For years, the local music community has issued the same complaints: We're too isolated, there isn't a big enough music industry, people don't work together. But while the area lacks the infrastructure of New York and Los Angeles, "the Bay has a creative energy that's unique," says Namane Mohlabane, building manager of the Zoo.
The Zoo aims to answer the music scene's collective prayers; no other facility in the Bay currently offers the same combination of creative and business resources. Tucked into the heavily industrial part of West Oakland, it's a synergistic space where artists can record, mix, and master music; share equipment like vintage analog synths; create a marketing plan; design graphics; strategize viral Internet campaigns; discuss legal contracts; and book a tour — all without leaving the building.
The 10,000-square-foot former warehouse is the brainchild of Mohlabane, veteran entertainment attorney Elliot Cahn, and ex-Google engineer Dave Watson. While the Zoo is still in its infancy — it officially opened Feb. 18 — its principals offer a balance of old-school know-how, local familiarity, and fresh, new-media approaches. Cahn, who managed Green Day early on, has been a player in local music circles since the '70s. Mohlabane, whose Skyblaze Entertainment represents R&B singer Goapele and hip-hop heroes Zion-I, has a background in community organizing — he once served as a staffer for Oakland City Councilwoman Nancy Nadel — and is a core member of activist DJs Local 1200.
The Zoo's other tenants include New Orleans transplant Chris Cuevas, who's been in artist management since the early '90s (his current roster includes jazzman Charlie Hunter and indie folkster Bhi Bhiman) and Interdependent Media, a forward-thinking label that recently released records by atypical urban artists like Somalian MC K'naan and L.A. punk-funk group J'Davey.
"We are trying to build a community," Watson says. "Labels, producers, artists, managers, engineers — all those people need each other."
For Goapele's producer, Bedrock, constantly hearing new sounds coming from an adjacent studio or office cubicle means it's easier to tap into that energy. "To stay current, you have to open your ears to other music," he says.
In addition to being what Walker refers to as a "playground" for musicians, the Zoo represents a modernized, 100 percent indie version of the old major-label structure, with myriad departments handling various aspects of the business. The difference is that here each department operates on its own, and collaborations between entities happen organically. "Conceptually, we're developing strategic partnerships," Cuevas says. As Mohlabane says, by narrowing degrees of separation, "your network increases exponentially."
For Interdependent Media, the Zoo is a base from which to target today's tech-savvy fans with interactive, multimedia experiences like embedded videogames, and to pursue nontraditional revenue streams like film and TV licensing. "We're trying to do more than sell CDs," A&R man Dominic Del Bene says.
Driven by innovation as well as necessity, the Zoo's collective concept — let's call it Indie 2.0 — could easily be replicated in other areas. With the major-label model growing obsolete, more folks are looking to grassroots collaborations as the future of the music business. Having a structural model like the Zoo in place could prove inspiring to other motivated individuals seeking to mix artistic resources with business tools.
It remains to be seen whether the Zoo's existence will prevent the next Tupac or Ledisi from leaving the region to find success in a bigger city with more music industry infrastructure. For now, though, Mohlabane is concentrating on finishing the new Goapele album — the first to be entirely produced on-site. And the Zoo will continue its alternative to rusty major-label cages by creating better business through synergy.