When someone thinks of San Luis Obispo, the music scene may not be the first thing that comes to mind in the busy, tourist-filled college town, home to a bevy of restaurants and hiking trails.
However, the San Luis Obispo music scene has cultivated its roots deep within the city and beyond since the late 1970s, according to New Times music and art writer Glen Starkey. It has created a strong subculture of bands and artists that play music from various genres and has seen its own city turn into a solid place to perform.
But this scene’s rapid and robust growth since the 1970s is not without its own struggles. With such rapid growth and bigger events to compete for the hosting rights, the local scene has seen a decline in Cal Poly students’ influence and attendance in a majority of shows.
The small scene has grown into multiple venues within the city, such as the Siren, Fremont Theatre and SLO Brew Rock. Outside the city, there are bigger options, including the Vina Robles Amphitheatre and the Avila Beach Amphitheatre, where festivals and summer concert events are often held.
“Yes, the scene is growing, but it’s trending to bigger touring acts,” Starkey said. “I miss the down and dirty local scene with bands battling it out at the clubs. These days, for a lot of bands, house parties are all they get.
“They’ve all filled gaps in the scene and brought in great music, and Otter Productions, Numbskull, Good Medicine Presents and the guys at the Fremont have brought bigger and bigger acts, the sort of bands I used to drive to Santa Barbara, [Los Angeles] or the Bay Area to see,” Starkey said.
SLO Brew Rock Entertainment Director Ryan Orr, who has been with the venue for six years, said he has witnessed the local scene grow in ways he found unimaginable when he first came to the area.
“It has exploded,” Orr said. “Having concerts like the Avila Beach shows during the summer makes for a unique experience you really can’t find anywhere else.”
Avila Beach is not the only new venue that offers a unique experience, according to Starkey. The Live Oak Music Fest and Blues Fest have brought a lot of local performers back to the area, and they both continue to grow each year.
This is a sentiment shared among the local scene, especially when it comes to getting Cal Poly students to engage with the scene more. In the last six years, it has been part of Orr’s mission as a talent director to land local acts at the new venues and find a way to get the news out to Cal Poly students in the local community.
“The scene’s expansion is tough because the market is trying to get as much high-quality music as they can, and that’s what makes it challenging as a promoter for these events,” Orr said.
The unique local creative sources exclusive to college towns has become an afterthought with the rise of the community and has led to several venues in the city working together to innovate and bring back the local groups that the scene is built on.
Venues like SLO Brew Rock suffer from being almost 30 to 40 minutes from Cal Poly’s campus — an Uber ride there and back costing well over $30 at times — and that does not even account for tickets and drinks at the concert itself.
“We want to shift with doing daytime events, and working with local rideshare groups to help students get these shows so that they can experience a scene that in all honesty is being catered towards them,” Orr said.
This is its own challenge, according to Starkey. He said he feels like the growth of the scene and availability of local music is set back by San Luis Obispo’s government and police being anti-alcohol and anti-music, as well as the Cal Poly campus offering few options in general to students, both on-campus and off.
“Cal Poly seems content to host ‘grown-up’ shows in the [Performing Arts Center],” Starkey said. “Cal Poly students seem to have few options these days.”
This return can be seen in the Cal Poly student-organized music festival Shabang, which has been extremely successful with its attendance numbers growing every year as much as the additional acts performing there.
Even within the last year, SLO Brew Rock has partnered with various student groups to host dances and homecoming events, as well as a new type of silent disco festival that will bring together multiple groups of different students from across the community.
How local bands struggle through the scene
However, the musicians still struggle to support the audience it’s so reliant on. For local band SPY, a group made up of psychology junior Ethan Weiss, mathematics junior Laila Zaidi, marine sciences junior Kyle Meeder, and electrical engineering junior Jack Bylund, they said they see that the bigger issue lies in bringing in touring acts to help expand the scene.
The group, whose fast-paced Nirvana and Misfits-inspired post-punk music calls the San Luis Obispo hardcore scene home, said they feel like there has not been much of an attempt by longtime stalwarts in the scene to help it grow as much as the creative hotbeds in town.
“Bands like [Pancho and the Wizards] and [Autopipe] are definitely bigger bands out here in (San Luis Obispo) because the indie scene just has more of a popular pull to it, that’s what people out here really like,” bassist and lead vocalist Weiss said. “But the more hardcore scene we are part of doesn’t really get the same type of recognition from the bigger venues.”
For most bands like SPY, the struggle continues to be booking larger venues or paying to play there. This forces many student bands to play house shows exclusively which, while it strengthens the inner community and creates a network of local musicians, leads to an even bigger problem.
“The [San Luis Obispo] area is just kinda hostile to any kind of band that makes any form of noise and like they will fine you for pretty much anything they consider too loud,” supporting vocalist and rhythm guitarist Zaidi said.
Both Meeder and Zaidi recalled a time where the house show they were playing at had the police called on them and how it’s commonly accepted that the city wants little to do with these bands which keep the scene thriving.
“There is a lot of talent in this county for such a small area, these small bands need venues to grow, and start to blow up,” Orr said. “Do we stick to the same shit that we have done over and over with these big bands or do we do something that will blow their minds?”