Import Export Editorial

Editorial: Why San Francisco Is Not Berlin (As Much As It Wishes It Was).
San Francisco is a major consumer of European techno imports. Why can’t we export our own sound?

Import vs. Export – Why San Francisco Is Not Berlin

editorial by chel-c


DEFSF’s Berlin correspondent, Chelsea Faith, reports from the Techno City in December of 2007.
Ahh Berlin…. a very special place where you can wash down two tabs of ecstasy with a pint of Bavarian beer, and dance to techno in a packed club until 10am… on Christmas. Gotta love this place.
It’s pretty apparent: there’s something magical about Berlin. The musical climate here is so open, fresh, and fertile. A pretty solid minimal scene has developed in San Francisco, but it’s nothing like the techno-obsessed party playground that is Berlin. There are numerous reasons why there is such a unique and amazing music scene here in the German capital; cheap rents, an art-centric culture, and more history that I have the time or knowledge to write about, but there is one huge difference I see between the two cities: emphasis on local talent. Techno is made here in Berlin. There are more great DJs, producers, record labels, record shops, and clubs than you can count. Parties here are often driven by local acts. SF has a strong techno community as well, as you can see from the near-nightly minimal club events happening in the city, but I see a couple major issues that prevent SF from reaching the level of a city like Berlin.

For one, everything in San Francisco is imported. From the headliners flying in from Sweden, Germany, or Detroit, to the legions of DJs playing the Latest Techno MegaHit from M_nus?, it all comes from outside. I don’t think this is because of any shortage on talent; there are countless people creating techno in the Bay Area, many of whom I know personally. The party scene is strong in SF, but that’s just it – it’s a party scene, not a music scene. It’s a promoter scene. The two-headliners-two-residents formula that dominates most techno events in the Bay Area is stifling, leaving little room for growth. I know there are local DJs that play out regularly, but there are only, what, seven of you? And you only get booked because you’re a promoter who books yourself to play at every party you throw (I mean… ahem… you’re a “resident”)… am I wrong? I know how great it feels to bring out a headliner you love and watch hundreds of smiling people get off to the music you selected for them. And I know that it’s important to get some cross-pollination going, getting new sounds and ideas coming in from other places.
I also know that many promoters feel entitled to play at every event they throw because…. well, it’s their event, they can do what they want (or, they worked hard for it, they deserve it, they paid for it, etc, whatever). But another important thing is balance, and we don’t have very much of that. Sure, bringing out fantastic headliners from around the world brings exposure to the music, but haven’t we passed that phase yet? Minimal is everywhere- I’m expecting to hear Loco Dice in a supermarket any day now. Isn’t there room to support and develop local talent by now, as well as continue to bring headliners from other parts of the globe? Why can’t we create exports as well as we consume imports? It’s been proven that techno works remarkably well in the Bay Area, so now would be a good time to experiment with the formula and create something new, while people are still paying attention.

Another thing I see holding SF back is its identity crisis. The local DJs/residents here are trying so hard to emulate what they perceive to be a European sound. There isn’t a whole lot of originality. I hear the same tracks over and over, played by every DJ. (If I hear ‘RUOK’ one more time… good lord, enough with that shit! Yes, I am ok. No, I don’t have to puke.) We obsess over the latest tracks from Europe and Detroit, and strive to emulate whatever’s hot in Berlin right now (right down to the overuse of the gratuitous, Germanesque “k”), but never think to just be ourselves. Sure, imitation can lead to new innovations – Berlin was imitating Detroit, after all. But originality carries little weight in San Francisco. Part of the magic of Berlin is the way DJs and producers are so simply being themselves, effortlessly. They aren’t pretending to be something they’re not – Berlin is Berlin, and that’s it. SF is just buying into the global minimal explosion, rather than creating its own sound. There is no SF techno sound. This also goes with the over-emphasis on out-of-town headliners. Without creating something original, and without creating something locally, techno in San Francisco is going to fade out like any other normal fad. (Nuskool breaks anyone?)

So, yes, ok, maybe I am a little biased about all this, being a local techno live p.a. myself. Really biased, in fact. On the one hand, I feel like I should be happy that the music I love is finally popular in my city. On the other hand, the minimal boom has squashed the small but diverse techno scene that used to exist in SF, much like the homogeneous luxury condos we see eradicating San Francisco’s local color. Funny, we used to bitch about how none of us ever got booked because there were no techno parties, nowhere for us to play – now there are more techno parties than you can count, laptop DJs and minimal club nights are a dime a dozen, but my American passport doesn’t really help me get gigs in my European-headliner-obsessed city. (A friend of mine here in Berlin suggested I re-import myself; move to Europe in order to gain respect in my own city.) I’ve heard people complain about local techno folks moving to Berlin: “Another local producer moved to Berlin. They keep leaving, one after another!” As if techno producers moving to Berlin are giving up, quitters, going AWOL. But they’re smart. There’s a reason why we’re all leaving. San Francisco’s party scene (or rather, promoter scene) does not support local producers, period. Nope. Does not. Why should we stay here? To support the local scene? What’s the point of staying when the scene does not support us? We’re just here to take your flyers, help you reach your bar minimum for the night, believe your hype, and be pawns in your game. Maybe we won’t get booked in Berlin either, but at least in Berlin there is tastier beer and more efficient public transportation!

There is a TON of interest in techno in San Francisco right now, and this is a great time to start something (Well, I’ve been saying that for a long time, but techno is currently enjoying the highest popularity it’s known in the 2000s). So, I conclude, here are a few things we need to get over in order to elevate our music scene-

  • -Kill the headliner/residents formula, or party formulas in general. Try something different. There are all kinds of different parties here in Berlin, with out of town headliners, locals, DJs, live pa’s, laptops, hardware, vinyl, etc. Parties happen in all types of venues too, not the same club each time. (My favorite example is Reclaim the Sparkasse, renegade parties that are held in the front room of banks, where the ATMs are.)
  • -Switch the focus from importing to exporting. San Francisco is an avid consumer of imported European techno, but creating our own exports doesn’t seem to be much of a priority. The prevailing attitude seems to be that throwing big parties headlined by laptop-toting Berliners is the main purpose of the SF techno scene. True, we have great parties, but once the general public gets over today’s tech trend, we won’t have much else to offer.
  • -Be yourself, be original, create something. Sorry, I know, this is tired advice that you’ve been hearing from your mom and athletic shoe commercials since you were born, but it’s still the truest thing ever. Forget about the top 10 on Beatport, and just do your thing.

San Francisco seems to have the right mix of ingredients for a global electronic music hotspot; the clubs, the passion for the music, the obsession with all things tech, and enough disposable income to fuel more than one weekend-long partying bender. If we direct our energy towards creating something unique and SF-oriented, drop the obsession with foreignness, and turn down the fanboy factor a notch or two (“Oh Richie!”), the Bay Area could have the makings of a major techno mecca. But until that happens, throwing my gear into a shipping container and making myself an “out of town headliner” doesn’t sound like such a bad idea…

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