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Sound Works? 

Tony Espinoza poured his dot-com millions into the fanciest music studio in town. With balls like that, who needs street cred?

Wednesday, Jun 9 2004
It's late afternoon when a friend and I park in front of the flophouses and a homeless outreach center and walk down the small inlet that is Natoma Street. The alley is redolent with the smell of urine as we head toward SF Soundworks, a newly opened recording studio. My buddy is anxious to meet the members of Death Angel, the late-'80s thrash metal icons tracking their first album in 14 years. But I'm itching to shake hands with the studio's owner, Tony Espinoza, who earned himself a comfy nest egg back in the days of wine and IPOses, and who now wants to build a thriving independent music scene around his new audio playground. It seems this member of the same dot-community that drove bands out of their rehearsal spaces a few years ago is now trying, in his words, to "bring the music back to San Francisco." This I've got to see.

"My goal is to ... have the facilities that [musicians and producers] would have if they were going to L.A. or New York," Espinoza explains as he shows us around Soundworks. "So if you look at the gear setup and everything, it's all the usual suspects, it's all the stuff that people are used to making records with, plus a few more extras."

Make that a lot more extras. Today, any schmo with a couple grand can buy the gear to record an album. Espinoza is that schmo, except that he had a couple million to spend on Soundworks. The results of four years of designing, building, and wiring are on display in the sleek half-dozen rooms that make up the downstairs, with its two control rooms, Studio A and Studio B. The latter is a small, state-of-the-art mixing and overdubbing room; the former a super-size tracking room. With its enormous mixing console -- a custom-built Solid State Logic 9072 J Series, the only one of its kind in San Francisco -- and vast array of colored modules and machines, Studio A looks like the bridge of the Star Trek Enterprise.

"There's 1,500 lines that run through all this stuff, through the floors, up into this patch bay panel," Espinoza explains. "You've got equipment that's just released in the last few months, all the way back to 1953. You've got old '50s compressors, '60s stuff, '70s console stuff from Neve. And you might use any number of these things just to get one sound."

Then there's the upstairs.

Above the control rooms are two giant, cathedral-esque lofts, one of which is where Espinoza lives. The other has the charm of your parents' bonus room -- except that it's three stories high and comes equipped with an expensive Pro Tools recording system, a gourmet kitchen, two fancy bedrooms, hardwood floors, skylights, a bathroom with heated towel racks and side-by-side showers, and a balcony (with wet bar) offering a compelling panoramic view of SOMA. If you were a rapper and bling-bling was your thing, you could shoot a video here and it would impress your peeps. But if you were an indie rocker shopping for an inspiring place to record, Soundworks might make you want to vomit. Which raises the question: What kind of self-respecting music community would rally around a former AOL VP?

With luck, it'll be ours.

Tony Espinoza is a visionary, and like most visionaries, he walks a fine line between idealism and lunacy. As he and we all know, the record industry is in its worst slump ever. Bands aren't recording albums like they used to, and when they do, they mainly do so on a tight budget, in New York or Los Angeles. Most recording professionals in this city believe the salad days of the San Francisco studio scene have come to an end -- and they aren't coming back.

Espinoza disagrees, and he's put his money -- nearly all of it, he claims -- where his mouth is with Soundworks. His plan is twofold: to attract big-budget projects to his big-budget space, and to use the revenues he collects from those deep pockets to subsidize the cost of recording no-budget albums by promising local bands.

Some think his noble effort is too little, too late.

"I don't think it's necessarily the case of, 'If you build it they will come,'" says Glynn Durham, who co-owns a low-budget studio called Closer Recordings located down the street from Soundworks. Closer is a modest facility compared to its neighbor, but like its sister studio across town, Tiny Telephone, it stays open because, unlike Espinoza, its owners have a history in the local music scene. "If I was a dot-com millionaire," Durham continues, "and I had 2 million bucks to drop and I got together with all my buddies and we spent 2 million on all the best shit and we were here in San Francisco, I don't think that people would just rush in the door."

It's easy to be skeptical of Espinoza. For one thing, he's rich. And not I-wrote-the-theme-song-to-Friends rich, but I-had-the-key-to-the-executive-washroom-for-one-of-the-largest-media-conglomerates-in-the-solar-system rich. Then there are the bling-bling lofts, the too-slick rhetoric, the fact that, as a computer executive for the past 15 years, Espinoza has little in the way of street cred. But the more I hang out with him, the more such suspicions melt away.

"Every time I meet a new person," he explains, "every time I bring someone into the studio, I know they're wondering, 'How did this happen?' [Former KCRW DJ] Chris Douridas asked me, 'Did you win the lottery?' I'm not offended by those questions at all, as long as I know that people are open-minded enough to get to know me apart from the money."

Like a lot of dot-commers, Espinoza is the whiz kid who grew up too fast, so he's smart, tireless, and eloquent, but also wildly optimistic and perhaps a little naive. This combination of qualities is precisely why Espinoza's vision can -- and should -- work: He can think and talk and manage like a programmer, but as a music producer he can just as easily massage creative ideas out of an aloof bunch of players, as if he'd been in bands all his life. Espinoza is the epitome of art and commerce working together. And as anyone familiar with the music business knows, it's the disproportion of these two ideas -- indie culture is too fixated on the former, major-label culture focuses on nothing but the latter -- that has led to the current state of things. Perhaps the best solution is for the two to shake hands, make up, and focus on the future. And if that's the case, Tony Espinoza may be one of the best allies our local scene has.

As hard as it is to tell from his stylishly short black hair, designer slacks, and fitted black T-shirts -- not to mention his precise way of speaking, which resembles a Power Point presentation -- Tony Espinoza is a musician at heart. The 32-year-old's return to the recording fold is, in some ways, his means of picking up where he left off decades ago, back when he had a band and worked at a record store, back before the science expedition to the Mediterranean at age 17, before the scholarship from Stanford and the series of high-profile jobs led him away from his first love.

"It's hard to separate the detours from the road," he says. "They all kind of blend together, and get you someplace in the end."

Espinoza grew up in Dallas, in what he describes as a poor neighborhood. His father, John, is Mexican-Italian; his mother, Satoko, emigrated from Japan when she was 25. John was a clerk at the post office, while Satoko stayed at home to raise Tony and his younger brother. Espinoza's mother remembers that her older son excelled in music as early as elementary school, winning local competitions as a young trumpeter. "At the time I thought, 'Hmmm, he might be in an orchestra or symphony. He's gonna play around the world,'" she says, speaking from the home Espinoza purchased for her four years ago (many members of the Dallas Cowboys live in the neighborhood). "And then there was a math contest, and he was top, top all the time. ... When he came into fourth grade, his teacher asked me, 'Can I keep Tony after school? I'd like to teach him and see how far he can go.'"

He went pretty far, as it turned out, excelling in math, science, and computing. "To me," Espinoza explains, "[programming] was like a blank slate, complete blank. And what do you want it to do?"

In high school, Espinoza took a 45-minute bus ride to a special school for advanced students. He was captain of the computer team ("Which in the '80s was kind of a novelty") and developed an "obsession" with marine biology. Despite a heavy workload, he also found time to work at Bill's Records (the Amoeba Music of Dallas) and play bass in a band called the Search Party. "Our favorite songs to cover were, like, Dead Kennedys, Joy Division," he says. The group earned a decent following by gigging around town and caught the ear of A&R reps at Island Records, though the act never signed to a label.

In 1989, the budding marine biologist won second place in a county science fair, which was enough to grab the attention of a company called Electronic Data Systems (owned by Ross Perot). EDS was putting together the first installment of the Jason Project, an expedition led by marine biologist Robert Ballard (who discovered the Titanic).

"They wanted to put a kid in this expedition to be the link between the big scientists and the people watching," Espinoza explains. "In the course of two weeks, I go from getting a phone call to being in Italy, about to get on a ship that's going out to the middle of the Mediterranean to send robots and subs down to the ocean floor."

When he arrived back home after two weeks at sea, Espinoza found that the members of the Search Party had grown tired of their bassist's absence; shortly thereafter, the band dissolved. Fortunately, at the same time EDS had offered him a position in one of its advanced technology labs. "They had all these computers, all the new things coming out -- a new computer that Steve Jobs created called the NeXT Computer. They had this thing called HDTV. ... It was the lab of the future, basically." He took the job.

The next year, shortly after his parents divorced, Espinoza went off to Stanford, where he double-majored in music technology and computer engineering; in addition, he parlayed his experience and contacts at EDS into a 30-hour-a-week job at Apple. Once again, he found himself having to choose between music and computing.

"Computer science was a heavy load at Stanford," he says. "To do that and computer music was pretty much killing me. I was doing both, and working at Apple. It was not fun."

After less than two years at Stanford, Espinoza dropped out. From there, his résumé reads like a tech geek's dream: Apple begat, which begat Diamond Multimedia, which begat the company that Espinoza and two partners founded, In 1999, he sold the latter to AOL for a reported $200 million and went to work for Steve Case's empire. There he was a VP of music services and helped guide the company's acquisitions of WinAmp,, and, eventually, Time Warner. Still, he wasn't satisfied. In January 2000 he paid $1.5 million for the property at 544 Natoma -- then a small post-production facility used for sound design on such TV shows as Nash Bridges -- and left AOL.

"Music has always been his passion, perhaps the biggest passion he has," remembers Louis Lao, who, as VP of engineering at, shared an office with Espinoza. That his former colleague might want to "focus" on music "is not surprising to me at all. ... Tony is the kind of person who would make such transitions to pursue his dreams."

"I just wanted to get back to doing what I wanted to do from the very beginning, which was make records," says Espinoza. "And then I started thinking very selfishly: What would I need to have a successful music career in San Francisco? That led to me thinking, 'How does the world have to change in order for anyone to build a successful career making records here?'"

The answer, to Espinoza, was that San Francisco didn't just need a multimillion-dollar recording studio (although, hey, couldn't hurt, right?). What it needed most of all was a reinvigorated music community, which is what he set out to give it.

"I cannot see a reason to build a huge recording facility in San Francisco. I don't see it," says Philip Steir. Steir lives in Los Angeles now, where he works as a producer and remixer, but before he moved he co-owned one of S.F.'s most successful studios, Toast. Opened in 1996, Toast had a solid six-year run; its client list included Neil Young, R.E.M., No Doubt, Third Eye Blind, and the Donnas, among others. Despite a long list of high-profile clients, though, Toast shut its doors in June 2002.

"The very simple reason why Toast closed," Steir explains, "was that bands stopped making albums in San Francisco. Album projects ended."

Other local studio veterans bear his story out. Nina Bombardier, for example, manages Fantasy Studios in Berkeley. She explains that Fantasy has been able to stay afloat by diversifying; these days the facility hosts people like foley artists and motion picture sound designers. Bands seldom record there anymore. A similar situation has occurred at the Plant Studios in Sausalito, where owner Arne Frager has expanded his business model to include an artist management and development program and DVD production. Fantasy Studios and Plant Studios are legends within the Bay Area scene, but both Bombardier and Frager acknowledge that fewer albums are being made in their big-budget studios these days than ever before. "[Bands] don't have record deals and budgets and money up front and 'Here's $150,000, go in for eight weeks and make a good record,'" says Bombardier. "Those days are over."

One of the few studios around town that still has bands cycling through it is Tiny Telephone, in Potrero Hill. Owned by local musician John Vanderslice, Tiny has managed to survive by offering the same extremely low rates to both prestigious indie bands (Death Cab for Cutie, Spoon) and local up-and-comers (Deerhoof, Erase Errata); the studio is booked solid for months at a time. This accomplishment is due in large part to the fact that Vanderslice, to put it simply, is one cool motherfucker: Bands know him, they've toured with him, they own his solo records. But though Tiny attracts indie darlings, the business only skates by. "People ask me, 'How do you sell out every month?'" says Vanderslice. "And I say the same thing: 'I am totally, completely under market, by 50 percent, 60 percent.' ... The only way that I could ever sustain it is that I have always had outside jobs."

Tony Espinoza, of course, doesn't have as many financial limitations as a touring musician like Vanderslice. The former VP owns his building outright; he doesn't have to make rent every month. He also owns the millions of dollars' worth of gear inside, most of which he's been collecting for years as a hobbyist. He insists, however, that he's not that rich -- that he, like every other dot-commer, lost a fortune in the crash, which occurred just after he purchased the Natoma building and began costly renovations.

"I took it in the shorts in that process," Espinoza assures me. "I went from having enough to do a lot of different things and this being one of them to 'What am I going to do?' And I said, 'This is it.' So this can't be a charity, this can't be a Sundance [Institute]. This has to be a self-sustaining small business. And it can have a higher purpose, but I've got to make a certain amount of money."

When it comes to the notion that what little money is being spent on making records is not being spent in San Francisco, Espinoza is optimistic, as always. He points out that over the past few months business at Soundworks has been steady. Granted, only a few bands, such as Death Angel, have recorded entire albums here, but Espinoza's been able to stay afloat by booking the occasional special project, as when Alanis Morissette spent a few days here recording acoustic tracks for a future iTunes promotion.

One of the reasons Espinoza gets by when business is less than booming is that he has little in the way of expenses. Soundworks has one paid staff member, 25-year-old Boone Spooner (son of guitarist Bill Spooner, of local pop-rock legends the Tubes), and 12 interns. His company has no receptionist.

"We all act as receptionist," Espinoza explains. "Up until 1 o'clock in the morning, I'll come down here and answer the door."

In keeping his overhead low, Espinoza has created a business model whereby a single heavy hitter booked for a few days a week in Soundworks' Studio A -- as Morissette, Vanessa Carlton, and George Winston have been recently -- means he can afford to rent the large space to local bands on the cheap. Toward that end, Studio A rents on a sliding scale, from as low as a few hundred bucks to as high as $2,000 a day. What's more, he's got the upstairs "cafe" studio, which he rents for $10 an hour, and the smaller Studio B, which rents for $350 a day -- the same amount Tiny Telephone charges. The idea is that up to three projects can be under way simultaneously: for example, one band tracking downstairs in Studio A, another mixing in Studio B, and a third adding overdubs and additional sounds to a given song upstairs. One of his main goals with Soundworks is to get musicians out of their garages and home studios and back into a collaborative environment -- something that everybody I talked to for this story thinks is a necessary step in creating a vibrant music community.

"Everyone is privately off making records in their bedrooms, and there's very little exchange of artistry, performance, or technical information," observes Count, who started as an intern at Toast and who's now a successful freelance remixer/producer, having worked with local acts like Lyrics Born and Blackalicious as well as the Velvet Underground's John Cale at Soundworks a few months ago. "It's sad -- it's like there won't ever be another Motown scene, or another Bristol scene, or even a Seattle scene, because one of the primary components is missing."

That primary component -- what can only be referred to as the "vibe" of a place, the feeling of community spirit that brings out the best work among a group of artists -- is what will make or break Soundworks. The older studios around town seem to have lost it. Tiny Telephone has it, but is still making payments on it. What it would take for Espinoza to create it at Soundworks would be for a handful of credible local acts to take a chance on a shiny new studio and its atypical owner. They'd need to put their preconceptions aside and trust that there's more to Espinoza than big money and big talk. Already, there are a few that have taken that chance.

It's noon on a bright, sunny Tuesday in May, not that you could gauge the weather inside the windowless Studio A, where Espinoza, Spooner, four interns, and the members of local atmospheric pop-rock quintet Elephone have assembled to begin putting the finishing touches on the band's forthcoming EP. Today, Elephone is recording a new song, so Espinoza's crew is milling about like worker ants, setting up mikes, drums, guitar amps, keyboards, and other equipment.

An hour earlier, Espinoza and I had been talking at a cafe around the corner. When I'd asked about his time at AOL, he'd laid out the circumstances behind his departure, how he had foreseen that the company's expansion into music was too early, that it would be years before music and the Internet would profit from a marriage. When the VP in Espinoza comes out, it's obvious: He knows the names of all the CEOs and major players, knows and can explain why this or that management decision resulted in this or that profit or loss.

"I left on the kind of terms," he said of his exit, "where Barry [Schuler], who was the CEO at the time, told me that I was leaving $40 million on the table."

But that was an hour ago. Right now, seated in a swivel chair in front of his mixing board, a pencil tucked behind his ear and his foot tapping like an anxious schoolboy's, Espinoza is every inch the producer. He's in the zone, managing his handful of young interns with a gentle touch. Spinning in his chair, he grabs a CD and throws it on the control room's warm, ultra-high-fidelity system.

As the opening plucked bass notes of Interpol's "The New" smother the studio, the business of plugging and unplugging, cueing and adjusting, takes on a kind of rhythm, like a movie montage. This is Espinoza's own mix CD; in addition to Interpol it includes tracks by Swallow, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and My Bloody Valentine. Espinoza is big into '80s shoegazer stuff.

"I'm trying to get my ears turned on. ... There's different kinds of listening. There's listening on an analytic level," he explains, referring to our earlier conversation, "and there's listening on an emotional level."

For the rest of the day, he'll be doing a lot of the latter.

"What's this song about?" Espinoza asks the members of Elephone.

"That's hard to say," responds guitarist Terry Ashkinos.

"That's what every band says," the producer counters. Eventually Espinoza gets it out of them.

"We're trying to break down the routine of the everyday. This is a haunting song," says guitarist/keyboardist Maurie Skinfull.

"Haunting, that helps."

After 20 minutes of conversation, Espinoza sends the band into the studio. He has stuck two pieces of tape on the mixing console in front of him, one with the word "haunting" written on it, the other with the phrase "darkness before the dawn, but the dawn might not come." It takes band and producer seven more hours of subtly tweaking each element, but eventually they get the song right: It sounds urgent, a little desperate, and, yes, haunting.

Before Elephone found its way to Soundworks, the group was working at Plant Studios, but ran out of money and time. When Elephone's drummer, Gavin Haag, an intern at Soundworks, pleaded the band's case to his boss, Espinoza took the fivesome in, offering them his staff, his producing abilities, and the full use of Studio A. This kind of package anywhere else would cost well over $2,000 a day; Elephone booked its day for a couple hundred.

"He's essentially taking major-label culture and using it to finance independent acts," says Skinfull. "[Yesterday] they had Vanessa Carlton in here with Stephan Jenkins [of Third Eye Blind] producing parts of her new record. He's not going to make money off bands that he really values; he's going to make money off bands that are already established, that don't really have a local following."

Adds vocalist Ryan Lambert, imitating someone divvying up a pile of money, "He's kind of doing this: 'Thank you very much, and put it over here.'"

In addition, according to the band members, Espinoza seemed genuinely invested in their music and eager to help them succeed.

"Tony will work with you with the project," Ashkinos says, "whereas the Plant is just about how many hours are you going to work, then pay by the hour. ... When we met Tony and we talked to him, he was instantly inspiring, because he's interested in the songs and the band, not just the recording. He wants to know what the songs are trying to translate. He came to our show when we played live. We got a lot more artistic vision out of him than we got out of the first guy we were working with."

"There's the luxury of, Tony's already made his money," Ashkinos continues. "So he can do it for the sake of the music and the art. Whereas most studios are barely keeping the bills together, and you feel that when you walk in the door."

Is it crazy to imagine a world where the Billboard charts are dominated by bands instead of products? Crazy to imagine that popular music could once again be dominated by albums instead of singles? Perhaps it is, but then again, it was once crazy to imagine the Internet. Espinoza brings to his current endeavor the same blind optimism he had for the Net, an attitude that, as he puts it, "all the stuff that we were building was going to change the world." For there to be a chance in hell of the art and commerce sides of the music biz overcoming their seemingly irreconcilable differences, a similar kind of optimism will have to grow and spread. Espinoza has planted one of the first seeds.

"This isn't really an institution, and this isn't a company," he says. "It's me. The stuff that it represents is what's in my heart. And I'm just trying my best to keep all those things honest and put all those things out there, because I believe that when you put your heart out there, and engage the world with it, that's when shit happens. ... I kind of drank the Kool-Aid pretty early on in terms of believing that dreams come true and people can make things happen. So I've never had any problem with taking those kinds of leaps of faith."

About The Author

Garrett Kamps


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