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What "pathetic situation"? Lytle's eyes widen into an isn't-it-obvious stare. "Modesto," he says. "Facing adversity. An aspiring band would be completely out of their fucking mind to move here. No record stores. No radio stations. No venues. It's just not band-oriented."
In late April, a $75,000 study was commissioned to look at the state of the arts in San Francisco. Results won't be available until September, but the study stems from a stack of anecdotal evidence that shows the city's cultural life to be asphyxiating. As the Bay Area's high-tech boom has inflated rents and converted arts buildings and music venues into office space, San Francisco's music scene has become as much a culture of complaint as a culture of art. When the Wall Street Journal visited the city in the spring looking for the heart of San Francisco music, it found cover bands playing to packed houses and original artists struggling to find gigs and attention.
That's not to say that San Francisco is a wasteland musically -- it's still a stop for major touring acts and boasts a music-savvy culture. And it's a city rich with rock history, from the psychedelic days of the late '60s to the punk rock explosion in the late '70s to the punk-pop explosion marked by bands like Green Day in the early '90s. But since that moment, the larger music industry has stopped looking to San Francisco as a breeding ground for new talent. Employees in "artists and repertoire" (A&R) departments of record labels, the people who are charged with finding new talent to sign, don't see much of a point.
"I don't think it really stands on the radar all that much," says Ben Lazar, A&R director for the New York-based College Music Journal, which tracks college radio airplay and hosts festivals to introduce new bands to the industry. "In the past three to five years, with all the dot-com people and all the money coming in, the city's become more expensive to live in. It's harder for bands to afford to devote their time to their music completely.
"For interesting music to bloom, you gotta find cheap rent. San Francisco is no longer a place where that can really happen."
Lazar points to the Bay Area's latest success stories, multiplatinum-selling acts like San Francisco's Third Eye Blind and San Jose's Smash Mouth, as examples that you can still find appealing bands in cities, but not musical communities. "None of those bands were ones that galvanize a scene, or that have other bands coalescing around them," he says.
"I can't really think of anything recently that's come of the San Francisco Bay Area proper that's excited me," says Ben Goldman of Sony/550 Music. But if San Francisco isn't a hotbed, it's worth noting that A&R people are hard-pressed to name where the exciting national scene is. Industry watchers say we're in an era of the demise of cities and the advent of regional scenes, and that new acts are often found in places once written off as cow towns. The proof is on the pop charts, powered today not just in terms of teen acts like Britney Spears, 'N Sync, and the Backstreet Boys, who to varying extents came out of Walt Disney World's song-and-dance machinery, but also rock acts like Florida's Limp Bizkit and Creed, the Southwest's spate of so-called stoner rock bands, and hard rock acts like Iowa's Slipknot, and, closer to home, Papa Roach from Vacaville. The band recently cracked the top 20 of Billboard's album charts with its first major label album, Infest.
"We're representing Northern California," says Papa Roach lead singer Coby Dick. "We started out playing parties, teen centers, and community centers, then ventured out to Sacramento and Berkeley; we played the Berkeley Square before it got shut down [in 1996]. Overall, we're from Northern California. From San Jose to Petaluma, Northern California is our home."
Statements like that challenge the received wisdom about the San Francisco music scene, which is that groups have to move in from the suburbs to make it, and that the Central Valley is a world apart from the Bay Area. When the San Francisco Chronicle listed its 100 best Bay Area bands late last year, the editor's note said flatly: "We ruled out the Central Valley, and bands such as Cake and Pavement, because no matter how hard it tries, the Central Valley isn't the Bay Area." But the Central Valley isn't trying to be the Bay Area -- its bands are using San Francisco audiences and resources as springboards, while staying away from the city proper. Many of the leading lights of the local rock scene are, in fact, imported from as far out as Placerville on Bay Area labels like Future Farmer or Devil in the Woods. The change isn't limited just to rock; a scene toward the end of Greg Harrison's film Groove shows a young DJ at the close of a San Francisco warehouse rave telling one of his idols, "If you're ever in Fresno, I do a weekly there. It's rockin'." Supporting the local music scene, as provincial Bay Area clubgoers are so often told to do, frequently means supporting an act that was willing to drive two hours both ways to its gig.
Ironically enough, part of the reason for the shift comes thanks to the Bay Area's booming Internet business of download- able music, which allows record labels to widen their searches. New technology, says Goldman, "allows the industry to look outside the standard cities. You'll find, if you look inside the little cow towns, that they're pockets of great music. ... I don't think it's anything on San Francisco so much. People are expanding their territories. Bands that wouldn't have been noticed before can have record people come out to see them." Leigh Lust, A&R director at Elektra Records, notes that there are now full-time staffers at record labels listening to MP3s of up-and-coming bands, with little attention paid to where they're from or what musical community surrounds them.