We speak to a Bay Area trade group who hope their sponsorship business model will benefit artists, studios — and themselves — alike.
The Bay Area Music Collective (BAMC) had been around a little over a year, at least on paper, before its official launch, which coincided with the recent AES Show in San Francisco in late October. We've looked at other hyper-local pro-audio collectives in this space over the last year or so, including highly organised ones in Chicago and Philadelphia, and less formal communities in Nashville and Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Like those, the BAMC initiative seeks to create connections between commercial recording studios, in this case in San Francisco and neighbouring Oakland (a once-dodgy city that's turning into a kind of Bay Area version of Brooklyn, with its own high-rent refugees and entrepreneurial pioneers).
Two things, however, set BAMC apart. First, it's after a bigger tent than its distant cousins. Rather than focus solely on recording studios, Michael Starita, the engineer/producer and one-time studio owner who is the force behind BAMC, is appealing to local film companies, concert promoters, and some peripheral service providers including a local travel agency. These are in addition to recording studios, such as veteran facilities Hyde Street Studios and Different Fur, and the newest high-end facility in the area, 25th Street Recording, which former Cowboy Mouth frontman Dave Lichtenstein opened in a old auto repair shop in the quickly gentrifying Oakland area.
But what also distinguishes the BAMC is that it is built on a sponsorship basis, rather than the more typical membership model, and it's intended to make a profit at some point. Sponsors pay on a sliding scale that Starita says is still evolving, but which ranges from $200 to $5000, depending upon the level of involvement. For this, sponsors' brands are included on the videos that are at the core of BAMC's methodology. Studios invest time and expertise, offering artists of some note (so far, they include indie favourites like Trevor Hall, Joshua James and guitar prodigy Tyler Bryant) access to their local facilities and engineers. Videos of these sessions are then distributed through YouTube and other channels, with live shows also planned involving these same artists.
Here's where it gets theoretical: the sponsors putatively derive value from the exposure that the videos bring; the sponsorship dollars go towards reimbursing the studios and videographers for their work creating the videos in the first place; with the added benefit of both individually and collectively promoting the studios, as well as the city as a music destination. That hopefully self-liquidating arrangement sets the stage for BAMC to derive its own revenues from a series of services it is offering to musicians, such as studio booking, copyright registration, publishing, online presence and royalty registration.
A lot of switches have to open and close just right for all parties to receive the hoped-for benefits. These kinds of speculative investments in time and energy have been darkly attractive to studio owners looking at their empty booking hours for as long as independent studios have existed. On the other hand, it's just as speculative for Starita, who is predicating his economic fortunes on supplying the kinds of services that music artists are already bombarded with online, in many cases for free.
But perhaps that's just San Francisco for you. Starita himself seems grounded; in the past he's worked for Dolby and distance-recording pioneer EDNET at various times, and remains on the board of the San Francisco chapter of the Recording Academy. But he's also fond of invoking San Francisco's vivid if dated legacy as a music-recording destination, which started with 1967's Summer Of Love. Then, the city was indeed a major player in that department, from the acid-rock of the Jefferson Airplane and Blue Cheer to the power-rock of Journey and Night Ranger 20 years later. Even though many of the '60s artists like the Airplane and the Grateful Dead made their first recordings in LA and elsewhere, it was their success that attracted studio entrepreneurs like Wally Heider and Chris Stone to open facilities like Pacific High and The Plant in San Francisco.
As much as anything, Starita seems to be trying to build a bridge between the commercial studio community and the larger universe of services that music artists need to avail themselves of in the post-major-label era. If it puts people into studios they might not otherwise have engaged with, it produces a tangible benefit. "The studios here are ready to do this,” he says. "They don't want to be just riding on Credence [Clearwater Revival] memories for 40 more years.”
The Bay Area does still have some pro-audio industry gravitas — it hosts the AES Show every other year (outside of its occasional forays to LA), and it's in close proximity to Silicon Valley. With tech titans like Google and Apple discovering that music is one of their more competitive battlefields (Seagate CEO Steve Luczo built a three-room facility in the city three years ago), this gives the Bay Area a unique status in a music industry whose future will largely be determined by Internet-based entities. It's decidedly not a one-size-fits-all business anymore, and that's why it's worth watching BAMC's hybrid capitalist/collectivist experiment.
After all, variations on the norm is the way that evolution is supposed to work. And if there was ever a city where you'd see Darwin, Marx and Rockefeller walk into a bar together, it's San Francisco.