Musicians and the tech industry don't have to be the strangest of bedfellows
At Zoo Labs, a less-than-year-old nonprofit based out of a recording studio in West Oakland, a handful of heavy hitters from the tech and design worlds asked the question: What happens when you apply a business incubator model — like the well-founded training grounds that typically nurture Silicon Valley startups — to a band? The Zoo Labs Residency, a two-week, all-expenses-paid program for musicians, offers practical skill-building workshops, marketing training, mentorship, and studio time to bands who have a vision but haven't yet achieved a widespread reach.
"We started talking to musicians about their experiences and how they were managing their careers and accomplishing their projects, and it was really interesting to find that a lot of musicians and producers working in music are having very similar experiences to entrepreneurs in the startup world," says Anna Acquistapace, a designer who founded the program with Vinitha Watson, an ex-Googler (she opened Google's first satellite office in India) after the two met in California College of the Arts' Design Strategy MBA program. Music producer Dan Lawrence (whom — full disclosure — I've known since elementary school, at which time he wanted to be a music producer) brought his working knowledge of the local music industry to the team.
"With all of these changes in the [music] industry over the last 10 years, musicians have been forced to take way more control over their marketing channels," says Acquistapace. "They need to get their own fans, they need to bootstrap their own products in a similar to way to what startups do, whether that means funding albums or demos to pitch to a record label, reaching out to the media...they have to become entrepreneurs, out of necessity. From that, the idea of this artists' residency-meets-business-incubator or accelerator was born."
Thus far only one band, an Americana/roots four-piece called the Boston Boys, has completed the residency, participating in a series of workshops and recording sessions tailored specifically to their needs: They took a "sonic branding" class from Oakland producer Jumbo (whose credits include work with Blackalicious, Lyrics Born, and others), learned about music law, met with design professionals and leadership coaches. Meanwhile, recording engineer/producer Damien Lewis recorded the band live in the studio most days in sessions that ran from 2 in the afternoon until 2 in the morning; the two-week period culminates in a live show at the studio.
In total, the program costs about $20,000 per session to run, with much of it underwritten by private investors from Silicon Valley who are simply interested in developing new models for the music industry. "If there's one thing that people are passionate across the board, it's music," says Acquistapace.'"I haven't really seen any other art form that crosses groups the same way."
(The application period for its March residency just closed, but look for new programming to launch in February; the Beat Lab, which will open next month, aims to be a combination recording studio/coworking space for musicians of all kinds: www.zoolabs.org)