If you ran into Stephen Nawara nine years ago, he was probably off touring as the bassist of the Detroit-based band, Electric Six. Some of their top 10 hits include songs like “Danger High Voltage,” and most recently, “Gay Bar.” But now he volunteers 40 hours of his time outside of his day job to work on his record label, The Beehive Recording Company.
“I would describe it as a music preservation society,” Nawara said. “In a nutshell, what we do is record bands from Detroit. We record them for free; we put them up on our website as a downloadable single. So it’s a totally new idea in the music industry and so far it is growing exponentially.”
Where's the money?
Nawara has been on the inside of the music industry and said most artists do not make a lot of money off of record sales. Originally, Beehive did charge for downloads, but when Nawara let fans pick their own price, sales actually went up. He said it was a good thing to remove the wall telling people what to pay for and listen to.
“But when all [of a] sudden [the wall is] gone, people get along better, people are freer, they’re more generous, they are more respectful of each other,” Nawara said. “Donations are a little slow right now, but I also understand it is Detroit. That’s another reason why it was for free, no one can afford anything. We are all broke; we are broke Detroiters, you know.”
Justin Walker is a Detroit musician who plays with a few bands in the city. He recently worked with the Beehive Recording Company for a solo project. Walker records his music all the time and would post it on his social networking sites for his friends to see. He says having his music on Beehive’s website allows his music to branch out beyond his immediate friend group. And he says he doesn’t care that people can download his songs for free.
“I’m totally into it. I just want exposure,” Walker said.
Branding Detroit's sound
While websites like Kickstarter help fund albums when musicians work independently, and Bandcamp allows fans to name their price on albums and tracks, Walker says the problem with sites like that is that the library is so broad that it is overwhelming to sort through and find music.
“The thing about the Beehive, it’s more like a label or a collective, it’s kind of more branded. You get familiar with a roster or a staple of artists that are associated with it," Walker said. "Speaking of Detroit music, even like Motown or Stax, or any sort of label that you could go to and you know that there’s a quality or there’s a sound.”
And that’s exactly what Nawara is trying to do: to preserve Detroit’s local sound. A sound Nawara describes as raw and gritty.
“No one here is trying to appease anyone. It’s people making music for music sake, and in New York, Los Angeles, London, because of what the music industry says, they change their sound. They volunteer to change their sound. As a musician, I think you’re crazy to do that,” Nawara said.
The Beehive Recording Company has recorded around 50 singles since it relaunched almost two years ago. Nawara records all genres, from rock 'n' roll, hip-hop and punk, to a jug band and a Russian folk singer. He says it doesn’t matter what the genre is, the artists have to be from Detroit so he can preserve the city’s musical colloquialisms. And maybe someday, Nawara and, his artists will make a profit.
Support for arts and cultural reporting on Michigan Radio comes in part from a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Emily Fox- Michigan Radio Newsroom