Exit Music: Musicians Are Leaving San Francisco. Can the City's Legendary Scene Survive?

There's a question being asked today in San Francisco, between sets at concerts, between takes in recording studios, and after band practice:

Is the music scene here doomed?

Given this city's storied reputation for music and the arts, it seems inconceivable that it could not have a vibrant scene — that it wouldn't host experimental jazz jams and scrappy shows from local rock bands, that it won't lure ambitious players from all over the world, that it may no longer launch artists into the upper echelons of the music industry.

But then, plenty that once seemed inconceivable in San Francisco has come to pass.

Looking around at a city in the midst of its second tech-fueled economic boom, with housing prices reaching surreal heights and a culture that's more work-focused than ever permeating these 49 square miles, many involved with the city's arts and entertainment scenes find themselves asking: How will noncommercial creativity — and especially loud, space-demanding music — survive? Can the city that hosted the titans of jazz, that spawned the Grateful Dead and psychedelic rock, that cradled West Coast punk, that inspired countless singer-songwriters, that helped birth the modern LGBT movement on its dancefloors, continue to nurture a vital musical culture of its own?

It no longer seems safe to assume so. Many of the forces that have long been changing San Francisco are working against a vibrant music scene, not in concert with it. Higher housing costs make it more difficult for musicians, especially bands, to live and create here. But they also make property owners less likely to lease space to music venues and recording studios, when building housing would be more profitable. And as more housing goes up and the city becomes denser, existing clubs and performance spaces find themselves surrounded by people who don't want to hear loud music or see raucous crowds late at night. When artists move, they take some of their audience with them. And if the artists and their audience are gone, a crucial part of the energy and character that have defined this city will be gone, too.

Many see similarities between the Bay Area and New York City, with the migration of music and arts from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and then farther out. When the Talking Heads' David Byrne wrote last year that “most of Manhattan and many parts of Brooklyn are virtual walled communities, pleasure domes for the rich … there is no room for fresh creative types,” he could have been describing a big swath of San Francisco today — and, perhaps, Oakland tomorrow. Byrne's worry that “bit by bit, the resources that keep the city vibrant are being eliminated” is a common refrain here. As with New York, it's not the big clubs that host touring acts, or the nationally successful names who already live here, that are most at risk. San Francisco is losing the young, broke artists with potential, the under-the-radar performance spaces, and the offbeat, weeknight shows that have long given the city its unique vibe — and that end up making tremendous contributions to the music world later on.

This new, more musically barren San Francisco became suddenly easier to picture in the last year, when a handful of small but important institutions folded, left, or changed drastically. First, in the spring, Tenderloin dance club 222 Hyde — a tiny, divey space that hosted much of the city's up-and-coming electronic music talent — closed its doors. Nothing comparable has filled its place in the city's constellation of clubs. In November, word spread that longtime Upper Market rock venue Cafe Du Nord was being sold and undergoing extensive renovations, to be turned into restaurants with, hopefully, some live music. Later came news that the nearly 20-year-old Red Devil Lounge, a live club on Polk Street, was closing in February. And then Viracocha, the antiques and oddities store and illegal performance space on Valencia beloved by the Mission arts underground, announced that it was looking to go legit — likely in the hands of new owners.

By mid-December, when Thee Oh Sees' John Dwyer quipped onstage that this might be the band's last show in S.F. for a while, people were nervous. Thee Oh Sees are a psychedelic garage rock band beloved around the world and closely associated with San Francisco. As it turned out, Dwyer was moving to Los Angeles — the latest in an exodus of S.F. musicians to Southern California, including his garage-rock protege Ty Segall. Dwyer told Pitchfork that he was seeking “a breath of fresh air,” and that “[San Francisco] has filled up with phone-scrolling, blank-faced wanderers.”

And so, like every cultural issue in the city these days, the future of music has become intertwined with the argument over the current tech boom. Dwyer and others believe the smartphone-toting “noobs” are to blame for the metastasis of $12 cocktail bars and the sad parade of evictions. DJs will lament the white mainstream maleness of their audiences while acknowledging that tech money helps pay their rent. But music and tech have a long history of cooperation in San Francisco. Kevin Arnold was working at Oracle when he started Noise Pop in 1993; he's founded a spate of tech firms since then. Plenty of local musicians take advantage of the region's flexible, plentiful, and creative digital economy jobs. Some of them even work at music-tech companies like Apple and Pandora — and enjoy it.

So we must also ask if there isn't a reason for optimism amid the tumult and gloom. San Francisco is again filling up with young people who have money. Those people want to go out. Many of them want to go see music — whether it's performed by a DJ or a jazz-funk band. Clubs, at least the ones managing to stay open, are doing well. The city's recording studios have more bookings than they can handle. If San Francisco is unaffordable, there's cheaper housing a BART ride away in Oakland. And if the struggle, inequality, and rapid transformation of the city piss off the local artists, won't that inspire them to make interesting work?


We raised these issues with two dozen musicians, club bookers, promoters, DJs, and tech employees across San Francisco's various music scenes. We wanted to know if things were as dire as they sometimes seem, if those wondering about the future of independent creativity in post-tech-boom San Francisco are crazy or prescient. Their answers don't give a perfect picture of what's happening, but they say a lot about the state of music in the Bay Area and where it may be going.


Anthony Bedard, booker, Hemlock Tavern: People who play in the bands and people who would go to the shows — performers and audience both — some percentage of those people are moving over to Oakland. I don't think that can be argued or disputed.

John Vanderslice, musician and owner, Tiny Telephone Studios: We're opening the Oakland studio because all art is going to Oakland. Oakland is the future of all art in San Francisco. It has the space, it has the buildings, it has the infrastructure, and it has the energy. It has the vibe built-in.

Adam Theis, founder, Jazz Mafia: The moment where I really realized it all at once was, we had an orchestra rehearsal — it was one of these large groups, like a 20-piece or 30-piece band, and some shit was happening on the Bay Bridge. It was shut down. And two-thirds of my band just wasn't there. It was like, “Oh my God, everyone lives in the East Bay now.” That was four years ago.

Justin Flowers, drummer and guitarist, CCR Headcleaner: Everybody's moving to L.A. or New York. Maybe Portland, maybe Austin. I'm actually the only one [in the band] that lives here now; everybody else lives in the same house in Oakland, on Telegraph. It's kind of where it's happening right now. I live in a utility room. I only pay $350 a month though, so that's pretty sick.

Robbie Kowal, co-founder, Sunset Promotions: We're trying to book bands for a show we have coming up. Usually it's easy — like I could think of five different bands that could fit that bill. But who is that next band? Where are they rehearsing? How are they getting gigs? The DJ scene is going to do fine, because all you need to be a DJ-producer in this city is a studio apartment and you can make music on your headphones and try it out at your local bar. If you're a band, you don't have to find housing for one person. You have to find housing for five people. Plus, then you've got to find a studio space, and those five people have to make a living to pay for the said expensive house and the studio space. I don't see how it's possible here. I don't see how any good, out-of-town band would want to move here in the first place, could move here if they wanted to.

Avalon Emerson, DJ-producer and software engineer: I'm sure the bottle-service DJ scene has never been better, or big-room tech-house DJs playing for the bros. But it seems more and more that as [local] producers start to get recognized for their DJing or their music, the call gets greater and greater to move to a city that inherently supports that kind of thing. [Oakland] is kind of a pit-stop until they eventually move to L.A. or New York.

Vanderslice: Any newcomer would be fucking crackers to try to set up in San Francisco.

Flowers: We came out here [in 2008]. [San Francisco] was attractive just because it was a big change. It was about as far away as you can get from Georgia. We'd toured out here before. It was never that hard to navigate the city. If I needed a new place I could talk to a friend and get a room for 600 bucks.

Bedard: You used to be able to skate by pretty easily. My bandmate in the Icky Boyfriends, in 1990 he was able to work a 15-hour-a-week job at the S.F. Public Library, pay his rent, and save money — living in a warehouse at Sycamore and Mission. When I first moved here [in 1989], apartments were 200 bucks a month. If you found out that some friend of yours was paying like $300 or $350 a month, you looked at them differently. It made you think of them as possibly being a yuppie.

Kowal: The only new local bands I'm seeing — and granted I certainly don't know everything — are people that already live here, and they work in some other thing and they get together because they want to make a band. These aren't pro musicians. And they would love to be if they could be, but you can't be here. It's impossible to be a professional band of musicians.

Paige Clem, executive director, The Root: A lot of people are having to keep a day job, and try to practice their craft at night — which, overall, is going to have an impact on the quality of the craft. Not through any lack of talent, but, I mean, people have to have the time to develop what they do.

Jason Perkins, co-owner, Brick and Mortar Music Hall: There's not nearly as many [clubs] as there were.

Theis: It seems like every month some little place that's cool is closing.

Lynn Schwarz, co-owner, Bottom of the Hill: When folks move in across from an existing nightclub, it puts that nightclub in jeopardy of closure.

Guy Carson, former owner, Cafe Du Nord: With all the development going on around us, it was going to be harder and harder to have a rock club on that block. There's [going to be] like 210 brand-new units on the same corner as a rock club. So the [business] model needed to shift, and I wasn't going … to be able to do it. The new buyers have a new vision, which is going to be much better-suited to having all these new residents around you. It just gets harder and harder, having a rock club. And I will emphasize the word “rock” club, because I think there are different kinds of clubs.


Jay Siegan, former owner, Red Devil Lounge: I've nothing sexy to say about the [closure of the] Red Devil Lounge. Nothing went wrong. It was a wonderful 19-year run. I want to spend more time with my family and focus on my other businesses.

Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine, “Dot Com Monte Carlo,” Enhanced Methods of Questioning, 2011:

Never knew geeks

Could be so damn mean

Artists and workers

Bulldozed out by the thousands

Can't afford to be black

Or teach school in this town

My vet had to relocate

To his garage

Where can we go

Oakland, then to Portland then L.A.?

Their Gold Rush immolated like Pompeii

But they're back!

Dot com Monte Carlo

Yuppie San Francisco

Nowhere left to go

Eric Silverman, guitarist, The Tropics; software team manager, Apple: Nothing can actually be that black and white. There's a continuum between everything. I studied software engineering in college and I've been working at Apple, and I feel really creative there, and I like it. I also have been making music since I was 5. That's a huge part of my life. I'll be up for the next eight hours working on stuff for [the Tropics' upcoming] record. And I don't think it's fair to say that just cause you're on one side, you can throw mud. It's a city full of a lot of different people, that's what's so awesome about San Francisco.

Vanderslice: We see Google employees more than anyone [recording at Tiny Telephone Studios]. It may just be the way they foster creativity there. We do get some Facebook people for sure, and we get a few Twitter people. But like 80 percent is Google. And what's very common, and this is what confuses people, is there will be a band where there's one Google employee and he's paying for everything. Sometimes those bands are weekend warrior bands, sometimes they're very good. Because they're smart, creative people and they're like, “If I'm going to be in a band, we're going to make this fucking roll.” It's very confusing. The narrative doesn't hold up.

Dawn Holliday, general manager/small-time owner, Slim's, the Great American Music Hall, and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: Out of the 40 people next to us in a small space [tech start-up], I doubt but one knows there's a nightclub across the alley that has live music. And I think probably five are aware of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. They don't have any interest.

John Dwyer, frontman, Thee Oh Sees (press release for the band POW!, Jan. 2, 2014): Stepping over them, eyes glazed, feet dragging, blank face aglow in the eerie luminescence of the smart (?) phones underfoot, is the spirit of these songs. San Francisco has long been filling up with noobs… but now we face the most dangerous, the most egregious and blandest of them all… people with lots of money. NOBODY can square-up a joint like rich people. POW! have written a punk eulogy to our fair city.

Kowal: I agree with [Dwyer]. I think it was a statement that needed to be made loudly and publicly. And you're always going to need a radical point of view to make the measured middle make sense to people who are naysayers.

Holliday: I can't take that seriously. To me, [Dwyer] didn't live here long enough to qualify. Moving to Santa Cruz is a luxury, and moving to L.A. is bad taste. Tell me a real reason to leave San Francisco.

Siegan: What about the 22-year-olds? They're not all making six figures. There's a bunch of kids, and yes, they take the Google bus to work. Yes, they live four of them in an apartment, and they're also in a band, they're also artists and graphic designers and they're doing some cool shit in San Francisco. They're not all just these robots that have come from somewhere else and are sucking our resources dry.


Noah “DJ Dials” Bennett, DJ and talent buyer, 1015 Folsom: Honestly, if it wasn't for Google and Twitter and all this shit, half the club scene in San Francisco wouldn't exist, period.

Silverman: When people say, “Oh the music scene's dying,” I don't see it, and I'm looking out from the stage. Black Cobra Vipers was doing a residency at Chapel, and every week it was packed and it was awesome. There's a huge music scene, and everyone's interested in it, everyone wants to participate in it, everyone wants to support it.

Patrick Brown, owner and engineer, Different Fur Studios: Musicians are moving away, but we've got the most business we've ever had in the 10 years that I've lived in the studio. It's probably a large positive and a large negative that's happening at the same time.

Aaron Axelsen, music director, Live 105: I haven't seen it affect what I do. I still think the quality of Bay Area music hasn't waned at all.

John “DaVinci” DeVore, Fillmore rapper: There's a lot of up-and-coming talent out of San Francisco and Fillmore particularly. There's a lot of even younger cats that's earning their stripes right now. I feel like it's at a point where it's sprouting again. … So I'm excited about it. I see [the economic boom] as a good thing.

Siegan: There's more people in the streets, more people have moved into the city, people are spending money, some of them don't seem to respect the city and are running around like assholes. Others really integrated into the arts community and are active contributors. I get contacted a lot by various companies, including tech firms, to provide pretty unique creative events, and I see the city alive with events. I see a lot of opportunity for the musicians I work with to be working with these companies as opposed to feeling confronted. I watch musicians who are playing for these tech firms make enough money that they're able to then build their home studios and pursue their other creative artistic pursuits.


Kowal: S.F. still has amazing clubs. It's a great place to work. If you can figure out the rest, you can work.

Perkins: We are definitely far ahead of where we thought we'd be and what we'd planned on [with Brick and Mortar]. That's why we're opening another club [in Oakland]. I don't think it's the tech people that are fueling our calendar.

Bennett: Music is music, and there are all different kinds of tastes. I can't sit here and tell you that one kind of person with one kind of job likes one specific thing.


Holliday: That's kind of like crying over Jerry Garcia dying. What can you do?

Theis: Before I moved [to Oakland], I started to feel like, “Man I'm getting old, 'cause I can't get any of my friends to come out [in S.F.] unless it's a weekend.” And what it was is that most of my friends just don't live around here. It's a very limited number that do, and most of them are the ones who have real jobs, 'cause they're the only ones who can afford it. But over [in Oakland], all of a sudden it's all my same friends — it's not younger people necessarily, but it's where all the people who are more bohemian live now. That all is going to translate, there's going to be more of those kind of off-night residencies where people try more experimental things and new projects. I'm definitely thinking about that, too. It's real.

Kowal: There is a tipping point at which you cease to be a super city, and end up being Manhattan, you end up being a big empty wasteland. You end up being a bedroom community for a small industry. And we're at that tipping point. We're probably over that tipping point. If I can't find bands to book, if there's no mafia in the Jazz Mafia anymore, what the hell are we going to do?

Clem: There's a collective creative energy that's around here and people are feeding it or not. San Francisco historically has had that thing that people are drawn to, that free-spirited thing that's a place where you can come and do whatever it is you do. If musicians can't live here and afford to be here and have that happen, some of that pulse is going to go away.

Carson: Every community wants to have their own innate culture. Otherwise it just becomes a tourist culture.

Siegan: You have to remember that the beatniks moved in and replaced the old Italian families that were in North Beach. And the hippies moved into the Haight in the '60s and replaced a lot of working class families there. So we've seen this happen before. A lot of artists are moving out of S.F. And it's hard for me to assess whether that means that we're going to have less creative people available, but it doesn't look that way to me yet.

Bennett: There's a bunch of people moving in here, and because of that, there's a bunch of people going out. The S.F. I love and moved into [in 2001] has changed, and it's gone, that's all. It's different. It doesn't mean that it's worse, it doesn't mean that it's better, it's just different. San Francisco was a weird town. And the more money that is in here, the more hybrid cars, the more condos, the less weird it is.

Theis: I felt a connection to the neighborhood back when we were doing the Tuesday residencies and doing a lot of the more experimental stuff. I really felt like money didn't matter, because we were interacting with the community. I know how cool it is, because when I first moved into this neighborhood [the central Mission] in 1997, I would stumble down to spots every week and see really cool experimental music. If people don't live here, they're not going to be as likely to put that sweat equity into something. They'll go do a gig at the Boom Boom Room on a Friday night, or they'll try this or that. But as far as things that really bring the community together … I think it's just going to get harder and harder.

Brown: With everybody moving away, or moving to L.A., or whatever they're doing, it'll be interesting to see where that goes in two years. Because the last time that happened, that's where we were 10 years ago. No offense to the bands that were around then, [but] there wasn't really shit going on in the city 10 years ago.


Bedard: That's the real fault line in San Francisco arts, is the first tech boom. That wiped out people in the visual arts and music. That combination of [a] new influx of noise-sensitive people came in at the same time there was also a lack of practice spaces.

Unnamed S.F. club booker: This one just feels worse. The last one, I had lots of friends who worked in dot-coms, and it was just this kind of Gold Rush mentality: “This may all fall apart tomorrow.” There was an excitement, and also an anger. But this time it just feels so revolutionary. Like we're just going to rip out the roots. We're not going to trim the tree, we're just going to rip the whole thing out.

Eric Shea, singer, Hot Lunch; singer-guitarist, Sweet Chariot; employee, Pandora: A lot of it seems like deja vu from the late '90s. If that's the case, then maybe we'll elect a Republican president and then the economy will bust and everyone will move out of S.F. and all the artists will come back again.


Bedard: This second tech boom, it's not going anywhere. These companies are now the backbone of this global digital infrastructure.

Kowal: The last one was 500 little companies that were trying something in a new market in a new type of business. You had the Webvans, the Cosmos … and all of them were like six-month to 18-month larks. Today, it's five or six big companies. They're going nowhere.

Matt Shapiro, talent buyer and co-owner, Elbo Room: This city is known for a bunch of people coming in and making a bunch of money and then leaving. How long is that going to last? How many apps do people really need? At some point, there's going to be a lot of empty businesses, a lot of empty condos.


Bedard: As the entertainment options in Oakland increase, I think Oakland residents don't feel the urgency or the necessity to come over here as much. It used to be that S.F. was the only game in town, there was nothing going on in Oakland, and so if you wanted to see the cool touring band or you wanted to go out and have fun on a weekend, you were almost forced just by circumstances to go to an S.F. show or party. That's different now.

Carson: Eventually we'll be Manhattan, and [the surrounding areas] will all be the boroughs, and we will all be forced out. I will be forced out. I have been fighting tooth and nail to stay in North Beach for 20 years. I've been evicted twice, and it's just a natural evolution of things. So eventually, unless we find a way to protect our artists, they will all be gone. You won't be able to live here, there'll be nothing but rich people.

Shapiro: Oakland is kind of kicking our asses right now as far as entertainment. They're doing a great job over there. That's the one thing I've noticed, is we do get less people from Oakland and the East Bay going to shows [at the Elbo Room].

Flowers: I can think of a bunch of bands that are still trying to make something happen and create a scene here, because nobody wants it to go away. You do your best in the face of oppression and just keep on keeping on, until you can't.

Bennett: I'm not interested in Oakland. Oakland is not my city. My heart is in San Francisco.

Vanderslice: We're going to get pushed out of here one day. This building [Tiny Telephone Studios in the Mission] is zoned for three levels. It's also zoned live/work. This building is now [worth] like $2.6 or $2.7 million, just for the land. So at some point it's going to be very difficult for them not to build three stories up and to do live/work spaces. If we leave here, we would take everything over to Oakland. Eventually it will happen. It's inevitable. But if Oakland wasn't there, it would be a sadder song. You ask anyone that moves over there, you will not find anyone that's sobbing.


Kowal: You can't tell me that it's not like a thousand-to-one ratio of people in the world that would live here if they could. That's an inescapable fact that has nothing to do with Google, Yahoo, etc.

Vanderslice: It's demand-side problems. People are not going to stop wanting to move to San Francisco. It's never going to happen. [It's] a city that's so geographically cursed and blessed — we're on a seven-by-seven peninsula. This is a fucking shocking place to live. I don't know that many cities even in Europe that are this interesting geographically and physically. I think it is doomed for sure.

Kowal: Rent control is the only thing mitigating any of this. If it wasn't for rent control, I don't think you or I would even be here. Even someone like me, someone that has worked really hard to build a business here in S.F. over the years — if anything ever happened with my housing, I'd be shit out of luck like everyone else. That would be the end of me and San Francisco.

Bedard: If it weren't for rent control, I wouldn't be sitting here right now, and I wouldn't be able to afford to do work at the Hemlock.

Bennett: I don't have a place to live because my house burned down. I'm stuck trying to find a place to live on an artist's fucking budget, and it's almost impossible. It's a fucking nightmare.

Brown: I could sell the [Different Fur Studios] building and walk away with a $4 million profit, never have to work again. You know, it sounds really good sometimes. But that's not why I bought the thing in the first place. If it was all about just cashing out, I would have done something else. It's the same way I've always looked at staying in San Francisco instead of going to L.A. or New York.

Shapiro: [The owners of the Elbo Room's building] are smart people, and they're not greedy, so they kind of see the big picture. Even say they started on [a condo development] and wanted to make it happen, it would take years to make it happen. I think we're fine for quite a while.

Flowers: I try not to be negative about it anymore, because it's just happening, and all we can do is stay positive and keep doing our thing. Every city goes through changes, everywhere goes through changes, San Francisco has gone through multiple changes. This is just like a harsh, strong one and we're right in the middle of it. It also serves as a good motivation … it's something else to rally against, something else to fight against. If I was working at — name whatever company you want here — and making $100,000 a year, then I wouldn't have shit to fight for, I wouldn't have anything to spur my creativity.


Vanderslice: Part of the sadness of the people that want to hurl rocks at Google buses, what they're getting at, is that if you do have the schooling, the self-confidence, and the money to go to Stanford and tip-top engineering schools and then get funneled onto Google — there are things that happen before you get hired at Google that are sad about this country. The economic split starts early. Sometimes we see people that are making a lot of money in the tech industry and they're not exactly super bright. So you've got to wonder, how viciously unfair is this country?

Carson: We have to plan for fun. There's very little planning for fun going on right now, because of the value of residential real estate is so high. But you have to take a longer view. Why not have a set-aside for artists [in mid-Market], kind of at the hub of the city? It would be a good investment.

Kowal: No, I'm not optimistic. I'm going to keep fighting, because I love this place. I want to live here, I want to stay here. I want to keep this place meaningful, relevant, and worth living in. But do I think I can fight the forces of history? No, I don't have that kind of power. I think Ed Lee does.

Carson: We can do anything in this city if we focus. It depends on if we want to do it or not. If we don't do it, the developers will do it for us. I know that for certain: I've sat in enough of these meetings. They're not from San Francisco, and don't give a shit about the culture. They're thinking about return on their investment per square inch. So if we don't demand it, we'll lose it. But San Francisco has a history of being very vociferous. That is why we have so much great stuff, because we San Franciscans, particularly in the gay movement and elsewhere, stood up and demanded it. So if we roll over and say fuck it, we won't have it.

Flowers: I'm trying to be a lighthouse, man. Our practice space is still here, we're at Turk and Taylor. We got that. And where the hell else is my bandmate gonna sleep if we get drunk after a show? I'm the last couch in the Mission or something.

San Francisco's doomed, just like L.A.

San Francisco's doomed, all the kids say

San Francisco's doomed, it's all in the air

San Francisco's doomed, and we don't care

— Crime, “San Francisco's Doomed,” 1978

Does San Francisco's music scene need saving? Is the tech-boom helping or hurting? Can we make it easier for artists to stay here? And what about the many efforts happening right now to help artists here — from nonprofits like the Root, which wants to build a permanent home for the music community in San Francisco, to tech companies like GitHub, which is generously paying local musicians to perform at its offices?

There's a lot more to talk about. So at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 1, SF Weekly and the Root are presenting a free public panel discussion at the Chapel about the city's music scene and the issues explored in this story. Sitting on the panel will be Entertainment Commission Executive Director Jocelyn Kane, Tiny Telephone owner and solo artist John Vanderslice, and former Cafe Du Nord Owner Guy Carson. Your author will be moderating. We invite you to come, listen, ask questions, and share your thoughts — whether you think things here are doing just fine, or you believe San Francisco's music scene is doomed.

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