Dot-Com Blues

In early August, the tenants of Downtown Rehearsal, a hulking concrete building in the Bayview section of San Francisco, received some unwelcome news: The building had been sold and its occupants were given six weeks to pack up and leave. The new owners, it was reported, planned to renovate the three-story structure and lease it to an unidentified technology company. 

It’s a scenario that has become distressingly familiar in a city where the cost of renting prime office space is now higher than in midtown Manhattan. As the burgeoning computer industry spreads north from Silicon Valley, dot-coms have been swarming into San Francisco, devouring every available square foot of commercial space. But Downtown Rehearsal is no ordinary commercial building. It is – or rather, it was – the working home of many Bay Area musicians, including such notable performers as Chris Isaak, Faith No More and The Mermen. Some 2,000 musicians and other artists shared the cavernous building’s 160-odd studios, making it the largest rehearsal space in Northern California, if not the country. 

A couple of days before the deadline to move out, on a shimmering late September afternoon, I paid a visit to Downtown Rehearsal to check out the vibe. Outside the building, Ray Dowler, a compactly built man with a shaved head, a stiletto-sharp shaft of hair sprouting from his chin and a silver ring bisecting his lower lip, was loading an assortment of percussion instruments into a pickup truck. Dowler, a drummer with a band called Halcyon Days (“dark ambient, like a real heavy Pink Floyd,” is how he described the group’s musical style), had been a tenant at Downtown Rehearsal for nearly five years. The eviction notice, he said, “was definitely a quick chop to the knees,” but not an entirely unexpected one. “Things keep closing down. We saw guys walking around with clipboards, so we knew something was up.”

Dowler said he plans to put his drums in storage while he hunts for another place to practice. “I’m gonna call everybody I know and say, ‘Look, dude, we’re in a situation. Can you help us out?’” But he conceded that finding a suitable space at a price he can afford will not be easy. “There are 500 bands looking for space, and there isn’t much out there.” 

Inside Downtown Rehearsal, the long, brightly lit corridors were surprisingly quiet. Many of the tenants had already moved out, and those who remained were busy deconstructing their studios. Cigarette butts littered the paint-splattered concrete floors, remnants, perhaps, of one last late-night jam session. On the door of one studio was a sticker reading, “Fuck Humans.”

Down the hall, Randy Burk’s recording studio looked like it had been rocked by the Big One. Fluorescent lighting fixtures dangled from the ceiling, a mound of cables and wires lay tangled on the floor, glass partitions, strips of insulation and cardboard boxes were scattered around the room. Burk, a lanky 34-year-old dressed in white cutoffs and black hightop sneakers, has been a professional musician for 10 years, and like many other blue-collar musicians, he has survived by being versatile. In addition to operating Stout Recording Studio (“Genuine Analog. Affordable Rates,” his business card reads), he is a drummer in a pop/rock band called Small Time Napoleons and does a little singing as well. “I’ve done cruise ships, theme parks, weddings – whatever,” he said.

Burk, who had spent about $20,000 earlier this year expanding his recording studio, betrayed a pinch of bitterness as he talked about the demise of Downtown Rehearsal. “It’s a great loss of a tight little scene,” he said, as he lugged an amplifier to a U-Haul truck parked by the loading dock. “There were a lot of good people here. Lots of people actually lived here, even though they weren’t supposed to. It was a homey vibe.”

Burk, a Bay Area native, said he has witnessed a disturbing shift in the social landscape of San Francisco in the past few years. The free-spirited, laid-back atmosphere he remembers is fast disappearing, subsumed by an army of fast-talking, multi-tasking, SUV-driving digiterati. “You see it on the highway. Rude people yakking on their cell phones, in a hurry to get to the next meeting. Everybody’s in a hurry to make money.” Burk says he’s considering taking his wife and newborn son and moving to a less expensive area, but he’s not sure where. “I thought about Seattle, but it’s the same thing up there. They’ve got Microsoft and that scene. The whole West Coast is going.”

The squeal of an electric guitar drew me to the door of another studio around the corner. Inside, a punk-rock band called The Zodiac Killers was preparing for its next musical caper in an airless room cluttered with a jumble of instruments and a tattered, sagging couch. Greg Lowery, the Killers’ curmudgeonly bass player, minced no words about who was to blame for the fate of Downtown Rehearsal: “The dot-commies, that’s who. San Francisco has always been an artists’ town, but they’re killing us off. Tell them to go back to Kansas.”

  “I’m extremely depressed,” added rhythm guitarist Jill Haley, who was sporting a spiked dog collar and calf-high motorcycle boots despite the studio’s stifling heat. “All these people know how to do is buy, buy, buy. Money talks in this town. If you don’t make $75,000, they don’t want you.”

True to their name, The Zodiac Killers said they had no intention of going quietly. “We’re not gonna leave. We’re gonna go on a homicidal spree with the owner,” Lowery said, feigning a maniacal smile, as his bandmates tittered gleefully. 

After receiving the eviction notice, Lowery said he had spray-painted a threatening note in the hallway outside The Killers’ studio: “Remember Waco. I’m a live-in and I own a shotgun.” The next day, the owner had the graffiti painted over.