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Startup Studios: Exploring The Silicon Valley’s Fractured, DIY Recording Industry

In Music

The term “disruption” was coined by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen in 1995. It reached a wider audience in his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. In it, he describes how small upstart companies—or “startups,” in the parlance of our times—come to replace the existing giants of industry.

On one hand, it is easy to see Shirley and The Atomic Garden as an example of disruption at work. Once upon a time, huge chart topping albums were tracked and recorded at professional Bay Area studios, like The Annex. Now, the nearest equivalents are being recorded in places like the Atomic Garden, scrappy 12-by-12-foot rooms, driven by nothing but sheer will.

And to those who subscribe to the Silicon Valley myth of meritocracy, this is how it should be. As the old power brokers grow in size and influence, they lose their agility. They are unable to keep up. And so, these wooly mammoths of industry succumb to the fearsome, bleeding edge of the spear of disruption.

Jack Shirley of Atomic Garden Recording Studio. Photo by Geoffrey Smith II.

Jack Shirley of Atomic Garden Recording Studio. Photo by Geoffrey Smith II.

But on the other hand, it is clear that the South Bay—“Silicon Valley” to the outside world—has already been irreversibly changed by the work of previous disruptors. Though Christensen saw “disruptive innovation” as something which took place within a certain market (like transportation, disk drives or media) it is now clear that it affects everything around it. The Atomic Garden itself is just another example. After 10 years of growth and hard work in East Palo Alto, it has outgrown its original location. But now every available space into which Shirley might expand has skyrocketed in price.

The Atomic Garden has already begun to move into a new location in the East Bay, where there is still precious little space that hasn’t already been taken up by tech giants with angel investors, or by homogeneous condo developers. With this move, one of the major contributors to the South Bay’s sound will be gone. And, just as with The Annex, it’s not because the business wasn’t working. The relocation of The Atomic Garden to Oakland exemplifies the paradoxical reality of trying to make it in the music biz in Silicon Valley: once you do well enough to succeed, there’s no room to expand.

There is a dark irony at play here. Tech giants, like Apple and Facebook, market themselves as tools for creative people. Apple bundles its highly intuitive Garage Band recording software—which allows just about anyone with an iota of musical ability to lay down decent sounding tracks—with every Macbook it sells; Facebook has become the go-to means for bands to connect with fans, network with other bands and plot cross-country tours without the help of expensive booking agents.

And yet both of these firms have also directly contributed to an artistically impoverished South Bay—driving up rents in their home towns so much that even solvent businesses like The Atomic Garden must relocate.

***

San Jose Made, an artist collective based out of San Jose’s Japantown, came together specifically because of this problem. Two illustrators and an architect rent rooms out of the collective space, along with a few musicians. DJ Cutso, of local turntablist group the Bangerz, has a room at the collective. San Jose rapper and producer Rey Res created his own studio here as well.

San Jose Made moved into this space in February, after being squeezed out of its warehouse space off the Alameda by another behemoth catering to young, well-paid, tech workers.

“Whole Foods came in and brought the rent up for everyone,” says Res. “A bunch of businesses moved out.”

The new location is close to Nijiya, and situated directly above a restaurant’s kitchen, which means that no matter how soundproofed it is, only so much recording or rehearsing can realistically be done there.

“It’s not really like a commercial studio where I advertise and people come here,” Res says, swiveling in the office chair in front of his laptop. “I don’t do like live tracking and stuff like that.”

This makes it a pretty clear exception to places like The Annex, which were designed to handle just about any kind of recording project. It also makes it significantly different from the Atomic Garden, which is set up for commercial use. In contrast, Res’ studio acts as the home base for his own projects. It is where he records verses and makes beats for other people.

Res has some pretty notable accomplishments on his resume. His work has been featured on a number of blogs in the Complex network—an influential site among hip-hop heads. The most recent single by Oakland duo Zion I is set to a beat he made, and features Eligh and The Grouch of the backpack rap group Living Legends. Among fans of hip-hop’s underground, those are some heavy hitters. But even with this kind of success, and a minimal amount of space in his studio—about 10-by-15 feet—he feels the pinch of the rental market.

“It’s patchy,” he says. “In San Jose, we’re so accustomed to being starving artists, doing everything, finding these different ways to fill in the gaps.”

Rey Res in his cozy Japantown studio.

Rey Res in his cozy Japantown studio. Photo by Geoffrey Smith II.

“It’s tough, especially in San Jose,” confirms fellow hip-hop producer B. Lewis, who runs a studio out of the garage at a relative’s house. Lewis describes it as a “bootleg version” of a friend’s more complete studio. Like Res’ studio, it is set up as well as possible for his own needs, but doesn’t lend itself to commercial recording—especially a band with live drums, which can be quite loud. Because Lewis’ space isn’t soundproofed and doesn’t have a professional soundboard, it can’t really record a live rock band; it’s better suited for hip-hop and electronic music, most of which can be produced using programs like Reason.

Also like Res, Lewis has some significant production credits. He’s made beats for artists on Rhymesayers International. A track he produced for Rhymesayers artist Grieves featured Slug, the legendary member of alternative hip-hop duo Atmosphere. His first big production credit was for Chris Brown. After producing an album by Boston group Bad Rabbits, the group went on to play on episodes of Jimmy Kimmel Live, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and had a track featured on an episode of Empire.

Lewis records on a Macbook Pro, using the recording and production program Reason. Reason’s website boasts that it can “effortlessly create your dream studio.” A seven-minute Macbook commercial from 2013 spends half of its runtime describing how the machine’s processor is made from a single sheet of aluminum.  

“The culture here isn’t as musically inclined as say San Francisco or the East Bay,” Lewis says. “It’s mainly based around tech … I’m actually thinking about moving to L.A. soon.”

For sure, tech has also had a convenience effect on recorded music. San Jose musician Eric Victorino, of both The Limousines and Strata, recorded most of the vocal tracks for his upcoming solo album on his iPhone.

“There’s a lot of these little songs that I’ve been saving up, thinking, ‘Oh, someday I’ll do a real recording of this,’” he says. “But I like the recordings the way they are. I’m not going to do ‘real’ recordings, I’m just going to release the ones I have.”

***

Perhaps the one studio in the South Bay that seems to be offering the same kind of services that were once found at The Annex is Fremont’s Panda Studios. It is also the only studio profiled here that has more than one live room.

“My recording studio isn’t like any other,” says owner and lead producer Sam Pura. “I don’t record your band. We produce your album. There’s so much more diving into songwriting and production and performances. As opposed to just like ‘yeah man, let’s set up a couple mics and record your band.’”

Pura provides some specifics.

“It goes down to the creation of songwriting ideas,” he says. “Even facilitating session players to be involved in songs, or external musicians to help with songwriting. We have a lot more of that type of engagement going on.”

A recent example is The 101’s, who flew out from Holland to do a four-week recording session at the Fremont studio.

“We spent the first week going through all their songs, rearranging the structures, changing the keys of the songs, changing drum patterns, changing up guitar lines, hiring a vocalist to come in to rework lyric ideas and vocal melodies,” he says. “Then it goes into recording drums.”

PuraPanda

Sam Pura at Panda Studios in Fremont.

By way of contrast, recording drums is the very first step for a group recording at the Atomic Garden.

“The word I like to use is storyboarding,” Pura says, describing the initial steps of when a band comes into Panda to record.

In the music industry at large, this approach is known as “pre-production.” It marks a level of involvement from the producer more often seen in places like L.A., Nashville or London—places where producers are viewed less like facilitators of the recording process and more like an additional member of the band.

Pura’s activist-producer methods have yielded some pretty strong results. The Story So Far, a pop-punk band from Walnut Creek, has used Pura and Panda Studios for all three of their albums. The band currently boasts a third of a million likes on Facebook. In an era when selling just a few thousand records is a major accomplishment for an up-and-coming band, having the eyes and ears of more than 300,000 people is exceptional. In addition to The Story So Far, State Champs from New York, and Basement from the U.K.—all of whom have around 150,000 Facebook likes—have parlayed Panda’s methods into a worldwide fanbase.

Panda has been operating in its current location for seven years, an impressive feat. Nonetheless, Pura is still clearly feeling the crushing pressure of the South Bay’s real estate market.

“I got a bunch of credit cards,” he says. “Just fucking stacked debt, dude. Here I am, still paying it off”—seven years later.

Despite the considerable economic pressures on every person interviewed for this story, all of them expressed a clear and lasting passion for music. After all, humans have been making music all over the world for millennia. Why would it be any different here?

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