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