About 200 folks, dressed to the nines in classic finery, gathered in the rental hall wing of the Irish-American club, the Gaelic League, a couple weeks ago to dance, drink, gab and otherwise make merry with an all-star revue of Detroit's independent music scene's finest.
These weren't Williamsburg-style, trust-funded hipsters or trend-chasing fashion victims simply making the scene. Rather, these were working Detroit musicians, artists, conspirators, co-conspirators and various stripes of supporters, day-job-subsidized creators gathering to celebrate their own. In short, it is the very epitome of Detroit's DIY spirit.
Since its founding in 2007 by longtime Detroit musician and scene catalyst Steve Nawara, Beehive has digitally released a consistent — and consistently eclectic — selection of sounds, a bona fide representation of Detroit's fertile music scene. Over the course of 37 releases, Beehive has evolved from a rock- and pop-centric endeavor (not that there's anything wrong with that, nor any shortage of talent in that sphere) to one that embraces funk, noisy-electro, country, folk and space rock.
Nawara — a 36-year-old Berkley native (and, tangentially, a descendent of Salem witch trials victim John Procter) — has seen the scene revolve a time or two over the past 15-plus years. He made a name for himself since the mid-'90s as a creative and capable bass player, guitarist, DJ and man-about-town. He's known for his work in hallmark Detroit bands Rocket 455, the Wildbunch/Electric Six, Conspiracy of Owls and others. And with Beehive, he puts his money — and experience — where his mouth is, clocking in as a label head on weekends after clocking out of his gardening day job.
Beehive — and Nawara — has established a successful presence by believing the customer is always right — even when it comes to setting prices.
A Beehive is born
Beehive was born equally out of frustration and idealism.
First, let's talk about the frustration: As a member of the Wildbunch/Electric Six, he enjoyed breakout success, hit records, a legitimate international fan base and the spoils of a relationship with a major label.
For a hot minute in 2003 and 2004, Electric Six had breakout minor hits — most prominently with "Danger! High Voltage!" but also with the song "Gay Bar" and "Dance Commander." These jams allowed the Electric Six to tour the European and UK festival circuit and earn a living as artists with the clout and support of a well-funded label in XL Records. Moreover, "Danger!" and "Gay Bar" have received numerous placements in ads and films, allowing the band members to receive a minor, consistent income since.
But part of the frustration that bore fruit with Beehive — for Nawara at least — was that the musicians were on the bottom rung of the ladder, minor beneficiaries of a system that took their work and sold and resold it.
Narawa saw firsthand where artists fit in the system: "You realize that the industry is paying themselves before they pay you. The lowest rung on the industry totem pole is the musician. And I have a hard time with that. A good deal for a major label is 3 to 4 cents a record, and to me that's rape and pillage."
But he also came to realize that the artists subsidize the high life of folks who often don't provide any real value in the musical supply chain.
"Don't get me wrong," Nawara says. "We met a lot of amazing people and had an amazing experience. But clearly something needs to be done.
"They treat the audience with the same respect as they treat the musicians — none at all. To be a part of that system is to be told, basically, 'Here's American Idol, shut the fuck up.'"
Between the time the Electric Six reached their peak popularity (around 2003-2004) and the time Nawara opened Beehive, the digital revolution had poked some gaping holes in the major music industry model — the largest of which was Radiohead releasing In Rainbows as a pay-what-you-want download. But let's not forget that MySpace — as outdated as it may seem now — made it de rigueur for indie bands to have their jams at least streaming to anyone who wanted to hear them.
Hot on the heels of MySpace's ubiquity were sites like Bandcamp, which customize sites for bands to stream their music and offer downloads at prices set by the bands (free if the bands like).
Somewhere between MySpace and the Bandcamps, Nawara figured there was a sweet spot for a new kind of label, one that was run by musicians and locally focused (and, importantly, quality-controlled).
"If you're going to have a fully digital business, you'd best have a smoothly functioning website. When Beehive first launched, that was one of its first growing pains. Even for 2008, the site was overdesigned, with drag 'n' drop menu interactivity and sound effects. In short, not up to the standards of ease and trust most require of anything sniffing e-commerce," he explains.
Analogous to the overdesigned site was Nawara's admittedly overly optimistic attitude.
At first, Nawara tried selling the music he recorded. He reckons that over the course of a couple years he netted about $100.
Knowing he had to retool, he "went to a fancy Internet place, and they were like, 'It'll be $14,000 to design the site,'" Nawara recalls.
After being told that in addition to being out 14 grand for the redesign, the site still wouldn't have the functionality he was looking for, Nawara made a crucial move: He asked someone he knew and trusted about the reality of programming the site he wanted. That person was Vince Mazzola, guitarist for Detroit rock band Gardens and — as it turns out — a hell of a programmer.
"And I went to Vince, and he was like, 'Hell, yeah, we can do that!'"
Vince went into the coding cave and shortly thereafter, a new, streamlined Beehive emerged.
Make no mistake: Beehive is a small independent label. Economically speaking, it's not moving the kinds of units of even larger boutique indie labels. But that's not the point. The point, according to Nawara, is to create an organic, sustainable model for a musician-driven label. The actual number of downloads — the most popular run into the mid-hundreds — are posted on Beehive's site and Nawara posts a weekly Top 10.
In a digital age when artists and musicians are turning to Kickstarter and other crowdsourcing sites to get their music funded, Beehive gave itself a kick-start by simply opening for business with low- to no-overhead and figuring it out along the way. Nawara hung out the digital shingle, offered the recorded wares for free, and asked anyone who was interested to donate money if they liked what they heard. Pretty simple, really.
"Musicians have three ways of making money: Touring, selling merchandise and selling their songs to commercials or TV or film. That's it. No one's making any money selling MP3s," Nawara says. "I could find and download any song by pretty much any artist I want to, whenever I want to. And I have no problem doing that. I encourage people to do that. Music wants to be free."
But like a hybrid between the singles clubs of the '90s and the fanclub-only 45s that have long been a staple of rock and pop music — with a dash of public radio and public TV member-supported camaraderie thrown in the mix — Beehive has established a new model for community-supported music. The deal is this: Provide your e-mail address and download all the free music from Beehive you want; if you like what you hear, and can throw a few shekels Beehive's way, great — you're a member.
The bands that release music via Beehive retain the rights to their songs, and the money that comes in to Beehive is reinvested in the studio and in site-hosting.
"The whole idea of Beehive," Nawara says, "is to skip the middleman. I want it to be a direct relationship between the band and the audience. My whole thing is transparency. If one of the bands came up to me and asked how much have we made in donations, I could and would tell them exactly."
For what it's worth, at the time of this writing, Beehive counts nearly 3,000 fans as members (people who have donated any amount of money), and they've made about $5,000 in donations.
A stool needs three legs to stand, and if legs No. 1 and 2 of the Beehive model are free downloads and locally curated sonic goodness, respectively, the third leg is its vertical integration. Nawara records nearly every Beehive release himself, in his home studio in the Woodbridge neighborhood, which many of Detroit's rock scene call home.
And his roommates just happen to double as his house band. Drummer Ben Luckett is known on the scene for his powerful, metronomic and versatile chops. Bassist Jake Culkowski — like Nawara — is a member of local rock supergroup Conspiracy of Owls and leads his own brain-burning outfit Magic Jake & the Power Crystals.
So when an artist like singer-songwriter Laura Finlay or out-there awesome Internet wunderkind Duane the Teenage Weirdo needs a trio of folks to step up and flesh out their sounds, Luckett, Nawara and Culkowski are part of the Beehive package. For the Beehive Ball, the house band was rounded out by a few ringers too, who have contributed to Beehive's success. The band that night included guitarist Jackson and keyboardist Jesse Smith (Detroit siblings who should be a secret to no one at this point considering their parentage — Patti and Fred "Sonic" Smith — is just the opening line on CVs that include world tours with Elton John and pretty mind-blowing solo work).
The genius of the Beehive model is keeping the overhead low to nonexistent so that when opportunities arise, the most money possible finds its way back to the artist.
And as Beehive has hit critical mass and become more well-known these last few months, those opportunities are presenting themselves.
Jesse Smith recently brought in an opportunity to record some music for a Coach handbag campaign.
"I didn't even know what Coach handbags were," says Nawara with a laugh. "They're really hoity-toity handbags!"
What's more, the recent trend of Detroit-based advertising agencies sourcing music locally may have created some interesting future opportunities for the Beehive crew. (Nawara is loath to say on the record exactly who and jinx things.)
For his part, Nawara — like most current underground artists who rely on the beneficence of cool-hunters bird-dogging original sounds to associate their brands with — has no compunction about providing music for the advertising industry.
"Before, the music industry was an open market and strange little novelty records could be regional hits and radio really played a ton of different music, and you could discover great records that were made around the corner — literally!
"Really, commercials are kind of like the new radio," Nawara says.
"I hate to say that, 'cause it's awful that radio is so bad now. But a lot of bands get discovered through commercials. Musicians don't have much of a choice. A commercial's going to get played thousands of times around the world. Radio stations only really play the same 47 songs every day, and that's barely a pin drop."
"I knew it was going to happen, but it happened a lot sooner than I imagined," Nawara says.
Building a buzz
For Nawara, the beating heart of the Beehive is the recording studio. It's where the threads of his passions come together, where his humility meets his skills, where his bonhomie meets his expert ear, where actual music gets created.
Whether it's accomplished veterans like Jackson Smith and Blackman knocking on his door or new blood like Duane the Teenage Weirdo or Growing Pains, the recording experience for Nawara has a — perhaps counterintuitive — consistency.
"It always starts off with uncertainty," he says. "I don't think there's a single person that walks in like, 'We got this shit.' That's important because that means the artist is humble. And I'm humble. And we're starting from the same place to try to understand each other right away."
The first decision sets the tone for what follows, Nawara says.
"The first thing I ask the band is whether they're into a high-fidelity or low-fidelity recording."
With expectations set appropriately, the real work can get started.
"You just start doing it," Nawara says simply. "You get in there and you do it and you do your goddamned best to make sure it sounds good and you make sure the band's happy."
Equally important to Beehive's approach is remaining open to mistakes. Nawara says he takes particular pride in creating a safe place to find happy accidents and the revelations that can come from being free to fail.
"You're supposed to make mistakes," Nawara says. "This is the place you go to to make mistakes. [The musicians] hear [their] music under a microscope. So, naturally, things pop out that you never heard before. And it can make you feel like you're not as good a musician as you thought. But it shouldn't! Sometimes, like with the Growing Pains the other day, they can hear that maybe they're a little better than they thought!"
It's the nature of the beast that most studio heads, producers and engineers are, at some level, musicians themselves. But it's also true that bands and artists often turn to a studio to get a certain sound, to capture associative magic created by other bands — and the hands of whoever runs the boards. When you listen to a cross-section of Beehive releases, it's clear that Nawara's artist-driven, case-by-case approach is different. There's no questioning Nawara's bona fides. But his recording philosophy is different. In hockey terms, he's more Reg Dunlop than Scotty Bowman.
"I got to record at Abbey Road, which was pretty thrilling," Nawara recalls of his days in the Electric Six. "But the way they have it set up — and the way a lot of studios have it set up — is that the engineer is upstairs and we're downstairs, and you have to use an intercom every time you have to talk to someone. It's tough to communicate.
"I don't have a separate sound room. I like being in the room. You can have a very clear conversation. You can just talk to the band directly, and I think that makes everyone feel unified."
The clean, unified, monotonous sound of modern radio is anathema to the Beehive ethos, an ethos that emphasizes capturing a moment, a feeling, that je ne sais quoi that makes all artists worth their salt in this anomaly-rich town unique.
"That whole, 'compress everything, make sure everything's perfectly audible and nice and clean and shiny...' I just don't see any variation on that," Nawara says.
"You listen to Little Richard, and he's screaming into the mic, and it goes into the red, and they're like, 'Leave it.' It sends shivers down your spine.
"Professional engineers would be breathing down my neck and saying, 'You're an idiot,'" Nawara says.
"I'd say, you may know your tools, but you don't know how to use 'em. Are you the master of your tools or are the tools your master?"
By Nawara's reckoning, they do 80 percent of their recordings in the manner of that other Detroit label, Motown — live band, in the room together, cueing, catching vibes and working off each other. And when the house band is as strong as Beehive's, that can be a powerful difference.
"I don't accept apologies," Nawara says. "You hear that knock on the door, open the door, and feel that uncertainty. But when you close the door, I've never felt like we hadn't made something really worthwhile. It's always been like, 'Yeah, we got that shit!'"
If there's a knock against Detroit's music scene from an outsider's perspective, it's that it's still mired in the backward-looking rock sounds of the late-'90s and early-2000s. But that's simply not the case. Honestly, it's never been the case, but the hype often outweighs the reality. Detroit's underground is always strongest when operating by its own rules, populated by artists who hew to an idiosyncratic vision. There's no better way to get a snapshot of that fertility than by sampling the wares cranked out by Nawara and his Beehive compatriots and conspirators.
There is likely nowhere else in the world you will hear and be able to download for free as diverse a mix of music as Beehive. Psychedelic rock duo Dark Red is a quick scroll away from campy rapper esQuire; Bad Party's electro-noise conflagration snuggles up with a quick mouse drag to Jackson Smith's intricate country guitar picking; mysterious space rock outfit Unicornium ("I still have no idea who they are," Nawara avers), are neighbors to Detroit hip-hop and funk original the Blackman. The sense of discovery and diversity goes on down the page and direct to your hard drive. And it's all from just around the way.
The power of hearing and exposing people to new music, new musical art — and shining a light on as many fantastic acts from the Detroit scene, regardless of genre — has become a driving passion for Nawara.
"There is an absolute purpose for music and art, and if people don't see that they don't have a soul," he says.
"We've gotten to the point where we're so cold intellectually or so physically driven that the spirit is dying. And this is why music and art are so important. It makes you believe you can do things! This has awoken my spirit to a whole other level. And I'm seeing it with other musicians. And we're doing it together."
Like anyone, Nawara started where he was. With what he knew and loved. When Beehive started, his "A&R" side was (and remains) neighborly and organic.
"Initially, it kind of just happened, like, 'Hey, let's record this.' Mike Walker and Cuckold were the guinea pigs."
His most recent release, Duane the Teenage Weirdo, happened organically too. Nawara had caught Duane on a bill with Beehive artists Dark Red. After the show he went online, found a bevy of Duane's jams and videos and got excited about the prospect of working with him.
More often, he says, he gets requests from bands looking to release jams.
"I hate turning people down," he says. "I want people to express themselves, but I can barely keep up with music within the Detroit city limits. I had no idea! Things start popping out. I've been spending some time at the Jazz Loft in Greektown. And I met this guy named Clarence who played with Wild Cherry. And he came up to me — and I couldn't believe it — but he wanted to record with me!
"I mean, when Blackman was down there recording, he brought an all-star cast of people from Motown and Parliament and Thornetta Davis' band! When you first look at Beehive, it's a bunch of white kids playing rock and roll. That's where I started. But the more you meet people, the more I want to release polka music and mariachi music and Middle Eastern music — to make Beehive a completely accurate cross-section of the city. You just go from catalyst to catalyst to catalyst," he says enthusiastically.
For Nawara, it's that leap from moment-to-moment, person-to-person that has been both edifying and inspiring.
"For many years I knew I had connections to the music industry, but I was too timid to shake it up. And in the city, you knock on a door and it leads to other doors," he says.
"It's serendipitous. But once you ask, it's inspiring and it gives me a lot of love for the human race, really.
"All the people who come to Beehive — it's a humbling experience. Jackson Smith gets off tour with Elton john and comes down to my dingy basement," he says, laughing.
"There are so many people who want to contribute, I don't know if I can keep up. Every day it's a different adventure."
Besides assuring that there is a constant stream of top-quality Detroit sounds available to webizens worldwide — and making the wildly successful Beehive Ball an annual event — that daily sense of adventure has pushed Nawara in some interesting directions. Next on his event horizon is a summer soiree called the Silver Boogie Jubilee ("I'm not sure what the name means, it came to me in a dream," he says); he'd like to hold it, Bob-Lo Boat-style, as a revue on the Detroit River. More ambitiously, he's also considering opening up Beehive chapters in other locales.
"It'd be like a VFW or a Knights of Columbus, where there's a central lodge that provides support. But I can imagine there being a Memphis Beehive Local."
In fact, he's already talking to folks from Stockholm, Sweden, about the idea. A couple of new friends from Sweden who were in Detroit on vacation this summer — and for whom Nawara acted as tour guide — have expressed interest, and he's hoping to visit Stockholm with that notion in mind soon. Naturally, into this mix he also has plans to establish a Beehive studio that is not also attached to his home.
"For my peace of mind it's good to leave the house," he says.
But for now, the momentum that is building around the little label driven by Nawara and his friends — friends both longtime and brand-new and who sometimes seem to comprise the whole of the downtown music scene — is enough to get through for one day. Making a difference one recording at a time and putting your time and money behind your belief is a powerful way to do more than make a living.
"This is what I want to do for my life," says Nawara simply. "I make no qualms about it."