Why Steve Nawara's eclectic Beehive label matters
Published: November 30, 2011
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.
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