At the very end of Thee Oh Sees’ “You Can Have It,” a crusty diatribe against changing neighborhoods, frontman Jeff Dwyer makes things personal: “Fuck you, Google. Fuck you, Twitter.”
The bitter sentiment isn’t far from the heart of “San Francisco Is Doomed,” a recently released compilation Thee Oh Sees’ lament. Curated by Hannah Lew — a musician, record label manager, and San Francisco resident dismayed and disgruntled by the increasingly exorbitant cost of living in her city — the 13-song set provides an outlet for local artists (many of whom have already been forced to move due to rising rents) to comment on their predicament.
“I was feeling like, ‘Well, there’s gotta be something positive I can do instead of thinking about what’s happening to me,'” Lew told Billboard over the phone. “The compilation is in no way this claim about how I deserve to be here and you don’t; it’s a snapshot of a bit of a feeling right now. It gave a lot of people an outlet to say it like it is about what’s going on.”
What’s going on, Lew explains and others have noticed, is a sort of class war between the haves and the have-nots — or the people who work for Bay Area behemoths like Facebook, Google, Twitter, Pandora, and Zynga, to name a few, and those don’t bring in those plush salaries (by way of example, according to the San Francisco Business Times, mobile app developers make a yearly salary between $135,500 and $195,120). “The public strongly supports the idea that the city government ought to enact policies to preserve affordability,” write the authors of the University of San Francisco’s “Affordability and Tech” poll in December of last year. “Most respondents see the tech boom as most strongly helping tech executives and workers.”
For their part, the tech companies have tried to help their “constituents.” After receiving a city tax incentive to move to the city’s Mid-Market district, companies including Twitter, Spotify, and Yammer launched an initiative to “clean up” the immediate area, which had seen an increase in its homeless and vagrant population. For Lew, however, the move is less laudable than it is condemnable.
“There’s this overwhelming demand to cater to the needs of the tech companies,” she says. “I’m not one to be nostalgic for some heyday, when the city was crawling with seedy heroin addicts. It wasn’t anything we needed to maintain, but when I picture the city moving forward, I don’t see it moving forward for the needs of the culture that’s here.”
While revitalizations like building new, amenity-laden apartments to replace the area’s strip clubs and dollar stores make the city more “wholesome,” they also drive up rents. Many residents that were here before 2012, when a lot of tech companies moved into “ground zero,” as Lew puts it,” are being forced to relocate. Some of the bands on “San Francisco Is Doomed” (and members of her old band, Grass Widow) left before the compilation was released, and even Lew will need to move if her apartment stops being rent-controlled.
“I live 15 blocks away from my mom, and she’s not getting any younger,” she says. “I’d love to be around her, but I don’t know if there’s going to be an option. It’s kind of inevitable at this point, unless this bubble bursts.” For now, even though she “doesn’t make that much money,” Lew is getting by — or at least she’s “trying to survive” by running a record label, Crime on the Moon, which she began to release music from her post-punk project, Cold Beat, which releases its debut LP, Over Me, on July 8 (Crime on the Moon also put out “San Francisco Is Doomed”).
And for the record, Lew doesn’t believe Twitter and Facebook to be “inherently evil.” In fact, she’s also opened herself up to ventures she would have been opposed to 10 years ago, like licensing opportunities and putting her music up on Spotify. Though she still detests advertising (“People get excited about technological advances, but if you’re holding an iPhone, you’re holding a little advertisement”), Lew recognizes that ad syncs and brand partnerships are two of the increasingly few ways musicians can make useful amounts of money in our era of dwindling record sales.
She validates such decisions — and her role in the same capitalist system that’s making her situation more difficult — by building a charitable component into Crime on the Moon’s business plan. “I want to give form to what the label is, and actually have it mean something,” she says. “I was thinking about my goal in the Bay Area and what matters to me.” San Francisco’s foodie culture, for example, has inspired her to donate to organizations to bring clean water and food to people that need it.
“If anyone should have that [licensing] money, it’s people like me,” she says, “who might donate half of that towards charity: water, or people that might actually use that money in a critical way and not just buying $20 burgers somewhere.”
Listen to the “San Francisco Is Doomed” compilation in full below. The free listen ends on July 7, so head here to purchase the record (it’s going toward a good cause).