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The Sounds of Silence 

Why the Bay Area has stopped producing big-time rock bands

Wednesday, Sep 18 2002
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What happened to you, San Francisco? You used to be the epicenter of musical culture, the pulsating beacon of righteous noise, the kind bud in the bong of rock. More than almost any other U.S. city -- certainly any of your size -- you delivered band after band into the national consciousness, and not just any old musical acts, but quality ones. People moved to the Bay Area just to breathe our aroma of rockitude, to absorb the fog-buffed fame, to walk where the great ones had once trod. From the '60s acid-rock rebels to the '70s punk upstarts to the '80s new-wave weirdos, this town thrived. The list of the city's successes is long and luminous: Jefferson Airplane, Santana, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, the Avengers, the Dead Kennedys, Flipper, the Tubes, the Residents, Romeo Void, Faith No More, and Imperial Teen, not to mention East Bay natives like Primus, Green Day, and Rancid.

Now there's nothing -- unless you count Train, which you probably shouldn't, and Third Eye Blind, which you probably should (and take a bath afterward). What went wrong? Is it the water? Does it have anything to do with Willie Brown's hat? Is there anyone out there?

If you talk to our scenesters-about-town, you'll find that they think the dot-com bubble has burst and the art scene is booming again. But where are the rock stars, those boys and girls who'll remind the rest of the country that we're still here on the left side of the map?

To find the answer, we ventured out into the wilds of the Bay Area music scene. We unearthed one local band that should be famous but likely won't be; another that shouldn't become big but just might; a blueprint for rock success from the hip hop world; and the real reason why we may never be blessed with stardom again.

What Do These Kids Have Against the Letter "E"?

"Their chances are very, very good," says Sean Demery, Live 105's program director, when asked about the band Trapt's possibility for mainstream success. His comment should be good news for San Francisco rock fans, because even if the Los Gatos-bred group now resides in Los Angeles, it's not often that one of our own makes it into the national spotlight. Trapt's new, self-titled record is about to come out on Warner Bros., one of the biggest labels in the world. The quartet's set to tour the country with industrial/metal icons Filter, and loud-rock radio stations across the nation are lining up to play its songs. So what's the problem?

The problem is that Trapt is very, very bad. Worse yet, the extent of its badness -- and that of the music industry as a whole -- is what might make the group successful. Is the world thirsting for the combination of bombast and blue-eyed blah that Trapt offers? Would Metallica sound better if it were fronted by a dude from *NSYNC? Do we need another reason to hate Limp Bizkit? The answer to these questions, apparently, is yes.


Over the past few years, the Bay Area music scene has seen rougher times than a blind bull-rider. The closing of the Downtown Rehearsal space in October 2000 left 500 bands in the lurch, while venues continue to shutter their doors. Between the dearth of places to practice and the lack of places to play, it's nigh on impossible for local groups to develop a sound and a significant audience. Even if they do come up with something original, they can forget about help from radio.

"It all has to do with widespread corporate control and the general lack of competition in radio these days," says Jason Jackson, former editor in chief of RadioDigest.com. "With the absolute bottom line now focusing on restricting costs instead of developing quality programming, you wind up with groups of stations being programmed en masse."

To get on the air, bands need cash -- and lots of it. According to a recent Salon.com article by Eric Boehlert, labels have to pay independent promoters about $250,000 to get one song played on rock radio. Live 105's Demery puts the figure between $100,000 and $500,000. (Labels pay these "indie" promoters to get songs added to playlists; the promoters then pay the stations for telling them which songs have been added. The government is looking into putting an end to this dubious pay-for-play process.) And that money doesn't even guarantee that the single will be a hit.

Anthony Bonet, booker for the Bottom of the Hill and a member of local act A Night of Serious Drinking, blames more than just the industry for the Bay Area's lack of musical prominence: "The artists aren't stepping up to bat, the audiences aren't stepping up to bat, and the clubs are hiding behind the profit motive." Bonet believes artists have embraced amateurism as a stylistic device, refusing to raise themselves to the level of competence needed for national success. "Like Orwell said, 'In the coming age, there will be a mistrust of excellence.'"

Audiences have also grown more closed-minded, taking fewer chances on unknown quantities and supporting local acts less often, according to Bonet. In the mid-'90s, he approximates, there were two dozen bands that could sell out the Bottom of the Hill and other small Bay Area clubs. Of those artists still around today -- the Mr. T Experience, Pansy Division, Tarnation's Paula Frazer -- most are lucky to draw 200 people on a Friday night.

The clubs have become more conservative as well. "The Hemlock is a perfect example," says Bonet. "It was really poised to be a great new space and do something with the intimacy of it, but they went straight for the 'hip new place.' There's no songwriters' night; there's no showcase night; there's "Fuck you if you're a new band.'"

Even successful musicians are part of the problem. For example, you won't find S.F.'s Stephan Jenkins of Third Eye Blind hosting a songwriters' night anytime soon. He roasted the local scene in a piece for 7x7 magazine earlier this year and is known for his "Fuck you, Frisco" attitude -- which, Bonet says, groups have to have to succeed. "The bands who make it big are the bands that don't give a shit about the Bay Area."

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