May 13, 2012 at 1:00 am

Donna Terek

Beehive Recording Co. builds free buzz for Detroit artists

Beehive Recording Company
Beehive Recording Company: Beehive preserves Detroit's popular music and makes it available online for free.

Detroit — If there were such a thing as a King Bee, Stephen Procter (but call him Steve) Nawara, founder of Detroit's The Beehive Recording Company, would be it.

The die-hard musician — who gave his first public performance at the age of 13 — knows everyone in the Detroit music scene, especially in the up-and-comers sector.

So when he came up with the idea for Beehive, Nawara, 36, had two goals: give local bands free exposure and preserve Detroit's rich musical heritage.

His idea was to recruit bands or solo artists, make digital recordings of their work, produce "album" art and get their single up on beehiverecording.com — all within two weeks. Sometimes, it can all come together in as little as 72 hours. That's a far cry from the six months or more that traditional recording companies take to do the same.

Then, he lets people download the MP3 tracks from beehiverecording.com — for free.

All you have to do to join the hive is enter your email address and you're in, with unlimited access to songs from artists like relative unknowns, chanteuse Laura Finlay or The Blackman to rock royalty heir Jackson F. Smith, son of poet/songstress Patti Smith and Fred "Sonic" Smith of the MC5.

Donations, of course, are welcome.

Preserving Detroit's musical heritage

"The Beehive Recording Company is a music preservation society. It's a way to preserve Detroit's music and our heritage," says Nawara. "I've already seen a lot of great bands and music and songs disappear in the late 90's and early 2000's as a result of labels not picking them up."

While Nawara says Beehive is "genre non-specific," he has one main criterion in choosing artists to record. "It has to be unique to the city of Detroit," he says. "If a band is trying to sound like a band on the radio we don't want it. We want a local sound. The idea of this is to 'in-source.'"

While he's the idea man, Nawara always refers to Beehive as "we" because it's the musicians—and their fans—that make up the hive. He calls it a "social club for musicians that's open to the public.

Jackson Smith calls the idea "a good thing for musicians."

"He records you for free, he puts it out for free, and that affords a lot of people who couldn't afford to do that (record a single) to do that," he said. "I'd tell anyone if they want to support a good Detroit project, do a Beehive single. Draw attention to it and help it grow."

And maybe that explains why guitarist Smith, who has toured with Elton John, Leon Russell and a star-studded revue that included Gregg Allman and Elvis Costello and plays on Jeff Bridges' newly minted first album, descended into Steve's basement to record his first solo release.

When Nawara first started Beehive in a Michigan Avenue space in 2007, he went with the usual business model, charging $2.50 for a three-song download. "We grossed about $200 in two years," Nawara says.

Clearly, the model was not working, so he retooled the site and his concept and moved the hive into the basement of his rented house in Detroit's Woodbridge neighborhood.

He reopened in 2010, giving the music away for free. Almost immediately, donations flooded in. "People are more generous if they can just name their own price," he says.

But with donations dwindling, Nawara supplements the business with fundraisers. The first annual Beehive Ball last November showcased the studio's current rising stars with newcomer Finlay topping the lineup as most-downloaded "hive artist."

Nawara originally promised a single a week, but that was overly ambitious for a one-man operation whose CEO, sound tech, side man and accountant also runs a gardening business full time. So the schedule is more like a single every other week. Since mid-2010, he's recorded 43 artists.

'It's a publicity machine'

This year he moved the hive into the former furnace room at Ponyride, Phil Cooley's "creative incubator" in Corktown that offers cheap space for artists to pursue their ideas. It's more spacious than his former digs and it has an interesting air shaft Steve wants to use to capture whatever sound waves make it up there while bands are recording.

For solo artists, Nawara even assembles a backing band, often jumping in on guitar himself. So while he believes musicians should have complete control and ownership of their work he is always ready to advise, nudge and provide a guitar riff when needed.

"It's a publicity machine, really," he says.

So how can he give the music away for free?

Nawara points out that musicians typically make money from publishing, concert sales and merchandise. Royalties from record or CD sales from a major record label are only 3 or 4 cents a record split among the band members and management.

He knows this from his own experience playing with the band Electric Six, which had a couple hits in the early 2000s that keep him checking the mailbox for royalty checks to this day.

"So at that point you kind of already are giving your music away for free," Nawara says. "So my idea is why don't we get all our little fan bases, put them all together, create a label, and create a big fan base? That way we can get our music out there without a major label."

So the recording artists get exposure on the Web and in the Beehive events to grow their fan base, get more people paying covers to hear them play and hopefully get heard by an advertising or TV producer who will pay the big bucks to buy the rights to use their music.

And it looks like it's not such a far-fetched idea, as Beehive has made six commercial music sales since last fall.

A Jackson F. Smith song sold for a commercial. Nawara and Jessie Smith wrote and recorded a tune for a Coach handbag ad, and a group of hivers including Nawara and Mary Restrepo of the Detroit Cobras wrote and recorded the score for an independent film.

He wants to expand the hive's reach to record Detroit's Latin, Middle Eastern, Polish music to be an accurate representation of the sounds of the city. He already has recorded Finlay's sister Tamara singing the Russian folk songs she grew up with.

In Nawara's concept, the "record" or MP3 is not the product, it's an advertisement for the product, which is the musician, his/her concerts, merchandise, and publishing rights.

"Music wants to be free," Nawara says. "The natural state of music is free. You play it; it enters the atmosphere. That's it."

Steve Nawara records Detroit musician Justin Walker at Beehive Recording Co.'s studio in the basement of Ponyride, an artists' incubator in Corktown. / Donna Terek/The Detroit News
Detroit musician Justin Walker's solo project is recorded at Beehive ... (Donna Terek/The Detroit News)