The day after moving to San Francisco, Dawson Ludwig began an internship with Noise Pop, the annual music, art and film festival. Just a few weeks into the job, he was asked to go to the Oakland airport and pick up Lou Barlow.
A founding member of seminal indie rock band Dinosaur Jr., Barlow was playing the festival that year with his equally-adored band Sebadoh. On the way back to the city, Ludwig got a call that the show that night was running behind, so he needed to kill a couple hours. With Lou Barlow.
“I ended up taking him to Amoeba and we record-shopped for like an hour, and then I took him to Coffee To The People and we just sat there for an hour,” Ludwig says. “I got a chance to sit and record shop with my hero for two hours, and it was literally like three weeks into the job.”
Six years later, Ludwig has climbed the ranks from intern to general manager, which means he’s basically in charge of Noise Pop. But even with the greater responsibility, the sense of wonder is still alive. “It’s a dream job," he exclaims."But it’s also, you know, I’m in the office at 7:30 in the morning.”
Being general manager means Ludwig oversees all of Noise Pop Industries’ businesses: Noise Pop Presents, which puts on the Treasure Island Music Festival (together with Another Planet Entertainment) and the 20th Street Block Party in addition to the annual Noise Pop festival that takes place at the end of February and is now in its 23rd year; Do415, the event listing and promotions site that Ludwig calls “the content side of the business”; and a “white label” private events service.
Treasure Island Music Festival (Photo: Tom Burre/Flickr)
Making sure all of those operations run smoothly involves a lot of sitting at a desk, working on a computer, and sending emails, the same as any office drone. But talk to Ludwig about what he does for a living and it’s clear that he’s at that desk because his job is basically to be a music superfan, going to work every day and then hitting shows at night for fun and to scout the next band. “It’s an honor beyond words to help a talented band that you feel deserves recognition,” he says.
“5 Bands For 5 Bucks”
There’s no formula for how many local bands—or which local bands—the Noise Pop team picks every year to play in an ever-evolving collection of local venues, but supporting the local music community has been a big part of the festival ever since its inaugural “5 Bands For 5 Bucks” show in 1993, held at The Kennel Club (now The Independent).
Ludwig is especially proud of this ongoing local focus—a rare positive note given the pressure live venues and local artists have been under recently. Popular venues like Elbo Room appear headed for demolition to make way for new developments, and the future is uncertain for others, like The Hemlock. The Independent itself is getting a condo next door—although there's a political effort to require developers and new neighbors to coexist with live music venues.
“I’d say the goal is still the same, which is to showcase a hell of a lot of bands in a consolidated period of time,” Ludwig says. “But we’re fortunate in that it’s been 23 years, so it’s grown substantially since then and we’re able to shine a bigger and brighter spotlight on both national acts and local acts.”
The Flaming Lips at Bimbo's (Photo: Michaelz1/Flickr)
The list of bands from all over the country that Noise Pop hosted at some point in their rise to fame is a who’s who of indie rockdom: Modest Mouse, The Flaming Lips, Death Cab for Cutie, The Shins, Bright Eyes. But it’s always at root been about propping up local music. “Not to detract from the headliner at all, but the headliner is kind of a bait-and-switch,” Ludwig says. You think you’re coming for the headliner—say, The New Pornographers or Caribou or Geographer—but then Noise Pop will have packed the bill with three local acts in support of the big name, introducing local bands to new audiences and new levels of exposure.
Ludwig is quick to acknowledge that bands “work their asses off all the time” and Noise Pop, in and of itself, is not “breaking” any local bands. Indie rockers Geographer, who play February 27 at Oakland’s Fox Theater, are one of the best examples of how Noise Pop has helped a band grow beyond San Francisco, he says. “You can look at 2010 when they opened at the Great American, 2011 when they headlined the Independent and now in 2015 they’re headlining the Fox. That’s just a huge leap. They’ve done great things outside of Noise Pop, but we’re happy to share these lilypad moments with them.”
Picking the next Geographer to prop up is entirely a judgement call, and Ludwig admits his tastes have been warped by how inundated he is by music all the time. Whereas he used to be blown away by at least half of the bands he saw play live, now he says it’s more like 5 percent. But when he does come across a band he believes in, he’s eager to help them reach a broader audience. “It’s really humbling to know that we can help be a part of that ascension to the next level.”
Ludwig cites Cathedrals (playing Feb. 27 and Feb. 28), The She’s (Feb. 24), and Giraffage (Feb. 26) as some of the local bands playing this year’s fest that he is especially excited about. Each of those band is making one of their first big leaps: The She’s are opening for Best Coast and both Cathedrals and Giraffage are getting the chance to headline sold-out shows at The Independent.
The She's (Photo: The She's/Facebook)
Cathedrals, in fact, has sold out not one but two shows at the Independent, which even surprised the members of the band. (Hoodline has spoken with Geographer, Cathedrals, and Giraffage and will be posting their thoughts on playing Noise Pop later, as part of our ongoing coverage of the festival, so stay tuned.)
Noise Pop seems to be having a lilypad moment of its own. As Hoodline reported last month, the company is re-opening the Swedish American Hall as “Noise Pop HQ” during the fest at the end of this month, and will be handling all booking and promotions for the venue going forward. (Here's a sneak peek of the space.)
This is good news for Noise Pop because, in the past, the staff level has fluctuated around the company’s major events throughout the year. Ludwig says the Swedish American gig will allow it to keep a larger staff on payroll year-round.
“For Noise Pop, the company, it’s a watershed year,” Ludwig says. Last year’s Treasure Island fest was the biggest ever, and he feels really good about Noise Pop’s lineup this year. “We’ve had great lineups but I do feel like this is—and it’s going to sound like bullshit—but I can genuinely say that this does feel like the best lineup that I’ve ever seen it have. And between Swedish American Hall opening up and our soon-to-be-announced co-presentation of the San Francisco Street Food Festival, our team just sort of hit a weird click and we’re all operating at this cool hum.”
To learn more about the festival's rich history, check out the This Is Noise Pop feature-length documentary from 2011 (embedded below), take a walk through the annual websites since before the Internet, browse the full lineups over the years, and reminisce about past shows with founder Kevin Arnold.
Noise Pop runs from February 20th to March 1st in multiple venues across the city. Full lineup and schedule available at noisepop.com/2015.
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