Bring the noise
Will the exodus of distributors and indie record labels from overpriced SF turn Sacramento into more of a musical hotspot?
Among the neat rows of pastel houses that line Union Street in San Francisco’s North Beach, it is easy to spot which apartment belongs to Mark Kaiser. It’s the only one with a “For Rent” sign in the window—something of a rarity in a city whose apartments are 99 percent occupied.
On this sunny afternoon in mid-February, the move-out is well underway. An unreformed do-it-yourselfer, Mark is struggling with an oversized furniture item he’s just coaxed down a narrow flight of stairs, trying to lure it into the belly of a double-parked Ryder truck. Inside the tiny second-floor, one-bedroom apartment, Mark’s wife Dani Kando-Kaiser is standing precariously on a chair in the corner, carefully taking down the last string of Christmas lights, leaving the ivory walls completely bare. What were once the tiny living room and bedroom are now crowded with boxes, stray stereo components, an acoustic guitar and a table lying on its side. Across the room, curved bay windows reveal a panoramic, and rather breathtaking, view of Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill.
Even littered with the detritus of the move, it is clear that this is the kind of apartment no young couple would easily part with, and Mark and Dani, both 26, probably wouldn’t be moving out either, if their cute little apartment—the largest room not much bigger than the double bed it contained—wasn’t costing them $1400 a month. The landlord plans to charge the next tenants $1800, Dani says, amazed. “I have friends who have studios that are bigger than this.” Three years of paying that much rent every month has come to interfere with Mark’s efforts to expand his record label that is, more than living in San Francisco, the thing he really cares about.
Mark started Omnibus Records, his small, independent record label, in 1993, when he was a sophomore at UC Davis because he wanted to put out records by his own indie rock band Shove, as well as by other Davis bands. Over the past seven years, Omnibus has grown from a tiny Davis punk cassette label into a Northern California indie rock record label with records and CDs by bands such as San Francisco’s Mates of State and the Cave-Ins, as well as individual releases by better known acts such as Henry’s Dress and Flake Music.
But it takes money to put out records, and after paying rent and expenses in San Francisco, there wasn’t much of it left over. When the Kaisers began to spend more time in Sacramento last year with their friends in the band Electro Group, they realized that the capital might be someplace they’d want to live—it was cheap, pretty and had a lot going on musically. They’d only just begun to think seriously about moving here when Omnibus’ distributor, which itself had just relocated to Sacramento from the Bay Area, offered Mark a job. Still unsure, they took a few more months and several more trips to Sacramento before they decided to accept the job offer.
It was a decision they made for the benefit of the record label, as well as to pursue the kind of things that young couples are expected to pursue. Many years have passed since they were both UC Davis undergrads, Mark the bass player in Dani’s roommate’s band, the cool guy who worked at the magazine stand where she bought her cigarettes. In the move to Sac, they are both leaving behind decent, adult jobs—Mark as an assistant to the vice president at Williams Sonoma and Dani, a graduate from San Francisco State’s master’s program in film studies, as an advertising copywriter.
“Now that we’re married, and we’re kind of off on our own, we were talking about the concept of owning a home,” Mark said. “We’re thinking about kids, but are we going to be able to have a kid in a one-bedroom apartment that’s 14 foot by 14 foot? That’s just not plausible. And even though that’s a few years down the line it’s still something we’re thinking about now.”
The sun has already set by the time they’ve finished loading amplifiers, records and, finally, Dani’s cat Zoë into their red Ford Explorer. Just before they leave, the couple disappears to take one last look at the city from their roof. Atop a creaky back stairway unfolds an unobstructed view of half of the city, with its lights sparkling brighter than stars on this clear winter night. Mark and Dani gaze out at the Transamerica building, the Bay, and past the Golden Gate Bridge to the dark hilltops of Marin County.
“It’s such a beautiful city; it’s so hard to leave,” Dani explains. “It’s like we’ve been on vacation for the last four years, and now we have to go to work. But in a good way.”
The Bay Area’s skyrocketing rents have affected almost everyone who lives there, but among those hit hardest have been artists and the small businesses and nonprofits that support the arts.
Commercial properties, which are not rent-controlled, have had their square feet turned by the dot-com boom into a commodity more precious than gold. These properties include clubs and other live show venues, rehearsal spaces and distributors’ warehouses. Last September, the city’s largest rehearsal space, Downtown Rehearsal, was sold for a reported $14 million, and over 500 bands were evicted—even semi-famous musicians like Chris Isaac and the band Mr. Bungle were among the more than 1,000 individual musicians who were sent packing. In addition, a large number of bars and clubs that showed live bands have closed down or stopped doing shows over the past few years, including Club Cocoderie, the Transmission Theater, the Tip Top, the Kilowatt and the Trocadero.
Finding themselves with nowhere to practice and nowhere to play, a lot of Bay Area musicians have been made into reluctant activists. The Save Local Music Coalition and Sound Safe are among the groups that have sprung up to advocate for music-related issues. There’s also the Popular Noise Foundation, which holds monthly benefit shows to raise money for local indie musicians. City-wide events, such as Rock Out SF last October and the Million Band March last November, have succeeded in finally drawing public attention to San Francisco’s endangered music communities.
But these recent, well-publicized closures of clubs and practice space are only the most obvious signs of a more longstanding and significant trend. San Francisco’s indie and punk music scenes have been declining in viability, largely beneath the public radar, for at least three years, says Ryan Wells, who writes for the punk zine Maximum Rocknroll. Back as early as 1996, dot-coms first started taking over the warehouses that once hosted live, all-ages shows. Rising rents then also wiped out the volunteer base that was the lifeblood of punk institutions such as Epicenter Zone, the city’s only all-volunteer record store collective. Wells, who also worked at Epicenter for five years, points out that, faced with an increased cost of living, unpaid staff members were forced to either move away or put in extra hours at paid jobs to make rent. They had no time left to man punk record store cash registers pro bono.
Epicenter Zone, which closed down for good in 1999, was like an indicator species for the rest of San Francisco’s indie music culture. More susceptible to a hostile environment than a for-profit record company or nightclub, it was among the first to go and prefigured a more widespread cultural extinction, Wells said.
“When Epicenter closed down it was like a ripple effect, because it was the most vulnerable thing in the city.” Wells said. “In the previous year to two years, warehouse space started being converted into dot-com office space, and places for all-ages live music shows started disappearing left and right. In retrospect, it seemed like it happened almost overnight.”
The result has been a sort of mini-exodus of independent record labels, distributors, and musicians fleeing the high rent of San Francisco for cheaper places to the south and east—places like L.A. or Oakland. The all-ages punk/hardcore scene, for example, seems to have been absorbed into that of the East Bay, where it is still possible to rent a warehouse for something approaching a reasonable price.
But East Bay rents are inflating almost as fast as those in San Francisco, causing people like the Kaisers to look even farther east, to Sacramento. Mark Kaiser’s Omnibus is only the most recent example of this trend; just before Christmas, Mordam Records, one of the biggest and best-known independent distributors of indie and punk music, moved its headquarters from San Francisco to a warehouse off Northgate Boulevard in Sacramento. And a few months before them, Darla Records, a label and distributor of indie pop, indie rock, and ambient/electronic music, also relocated to Sac. Joining the procession have been various punk and indie musicians whose bands have broken up due to loss of rehearsal space or economic pressure or both.
Bay Area natives who arrive at “Sacratomato” expecting to find a vast oasis of cheap space where little to nothing culturally meaningful is happening might be surprised to find that there is already quite a bit of excellent punk and indie music being made here. Historically, Sacramento has produced influential underground bands such as proto punks Blue Cheer and the indie pop/riot grrrl band Tiger Trap, and in the present claims widely-dug bands such as Nar, the Bananas, Rocketship and the Pretty Girls.
It’s difficult to point to a single indie/punk “scene,” though, because there is no one venue, band or aesthetic that the music centers around. Instead, a handful of fans put on DIY shows featuring their favorite bands wherever they can find a space, including people’s basements, the Loft, Capitol Garage, the Colonial Theater, Retrofit Studios, or any other record store/cafe/pizza joint whose owner can be persuaded to let some kids make after-hours noise on the premises. Publicity is usually limited to word-of-mouth, or at most a few flyers, which are all that are needed to alert the 30 or so usual die-hard fans. By maintaining a self-imposed low profile, the local indie/punk “scene” has been able to preserve an insularity that underlies much of what is unique about the music. In the coming months, if Sacramento continues to be colonized by economic refugees from the Bay Area, it will be interesting to see what effects—besides driving up the rents—this will have on Sacramento’s indie and punk community.
In the 18 years of its existence, Mordam Records has become something of a historic institution in the punk and indie music worlds. In We Owe You Nothing, a recently published collection of interviews from the magazine Punk Planet, editor Daniel Sinker calls Mordam “the cornerstone upon which much of the modern punk scene was built.”
Ruth Schwartz opened Mordam Records in 1983 when her friend Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys needed a distributor for his record label, Alternative Tentacles. Securing the distribution rights to Maximum Rocknroll (perhaps the best-known nationally distributed punk zine) helped keep Mordam solvent over the years, during which it has also distributed Lookout Records, label of Green Day and Operation Ivy, and Kill Rock Stars, home to Sleater Kinney, Elliot Smith and Bikini Kill.
Though in its early days Mordam was also a record label, for the past decade the company has concentrated entirely on distribution. This means that it is the middleman between a label, which works directly with bands, and the stores or other distributors that buy records. Schwartz is credited with innovating a distribution system that ensures that small labels get paid, which is no small feat in the flake-prone world of punk rock. Under this system, which has been emulated by many indie companies over the years, all Mordam’s labels must agree to use the company as their exclusive distributor. That way Mordam can use the demand for popular records to muscle customers into paying for less commercial ones. In other words, if you want to carry the new Sleater Kinney CD, you must pay for your Ultra Bide first.
The thing that distinguishes Mordam from other distributors is its independence. It is difficult to overstate the historical importance of the distinction between “indie” and “major” to the punk ethos. Historically, independents have been seen as the good guys, motivated by a love of music and devotion to the scene, while the majors (e.g. Sony, Universal/Polygram, Warner/Elektra/Atlantic) are seen as the huge, faceless, corporate entities that know nothing about music other than what they can force-feed for profit to the mall-going masses. Bands like Green Day who have signed to major labels after building a following on an independent, have often been shunned as sellouts by their early followers.
In the two plus decades since punk first reared its ugly head, the black and white distinction between what is “indie” and what is “major” has become increasingly gray, as corporations have gobbled up indie lables, or created “fake indie” subsidiaries with which they camouflage their ties. The easy distinction has been complicated for some by the disillusionment that comes from learning that just because a company is “independent,” it doesn’t mean it’s not run by money-grubbing assholes. Meanwhile, further graying the situation, the terms “punk” and “indie” have come to refer to the way a particular band sounds rather than the nature of the ownership of the company.
And yet, in 2001, there are still entities in the music community to whom the indie vs. major distinction is a fundamental one, and of these Mordam is front and center. The distributor only carries independent labels, and it even asks the magazines it distributes not to accept advertisements from major labels. Certainly, there are other, much larger distributors, like Valley Media and Bayside Entertainment Distribution in Sacramento, that offer punk and indie rock along with their Eminem and Britney. But of independent distributors that carry only independent labels, Mordam is one of the largest in the country. Untainted by major label cooties, what Mordam sells, and what it brings to Sacramento, in addition to a warehouse containing some great records and magazines, is a major fortress of long-standing indie credibility.
At the end of last year the lease on Mordam’s San Francisco warehouse on Caesar Chavez Street came up. Faced with a rent that was about to triple, combined with the recent loss of her biggest label and impending loss of most of the Dead Kennedys catalogue, Schwartz knew she had to cut costs in order to save the company. She is unromantic about the reasons she chose Sacramento.
“I’m a distribution company,” Schwartz said. “I just had to come to the realization that I could basically do business anywhere. It needed to be near the airport, and Fed Ex and UPS hubs, and all those things, which Sacramento could do. … I had to go cheaper. I had to bring down my overhead. That was my survival.”
By moving to its new, slightly smaller Northgate-area Sacramento warehouse, Mordam was able to cut its rent in half. Sacramento is also nearer the Sierra foothills home where Schwartz has lived for seven years. And, she adds, the wages that could hardly keep employees in apartments in San Francisco go a lot further in Sacramento. Or as Mark Kaiser put it half-jokingly, “Mordam is making a lot of punk kids rich.”
Though most of Mordam’s San Francisco employees opted not to move to Sacramento (and some have publicly aired their bitterness toward their former employer for moving), a few moved east with the company. One of them was 39-year-old Mike Jones, the Web site coordinator, who had moved from Phoenix four years ago to work at Mordam. He says he chose to move again because he could no longer afford to live in the city, where he was paying $1200 a month for a two-bedroom (the new tenants are paying $1500).
“The city was just getting way too crowded, with what I thought were the wrong kind of people,” Jones explained. “Just lots of dot-com yuppie assholes, who had no regard for the city, for what it was—a really great cultural place, that enjoyed a real ethnic mix, and really colorful neighborhoods. When the dot-com people started moving in with their money and their SUVs, it just really changed the face of a lot of neighborhoods.”
For its eight job openings in Sacramento, Mordam was flooded with applications, Jones said. Which makes sense when you consider that, before Mordam, if you wanted to get a full-time job working for an already-established independent music company— apart from a few record stores—you were pretty much out of luck.
“We got a lot of applicants, and people making comments like ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe Mordam’s going to be here—I really, really, really want to work there,’ ” Jones said. “So that was encouraging.”
Jessica Heilig was a manager at the Beat record store, where she worked for six years before she was hired by Mordam. “I heard Mordam was coming to town and I had been familiar with their catalogue because we had done orders from them before,” she explained. “Basically, they’re the coolest. They have everything that I love, or most of what I love, and I just thought it would be a really good job.”
Jones explains that because of the behind-the-scenes nature of the distributor, he doesn’t foresee Mordam’s move having a big impact on the local music scene. Yet in San Francisco, employees of Mordam bankrolled the indie/punk record labels Cheap Date, Prank, and Dirtnap, as well as Green records, a drum and bass label. The distributor also employed members of noteworthy San Francisco bands such as Spitboy and Loli and the Chones. It remains to be seen whether Mordam’s Sacramento employees will be similarly prolific with their side projects. The capital has already gained at least one new indie record label that moved here with a Mordam employee: Yakamashi Records, co-run by Matt Roberts, has released records by Nar and the Aislers Set. Another Sacramento employee, Zach Moser, plays keyboards and percussion in a band called the Lazybones.
Maximum Rocknroll’s Wells, who also worked at Mordam for five years in San Francisco, speculates that in Sacramento the distributor may prove a catalyst of sorts, by bringing together the collective knowledge and energy of a bunch of music geeks and paying them better salaries than your average retail/café job.
“I imagine people in the warehouse are going to do what I did: start a label with their extra money, if they’re passionate about music,” Wells said. “Either that, or they’re going to do what a lot of the other people did at Mordam, which was buy more expensive booze.”
James Agren and Chandra Tobey moved to Sacramento because they ran out of space in San Francisco; they were literally renting out extra closets to house the overflowing inventory of their record label and distributor, Darla. While Mordam moved to Sac to cut costs in order to survive, Darla elected to move here because they couldn’t find a place to expand their thriving small business in San Francisco.
Tobey, a Bay Area native and Agren, who moved to San Francisco from Southern California in 1982, met when they were both DJs at KUSF, a San Francisco college radio station. Agren started Darla as a record label in New York in 1994, and a few months later moved it to San Francisco. Within two years Darla was both a label and a distributor, employing both Agren and Tobey full time. Five years later, with 110 records on their own label and distribution rights to over 1300 titles of indie pop, indie rock and ambient electronic pop music, the couple had records and CDs literally piled in the hallways, and in extra closets they rented out from an adjacent studio. The pair were working out of an office rigged out of a cold, dark basement storage room, by the recycling bin and the laundry.
Unable to find a suitable larger apartment in San Francisco to move into, and thinking they’d rather buy a house than rent anyway, they eventually started looking in other places, like San Diego, Santa Cruz and Orange County. The two avid surfers hadn’t even considered looking inland until Agren’s brother began talking about moving to Sacramento from Colorado. When they went to the Web site of an online realtor, they were amazed to see how many homes were for sale in Sacramento that fit their specifications. They quickly found a “perfect” four bedroom house in the suburbs with swanky indoor swimming pool that cost them less per month to buy than the $1475 they’d been paying for the one bedroom apartment and office space they’d rented in San Francisco for six years. The extra space and cost of living savings enabled them to hire a fourth full time employee, who happened to be Mark Kaiser of Omnibus.
John Conley of the Sacramento indie pop bands Holiday Flyer and the California Oranges is one person who appreciates having Darla—his bands’ label—in Sacramento. Now when Conley needs to approve artwork or play demos or talk about production with Agren and Tobey he can do it in person, rather than through the mail. “They’re right down the street, pretty much,” Conley said. “It’s definitely been good for our band.”
Though Tobey insists she and Agren are also happy about their decision to move to Sacramento, some culture shock is evident in her description of her first impressions of Sac, which she found inhabited by “people with frosted hair, really gross long nails, mullets and trucks; lots of overweight, out of shape, pale and greasy people and lots of people who are much less educated than we are. The type of people that you just don’t see in the Bay Area anymore.”
Yet Tobey says she’s found Sacramentans more open-minded and enthusiastic in general toward new music than San Franciscans. And Sacramento is the kind of place where a small label/distributor like Darla could well exert an aesthetic influence on the locals. Already their move has prompted the local branch of Dimple records to start carrying their CDs. And in addition a pair of bands whose records they distribute— Momus and the Stars—have played a show at a Sacramento venue, a tour stop that might not have occurred without Darla to lure them here.
It’s 10 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 21 and the Capitol Garage has nearly filled up with mostly twenty- and thirty-somethings, dressed in the understated garb of the Sacramento show-goer. Conspicuously absent are the accurately-uniformed hipsters you’d find at the same show in a bigger city; the only required accessory tonight seems to be the beer-in-hand.
Many of the people in the audience have come to see the opening band, the Bright Ideas, the newest side project of the underground-favorite local punk pop band Nar. But a large number, primed with drink and ready to be entertained, actually stay for the touring act, Momus.
A skinny Scotsman wearing a Eurotrash shirt, shaggy fake fur vest and oversized, tinted specs gets up on stage with only himself and a fancy-looking keyboard hooked up to an iMac computer. His quirky folk-electronica act is the sort of thing you’d readily expect to hear on KDVS, but not necessarily an act you’d predict would go over well at this particular venue. Momus, aka Nick Currie, has been toiling in semi-obscurity since the mid-80s, and is maybe best known for having once, upon being sued for using someone’s name in his song without permission, devised a clever scheme to raise money for legal fees in which he convinced people to pay him to write songs with their names in them.
Certainly not everybody at Capitol Garage was into Momus that night. But louder than the group of hecklers in the far corner were the small group of die hard fans in the front row. After Momus finished performing, there was a contest in which a free T-shirt was offered to the first person who volunteered to sing an entire Momus song. Sure enough, one brave soul put up his hand, got up on stage, and sang, terribly, something called “The Penis Song,” to which he knew nearly all of the words, earning the prize.
And everyone was pleased, including Tobey and Agren of Darla, who distribute many of Momus’ records who were letting him crash at their new place that night. And especially satisfied was Mark Kaiser, who had put on the show, and who knows from years of organizing shows in Sacramento that this town has the reputation of being a place where people don’t stay to watch a touring act they’ve never heard before. As Dani Kando-Kaiser put it, “A show like that in Sacramento has the potential to suck really badly, and because it didn’t I was really happy.”
Anyone who’s attended more than a couple indie or punk rock shows in Sacramento or Davis over the past few years has likely already crossed paths with Mark Kaiser. In person he pretty much blends right in with the rest of the Sacramento punk rockers: short brown hair, faded jeans, band T-shirt, black Converse. His personality is more unusual, blending the aesthetic and temperament of a laid-back indie rocker guy with the enthusiasm, organization and work ethic of an entrepreneur: “He’s a great networker,” Dani says.
In addition to running Omnibus, Kaiser’s been putting on shows since he first came to Davis in 1992, bringing bands such as Sleater Kinney, the Spinanes and the Softies to 3rd and B, and the Davis Teen Center, where he booked shows for six years. Over the past decade he’s also brought Unwound, Dressy Bessy, Dub Narcotic, Stereo Total and Kim Deal (of the Pixies and the Breeders) to play all ages shows from Vacaville to Placerville, from SF State and Bottom of the Hill to various venues in Sacramento.
“It’s a fact: Wherever Mark Kaiser goes good things happen,” said his friend and Shove’s drummer Jay Howell, who has also recently moved from the Bay Area to Sacramento. And although Kaiser has exerted a considerable influence on Sacramento music even from San Francisco, including moderating an e-mail list, putting on shows and putting out records by local bands, he plans to become even more active now that he’s moved to Sac. He says he’s already got shows booked here every weekend through March and April, and plans to continue to lure touring bands to Sacramento.
“What’s actually kind of exciting about Sacramento is that you can make your own fun,” Kaiser explains. “Because it’s close to the Bay—it’s not like you’re in Merced or Fresno where nobody even goes near there—we at least get people coming to San Francisco and you can kind of pull them off to the side and say, hey play here. I just thought, I’m going to live here so let me book some shows so I’ll have something to do.”
Kaiser says he thinks the combined forces of Mordam, Darla and Omnibus all moving to Sacramento in the past few months, in addition to interesting indie bands that already hailed from here, such as Out Hud (who recently moved to New York), !!!, Holiday Flyer, and Rocketship, have created an impression to the outside world that something interesting is going on in Sacramento.
As evidence Kaiser points to a recent poll conducted by Insound, a large, New York-based online distributor of indie music and film. The site asked readers what city they thought would be the next hot spot in the US for indie rock, and listed Sacramento as one of six choices. (Though, at press time, Portland was winning and Sacramento was sixth.) As Kaiser points out, if people think something good is going on in your town, then it actually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, by causing people’s ears to perk up every time they hear that an unfamiliar band is from there.
“That’s just what happened with Olympia,” Kaiser says, referring to the Washington capital city, famous for its great music and the label Kill Rock Stars. “Olympia’s just a college town like any other; it’s just like Chico, really. It’s just that a few people got attached to something that was going on there, and then other people started paying attention.”
There’s evidence closer to home that Sacramento’s witnessed a fresh burst of DIY energy lately. In the past few months the town has seen the opening of a new live venue (True Love Coffeehouse), a new recording studio (Retrofit) and at least one new punk record label (Sacramento Records). And even if Sacramento finishes the Insound poll in last place, some people here think it’s just as well. In fact, a few of the veterans of Sacramento’s indie music scene said that its insularity is what they like about Sacramento, because being nowhere near the spotlight of media attention gives bands the time to develop organically. “May Sacramento always remain obscure, I say,” proclaimed one long-time local indie musician who preferred not to be named.
Kaiser doesn’t see it quite that way. From his spacious and relatively cheap new Midtown flat he spoke optimistically about the musical possibilities for his new hometown.
“I think that a little bit of fresh blood, or a little bit of something new going on will be kind of infectious,” he said. “If you get two more people doing what one person is already doing, that’s three times as much fun—three times as much going on.”