Gimme Indie Rock!

Local promoters take a big risk to give S.F. a music fest that will restore the city's cool cred

Kevin Arnold and Jordan Kurland stroll into 500 Club, a Mission dive bar, on a recent August weekday. The pair lean against the counter, weighing their options. "I should order a martini," says Arnold with a grin. "That's what I had when Jordan and I first met here."

A martini seems too stiff a drink for this breezy summer day, so instead Arnold tells Kurland to double up on the beer order. They settle into a booth so fresh from the cleaning crew that you can still smell the bleach under the typical musty bar odor.

It was at this Guerrero Street institution that the two became fast friends a decade ago, back when Kurland was an occasional stringer for the Examiner's entertainment section. In February 1997, he wrote a piece about Noise Pop, Arnold's then-nascent indie music festival. After that interview, the two bumped into each other at shows, and Kurland began managing Creeper Lagoon, a local indie pop band featuring a couple of Arnold's former roommates. A few months after the Examiner piece ran, Kurland and Arnold were both watching Creeper perform at the Warped Tour when Kurland pitched the idea of collaboration. They joined forces that fall. "From the get-go, he always considered me and treated me as a full partner," says Kurland of Arnold, "which is pretty amazing."

Arnold started Noise Pop in 1993 with a single show featuring underground acts like the Meices and the Fastbacks at the Kennel Club. The name is a combination of the sounds made by the bands Arnold likes (noisy and distorted, yet heavily melodic) and a riff on children's Pop Pop firecracker toys. Noise Pop is now touted as San Francisco's premier annual indie rock festival, where 100 yet-to-be-discovered and more established acts come together for one week to perform in various clubs, from Bottom of the Hill to Bimbo's.

Despite Noise Pop's steady growth, Arnold and Kurland have regularly debated whether to pull the plug on it. Although the festival is artistically fulfilling for its curators, they've been barely breaking even on their investment. Since both have day jobs — Arnold launched the highly successful music distribution company Independent Online Distribution Alliance (IODA), and Kurland's company, Zeitgeist Artist Management, manages Death Cab for Cutie and Feist, among other big acts — they've occasionally questioned whether Noise Pop was still worth the increased strain on their schedules.

"Really, in 2005, we didn't know if we wanted to keep doing it," says Kurland. "We wanted to keep doing things, but we were so busy. We kind of came to a point of either 'let's do this and do it right' or 'let's not keep doing it because we've been treading water for a few years.'"

They decided to do it right by trying something a little different: taking out a loan, hiring a small staff, and embarking on a weekend-long festival in conjunction with Another Planet Entertainment (which books big venues like the Greek Theatre in Berkeley). The event will feature 26 acts, from M.I.A. to Modest Mouse, and unlike Noise Pop, it convenes in one place: Treasure Island.

The Treasure Island Music Festival is ambitious in every respect. It's a rare two-day outdoor concert without a giant corporate sponsor (Colorado's Monolith Music Festival, for example, is being presented by Esurance) and unlike Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in Golden Gate Park, it's not bankrolled by a wealthy individual. From building a stage to trucking in the portable toilets, the venue is being created from the ground up, and the lineup isn't trumpeting commercial radio favorites that guarantee a ticket sellout. The concert also boasts a "green" approach that covers everything from biodiesel generators to "a compost sculpture of Kevin," jokes Kurland.

Humor aside, Kurland and his partner have a lot riding on the success of this event. "If this thing went horribly wrong, which fortunately it's not going to" — says Arnold, as he and both knock on the 500 Club's wooden table — "it would put the future of Noise Pop in jeopardy. And it would actually probably be Kevin and I writing the checks" for Noise Pop's half of the deal. He then pauses and weighs the arguments for taking the risk. "There's definitely a big hole in what happens here, though," Kurland adds, "not only music-wise, but entertainment-wise in the Bay Area."

He's right.

San Francisco lacks a large-capacity destination event for indie music. While every big city from Las Vegas (Vegoose) to New York (Siren Music Festival) hosts its own giant marathon of burgeoning rock talent, San Francisco proper only has commercial radio events like KFOG's KaBoom. As far as hosting a catalyzing event that pushes yesterday's and tomorrow's college radio stars out to the Bay Area masses, San Francisco has been left in the dust.

Tastemaking festivals are becoming a dime a dozen if you ask Amy Phillips, senior news editor of indie music webzine Pitchfork. When questioned about how many of these events she reports on monthly, she laughs, and answers, "Oh my God, there are so many. It seems like there are more and more all the time." The same weekend as the Treasure Island Music Festival, September 15 and 16, Austin, Texas hosts its long-running Austin City Limits Festival with the White Stripes and Wilco, and Denver launches the aforementioned Monolith Music Festival with Art Brut and the Decemberists. Not only do these events have the weekend concert model in common, but they also share a half-dozen members of Treasure Island's lineup — bands like Spoon and Ghostland Observatory will be racking up the airline miles. With this level of competition, it takes bold selling points — a strong local band component, which Treasure Island has with DJ Shadow, Zion-I, and Two Gallants; popular acts that don't tour often, like Built to Spill; and a locale that lets crowds experience unique spaces, like a former Navy base with a breathtaking view.

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