Mission Creek Music & Arts Festival shrinks but may still deliver

The arena-sized festival isn't the only music event feeling a crunch in these difficult economic times. San Francisco's Mission Creek Music & Arts Festival, the 12-year-old multimedia happening, is markedly smaller in 2008. Its truncated lineup is a bummer, since these shows are integral to the city's underground arts culture, but Mission Creek's founder, Jeff Ray, is still keeping its vision intact despite the setbacks.

Mission Creek's run has shrunk from eleven days to just four, and its roster is more compact as well. There are fewer nationally visible names, an important change since Mission Creek gives exposure to lesser-known acts by pairing them with those that pull a crowd. In the past, the festival has lined up cult faves like Acid Mothers Temple, oddballs like staples Extra Action Marching Band, and New York neuron scramblers Excepter. The well-known national headliners in 2008 are limited to indie-pop band Earlimart, old friends of Ray from his touring days, and there are no marquee names like actor and musician Vincent Gallo on the calendar (which means the average ego size has been reduced here as well).

Ray says the last decade has been an economic challenge, but recent years have been especially hard. “I've always lost money on it, because we try to not get large corporate sponsors,” he says. “But I think maybe I should change that, because it's been rough financially. I think less people are going to shows.” He adds that venues now charge more to host events, which means the producers and festivals make less money, “but it's hitting the venues as well.”

When Mission Creek suffers, the city's leftfield music and arts scene takes a hit along with it. Unlike more subterranean experimental showcases that go on throughout the year, Ray's vision has both helped break acts — Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, and the Dodos were all early favorites — and offered unknowns exposure by pairing them with names familiar to more casual record shoppers (or at least the more casual Aquarius Records shoppers). Mission Creek's adjusted scope also means 90 percent of the lineup is local. While that's great for Bay Area pride, when the lineup features artists who already play here often, even Ray admits it's a struggle to determine “what differentiates us from every other day in town.”

One big factor in Ray's favor, though, is the context Mission Creek puts around the music. He is a conceptual artist, currently getting his MFA at San Francisco State, and is consistently merging arts communities, whether film, performance, and comedy, or some general artsy-fartsy riffraff. New Langton Arts will host Mission Creek's “Collision” component, the epitome of that merger, which includes modern dance from groups like MGM Grand and Jane(t) Pants and hilarious “abstract German entertainment” from local boy Torsten Kretchzmar.

Another element that works for Mission Creek: Its curators are tastemakers. There's plenty of stuff here you'd never know existed unless you regularly spelunk in the cavernous depths of cool and/or crazy noisemakers. Ray's busy grad school schedule has pushed him to involve multiple minipromoters, all of whom are staging their own nights, from Erik Landmark's noise show to the Latin rock run at Balazo Gallery, which includes great garage rock from the Graves Brothers Deluxe. Add to that mix San Francisco favorites like experimental electronic composer Christopher Willits and boundary-crashing beat purveyors Tussle, or Los Angeles avant-pop oddball Ariel Pink, and you still have highly recommended artists balancing out the lesser-knowns.

Despite the challenges of running a decidedly nonprofit music festival at a time when the music industry itself veers towards “nonprofit,” Ray says he's sticking it out with Mission Creek for the long haul — so long as he continues getting a little help from his guest curators. “It's an amazing community building thing,” he says. “It's nice to be ingrained in the community in that way.”

Postscript on an earlier column: I recently wrote about the Bay Area Indie Music Fest, another local music festival. Its promoter, 3 Udders Productions, angered a number of bands, including the headliners, by not paying them [“Indebted to the Scene,” Let's Get Killed, 6/11]. According to the festival's Web site, the event has now been “postponed” for 2008.

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