By Cory Sklar
By Alee Karim
By Christina Li
By Dave Pehling
By Ian S. Port
By SF Weekly
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
"'Noise Pop' to me was just the name that sort of described the sound of that music," he remembers. "I was trying to brand it, really, and make it into something bigger than it really was. And that name came and stuck."
The first Noise Pop bill included five bands, and cost $5. More people came than could legally fit in the venue. Over the next few years, the festival expanded to multiple nights and larger clubs, but its musical focus remained the same: Arnold booked artists he liked, and the artists he liked sounded fairly similar. There was no rapping, or keyboards, or DJ music. It was all indie rock. And at that time, before the Internet, indie rock was still basically an underground phenomenon that Arnold wanted to show off. "[Noise Pop] was initially a debutante, then later like a declaration of a scene, putting a stake in the ground, I guess, to draw attention to this stuff that I do think was overlooked," he says.
Though early iterations drew ever-larger crowds, the festival was always imperiled. Arnold had a full-time job as database manager at Oracle, and booking a rock festival — one that had now grown into multiple nights at multiple venues — was an immensely demanding side project. By 1997, Noise Pop's most ambitious move was college radio staples Archers of Loaf headlining Bimbo's 365 Club. It was the largest and most prestigious venue the festival had approached. "For me, that was one of the biggest deals in the world at the time," Arnold recalls.
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But things would soon change for Noise Pop. Ahead of the festival that year, Arnold sat down for an interview with an aspiring talent manager and freelancer writer named Jordan Kurland, who was working on a piece about the festival for the Examiner. Later that year, Kurland started managing early Noise Pop staple Creeper Lagoon, whose guitarist was Arnold's roommate. The two began socializing. Then in September 1997, at a Creeper Lagoon show, Kurland mentioned to Arnold that if he ever needed help putting on Noise Pop, Kurland would be happy to contribute.
"And he's like, 'Yeah, sure,'" Kurland remembers. "So we started working on it together, and he made me a full partner from the get-go, which I thought was very, very gracious."
Adding Kurland proved to be a crucial step: Arnold always had to be sly about working on the festival during his days at Oracle. But as a full-time talent manager, Kurland didn't — and he was already regularly in touch with the local club bookers.
After Kurland got involved, Noise Pop's ambitions greatly expanded — both in the size of the event and in the stature of the acts it booked. The '98 festival featured the Flaming Lips performing a live boombox experiment in the wake of Zaireeka, a quadruple album designed to be played on four separate stereos simultaneously. Former Pixies frontman Frank Black performed, along with Harvey Danger, a few months before its "Flagpole Sitta" single dominated rock radio. The then-aptly named Modest Mouse headlined Great American, taking a big step up from Bottom of the Hill, the band's regular S.F. haunt.
In 2000, buoyed by sponsorships from the dot-com largesse, Noise Pop opened a satellite festival in Chicago. It was a brave move, but the Internet bubble burst quickly. By 2001, the second year in Chicago, "we lost a fair chunk of change, and sort of retreated licking our wounds," Arnold remembers.
The Chicago experience instituted one important change for Noise Pop, though: Up until then, the festival had been booked with no conflicting performances, so that, theoretically, one could see every set. That idea went out the window in Chicago, and afterward, Noise Pop began running multiple shows per night in San Francisco, too. Its 10th anniversary festival featured an ambitious 88 bands, including Death Cab for Cutie, Guided by Voices, and the New Pornographers. Soon the festival had also started a film component.
Through the '00s, the festival rode the rising indie rock tide, and its bookings followed as the interests of its demographic moved into dance music and hip-hop. Other genres like folk and post-rock came into the fold, too, with artists like Joanna Newsom and Tortoise. But the prefix "indie" was always either stated or implied ahead of whatever genres Noise Pop brought in. The festival's sound palette expanded, but it always perceived itself as championing a more honest, more creative, less commercial alternative culture to the one that dominated popular music.
Then, sometime in the mid-to-late '00s, the adversarial stance of "indie music" vis-à-vis the larger culture shifted dramatically. The waning power of traditional media, the flattening influence of the Internet, and the decline of the major-label system all helped give independent artists — Noise Pop types — a more equal footing with their corporate competition. At first, the majors would pluck the most popular artists from indie labels, like the White Stripes and Modest Mouse. But as the decade wore on, the accolades and sales figures would be earned by bands like Arcade Fire, which remained on tiny North Carolina independent label Merge. And though a lot of the print magazines that championed '90s alt-rock had died, indie music found a newly powerful, if controversial, voice in the website Pitchfork. Able to raise or shatter the profile of a previously unknown band with a single review, Pitchfork brought the conversation about "indie" music out into the light, where anyone could find it.