‘Kickstart’ the Music

Groovebox Studios’ talent incubator business model helps local acts parlay fan support into studio time
Photographs by Josh Scott

Hey, fans of Detroit’s indie music scene! Jeff “Fuzzy” Wenzel and Shawn Neal know where you can get a great deal on the debut CD from bygone but noteworthy local group The Sugar People!

That is, if they care to dig them out. They still have more than 3,000 copies of their former band’s release stacked in Neal’s basement, boxed up and gathering dust. “We’ve had this joke about tossing them in a room and swimming around in them like Scrooge McDuck,” he says.

The dissed discs serve as a bittersweet symbol of what Neal calls “the never-ending gift of a reality gut check.” They also provided the impetus for him and Wenzel to knock the traditional music business formula on its ear as co-founders of Detroit’s revolutionary talent incubator, Groovebox Studios.

Celebrating its “official” second anniversary in October, Groovebox, located in a breezy 900-square-foot space in the shabby-chic Russell Industrial Center, is harnessing the online power of crowdfunding website Kickstarter to help artists create a professional look and sound for their original music while galvanizing fan support. “Really, it’s our third year,” says audio engineer Wenzel, 34. “The first was us just running our heads against the wall, calling people, and saying, ‘Will you play with us? We really don’t know what we’re doing yet.’ ”

After 12 months of trial and error, however, the onetime bandmates refined their business model. Here’s how it works: An act meets with the Groovebox Studios staff to discuss musical goals, shoot a Kickstarter video, and plot strategy. The video, an appeal to fund a live studio session, posts on Kickstarter and includes unique “backer rewards” for contributors. Once a $1,200 target is met or exceeded, the band performs a concert for its fans at Groovebox that’s professionally filmed and recorded under the mantra, “One Band, One Room, One Take.”

The process can take 90-120 days, during which time Neal and Wenzel work closely with the band and lend advice based on experience, allowing both sides to decide if they want to continue working together. At the very least the group comes away with a seven-song EP and a high-definition video. The best part for the band: Studio time already is paid for by the Kickstarter campaign. Any amount raised beyond the small percentage taken by Kickstarter and Amazon and the cost of the session itself, the artists get to keep.

“It’s something they really can be proud of, and most importantly, it’s a point to start,” says video supervisor Neal, 39. “You did something right from beginning to end that was completely within your ability to control. It’s a building block for the next step.”

The building blocks used to construct The Sugar People came crashing at their feet. Wenzel nurtured his band nearly a decade before Neal, who had played professionally with touring stage productions, answered his Craigslist ad for a drummer. By then Neal also was working in branding and marketing for Apple and chanced upon an opportunity any local band would die for: to distribute their CD throughout North America in Best Buy stores.

They hurriedly completed a CD and paid to have it mass-produced. “I still remember this surreal day where I go see Jeff and I’ve got my Scion full of CDs,” Neal says, laughing. “Look what we made!”

Total sales? “Out of thousands, we sold maybe 25, tops,” Neal admits. “And I think a lot of them were by Jeff’s mom.”

“I had to pay to have the rest shipped back,” Wenzel laments. “We met nothing but roadblocks, everywhere we turned. But we kept being told by professionals here that, ‘You’re fine, you’re right on course with everything you’re supposed to have.’ Yeah, but we just played a show to three people.”

Between iTunes, 99-cent downloads, and Internet radio, Neal says the modern music industry is “so tectonically different” than it was even when The Sugar People broke up in the mid-2000s. Direct fan support is the new paradigm, and young musicians living in the birthplace of Motown, the White Stripes, and Eminem may be at a disadvantage.

“I think there’s this destructive cocktail of fear, pride, and a false identity of what Detroit is,” observes Neal, who says Groovebox is spreading to studios in Chicago and Chapel Hill, N.C. “There’s the fear of, ‘I can’t ask friends and fans for money.’ What’s really couched in that is, ‘I’m terrified of finding out this isn’t as real as I think it is.’

“And I think in this area there’s this pride thing. Pros have too much self-inflated ego to say, ‘Guys, I’m in the forest; I don’t know.’ They’ve been doing it the same way for 20 years, and they’ve had success. But everything’s changed. What used to work doesn’t work anymore.”

For more information, or to see examples of finished live videos, visit grooveboxstudios.com