comparison, New York has 8.5 million stuffed into 304.3 square miles. There are laws that restrict the use of vertical space.   So, while it is only the fourth most populated city in California, it is also the second most densely populated city in America. As the limited supply of residences has met the explosive demand of young techies wanting to live and work in the hippest city around, the results have been predictable.

In the first few months of 2015, the median sale price for a SF home was $1.1 million, an 11% increase in a single year and a 64.4% increase over a five year span. And prices show no sign of leveling off. In just the last two weeks of December 2015, the median listing price increased from $1.41 to $1.5 million. The average price of a 1 bedroom property between October and December 2015 was $842,500. Five years before, it was $485,000.

Those extraordinary numbers still don’t fully capture the changes that the tech boom has affected on San Francisco. When the tech industry emerged fifty years ago with companies like Intel, Xerox, and Hewlett-Packard it was built upon mostly small towns, farms, and a sea of orchards. The social networking boom that sprouted in SF, after the dot.com bubble burst in 2001, was built atop a complex and well-established 150-year-old urban culture. Whether that graft was successful still remains a matter of debate—not least among the denizens of San Francisco’s cultural society.  

The problem, as echoed by all of the subjects of this investigation, was a feeling of separate societies. The affluent, mostly tech-oriented groups, flocked to San Francisco originally because of its freedom, the air of expression and vibrant creativity that they saw in themselves. But instead of digging into the city and understanding the roots of that artsy novelty or help foster its continuity, they merely build around it and —eventually— over it.

Which begs the question: is the tech takeover of San Francisco an anomalous hub of supposed techie synergy, or an extreme blueprint for how technology will, in due time, overwhelm the world?

Bottom of the Hill keeps a relatively modest appearance in a neighborhood of warehouses and industrial companies: a light blue, white-framed house next to an empty lot. Only the crooked neon sign gives any indication of this being one of the most active and influential music venues in the city. Since being founded in the mid-80s by Ramona Downey and Lynn Schwarz, the ‘Hill’ has been instrumental in fostering local talent and giving it exposure on an almost daily basis. “We’ve been so happy to nurture so many bands that made it big,” says Schwarz.

But the work of keeping a steady rotation, nearly 365 days out of the year, of both locally based and nationally touring acts has taken its toll on Bottom of the Hill. As Schwarz sees it, the problems were a long time coming, but the new affluent sweep has heavily exacerbated historical city issues.

“Maybe we’d close on Christmas, but that was our thing”, says Schwarz, “Starting around 2008 we starting closing on Sundays and Mondays unless there was a specific person looking for that date.”

Now, with declining attendance, Bottom of the Hill is thinking of closing on Wednesdays as well. But Schwarz is dead-set against that idea.

“Our major touring acts that were our bread and butter are few and far between, and some of these acts that used to sell us out are only getting a third of the capacity, even when we offer them the same guarantee,” she says. “We have had to basically roll the dice on selling out and we don’t because again—our fan base is decimated.”

Schwarz provided a particularly telling anecdote. A few months back, a local tech company rented out the club for an employee’s birthday party. Even though the company is a block away, less than five people showed up. When she asked why, the guests said that the company had everything they could want in their company building, including a bar.

The arts in San Francisco has always had a home. Often a not so commercial store. Think City Lights Bookstore for Beatniks. For musicians, its been Amoeba Music.

Amoeba Music first opened its doors in Berkeley in 1990.  A gargantuan second location opened in 1997 in SF’s Haight-Ashbury District. A symbol of musical and artistic independence, the stores have always offered the entire spectrum of music, including in-store live shows and a consistent trade system in music and movies. Dave Franklin has been working at the SF location since its inception. A store manager and resident jazz expert for the almost two decades, Franklin has seen the ebbs and flows of San Francisco’s cultural life.

“It definitely seems there is money in the hands of young people to a crazy degree,” he says. In a city so infused with technology, Amoeba is selling more vinyl records than ever. In fact they have become so popular, the store is actually in need of more CDs, even if they end up in the ever-growing clearance racks.

While national acts tend to take the spots for in-store shows, Amoeba has always encouraged the exposure of local music. But from an initial policy of buying local bands’ work outright, the store has moved to consignment deals for acts trying to get exposure. Before, any band could come in and peddle albums for which Amoeba would find a market. Now, with declines in sales across the board, the shop can’t afford to gamble on buying 50 copies of an album that might not sell, so it has been forced to hold albums and only pay musicians after the fact. As such, Amoeba Music has noticeably decreased the volume of albums it buys. “When they know that we aren’t going to buy them outright—or that they can self-distribute—musicians are figuring out that a store isn’t the most advantageous route,” Franklin says. “The rise of vinyl sales is not enough to make up for sales in other areas, but it helps us stay afloat. It’s not like the peak years as far as CD sales go, but it’s something.

To help remedy the problem of overall declining sales Amoeba is becoming more particular about its in-store selections, catering to the young up-starts with higher vinyl and classical sales than seen in years. It is also growing its long overdue web presence. As far as the rate of change, “It’s not out of the blue,” says Franklin, “but it is stunning in a way.”

 

Dave Franklin is also a long time resident of the Mission, a neighborhood seen by many as the epitome of the housing—and overall—challenge in San Francisco. The arts and Latino communities have seen perhaps the most drastic shift in landscape, from a rough, artistic flourish within the traditional neighborhood of SF Latinos, to a white-washed span of blocks, Williams-Sonoma with a tech twist. The change hasn’t gone unnoticed by Franklin: “It’s a very different group of people all of a sudden making up the neighborhood,” he says.  “It’s been coming down the pipe for a while, but the last two years have changed fast. I mean, I live in the Mission, and Valencia Street has seen its turnover to high end restaurants, boutiques. And Mission Street, which had seemed to hold its core character—now the art galleries, the weird bookstores and punk venues… these places are going away pretty quickly.”

“The [tech industry] wanted to move in because it wanted to be part of the hipness and character, but now they don’t want to contribute to it. I don’t know if it’s shyness or being in their own world. I’m not feeling invited into that,” says Franklin. “When it was the artist stuff before, anybody could be a part of it if they wanted to.”

There are countless theories and strategies and anecdotes about the gradual—then sudden—change of The City. Some blame the shift from a working city to a tourist city to a tech city.  Others question whether an entrepreneurial society can be grafted atop an established 150 year-old culture.  And still others blame the big money being made by the social networking companies and its distorting effect upon everyday city life.  One thing is certain:  What were once strange and wonderful hamlets of creative types were quickly squashed under the well-intentioned, but benevolently relentless, capitalism of the city’s new residents.

That said, it is too easy to make the tech industry and its transformation of the city into the only scapegoat for a much older housing problem that San Francisco has faced since the 1980s. This point is hammered home by Julie Schuchard, co-founder of Tricycle Records, an innovative, locally focused SF music label.

Founded in 2006 by Julie Schuchard and Don Joslin, Tricycle Records is a independent record label that has a unique DIY business model and releases only local music. Acting as mentor, the label provides full support including merchandising, promotion, and booking for up-and-coming bands.

As for how the city’s changes are affecting its artists, “we are definitely in a housing crisis and that has affected musicians’ ability to live in the city,” Schuchard says.

Schuchard also sits on the board for the local chapter for the Recording Academy, one of the voting boards for the Grammy Awards. “It’s our goal to get more local artists in the recording academy, but we’ve definitely seen a decline in artists,” she says. “This doesn’t mean they are leaving the Bay Area proper, but they are definitely leaving the City.”

Known best for its compilation releases of local artists, Tricycle Records gets a clear demographic picture of submitting area bands. While this year has seen more submissions than ever, the location of these bands is more focused in East Bay cities like Oakland and down the Peninsula.

As Schuchard notes, misinformation is key to understanding all of the city’s many problems, not just its music community. For one thing, she says, famous and now dead venues that are used as the symbols of the problem—like The Elbo Room—actually just closed coincidentally with the tech explosion, and for unrelated reasons.

 

Schuchard doesn’t entirely agree with many of the complaints about the ‘dot.commers.’  “So many people get on this bandwagon and talk about how the city is dying and artists are being forced out. The reality is that music venues are thriving in the city and the tech industry has actually done a lot to help local nightlife.”

Schuchard also works with the California Music and Art Association (CMAC), to protect music venues. With the tidal wave of redevelopment, historic venues like The Lexington or Cafe Du Nord have been, in some ways, zoned out of business.

First it’s noise complaints. Then the protests follow. Then aggressive rezoning—which in turn forces many venues and clubs to close. To combat these problems, CMAC and others like Ben Van Houten have worked continuously to pass laws protecting venues and other nightlife entertainment. Van Houten is San Francisco’s Business Development Manager for the Nightlife & Entertainment Sector, a job created only a few years ago in response to the growing need for a collaboration between venues, bars, clubs and the city government.

The most promising piece of legislation is SF Supervisor London Breed’s 2004 Legislation to Preserve Live Music & Nightlife, which since its passing, ensures that venues have historical protection and precedent in the transformation of mixed-use areas of the city. According to Conor Johnston, a staffer for City Supervisor Breed, the legislation is a three-pronged solution. Namely, it gives the developer and venue a chance for a hearing with the entertainment commission. Then it prevents a venue from being sued as long as its complaint with the terms of its operating permit. And the third, and perhaps most importantly, the city notifies new residents pre-emptively to the possibility of a concert venue next door.

According to Van Houten, there has always been a disconnect between The City’s nightlife and the government, simply due to the difference in their working hours. The new legislation creates a more interactive atmosphere between business and government. It also puts the onus now on developers to inform their buyers of a neighboring venue or nightclub.

Whatever the hyperbole, there are still musicians left in San Francisco. Though the majority of what would be considered ‘national’ acts have moved south to LA, there are still musicians living and playing daily in The City. Many of these folks are more hobbyists than full-timers, or increasingly notable bands that still need to pay their rent—situations seen both by Julie Schuchard of Tricycle Records and Lynn Schwartz of Bottom of the Hill. The remaining have scattered out into the last affordable neighborhoods, like Excelsior or Outer Sunset in a kind of cultural diaspora of working artists and musicians.

 

Kevin Sullivan and Derek Schultz epitomize the musicians and artists working within and around the system to afford living in The City. Respective members of notable local acts Rin Tin Tiger and Owl Paws, Kevin Sullivan and Derek Schultz are friends and roommates with purposefully-antiquated, musical aesthetic. With Rin Tin Tiger and Owl Paws both between albums, Kevin and Derek have more time to devote to their solo projects, Field Medic and Derek Ted, respectively. Born out of their early days busking, it has taken form as Sunroom Recordz & Salon, a collective of the two’s artist housemates, Sullivan, Schultz and a sizable group of like-minded and eager music fans.

“I’ve only been here five years but in that span of time I’ve seen so many things change. And the people I see when I walk in the Mission, I don’t know who they are. And it’s fine of course, but at what cost?” Sullivan ponders at the Sunroom Recordz & Salon, headquartered in the living room of the ‘castle’ as the housemates call it. Besides a hand painted poster, one would never guess the amount of music produced in the plain living room.

Due to fortuitous rent and landlord, the members of Sunroom Records have managed to continue living in The City, and they are grateful. “If we didn’t have the garage to practice in we’d be fucked. Everyone in the house is like bankrupt,” Kevin says. “Without having this space I don’t know what I would do,” says Derek.

Sunroom puts forth a multitude of artwork and performances, including poetry and spoken-word readings, concerts or zines, all furthering the label’s particularly homegrown, carefully carefree aesthetic. “It’s kind of given us all a purpose where we can focus our energy,” says Derek Schultz. Schultz, who is a trained sound engineer by day, records his solo work almost exclusively from console to 8-track tape. This lo-fi technique is the heart of Sunroom Recordz & Salon.

As for the broader reception outside of their circle, Kevin feels it is muted if not strange. “I feel like the music scene is just detached. I’ve never felt like one strong community in SF. I feel like the strongest musical community in SF is bands from LA”, Sullivan says. “Lately it’s a completely different vibe when you’re playing a local show”, says Schultz.

“It’s weird because it’s just so extreme. There’s no middle ground. Either people are scrambling to pay for anything, or they are people with way too much money. We just played a housing development in Bayshore and they paid us $1500. We normally get paid $400. It literally covered everything as a band that we needed to do and it was effortless for them,” say Schultz.

But for the rest of The City—and really the rest of the world—technology is a double-edged sword. While Sunroom Recordz & Salon records and releases only on cassette, in each of the tapes is a link to a Bandcamp page and a free download of the recordings. The busking roots that propelled both Kevin and Derek into higher musical stature plays a large influence in their simple 4-track, one-take recordings. And however diminutive the projects, the respective members are prodigious, and their output reflects the multi-faceted face of San Francisco’s music industry.

Over the last month, Kevin and Derek have played numerous gigs and put on a house show. They are also both due to release new solo and group music. Kevin is also working on his annual Valentine’s Day EP, this year being the third. Derek is in the process of mastering a 10 song Solo EP, and yet questions still nag them.

“It’s weird being an artist here because when I first came here from San Jose I felt very that everyone was interesting and not yelling at you from their car,” says Kevin. “But nowadays when I walk down the street I feel like the weird one again.”

As for how the city’s changes affect their music, it’s somewhat existential. “It’s hard for me to see who’s really there and who’s not. What I’ve notice here at Sunroom—that crowd is still strong, so there’s still people out here that like music and art but they need somewhere to turn to find it,” says Kevin. “It’s really hard when you have have friends in bands in saying ‘come down LA, go platinum with us, we’re doing this’. “There are no opportunities in San Francisco and it’s like really hard to know what the right thing to do is at this point in time,” says Derek.

“It’s a weird feeling to reconcile, like, do I want to dip out of the Bay? It feels like betrayal, but nowadays fools just don’t care. The people I meet aren’t enthusiastic about stuff,” Kevin says. “People won’t go out of their way to find a show.”

What little hope Kevin Sullivan has left is geared towards musical unity. “The one positive side to all this happening is an opportunity for everyone who’s left to band together and like oppose. But it’s hard to say if that will happen too,” He adds.

“It’s getting to the point where if I want to sustain, I have to go,” says Derek.

 
Tad Malone