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.

Highlights from Noise Pop past: Flaming Lips and Spoon.
Peter Ellenby
Highlights from Noise Pop past: Flaming Lips and Spoon.
Peter Ellenby
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.
Another Planet's Allen Scott (left) and Bryan Duquette helped pull the music festival together.
Jen Siska
Another Planet's Allen Scott (left) and Bryan Duquette helped pull the music festival together.
Jen Siska

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.

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.

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.

The patch of land could certainly use a little life — not to mention commerce. For all the recent signs that Treasure Island wants to become a "recreation destination," the former Navy base still looks like a 10-cent ghost town (with its "Great Lawn" lined by decrepit skeletons of buildings) with a 10-million-dollar view of the San Francisco skyline.

Part of the reason for this visual dichotomy is the contentious management history of the manmade island, which was built onto the north end of Yerba Buena Island in 1937 using gold-filled dirt (hence the name). The site went from hosting a grand-sounding Golden Gate International Exhibition between 1939 and 1940 featuring "hundreds of free outdoor shows and music festivals ... attract[ing] such world-famous performers as Irving Berlin and Judy Garland" to shipping out Navy personnel to, well, nothing particularly monumental until 1998's Blues & Art on the Bay Festival. And then nothing again until the upcoming Treasure Island Music Festival. As to why there haven't been more events on the island, Allen White, who worked with Blues & Art on the Bay, blames past mismanagement of Treasure Island. "The people who were operating Treasure Island put [Blues & Art organizers] through the wringer," he says. "They made life so difficult for them just to try and finalize things. People stopped playing with them and sort of backed off."

The current Treasure Island Development Authority is eager for outsiders to host events there, if its spokeswoman Marianne Mazzucco Thompson is any indication. At an August neighborhood meeting, where staff from Another Planet and Noise Pop almost outnumbered actual residents, Thompson enthused for the baby boomers in the room that the Treasure Island Music Festival is indeed an esteemed and exciting event. She recounted a recent meeting between her boss, Mirian Saez, and the mayor, in which Gavin Newsom not only knew of the bands playing the concert, but he also had many of their songs "already in his iPod!" Thompson announced, beaming.

The Treasure Island Music Festival was co-booked by Another Planet, but it expands on the Noise Pop model of pairing smaller acts with bigger names, and it keeps the capacity fairly intimate for an outdoor event (in contrast to its expected 10,000 people per day, the recent Summer of Love 40th Anniversary in Golden Gate Park drew an audience of 50,000).

"It's not like us to go out and do something with 30,000 or 40,000 people and get Kanye West and the Smashing Pumpkins playing," says Kurland. "We want people to still be able to walk around and trip over a passed-out [Modest Mouse frontman] Isaac Brock in the middle of the field, and to carry that same vibe as if you're going to see a show at - Traci VogelGreat American Music Hall."

Beyond simply championing community over commerce, Arnold and Kurland defy the Hollywood image of sleazy rock promoters. For one, they're both family men. The 38-year-old Arnold and his wife, Joanie, have two young daughters, Luxi and Niko; Kurland, 35, and his wife, Tara, have a cat named Stoli and a child on the way in four months. The two men are so close they're almost brothers, says Hari Berrier, who worked for Noise Pop from 2001 through 2005. "You see one get something and you're like, 'Oh, I wonder if the other person's going to get that,'" she adds.

They share eerily similar tastes: Both own a Prius (although Kurland says he got his first) and at a recent dinner at Spenger's Fresh Fish Grotto in Berkeley they showed up wearing slip-on Converse sneakers; once seated, they independently settle on ordering the cioppino (although Kurland, once again, orders his first).

And, of course, they like a lot of the same music — but they have a special bond with the Who. During his senior year at a San Antonio, Texas high school, Arnold sang a duet of "Behind Blue Eyes" for his talent show; native Chicagoan Kurland, meanwhile, has been called a "Who savant" and proudly shows off a photo on his iPhone from the time he met his idol, Pete Townshend, at a festival in Ireland. He says that next to meeting his wife, "it was one of the best moments of my life."

Ben Gibbard, the frontman for Death Cab For Cutie, a band managed by Kurland, remembers the Townshend moment with a laugh. "The whole day in Dublin, Jordan can't fucking shut up about how excited he is to meet Pete Townshend. He's dragging us to record stores trying to find rare records or magazine covers he can get Pete to sign," Gibbard says. "It's kind of amazing to be in business with somebody who is a fan first and hasn't become jaded. I think when people hit their thirties they start taking for granted all the amazing things in their lives. You stop being like, 'This is fucking crazy that I get to do this.'"

Kurland and Arnold have spent the past decade-plus showing that same enthusiasm to the bands they cherish. For Kurland, that means seeking out music with an inherent intimacy in both the production of the records and in the modest-sized venues his favorite acts usually play; for Arnold, it's music that contains a "raw sincerity." And there's always been a local tag to Noise Pop, which generally aims for a 50/50 ratio of local to national bands.

Now, many of the bands Noise Pop has hosted — Modest Mouse, Spoon, Bright Eyes — sell out Bay Area engagements on their own. But when Noise Pop started, indie rock didn't rule the roost, and locally it could barely pay the rent. Noise Pop was a community booster when the San Francisco music scene was hurting in the post-dot-com years, when musicians were leaving the city and were faced with the double whammy of high rents and high unemployment. "I think [that was] also a period, in the late '90s, when indie rock wasn't cool," says Kurland, "when it wasn't being celebrated on the scale anywhere near this."

Kurland notes that the scale of the Treasure Island music fest is beyond anything Noise Pop has ever done before — which has them a little on edge. He and Arnold worry that in San Francisco, you can never guarantee the weather. There's the fear that your headliner will flake out on you, or that when you have a big open space, it's harder to count exactly how many heads it will take to sell out the "venue." And then there's the issue of money — even with a 50/50 split with Another Planet.

"There's city fees," Arnold says, "and organizing buses to cart people over the bridge and doing ridiculous stuff like Ferris wheels" — at which point Arnold shoots Kurland a grin. Kurland jabs back, "I don't know who came up with that idea."

Yes, the Treasure Island fest will additionally feature a 70-foot Ferris wheel, insisted on by Kurland for "no real reason other than I just love the idea of looking out at Treasure Island and seeing a big Ferris wheel." (Of course, he adds, the fact that the 1939 Golden Gate International Exhibition hosted two Ferris wheels only "furthered our determination.")

Then Kurland gets serious — sort of. "I knew we were taking an inordinate risk doing this, especially for us because our business is really risk-free with Noise Pop," he says. "Some of this stuff we're just not going to get right. ... Like when the Ferris wheel gets stuck."

More than oiling the rides, however, the biggest Treasure Island concern on everyone's mind is transportation. When the month of September brings acts like Cat Power, New Pornographers, and Animal Collective to the city, why take a shuttle to an island when you can stick around town and hail a cab or jump on the Muni to see a show? Are two stages, one Ferris wheel, and mounds of recyclable forks going to be enough to pull fans to Treasure Island on a weekend when they can only get there by bus?

It's a clear August morning on Treasure Island, and the Great Lawn, as the 126,500-square-foot stretch of palm-tree-lined grass is called, offers a vista straight out of a film set. The Bay Bridge is a majestic rust-colored expanse directing your line of sight from the island's peak across the water and down the beveled San Francisco skyline, where the Coit Tower, the Ferry Building, and the Transamerica triangle jut skyward like cutouts from a pop-up book. Despite the fog clinging to Twin Peaks, the island is bathed in sunshine and the air smells slightly salty. Scoot your gaze farther to the right and the Golden Gate Bridge tucks into the green Marin hills.

"And look at Alcatraz," says Bryan Duquette, pointing at the former prison. "It's so close it looks like you can just drop a fishing line over there." Duquette and his co-worker Allen Scott are here to meet with Treasure Island authorities to discuss traffic congestion. But first we do a walkthrough of the future festival grounds, careful to step around the duck crap — a task that is especially precarious for Duquette, who, as usual, is wearing flip-flops.

Duquette and Allen are music industry pros employed by Another Planet Entertainment, the promotions firm run by Bill Graham vets Sherry Wasserman and Gregg Perloff. Perloff has worked on an impressive litany of concerts, from the Rolling Stones' 1981 tour to the WOMAD festival and Tibetan Freedom Concert in the '90s, and his company carries a lot of weight in this town.

Their shoes free of bird droppings, Scott and Duquette step into Treasure Island's hollow administration building, a cluster of offices with no lobby furniture and an affably sarcastic guard braiding her hair when we enter. We crouch on steps under an odd mural of seafaring life, and I ask Duquette what his biggest concerns are, a month out from the event. "Transportation," he answers immediately. "I'm going to kill myself."

Scott rubs his scruffy beard and adds, "I'm going to throw myself out of a moving bus. I think this is one of the reasons there hasn't been a festival out here before."

The weekend before, one of Duquette's co-workers was at Bimbo's, and Treasure Island concert congestion was apparently a common concern for club patrons who wanted to attend the festival. "It's a conversation piece, and it's people's focus, so we want to make sure we nail that this first year," says Duquette.

Caltrans public information officer Bob Haus notes, "The exit and entrance routes going to and from T.I. don't have a lot of capacity; they can only handle about 700 vehicles an hour."

Kurland says the Treasure Island Music Festival Web site has received some emails complaining about the lack of buses from the East Bay, but that in this trial year, the promoters are just "going to have to take it on the chin a little bit."

San Francisco's Entertainment Commission executive director Davis says transportation is on the minds of every promoter interested in doing something public on Treasure Island. Another Planet Entertainment is at least helping lead the way. "It's good to have someone like [Another Planet co-founder] Perloff, who is experienced and has worked in the area to be the first out of the box," says Davis. Davis has sent three different teams out to Treasure Island, and the other operators are now "taking a small step back to see what Perloff does," he notes.

But the anticipated transportation nightmares don't always become reality, says White, who claims that contrary to the press coverage leading up to his blues festival, traffic scares never materialized. "There was no problem with transportation," he says, later adding, "There is no transportation problem [now]. Getting on that island is a snap."

But there is a difference between White's concert and the Treasure Island Music Festival. White installed the necessary disabled ramps for ferry service. Noise Pop and Another Planet have decided to forgo the ramps and lose out on ferries this year. "There's a dock here but it isn't compliant," says Scott. "There's a cost to it and it's something we hope to do in the future. [This year] it was a cost issue and a timing issue as well."

But Duquette later added that "everything had to loop through the city, building permit-wise, and we felt like with their time constraints we couldn't do it." He says the Navy and the city would have to approve the plans for ferry ramps at the festival, and that the promoters couldn't put tickets on sale until they had an approved transportation plan in place, a process that would take too much time this first year.

Instead of ferries, Another Planet and Noise Pop are offering free transport in state-of-the-art biodiesel buses on loan from Google. Sixty of these eco-friendly beasts will be on call, shuttling ticket holders free of charge from parking lot A at AT&T Park to Treasure Island and back. Those commuting from the East Bay will just have to get themselves to San Francisco for this first year. Aside from festival staff, only VIP ticket holders will be able to drive to the event and park there. Caltrans will leave one lane of the Bay Bridge blocked off just before the Treasure Island entrance ramp for one hour both nights to ensure an easy exit.

For now, the only boats that will dock at Treasure Island are private vessels whose owners rent or own the required slips. And in the meantime, the music festival is sailing full speed ahead toward its start date.

In the last days before the Treasure Island Music Festival, it's sounding like indie connoisseurs are indeed rallying to make the big passage. A little over a week before the festival, Kurland writes in an e-mail, "Ticket sales are super strong and have really picked up since last week," with Sunday's more rock-oriented lineup outselling Saturday's mix of electronic and hip-hop acts. "I don't anticipate that it will sell out in advance," he says, "but it's going to be close." At shows for the Another Planet–run Independent, concertgoers picking up tickets for bands like Okkervil River are greeted with stacks of fliers pushing last-minute buyers into action.

For all the music fanatics in this city, San Francisco's rock festival lore is sorely stuck in the past. The endless Summer of Love anniversary coverage reminds people of what a culturally groundbreaking place this town used to be, both in the bands it supported and with the large-scale concerts it used to showcase them. That cutting edge has been blunted over time, but that's no reason to give up. One weekend on Treasure Island probably won't put San Francisco in the history books, but it does signal an important first step. It's a reminder to the outside world of our rock cred. It's local promoters taking a chance on creating a musical zeitgeist in a unique place that lodges in the memory.

If the Treasure Island Music Festival is a success, the plan is to make the concert a yearly event. But Arnold hedges his bets there, announcing, "You never say that the first year. If this doesn't go well we don't want to look like jackasses for calling it the 'first annual.'"

Even if it scrapes the bottom of Noise Pop's bank account, though, the hope is that rewards will come in other ways. "I think we'd have more regret if we hadn't done [an event] where we didn't know what we were doing," Arnold concludes, "than if we just sat back and waited."

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