The Eugene-based band, Blue Lotus, recently recorded an album at Ninkasi Brewing’s in-house studio and will hold a release party at the brewery in late June. They’ve developed a longstanding relationship with the beer maker since playing their first show on Ninkasi’s patio in 2010. Photo by AJ McGarry
By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
In 2010, guitarist and singer/songwriter Brandelyn Rose was organizing shows with her new band, Blue Lotus, based in Eugene. Their search for interesting venues led to a young brewery.
“Our first show was actually on Ninkasi's patio,” says Rose, but the band’s involvement with the brewery didn’t stop there.
Later, Blue Lotus organized a national tour but needed a trailer. “We didn't have any outside funding,” Rose recollects. “We went to Ninkasi and proposed a sponsorship, and they helped us purchase a trailer. Ninkasi also provided us with beer in trade for advertising.”
Fast-forward to 2015. After four albums and accolades including being named as one of Relix magazine’s "Bands on the Rise" in 2012 and 2013, Blue Lotus wanted to create their first full-length “live” album, with studio support. Ninkasi had recently opened an in-house production and recording studio, inside their new administrative headquarters.
“It just made sense to have them record us,” Rose says.
So it was time to talk to James Book.
The Man Behind the Music
Book came to Ninkasi after 25 years in the music business, much of it on the road. As part of American post-grunge group The Flys — whose 1998 "Got You (Where I Want You)” hit number five on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks — Book toured Europe. “Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was learning a lot about beer.”
After the band went on indefinite hiatus in 2002, Book decided “it was time to leave the party” in Hollywood. Now in Eugene with his family, Ninkasi’s brand and experiential marketing director revolves around imagination and fermentation. “From my experience, music is a lot like craft beer,” Book explains. “Both put an indelible stamp on the psyche. Think of the best things that ever happened to you in your life. Music and beer were probably there.”
The two are also in the midst of disruption. “Like beer, music is finding a revolution,” Book says. “The music business in the ‘90s got really locked down in the corporate world. But brewing and making music are pursuits of the heart that can’t be denied. Lots of today’s breweries are rooted in that.”
The Business Sense of a Brewery Studio
Ninkasi mixes sounds and suds as a combination of passion, personalities, business sense and favorable laws. At its most practical level, Book says, “states such as Oregon allow us to also support for-profit organizations such as bands.”
Along with Ninkasi co-founders Jamie Floyd and Nikos Ridge, and chief financial officer Nigel Francisco, Book has worked on focusing Ninkasi’s sponsorship efforts around things the founders and employees are personally passionate about. “We’re still able to do the things we love and use them as our marketing, whether it’s music, or outdoor sports such as climbing, surfing or fishing,” Book explains. “We sponsor everything from pro kayakers to musicians, the kinds of niche activities that we like to participate in.”
Ninkasi’s musician support takes many forms: co-branding merchandise that bands can sell, supporting tours, designing album covers through Ninkasi’s in-house art department and showcasing bands at the South by Southwest (SXSW) annual festival and conference in Austin, Texas.
“The primary way this year has been helping musicians record or produce albums in Ninkasi’s studio,” Book says. Since opening the studio last year, Ninkasi has worked on recordings and production with 12 artists. “We tailor support for each band individually, since no two bands need the same thing.”
While Ninkasi supports bands, they only work with musicians who have a clear sense of purpose and goals. “We get a lot of bands that say ‘sponsor me,’ but they have no idea what they want from us. That usually stems from them not knowing what they want for themselves, from their own careers,” Book explains. “We aren’t here to design their goals for them, we want to help them reach their own goals.”
Inside the Creative Cave
The studio can be toured by the public but booked only by musicians Ninkasi sponsors. Once inside, you find creative caves, complete with a live room, isolation, a control room, a digital audio workstation called Pro Tools and Class A mic preamps.
Book beams at what’s ahead: installing an API console, what many consider the greatest mixing board. “There have been more gold and platinum records from that board than any other,” Book says.
The studio has capabilities similar to a label: Book produces and presses albums, and Ninkasi’s marketing team facilitates publicity. “While our logo might appear on the back of the record, the album and the intellectual property of the songs are the property of the artist, not us,” Book explains. “We never take revenue from any of the albums that are sold. That all goes to the artist.”
Blue Lotus Blossoming
As Blue Lotus and Book put the finishing touches on the new album, Brandelyn Rose is excited about the band and the brewery’s continued progress.
“I love that we can support Ninkasi,” Rose says. “We have watched each other grow from seedlings to where we are now. I love that James has incorporated his love of music into his work. I think it is brilliant. Who loves to drink beer? Bar goers, music lovers, bands. By sponsoring the music and becoming a part of the music scene, Ninkasi has created a ‘music culture’ around the beer.”
Book’s outlook is similar. “Watching Blue Lotus merge live and studio art forms before my very eyes has been exciting.” Steeped both in the music and brewing businesses, he understands that what really matters is passion, authenticity and doing what you love.
“Any brewery can sponsor bands,” Book points out, “but having a studio at the brewery campus? It’s a way for us to authentically be involved in the artists we support. We make music with them, producing them or just enabling them to make the music they want. Authenticity cannot be replaced in music, beer or any line of business.”
Then it’s time to get back to work. Blue Lotus plans to release their new album, “Across the Canyon,” later this month — with a release party at Ninkasi.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.