In the pantheon of great ironies — Thomas Jefferson's slave-owning tendencies, Richard Nixon's appeals to morality, Alanis Morissette not knowing what irony means — surely there must be an enclave reserved for those who lay the alleged death of San Francisco's music scene at the feet of the city's dot-coms. For while it's true that the rise of the Internet has made life difficult for many of San Francisco's musically inclined denizens, many other music devotees have joined the ranks of dot-communism. Enticed by the possibility of earning good-to-great wages, many local musicians and music industry veterans have parlayed a vast knowledge and experience heretofore thought unusable into pay dirt. What's more, they've managed to maintain their enthusiasm for music. In fact, the dirty little secret that your neighborhood Yuppie Eradication Project booster doesn't want you to know is that via their involvement in San Francisco's booming Internet economy, local musicians and music industry vets are not only remaining in local music, they may help to save it.
Dave Rosenheim has spent an inordinate amount of time driving vans. As the leader of San Francisco rock band Hugh from 1992 to 1998, Rosenheim and his two bandmates embarked on almost a dozen national tours in support of three critically acclaimed albums and numerous singles. When he wasn't sleeping on strangers' floors or practicing in the garage of the Funston Avenue house he shared with his bandmates, Rosenheim was manning another van, one that belonged to his employer, Osprey Seafoods.“I'd get up at 3:30 and we'd buy fish off the boats or go out to the airport,” recalls Rosenheim, relaxing on the couch of his Hayes Valley apartment while his fiancee works in the next room. It's three weeks before his wedding and, despite the stress, he's relaxed, appearing almost nostalgic for his days on the docks of Pier 33. “It was a cool job. It was flexible, it was visceral. I was slinging fish with my hands in bloody ice water at 5 in the morning. It was kind of hard-core and I liked it.” It also allowed Rosenheim the freedom to concentrate on Hugh and its music. “For a good three or four years, I was touring four months out of the year,” he says.
These days Rosenheim is going after fish of a different kind — namely investors with money to burn. As the founder and chief operating officer of Musicfans.com (a network of 120 music fan sites that garners over 3 million unique visitors a month), it's part of his job to bait the venture capital hook. Sporting a founder and ex-senior vice president of Spinner.com as its CEO, a president recruited from Microsoft, a SOMA office, and major funding, Musicfans.com is Rosenheim's bid for success, an all-encompassing venture that exists to the exclusion of sleep, free time, and, most notably, music.
“I ache for it. I really, really miss it,” he says of his musical pursuits. “But I feel there's a time for everything, and right now I really need to focus on this. I focused on Hugh for seven years and I'll focus on that again. I'm writing; I'm just not in a band right now.”
Like Rosenheim, many local music industry veterans have spent the last several years in flux, watching in horror as people, bands, clubs, and arguably an entire scene have evaporated before their very eyes, in large part the result of Internet expansion and a shift in consumer demand. However, concurrently, musicians and those tied to them (managers, label proprietors, promoters) have seen an increasing demand for their expert knowledge from Internet companies like Listen.com, Sonicnet.com, and Mjuice.com. It's a bittersweet situation to be sure, and one that presents new problems of priorities and artistic integrity as quickly as it mollifies ones of financial insecurity.
“I was sort of having an identity crisis, like, “Am I a businessman or am I an artist?'” explains Rosenheim, 29. “And what I finally decided was that I'm neither and I'm both. I'm just not one of these myopic artists who're completely useless at everything else. I'm a good businessman and I enjoy this and the business is doing really well. That doesn't mean I'm not a good artist.”
“I think if you're a real musician, you're going to be a musician, no matter what day job you have,” says Lisa Klein, of Sony-affiliated, San Francisco-based Redband.com. As the site's manager of artist relations, it's Klein's responsibility to liaise with established musicians to create interesting news, talk, and entertainment segments. It's not a stretch, given that she's spent the last decade as the artist manager of such bands as Bracket, Chixdiggit, and Colorfinger (led by a pre-Everclear Art Alexakis). In fact, though she's only 36, Klein represents San Francisco's old guard, who toiled here long before the economic, social, and cultural upheaval of the Web.Like many music industry people, Klein was initially hesitant to consider a career online, thinking that her skills weren't applicable to the new technology. “I didn't understand the potential of what it could bring or what it could offer,” she says. But when her most recent client, Orange County's Elevator Drops, split a year and a half ago, she knew it was time for a change. “I was seeing a lot of frustration from outside sources, with labels and bad tours and any number of problems,” she says. “It's hard work. There's no money at all.” After being approached by Redband, she began consulting, and later joined the company.
Klein sees her involvement with the company — and the involvement of her musical peers in Web-based businesses — as a way for professionals of her ilk to apply knowledge not previously regarded as valuable outside the small sphere that she inhabited. “I do feel that all the years that I spent doing it out of sheer love and because I had no other choice — because I had to do it because I loved it so much — are paying off, in this bizarre, strange, surprising way that no one could ever have guessed.”
Brian Seaver is one person who never thought he'd have a Web job. A tour manager of once-popular national rock acts like Red Five, Possum Dixon, and Down by Law, Seaver spent the second half of the '90s like Rosenheim, traversing the country in a van. It was, he says, a great job. “You were with your friends, it was live music every night, you were traveling, hanging out in bars,” he says. “It was a very old-school, romantic way of living.” However, though the pay was decent (between $400 and $500 a week), especially with Seaver living on the road rent-free, he eventually tired of the itinerant lifestyle and unreliable work opportunities. “It was good money — when you could find the work,” he says. “I got to the point where I couldn't do it anymore. The bills were outweighing the pay. It was too erratic. I wanted to come back and hang out in San Francisco.”Thanks in part to the Internet, that proved increasingly expensive. When Seaver began looking for a job, he didn't consider working on the Internet an option, even though he'd been using it since 1994. “I'd never dreamed of a job in that business,” he says. “I wasn't that computer savvy and I didn't have any experience.” So Seaver, the son of a computer programmer, landed a job at Revolver, one of the nation's largest distributors of independent punk and rock records. He worked there for a year and a half, teaching himself more and more about computers, before he had an epiphany. “I thought, “I'm married now, I hate my job, and I can't live on this money.' So I started asking around about jobs.”
Through a friend, Seaver landed an interview with the Chicago-based March First, one of the world's largest Internet consulting firms. He's now the head of desktop support for the company's 400-person San Francisco office.
It would appear that by leaving offline jobs to seek financial and career stability on the Web, people like Rosenheim, Klein, and Seaver — and the thousands of musicians and music industry veterans like them now working at dot-coms — sold out, forsaking music for the almighty dollar. However, Rosenheim, who likens building a start-up to being in a struggling band, is quick to point out that there's a big difference between security and starting a Web business. “If I wanted security, I would have gotten a job,” he says. “I wouldn't have started a business. There's no security in running your own business by the seat of your pants and having other mouths to feed.”Indeed, though they now have the potential to carve out decent livings, that doesn't mean Rosenheim, Klein, and Seaver will be turning their backs on the music scene anytime soon. In fact, despite the very real threats of rehearsal space closures and soaring rents, their success bodes well for the future of San Francisco's music community.
Klein is cautiously optimistic, but believes that eventually the increased financial stability of local musicians employed by dot-coms could result in a rejuvenation of the waning local scene. “We haven't seen the result of people finally being able to save some money and then go out and play music,” she says. “It's going to progress and evolve in a way that no one knows yet.”
Seaver remains active in the local music scene; most of his friends are in bands, work at clubs, or work in some other facet of the industry. To him, the relationship between newfound financial stability and the reinvigoration of local music is clear. “We're making more money now and we can put that back into things that we love and things that we like to do, like music and going to shows and supporting our musician friends,” says Seaver. “It's that many more CDs I can buy now, and that many more shows I can go to.”
Though Rosenheim's links to the local music scene have been considerably diminished as the result of his start-up activities, he remains active, supporting bands, going to shows, and employing a number of local musicians at Musicfans. “The Internet is allowing a lot of people who weren't making any money before to actually live in this city,” he says.
Rosenheim also believes the pioneering spirit upon which the Internet thrives is the same that infuses artistic pursuits. “I'm someone who doesn't have experience — other than managing a band — with a big company,” he explains. “But I was able to create a business very organically. I think that for me, and other people who've migrated from the music scene, [the Internet] is a positive and conducive environment to creating stuff.”