From its very beginnings, Isla Vista has been filled with music. Music of all types, sounds, and character has echoed through our beachy enclave for as long as the waves have pounded away at the cliffs of Del Playa. But like its eroding soil, the musical spaces of IV have morphed and changed with the flow of time. The story of how and why these spaces are created and destroyed help to tell the story of IV. From front lawn concerts to Extravaganza, the evolution of musical spaces in IV illustrates a continuing battle between our unbounded love of free living, and the pitfalls of our public image.
Our Musical Roots
Joe Palladino remembers well his earliest memories of music in IV. Now an advisor in the Film and Media Studies department at UCSB, Joe has watched the music culture grow and develop since his time here as a student.
Beginning in the late 70s, Joe attended shows all over IV and the UCSB campus when live musicians dominated the scene: “I think it was a very mixed thing,” he recalls, “it’s a very free form thing where UCSB is trying to figure out what it is, and the students are trying to figure out what it is, so there’s a lot of shows and a lot of bands that are all over the place.”
At the time, the streets of IV were a hotbed of musical activity. Organic student bands were popping up every other day, forming and breaking up and then reforming in a primordial stew of musical energy. Bands rocked out in garages and on lawns; wherever they could get an audience.
Even some more well-known groups like Van Halen and the Red Hot Chili Peppers could be seen playing house parties and at fraternities on weekends, drawn from LA and other big cities to the irresistible pull of the warm weather and laid-back vibes. Back then, there were few laws dictating how these impromptu events could be carried out, and it was not rare to see loud live music being played out of houses until the early hours of the morning.
Additionally, students and professional musicians alike continued to develop the sounds of IV in a number of small concert halls and music-friendly bars scattered amongst the restaurants and businesses of the town. Joe speaks nostalgically of venues like the coffee shop Brosodi’s (now Caje), where groups like Sonic Youth played. The Graduate, a once famous record store and concert space used to entertain Isla Vistans in the space where the Bank of America was burned, and Embarcadero Hall is today: “I saw Warren Z Von there! They used to book a lot of bands there.”
These independently owned businesses provided students and residents with a plethora of spaces in which to perform and be entertained throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s. And when their walls couldn’t contain the sheer number of eager fans, bands and groups took to the outdoor parks like Anisq’Oyo’ Park: “There was always constant music. There wasn’t an organized thing, people would just show up and start jamming.”
The Wild Wild West
While the streets of IV continued to foster musical spaces, administrators at UCSB were growing more uncomfortable with the school’s growing reputation as a party school. Drugs and alcohol were strongly intertwined with the culture and the music that fueled it. Since the hippy movement in the 60s, drug use in Isla Vista was rampant and widespread, evolving through the decades with shifts in demographic and cultural trends.
For UCSB officials, the stakes were high as they desperately searched for ways to limit the growing reputation of IV as nothing more than a debaucherous paradise and a hub for violence.
UCSB Associated Students began curating shows around this time, and with the University’s money brought big names such as Boston, Bruce Springsteen, and the Police to play in the auditoriums and plazas throughout campus. For these events, students were searched for drugs and alcohol upon entering the venues. The hope was that by moving the musical spaces available to students from the streets to the school, potentially dangerous activities could be better monitored and even prevented.
But despite the best efforts of the school, IV continued to build on its reputation as a wild party community. A growing population in a city known for a good time led to large networks of students and young people of all sorts partying hard throughout the streets and venues. All the while, house parties, off-campus shows, and uncontrolled student gatherings began growing larger and more tense.
“The biggest part that changed it all was the switch from pharmaceuticals to alcohol, “Joe reflects, describing how the shift towards beer and liquor affected the spaces where music was played: “the scene gets a little harrier, and it’s a little more violent.” By the early 1990s, the once quaint annual traditions of Halloween and Deltopia (formerly Floatopia) had ballooned into massive, gatherings where out of towners would come for outrageous weekends of drinking and partying. Concerts played from houses into the street were liable to draw massive crowds of drunken kids that only perpetuated the discord.
Lieutenant Mark Signa of the UC Police Department and IV Foot Patrol watched this transition happen over his 25 years on the force.
“Over the years, Halloween started out as a small local event and blew up to a huge event in the 1990s with 50,000 to 60,000 people were showing up. Well when that happens, there are near riots, horrible conditions, fights, trash, vandalism, all these things were going on.“ By the time a massive riot broke out during 2014 Deltopia festivities, authorities recognized that something more needed to be done in order to protect students and the school’s reputation.
A Need For Safety
Police in IV began aggressively enforcing the 40-2 noise ordinance, which was put in place to outlaw loud music coming from houses past midnight. Additionally, a new Outdoor Festival Ordinance dictated that any musical performances held outside would require a permit, subjecting groups who used to be able to freely meet up and jam to a lengthy and restrictive licensing process. “We were trying to come up with a way to bring it in and make more local events and well, just keep the peace,” Lieutenant Signa explained, “what could we do to make smaller parties?” Both of these actions severely limited the spaces and times where musicians could perform.
As a consequence, many of the venues that once housed IV music culture could no longer operate in the same ways they had before. House parties began getting hefty fines for breaking the new ordinances, and bands were deterred from late-night concerts that were previously common. Once a hub of musical identity for the town, The Graduate was bought by the university to turn into the Embarcadero Hall classroom, leaving no large spaces for performances. As these musical spaces available to students began to disappear, the music scene’s prominence in IV diminished: an unintended result of trying to make Isla Vista safer.
But while these new laws, regulations, and practices significantly hindered the IV music scene, many have and continue to argue that they provide a necessary good to the community. For Lieutenant Signa, these restrictive policies represented the least intrusive way to address the safety concerns of the community: “People don’t like it because its infringing on their right to play music and have parties but it actually did help make Isla Vista safer. What was great about these laws were that people could still have parties and friends over, it didn’t stop that. People think it does but it doesn’t.” These laws were not made to silence the IV community entirely, but instead to prevent the reckless party culture to extend any further in a way that would still allow for the music and culture to thrive.
Where We Are Now
Today, members of the music community push in novel directions to develop new musical spaces for Isla Vista that can exist within the safety regulations established by the school and law enforcement. With help from a University committed to preserving an important aspect of student life, creative local musicians, and passionate students, the musical spaces in IV have already begun to successfully work around restrictions.
For example, Isla Vista First Fridays, established in 2014 is spearheaded by Art Professor Kim Yasuda and supported by a number of IV businesses and student organizations. This monthly event was created as an alternative for house-parties or other unsupervised activities that might be destructive. Featuring many local bands, this event series offers a new musical space for musicians to feature their talents and eager students to become new fans. Additional musical spaces that have opened up in Isla Vista recently include the Keggs Jazz Nights, Chilltopia, IV Earth Day, and Concert for the Coast.
Additionally, UCSB has continued to host concerts framed as alternative events to the friday night party scene. These have been particularly effective on Halloween, where huge crowds have been drawn away from the Isla Vista streets to see artists such as Snoop Dogg. The success of these events suggests that there may be a healthy role for the University in maintaining a balance between our love of music, and the safety and reputation of our campus.
In a community that has produced artists like Jack Johnson, Rebelution and Steve Aoki, residents and administrators alike have always appreciated the incredible richness of the musical spaces IV has to offer, and it seems they are more than willing to actively build them.
For current musicians in IV, adapting to these regulations has been challenging but by no means insurmountable. Matthew Tweed, lead guitar of the local band the Olés, notes that his band can still have a great show while following the rules: “We understand that IV has a lot of variables and can get hectic at times. We are always respectful when communicating with [law enforcement] and they always respond well to that. At the end of the night, the unparalleled energy of Isla Vista makes it all worth it.”
The Ole’s have performed all over Isla Vista, playing house parties and also several of the newer Isla Vista festivals like Chillavista, IV Earth Day and Concert for the Coast. For Matthew, Isla Vista’s music culture is ingrained in the town. “The mentality of working hard towards the future and celebrating life is an undeniable formula which fosters a fertile soil for music to grow and be shared.”
For his own part, Joe agrees with this statement. In his eyes, the current changes in musical spaces is nothing new: in fact the community’s music scene has always been adapting to the needs and constraints of its population. From rock to disco to punk and now EDM, Joe has seen the music of IV drastically alter itself, but never die. From his office Joe can watch students scurrying across campus, headphones dangling from their ears as they listen to the days’ popular music. Beyond them lies the Pacific, whose waves continue to roll onto the beaches of Isla Vista. “There’s always been a grassroots level of music here” Joe chuckles, “and that’s not going away.”