Over the past year, Oakland-based musician Abraham Padilla, who performs under the moniker Savage Mind, has been in incubation mode, studying, practicing and securing opportunities to turn his creative practice into a viable business.
The 24-year-old rapper, trumpeter and pianist self-released his most ambitious album to date, 1995, a soulful collection of tracks with a West Coast bounce, jazz refrains and meditations on the pressures of life as a son of Filipino immigrants trying to make it in music. Padilla produced, arranged and engineered the record himself. And he put it out through his own label, Soul Vision; he and co-founder, J. RAP, recently formed an LLC to turn their loose collective into a legit operation.
The last year has been fruitful for Padilla. He successfully booked his first big concert last summer, a release show for 1995 at the Uptown Nightclub in Oakland. (With around 84 tickets sold, the show brought in around $1,000—most of which went to paying openers and recouping merch-production costs.) He also composed and performed an original score for a play, Schooled, at San Francisco’s Z Space. (This paid about $2,000 for three months of work, including attending rehearsals and performing the score live during the show’s run.) And he’s been getting booked for university campus gigs that pay anywhere from $100 to $360.
“These successes mean a lot, the fact that I could independently host a show and make that amount of money, pay out my performers and bring that revenue back to the business—it was unbelievable to me,” he says. “But thinking in the long term, $1,000 can barely cover any type of rent. And $500 isn’t a lot in the grand scheme of things, with the debt that I owe or basic overhead costs of just living.”
To facilitate this growth in his burgeoning music career, Padilla has made immense sacrifices. After graduating from UC Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in rhetoric in 2016, Padilla has juggled multiple part-time jobs to sustain himself as an artist. Last summer, he felt himself burning out after working a 14-day stretch of coffee shop shifts and after-school teaching gigs with no days off.
Born in the Philippines, Padilla was raised in the mostly working-class East Bay town of Pittsburg. His family is supportive, but he doesn’t have any sort of trust fund to fall back on—so he knows it’s on him to make his dreams happen.
“While I was creating the album, I was—and still am—getting used to the fact that this is what I want to do as a career,” he says. “The expectation is always that you’re a doctor or lawyer or engineer, and that carries for a lot of immigrant families. Even when I graduated college, my mom was kind of confused: ‘What is rhetoric and what do you do,’ or ‘what can you do?’ But it’s great now because [my parents] actually support me as a rapper.”
In June, things stabilized when Padilla quit his other jobs and settled into a part-time position at Red Bay Coffee’s Richmond location. The local coffee roaster, wholesaler and cafe has become known as a creative hub since it opened in 2014. Its Oakland store hosts events such as singer-songwriter showcases from Women Sound Off, and most of Padilla’s coworkers are artists, which helps with networking.
But perhaps the biggest plus is that Red Bay Coffee provides full-time benefits for part-time workers. This is a major boon for Padilla, who was worried about what he’d do for health insurance after he turned 26 and would no longer be covered by his parents’ plan.
“They’re taking a very progressive approach,” he says of Red Bay. “Me not being dependent on my parents for medical care was one of my worries, especially because it’s expensive. Being able to work for that company now ... has helped and elevated me to be in a better place than I was a few years ago.”
The Bay Area’s brutal housing market is notoriously challenging for artists, and Padilla is no exception: he had to move three times over the course of the last year, from Berkeley back home to his parents’ place in Pittsburg, then briefly to Vallejo before settling down in North Oakland. While living in Vallejo, he woke up at 5:30am to fight traffic and make it to work in Richmond by 8am.
From his new place, his commute is much shorter, 25 to 45 minutes depending on traffic. To make living in Oakland work, he shares a room with his partner, a fellow musician. (Padilla’s half of their rent is $850 a month.) They have two other housemates in their well-lit, three-bedroom apartment. The place is filled with verdant house plants, and their French bulldog Sunny sunbathes on the deck. Padilla’s studio set-up is nestled in a nook between the living room couch and the dining area—a huge cost-saving measure that allows him to produce and engineer all his music at home.
Of Padilla’s roughly $28,000 in income over the past year, about $3,000 came from music. That includes $150 in streaming royalties for about 5,000 streams on Spotify and other platforms. He knows that streaming will never pay the bills: the commonly held estimate in the industry, he says, is that a million streams roughly equal just $4,000. The real money comes from brand endorsements and licensing opportunities in film and television once an artist attracts enough streaming fans.
Padilla is inspired by the many entrepreneurial Bay Area artists like E-40, who recently became a business partner in the Filipino takeout spot the Lumpia Company, and who has his own liquor company in addition to running Sick Wid It Records. The Jacka, who hails from Padilla’s hometown of Pittsburg, also comes to mind with his Artist Records, as well as Nipsey Hussle, whose Marathon Clothing company created jobs in his Los Angeles community.
“In Pittsburg, a lot of people don’t have access to the industry, period,” he says of his desire to give back. “I want to be able to offer the things I’m learning here.” Pittsburg and Bay Point have rich hip-hop and rap communities, he notes, and that history is shaped by people like his family, who moved from Daly City, Richmond or Oakland to cheaper housing markets. For Padilla, the Bay Area’s musical landscape is also a story of affordability.
Padilla is still in the early stages of his career, and for now he’s laying the groundwork for his big vision. He drives his dad’s hand-me-down 1996 Toyota, and cooks enough to last through the week so he doesn’t have to eat out.
“To say you’re doing something else that isn’t the presupposed norm, it’s always the hardest rope to jump,” he says. “But once you’re doing it, I’ve found that you believe in yourself more. I may not be this or that, but none of that matters because I’m trying to do something much bigger.”
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.