Tiny Telephone SF to Close, Foreshadowing an Arts Hub's Uncertain Future

John Vanderslice at Tiny Telephone in Oakland.  (Nicole Gluckstern)

Though its calendar is booked year-round, Tiny Telephone's San Francisco recording studio isn't financially solvent, owner John Vanderslice tells KQED.

That's why, come July 1, Vanderslice will close the studio in the location he's held in the Mission District since 1997.

"We pay over a thousand dollars a month in electricity—so much about being in San Francisco is impossibly expensive," says Vanderslice, adding that he's been diverting his clients to the Tiny Telephone location in Oakland, which he opened in 2016.

For over 20 years, Tiny Telephone has been a bastion for indie rock in the Bay Area and beyond. Clients have included notable locals Tune-Yards, Shannon and the Clams and Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, and big names like Sleater-Kinney, Spoon, Death Cab for Cutie and the Mountain Goats.

Known for its analog recordings on tape, Tiny Telephone offers access to rare, vintage equipment, top-notch audio engineers and even a string ensemble, the Magik*Magik Orchestra. Yet, out of commitment to San Francisco's financially squeezed independent musicians, Vanderslice has intentionally kept his rates relatively affordable ($300-$400 a day, excluding the price of an engineer), and hasn't raised the price of his original A room since 2004.

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"We've served a vulnerable arts community, so that community is very sensitive to us raising our prices," he says. "We've probably been under market—especially compared to studios in L.A.—but I also don't feel there's that much room to raise our prices, so we're in this strange predicament. ... I think if we were in any other city, we would have been able to survive."

Mounting costs have caught up to Vanderslice, despite the fact that his landlords, Marilyn and Chris Goode, have actually lowered his rent in recent years. "We've tried to make sure engineers got paid enough money to live and to thrive here, so the pressures are from everywhere," Vanderslice says. "Our techs are phenomenal, but they live in San Francisco. There are techs that are $100 an hour."

"I think our landlord has shielded us, but you can only shield someone so far," he adds.

Tiny Telephone's San Francisco location is part of a four-building compound known as the Farm, which has a colorful history as a hub for radical ideas, urban gardening and DIY culture in San Francisco since the 1970s, when it was founded by conceptual artists Bonnie Ora Sherk and Jack Wickert. Comprised of converted industrial warehouses, the property borders Potrero and San Bruno Avenues, and is nestled between between Potrero del Sol park and Highway 101. In its first iteration, the Farm hosted gardening classes for school kids and served as a rehearsal space for performing arts groups such as the San Francisco Mime Troupe.

In the '80s, punk bands like the Descendents and Bad Brains performed at the Farm. The original tenants were evicted in 1987. In its current incarnation, it includes three commercial buildings and one residential one (plus another adjoining residential building that isn't owned by the Goode family). In addition to Tiny Telephone, the compound is home to punk label Subterranean Records, three art studios, a florist, a bike bag maker, a biotech company and other small businesses.

Tiny Telephone's departure foreshadows what could be another end of an era at the mixed-use creative space. The fate of the Farm has hung in limbo for years as the owners have announced, and then called off, major changes at the property. Currently, they're awaiting the Planning Department's approval on a six-story (plus basement) apartment building that will require the demolition of the three commercial-use buildings in the compound.

"We've always known that the property is not sustainable the way it is and that sometime it's gonna change," Chris Goode tells KQED.

"This property has had a lot of interesting uses—whether it's artists, quirky businesses or people living there—because the rents are super cheap, not by national standards, but by San Francisco standards," Goode adds. "They're cheap not because we're wonderful landlords—though we generally have a good relationship—but it's a funky, weird piece of property up against the freeway."

Construction won't start for another five or so years, Goode anticipates, but some of the commercial tenants are already uneasy about what comes next.

Sculptor Mik Gaspay, who rents an art studio in one of the buildings, says that he received a verbal notice about the slated development two years ago and a written notice late last summer. "To kind of give it a concrete image of the rendering, and seeing surveyors and architects come by, definitely raises anxiety and the uncertainty of my future here in the city as an artist," says Gaspay, adding that he and the other artists in the building are on month-to-month leases. "I don’t think I could find a similar place for the same price, and the vibe and proximity to my apartment."

For Vanderslice's part, he says he knew development would one day come to the Farm since he signed his lease in the '90s, and that San Francisco's financial pressures are the primary driver behind his decision to shutter the original Tiny Telephone location. He recently relocated to Los Angeles, where he opened a new recording studio with two Tiny Telephone engineers called Grandma's Couch, but he comes to the Bay Area regularly to tend to his businesses and property in Sonoma County.

Despite the upcoming San Francisco closure, he says business at Tiny Telephone isn't slowing down. In fact, he anticipates his Oakland studio will be in even greater demand.

"We've been so busy—we were booked on Christmas for all three rooms this year," he says, praising the resilience of the Bay Area's creative community. "There are still tons and tons of people making art."