Vinitha Watson says she and her co-founders David Watson and Anna Acquistapace were motivated to create Zoo Labs mostly by a “sense of sadness.” (But wait, this is a happy story.) They stood by helplessly as the music business “hit market failure” and the viability of making a livelihood in music became more and more remote for all of the talented musicians they loved.
Coming from the tech world, Vinitha and David were immersed in the principles of start-up entrepreneurship and knew that they could find a way to adapt them to career-making in music.
Zoo Labs, where they do just that, is half artist residency, half business incubator. Their mission is to experiment with new modes of financing sustainable careers for musicians.
“The point is to create a movement,” says Vinitha, “the point is to be revolutionary.”
The Zoo, where the studios, offices and residency living space are located, is designed to inspire. There’s art on every wall, and the sunny rooms are lined with shelves of books and inviting sofas. You want to stay and hang out, maybe hear some music. Or make some.
“So much happens right here when you’re grabbing coffee and strike up conversation with one of the sound engineers or one of the guest lecturers– when you’re just taking a break,” says Vinitha.
Zoo Labs is in the midst of its third and fourth residencies with the bands Bells Atlas and Electrospit; the first two were The Boston Boys and Halcyonaire. The bands, or “teams” as they are termed, are expected to produce at least three songs with access to the Zoo’s studio equipment and sound engineers. The business and design curriculum guides the teams through the development of a “strategic plan.”
“We’ve seen how tech has the capacity to shift economic models so quickly,” says Vinitha, “we think it’s crucial for musicians to be able to anticipate those shifts and also take part in creating them.” From the production, to the distribution and financing, musicians no longer have the luxury of keeping their heads down and focusing on their instrument or their songwriting. They’re responsible for sound engineering, marketing, publicity, booking and distribution.
But the curriculum component of Zoo Labs extends far beyond training musicians to cultivate a social media presence or keep their own books. Each team is meant to “diversify their portfolio,” and devise a supplemental source of income. For example, Bosko Kante, of Electrospit, is building a version of the instrument known as a Talk Box that is mobile and easier to tour with.
“This three-business card lifestyle is more and more the norm,” says Vinitha, referring to careers that are diverse and venture- or independent contract- based, as opposed to the conventional nine-to-five. Vinitha would argue that there are more ways to sustain a musical career than waiting tables during the day.
“What is the US exporting today? Technology and culture,” she says. Yet the only ones making money off music are record labels and the technologists that have found platforms for monetizing music content. Zoo Labs wants to help the artists capitalize on the industry that depends on them. “We don’t pretend to have the solution,” she says, “this is the exploration phase.”
Zoo Labs takes an equity stake in the songs that are produced in their studio but that income accounts for very little of their budget. As a nonprofit, they rely almost entirely on private donors– most come from their ties to the tech world.
There will be two more residencies this year and about six in 2015. The application round for the November residency is open until August 11th; you can apply here! They are fiercely genre-agnostic at Zoo Labs, so any and everybody is encouraged to apply.
Musician detail from Zoo Labs:
About Bells Atlas
Bells Atlas emerges from the vibrant cultural and musical backdrop of Oakland. Blending heavy percussion, soulful vocal harmonies, and thoughtful arrangements, this dynamic group captures the spirit of an eclectic range of influences, including highlife, hip-hop, samba, R&B and indie pop. Bells Atlas is Sandra Lawson-Ndu, Geneva Harrison, Derek Barber, and Doug Stuart.
Electrospit, also hailing from Oakland, features Bosko Kante, whose work with the Talkbox has been featured on records by Big Boi, E-40, and Kanye West. The Electrospit team, which also includes Maya Green, Pete Miser, and Lance Coleman, will be prototyping a mobile TalkBox device during their residency and recording new work.
Update on Past Zoo Lab residents
The Boston Boys, fresh off a tour to Colombia, have just released Idea of Love, an EP of material recorded during their October 2013 ZLMR. The Boston Boys were also featured artists in American Music Abroad, a US State Department initiative. Following their March 2014 ZLMR, Oakland’s Halcyonaire premiered Urban Arson, a track from their upcoming EP, on The Bay Bridged in April, and toured the Southwest. Halcyonaire has also partnered with Alite camping equipment.