You've heard it before, a thousand times: The Bay Area is really expensive to live in. And rising rents have made it harder than ever to be a working musician in San Francisco, Oakland, or Berkeley — but you already know that.
"I actually haven't read a positive piece on the culture of the city in many years," says Gregory Di'Martino, the lead singer and guitarist for O (formerly known as Black Cobra Vipers) and a resident of the Inner Sunset.
In a year where it's tough to find good news, Oakland's OIM Records is working to reverse the narrative of a declining Bay Area music scene. Led by Sarah Sexton, Angelica Tavella, and Jeff Saltzman — the latter of whom produced The Killers' 2004 classic Hot Fuss — are releasing their second annual compilation of 11 of the best rising bands in the Bay Area on July 22.
Made up of bands that Sexton, Tavella, and Saltzman have been obsessing over for the last few years, OIM: Vol II includes a punkier than usual track from Hot Flash Heat Wave, a stunning synth-pop song from Oakland's The Tambo Rays, an ethereal tune from Bells Atlas, and many more. Each of the 11 artists were given three days — completely free of charge — to record a song for the compilation in Skyline Studios with Saltzman and OIM'S official in-house producer Alex Oubre.
"To get what they're getting in his studio, not including his producing, they'd be paying five to 10 grand," Sexton explains. "Most of the people I know who have gotten that quality of recordings, they drop $10,000 into an album, and that's really not realistic for most musicians."
"It was really cool to be in that environment," Grayson Converse of Spooky Mansion says about the compilation sessions. "It gave you a taste of what a real producer was like."
But all three of OIM's founders had been the lifeblood for the Bay Area music scene long before OIM Records was created almost two years ago. Tavella — who also plays in TV Heads, and who is featured on OIM: Vol II — organized Oakland Drops Beats, a community-run music crawl in 2014 and 2015. Sexton, who had been in charge of local booking company Oaktown Indie Mayhem Productions, met Tavella when she was planning the first ODB event. Saltzman, a friend of Tavella's mother, suggested the idea of putting together a compilation of the best local acts while hanging out in the studio while Tavella was recording an album under her moniker Nyx. That first compilation came to fruition last July, featuring the likes of Foxtails Brigade, Waterstrider, and French Cassettes.
"When I met her, she just seemed so eager and hungry to find cool shit," Di'Martino says of Sexton. "When we got down to talking, she told me about her opinions of the music scene and how important it was for everyone to band together — and how there's been a little bit of an absence in that community of camaraderie among all of the bands to come together and represent where they're from."
The label's most recent signee, San Francisco surf rockers Hot Flash Heat Wave, were given six weeks to record their upcoming album while other labels offered a week or less.
"It would have been impossible to make our record without OIM," lead singer and guitarist Adam Abildgaard explains. "A lot of bigger labels put pressure on you, and [OIM] wants to give you what you need to make the best art that you can."
Extra resources that the small indie label provides a band can be invaluable. Especially in the Bay Area, where more of the average musician's money is going toward rent and everyday expenses, the fact that OIM offers extra studio time, PR, and more is a godsend, allowing a local band to make the highest quality work possible. But the label wants to make sure that most of the credit goes to the bands themselves.
"The same people would be making the same music regardless if we weren't there," Tavella says. "I think the main purpose is to facilitate a bunch of badass bands putting out music and having a support network. That's why we do it."
You can even hear it in Sexton's and Tavella's voices — their passion for a thriving Bay Area music scene is contagious and inspiring.
"For every bit of help I give these people, they don't know how much they've given me," Sexton replies when I relay some of the quotes from the bands featured on the new compilation. Though both Sexton and Tavella have full-time music industry jobs on top of running the label — plus, Tavella is currently on tour with TV Heads while Sexton still books shows around Oakland as well — they've sacrificed sleep for the betterment of their community.
There has been a much-publicized music diaspora out of the Bay Area, with artists like Ty Segall, John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees, Mikal Cronin, Jessica Pratt, Toro Y Moi, and many others leaving. Through this compilation, Sexton, Tavella, and Saltzman are providing artists a chance to prove themselves, to show the world that there is a lot of fight left in the San Francisco and Oakland scenes. Though many nationally recognized acts have moved to Los Angeles and elsewhere, the quality of music currently being made in the Bay Area is as good as ever, and OIM is simply giving artists a voice.
The next great Bay Area band is out there; Sexton, Tavella, and Saltzman are making sure they get heard.