Noise Pop’s Careful Calculus

How the festival went from bootstrap to "boutique."

Music bloggers often tout the embarrassment of riches that is Noise Pop, given that this year’s twentieth anniversary installment is spread out over 23 venues and features The Flaming Lips as the main headliner. But it wasn’t always that huge, said founder Jordan Kurland. It started as a modest, one-night affair at The Kennel Club on Divisadero Street, featuring five garage bands and a cute, cartoony poster. Admission cost five bucks. One of the musicians helped make the flyers. Kurland notes, proudly, they managed to get a pretty good turnout without the advantage of social networking.

No one could have foreseen that it would eventually spawn one of the most high-profile event producers in the Bay Area. Over the last few years, Noise Pop has managed to rebrand itself as a “boutique” festival — meaning it’s carefully curated and caters to an audience that, in Kurland’s words, “would really evaluate the lineup before going in.” More importantly, though, it’s all-inclusive, since the Noise Pop brand now includes film screenings, comedy nights, DJ dance parties, “pop-ups,” dinners, art exhibits, and, as of last year, workshops.

In fact, the pedagogical element seems to excite Noise Pop producer Stacy Horne more than the copious music lineup. Called “Culture Club,” it features workshops on illustration, animation, public radio, Ableton Live software, New Orleans bounce music (hosted by the genre’s queen diva, Big Freedia), and even Georges Méliès’ 1902 surrealist science fiction film A Trip to the Moon, with a new score by the French electronic band Air. That might be Noise Pop’s greatest concession to high art, and it shows that the organizers are trying to be tastemakers at the same time that they’re catering to audience tastes.

That certainly bodes well for a festival that has grown incrementally in the last twenty years, and now offers programming year-round — Noise Pop partners with Another Planet Entertainment to put on the Treasure Island Music Festival every fall, and it offers themed dinners, pop-ups, and one-off concerts on a regular basis. The festival’s growth has helped Kurland and co-founder Kevin Arnold establish themselves not only as kingpins of the local music industry but also as arbiters of what’s cool. Kurland has said in past interviews that programming often involves a careful calculus. He and the other programmers consider who has a local draw, who’s dropped an album recently, and who might be popular three months from now. Not to mention they’re still committed to hyping local bands.

No wonder they’re prospering, two decades in.


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