San Francisco

San Francisco (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In Part I of Art & Technology, I spoke with the 16 musicians to uncover how musicians are experiencing and how they perceive the current state of the Bay Area. Based on the direction I assumed the interviews would go, the initial title of “Art & Technology” was “Art versus Technology”, and it was supposed to be a single piece. However, as I spoke with each artist, the conversation evolved into one that placed those in the realms of art and technology next to each other, instead of head-to-head in competition.

Based on my conversations with Mark Tester of Burnt Ones; Elliott Kiger of The Spyrals; Michael Jirkovsky of Social Studies; Jon Carr of Down and Outlaws; Sam Chase; Al Lover; Joel Gion; and Sonny Smith of Sonny & the Sunsets, Art & Technology, Part II takes back much of the article’s initial competitive nature in a break down of how some independent musicians in the Bay Area view technology itself, revealing how we, as music fans, can help foster the community.


Opportunity In Technology

On one side of the argument between art versus technology, specifically music versus technology, there is a group of artists who believe in the opportunities that technology has presented the world of music, and in the same vein sees the possibility of turning the new wave of tech workers on to what makes the city a coveted place to create and discover music.

Michael Jirkovsky, drummer of Social Studies, argues, “For all the talk of Bro-grammers and ‘Rent Raiser’ t-shirt wearers, I don’t think tech workers are all inherently bad,” summing up the understanding from Part I of the broad nature of the label “tech worker,” which, in this city, is starting to take on meaningless qualities, not unlike the term “hipster”. “Many of their ideas have been useful for artists and musicians,” he continues. “Square has revolutionized the merch table. Facebook/Twitter/Instagram are handy tools for bands to interact with fans.”

He and his band, like many up-and-coming artists, have benefited immensely from technological advances in social media that have made it possible to spread their music and foster audiences around the world.

Alex Gundlach, also known as DJ Al Lover, also recognizes that as an electronically-inclined music producer, his career has flourished through social media. “For me personally,” he explains, “Without this tech shit, I wouldn’t be sitting in a hotel room in Copenhagen typing this out right now. The advances in the internet, and mostly social media have allowed artists and musicians the ability to project their music across the whole world, network with people they would never have the chance of meeting and in my opinion help boost a lot of folks’ careers that would have never been heard without this platform.”

The internet has also loosened the iron fist of major labels, and while downloading music remains a heated point of contention in the music world, online tools like Bandcamp and Kickstarter offer new and up-coming artists a platform to fund and release their music independently. Artists can promote their shows without having any media connections, and any aspect of the music business (any aspect of anything, really) can essentially be learned online. “15 year olds know how to make a record and what label to send it to and shit like that,” Sonny Smith adds. “That’s kind of interesting.”

Beyond what technology does for artists, Elliott Kiger of The Spyrals recognizes the possibility that tech-centric crowds can learn to appreciate what makes San Francisco so desirable for reasons that transcend money. “There is an opportunity that this new element becomes turned on to what makes the city great: food, music, natural beauty, culture in general. And I find that intriguing” he explains. “If we can get some people to take a look at themselves then I find that hopeful.”

Al Lover agrees, “I really think instead of bitching about the situation we, as the artist community should try and reach out and form a bond with some of these cool, up and coming start up companies and try to work together. A lot of these folks are young, hip, love music and art and have money to burn. I say we use our efforts to help steer some of that energy and revenue towards helping preserve the local art and music scene and help it flourish.”

The Dark Side of Technology

On the other side, there’s a firm line of those who believe technology has become a destructive force towards music and the broader category of the arts. Interestingly, the view point that technology hinders music comes down to the ways in which we, as music listeners, consume music.

“All over the place technology is becoming hugely detrimental to the arts,” Mark Tester of Burnt Ones argues and explains. “Once everything becomes completely immediate you don’t have to go to an art show or a museum, you can just look at it online or check someone’s integral feed and live through them. Likewise, for most people, if you can just stream a record for free or through a subscription and just deal with a commercial after every few songs, why would you pay for a record that’s just going to take up space?”

While he sees why people use streaming devices such as Pandora or Spotify – it’s free, it doesn’t require any physical space – he knows that these tools don’t serve the listening process. “It’s pretty ridiculous, really,” he continues. “I don’t want to hear commercials in the middle of my records.”

Joel Gion, legendary tambourine man of The Brian Jonestown Massacre and frontman of Joel Gion & The Primary Colours, agrees: “Something for free just does not mean as much. Music appreciation is eroding. It means more when you hold that big sleeve artwork in both your hands, slide it out and put that needle on the record. Why is it havoc is being wreaked seemingly exclusively on the arts? Photography, painting, books, music are all taking the hit.”

“It seems like a lot of these companies are just getting good at creating something and then continually updating and changing it,” Mark continues. “They’re basically just trying to make life as easily as possible for everyone, but it’s ruining how people communicate with one another person-to-person and it totally circumvents the human experience. I mean, have you tried to say ‘hello’ to a stranger on the street recently?”

Is technology the problem, or are we the problem? . . . Again

Both ends of the argument of art versus technology are valid and can be hashed out on levels far beyond the Bay Area and its music scene. As fans, we get to hear music from all over the world at any given time, and artists get to broadcast their music to international audiences. But when music is so immediate and at our disposal, it loses its novelty. The novelty of watching a band play your favorite song, catching that same song on the radio, the satisfaction of positioning your record needle on the groove just before your track of choice, the painstaking process of recording and perfecting a mixtape – all of these are active means of devouring music and mean more than dragging and dropping songs into a playlist or clicking the repeat bottom, which, if we’re being honest, can transform even the best songs into background noise. Consuming too much of a good thing too quickly and without thought – too much music, booze, candy or whatever your drug of choice is – dulls the excitement of it all and desensitizes us to what we loved about it in the first place. So when it comes to technology, moderation is essential, and when it comes to consuming music through technology, it’s all about balance. The competition isn’t between art and technology, but between ourselves and technology, and possibly even between musicians and our need for instant gratification.

Down and Outlaws drummer Jon Carr traces the decline of music appreciation to something aided by but not rooted in technology. “I think what worries me the most is the attitude of being too cool to be wherever you are,” he explains and adds, “Unfortunately this is happening more and more with people not showing their appreciation for music or art in any way, or merely spending the evening on their phone and not being present in the physical world.”

He describes this phenomenon with a story: “I was at Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit concert with some friends, watching some incredible musicians. The group in front of us was a family of four, father, mother and two sons. One of the boys had his phone out the entire time, on the internet and with his ear buds in, while there is live music happening right in front of him. His mother at one point in the show takes out her laptop and begins working on her power point presentation for an hour or more, which was shocking. For those of us who are creating art and music, maybe this is a new challenge to work on something that retains the ever shrinking attention span of American, not just San Franciscan, culture.”

A Tangible Solution

The musicians I spoke with are all determined to push forward in the face of the shifting music scene in our new tech-centric city, but what can we, as music fans and consumers, do to help the music community?

“Unlike the late 90s,” Michael explains, “These technologies are now deeply woven into the fabric of mainstream culture. So we need to learn to co-exist while maintaining the core principals that make SF unique.”

The creative energy, the weirdos, the misfit culture that the artists I spoke with described in Part I is powered by not only the creators but the consumers of art, two terms which of course are not mutually exclusive. Anyone who consumes, enjoys and revels in music, from fans to musicians themselves, are consumers. And any consumer of the arts who is concerned with the state of San Francisco can do something about it.

“People can contribute by playing an active role in our community,” continues Michael. “Support local bands and artists, go to shows, buy records, make things. Be informed about local politics, vote, spend your money in places that represent your values. There’s a mounting backlash against the direction the city has been going. We don’t have to wave our hands, move to Oakland and watch the city become a boring home for the ultra wealthy. I believe there’s still hope for San Francisco.”

“It is a new time for San Francisco and we need to think about what we want out of this city,” Jon agrees, “and if the changes are not what we see as a vision of home then it is cause for action. Support the things you loved about the city before the tech take over. Go to art shows and dive bars, see local bands, and show your face at the things you love about this city to let it know you are still here.”

The solution for fans, musicians, artists and anyone mourning the death of SF as they know it, is to keep living in the physical world. Buy records, go to shows! If you like what you hear, introduce yourself to the music makers, shake their hands and tell them what you loved about their set. Tell your friends about it. Don’t limit your support to Facebook likes and Spotify plays. If you want to Instagram that rad shot of the sweet new band in town, do it after their set is over. Just be present, wherever you are. It’s a small but very tangible way to loosen technology’s grip on everything around us and the most direct way to support local music.

Moving Forward, Part II

When the wave or scene – however you want to quantify a moment in time – that you found in the Bay Area comes and goes, there is an inevitable feeling of loss. Everyone has the right to be pissed off, but while complaining about it on Facebook might feel good for now, what does it actually achieve besides garnering a handful of likes and spawning a half-hearted social media argument that will be pushed to the bottom of your feed once the next viral video surfaces?

Al Lover points to the irony in where people choose to complain about technology, explaining, “It seems a lot of the time that this shit talking goes on via social media outlets, Facebook, Twitter, etc. It’s so funny to me to see this, without these tech people you wouldn’t have a soapbox to talk shit about them! So weird.”

So skip out on that Twitter update or Facebook status bashing the group of guys behind you who can’t shut up about their latest app idea or how cool Amazon’s new drones are. It’s so tempting, and so many of us are guilty of it, but when it comes down to it, what will help out your scene, your version of San Francisco, is to step away from the screen and support what you love in the real, physical world.

“Negativity is the mind killer here,” Sam Chase asserts. “Do I like the fact that this city is changing into a place that can only the uber rich can sustain a living in?  Hell no,” he answers and continues, “But, there is comfort in knowing that with every tide that rolls in, it eventually rolls out. If you want to hold onto something, you have to fight for it, and if you want to see beauty you have to look for it.  Don’t mope about how it used to be.  Create something.  Don’t let others create for you.  San Francisco has always been open to art and creativity and beauty, so if you feel that we are lacking it, go build something rather than tear someone else down.  There is a lot more in this city than you think and if you stop being such a stick in the mud about it, you might find it.  Who knows, maybe your San Francisco glory days aren’t gone yet, just dormant.”

We are one week into 2014, and so far we’ve seen movement in the Bay Area. The City is finally taking steps to charge and legalize the Google buses that have been a symbol of San Francisco’s new elite class, the us-and-them divide between entitled tech workers and public transportation users. SF Weekly and Uptown Almanac have also come out against fatalist views of San Francisco, proclaiming that all is not lost! Things are happening, places are opening, and residencies are a thing again! You can see Black Cobra Vipers at The Chapel, Farallons at Amnesia and Bonnie & the Bang Bang at Milk Bar every week for the rest of the January. Every week!!! Sure, we’re losing bands and friends to other cities, and the spotlight of San Francisco has wandered onto another community, but it will be back. 2014 is going to be an interesting one, and we can make it ours if we want it and show up where it counts. So get physical, people. Seen any good shows lately?