The Root Down

Exclaim! - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - by Ian Gormely

BUILD­ING COM­MU­NITY, CON­NECT­ING DOTS — THAT’S THE MIS­SION STATE­MENT BE­HIND THE ROOT DOWN, a re­hearsal and pre-pro­duc­tion space on Toronto’s West side. Co-founded by Oliver John­son two years ago as a half­way point be­tween jam space and record­ing stu­dio, it’s his hope that that sense of com­mu­nity, those con­nected dots, will give lo­cal mu­sic pro­fes­sion­als a leg up to sur­vive in the ever-tu­mul­tuous in­dus­try, mak­ing the space a model that other cities can copy.

Lo­cated in a base­ment un­der a for­mer in­dus­trial strip, the Root Down boasts the record­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties, sound proof­ing and arse­nal of gear of a high-end record­ing stu­dio, but mim­ics the feel of a home­made prac­tice space. Back­ing onto a pair of el­e­vated train tracks, it was for­merly home to il­le­gal DIY venue S.H.I.B.G.B.S., which was shut down in 2015. “They set the vibe,” says John­son of the for­mer ten­ants.

Turn­ing empty spa­ces into thriv­ing artis­tic hubs was a hall­mark of mu­sic la­bels for decades. “Artists knew that they could come and fo­cus on their craft,” says John­son, cit­ing Mo­town and Stax as prime ex­am­ples. “It was all part of their A&R de­vel­op­ment strat­egy.” But fi­nan­cial woes over the last two decades caused most la­bels, big and small, to aban­don their stu­dios, and with them, artist de­vel­op­ment.

John­son, who cut his teeth work­ing with artists like Ivana San­tilli and Es­thero, hatched the con­cept with tech en­tre­pre­neur Dan DeBow half-a-dozen years ago. The idea per­co­lated dur­ing the ir­reg­u­lar jam ses­sions the pair would hold. “I didn’t know too much about him,” says John­son, who to­day runs Bed­tracks, which spe­cial­izes in film and tele­vi­sion mu­sic pro­duc­tion, as well as Soleil Sound and the Hive record­ing stu­dios in Toronto’s Cork­town. “But as we be­came bet­ter and bet­ter friends, we started talk­ing about a place like this.”

Named for the Jimmy Smith song “Root Down and Get It,” which the Beastie Boys fa­mously sam­pled, they en­vi­sioned a place for artists to de­velop their sound, demo ideas and re­hearse with­out the noise bleed of a jam space or fi­nan­cial pres­sures of a stu­dio. “It’s al­ways ad­mirable when artists, through the ad­ver­sity of not hav­ing the tools, can rise above. But if they do have the tools and they’re given the op­por­tu­nity, they can shoot even higher.”

Bor­row­ing an idea pop­u­lar in the tech in­dus­try, its com­mu­nity fo­cus would al­low for en­coun­ters, both spon­ta­neous and de­lib­er­ate, be­tween artists and in­dus­try folk from across the lo­cal scene. The ex­pected re­sults: ev­ery­thing from per­sonal artis­tic break­throughs to new busi­ness part­ner­ships.

They pitched the idea to Arts & Crafts Records, who im­me­di­ately saw the po­ten­tial, as did folks at Slaight Mu­sic, both of whom pro­vided seed cap­i­tal. They’ve since de­vel­oped a part­ner­ship with Roland, and sev­eral gui­tar and ef­fects pedal com­pa­nies have also lent or do­nated gear. But the Root Down re­mains an in­de­pen­dent en­tity that works on a re­fer­ral ba­sis, and whose clien­tele spans the breadth of Toronto’s mu­sic com­mu­nity.

Bro­ken So­cial Scene were re­hears­ing for a string of gigs the week be­fore John­son and I meet, and the Root Down web­site lists as clients ev­ery­one from Char­lotte Day Wil­son and Jazz Cartier to the Toronto Women in Mu­sic group and Cirque du Soleil. A hand­ful of an­nual “pre­mium mem­ber­ships” guar­an­tee a base level of rev­enue, and some of the unique gear that lines the walls be­longs to those mem­bers. But con­fi­den­tial­ity is­sues pre­vent John­son from re­veal­ing the full breadth of clien­tele.

With just a sin­gle room, it op­er­ates at or near ca­pac­ity most days. Man­ager Kathryn Kearns, a mu­si­cian her­self, has made an art of ac­com­mo­dat­ing the de­mand­ing sched­ules of their clients. “We don’t want to be the kind of place where peo­ple can spend a lot of money and lock it out for a full month, be­cause that goes against our man­date,” she says. “Every­body seems to re­spect that, even peo­ple who could tech­ni­cally af­ford that.” Kearns, or one of two in-house en­gi­neers, en­sures that gear is set up to each artist’s spec­i­fi­ca­tions be­fore they ar­rive to max­i­mize the cre­ative pos­si­bil­i­ties.

De­scrib­ing their busi­ness model as akin to “one plus one equals five,” John­son ad­mits that the Root Down is a big ex­per­i­ment. Some sort of ex­pan­sion is on the hori­zon, though he’s not at lib­erty to spill the beans just yet. “There are a lot of peo­ple with a lot of money look­ing to fos­ter the arts.” Some do­nate to the bal­let, but at the Root Down, they’re do­ing more than just sell­ing time — they’re fos­ter­ing art and ac­tively build­ing com­mu­nity. “This is a place for all those par­ties to come to­gether.”

“Root Down clients in­clude ev­ery­one from Char­lotte Day Wil­son and Jazz Cartier to Toronto Women in Mu­sic and Cirque du Soleil.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.