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30 Years of Noise Pop: How A $5 Show Became A Citywide Celebration of San Francisco Music

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Noise Pop, the long-running San Francisco showcase for independent bands and music launched in 1993 by Kevin Arnold and later Jordan Kurland, officially turns 30 years this year. What began as a $5 show at the city’s Kennel Club (now called the Independent), rapidly grew into a citywide celebration of the city’s lesser known venues including the Bottom of the Hill, the Great American Music Hall and rooms across the Bay in Oakland and Berkeley.

What has followed are thousands of bands, decades of nurturing the Noise and an enduring legacy that embraces San Francisco’s unique past as one of the best live cities in the world.

This year’s festival features more than 100 independent bands and artists, an accompanying independent film festival and the grand opening of the Noise Pop Gallery at the new Noise Pop offices in the Mission District.

With the festivities now wrapped up, Billboard sat down with Arnold and Kurland to discuss the history of the citywide festival and what challenges lay ahead as Noise Pop enters its third decade.

Billboard: Congratulations on 30 years of Noise Pop. What are you doing to celebrate the big anniversary?

Arnold: We really made an effort to dig up some old favorites and pay tribute to some of our influences and heroes. For the last five years we’ve tried to double-down on emerging talent to push boundaries for our audience at large. We’ve got a film festival and a new office that’s right in the heart of the Mission District and we’re hosting a gallery there that shows the history of Noise Pop through design, topography and posters. And we’re reopening the Kilowatt, which is a San Francisco venue that was legendary. We had so many shows there in the nineties and it’s been gone to the live music world for quite a while. It just reopened with Noise Pop promoting some of its first shows.

What were your expectations for Noise Pop in Year 1?

Arnold: Certainly not anything close to what it’s become. It all happened very last-minute and it was very serendipitous and magical. I got a call in December from the booker at the Kennel Club. I’d been promoting shows on campus at UC Berkeley and had been tour managing Overwhelming Colorfast and the booker asked me to put together a show for January, which is usually a slow time for venues. There’s nobody on tour then and so you look to create new stuff or create stuff locally and pull together what you can.

In San Francisco, indie rock wasn’t a scene yet, it was just weird underground rock and punk rock offshoots and stuff like that. So with all these bands in town who often play, but not necessarily together, we decided to bring five of them all together at once, charge $5 and shine a light on what the city had been up to. And that was really it.

As far as aspirations go, I can say I certainly never thought I’m gonna start an annual thing. But at the same time, I didn’t just call it a show, I called it a festival, which has some implications that it might go again.

Jordan, when did you get involved?

Kurland: I came in Year 5, working with Noise Pop in the fall of 1997 for the festival in 1998. And it was already a multi-venue event prior to that. We added a lot more shows that first year, for the first few years I worked on it, we avoided any competing shows.

If there was a show at the great American Music Hall on a Wednesday night, there wasn’t another show at the Bottom of The Hill at the same time. It was basically one or two shows a day, you know, but they didn’t compete.

What brought you out to San Francisco?

Kurland: I was working for David Lefkowitz at the time. Primus was his big client. They’re a platinum-selling act that just headlined Lollapalooza. He had the Melvins and Charlie Hunter and some other stuff. I was doing some freelance journalism and I wrote an article for the San Francisco Examiner on Noise Pop and I interviewed Kevin for that. And then a few months later, a band named Creeper Lagoon hired me to manage them. And Kevin and the guitarist of that band had been former roommates, we started to get to know each other and then I offered to help out. And Kevin graciously just brought me in as a full partner from the onset.

In 2000 you expanded it to Chicago. Why didn’t it work outside of San Francisco?

Kurland: I grew up outside Chicago and saw an opportunity for a small festival. I wish that we had stuck with because it was a pretty great couple of years there. We didn’t do it to try and copy someone else. We never wanted to be South by Southwest or CMJ. We were the music festival without all the pesky music industry folks. I think we just launched at the wrong time, right as the dotcom bubble was bursting.

How did Noise Pop change with the growth of both Live Nation and AEG, especially in the Bay Area which was the epicenter of the consolidation and concert competition when Another Planet Entertainment came on the scene?

Kurland: Obviously competition’s a good thing and with those three companies, everyone’s bringing something to the table. We never really set out to be that type of promoter and when we kind of stuck our toe in the water to try to expand, it was a bit late. We just weren’t ready to make that move. But in all honestly, I look at us as cultural curators, not so much the typical music venue promoter. Goldenvoice, Live Nation and Gregg and Sherry at Another Planet do a great job. We can coexist doing what we do, and we’re not trying to steal anyone’s business or compete with anyone on that level.

In a way it can be more liberating.

Arnold: It’s interesting to me, and I’ve thought a lot about this over the months and years as we approached the 30 year mark. It went from a tight community of bands and labels and venues to what it is today. Part of that is just the history of music in concerts – first with Bill Graham coming to define what it is concert promoters do in their market to some of the early consolidation in the market that created SFX and what we think of today as the modern concert market.

We’re immune from some of those things because it’s not the game we play day-to-day. We’ve always kind of positioned ourselves from the very beginning to move slowly over time and react to how the market is changing and continue to cooperate with everyone involved in venues and music. We’ve always found a way to be collaborative. And we’ve gotten pretty good at diversifying our business in ways that most promoters don’t.

Give us a snapshot of what the Noise Pop Industries business footprint looks like.

We really became a business in 2006. We’ve been doing the side hustle for more than a decade and asked ourselves ‘what are we gonna do next?’ Ultimately, we formed Noise Pop Industries, took on an investment partner and hired staff and for that first time really ran it in a hands-on way. And we also tried to expand and operate year round and keep the staff on board. You know, the goal really for us at that point was to avoid having to rehire help every year and have some continuity.

We launched the Treasure Island Music Festival the following year and quickly realized that we needed more consistency with the business to sort of counter the ups and downs and seasonality of the festival world.. So DoTheBay.com, a website covering Bay Area music and liveshows, helped a lot.

We also started doing a lot of consulting work and third party production paid. Today, Noise Pop Industries is the total company, and includes the white label offerings we have and then there is Noise Pop Events, which produces Noise Pop and other businesses we promote and take the risk ourselves.

Our newest venture on the presents side is the Rock Quarry Amphitheater at U.C. Santa Cruz which we started exclusively promoting last year.

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