[Initially,] we refused to write down the name of any band that wasn’t local on our website – so it would be the Don’ts playing Slim’s, not Ted Leo and the Pharmacists playing Slim’s with the Don’ts opening,” says Christian. “We were very strict about it – almost to detriment.” Eventually, however, the two evolved from this philosophy. “That early dogmatic approach was admirable, because it was so rigid – but part of the beauty of San Francisco Bay Area bands is that they are relevant more broadly. This isn’t just a scene of people playing to each other, there are bands that break nationally and internationally,” says Ben. “We now have ten years of experience seeing that,” added Christian.
Ben noted the importance of this progression: “Originally it was a resource for locals, but over time it’s become an even better resource about locals for folks who don’t live in the Bay Area but are interested in San Francisco Bay Area music because of the amazing history.”
The podcast was the only child of the two co-founders and the sole output under the moniker “The Bay Bridged” for years. Eventually, the site began incorporating written posts, initially introduced as a way to encourage readers to listen to past podcast posts. Over time, the written articles on the site starting to demand more attention, and the two took a risk and decided to expand the number of voices that spoke from their platform. Joe Hayes of the Don’ts first noticed Ben and Christian in their natural setting, checking out random local bands every week at The Make-Out Room, remembering them “like those two guys in the Muppet Show balcony, cackling and talking with good humor with the bar staff and the musicians who played throughout the night.”
Eventually the Don’ts were featured on The Bay Bridged podcast, and the trio recognized one another from sightings at their mutual watering hole. “From then on, we were seeing each other at least weekly and the Make-Out Room became our clubhouse so to speak,” says Joe. This friendship soon evolved into a partnership, with Joe becoming the first outside contributor to the website — having been offered the position of “News Editor.” “After several beers, I think the understanding of my role slipped through the cracks!” says Joe. “In any case, over the next several months, I settled in as a writer and authored show reviews and previews over the course of the next 5 years.”
This seemingly casual offering to a friend was actually an anxiety-inducing next step for the two co-founders — “It was a huge tumultuous thing for Ben and I to bring on another voice into what we were doing,” says Christian — but the number of new voices in the organization continues to expand today. The Bay Bridged currently has 30 members involved, plus another 50-60 volunteers, a number that still has the two original members in awe. “No one ever thinks your hobby is going to get this many people interested,” says Christian.
The members who make up the site’s staff are from all walks of life — Christian is a scientist, Ben works in city hall, and other staff members are furniture designers, web developers, university faculty, among other various professions. “A majority of the people who now make up The Bay Bridged are people who found us and just hit us up,” says Christian.
Christian attributes much of this community engagement to the surrounding city itself. “Coming from the outside and not understanding how to get into a crowd, I would say the San Francisco music scene is incredibly opening and very friendly,” says Christian. This openness may be one of the reasons for the site’s initial success, although much of that is also likely due to stubborn naivety they employed early on. Or, as Christian puts it, “The way we got into everything we now currently do all goes down to a single fundamental thing — We saw a need and an interest, and we said ‘why not?’”
The power of “why not?” set The Bay Bridged off into organizing live shows by the beginning of their third year. The promoter in town who booked for The Make-Out Room, Debra Zeller, was a friend of theirs, meeting with them to give advice and talk about the local music scene while The Bay Bridged was still in its early infancy. They had an informal partnership where Ben and Christian would interview bands that Debra would book. “It was a beautiful marriage,” says Debra.
The Bay Bridged would enter into the promoting scene themselves inadvertently because of Zeller, who faced the threat of fines after a number of bands playing for her production company Playing in Fog posted flyers on lamp poles along Mission Street. “DPW was after me to pay for it since the flyers had ‘Playing in Fog Presents’ on them. I wasn’t about to pay for something I didn’t do, so I decided to fight it. This is when the Bay Bridged Presents was born — they put on a show to help me raise money for a lawyer,” describes Debra.
Ben and Christian picked a night and set forth putting on a show they had no idea how to put on. Per usual for the duo, they made it work — with The Bay Bridged Presents having put on numerous shows a year since. Never with the interest of making a profit or as a business prospect, but for the love of putting on display local talent.
“We would present a show and we would spend like $300 having a show poster made because I am obsessed with show posters,” says Christian “Bands would love it – they got a free hand-designed, hand-screened poster that The Bay Bridged for whatever reason would just pay for.”
“There was no break-even prospect for us,” says Ben.
“No, it was strictly negative,” replies Christian.
From presenting shows they moved on to organizing festivals, such as Rock Make, which launched in 2008 in celebration of local, independent bands and craftspeople. The event came together as a collaboration with Lynne Angel and Brian Gorman, who play together in the band Tarfuti. “That festival was a HUGE success — we had a very solid 5 year run and then decided to go on an “open-ended” hiatus in order to rebuild our psyches after 5 straight years of cleaning Treat St. at 4am and finding more ‘surprises’ than one human should find in a lifetime,” says Lynne.
Currently Phono Del Sol is the marquee festival of The Bay Bridged, and now entering its sixth year Christian notes that it has found “its thing.” The event has been successful enough to even warrant the addition of additional production staff. Two individuals now lead festival production, which for many years, was organized by Christian alone, plus a number of volunteers. Not that this added staff has led the founders to ease onto the sidelines any.
“I’ve never seen a full set at Phono in my life,” says Christian. “What happens is that when we have a moment, we’re like ‘well lets go empty garbage’, because there’s inevitably going to be a garbage can that has to be emptied.” He expects the two of them to always maintain a role in the execution of the festival. Christian recalls: “I have laminated every sign that that festival has ever had. The Bay Bridged has owned four [laminators]. We keep breaking them.”
Through the success of festivals such as Phono Del Sol and Rock Make, The Bay Bridged accidentally started to generate revenue. While collectively thousands of dollars in debt at this point in The Bay Bridged development, the duo’s first thought upon realizing they had generated a surplus was “What do we do with this money, how does this happen?”
The Bay Bridged was not formally a partnership until 2007. “We became an organization to ensure that people who were paying us understood that this wasn’t our job and that the money will go back to…The Bay Bridged,” says Christian. The Bay Bridged became a fiscally-sponsored affiliate of Independent Arts & Media in 2008, and in 2014, Ben and Christian decided to give up ownership of The Bay Bridged to the community, and the organization became an official 501(c)3 non-profit.
The tenth anniversary of The Bay Bridged is special for more than just being an acknowledgment of the longevity of this one-time hobby — it also marks the first birthday the founders have celebrated since the third year of the website. “For many years we forgot. For many years it would be April and I would be like ‘Hey dude, we missed our birthday again!’” recalls Christian.
The celebration is bittersweet for the duo, who have seen The Bay Bridged grow beyond a point either of them could have imagined from the onset, but are now coming to realize it will need to be able to grow beyond their involvement. “Fundamentally the last four years have not been a mission of growth in terms of trying new things. We’ve reigned in and focused to find what is most impactful for the community,” says Christian. Their new focus? How to build a sustainable model so the organization can maintain for years to come.
Their responsibilities have already shifted significantly in recent years. Both now serve as members of the board, with Ben aiding strategy decisions and writing semi-regularly, and Christian taking up the role of executive director to provide support to the organization. Essentially, however, as Christian puts it, they are both really just there “to be a history book at this point,” or “a repository of information,” that can educate the current staff on what to take away from what was tried out in the past when going forward.
Beyond being walking encyclopedias of The Bay Bridged’s history, they have moved on to become fans of the site’s work. “There was a point a few years ago where it shifted from I knew everything that what was going to go on our website to learning about music from the website,” says Ben. “Which is so wonderful.”
The two have definitely come a long way. “The very first website had a definition of what is a podcast, because no one knew what it was,” says Christian. “It literally had a link to the Wikipedia page about what is a podcast.”
Now podcasts are ubiquitous and The Bay Bridged is known for a number of simultaneous endeavors. That pink circle in the left corner of your computer screen is locally iconic — remarkable given how it could easily still have been Marky Ramone after all these years. The current logo came about when, after an interview with the musician Petracovich at an art studio, an eavesdropping artist introduced himself and suggested having local artists redesign the site’s banner; he kicked off the series, delivering the current logo of abstract bridges that hasn’t changed since.
The opportunity for locals to contribute and create something great together is what makes The Bay Bridged and its pink circle so important. Ben emphasizes the connection of local music to other local things: “Consuming local music is not a crazy concept — it’s a concept that is totally rooted in the same values and desires as consuming local food and supporting local authors and local visual artists,” says Ben.
While at first the two of them used to go to shows and no one knew what The Bay Bridged was, now a good many concertgoers know about the organization, but they do not know the many people behind it. Part of this whole tenth anniversary celebration, as Christian puts it, is to re-personify who The Bay Bridged is, since “as things grow, people tend to fade back a little bit.” He wants to make it clear: “Anyone can be a part of what we are trying to do.”
When asked what makes The Bay Bridged valuable, Joe noted “the enduring hope that the next great local band is playing inside the door at some little hole in the wall just around the corner.” Lynne goes a step further: “Because Christian and Ben made it great and continue to cultivate a cooperative of like-minded folks writing about the things that STILL make this area great. It is our online musical passion pit.”
Local musician John Vanderslice puts it most simply — the Bay Bridged has been successful because “the site is well-written, well-designed, and smart.”
The Bay Bridged’s impact so far seems unbelievable considering its simple roots: two guys bought a website, gathered some email addresses, and started interviewing bands — then all of a sudden they had a podcast series.
“Everybody who thinks about doing that should do it. It would be great to see a thousand local music blogs, a thousand local podcasts, a thousand show promoters and producers,” says Ben. This shines light on what I personally think makes The Bay Bridged most valuable — proving that everyone can, and should, be involved in the cultivation of something great.