Roadside Bombs, a punk band from Sonoma, is practicing in the tracking room. Indie band Midnight Candy pops in, needing a power cord. Mexican dance band La Herencia de Santa Rosa want to switch out a bass amp for a guitar amp.
Such is the daily activity in the control booth of the Live Musicians Co-op, where on a recent afternoon, above the constant clamor, co-owners Ben Stephens and Nate Prowse reminisce about the thriving local music scene of the late 1990s, and the subsequent lull.
“All these bands were going through Santa Rosa, and there was a huge wall put up by the city,” says Prowse. “They got really strict on the places to play, and venues shut down. Now with a different city council in there, it seems they are starting to support more of the arts. They realize Sonoma County is a very artistic community. Some of the best musicians in the world are here.”
Stephens and Prowse, 34 and 30 respectively, are both seasoned music professionals with experience in the struggles of a musician’s lifestyle—trying to make a living off low-paying gigs, finding a decent practice space for cheap. The exhausting routine prompted Stephens to open Live Musicians Co-op six years ago in Santa Rosa. The Co-op has always strived to be an affordable, professionally equipped space for up-and-coming bands to network and record demos.
“I saw this huge market for bands that hadn’t made it yet,” says Stephens, “or who didn’t have any kind of finances.”
Indeed, the place had filled a void; as we talk, we’re periodically interrupted by musicians checking on room reservations and making session payments. Roughly 40 local bands sign up to rehearse here each week.
“This is a live musician’s performance center where people can come together and perform, work on their act, tighten up their sound, get critiqued and record their album,” explains Prowse, who also serves as a piano instructor. Hands-on teaching is a key element here, where young musicians are instructed on band etiquette, how to communicate with each other, how to properly use amps and microphones and write their own music. Week-long summer camps bring kids together to form pop-up bands, record songs and make a music video. “We are trying to teach kids how to be a musician and make money,” reiterates Stephens.
Recently, he and Prowse secured the building next door in order to expand the Co-op’s recording capabilities. Entirely renovated by hand, from the floating ceilings to the acoustic insulation, it’s a serious recording facility for the community. Three additional fully equipped rehearsal rooms, each tapped into a professional-grade control room, share space with a giant tracking area and vocal booth. And though not a traditional venue, a 200-capacity “live room” has a full sound system and moving stage for live performance production.
“We just kind of wanted to build one networking center where people can rely on each other,” Prowse says, “and where there’s always going to be a scene.”