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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
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"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.

About The Author

Garrett Kamps

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