Big-time success was never a likelihood for Porto Franco, a family-run Mission District record label that prides itself on championing local artists, rather than ones working in the same musical genre. Russian immigrant Peter Varshavsky started the project with his father, Sergei, in 2008, hoping to help the San Francisco musicians they loved — jazz wizards, folk singers, an incredibly talented Ethiopian-born singer named Meklit Hadero — put out records, build a following, and realize some of the success that the Varshavskys believed they deserved. No one thought that sustaining a new label was going to be lucrative or easy: From the start, Peter Varshavsky says, "Everyone told us not to do it." But he and his father thought they could at least build a business that would support itself.
Three years later, many of Porto Franco's more than 20 artists have raised their profiles; some, like Hadero, are on their way to international stardom. But as a business, Porto Franco has failed. Having invested between $300,000 and $400,000 of their own money into the project, and made almost none of it back, the Varshavskys plan to stop releasing records around the middle of next year. Porto Franco will carry on as a website and a blog, with self-produced videos of its artists, curated show listings, and other content. But it will be out of the business of subsidizing or funding new recordings by local musicians.
"It was wishful thinking," Peter Varshavsky says of the project on a recent afternoon, sitting around a dining table in the immaculate, salon-like setting of the family house on Valencia Street. There's original artwork on every wall, and a piano and an expensive hi-fi system by the large window. The place feels less like a label office than the home of an art patron, and indeed the family opens it occasionally as a gallery.
Varshavsky assesses Porto Franco's run in stark, unsparing terms. He and his father planned to spend the money, so they aren't upset or bankrupted by its loss. He believes that Porto Franco's mission — "to do location as a genre" — simply didn't work. Its releases came from lights of the city's creative music scene: local jazz artists like Marcus Shelby and Gaucho; the appealing world-pop of Hadero; and more avant-garde musicians like Gojogo. The label even has a talented indie folk-rock outfit in Mark Matos and Os Beaches. But "building an audience by just having good musicians who are all over the place genre-wise is difficult, and perhaps impossible," Varshavsky says. "It turned out that none of the record labels that were successful at what we hoped to be successful at really did it the way we did it."
Along with the considerable difficulties facing anyone aiming to make money selling recorded music in 2011, Porto Franco has had some unique challenges: Many of its artists spend a great deal of time working on music projects other than their own. They support themselves as sidemen for live gigs and recording sessions, teachers, music directors, and in other roles. Two 20-year-olds who start a band in their basement don't have to spend their musical energies on other projects, but many of Porto Franco's artists do. Varshavsky says that meant many weren't able to put as much time and energy into self-promotion and touring as he would have liked.
Its diversity, too, has made it tough for Porto Franco to sell its artists effectively. "It's really difficult when you are so small to know 10 different markets well," Varshavsky says. One never quite knows what a Porto Franco record will sound like — jazz or rock? Neo-classical or world music? It doesn't help that a lot of what the Varshavskys like has limited commercial appeal. A great S.F. jazz record may sell reasonably well, but Porto Franco wasn't a likely home for the next blockbuster pop star.
Of course, the things that contributed to Porto Franco's commercial struggle greatly endeared it to its artists. Jazz leader Marcus Shelby, who has recorded for his own label as well as majors like Columbia and RCA, cites the Varshavskys' support for politically progressive ideas as a major attraction. Dina Maccabee, of the left-field duo Ramon and Jessica, says Porto Franco has accomplished a lot "simply by showing up, listening, and pointing out ways that our insular San Francisco music scenelets might be broadcast beyond our customary nooks and crannies."
When the label ceases new releases next year, its artists will have to record independently or find other labels to work with. But Porto Franco won't be leaving them entirely. Peter Varshavsky plans to refocus the label's sizeable website as a hub for blogs, and its growing video series about the local music scene; he may even release some recordings made for the videos as downloadable music. He thinks that ultimately a good video series may do more for an artist in terms of exposure than a new album — it's also much cheaper to make.
The younger Varshavsky will be finishing a master's degree in mathematics at S.F. State and likely looking for a new job. Running a label was a dream. But it also became a huge amount of work, a wearying education in the realities of the music business in the 21st century. He's looking to put that knowledge to use in other ways now.
"If I spend my time trying to build something that gets an audience [like a video], it might not help musicians in the way of money as much, but it will help musicians get an audience," Varshavsky says. "And I can do that without signing a record contract with them."