Planting a Motown in San Francisco
Once the Bay Area music scene, with San Francisco at its center, flourished. With the late business-savvy concert promoter Bill Graham at the helm, five great bands on any given night would grace a venue’s stage and jam for hours. Musicians lived communally, sharing ideas as well as the occasional sweet licks. But now, according to Arne Frager, owner of the legendary Plant Recording Studios in Sausalito, Calif., "The Bay Area music scene is now at a low ebb."
Frager is an apt person to cast the judgment. The Plant Studios, located in a modest building off Sausalito’s main thoroughfare, Bridgeway, remains a prime recording location for an eclectic group of top-notch musicians. Past recording artists have included the Grateful Dead, Bob Marley and both Jefferson Airplane and its later incarnation Jefferson Starship. Recent recordings to have come out of the Plant include String Cheese Incident’s Untying the Not, Carlos Santana’s Supernatural and Phil Lesh and Friends’ There and Back Again. The Plant’s mastering engineer John Cuniberti just finished mixing Tea Leaf Green’s new album and Joe Satriani’s latest offering is currently in the works.
Frager, 61, has decided to no longer wax nostalgic for the lost community of a once effervescent music scene. Instead he spends his days working toward a romantic vision: "Our goal is to turn the Bay Area back into a mecca for great new music." At the center of his vision are the Plant Recording Studios and a brand-new artist development company. Still a work in progress, the tentative title of the company is Indygenus, reflecting the intention of the company to draw from the talent pool in "the greater Bay Area," from San Jose to Sacramento." Frager is building a core of partners to launch the company.
From inside the trailer, which he uses as his office, located adjacent to the back of the studios, he sat behind his desk, Don Henley music pouring out from a stereo, looking like an old rocker with his closely cropped white hair and carefully trimmed goatee. Recent albums done by the studio line the front of his large desk. His plans are rather expansive and ambitious (some may say romantic and slightly na) as he wants to push forward where many today are cutting back. "We are going to start signing acts. It’s going to be a management firm. We intend to build careers and develop artists. We want to be a mecca for new talent. We don’t want to be the one who just does the superstars. We see our future as being an artist development company that really finds talent, helps that talent grow, builds a marketing plan for them, puts them on tour, manages their careers, gets their first two or three records out, then maybe allow a major record label to come in."
The Plant itself seems prepared for Frager’s vision. "As the Plant is currently configured it’s a record company waiting to happen," he said. "You can walk into the front with a song idea in your head, and you can walk out the back with a final master on a CD."
Still hashing out ideas, Frager envisions a variety of methods to expose new young talent. One idea is to use the studios’ radio show, "Live From the Plant," which is carried by San Francisco’s KFOG, and syndicate the program around the nation. He also plans to network with music venues around the Bay Area, to help get bands places to jam. Frager hopes the business venture will go a long way toward revitalizing the camaraderie among the area’s musicians. He plans to host community-based events both on-site and off, while fostering a club-like atmosphere inside the Plant.
"The whole idea is, we want to rebuild the music scene that was once really vital and very exciting in the Bay Area," said Frager. "It is not that there isn’t great music being made here, but there was a sense of community in the ’60s and ’70s. Now people are all working in their own little corners of the Bay Area. There are not much of those community-building events."
So what happened to the music scene? Frager believes a number of factors contributed to its fall. "I think if you look at the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s, even in the early ’90s, there was a tremendous amount of terrific talent that became well seen and identified with the Bay Area. But when you look at the late 1990’s and the 2000’s, a lot of the good new talent has moved away."
Frager said many Bay Area musicians immigrated to Los Angeles, opting for the larger music scene down south. He added that the Bay Area is no longer an inexpensive place to live. "The cost of living here makes it very prohibitive for new young talent to stay here — housing is very high, jobs are very scarce."
Frager laments that every day there are fewer places for rock ‘n’ rollers to jam. "Live clubs are closing. When it comes to live music, places like Austin and Nashville have a great deal more going on than San Francisco.
Then there was Clear Channel’s purchase of Bill Graham Productions. Frager said the deal was another sign of a music community gone by the wayside. "Early in his career, when Bill Graham put out his big-name acts he would include a local band. Bill Graham had a lot of things he did that helped local bands. He helped foster a scene, and also created a community feel. It wasn’t just the Jefferson Airplane, there would also be the Grateful Dead on the bill and all these other bands." Frager will borrow a few pages from Graham. In his words, he wants to "pump up the business of live events for unknowns."
It is the music community Frager gets most passionate about. "Lately, you don’t have the sense of community. What we want to do is rebuild the community. Not only the whole music scene in the Bay Area, but make the Plant a place where bands can come, where they can afford to record, have a rehearsal. We are going to build a clubhouse environment, where bands can rehearse and work out material, and do arrangements and pre-productions fairly inexpensively."
That is the key, slashing the studios’ prices for local young bands that have yet to cut a record or have done a couple on their own, in their basements or garages.
Frager came into the Plant Studios some 15 years ago. He brought with him a history of studio work and artist development. In 1973, he started in Los Angeles as a recording engineer and record producer. He soon built a recording studio on Venice Beach, which he held onto for nine years. He had two more studios in Los Angeles over the years, both in Hollywood. When he arrived in Marin County, he felt the loss of not having his own facility nearby. He ran into Bob Skye, the then owner of the Plant. The two became business partners.
The Plant studios had seen better times. The facilities were just recovering from government ownership. The Federal Bureau of Investigation took over the Plant in a drug seizure. The previous owner was manufacturing Methamphetamines in a home outside of Sacramento. One day 25 police officers came in and busted the place, said Frager. "And for a year and half the U.S. government owned and operated the place." "Club Fed" T-shirts became a fashion for locals.
Skye came in and bought the Plant from the United States government as the high bidder. In 1993, Frager purchased his partner’s share and has remained its sole owner ever since. Over the last 15 years, he has funneled more than $8 million into the studios, mostly for equipment and remodeling.
Frager has been plotting this next move for more than a year. Last year, he began paying off the Plant’s equipment debt and began the process of acquiring the property. "Doing these things lowers costs of operations rather dramatically," he said. "When all that is done we will have reduced operation costs and that means we can then make costs more affordable for the bands because it costs less for us to pay the bills."
Frager does not see himself in competition with other record labels. Instead he views the system of business he is creating as the wave of the future.
He draws his inspiration in part from the fact that major record companies today do little in terms of artist development. "The big corporations are now motivated by the bottom line. If a record doesn’t go platinum they are not too thrilled about it."
He told a story about Ben Harper. Frager called up a connection of his at Virgin records. The voice on the other end said, "Too bad about the Harper album." "What do you mean? The album was great," Frager said. "Yeah, but it only sold 350,000 units. It was a disaster for Virgin Records."
"How could it be a disaster?" wondered Frager. He explains that those 350,000 units represent a loss for major labels because they spend so much money on radio promotion and advertising.
By contrast Frager feels that the future of music is vested with the independent labels "who will make it work financially to help the artists. The artists won’t make millions right away, but will be able to make a living and build their craft," he said
Frager believes his company will have its success by not mirroring the business model of other record companies. "Right now the going formula for releasing a single song to a major commercial radio channel is $300,000," he said. "We are not going to follow that model because that model that the major labels are using is not working for them. It is a dead model. It is not helping much of anybody."
While other small labels currently are pushing forward with some the same ideas, often aided by the internet, another aspect of the Plant that’s bound to excite young bands is its history. A few years ago Robert Hunter, walked into the Plant’s Studio B looked around and went, "Wait a minute, this is where we did Wake of the Flood,’ When Santana was recording Supernatural in Studio B (which is designed to look like a spaceship’s cockpit), he put up a tapestry showing psychedelic images of such artists as Bob Marley and Miles Davis. It remains.
Frager’s business model is inspired by one of the most significant independent labels of the 1960s, Motown Records. "We want to be considered the Motown of rock our model is Motown Records, but rock ‘n’ roll."
Why Motown records? Well, it’s simple: "Motown Records was based in one town, based on building a community. Everybody who was interested in music in the whole area came to Motown because that was the mecca. In-house they had the producers, the songwriters, the artists, the vision. They all came from one little building, that is why we considered this a model," said Frager.
His efforts are geared toward fashioning a place where new music can bloom and catch on, a place where artists can "come, develop and build their thing and meet with other people and really try and make something happen," in hopes of seeing once more a new dawn in Bay Area sound.