San Francisco's music scene carries with it a proud independent spirit. We run our bands, labels, and studios without much concern for mainstream acceptance. While this self-made attitude fosters incredible creativity, it can also leave the city scattered into a bunch of subterranean communities that don't jell into a recognizable scene, or draw the national spotlight they deserve.
At some point, we need more than our friends and neighbors to pay attention to the music being made here. That's where networky music festivals come into play. CMJ and SXSW are industry hubs that attract artists, booking agents, record labels, distributors, journalists, and fans. More than just excuses to party on the company card, their showcases spark invaluable career momentum for specific artists in a single week. That's no small feat.
Noise Pop is San Francisco's mini-SXSW for the pop set. It gathers the industry tribes and gets them to concentrate attention on one another. Sure, having five nights jam-packed with indie bands is also a lot of fun. On a deeper level, though, Noise Pop has become our premier mixer of business and earplugs. It offers educational workshops and artist panels, an excellent documentary film series, and happy hours designed for casual networking. By simultaneously focusing on the front and back end of entertainment, Noise Pop has become San Francisco's best shot at propelling bands to a wider audience. But after 16 years, it should also take greater advantage of this powerful position and push the festival even further.
On the positive side, the sheer volume of local talent endorsed by Noise Pop is most impressive this year. The best shows feature Bay Area bands. The bookers have an ear for what's popular (Thee Oh Sees, The Morning Benders, Crown City Rockers), what's breaking (Girls, Sleepy Sun, Goh Nakamura), and what's interesting coming out of the gate (the Fresh & Onlys). Looking at the showcases lined up between now and March 1, you're reminded just how many San Franciscans are producing music deserving of a national audience. (See “Sonic Stimulus Program” on page 41 for more hometown picks.)
Noise Pop also offers myriad opportunities to increase your music knowledge. Like SXSW, the festival includes keynote speakers (Lou Barlow, Bob Mould, and Fat Mike), individual musician mentorships, and a film component. This year's documentary selections are especially top-notch. Stop by Artists' Television Access during the festival to learn something about Brazilian cult heroes Os Mutantes, obscure balladeer Dennis Lambert, or the old counterculture cable series Nightflight.
For all the good Noise Pop does for San Francisco, though, there's one area where the event doesn't make a bold enough impact. The national headliners have become too predictable, a big difference between our festival and its Austin counterpart. The marquee names this year include Antony & the Johnsons, No Age, Deerhunter, Stephen Malkmus, Bob Mould, and A.C. Newman. These artists have made San Francisco a tour stop in the recent past, they would be coming here on new CD tours anyway, or they've spent so much time on Noise Pop's lineup you could practically pencil in their names for the next five years at this point.
The festival's organizers have built up enviable contacts by now, so why not use those Rolodexes to book acts that'll force people to descend on San Francisco like they do on SXSW and CMJ? Instead of Malkmus, for example, why not Pavement? Or a unique pairing you can't see elsewhere — instead of a Wilco concert film, a performance by Jeff Tweedy with a younger act like Fleet Foxes? I realize those are some big-ticket items, but generally reunions, one-off shows, and other once-in-a-lifetime performances would raise Noise Pop's cred substantially.
Noise Pop has already pushed itself with Treasure Island Music Festival, working with Another Planet to create a singular San Francisco concert that's ambitious and exciting on a national level. In less than two years, Treasure Island has shaken up the weekend concert concept by combining cutting-edge acts with headliners that rarely tour and an unbeatable setting. It would be great to see that same ambition turned on Noise Pop's springtime effort as well.
So many music festivals have come and gone over the years, it's impressive that Noise Pop hasn't just lasted, but that it has stayed committed to helping independent artists. Founders Jordan Kurland and Kevin Arnold have worked hard to boost the local community and provide links to a larger music industry. Imagine what some minor shifts in approach could bring to San Francisco in the future.