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Zoo Labs, a Musician’s Incubator in West Oakland

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Bosko Kante and Pete Miser of Electrospit at Zoo Labs (Courtesy of Zoo Labs)

The pop music industry may not be dead, but it’s in serious disarray. There’s are plenty of musicians writing and performing songs, but they almost have to give away their music, and clubs don’t pay very well. So how do they make a living if they’re not named Beyoncé or Paul McCartney?

Zoo Labs may have an answer. It’s a music studio in West Oakland, a kind of band incubator, offering two week all-expenses paid workshops where musicians can learn the same skills as those wielded by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

“Musicians are start-ups also,” Anna Acquistapace said recently. She co-founded the Zoo Labs residency program with an old business school friend Vinitha Watson.

“There’s just a fundamental place that music plays in people’s lives,” says Watson. “But the plight of the musician not being able to pay their rent, or support their families or their art was really confounding to me.”

Doug Stuart, Derek Barber, Geneva Harrison, Sandra Lawson Ndu of Bells Atlas (Courtesy of Zoo Labs)
Doug Stuart, Derek Barber, Geneva Harrison, Sandra Lawson Ndu of Bells Atlas (Courtesy of Zoo Labs)

So starting in January of this year, Acquistapace and Watson began recruiting bands for the residency program, bands with what Acquistapace called “hustle and resource magnetism, that can be innovative in their approach to their music.”


The most recent beneficiaries have been two Oakland groups: Afropop innovators Bells Atlas and hip-hop futurists Electrospit.

“A lot of times we focus so much on the music, the business aspect of things feels like work, says Bells Atlas bassist and co-founder Doug Stuart. “And these workshops have been really refreshing, because its offered us ways of coming at this business in a creative way.”

I talked to Stuart and his band mates at nine in the morning on day four of the residency. Percussionist Geneva Harrison was still in her bedroll, finishing a bowl of cereal. During the residency, the band members bunk and eat in a mini-suites next to a full kitchen, staffed by a chef hired to feed the musicians. Harrison said the workshops are forcing band members to ask and answer hard questions like “What is the dream? And what is it you’re trying to build around that?”

And how do you deal with marketing issues many artists wish they could ignore, “Like how do you brand yourself,” Harrison said. “I’m turning this thing that I love into a product and that’s so in-genuine and weird.”

Not that Harrison and Bells Atlas singer Sandra Lawson Ndu don’t want everyone to be downloading their songs off iTunes.

“This is more like using our imagination and putting it out there,” Ndu said. “And that’s what it means to brand in a more beautiful way.”

Bells Atlas learned more about branding and generating revenue from about two dozen presenters during the residency. On day four, they gathered in a Zoo Labs meeting room for a seminar with design consultant Sven Newman of the firm Daylight. He suggested the band members keep Post-its or some other note-taking tool to track audience preferences for everything from songs to instrumentation.

“That is where design thinking is being like an anthropologist, or a therapist.” Newman offered, while marking up a whiteboard. “So you’re really trying to get to the whys. Why aren’t people coming to our shows, or why do they just love that song?”

Bosko Kante at Zoo Labs (courtesy of Zoo Labs)
Bosko Kante at Zoo Labs (courtesy of Zoo Labs)

There were other seminars: how to make a viral video and how to improve team (band) dynamics. And the bands get hours and hours of a precious resource, time in the studio to record new songs. Zoo Labs, a non-profit founded by Watson’s husband, is a working studio, with gorgeous new digital and analog equipment.

I came back at 10:30 the same night to visit with members of Electrospit, the other band in this Zoo Labs session, as they worked on a new song. (I’ll explain the name in a minute.)

Bosko Kante founded this brand new ensemble. He’s a musician who’s worked with Big Boi and Kanye West, but he said he’d sought the Zoo Labs residency to learn how to make his own music, and still make a decent living.

“Being able to do all the things necessary for a release,” said Kante. “The social media, the marketing, the visuals, the video.”

Kante’s instrument is the Talk Box — a little known device that’s been around for decades that consists of a plastic tube that connects to the player’s mouth and to a midi keyboard. Kante plays the keyboard and uses his mouth, but not his larynx, to shape the notes into words, and that wet-ware meets hard-ware device gave the band its name.

Electrospit DJ and producer Pete Miser says the residency allowed the band to work on a business plan for the talk-box itself, making it more portable for starters.

“And now we’re having discussions about downloadable voice profiles, and giving voice lifts to people who have lost their larynx,” said Miser. “It’s that Bay Area start up optimism is making us realize… that so many things are possible.”

The Electrospit and Bells Atlas residency was just the third for Zoo Labs, so it’s not clear yet how well it’s working to create what Vinitha Watson calls her utopia: “a middle class of musicians.”

Bells Atlas plays a show at the Rickshaw Stop on Aug. 29.

Another pair of bands, one from Los Angeles and one from Connecticut, move into Zoo Labs in September.

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