A New Crop

The Plant Studios seeks to add another volume to its local legacy


Plant Family: This detail of a large group photo shows Plant Studio staffers in happier days.

Following the closure of Mill Valley’s Village Music and the relocation of the Sweetwater Saloon, the latest casualty in the ongoing death of Marin’s musical history is the Plant Studios in idyllic Sausalito. Countless classic albums have been recorded or mixed there, from Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life to records from such local luminaries as Santana, Too $hort, Primus, Journey and Metallica. Prince, Van Morrison, Mariah Carey and Bob Marley recorded there. Even a young Beyoncé logged her first studio time at the Plant.

But on April 1 of this year, the Plant had to close its doors.

“I first stepped into the Plant as an artist to record an album in 2000,” says Mari Tamburo, studio manager and wife of studio owner Arne Frager. “This year would’ve been his 20th.” Unfortunately, Frager, like most business owners, did not own the studio’s property itself, which was sold in 2005 and went into foreclosure earlier this year, forcing the staff to vacate after sessions with young piano rock band the Fray. “Most of the equipment is now in storage,” Tamburo laments. “I don’t really know what the current property manager’s plans are for it.”

This was quite an abrupt ending for the studio that just a year ago offered tours of its storied facilities for $100 a pop. But never underestimate Marin County property values for their power to accentuate nonregional crises–even the decline of the music industry. “It’s been the last eight years,” Tamburo says of the gradual drop in demand. “We started to see slashing of the record company budgets for studio time, so the artists who used to come have built their own studios, like Dave Matthews [who recorded 2002’s Busted Stuff at the Plant].”

Tamburo’s nonprofit A Vehicle for Change initiated an online petition to raise awareness–and funds–for the Plant’s next era. “The petition is up to 589 signatures right now, with no support from the press,” she reports. “It will hopefully discourage developers from bidding for the property.”

Some people, though, are celebrating the closing of such high-end studios, which they see as just another problem with the exploitative record-industry machine, where novice artists incur huge costs and hope their release recoups enough for them to break even. “I completely agree in some ways,” Tamburo says, “but the whole time Arnie was there, he was developing new local talent. There have been quite a few bands that received services at a discount, and local producers and engineers had access to this world-class facility for very little money.”

Case in point is Santa Barbara’s Thriving Ivory, whose new album was produced at the Plant by Chris Manning, a Frager protégé. “It is the only place of its kind to learn how to make hit records,” Manning writes on the petition. “Recording schools can’t teach you this; only assisting the pros in a world-class studio can. The Plant is where it starts.”

Tamburo’s goal, if and when enough funds are raised to actually buy the property, is to make it sustainable, eco-friendly and to formalize the philanthropic practices of the Plant, which has also donated studio time to organizations like Youth in Arts. “Think of Sundance Institute, how they develop new filmmakers,” she says excitedly. “The facility, with the right team, can continue to provide a much-needed service to the community.”

A scheduled July auction of the property was postponed until the end of this month, prolonging their chances. If Tamburo succeeds, though, she will definitely learn from the past. “It’s not to preserve the old ways; it’s to build a collaborative, creative community of social conscience,” she says. “We want to build ‘the new model of the music industry,’ one that is fair to the artists, where the dollars are more evenly distributed amongst those who are making music, and those who help them make it.”

While she admits that the Plant was slow to embrace recording programs like ProTools and that, in an era of widely accessible software, it can offer little extra to the modern-day musician in terms of technology, Tamburo believes the studio process itself is irreplaceable. “While artists now have more creative control with new digital technology, it achieves its best results when combined with skill and talent,” she says of her expert staff. “A spontaneous interactive experience for musicians–this is what the Plant can give to that next generation.

“It’s magic that’s flying in the air, captured by a professional.”

 For news and links to the online petition, see [ http://www.plantstudios.com/ ]www.plantstudios.com.

Sonoma County Library