Jordan Kurland: San Francisco's music impresario talks business

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Jordan Kurland and Public Enemy's Chuck D at the Treasure Island Music Festival, 2012.

My friend Jordan Kurland lives at the intersection of music and art, straddling the crossroads of culture and business. He's the co-founder, with music-tech veteran Kevin Arnold and promoter Another Planet Entertainment, of the Treasure Island Music Festival, the annual two-day extravaganza that returns to the middle of the San Francisco Bay this weekend with performances by the likes of Outkast, Alt-J, Massive Attack, and The New Pornographers. Jordan and Kevin are also the forces behind the Noise Pop Festival, a pioneering indie music festival in San Francisco that has hosted hundreds of emerging and cult bands, from The Magnetic Fields to the Gutter Twins, the Flaming Lips to Death Cab for Cutie. In fact, it was Death Cab's experience at the 1999 Noise Pop Festival that ultimately led to the group signing up with Jordan as a cornerstone client of his boutique Zeitgeist Artist Management firm. These days, Zeitgeist's roster includes Best Coast, Bob Mould, The New Pornographers, Rogue Wave, She & Him, and Thao & The Get Down Stay Down.


“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs," Jordan says. "There's also a negative side.”


OK, that wasn't actually Jordan but rather his favorite author, Hunter S. Thompson. Here's my interview with Jordan:


Treasure Island always seems to have a very eclectic lineup, from EDM and hip hop to indie rock. That diversity almost represents a certain kind of niche itself where the odd lineup somehow seems cohesive. Is there a thread or theme to your curation? What's the method behind the madness?


Jordan Kurland: The initial concept with Treasure Island was to take what we were doing in small clubs throughout San Francisco during Noise Pop and create an outdoor festival that mirrored the spirit and programing. Noise Pop has always been about presenting inexpensive and eclectic shows in an intimate setting so our goal was to create a boutique music festival experience featuring artists that fit into the Noise Pop aesthetic.


When we launched Treasure Island in 2007 we kind of stumbled into the formula of day one being dance oriented and day two featuring, for lack of a better term, indie rock acts. We confirmed Thievery Corporation to headline on Saturday and Modest Mouse on Sunday and then built out the lineup accordingly. It was a unique approach compared to other events in the Bay Area and nationally. Most importantly, it worked with our audience. Over the past few years we have started to integrate the days more just as dance and rock music have become further intwined. As the festival ages we find that a growing number of attendees are buying two day tickets.

How do you discover new music?
A number of different ways: friends, various sites and blogs, Sirius XMU when I’m in my car, I try to listen to Aaron Axelsen’s excellent show ’Soundcheck’ on Live 105 Sunday nights. Clients often tip me off to something they are excited about. I also rely heavily on the younger staff at both Noise Pop and my management office. They are the ones going out to see music five or six nights a week these days. In truth, I probably learn about more new artists during the couple months that we are booking Noise Pop than I do during the rest of the year as I am reviewing submissions from booking agents or suggestions from the clubs. It’s been such a great way for me to stay connected as to what is going on locally.


What do you look for in an artist that makes her or him a good client for your management?

The eye of the tiger maybe?


The most important thing to me is that I love the music. This has always been the main driver. It’s actually one of the reasons I wanted to be a manager. It was important to me that I was able to select each artist that I worked on and management is one of the few areas of the industry to do so. It has to be music that I’d want to listen to while driving, at my office, or brushing my teeth. In other words, music that I wouldn’t tire of and believed in. Next I need to get a sense of the personalities within the band and make sure that we are a good fit for one another, that our goals and ideals are aligned. It sounds cliche but when you manage a band you are in the trenches together. I need to not only be passionate about what the client is doing creatively but also know that we can communicate well and have a healthy working relationship. And the client needs to know that they can trust me, my advice, and ideas and that I am representing them properly.


When you and I were chatting recently, you mentioned being frustrated by this belief that people are choosing to go into tech instead of the music industry because there's no money in music anymore. Can you talk a little about that?


It’s not that I’m frustrated with people choosing a career in tech over music. What I’m frustrated about are the articles that state people no longer want to work in the music industry because you can’t make the money that you can in technology. I think it’s pretty clear that the music industry isn’t creating an abundance of multi-millionaires these days but what these articles fail to recognize is that the reason to work in this industry is that you are passionate about music. That’s certainly why I’m still doing it. One of the positive things about the music business contracting over the last 15 years is that the fat has been trimmed so-to-speak. The people who are working in the business today are in it because there is nowhere else they’d rather be spending their time. If it’s solely fortune you are after than there are, of course, many other industries that you have a better shot at it. But that has always been the case. When I was graduating from college my peers who wanted to make a lot of money entered the investment banking world. Nowadays you want to become a tech entrepreneur or a VC or a programmer.


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As a manager, it seems like you'd be living in Los Angeles or New York City. But yet you came to SF and never left. Why?

I moved to San Francisco in 1995 for a job. I was nearly a year out of college and knew that I wanted to try to be a manager. I was living in Los Angeles and answering phones for the performance rights organization, ASCAP. It was the typical entry level music industry job and not easy to land. I went on four interviews before I was hired. If I had stayed on that path I would have answered phones for a year or so, then become an assistant, and then, eventually, a membership director. All of which would have been cool, it’s just that I knew based on my experience interning for a few different companies during college, that I wanted to try to be an artist manager. There was an amazing opportunity up in San Francisco to work for a company called David Lefkowtiz/Figurehead management. The roster was Primus, the Melvins, Charlie Hunter and a few other acts. I spent four years there, learned a ton, and began managing the acts that became the first iteration of my management roster. It was also during my time there that I met Kevin Arnold and began working alongside him on Noise Pop. Kevin founded Noise Pop in 1993 and the first festival I worked on with him was 1998.


I started my management company, Zeitgeist, in 1999 which was the same year the music and technology were beginning to converge. It was the year that MP3.com, eMusic and Napster, to name a few, started to make waves. It wasn’t good news for the music industry but it did justify my existence up here. All of a sudden I had a competitive edge by living in the Bay Area.


The reason that I never left San Francisco once I arrived is simple: I adore this place.

You're active in the city with the music festivals, investments in numerous restaurants, and donating your time to 826 Valencia, Stern Grove Festival, and other arts and culture organizations. As you know, SF is experiencing its own culture war right now. Where do you stand and what can be done in your opinion?

To be clear, I’m not one of those people that rails against the tech industry. To the contrary, I think it’s pretty incredible to live in the heart of where these innovations which are being dreamed up and born. It’s not a coincidence that a creative, intellectual and way left-of-center city like San Francisco attracted the entrepreneurs that built these companies. With all that said, the city needs to do more to protect its creative community. A lot more. The Bay Area is incredibly expensive which does not bode well for an upstart musician or artist. I know some folks in the private sector that are starting to help but the city, as far as I can tell, has only made cosmetic offerings at best. The musical cultural history is so, so rich here: Summer of Love, Bill Graham, the Grateful Dead, the jazz scene of the 50s and 60s, the Dead Kennedys, Journey, Metallica … it goes on and on. But San Francisco does not do much in the way of supporting musicians and visual artists and film makers. And because it’s prohibitively expensive to live here fledgling artists are moving to Los Angeles or Portland where it’s cheaper and there’s a stronger, more inspiring creative community. Which leads the established artists who can now afford to live in the Bay Area to leave because they don’t have a strong community around them. I don’t pretend to know of a simple solution but it is clear to me that the city should be attacking the issue with much more urgency.


Your projects are all about new music but you have an incredible vinyl collection of jazz and listen mostly to music that was recorded before 1970. Why?

I don’t think that’s totally accurate. I certainly do have an affinity towards classic rock as I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago in the 1980s listening to The Who, Hendrix, the Kinks, etc. However, I do have many current titles in my rotation. Last night at home I listened to Thom Yorke, Washed Out, Burial, Tallest Man on Earth. Apparently I only listen to old stuff when you are around because, well, you are old and I want you to feel comfortable.


As far as jazz is concerned, yes I am pretty obsessed with the culture, history, and of course, music from that classic period of the 30s through the 60s. It truly was a renaissance. The same could be said about rock music in Britain in the 60s with the Beatles, Stones, Bowie, The Who, Zeppelin Clapton and on and on … But I digress. I started listening to jazz when I was in college and was seeking out instrumental music to listen to while studying for finals. Older jazz albums have incredible liner notes usually written by the producer or a journalist. I began reading the liner notes and then dug a bit into the history and then I quickly became hooked.


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All of your projects seem to be almost as much about visual art as they are music, and you have a pretty incredible personal collection of art -- fantastic pieces by Barry "Twist" McGee, Thomas Campbell, Camille Rose Garcia, Allen Ginsberg, and others. There's a massive painting of The Who by Shepard Fairey hanging in your living room. (Image above.) What is the connection for you between art and music?


I had posters and photos on my walls while growing up. Lots of them. Mostly of The Who and basketball players. I loved being surrounded by people I looked up to and things I was passionate about. A year or two after I moved to San Francisco I met Jim Marshall (RIP) who is responsible for some of the most iconic images in rock and jazz history: Jimi Hendrix on his burning guitar at Woodstock, Janis Joplin with the Southern Comfort bottle, Bob Dylan rolling the wheel down the street, Miles Davis in the boxing ring are a few examples that come to mind. I bought a photo directly from Jim. It was a shot of The Who outside a hotel in San Francisco in 1967. That was my first fine art purchase and at the cost of $250 was a huge investment for me. But it truly was an extension of what I surrounded myself with throughout my youth and college years. I bought many more pieces from Jim over the years until his passing and they are an important part of my life and collection.

It was through Noise Pop that I started buying original paintings. Each year we work with a different visual artist to create our iconic poster and as a result I’ve become friends with many of them such as Shepard Fairey, Thomas Campbell, Evan Hecox (poster above), and Clare Rojas. I started buying pieces directly from them which was helpful to them at that time in their burgeoning careers and it kickstarted a huge a passion for me around art. I haven’t really thought about this previously but I do think my taste in fine art mirrors my taste in music. I am drawn towards artists that are authentic, industrious, and have a real emotional resonance.


Follow Jordan Kurland on Twitter @zeitpop.

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