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From San Francisco to the world: A live set at the betalounge

The Internet bytes the future of electronic music

By Amanda Nowinski

Before the age of the Internet, when electronic music was simply referred to as "house" and email was dismissed as "complex," the underground music scene in San Francisco encompassed four primary entities: the DJ, the promoter, the e dealer and the club kid with the Fresh Jive jeans and the facial glitter. But by '91, when the free-lovin' rave spirit was peaking harder than a blissed-out narc, a new community was born.

Like-minded music lovers and all-night hedonists were brought together through the legendary Toon Town, Wicked, Gathering, Mr. Floppy's Flop House and Housing Project parties. Within months, BPM and Tweekin' Records opened their doors to an unprecedented generation of "turntablists," and new clothing stores, such as Behind the Post Office, Bulletproof and HouseWares, provided the freshly sprung clubbers with places to find the right threads, grab the best fliers and meet with other folk who would rather spend their last 40 bucks on a 24-hour night than on a minimum payment on their phone bill.

Soon record labels such as Om, Hardkiss and Domestic were born, thus proving that cutting-edge music was no longer confined to producers in Chicago, Miami and New York. By '93, the West Coast sound was officially established, and magazines like Urb and XLR8R were there to document its progress. Six years later, the San Franciscan devotion to electronic music flourishes at an alarming rate. Almost everyone, it seems, owns a set of turntables, at least two albums by Massive Attack and numerous unlabeled mixtapes recorded by their favorite local DJs. Apparent to all, the dizzying beeps, boops and stomach-wrenching thumps of the underground sound are here to stay.

It was therefore inevitable that savvy webmasters would ultimately bind it all together. The final frontier in a music industry whose partnership with technology is not only logical, but symbiotic, the Internet allows bedroom producers, independent labels and clubbers with responsible jobs to connect on a very nonvirtual level. So while all you ravers were scarfing down drugs and blowing your brains out on annoying little whistles years ago, a few hip geeks were secretly memorizing computer manuals and skipping the morning-after parties for midafternoon HTML classes.


Every Thursday night in a Potrero Hill studio, the betalounge posse provides its friends with a case of beer and four hours of live, uninterrupted DJ talent. But in case you weren't invited to the private locale, you could simply log onto the net at 7pm and access the program from the solitude of your cubicle. A worthy alternative to spending $10 on a crowded house club, here you will catch some of the world's finest DJs and producers. Past shows have featured Goldie, Roni Size, Kevin Saundersen and the Angel, as well as local stars--the Baroness, Polywog, Flux, Mark Farina, Toph and J-Boogie, to name a few. The bookings change weekly, but you can easily download any past set from the archives.

Approaching its third year of webcasting, the betalounge program reaches more than 150,000 listeners each month. "When we first started doing this, we saw it as an opportunity to have a microphone to the world," explains Brian Benitez, who co-founded the site with Ian Raikow, Zane Vella, Jonathan Gollub, David Goldberg and Ron Nachmann. "With the Internet, we realized that we could create our own radio show and that we didn't need the traditional media to do it."

"The one thing that guides us is that we're all deeply involved in music that you don't hear on the radio or on MTV," says Raikow, who arranges most of the bookings. "The original concept was to bring together our friends in our studio on a regular basis and then to get this music out to a larger audience." In addition, the betalounge provides a worldwide forum where lesser known producers can distribute original tracks. "A lot of the DJs that come through here are producers in their own right," Raikow explains. "They go home [and] make music in their bedrooms but don't have the outlet to get their stuff out--here they can release their music instantly, and with the MP3 format, the listener can download any one of their tracks."


Bored with designing software for NASA and Wells Fargo Bank, Paul Risenhoover met up with DJ Stephen McGarrigle in '95 and launched X-Radio, a "jukebox" site where hard-to-find electronica could be downloaded free of cost. Like the betalounge crew, Risenhoover and McGarrigle aimed to help unsigned producers promote their work globally. Months later, the site evolved into one of the web's most extensive electronic music catalogs.

"There's still a huge gap between the people who are making electronic music and the people who want to buy it," Risenhoover says. "But with our Internet 'jukebox,' visitors can listen to tracks and then decide what to buy. And because electronic music doesn't get American radio play, this really helps record labels sell their titles."

In addition to promoting international labels, X-Radio remains true to its grassroots beginnings and is the designated retail site for many local record companies, including Om records, Hardkiss, Sunburn and Green Label. "We tend to focus on collaboration," Risenhoover continues. "Not just with record labels but with other sites and magazines--XLR8R, betalounge, the Skinny. San Francisco is a small town, and we're definitely part of a tightly knit community."

Earlier this month, Risenhoover and McGarrigle launched a new site: riddim.com, a reggae retail site with the "largest [rasta] catalog in the world." Based on the same principles as X-Radio, riddim.com is an essential resource for reggae vinyl, videos and books.

The Skinny

Providing a tie-in to the music, fashion and visual art of the local underground are two slender men, Scott Wamsley and Scott Ketchum, and their newly fattened skinny.com (billed as "The Definitive Source for Electric Living"). "We give people the basic information they need, and we let them decide if they like it or not," says Wamsley, who worked as a web designer before launching the site in the spring of '98.

In addition to brief interviews with local producers, such as the Baroness and Mark Pistel, the site profiles San Francisco clothing designers, boutiques, record labels and record shops and offers extensive photographic coverage of clubs and one-off music events. By clicking into the photo archives, you can access glamorous snapshots of people you may have bumped into (and severely annoyed) at places like the Top, Backflip or 111 Minna.

SF Station

With what is undoubtedly the most cohesive guide to any type of cultural excursion in San Francisco, the guys at SF Station are giving the corporate kids at Sidewalk.com a run for their money. (Who believes that wimpy Bill Gates is a reliable resource for cool things to do, anyway?) Updated daily, the site provides extensive club, music, fashion, gallery, film and arts events listings to its 80,000 dedicated monthly visitors.

Launched in '96 by Michael Richards, Kyu Kyung, Vince Archuleta and Harlow Newton, SF Station is dedicated to promoting the small businesses that "give San Francisco its distinct flavor." Because SF Station has the most current club and electronic-music listings, it's no wonder that most of San Francisco's music sites provide direct links to the site. "We've established a relationship with smaller local online businesses, like Fabric8, betalounge and the Skinny," Newton explains. "We all target the same market and share a similar respect for the city. It's only natural that we all want to see each other succeed."

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From the February 1, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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