Gimme Indie Rock!

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

Phillips says that promoters have wanted to bring the European model of the non-touring, weekend-long, hype-building concert to the U.S. for years, but it wasn't until Southern California's Coachella took off in 2002 that any serious attempts were made - Traci Vogel. The current success of that concert, along with the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago and Washington State's Sasquatch!, is a reaction to uniting likeminded music heads in a fracturing business climate.

"As the record industry kind of falls apart, going to big festivals is becoming more important as a way to gather around the music that you like," says Phillips. "Because everybody's not buying the same records any more, when you go to any of these festivals you see there's thousands of people who all like this band that I do and we can all see them together. That's part of the music-loving process that's becoming more lost as we get more fragmented on the Internet. I don't think it's a coincidence that the rise of music festivals would coincide with that."

San Francisco would seem to be the perfect locale for a big annual event like the one Phillips describes. The city has the media to support breaking acts and bring them to the public. College radio stations like KUSF and KALX, and online outlets such as SomaFM support small artists, and Live 105's Sunday night Soundcheck program gives garage bands a boost. Add to that the fact that indie acts barely known outside of the blogosphere sell out local clubs like Popscene, Café du Nord, and the Independent, and you have a city hungry for new music and making the necessary efforts to support it.

Kevin Arnold with daughters Luxi and Niko.
Peter Ellenby
Kevin Arnold with daughters Luxi and Niko.
A former Noise Pop worker says Kurland and Arnold are so close, they're almost brothers.
Peter Ellenby
A former Noise Pop worker says Kurland and Arnold are so close, they're almost brothers.

Noise Pop, considered one of the country's "longest standing independent music festivals," has also been a place where buzz bands strengthen their foothold. The White Stripes were on the cusp of stardom when they performed there, and the Flaming Lips did one of their fabled "Boombox Experiments" at Noise Pop in 1998. Despite all its success, these days Noise Pop curates shows that could be in San Francisco without its help. This past spring, Noise Pop brought to town Ted Leo, Matt and Kim, and Roky Erickson, all of whom have or will come back to play pretty much the same clubs at some point this year. Arnold and Kurland have attempted to address this fact by widening Noise Pop's scope, adding a film and art component, and this month launching a "Talking Music" series with City Arts and Lectures. Still, Noise Pop isn't a music festival in the classic sense — a massive gathering at a singular communal event. Rather, it's a collection of good shows playing under the Noise Pop label one week of the year.

It has taken Noise Pop 14 years — and the help of Another Planet — to evolve into a show of Treasure Island's scale in part because San Francisco is a tough place to host a huge outdoor event. Promoters complain that popular spots like Golden Gate Park lock up way in advance. Going off the beaten path also has its consequences, says Bob Davis, executive director of San Francisco's Entertainment Commission.

While advocating the importance of San Francisco as an entertainment capital, Davis lists the barriers promoters face in this city, from expenses to geographical layout. "San Francisco is a bowl," he says. "The sound can just roll off the hills." This leads to residential noise complaints. "The city has encroached on every place," Davis says. "So we don't have an industrial section. We have places where industry coexists with residential."

He adds that the technology is in place to help with the sound issues, though, and notes the Rock the Bells concert in August at the McCovey Cove parking lot as a positive model in finding alternative spaces that can hold, say, an estimated 45,000 attendees.

Stacy Horne, events director for Noise Pop, says that it took a year to determine that Treasure Island would be a viable venue. Before deciding on that space, Noise Pop and Another Planet looked at Pier 30/32 and the McCovey Cove parking lot, among other places, aiming to keep the focus on a spot in San Francisco with a capacity of somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000. That proved difficult. "The goal from the beginning ... was to try and find something that would be different and special while staying within the confines of the city," Horne explains, "and Treasure Island certainly fit that bill. It's kind of an exotic jewel that many people are not totally familiar with, and it's right here in the middle of the bay. We were also excited that no other events of this size currently take place there."

If the Treasure Island Music Festival succeeds, it will add another open-air venue to San Francisco's list — and expose an untapped resource, in the view of many island boosters.

Since the city of San Francisco took control of the island from the Navy a decade ago, city officials seem to have been at a loss as to what to do with it. Former Mayor Willie Brown even suggested putting casinos on Treasure Island, an idea that went nowhere.

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