The Independent’s Allen Scott (Illustration: Rob Goodman)
Over the past few years, Divisadero Street in San Francisco’s Alamo Square neighborhood has been a hotbed of amazing new restaurants, bars, cafes, and shops. Glance down the street and you’ll spot a bevy of A+ locales, including the newly opened Horsefeather, Ragazza, Vinyl, 4505 Burgers & BBQ, Rare Device, The Mill, and Fly Bar. And just down the road, you’ll spot the marquee for a club that has been home to some of the most epic shows San Francisco has seen since 2004: The Independent.
Behind the scenes at The Independent is a team of hardworking, music-loving caretakers, from the friendly faces you’ll see working the door to the management that makes it all possible. One of those backstage maestros is Allen Scott, co-owner of The Independent, as well as Another Planet Entertainment — the company behind Outside Lands and Treasure Island Music Festival, now the largest independent concert company in the country.
I asked Allen to pick one of his favorite neighborhood haunts for our interview. Out of all the places on Divisadero, Allen’s go-to spot is Nopalito.
Sure, it’s steps away from The Independent, but it also happens to have some of the best traditional-style Mexican food in all of San Francisco. Nopalito is home to chef and co-owner Gonzalo Guzman, an immigrant who worked his way up from a dish washer. Guzman’s story is one of grit and determination, as the SF Chronicle detailed in the fall of 2015. Allen Scott clearly has great affection for the place and its owners, and it’s one of the reasons why he chose Nopalito for our meet-up.
“Over the summers, we’ll swing by in the early afternoon after setting up for Outside Lands and grab some totopos and margaritas,” Allen said. “Totopos are these incredible spicy, cheesy tortilla chips that you have to get when you come here.” The work schedule of a concert promoter can span all hours, and one of the magic things about Nopalito is its schedule. “Nopalito is open all day, the menu is fantastic — it’s just the kind of easygoing place I can bring my team, or a band or manager coming through town, anytime.”
As we munched on spicy fried chickpeas — the souped-up snack offered at the beginning of every visit to Nopalito — I asked Allen about some of his earliest concert memories. “When I was 14, I went to see U2 at Hampton Coliseum in Virginia.”* It was the Joshua Tree tour, and somehow he had scored 12th-row tickets, in place of his usual nosebleed concert seats. It was customary on that tour for the band to leave the stage to the song “40” and let the crowd take over singing duties to close out the night. It was in that moment that Allen found what would become his life’s work. “I realized the overwhelming power created by people experiencing a concert together. And that really led me to this revelation, that it’s not just about the show; there is something more, greater than the sum of its parts, that happens at these events. I left that show and was telling everyone that story. For me, it was mind-blowing.”
That U2 show ignited a passion in Allen that he would nurture throughout his entire career, ultimately driving him to open The Independent, help renovate and relaunch The Fox in Oakland, and join up with Another Planet Entertainment. But the path to a fulfilling life in music wasn’t always clear-cut.
Allen booked his first bands in high school and organized a music festival during college at Washington and Lee University. During a 1996 visit to San Francisco, he fell in love with the city’s music scene. “I had always known San Francisco as the live music capital of the country, and after this amazing visit where I got to go sailing on the Bay, explore the city, and experience The Fillmore — where I saw Medeski, Martin, and Wood perform — I was hooked.”
Allen took a leap, moving to San Francisco without a job lined up, determined to break into the business. When he arrived, he knocked on doors and interviewed with agencies, venues, and the legendary concert promotion company Bill Graham Presents to no avail, so he picked up temp work, stocking shelves at Berkeley’s highly-curated record store Hear Music, and later moved to Primordial Toys, where he sharpened his business skills and ultimately became director of sales, working with national chains like Toys “R” Us and Target.
All the while, Allen built up his side hustle — organizing parties in San Francisco, booking bands, and creating Mystery Machine Productions to establish his credibility in the music scene from the ground up. “For our first event, there were no advance tickets sales, so I had no idea who would show up,” Allen told me. But he had devised a plan to get as much word of mouth as possible during those early internet days of the late ’90s. “Email was still a pretty new thing, and etiquette wasn’t really set at all. So I asked six friends of mine to share the email addresses of all their friends. When I sent out the email about our first event, I CCed everyone so people’s emails were visible and you could see which of your friends was invited.”
Allen’s plan worked, and he began spending his nights and weekends throwing epic parties stacked with DJs, bands, and film screenings for his friend’s projects, soon banking enough to make Mystery Machine Productions his full-time gig.
Then the owner of one of his regular venues, The Justice League, approached him about buying the place. Allen seized the opportunity and put together a small group of investors to buy the club. Late in the process, around August of 2003, Gregg Perloff, former president of Bill Graham Presents, came calling. Perloff had just started Another Planet Productions and, as Allen explains, “reached out to see if we wanted to join forces.” In November of 2003, Mystery Machine Productions officially merged with Another Planet Entertainment, and a short while later, in February of 2004, Allen and his team of investors successfully launched The Independent. He’s been helping to define the SF music scene ever since.
“I’ve always been focused on the totality of the concert experience. Not just the part about watching the show.” And it’s that ethos that Allen and the team at the club bring each and every day to The Independent. “We are looking after the whole vibe of the concert experience, so we really aim to make every interaction someone has a positive, welcoming one.”
Though Nopalito is Allen’s go-to, it’s in a running tie with sister restaurant Nopa, also on Divisadero Street. Their menu is eclectic California fare sourced locally and wood-fired. “One of the great things about Nopa is that you could eat there once a week and always discover something new. I love getting the pork chop, but the menu is just all-star all around.” As for ordering tips for Nopalito, Allen added, “If carnitas is on the list, you can’t miss out on them.” One of the great things about the folks behind Nopalito and Nopa is their drive to make all their customer experiences, outstanding ones. “There were a couple of shows, one with Beck and another with Dave Chappelle, where they each wanted to have Nopa catered in their dressing rooms. Well, that’s not something that Nopa typically offers, but we worked with them, and they agreed to bring in hot meals, dress the tables, and create an in-room dining experience like no other. That kind of love and support that businesses in the area all try to give each other is just priceless.”
As we got up to leave Nopalito, Allen mentioned he was en route to his other favorite haunt, The Independent, to see Lord Huron. He spoke with all the excitement of a fan getting amped to see one of their favorite acts. After 13 years in business and over 3,000 shows, Allen Scott’s home away from home, The Independent, is still making new musical memories for fans, including the biggest one in the room. It’s a passion for live music that drove Allen to forge his own path into the business, and it’s the same passion for great experiences that he shares with so many of his neighbors, including the team at Nopalito. So come by Divisadero Street, catch a show, and be sure to walk a few blocks for some totopos and margaritas while you are at it.
*Thanks to YouTube, we can time-travel with Allen back to that U2 show. Check out the clip here.