FRISKY Nightlife: Concept SF explores music with meaning in San Francisco

Lauren Krieger

TLDR: Concept SF provides an opportunity for DJs to share messages through their music.

There is so much more to electronic music than just the party, more than a complement to darkness and flashing lights, more than just a slamming beat to get people on the dance floor. It can be enjoyed in relaxation and reflection, the soundtrack to a day spent in the sun, or a close evening with friends. Concept SF explores this idea deeper with their unique San Francisco events:

“Concept inverts the dance music formula. At a typical dance music / DJ event, the DJ provides the music for a shared social interaction. At Concept, the social aspect is minimized. Talking and texting are kindly discouraged in favor of listening. Instead of standing, people are sitting, or even lying down. And rather than the DJ reaching out to meet the needs of the crowd, the crowd reaches out to meet the creative expression of the DJ. It’s the DJ experience, inside out.

More than just a change in atmosphere, Concept SF focuses on the stories to be told through the music: the messages to be shared and the meaning to be found in the builds and breakdowns, and in the quiet moments of reflection. They give the DJ the opportunity to take the individual stories of the tracks and connect them into a complete message, sharing them with those who want to listen, while connecting the artists and the audience in a unique and beautiful way. As Concept SF’s introduction states:

“Meaning composes the core of the musical experience. Great artists imbue their songs and performances with it, even if we can’t always describe what “it” is. But we know when it’s there, and when it’s not.

Most DJ sets today, though, operate from a different place. More sensation-driven, and visceral. Less emotional, or intellectual.

So we at Concept asked a simple question:

What if a DJ set was about something? What would that look like? More important, what would that sound like?”

Wanting to learn more about the background and future of this inspired idea, I caught up with Will Spencer, one of the co-founders of Concept SF:


What inspired the creation of Concept SF?
In 2013 I was considering starting my own residency in San Francisco. But I wanted to do a night where the DJ’s could deliver sets of meaning and value, because that’s what I expect of myself when I play out. So the question became, “How do I tell people that the sets at this event will be of value? How do I cue an audience to expect and hear meaning?” Tough questions.

Then, looking out the window one sunny morning while thinking about these things, it felt like a thought flew in, into my head. “What if a DJ set was actually about something?”

It was a moment of inspiration. The rest is what Alex, Dan and I; the DJs; and the audience have been creating since.

Concept01_MattieBowenYou call Concept SF an “experiment in musical communication”. Is there anything that you hope to discover or accomplish through this experiment?
The original experiment was to discover if an audience will get the idea of a DJ set being “about something.” Can that DJ effectively communicate this “something” to his or her audience? Will DJ’s be willing to take an experimental attitude towards themselves as musicians?

Nowadays, a “DJ” can download 10 tracks automatically from a list, import those songs into software, press play, and have all the work done for them. But one thing computers can’t do is detect meaning in music. A computer can tell you how a song sounds, but never what it means, or how it feels. That’s what humans are for. And a lazy DJ can’t just download ten songs tagged with the word “Energy” and create a Concept that will affect an audience. It takes much more than that.

Concept believes in DJ’ing as an art form. And for the outstanding DJ’s who have mastered all aspects of this musical art – or for those who are trying to – I feel like this is a new expressive horizon to explore. That’s the real heart of the experiment.

Do you think that being located in San Francisco plays a role in accomplishing your goals?
Absolutely, but it’s more about the people than the place. First we have a critical mass of talented DJs, producers, and promoters, who push each other to grow creatively and innovate. Second, we have an audience who is passionate about a broad range of music, and the DJ experience in general.

The third piece is the venue. Concept is so fortunate to have found a home at Mercer. Not only is it perfect for us, but when I explained Concept to the owner, he said, “That’s killer!” I don’t know how many cities in the U.S. have a club owner who would say something like that to an idea like ours, but this city is one. Amazing.

So all the people who make up San Francisco’s unique DJ culture are absolutely key to our success.


I love the thought box idea, how did that come about?
Imagine you’re in a club, at a festival, or in the desert and you’re dancing with people while listening to a DJ tell a story through music, and it’s amazing. You turn to the person next to you – a friend, lover, or stranger – and make eye contact, exchange smiles, a few words, maybe a hug or a kiss. You feel the shared experience, but what do you really know about how they’re experiencing that collective moment? How is the music affecting their inner world? And will the DJ ever know what was happening within these listeners during the story?

These questions seemed logical for us, in part because we wanted to know how people were reacting to the Concept experience. So we asked, how do we explore them? We landed on a surprisingly simple solution: give people blank paper and pencils, put a box in the back of the room, and invite people to express thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears, dreams, images, memories – whatever comes to mind during the performance. And they can do so anonymously. The results were fascinating, in terms of both people’s creativity and sincerity.

As DJ’s, we pay attention to how people physically and verbally express their experience of what we’re doing. But it’s almost impossible to know what’s really happening within each person emotionally and intellectually. Or even spiritually. That’s where the Thought Box comes in.

See all the thoughts here: Concept 01: Life and Death

How do you choose which DJs you would like to work with for your events?
I’ve used the phrase: “DJ’s who bleed on the decks,” which refers to DJs who are courageous and vulnerable with their music. Artists like Danny Tenaglia, Danny Howells, Robag Wruhme, Dixon, and Sasha all have this distinctively personal quality to their DJ’ing. Someone has to be technically able to do that, and creatively willing. That’s not easy. A DJ who can do both, is good for Concept.

This is why we really celebrate Mattie Bowen, our debut DJ. His set “Life and Death” was one of the most personal and emotional DJ sets I’ve ever heard. That set affected everyone, including him, I think. If readers want to get a good sense of what we’re about, listen to Mattie’s set. It’ll also reveal what a phenomenal DJ and producer he is. One of San Francisco’s very best, and that’s saying a lot.

Mattie discusses Concept 01 & the inspiration behind “Life and Death”:

Purchase Mattie Bowen’s original productions written for Concept 01

Tell us about your upcoming October 2nd show!
We’re thrilled to feature New York City’s Naveen G (listed productions) for Concept 02. I’m sure Frisky readers are familiar with Naveen – not only his resume playing with so many global greats, but also his productions and his impressive consistency.

Naveen’s concept is “Future Imperfect.” He’ll say more about it in October. But from a high level, these days we’re told to look towards the future as having the answers. All our epic problems will be fixed, supposedly. But what if the picture will be a bit more complex? What would that mean? Naveen’s told us some of the ways he’s going to be experimenting with his own DJ’ing to accomplish this, too, and that’s very exciting for us.

One of the things I like best about Concept is that this isn’t a tried-and-true formula. Each time, it’s a risk for all involved; for us, for the audience, for the venue, for the DJs.

It’s a great feeling, being on the edge together.


What else should we know about Concept SF and the future of your events?
Another idea we’re experimenting with is subjectivity in music. What a song means to you, is not the same as what it means to me. This is true for all art. But if I take that song, and put it into a Concept, suddenly by context I am telling you what I think that song is about.

A great real-world example is the song “Time Becomes” by Orbital. Mattie put it into his “Life and Death” concept. The vocal sample is from the TV show “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” A character is describing a rip in space-time. But Mattie used it to describe the experience of the afterlife, past existence. Genius. I never would have thought of it that way, but now that’s how I’ll hear the song forever.

In doing so Mattie, the DJ, forced me, the audience, to hear a piece of music a certain way, the way he hears it. The subjectivity is removed. I stepped into his emotional shoes for a moment.

Now imagine a room full of people experiencing the same thing. And that’s the opportunity we’re creating for Concept DJ’s and guests.

Thank you to Will & the rest of the crew for sharing your vision! Follow them on Facebook to learn more about their upcoming show with Naveen G on October 2nd.

Interested in learning more or developing your own Concept event? Contact Will [at] Concept-SF [dot] com for more info!