Indie on Top: Noise Pop Celebrates 20 Years of Independent Music

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Photos by Amanda Lopez.


Noise Pop has prevailed.

This year, as the San Francisco festival's 20th annual week of indie music concerts gets under way, the proceedings have the distinct feeling of a victory lap — a very loud popping of the cork, or at least pulling the tab on the tall boy.

Two decades is a milestone for any festival, and this year's lineup is worth getting excited about. For 2012, the organizers are bringing in venerable greats like the Flaming Lips and Bob Mould, and new artists who embody the festival's musical identity, and broaden it. (There are a few head-scratchers, too, like unremarkable dubstep producer Porter Robinson.)

But the sense of achievement isn't limited to the list of who's performing in San Francisco this week. Now especially, there's a feeling — and plenty of evidence — that the larger mission of the Noise Pop festival has in many ways been realized, that the culture it champions has kinda sorta won.

The gospel of independent-minded rock, what Noise Pop lineups have preached for 20 years in clubs all over the city, has converted the local music scene and the music world at large. "Indie rock" originally meant music that was released on small labels, or made without emphasis on commercial appeal; now, it's effectively become shorthand for "new rock that has a modest chance of being interesting." Accordingly, the genre's most successful artists have ascended to the mainstream: Last year, Arcade Fire won the biggest Grammy they give out. This year, President Obama put them on his official campaign playlist. Only a week ago, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon name-dropped the respected but relatively obscure indie label Jagjaguwar as he awkwardly accepted a Grammy trophy for Best New Artist. A decade or two ago that would have been unimaginable, but in 2012, it's taken for granted that most of the young artists making creatively serious music with guitars are indie artists. And the remnants of what their music was an "alternative" to — stolid, self-important, major-label shlock-rock — are commercially in decline and creatively a joke. (Punchline: Nickelback.)

Noise Pop alumni have defined the last 10 years of loud, guitar-wielding America: bands like the Flaming Lips, the White Stripes, Spoon, Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, and the Shins. To varying degrees, the festival has helped all of them succeed. But an equally important legacy is its having given small artists, especially local ones, a larger audience than they would get without the critical mass of a concentrated batch of shows. In the last 20 years, the festival thrust dozens of Bay Area bands into a national spotlight, while elevating the profile of the vibrant San Francisco music scene. (SF Weekly is a sponsor of this year's festival.)

Still, the festival's organizers aren't ready to declare victory just yet. "I wouldn't necessarily say, 'We won — mainstream music is now good,'" says Noise Pop founder Kevin Arnold. "There's still a lot of stuff that I think is manufactured, calculated, commercial, soulless out there. If there is a battle, that's what we're fighting against."

The war against slick music product won't end soon, if ever. But as the festival reaches adulthood, organizers face another challenge: In 2012, the world of "indie music" includes a more diverse array of sounds than ever before. The rise of bands like LCD Soundsystem and the Rapture in the early '00s helped introduce dance music to kids who grew up on independent rock. The conversion of indie kids into club rats continues here every weekend at forward-thinking dance parties across the city. (Meanwhile, mainstream dance music, as exemplified by artists like Deadmau5, Skrillex, and, yes, Porter Robinson, has exploded in popularity, steamrolling its sounds into Top 40 pop and R&B.) Though rap and hip-hop were once regarded as just not for rock fans, that stance has long become obsolete. Rather than opposing the rise of indie music, hip-hop's best artists have embraced parts of its aesthetic. And even rock gods like Radiohead have grown into devotees of dance sounds, with Thom Yorke showing up to DJ last year at Low End Theory, an L.A. party devoted to a strain of hip-hop-indebted electronica loosely called bass music.

For the Noise Pop crusade for independent, underground sounds, these changes present both an opportunity and a challenge. Can the festival maintain its revolutionary zeal and musical relevance in a world where styles are more mixed than ever — and where other genres are arguably pushing the creative envelope more forcefully than indie rock?


Kevin Arnold was fighting a much smaller battle back in 1993. As he tells it, the popular strain of rock music in San Francisco then was funk-rock. Even just two years after grunge broke, bands like Limbomaniacs, who followed in the freaky footsteps of Primus, were the local rockers most likely to play larger clubs like Slim's and Great American Music Hall.

Arnold preferred lesser-known locals like Overwhelming Colorfast, whose simple lineups, loud guitars, and strong melodies were deeply influenced by punk icons Hüsker Dü and the Replacements. He had experience promoting bands at the Bear's Lair at UC Berkeley, so when a friend who booked the Kennel Club (now The Independent) offered Arnold a night, he took her up on it. He knew exactly what to call his show.

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