When I arrived in San Francisco from New York at the beginning of the end of that first glorious Internet era in April 1999, I had in my mind’s eye a place teeming with culture junkies. Hyper-literate music- and arts-loving people, drawn to the Bay to be part of a kind of acceptably commercial counter-culture.
Although I had spent time in SF before becoming a resident, I mostly had images of the time-adjusted Grateful Dead-Summer of Love city by the Bay. I imagined sunsets falling behind the Golden Gate Bridge, with distant music coming from the Haight and films being cut at Skywalker Ranch. After all, the area was home to George Lucas, Francis Coppola, Michael Chabon, Michael Lewis, Sean Penn, Neil Young, Bob Weir, Carlos Santana, and hundreds of other notable creative legends.
But over the next 15 years I would find a sharp and surprising paradox about the Bay Area and its strangely collective apathy about the arts. It took a while to truly understand all the reasons, but when I really thought about the why, the reasons seemed quite logical.
To be clear, I am speaking mostly about the tech community, which has, for the most part, become the vocal majority throughout the Bay Area. For such a liberal and progressive city, with such a young and highly educated population, I am always surprised at how disinterested most young techies are about music and film. Sure there are a few thousand of them who head out to the desert for a week of bacchanalia at Burning Man, but ultimately you won’t see many of them at Coachella, Sundance, or even the San Francisco Film Festival. But why not?
1) The Liberal Arts
Beginning in the mid-70’s, the Bay Area economy started in earnest to become most prominently focused on technology. New York had Wall Street and the big media businesses, LA had film and television, Chicago had manufacturing and marketing, and now the Bay Area (Silicon Valley) was becoming synonymous with technology. And despite its early, largely non-consumer applications, eventually those core technologies began to disrupt almost every industry that had existed before it.
By the 90s HP, Intel, Apple, Cisco, SGI, Adobe, and eventually Yahoo and Google, were exploding followed by Netflix, Facebook, Twitter, Yelp and countless others. All of them began to have a heavy hand in the distribution of culture. Unsurprisingly, much of the population that would eventually and continually begin to flock to the Bay Area would consist of engineers.
As a definable group, engineers are structured and technical thinkers. A high aptitude in math, science, and logic define their most important traits. Their education tends to be mostly focused on these subjects, and developing hobbies and passions in subjects like music, literature, art (the humanities in general) are less likely to happen than for an English or history major. This is not at all to say that engineers don’t like music or movies or the classic arts. But developing wonderful and occasionally frivolous, but deeply informed, habits involving movies and rock music are often sacrificed to all things computers, programming and serious academics — what we now call a STEM education.
Despite all its youth, idealism, passion and energy, the Bay Area and its techies tend to settle for the results of algorithms, the passive acknowledgement that there are simply “more interesting things” on which to spend your time. But, as with skiing, golf or learning an instrument, certain things are better started young. These pursuits tend to be easier to pick up before our minds are evolved enough to overthink the complexity of the tasks. Same with music and film zealotry; the later you start, the longer it will take you to catch up, and, as such, most people capitulate and settle for someone else’s taste and programming.
I spent my childhood in the suburbs of Chicago and Cleveland. In these suburbs the weather was either too hot, but more likely too cold, and if it was somewhere in between it was usually raining. I ended up spending a lot of time sitting in my bedroom listening to records I would buy with my small allowance, from the small record shop in my small town. Later, my passion for music extended to film, which, when young and poor and living in NYC in my 20’s, was quite convenient because movie tickets were cheaper than air conditioning or heat. Too poor and with nowhere to go on the weekends, I found empty theaters and music venues wonderful places to enjoy being young and curious.
When you live in California, almost anywhere in the state, the weather is almost always good, or at worst decent. People thus tend to be healthier. They eat better, spend more time outside and try to stay as active as possible. They go to bed earlier, so they can get up earlier and go biking, hiking, running, skiing, surfing, or kite surfing. Sitting in a dark theater on a beautiful Sunday afternoon almost feels like a sacrilege, even if you’re not eating popcorn. It also means that fewer people are up at 1 a.m. watching a band play in some dingy venue, which by itself would likely trigger sleeping until the crack of noon, and stumbling out of the house for breakfast followed by a movie. In the end, active pastimes compete with culture in a non-trivial way. That said, many of the sports I spend my time doing (skiing, running, hiking) can also be done with headphones on and an infinite sea of great music keeping the beat.
In the grand scheme of things, music and movies are relatively inexpensive pursuits. Unless you are buying StubHub tickets to U2 or the Rolling Stones, you can go see music for anywhere from free to $50. Movies, depending on what time you see them are less than the cost of a cocktail at a hipster bar. In some respects, and almost counter-intuitively, the less money you make the more likely you are to entertain yourself with movies and music despite the fact that independent music and film are typically consumed by highly educated people.
Consequently, in the Bay where tech riches have increasingly transformed the fabric of the area’s cultural underpinnings, these cheaper pursuits often compete with expensive hobbies like foodieism, wine collecting, traveling, second homes and expensive sporting pursuits. When money is no object, and that is the case for most young and older techies in the Bay area, how much and on what you spend your leisure money is not a significant consideration.
Why go to the theater when you have almost infinite and immediate access to everything on almost every device you own? Why go to a record store when you can spend $10 a month and have access to all the music you could ever want, pushed from your computer or phone to a stereo, TV or car speaker system? Good questions. Almost every local independent theater has shut down. So have the record stores, with the exception of Amoeba.
Finding stuff is easier now, and as such, algorithms attempt to solve your selection problems for you. There was something about the physical experience of looking for something tangible that has disappeared with digital pursuit through these replacement physical objects.
Pandora and other programmatic radio stations have in some ways made it too easy to be a productively passive music fan. Netflix and Amazon can never really replace the video clerk who could diagnose your tastes and prescribe just the right film. Their algorithms make recommendations based on things like popularity, not necessarily by mining the overlooked things that only human curation can solve.
The technologists who build and use today’s consumer Internet are also very good at eating their own food. Algorithmic recommendations do all the work, and in doing so suck out much of the joy of the unexpected. The Bay Area is trapped in the vortex of its own creation, making the need for active discovery and curation obsolete by delivering “good enough” instead of something deeper – something to call your own – personal taste.
5) Hipsters (re: the creative class)
In the old days, being a tastemaker required actual work: hanging out in record, book and video stores milling through the crates, looking for the next big thing. It required reading magazines, blogs and books on the subject and you did this because for the most part it helped define who you were. Hipsters lived in, and largely cultivated and helped to gentrify, the neighborhoods of the cities they lived in. They created the art, fashion, music and film of these areas, but now hipsterism is mainstream. Modcloth, Nasty Girl, Jack’s Threads, Pitchfork, Hype Machine, Vice, Filter, Fader reach large audiences.
The hipsters are now often priced out of the neighborhoods they created. Manhattan moved to Brooklyn and is now deep into Queens, Hollywood stretches into Silverlake, Echo Park and other formerly working class areas, and finally San Francisco hipsters have fled to Oakland. Everyone with enough money can be a hipster, but without the work, creativity and often the passion.
6) The losing battle for attention
In the pre-internet era, you had to go out of the house if you wanted to be social. People are genetically wired to gravitate toward human interaction. Films and concerts provided just such interactions. But now we are all connected, 24/7 through the device radiating in your pocket, the screen on your desk and even the television set in front of the couch. No group is more addicted to this social pull than the techies in the Bay Area. They create the apps and platforms that facilitate these pseudo-connections and play with them and seek them out relentlessly.
Now film and music compete with Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Secret, Snapchat, Candy Crush, YouTube, QuizUp, Words With Friends, Whatsapp and WeChat for attention. Those two hours once spent in a theater, or sitting around listening to records, is now spent on social apps digesting small and often superficial bits of information instead of literally being transported into private personal worlds. There just isn’t enough time to do both, and fractured attention spans have left much causality.
In the end
I have written about the shocking similarities between the real filmmakers and musicians who are every bit as much the entrepreneurs as are the Y Combinator technologists who fight to birth projects into existence. To hear a young filmmaker talk about the task of raising $1M to make a film, or the musicians working three jobs to make a record, and then drive around the country living in vans to tour, is exactly the same story as the technologist maxing out credit cards to get a company started. But these two sets of “passionistas” don’t seem to overlap often enough. Techies pour their riches into the next big technology thing, and the artists struggle to embrace these technologies in a desperate effort to figure out how to build a fan base and monetize their work in a world without movie theaters and record stores.
The Bay Area will never be the immersive cultural hub that New York used to be, but then again neither will New York. At least now I think I understand why, but that doesn’t make it any sadder. I might be cynically nostalgic at 44, but I’m not giving up. Technology has given me the tools to find the very best things even with only a fraction of the time, and for that I am grateful for the engineers who are building these great tools to harvest the fruits they largely do not seek.