Illustrations by Cassidy Miller
Allegations of sexual harassment and assault against a San Jose music promoter have fractured the South Bay’s music scene. How do bands, venues, and the victims move forward?
It’s now known by an alliterative shorthand: the Boycott blog.
“I dont have this ulterior motive to bring him down or something,” says Stephanie Chang, over a cup of coffee and a pastry one afternoon in Santa Clara. “It’s strange what came out of his camp, that ‘other promoters’ — which I think insinuates me — are just saying this to make more people go to their shows.” Chang’s blog, Boycott Fanali, is a compendium of anonymous and semi-anonymous accusations leveled against long-time South Bay concert promoter, Eric Fanali, which hit the internet early last year and has lead to a mass movement away from the prolific promoter’s all-ages shows.
Most of the posts on the blog are not that damning — anecdotes from friends of friends, messages of support from friends of accusers, and an occasional post from the moderator — but the two longest contributions are the most unnerving: One describes an uncomfortable evening spent with the promoter, and the other details the attempted coercion of a teenager into a sex act.
So far, stories of Fanali’s misconduct have been whispered in secret; transmitted in texts and DMs. After years of existing in the grapevine, the rebellion against Fanali shows is starting to leak offline. His accusers are becoming vocal and visible, and some of them aren’t backing down.
Stephanie Chang is not a victim, but she is an accuser. Chang is the driving force behind the Boycott blog, a project she was inspired to start after hearing multiple horror stories of her friends’ encounters with Fanali.
Chang has been booking shows in San Jose’s DIY scene — a semi-secretive punk scene responsible for Think and Die Thinking and casual house shows — for the last four years. When Fanali and his staff found out that she was responsible for the online campaign against him, she claims they accused her of trying to monopolize booking spaces in San Jose.
“I book extremely different genres that draw a completely different people,” she says. “I look pretty well-mannered” — she’s wearing a pink ribbed turtleneck and has a Betsey Johnson handbag slung over the back of her chair — “but the shows I’m booking are, like, hardcore punk.” For most of his career, Fanali has stuck to pretty accessible and upbeat genres — ska, pop-punk, and more recently, chiptune (music made with the familiar sounds of vintage video games).
After several stories of Fanali’s abuse in music circles, she was inspired to take action. “A friend of mine that has played in some chiptune bands…brought up a mutual friend’s name. That person actually has issued a very public testimonial, and said, ‘This person has abused so many people’…I was like, ‘I never knew about that.’” Chang had attended Fanali shows when she was younger, and up until then had fond memories of them. But the stories she began hearing from friends only got worse. “A friend of mine, she sings (at some of my shows)…and she was saying, ‘Yeah, Eric sent me these weird creepy-sounding messages on Facebook…like Hey! meet me somewhere.‘ This is when she was younger than 18.”
Though no accuser had pressed formal charges against Fanali, she still felt she had to do something. These were her friends, and fond memories or not, she didn’t want to risk anyone else in her community getting hurt. “Several friends compiled and helped put together the blog, and more than one of them had personally been affected by Eric. Several people that helped put together Boycott Fanali had played in bands that Eric had booked assuming that they were girls…he had felt them and, like, patted them, and their experiences are creepy…And combined with my friend, who personally knows what (another accuser) had been through…it just coalesced into ‘We shouldn’t be quiet anymore.’”
Fanali and his supporters, Chang says, quickly tried to discredit her and the blog’s creators by dispatching one of Fanali’s business partners to gather information on them. “(He) called and messaged me a very strange, long text that, like, went down the length of my phone,” she says. The wording, she emphasizes, was stiff and awkward. “‘Hello Stephanie Chang, I am here to inquire if you know any information regarding these accusations about Eric Fanali…’ It was just very strangely worded, and from someone I’d never spoken to before.” The interaction didn’t inspire much trust in Fanali, nor did the statement he released to his production company’s Facebook group earlier this year, which blamed the incidents on simple misunderstandings.
A year later, the blog is the second or third result in Google searches for Fanali’s full name. And despite the accusations having now been blasted out onto the internet, some still support Fanali, and have made it known to Chang. Former colleagues and clients — all men, she says — that were once happy to work with her stopped talking to her. “The blowback we expected,” she admits. Since Fanali’s someone who has been providing a crucial social space for teenagers for nearly two decades, Chang knew people might not be willing to accept the blog’s content as truth. “We were like, ‘There’s gonna be people that know him who want to support him.’ We knew…but it’s not a deterrent.”
Emi Spicer isn’t deterred, either. The native New Yorker says as much on an early afternoon in San Francisco, in a line outside Blue Bottle that is choked with attendees of the nearby Game Developer’s Conference, identifiable by the badges slung around their necks.
Spicer’s wearing a badge, too: As a photographer known for her work documenting video game and fan communities, she’s in town to take photos and make essential contacts at GDC.
Spicer is also one of the more prominent accusers on the Boycott blog: her long, eloquent testimony of a tense night out with Fanali is one of the more unsettling stories featured there.
It’s all laid out in exhaustive detail on the blog, but the long and short of it is this: Spicer met Fanali at MAGFest, an annual video game convention — a “big festival-style nerd event,” she calls it — near Washington, D.C. “I remember not liking his vibe,” she recalls. Fanali, as many testimonials on the Boycott blog emphasize, has a tendency to speak in cutesy, childish phrases. Spicer was initially put off by his demeanor, but gave him a chance. “When you’re in games like me, you meet weird, immature people all the time,” she says. She was introduced to him through mutual friends, so she figured he couldn’t be that bad.
After MAGFest ended, she says she started getting Facebook messages from Fanali. They connected — they talked about music, clothes, and gaming culture. Fanali, citing that she seemed like a “fellow adventurer,” suggested they meet up the next time she was in the Bay Area — but he wouldn’t say where or what for.
“I like cartoons, I like colorful, cutesy stuff, and when he said that thing about being a ‘fellow adventurer,’ it did appeal to me on a very sincere level,” she admits. She was game, and she agreed.
After a few messages, however, Spicer began to get the feeling he saw the outing as a date. She once had a scary experience directly turning down a person for a date, so she didn’t confront him. Instead, when they met, she immediately began referencing her boyfriend to try and put him off.
It didn’t work.
Their first stop was a restaurant. At some point, they ended up talking about ska — a genre Fanali has frequently booked over the years — and he finally admitted that the big surprise of the night was the Specials at the Warfield.
In any other situation, Spicer might have been excited. “They’re one of my favorite bands, and I had never seen them before, but he spent the entire show trying to ‘girlfriend’ me. And that means, to me, he’s getting up behind me, trying to protect me from the crowd. Um…I’ve been going to shows since I was a teenager. I know how to handle myself.”
She was stuck: The situation made her deeply uncomfortable, but she was in an unfamiliar city and had no way home except with Fanali. “He spent the entire show trying to touch my lower back,” she recalls. “I was very uncomfortable, I was trying to get away from him, (but) I was too nervous to have the confrontation of, like, ‘Don’t touch me.’… And at the end of the show…he was so desperate to touch (me), and I was speedwalking away from him, and he’s just chasing me with his arm out, reaching, trying to touch my lower back.”
Once the show was over, she had to figure out a new plan. “It’s 2013. Uber isn’t really a thing the way it is now, and even if it had been I didn’t have enough money for a car. The friend that I know in San Francisco that owns a car is in Boston, and the person I’m staying with…we had had some tension that week, so I didn’t feel comfortable (asking them for help).” Spicer asked him to walk her straight back to the place she was staying. “He says OK, but then he takes me on this really roundabout path. He takes me — I think it’s City Hall, that has all those like lampposts out in front. He takes me through the park that overlooks the Full House house…it had to have been after midnight.
“I was terrified. I didn’t want him to touch me so I was trying to stand away from him, I was scared of being in San Francisco after dark, so I didn’t want to stand too far away from him because worse could come at me. I don’t want him to try and assault me but I don’t want other people to try and assault me…So I just kind of have to tolerate (it).”
A few months later, she told some friends about the incident. One of them bristled at her story, and suggested that there were worse stories about Fanali out there. She started to think that her initial instincts might have been right.
If you grew up a jaded teenager in the valley, whose only refuge from suburban monotony was local music, you know Eric Fanali’s name — at the very least, you know his production company’s punny title, Grand Fanali Presents. His name conjures up starry-eyed nostalgia in countless 20- and 30-somethings across the South Bay: Fanali has been booking all-ages shows in the San Jose area since the late ‘90s, and for a while, was as close to a local celebrity as you can get around here. He was able to bring top-tier indie acts to San Jose, the archetype of humble suburbia. He made the cover of the local weekly. And he remembered the kids that came to his shows. Setting up shop wherever he could — in community centers, in restaurants, in available buildings on high school campuses — he gave high schoolers a safe, but still cool, place to go on Friday and Saturday nights.
Lately, you won’t see his name on many fliers — he’s been booking, but for the last year or so, it’s been at a much slower clip than usual. Some bands have publicly stated that they won’t risk working with him anymore. Some still do. Some are aware of the accusations. Some are not.
“There are certain things I shouldn’t say,” he says, a grilled cheese and side salad in front of him. He doesn’t drink alcohol, so professional meetings with Fanali almost always take place in restaurants. Tonight he’s at the Flames on Winchester, a main-street coffee shop kind of place with vinyl-backed booths and a refrigerated case of cakes and pies at the front. It forms a weird backdrop for discussing the accusations besieging a man who maybe, sorta, might have sexually harassed and assaulted some girls and women.
“I want to respect the victims as well,” he continues. “Because I feel like explaining my side of it is a little bit…” he trails off.
“I have nothing to hide, right? But at the same time…I’m not in the best position to say anything. I say something, and when it’s coupled with other statements…” he trails off again. There’s a lot of that in this conversation.
Fanali says he was just as shocked as anyone else when he found out about the blog. “I had heard rumors about it, but I had no idea that people had been hurt by my words and actions. So, I was shocked and surprised.”
Fanali says he’s faced his fair share of internal — and external — turmoil in the aftermath of the blog’s debut. “I get harassed all the time, but not to my face. There’s a fair bit of bullying, shaming, and harassment that’s going around our music community…I feel like I should just call it a scene because it’s too cliquey to be called a community,” he says, his statement turning curt near the end. “If someone said I harassed them, for someone to come back with more harassment, it’s not the answer. So I feel like I’m in a place where I don’t know what to say or how to react, because it seems like a lot of people are against me, and it’s just my tiny voice.”
There’s not much else he can say on the matter than he doesn’t feel will be misconstrued in the court of public opinion. So he’s stepping down from the role he’s held for 20 years and leaving San Jose’s music scene indefinitely. In an official statement to The Bay Bridged, he says:
These are false claims of harassment and sexual assault. They’ve been arranged to help draw attention to a smear campaign against me. The facts are that I unknowingly hurt people’s feelings through miscommunications and misunderstandings. This was not my intention and I am sincerely sorry if I made anyone feel uncomfortable.
The past few years my friends and I have been targeted with a considerable amount of harassment, shaming, and bullying revolving around this. Taking my leave of the music community seems to be the best action for me to take, for all sides. For 20 years I’ve made sacrifices to better the music community in my opinion and this is the best way I believe I can help at this time. Once again, the claims are false and I am going to remove myself from the music community to prevent anyone on all sides of this from having their feelings hurt.
Rumors plagued last year’s Rockage — Fanali’s flagship event, a weekend-long festival devoted to indie music and vintage video games, then staged in San Jose State’s Student Union. A set of cautionary fliers went up around the SJSU campus, drawing even more attention to the Boycott blog and its contents.The furor around Rockage and Fanali’s involvement in San Jose’s music scene got bigger and bigger, and the blog got passed around and around the web, eventually making its way to Fanali’s clients. As word spread, an un-ignorable number of bands began to publicly pull away from him.
Mike Shirley-Donnelly from Curious Quail has been one of the most vocal opponents of Fanali since the accusations came to light. Curious Quail came out with a statement prior to Rockage, addressing questions about why they suddenly stopped playing a festival they had worked in years past.
“There has been a clear pattern of show-goers accusing Eric Fanali of harassment and sexual impropriety, including some of our personal friends,” says Shirley-Donnelly. After hearing similar stories from several people in the San Jose music community, the band decided to approach Fanali directly. “He changed his story several times and we believe that the disturbing behaviors outlined in the Boycott Fanali blog are true,” he says. “Curious Quail refuses to work with anyone who creates an unsafe music community, especially when they appear to be deliberately targeting more vulnerable community members such as younger girls and trans folk.” Gnarboots, a performance-slash-punk band that were once regulars on the GFP roster, distanced themselves earlier this year.
Name obscured for privacy.
The most recent post on the Boycott blog is from a local musician (it’s not signed, but a little process of elimination will tell you who it is): as a musician & member of the bay area community i just wanna say that this behavior is disgusting and at the very least the 3 bands that i’m in–Valley Girls, Crush, and Summer Peaks will all be boycotting Fanali events. Skip a page or two in Google results for Fanali’s name and you’ll be greeted with a Bandcamp track from the Kevin Gnartinez Band that captures a relevant snippet of conversation on a live track recorded at San Jose’s Art Boutiki: “Fuck Eric Fanali,” he says to cheers from the crowd. “You guys deserve better.”
Rockage still went on this year — this time across a variety of venues in downtown San Jose, and under the direction of an associate of Fanali’s. Travis Thomas’ band, Continuum Kingdom, played despite the controversy. “Eric’s the only promoter that has given our band a chance,” he says over the phone the day after 2016’s festival. “As far as playing, we figured we’d give it a shot this year.”
Thomas knew about the allegations, but after weighing his options, decided to forge ahead with the booking. “It was kind of a surprise to me and my bandmate,” he says.“We never got that vibe from him. He has been nothing but courteous to us…I personally have a bit of a harder time cutting ties and walking away.”
But that’s what Fanali did: As of this week, he’s abruptly left the all-ages music scene he basically established 20 years ago. In that way, the Boycott blog’s campaign has been successful: Fanali has stepped down from producing. But the victims still live with their trauma, and San Jose’s music scene is still at stake. With the South Bay’s number-one indie music promoter ousted, it could very well reach an impasse. “There’s really no telling how people who knew nothing about this will react,” says Shirley-Donnelly, “or how those who’d heard talk but dismissed it will respond after getting more background on the subject.”
Fanali maintains that the allegations are “false;” that the incidents in question were born of “misunderstandings.” It’s a confusing and unsatisfactory answer for many, and his detractors aren’t backing down. “People target girls that look like me because they think we’re vulnerable — especially because we’re small — and they think they can take advantage of us,” says Spicer. “But unfortunately for them, I have two black belts, I was socialized as a boy, I’m incredibly loud, and, like, I don’t take people’s shit. So I just started shouting about this. I don’t know why he thought I would stay quiet.”
Attempts were made to contact other contributors to the Boycott blog.
Disclosure: Our writer Aaron Carnes is a member of Gnarboots.