Producer Tele Fresco (center) and Text Me writer/producer/artist Will Butler (back left) at Seahorse Sound Studios in Los Angeles during one of Text Me Records' writing camps.

Producer Tele Fresco (center) and Text Me writer/producer/artist Will Butler (back left) at Seahorse Sound Studios in Los Angeles during one of Text Me Records' writing camps. (Kristina Bakrevski)

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor

It’s hard to imagine how MVCK can be comfortably wearing a sweatshirt and knit hat right now.

The rapper is here working on a song in a crowded room at Different Fur Studios in San Francisco. Reading from his phone, he’s reciting, then reworking, then trying his verse again as his producer, Tim Vickers, sits in front of a monitor. Vickers stares straight ahead, occasionally giving MVCK feedback during lulls in his flow.

The sticky heat of hard work — and bodies squeezed into a small room — emanates from the open door. But that’s how things go at Text Me Records, where working in whatever space is available, regardless of personal comfort, is the norm.

Text Me, which launched this year out of Different Fur Studios, is a new record label with potential to become San Francisco’s new pop factory. Vickers is one of Text Me’s 14 staff songwriters, a job title one would expect to see at one of the “big four” major labels, like Universal or Sony — certainly not an indie upstart in the Bay Area.

Text me Records founder Patrick Brown at Cafe Du Nord in San Francisco.
Text me Records founder Patrick Brown at Cafe Du Nord in San Francisco. (Kristina Bakrevski)

“Artists come to us to solve a problem they can’t solve alone,” says Patrick Brown, owner of Different Fur and founder of Text Me. “Sometimes it’s not having a producer to collaborate with or songs written. Sometimes the problem is not having enough money to mix their record the way they want to.”

With album sales at an all-time low, independent artists typically don’t have the budget to cover the professional services that come with a record deal. But Text Me affords local rookie musicians a polish and professionalism they might not otherwise have access to, especially in the Bay Area — a region notorious for its lack of mainstream music industry infrastructure. It seems to be working: Mars Today’s “Cool It,” released on the label in March, recently surpassed two million plays on Spotify.

“The funny part about it is the label was never the original goal,” says Brown. “It’s become the thing that people know and see, but it wasn’t really supposed to be the end result of everything. It was supposed to be the side thing.”

Brown started his career as Different Fur’s intern in 2004, and he’s always had ideas that were a bit too big for the building. He bought said building in 2007 to save the studio from bankruptcy, for starters. He didn’t want to see it get knocked down and turned into condos, he says.

A few years before Text Me took shape, many people in the local music community bemoaned the mass exodus of musicians to cities with sturdier music industries, and the shuttering of several local recording studios in their wake. But for Brown, this was a creative catalyst rather than a hindrance. “I don’t have a lot of patience for like, ‘What do I do?,’ you know? Or like, ‘This doesn’t exist.’ Okay, well, it doesn’t exist. Go make it.”

The first people he tapped were Bobby Renz and Tim Vickers, two Different Fur employees who had been looking for opportunities to be more involved. Will Butler, Bobbi Rohs, Tavahn Ghazi, and Lien Do — all musicians in Different Fur’s orbit — soon followed.

Text Me’s first official release was Mars Today’s sun-drenched pop track “Winnin,” followed by releases from R&B alchemist William Robert; measured, magnetic rapper Lord Morgan; and Bobbi Bobby, a joint project between Text Me’s two Bobbies: Bobbi Rohs and Bobby Renz. Recently, Text Me songs have found their way onto influential Spotify playlists: The exciting, intricate collaboration between signees Julia Lewis and Elujay, “On the Regular,” landed on two of the company’s “Best of 2017” lists. The roster, at this juncture, leans heavily toward R&B and hip-hop.

“In the hip-hop community, Different Fur is starting to become like a hub,” says studio manager Jorge Hernandez, who is also Different Fur’s go-to hip-hop engineer.

But it wasn’t always that way. When Hernandez started in 2011, Different Fur was serving a lot of garage rock. “It stems back to like the early ‘90s, but as far as in the Bay Area … there weren’t engineers that were solely focused on hip-hop, there weren’t studios that were built for hip-hop,” says Hernandez.

Text Me Records engineer Jorge Hernandez (center) in a session with artists Channel Tres and 1-O.A.K. at New Monkey Studios in Van Nuys.
Text Me Records engineer Jorge Hernandez (center) in a session with artists Channel Tres and 1-O.A.K. at New Monkey Studios in Van Nuys. (Demian Becerra)

“There’s so much built-in garage rock history,” says Brown, adding that studios in the region catered largely to full bands, making it hard for artists of other genres to break through. “We have a great live community here, but from a recording and production standpoint, there’s not a lot of support.”

Between Hernandez’s experience in local hip-hop circles and Brown’s knowledge of the genre, they began to seek out local rappers for recording. It was a marriage of personal interest and practicality — rock bands, by nature, are groups of musicians, whereas rappers and singers often operate alone. The fewer people there are in the studio, the more streamlined the recording process is for the staff.

“Bay Area indie rap … is in a really cool place right now,” says Brown. “Those artists seem more motivated and seem to understand how to work the industry a little better than the rock bands that have held reign here for so long.”

Though any job that starts with the word “staff” conjures up ideas of nine-to-five rigidity, Text Me can’t avoid the less formal features of startup life that define office culture in the area. The line between artists and songwriter is pretty permeable — Do, Rohs, and Renz are all performers-slash-songwriters for the label — and the whole songwriting process is less stringent than it might seem.

Seattle band SISTERS recording their album, 'Wait Don't Wait' -- Text Me Records' first release as a production company -- at Different Fur Studios.
Seattle band SISTERS recording their album, ‘Wait Don’t Wait’ — Text Me Records’ first release as a production company — at Different Fur Studios. (Erin Conger)

Take MVCK, for instance, who made his formal debut this year on Caleborate’s Real Person. Hernandez caught wind of him after Text Me producer Drew Banga brought him to a session at Different Fur and immediately asked him to record. “The way the relationship started was just random,” MVCK says in between verses. “Let’s make an EP and see what we have at that point; see what we can do with it.”

The Text Me team takes company retreats to LA, where they hole up and writes songs for days on end. And there are free snacks — Soylent, even — in the break room. “It’s essentially another — I don’t want to use the word startup — but it’s essentially another startup,” says Brown. “We’re starting something new.”

Just like how he didn’t want Different Fur to turn into condos, Brown doesn’t want the Bay Area’s recording industry to disappear, either. That’s what Text Me is for: A springboard for Bay Area musicians to rise to the next level instead of bemoaning their lack of local options and, eventually, moving to Los Angeles or New York.

“The overall goal for everyone is sustainability,” Brown says. By setting artists up with a capable team, Text Me takes some of the risk out of being an independent musician in the Bay Area.

“The starving artist thing is a shitty cliché that people buy into,” says Brown. “And it’s a disservice to the artists and everyone involved in the making of music. We gotta end that.”

Can Text Me Records Become San Francisco’s New Hit Factory? 5 December,2017KQED Arts