Zoo Labs Brings Bands and Tech Startups Together Under One Roof

Can musicians benefit from startup culture?

Here's an interesting notion: bands and tech startups are essentially the same thing—entrepreneurs. Or at least that's how Vinitha Watson and Anna Acquistapace see it with their Zoolabs space, a new creative incubator designed to nurture music and tech startups.

Based in Oakland, the two met at the California College of the Arts Design Strategy MBA program. Watson, a former Google employee, caught the startup buzz while in India building a Google satellite office, and decided she wanted to transport culture and build an organization. Acquistapace, who formerly produced films in Paris, and worked with artists in gallery settings, became interested in leveraging her design consultancy background into community building in a dedicated space. Thus, Zoo Labs was born, which also includes Didier Sylvain and Dario Slavazza.

"We wanted to incubate a lot of artists, but we were coming up against a lot of unsuccessful models of giving support or understanding why things weren't being disseminated into the world," said Watson. "It got me thinking about what artists need to bring their work out into the world."

Watson and Acquistapace recently took some time to talk about the challenges of fusing music and tech in a single startup incubator. As music industry outsiders, they see a simple solution to the problem: like tech startups, musicians simply need the right environment and tools to better push their ideas out into the world. While Watson and Acquistapace are encouraged by the early efforts at Zoo Labs, only time will tell if the tech startup approach, where coding experience and better social media strategies, provides a real, measurable impact on bands' fortunes.

MOTHERBOARD: What's interesting about music startups is the pro-active approach to solving the large-scale problem plaguing the music industry; which is that the revenue model was forever ruined by the internet and piracy. It's really a defeatist attitude. It's great when music startups try to do something. Was that part of the motivation?

Watson: I really haven't encountered that defeatist attitude. We come from a design strategy background, where it's all about figuring out what the problem is, tinkering with it, and finding a solution that really affects the behavior chain and products that are out there and meaningful. When we started this project, Anna was interviewing people, and one of the greatest outcomes of her research is that musicians are entrepreneurs. That kind of helped frame things for us.

Musicians are really resilient. They find ways to continue their passion, or find ways to make things work. We were really curious about those aspects of what people are doing. When we got into it, we thought that maybe they just needed a little reframing and strategic tools, as well as a place to record. That's kind of how the Zoo Labs residency was born. And we have technology startups in our space, and they're not dissimilar. They just talk in different languages.

The Boston Boys at Zoo Labs first residency.

Acquistapace: For us, being in the Bay Area, which has an enormous entrepreneurial population, one of the really unique things that we offer is this perspective of entrepreneurship. In the 21st century, part of being a musician is building a company. They're using the same tools, like trying to get traction on social media. They're trying to pitch their ideas to record labels the same way that entrepreneurs are pitching their ideas. It's an interesting overlap.

In the Bay Area, do you feel that people in bands are actually making a living as tech developers?

Watson: I think it extends way beyond the Bay Area. I think that music is a dynamic way to think, and it uses more of the brain than most things, and so does programming. There is quite a crossover. One thing that our other programmer says a lot is that when he was programming he was being creative in a musical way.

Acquistapace: I think that musicians are dealing with some of the same things that startup entrepreneurs are dealing with. Because we're serving both of those communities, we've had these amazing overlaps where engineers, who have been coding until 3:00 a.m., will come out and run into musicians coming out of the recording studio. We've heard how nice it is to have people in the space at that hour. They're both passionate about their projects, and we're finding these experiences really interesting.

Any other notable experiences?

Acquistapace: We started a programming class here where we're teaching the community the Python programming language. It was really great to hear Chief Xcel from Blackalicious say, “Yeah, this is like learning an instrument.” These are really powerful crossovers that we are finding.

What projects have come out of the startup lab?

Acquistapace: We've had five companies in our startup lab so far. It's an early stage co-working space. We attract music tech companies because we have the recording studio. Musikara came through the startup lab, and they're working on a very technical music tech problem, which is collaborating online. There is a latency problem when you're trying to play music together across the internet. So, these are people interested in using software to provide tools to the music world.

Watson: They did this crazy prototype where they had a concert between Palo Alto, Oakland, and New York. You would think that it would sound a little weird, or you wouldn't feel like you were attending a concert. I closed my eyes during that prototype, and my hair rose on my arm. You were in the middle of it, but you know that these people were far away. That was so incredible. What they're doing is pretty cool.

That's an interesting problem to be tackling. What are other startups doing at Zoo Labs?

Acquistapace: We had a company in here called Mosey. They're a startup tech company, and they're in the traveling tourism sector. They've built a platform that allows you to make custom itineraries for friends in your city. So, it's like, “Your Perfect Four Hours in San Francisco.” They were in the startup lab for about nine months, and for them it was really great to be in a space that felt a little different with a different community. They loved crossing paths with musicians. For them, it added a cultural relevancy that was different and exciting.

You launched a Beat Lab in February. Can you talk about that?

Acquistapace: The Beat Lab is what we like to call a co-working space for music producers, which as far as we know doesn't have an existing model. We came up with the idea of making a custom-built music production station. It allows music producers to bring their computer and plug it in. It also has speakers, a patch bay, all of the cords and stuff, so that they can work on their beats and music at the Zoo in the live room of Studio A, which is the nicest, biggest studio. It allows them to have a monthly membership and come in and work on projects.

The impetus for this was that music producers are craving a community. They usually work in isolation. This gives them the opportunity to come into a nice space with a nice common area and a larger community, and work. They can record vocals, a grand piano, drums, and work on cutting and putting their songs together. For us, supporting producers also means we're supporting musicians and different musical projects.

Watson: For the producers, it's pretty cool because they have access to microphones that they might not have access to unless they book time in a professional recording studio. They have access to synthesizers. We're doing this at an affordable cost. We're really excited about it, but we'll see how it goes.

Zoo Labs also has a music residency. What is it?

Watson: The music residency is pretty cool. It's a two-week program, and we ask that teams of three to five apply. They can be a producer, a singer, a graphic designer, and a manager or something. We ask for strong teams to apply online. We then have a judging process that goes through on the application, and then we pick the top contender. We have criteria that we look for like group dynamic, creative depth, and if they're really well-rounded, etc.

With startups, it's really about the founders and the team dynamic that can either push a project to be a great product or crumble and not make it to the world. Those things are really important to us, so we do a pretty comprehensive screening of our residents. We then get them to West Oakland, and we then give them two weeks in the studio to record their latest project. On top of that we layer strategic business classes. At the end of the two weeks we ask for a minimum of three songs and a strategic plan of how they're going to disseminate themselves and their product out into the world.

What happens at the end of the residency?

Watson: At the end of that, they have something called a Release Day where they perform, and we have a private listening project, where people come in and check out what the group created in those two weeks. In the middle of that there are a lot of discussions of them as a business—what are they doing as a brand and how are they getting their product out? So, we're giving them space and time like a traditional art residency, but also an accelerator and business school. We don't give them any answers, but we give them tools. We're looking for innovators and those who want to work outside the traditional model.

Acquistapace: Right now that's the ultimate expression of our mission to bridge the creative world of music with the strategic business side of things. We're starting to talk about the entrepreneur class of musicians, and I think it's something that we've found really resonates with people. Musicians really want to understand how to be more effective leaders of their own careers and projects.