(Photo Consent/Credit: Kelsey Kremer/Des Moines Register)
Supporting local artists through their venue xBk Live and record label Station 1 Records, bringing in regional acts, providing Iowa Public Radio with a great new location for their monthly Studio One Underground series, and now partnering with the DMMC on a monthly concert series, Breaking The Band, geared towards young and up and coming acts, we are not only so lucky to have the Amedeo Rossi Innovators of the Year, Tobi Parks, Thomas Kutz, and Franklin Codel in our community, but we’re so excited to celebrate their achievements and dedication to the Des Moines music scene at Backstage Ball this year! Check out their story and learn more about their organizations and future plans with our most recent Q & A!
Between the three of you, you all have diverse backgrounds consisting of everything from finance to copyright administration with a global music and media conglomerate (Sony Music) to archeology to law to event production to nonprofit work (Station 1 Records). Whew! How did you all come together to create the vision for xBk? Tell us a little bit about your individual roles with xBk.
Tobi had a very early iteration of xBk in mind prior to moving to Des Moines and had been secretly scouting old buildings and warehouses prior to and after her move. Thom had been looking at a number of different locations for a venue for a years as well as he and a friend had interest in opening a larger venue here in Des Moines. After Tobi launched Station 1 Records and Thom joined her in running the organization, their work with independent, artists and them being independent artists as well, they found there were not enough smaller venues that placed a primary focus on superior production and that truly had an artist focus. We wanted to create a venue that artists wanted to play, where they felt comfortable, where they were treated with high regard, and where they could put on the best possible show they could in an intimate environment. Being a venue that is principally owned by a queer woman of color, we inherently come to the scene with a different perspective than many venues operating now. I also have to point out that Des Moines has two music venues partially owned by queer women (xBk and Lefty’s). This is rather unusual and a testament to our community.
Franklin met Tobi when he was on the board of the Des Moines Social Club and she was just starting Station 1 with DMSC as its fiscal sponsor. He appreciated the work Tobi was doing with Station 1 and the approach she was bringing to expanding arts and culture in the Des Moines metro. He reached out initially as a patron of Station 1 and she and Thom discussed their ideas about xBk, and being a huge music lover himself, he was caught in the drift of their enthusiasm of creating the venue and decided to invest.
- Tobi and Thom you founded Station 1 Records roughly ?? years ago. What motivated you to start a record label in Des Moines? How has Station 1 transformed over the years?
Tobi founded Station 1 in April of 2015. Thom joined her as Director of Operations in 2016. Tobi’s motivation for starting the label came from her years of working at Sony Music. Understanding that the digital age had radically changed the industry from one that had latitude to allow younger artists to grow into financially solvent acts, the major label industry shifted its focus to a leaner model that required artists to be successful from their first release. The idea of artist development had really gone away. Further, she found from working with songwriters at Sony that a number of artists/writers didn’t really understand the basic business and economic fundamentals of the industry and without that understanding, it would be even more difficult for them to be successful. When Tobi moved from NYC to Des Moines, she felt it was the perfect time to develop a label whose focus was centered wholly on the artists and the benefit they provide to society at large rather than the benefit they bring to a corporation’s bottom line. She also wanted to mentor young artists about the inner workings of the industry and help them understand that their music was a business and that musicians, just like every other industry’s entrepreneurs, have to understand their industry and have to create and follow a plan to be successful within it.
The label really did start with the primary focus of being a label guided by a set of ethical principles that put the artist and their relationship to the broader community in the forefront. The goal was to offer traditional label services under a model that also taught artists how to be successful entrepreneurs. As the label has developed over the years, it has changed in the services it offers its artists and has begun to provide services for artists outside of its primary artist roster. Even though Station 1 may only be able to provide financial support to a small number of artists, the entrepreneurship, business, and legal support can be utilized by a broader swath of the creative community.
What are your goals for the label moving forward?
Our primary goal is to find ways to allow Station 1 to be an ongoing resource for artists in our community for business and legal services. We want to position the organization in such a way that it doesn’t just serve a handful of artist for a short amount of time, but be an organization that continues to work with artists as they grow and expand in their career and always be a resource for them to return to whether they have business issues, legal issues, contract concerns, or anything else as they advance in their careers.
You officially opened xBk in September of 2019. Tell us what lead you to start your own music venue? What were some of your greatest challenges and successes?
As mentioned before, we wanted to open a venue that was a real artist’s venue, a place that placed its primary focus on creating the best possible experience for both the artists and the patrons. We wanted to create the venue we wanted to play in and also go see shows at 🙂 The greatest challenge in opening the venue was getting through the legal / zoning hurdles of opening the type of venue we wanted to open in the building we had. Tobi and her wife bought the building in which xBk is housed with the intention of opening the venue. However, as the construction and redevelopment of the property was underway, there were a number of zoning and code hurdles that had to be overcome to open the venue in this particular building that were both financially and pragmatically problematic. It took over 2 years to get through the code approval process and to find find a banking partner that was willing to take the financial risk on our business plan. It took a lot of time raising the seed funding for the investment and to get a bank on board to help finance the remaining pieces to make our vision a reality.
Honestly, our greatest success was getting the doors open. It took 2 and half years of bullheadedness to bring this thing to fruition. The day we opened the doors, it felt like we had accomplished the impossible. Then we realized we had to do the actual work of running the damn thing!
- What was your vision for xBk? What sets it apart from other music venues?
Again, our vision from the beginning is to create the best possible experience for the artists we host and the patrons that visit us. We want to create an environment that is inspiring to all those that walk through the doors, whether that be from the programming they are coming to see or whether its from the work we do to curate and design innovative and thoughtful programming. I think we’re different because we feel we’re providing a service for artists. We serve them, they do not serve us.
How did you choose the location and the aesthetic?
We knew we wanted to be in the Drake neighborhood as it was one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city, was close to Drake University, and to be quite frank, it was a commercial building we could afford to purchase. We’ve intentionally kept the aesthetic very simple because we want people to focus their attention to our stage and to avoid distractions from other stimulus outside of the purpose at hand, to see, hear, and experience an artist’s performance.
- What have been some of your favorite performances in the space so far?
(This is Tobi speaking), Selfishly, my favorite performances have been those from the Station 1 artists, Andre Davis, Lily DeTaeye and EleanorGrace. In those shows, we saw our creative vision come full circle from developing young artists to seeing them stand on a stage we created especially for them. That said, I’ve really loved every show we’ve had. It’s impossible to pick one!
- What would be your dream booking for xBk?
I think we all have different dream bookings…for me (Tobi) Me’shell N’degeocello and Neko Case (I know Neko is far outside our cap, but to do a special, intimate event with her would be amazing).
As Innovators of the Year, you are clearly role models for many young aspiring entrepreneurs, artists, producers, etc. Who are some people who have inspired you throughout your life/career? Any wisdom or helpful tips you’d care to share?
Tobi: I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a lot of phenomenal mentors throughout my career. First, my mother, who passed away a year and half ago, was and always will be my biggest role model and inspiration. She was a rule breaker and didn’t even know it – – my mere existence is a testament to her strength. Beyond that, as a professional, probably Andrea Finkelstein and Jay Gress from Sony Music,; as a creative my dearest friends Blueberry Elizabeth and Aleta Lanier with whom I was in the band The Star Death and whose art continues to inspire me; my old bandmates Kevin Townley and Hanna Cheek from my band Bambi in NYC – – two of the most amazingly creative talents I know and with whom I still have an opportunity to work from time to time. All of our Station 1 artists inspire me daily as they work harder than any artists I know at getting better at both their craft and learning this business; Thom who inspires me every day to keep going on this insane ride we’ve created together; and finally, but certainly no least, my wife, Janee Harvey, and kids, Amari and Travis, who ground me and make me realize that we’re only on this earth for a split second so we should make the most of it while we can. In terms of a tip: find what you love and do it for your living. Don’t get discouraged if you’re not perfect at your craft from the beginning. We find that we compare the work we do to those that have come before us…particularly musicians. You listen to classic records and continually compare your work to people that spent years, decades, or a lifetime to create what they do. Give yourself grace and time to get better. I’m 43 years old and just now hitting my stride! Keep working to get better and don’t give up.
How have you seen the music scene in Des Moines change throughout your years working in this industry/market?
I’ve seen the “industry” part of Des Moines grow. I think how successful or vibrant the scene is changes from time to time. When I first moved to Des Moines, it felt the place was about to explode with creative energy…part of that may have been because I was just moving here and everything was new and exciting to me. I think, like any scene, stuff changes and grows and expands and contracts. I think Des Moines’ scene is strong and I think there is a lot of incredible music being made by musicians here. I think one thing that I’ve noticed (or maybe its just the folks that I work with regularly) I think musicians are touring a lot more so they may not be playing Des Moines every couple of weeks they used to be, but our locals are staying here in Des Moines or are in the region, but touring a ton more and growing audiences outside of Des Moines and greater Iowa, which has always been the goal. Make Des Moines your homebase, but tour and build your platform outside of DSM.
- What’s next for xBk in 2020-2021?
We want to have a full schedule of quality shows every night of the week and we want people to show up for them. I think the more quality you bring, the more people will come out. We are dedicated to booking the best quality acts that we can. I think you’ll find that we’ll be bringing a lot of very interesting, diverse, and different acts than what Des Moines has seen in venues our size in the past. We’re gaining a reputation for a being a quality room amongst agents and the work we put into designing and refining our venue on the front end is going to start paying dividends into the summer and next year.
Thanks so much for supporting us and other artists in DSM!