San Francisco—The Noise of Millionaires in the Background

Gentrification as a problem for the city's music scene

By Institute for Sound and Music

Josh Cheon in front of RS94109 by Jonathan ForsytheInstitute for Sound and Music

Welcome to Dark Entries

"The city has a strong music community and people support one another. We're united by our passion—we all want to raise our flag together," says Josh Cheon, the manager of Dark Entries Records, currently one of the most exciting record labels for music at the interface of electronic, post-punk, and wave.

Josh Cheon by Jonathan ForsytheInstitute for Sound and Music

Cheon comes originally from the East Coast, where he served his apprenticeship in the music industry with the New York record label DFA. Even though he liked it there, increasingly he struggled with the blatant competitiveness of New Yorkers.  

"Everyone there is constantly trying to push past everyone else to reach the top of the ladder," he recalls. "I was 25 at the time and really depressed. My main job in a laboratory in Jersey City was depressing. Of course I went to New York regularly to hang out with the DFA people and go dancing, but I just couldn't find a decent job in the city." 

San Francisco, Thomas Venker, From the collection of: Institute for Sound and Music
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And so in the mid-2000s he packed a couple of suitcases and set off for the West Coast and a completely fresh start: he had no friends, nowhere to live (at first he stayed in a kind of hostel)—but his heart was in the right place, and in those days that still opened doors in San Francisco. However, in recent years, San Francisco has changed. In a city where the hippy culture was once welcomed with open arms, it's now more likely to be squeezed out. The housing market is brutal and the cost of living is on a par with New York … among the top 10 most expensive cities in the world.

San Francisco, Thomas Venker, From the collection of: Institute for Sound and Music
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The Stud by DreamyshadeInstitute for Sound and Music

It makes life very difficult for creatives—almost every artist has one or even two other jobs on the side. Even long-established bars and clubs like The Stud were struggling hugely, and that was before Covid-19. Situated in the Soma district, the club was legendary among LGBTQ bars and clubs in the Bay Area. Until recently, resident DJ Chrissy performed here every month.

chrissy-lrgInstitute for Sound and Music

Chrissy

"We live in an age that is openly aggressive towards minorities"  

Chrissy Shively's story is not unlike that of Dark Entries founder Josh Cheon: Shively grew up in Kansas—a cultural no-man's land in the Midwest. Some years ago, he found his way to San Francisco via Chicago. "Chicago has an ambiguous relationship with its own cultural capital. The city, the public, and even the clubs can never agree on what they really want. The competition is very tough. Luckily in San Francisco it's different," says Shively unequivocally, despite being quite attached to his former home. In fact, he was lauded even in his Chicago days: "Chrissy is one of the best DJs ever to walk this earth, and I'll carry on saying so until everyone agrees," megastar Black Madonna (now known as The Blessed Madonna) is quoted as saying. 

San Francisco, Thomas Venker, From the collection of: Institute for Sound and Music
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But Shively loves his new home city, not least for its empathy and solidarity: "San Francisco may be much smaller, but the people and the crowds here are far friendlier, more open-minded musically, really weird. I like that a lot and it suits me much better," he declares, while pointing out that for years the music scene in the Californian metropolis had a bad reputation. Luckily that has changed, he says. Promoters, artists, and everyone involved in the industry seem to be pulling in the same direction—maybe it has something to do with the tough living conditions. That has brought about a kind of togetherness on the scene. 

The Stud - full view by DreamyshadeInstitute for Sound and Music

So has his period of residency at one of the oldest LGBTQ clubs in the States changed his ideas about the political nature of the dance scene? "In a perfect world, dance music would only be intended as escapism, but unfortunately we live in an age that is openly aggressive towards minorities. For the LGBTQI scene, for women, for POCs, it's becoming a life-and-death struggle. That means our clubs are the last safe spaces for people who are hounded in everyday life." Shively would ideally ban politics from clubs, but "we don't have that luxury at the moment. We must defend freedoms. We can do that best together. And to be honest: I had never understood that properly until I came here."

He explains how important this togetherness has become by saying: "It's not just the big politics and the general step change that we are seeing in politics. It's not just the Trumps and the Boris Johnsons, and the AfD party that pose a threat to us. There are also really specific things that we can only tackle together. We cultural players also have to stick together to make sure we don't go under in the harsh environment of the city. We work together for things like affordable rents and grants." However, the fate of his club shows that, unfortunately, this is not enough: The Stud is closing after 54 years, with the financial crisis caused by Covid-19 proving to be the final straw for a venue that had been under threat for a long time. Both the LGBTQ community and the electronic dance music scene are devastated and several supporters are campaigning for it to reopen somewhere else. "This kind of thing will keep happening until our laws limit the power of property and business owners," concludes Shively. 

Josh Cheon by Jonathan ForsytheInstitute for Sound and Music

Josh Cheon

"America is not in a good place right now" 

Josh Cheon from Dark Entries also sees radical gentrification as posing the biggest problem for the music scene: "It's not always obvious, it's more of a background noise. But if you make a point of looking around in a restaurant, you'll always see at least one tech person. They have pushed out the normal people in San Francisco. The Mission District, which has always been a kind of alternative epicenter, is now mainly inhabited by millionaires." So it's no great surprise that it was a long time before Cheon, a graduate in Biology and Psychology, was able to give up his day job in a biolab: "America is not in a good place right now, so it feels better to have health insurance and a pension." 

Josh Cheon digging records, Jonathan Forsythe, 2019, From the collection of: Institute for Sound and Music
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At Dark Entries Records, with its office in a windowless storage room behind the RS94109 record store in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, Cheon has specialized in rereleasing rare or obscure post-punk, industrial, disco, and wave records. Not infrequently, the musicians that he contacts have long since forgotten that they used to make music and have been living a normal, middle-class life for decades, complete with a family and a nine-to-five job. When the phone rings after Cheon has tracked them down, following hours of research, he has to proceed with some caution: "Often, I'm reminding them of moments in their life that were emotionally not so easy," he explains. "It can happen that we both end up crying." However, such dramatic scenes are not very common, remarks Cheon, who is in his late 30s. Far more often he is simply asked with some skepticism whether he has dialed the wrong number; they can't believe that after all these years someone is really still interested in their music. 

Mozhgan by Jonathan ForsytheInstitute for Sound and Music

Mozhgan

"You've got good taste in music!"  

One of the regular visitors to the RS94109 record store, and a friend of the Dark Entries record label, is Mozhgan Shariat, who now lives in San Francisco. The child of Iranian immigrants, she was drawn to the city like Cheon, as if by magic, and does not regret having moved from Oklahoma via Dallas and New York to the West Coast—surviving economic difficulties along the way, even though it isn't always easy to reconcile artistic ambition with the pressure to earn money. Alongside her life as an internationally touring DJ and producer, she still works in a clothing store in the Mission District. That's only possible because her boss always supports her: "She always says: Never turn down an inquiry. That makes it easier for me to bridge the gap between my day job and my life as a DJ." 

Mozhgan at home, Thomas Venker, From the collection of: Institute for Sound and Music
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Together with her partner (and often also back-to-back DJ partner) Solar, and Jason Greer, Shariat introduced the series of dance parties in San Francisco called We Are Monsters. This has helped her to raise her own DJ profile over the years. Her sets are based on a coming together of Iranian influences and the latest electro and dark techno music. If she doesn't have to play music for a club dance floor, Shariat will quite often play Arab, Iranian, and Levantine music all night long. "It feels cool to go back to the music that shaped my youth." 

Mozhgan on street, Thomas Venker, 2019, From the collection of: Institute for Sound and Music
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It was her friend Greer who gave her the final push that made her turn her DJ hobby into a profession—and not all that long ago. Shariat remembers what it was he said that motivated her: "You've got good taste in music! You should do it!" Her beginnings coincided with the start of We Are Monsters. "The idea was to play weird monster music that sounded like a film soundtrack at a time when everyone else was playing standard house music. We soon became hooked on finding more and more freakish records to play." 

Mozhgan, Jonathan Forsythe, From the collection of: Institute for Sound and Music
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Just like Cheon, Shariat also found the nightlife in San Francisco a revelation after her experiences in New York: "In San Francisco people go out because of the music, they want to feel a connection with the DJ, they want to dance. In New York, on the other hand, it's more about appearances and chat—people just want to talk and not dance. When I was living in New York, I realized just how great San Francisco is." If, despite all the (financial) hurdles, San Francisco is morphing into the insiders' no. 1 tip for the music scene in the USA and the whole world, it is mainly because of the people involved and the way they stick together. Along with Shariat and Solar, Shively, and Cheon, we could also mention, for example, Jacob from Honey Soundsystem and collectives like Sunset Sound System and the Hard French Crew.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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