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(From left) John Baldwin, Chris Voss, Jason Edelstein, and Andrea Hoang of The Salt Lick Records. Photo courtesy of The Salt Lick Records
Music

Meet the Entrepreneurs Taking Denver’s Music Industry to the Next Level

A new crop of local labels and talent agencies are working to make the Mile High City the next global music hub—and nurture the art while they’re at it.

In music, there’s a term for how hard you bring the noise: “the attack.” By definition, the attack describes how forcefully a sound is initiated—something an artist can alter manually (think the beat of a drum, versus the stroke of a violin string), or with the turn of a knob in the production studio. It’s something Denver dark-pop phenom N3ptune prides himself on.

“My settings on my attack are just different,” he says, with a smirk. The 23-year-old (whose stage name is pronounced “Neptune”) isn’t just talking about his high-octane, gospel-inspired vocals that’ve been enrapturing audiences for the past four years. He’s also referring to his drive for making it big, and upending the traditional business model while he’s at it—something he took into his own hands by launching recording label ​​Atlantean Records LLC earlier this summer. The entrepreneurial endeavor grew out of the frustration of looking for outside support in Denver, and watching how other labels handled business. “I don’t have time to wait for you if you’re not ready,” he says.

N3ptune, who grew up in Denver, plans to release all of his self-produced music through Atlantean. But he also hopes the label, which is still in its nascent stages, can collaborate with younger artists, as well as teach them production skills. His efforts are part of a growing movement within the Denver music scene to better support burgeoning talent and bring the attack on the business side.

Denver pop artist N3ptune singing into a handheld microphone
N3ptune. Photo by Justin Day

“The thing about the music industry is, nobody really knows what they’re doing, and no one wants to talk about it—but they have a set way of doing things [in Los Angeles and New York]. And they have a formula,” N3ptune says. “There’s no formula out here [in Denver]. Here, you can break rules, start a business, say ‘I want to start a label. Boom. I can do what I want.’ It’s more collaborative out here.”

Before COVID-19 brought the world to a screeching halt, Colorado’s music scene was booming. Statewide, the industry accounted for $1.4 billion in annual revenue (Denver was responsible for about $840 million of that), and roughly 16,000 jobs as of 2018. Despite pandemic challenges, global recorded music revenues grew by seven percent in 2020, according to MusicWeek. Independent music labels and artists, which make up most of the Denver music scene, overpowered the market, growing by a collective 27 percent annually and increasing their combined streaming market share to 31.5 percent. Major labels, on the other hand, saw a slight decline.

Kyle Hartman, co-founder of local music agency Future Garden, says he’s felt Denver on the precipice of similar music success to larger cities. But Hartman was also growing frustrated watching many of the artists he was passionate about never make it beyond the local level due to a lack of the business resources or guidance to do so.

“There’s these incredible artists who, they’re no less talented than these artists coming out of L.A. or New York or Austin, but I just don’t think the infrastructure was here in Denver for them to get to that next level,” he says. Hartman, who’s been working in the Denver music scene for more than 10 years, most recently booking talent for the likes of Larimer Lounge, Globe Hall, and the Underground Music Showcase, created the Future Garden agency in 2019 to fill that hole. “My goal is to build that infrastructure. I want artists to start coming to Denver to make it as an artist.”

Future Garden now provides booking, management, consulting, and PR services, among other things, and has since grown to represent nearly a dozen artists, including hypo-pop/cosmic jazz group Ramakhandra, and Ecuadorian electro-pop prodigy Neoma, who was slated to perform at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, before the pandemic. The agency recently added N3ptune to their roster, as well.

Some of the Mile High City’s latest entrepreneurial music ventures were also results of pandemic-born necessities. The Salt Lick Denver, a collective kickstarted in December 2020 by Jason Edelstein and Andrea Hoang, began to produce live music sessions called Songs From the Pond out of the tiny eclectic basement of their old Capitol Hill house. ​​The shows served as an outlet for artists and music fans while live concerts were limited. Joined by their audio engineer Chris Voss and assistant cinematographer and engineer John Baldwin, the group aimed to cultivate high-quality music discovery, reminiscent of NPR Tiny Desk Concerts and other popular studio session series, that could pay off even after live performances eventually returned. “I think there’s a lot of people that don’t realize how many bands are here,” Hoang says. “So it’s a way for them to get to hear it and see it, and hopefully make that conversion to go and buy concert tickets to actually go out there and support the bands.”

The ultimate goal, however, was to eventually launch an independent label to help get that music into more peoples’ ears. This September, the group officially announced The Salt Lick Records, with its inaugural five artists, including Bear and the Beasts and Mlady.

Typically, national record labels loan artists a large sum of money up front to create a record, and go on to take 80 percent of the revenue. The Salt Lick doesn’t rely on such predatory revenue models. Instead, Edelstein and Hoang forgo contract requirements like the advance loan, and structure deals with audio engineers around the city so artists can use their studios—including The Salt Lick basement—and services at a discounted rate. “The barrier for entry is not as high because there’s not this feeling of, the artist is taking out a large loan, and they’re going to have to owe us for years to come,” Hoang says.

Edelstein and Hoang note that they’re slowly building profit. They still have to work full-time jobs other than The Salt Lick at the moment, but they envision the label being fully sustainable in the years to come.

Hartman and fellow Future Garden manager Kori Hazel also don’t currently make a salary from their work with Future Garden, citing artists’ career growth as their main goal. Hazel says that if any artist or band they represent went on to sign with a national agency or label, they’d view that as a win. He and Hartman simply hope to act as a bridge for those artists at the incubation level, helping them develop their craft and focus on the art with a “quality over quantity” mindset. As Hazel sees it, there’s pressure to perform economically once you make it to the national level—and they’ve noticed the art fizzle as soon people run to sign with agencies in larger national markets like Los Angeles.

“When you’re at a big agency, you understand that you’re also a number on a huge roster with a bunch of other national artists, and it’s not the same type of attention,” Hazel says. “And [the national agencies] can help you, but I don’t believe they can help you in the same ways that someone who cares in a very localized sense [can].”

Part of that appeal seems to lie in the ecosystem that creatives like N3ptune, The Salt Lick, and Future Garden are building, especially, as Hartman and Hazel note, the music coming out of Denver continues to push boundaries and shift genres. “I see us as tastemakers. Those [national] agencies, they’re not leading the trends. They’re grabbing artists who have become successful. They’re not setting the agenda,” Hartman says.

“They’re not moving the culture,” Hazel adds. “We’re meeting the culture where it’s at. We’re also trying to push it ”

It also doesn’t hurt that Denver’s arts scene has built a unique culture of collaboration. “We’re in partnership with all these people that, in any other music scene, you’d be competing with. And instead, we’re like ‘How can we help you do this thing? How can we build up this music scene together?’ ” Edelstein says. All three groups are in agreement that the uplifting sense of community is an essential part of the city’s recipe for success.

“There’s literally a rebirth that we’re watching before our eyes, in terms of entertainment, in terms of institutions. … We all feel it,” N3ptune says. “Coming into the business, I see it, I feel it, and I’m already in it.” As for Denverites on the other side of the speaker, all you have to do is be sure to listen for their attack.

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