Last summer, I visited San Francisco Bay Area to produce a radio feature plus web reportage for German broadcaster WDR. My question was: how does the Silicon Valley boom affect artists in the Bay Area? The question is not only about gentrification, Google Bus protests and soaring rent prices in San Francisco. The beatniks of the 50s and the counter-culture of the 60s played a crucial part in shaping San Francisco’s unique atmosphere of liberal openness, creativity and individualism. Many of the early hackers and inventors of Silicon Valley were inspired by the drug and music culture of the hippies. The overlap of counter-culture and computer engineering led to new forms of corporate organization, which are typical for todays Silicon Valley startups as well as billion-dollar companies like Apple or Google. Every year thousands of Silicon Valley employees and their CEOs worship to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada for Burning Man, along with thousands of artists from the Bay Area to collaborate and celebrate individualism and creativity. The technopaganism of Burning Man, originally started on a beach in San Francisco and later moved to the Nevada desert, is a modern resurrection of the LSD-fueled concerts and parties of 60s, where the hippies already tried to dissolve borders between musicians and audiences in a Dionysian revel.
But the overlap between music scene and technorati wasn’t always peaceful. The Bay Area was also the location of a Pyrrhic victory that later turned out to be the beginning of a long downfall for the music industry when in 2000 Lars Ulrich, drummer of the local band Metallica, pulled up in a SUV in front of Napster’s office in San Mateo to deliver 13 boxes with names of countless fans who downloaded Metallica songs for free. After 2 years of legal battles Napster closed shop, but the music industry was bound to never really recover from illegal filesharing as well as a disastrous loss of reputation. In fact, another Silicon Valley firm by the name of Apple was at the forefront to reinvent the distribution and consumption of music with its iPod and iTunes Store. Still, for musicians beyond super star popularity it was ever getting harder to survive, especially after Silicon Valley tech companies started to offer their wealthy employees the lush life in culture-rich San Francisco enabled by bus shuttles commuting between the hip districts of the city and the tedious headquarters down the bay. Other tech firms like Twitter took root directly in San Francisco and transformed their neighborhoods. Median rent climbed up to New Yorkian levels and drove an army of artists out of San Francisco and over the bay to Oakland.
Oakland today is where most of the creative edge of the Bay Area resides. But Oakland is also ridden by a lot of social tension. The campus of University of California, Berkeley, north of Oakland is only a few miles away from the so-called “killing fields” of East Oakland, but both areas are worlds apart in every other aspect. The Bay Area is home of two of the world’s three most famous universities – Stanford and Berkeley – but public schools are in dire state. Once California ranked second among all US public schools, but after a change of the taxation system in California in 1978, spending in public education dropped. Today public schools in California rank 48th among all US states in relation to student achievements. And Oakland is at the core of the problem. The sharing economy is ment to balance some of the existing inequalities. But Airbnb or Uber are only options for the ones who already have a flat or who already have a car. Nowhere else in the US social stratification is as extreme as in the Bay Area.
There are no easy answers. I spoke to a handful of artists and writers. About their lifes, their art and their perspective of the Bay. At the center of the radio documentary are singer Candace Roberts, rap and spoken poetry artist Duke the Bossman of Color Me Black, electronic producer Nowa Lusion and the band Wizard Fist. I also spoke to Fred Turner of Stanford University, music writer Joel Selvin, producer Count, musician and studio owner John Vanderslice, Hip Hop historian Davey D and latin rap artist El Kool Kyle. All together they paint a diverse picture of the creative and relentless spirit of the San Francisco Bay Area.
The collected links:
Webpage (the central page for the project)
Web Reportage (interactive online story, mostly in German)
Vimeo Channel (all interviews and music videos)
Radio Feature (WDR page with MP3 download, in German)