Aaron Axelsen of Popscene

As a cultural event, once you’ve been around for over twenty years, there are basically two ways you’ve gotten this far. You can be an institution, like the TV series Law & Order (and all its various spin-offs), and continue to endure by delivering exactly what people expect. Or you can be a legend, constantly existing on the cutting edge by reinventing, revolutionizing, and sometimes just putting in the hard work, even 0ver 20 years later.

Popscene falls into the latter category. Music and nightlife have changed dramatically during the time Popscene has existed, but despite many challenges, Popscene has reigned above and continued to be the best party in the Bay Area.

Many people have tried and failed to emulate their success. Many are still striving to try. So what’s the secret to Popscene? How do you recreate the magic they’ve captured? Here it is:

You can’t.

The 2016 lineup
The 2016 lineup

Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t create something that’s your own. Just look at Aaron Axelsen, one of the cofounders of Popscene. He didn’t start out trying to recreate someone else’s vision. He created something new to fill what he saw as a gap in the industry and something that he was personally passionate about.

Along the way, Popscene has constructed parties filled with some amazing artists as headliners. Oftentimes, they manage to find people before they really break out, so you look back on their lineups with amazement and think, “Wow, I saw them at Popscene before they were huge.”

We talked with Axelsen about Popscene, his other projects, the drive that doesn’t just keep him going, but keeps him on top, after all these years, and his advice for people who are looking to do something for themselves in the Bay Area nightlife scene.

How did Popscene get started?

Popscene was the brainchild of four obsessive music fans—myself, Omar Perez, Jeremy Goldstein, and Eric Shea—who met at an independent record store I worked at in the mid ’90s in Berkeley. We all had a penchant for UK indie bands at the time, like Blur, My Bloody Valentine, Pulp, Supergrass, Radiohead, etc.

We craved a tangible outlet to share our passion for Britpop with a strong San Francisco music community of fellow indie fans, and hence, our club night was born in September of 1996. Popscene started out as a monthly event before becoming a weekly party a few months later due to popular demand.

During our early days we were purely a dance party. One of the first bands we ever booked was The Dandy Warhols, and thus, the successful formula and Popscene blueprint of “DJ dance party + featuring a new artist” was born. Now, 21 years later we’re still adhering to this design!

Popscene occupies some rarefied air as one of the best parties in the Bay Area. How do you maintain that year after year?

The 2015 lineup
The 2015 lineup

Our insatiable appetite for discovering new talent and providing a platform to expose amazing new artists to the Bay Area is really the fuel that drives the Popscene engine—pure and simple. It’s imperative for the longevity for any club night to remain relevant to an active 18-34 core of hardcore music fans and incredibly, we’ve been successful at keeping this important demographic engaged for over two decades now. Respect your history but reinvent for the future. Trends and new musical movements have come and gone through this naturally cyclical process, but the Popscene template has always remained in place: New music discovery for a young and vibrant generation!

Whether that be debuting new artists at our party like Bloc Party in 2004; Calvin Harris in 2006; Mumford and Sons in 2010; Flume in 2013; Sam Smith in 2014; Glass Animals in 2015, or Maggie Rogers in 2017, the premise and foundation of Popscene remains fluid and consistent throughout our history. We’ve basically created a brand that is ubiquitous with discovering incredible new artists, all whilst wrapped in a fun party atmosphere.

Finally, we’re a malleable brand that embraces a bevy of different styles of music under the Popscene umbrella—indie rock, electronic, DJ culture, Britpop, R&B, post-punk, future bass, pop, synth, darkwave, etc. As long as we’re passionate and excited about a new artist and feel it fits aesthetically.

What do you think was your favorite Popscene party? What about the craziest?

Popscene artist highlights during the years 1997-2012
Popscene artist highlights during the years 1997-2012

I think the Popscene I’m most proud of would be hosting the SF debut, and sadly, only Bay Area appearance of the incomparable Amy Winehouse. She actually opened for the Klaxons that night, which was also their SF debut, and I remember standing by the boys off to the side of the stage while she was performing exclaiming, “We can’t believe Amy is opening up for US!”

You’re also quite well known for your radio shows. How did that come about?

I started out as an intern here at Live 105 San Francisco, about the same time Popscene launched, so they’ve both paralleled each other throughout my 20 year career in the music biz.

I love introducing the Bay Area to new music and new artists via the airwaves, not just the club scene. I’ve been very lucky and fortunate to have two big weekly outlets to do so: Subsonic, on Saturday nights, which debuted in 1997 and is a weekly electronic radio show that airs 10 PM to 1 AM, and Soundcheck, Sunday’s 9 PM to 12 AM, which is a weekly indie/new music show that also features local bands. That program debuted in 1999, so yeah, I’ve been doing these shows for a long ass time now and still love ’em with all my heart.

Which do you enjoy more?

It’s like having two children: they are both different, unique; with their own inmitable characteristics, and both vitally important to you. But you don’t necessarily love one over the other.

Do you think one helps more with your music discovery efforts more than the other?

The 2013 lineup
The 2013 lineup

They are both nice binary compliments to each other! I have such an unquenchable thirst for music that they both provide pivotal outlets for me to provide new music discovery platforms here in the Bay Area. Radio and the club scene have co-existed together for decades now.

Can you give us a peek at some new artists you’re excited about?

Too many to name! But seven new artists that I’m really excited about who are coming to Popscene soon, include Trinidad Cardona, Terror Jr, Jordan Rakei, Frenship, Cuco, Fakear, and Opia.

What are some advantages that the Bay Area music scene has over other places?

Historically, the Bay Area has also been a hotbed of innovation, cutting edge culture, progression, and is full of open-minded music fans that love discovering a bevy of new sounds and styles. Popscene has benefited from this by tapping into the soul of the city. We’ve created a symbiotic partnership with the Bay Area music heads and it’s allowed us to thrive now for 21 years.

What’s your advice to people who are looking to follow in your footsteps?

The 2014 lineup
The 2014 lineup

If your impetus and motivation to start throwing parties is for anything other than the pure and unadulterated love of music, stop now and do something else.

Find your niche, usually an extension of something that you are already extremely passionate about, and start a club night for FREE! Find a venue, bar, coffee shop, club, whatever, and create a music night. Invite your friends and start to develop a core base of fellow and like-minded music fans and go from there.

Start small, i.e. a monthly event. When Popscene launched we didn’t have all the modern social media amenities that afford promoters and DJs today. But remember, it’s much easier to click on an RSVP or a Facebook invite from the comforts of their bedroom than it is to get people to physically come out and attend your event.

Timing, hard work, luck, passion, filling a void in the club scene, striking a passionate nerve with a potential fan base, etc., all factor in to whether or not your particular event is gonna connect or not with an audience.


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