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Josh Blake, Co-Founder of Independent Arts & Music of Asheville

Josh Blake, Co-Founder of Independent Arts & Music of Asheville

Get to Know IamAVL: Independent Arts & Music Asheville

Let’s Do This is excited to connect with Josh Blake, Co-Founder of the Independent Arts & Music of Asheville (IamAVL) project.

IamAVL’s mission is to create a platform to preserve and promote the music and arts scene within a community. In Asheville NC, IamAVL’s hometown, the company produces live streams, original programming and in-studio recording sessions for musicians in collaboration with local sponsors and venues to share the Asheville music scene online. The platform works to effectively expand the reach of Asheville-based and regionally-based musicians and artists by making their live performances more accessible to both the greater Asheville and global communities.

Meet Josh Blake

Josh grew up in Sunnyvale, California, just south of San Francisco as his father was a computer and performance engineer in the late 60s and early 70s, laying the groundwork for emerging tech companies in San Francisco.

Josh Blake has been integral in developing the music scene in Asheville through his involvement with the band GFE, or Granola Funk Express and as an original member of the long-standing Asheville Funk Jam which is still a vibrant staple in Asheville’s local music scene, hosted every Tuesday night at the Asheville Music Hall.

The Granola Funk Express was “a free kitchen… that set up at Rainbow Gatherings and acted as a magnet, drawing people from all over the country to cooperatively cook and serve free food… Some members of GFE, [the kitchen,] traveled the country, doing improvisational street performances in the form of short plays spliced with freestyle rap and beatbox sessions” in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Read more on Asheville’s independent newspaper, the Mountain Xpress.

LDT: What path led you to Asheville, N.C.?
JB: Really it was music – I was living in Western Massachusetts for two years because I went to school outside of Boston for a year or two. After school, I left to travel.

I spent the summer between freshman and sophomore year traveling in Europe. When I got back to college, I wasn’t that interested in it so I went on tour with the Grateful Dead and Phish and went to several rainbow gatherings for a couple years. Along the way, I met a bunch of people and some of them were connected to the Granola Funk Express Rainbow Kitchen.

This is relevant because after Jerry Garcia died, with no more Dead tour, I settled down in Western Massachusetts for a couple years. Some people that I met while I was traveling ended up in Asheville. In the fall of 1996, they urged me to come down and check it out so I did.

I officially moved down to Asheville in the fall of 1997. We were playing music downtown in the streets for nobody because there was no one here in ‘97. Everyone in the crew liked to rap and play music. There was a show, GFE had done a show or two, but this show spawned what became known as the band, on Bob Marley’s birthday on Feb 6, 1997, at the same venue that is now The Asheville Music Hall. I think there were over 25 hippies on stage. We had no songs. It was awesome.

My dad was a computer engineer and my mother did public relations. For some reason, I ended up doing both. I’m an audio engineer and I’m doing public relations somewhat with the web channel, and through AMP, (Asheville Music Professionals)  a non-profit I helped create with some fine folks in the music industry here. I feel like my parents, whether I realized it at the time, had a huge influence on what I’ve chosen to do.

LDT: How did you get where you are now?
JB: First, I’m a musician. Second, I’m a producer and engineer… They all go hand in hand and feed off of each other. This is what I have been doing – it’s what I’ve been doing my whole life, and it brought about everything else that I’m working on.

The GFE (Granola Funk Express) toured pretty hard from 1997 to 2007. It got to the point where we felt like we had plateaued and traveling became less attractive than being at home. The end of touring coincided with the opening of Echo Mountain.

As well as performing, I’ve always been interested in the recording and music creation process. That’s probably why I have fallen into studio work. During my first recording session at Echo Mountain, John Paul Jones happened to do a studio tour, and he’s one of my idols. At that moment I knew the building was magic. I had always recorded people at home – mostly rappers because that’s the music we were making at the time. I had a home studio at the time, but from then on, anytime someone wanted to record with me, I said, “let’s do it at Echo Mountain.”

Five years ago when the studio expanded, studio work was picking up for me and I asked to rent one of the new rooms, Studio L, as my home studio. I started renting the space with Ben Lovett. I do a lot of my engineering and producing and editing there. After the concept of IamAVL came to life, an office happened to open up next to Studio L. We jumped on the opportunity to use it as a home base for the business, which is how IamAVL ended up being based out of Echo Mountain Recording Studios. In an evolutionary sense, IamAVL is definitely a product of all of the time that I’ve spent in Asheville.

LDT: What was the official start date?
JB: Since I was here in ‘97, it was mostly the same handful of musicians playing around town. For like 10-12 years! Not much new happening at all. Then I started to do this funk jam, every week, and I started to notice more and more musicians moving to town, and the scene began to evolve. My friend and artist/musician Tomm aka Adam Strange and I started talking one day and discussed doing something to put a spotlight on the Asheville music scene, archive performances to capture history. We felt very strongly that Asheville was going through a cultural renaissance.

We officially started May 2012. After my conversation with Tomm I decided to make moves to make to something real. I reached out to a team of people to help start the project and brought them together for the first IamAVL meeting. First I went to Michael Selverne a producer and entertainment lawyer with over 30 years in the game. His knowledge and expertise have been invaluable to the business. Of course, I hollered at Tomm… he’s the one who came up with the acronym Independent Arts & Music Asheville. I hollered at Josh Rhinehart who helped build our first website, among other things. Then I went to Scott Reese, a close friend and devout music fan, who has always been into the live concert archiving process.

I have always been the main facilitator, managing director or whatever… I deal with the facilitating and building the team, and setting up productions, and scheduling shows, going to meetings, accounting – all the unsexy stuff. Covering rent when we didn’t have it. I mean, I have always worked our productions too. Shit, for the first few years I did most all of the live club remote streams, uploaded everything to the website, sales, and marketing, all the busy work, business work. Then with the rest of the crew, I’d do production work as well. Now I have CEO in my signature, ‘cause that’s fun, and have somehow become a producer of a television program. Crazy. Although Josh Rhinehart, Tomm, and Selverne were integral in the creation of IamAVL, and still support what we do, over time they let go of being involved on a regular basis.

Scott Reese is my only official partner now, he’s the “creative director”. He helps make creative decisions and technical video decisions. Also, through the success of the project, we have built a killer crew of folks that we love, and love working with. Now I do less of the busy work and Guy Newton handles all the club streams for us, as well as a bunch of other stuff. Phill Bronson has been our chief video editor and resident badass for the last 2 years. Shane Peters is our go to DP, and we have a great crew of camera ops who get involved as necessary. Marisa Blake deserves a lot of praise for IamAVL’s success. I was ready to throw in the towel after we were still sinking money into the business, then right at year three, she stepped up and took over doing sales and marketing, and created some relationships for the business that gave it new life.

Early on I opted to not be a cameraman because I already wear so many hats. The hat that I want to wear the most is that of a musician, producer, engineer. I don’t need to be a videographer. We have been fortunate to meet some amazing cameramen and women that we work with. I have learned so much about cameras though, and I’ll still work a camera sometimes, I’ll do it and crush. But deep down, I want to be on stage jamming, I don’t want to be stuck behind a camera. I do love live directing when we are working a show. And I understand all the technical elements of live streaming, when we are streaming an event I am often watchful over that. Also dealing with audio, that’s always been my thing. We have gone from being a promotional web channel for the music and arts community, to building a full-service production company that works events like Widespread Panic concerts, The Warren Haynes Christmas Jam, and one recently for NPR that had over 190,000 viewers. We will soon be streaming the Asheville’s new pro soccer teams games too, off of their website.

LDT: What kind of work do you do? What is a typical day in your life?
JB: I wake up and hang out with the family. I make sure the kids are off to school. On an ideal day, I’m working with a band in one of the main rooms, but if that’s not happening, the first thing I do when I get to work is respond to any sort of emails and business related computer work before anyone comes in. Our office can get pretty chaotic at times, it’s a bit of a refuge for people in and around the studio and visitors. So I like to get things done early when I can.

Probably about half of my days at this point I’m working on an album or working in Studio L next door to our office, mixing something for someone. I typically attend to IamAVL business in the am, then I switch to music work. I’ve been blessed to make work and play the same thing. I get to work with bands I love and admire, and have met and gotten to play live with and create music in the studio with some of my childhood and present day idols.

The other half of my days, I’m in the office all day. Like today, I have a remix to do which will not happen until Ben goes to lunch. The rest of the day I will be working with Phil or Guy on some edits, overseeing what we’re doing to continue to push the project along.

I also average, I’d say two gigs, sometimes 3 on the warmer months, around town each week and one the most consistent gigs for me is the Tuesday Night Funk Jam at Asheville Music Hall.

LDT: How did the funk jam start?
JB: The funk jam started nine years ago. It was a bunch of different musicians around town who wanted to get together on a weekly basis and create a funk jam.

We did the jam for about three years at the Emerald Lounge. We were charging $5, but then there started to be free shows around town on the same night so we could no longer compete, so the Funk Jam became a free concert as well. It still is to this day. We did about two years at the One Stop until it was too crowded then they moved us upstairs to the Music Hall.

The funk jam has been an incredible place for local and touring musicians to collaborate because you never know who is going to come through. We’ve had a few guests over the years… Mike Gordon from Phish, Ike Willis from Frank Zappa’s Band, Jeff Sipe, one of my favorite drummers on the planet, Trey Pierce, Doodlebug from Digable Planets, the list is endless… and local favorites always come through and mix it up with us.

It coincided with when my band stopped touring. I had developed an addiction for performing live music and the funk jam totally satisfies it. I can share energy with an audience and I can go home and go to bed. I don’t have to hop on the tour bus and be wherever. That’s still my favorite thing to do… live performance.

LDT: What is your target audience? Who do you work with?
JB: Our target audience is anyone who loves live music. We’re the first across the country, where local venues are all plugged into the same website. I don’t know of another city that has the platform that we’ve developed.

LDT: Let’s hear more about the Echo Sessions.
JB: Echo Sessions is a “One of a Kind Musical Experience”, blending the magic of a live performance with the comfort of a studio session. Filmed at Echo Mountain Recording Studios in Asheville North Carolina, we live stream the in-studio concert, then post it to our archives after review and edits.

We have recently gotten the series syndicated for statewide broadcast on UNC-TV. We made the first ten and paid out of pocket before we had a sponsor. Now we have built the series to the point that we have a waiting list. We work with some pretty large acts, as well as many Asheville bands.

Our intention is to have them right next to the national acts, hopefully getting them some new looks. This lines up with our original mission of getting more exposure for the local scene. It has developed into a business opportunity with contracts owning content that we’ve produced. Now from a business standpoint, we have the ability to do things we didn’t even set out to do.

LDT: How does IamAVL work?
JB: We have live stream installations in clubs and we stream those for free as a community service, supported by local businesses. We try and get sponsorship for the events we go and stream, and the original content that we produce. Almost everything we capture ends up in our archives. We have about 1,000 shows, interviews, and programs in our archives at the moment.

As far as straight up production work, often people hire us and we film for them. We get hired all the time to film shows for people. Sometimes that footage makes it to our website, sometimes people have other ideas for it. These are work for hire jobs, meaning we film and hand them the footage. Some gigs are sponsored. We seek sponsorship for are things we want to own the rights to.

I think a lot of the IamAVL crew would be satisfied if we were just a video production company, but I have and have always had a different vision for us. A vision that involves artists and their community, a way to connect businesses and cities to their local creative elements, and a way for up and coming bands to get a step ahead in an ever-evolving music industry. I also have grown that vision into wanting to produce and own content, and not just work for hire for other people.

Owning our own content is huge, owning the rights to a live concert that could be potentially released on an EP, used for documentary work. I mean it’s all band friendly, partial ownership, licensing splits with artists, etc. I mean I’m a musician who plays in bands and toured and I come from that side of it. So it’s important to me that we are always good to the bands we work with. Owning content is as important as getting paid at the end of the gig. Sometimes in the past, we have opted to not get paid… in fact to pay for productions to get done, just so we can retain some content rights. While at first, it seemed foolhardy, we have now learned how valuable owning your content can be.

LDT: What do you want to do next?

JB: My long term goal is to get IamAVL to the point where I can continue to oversee the project and focus more on the studio work. We’re at the point where it’s time for us to produce a new product that we own the copyrights to like Echo Sessions.

About a year ago, I bought the URL youareavl.com because it’s cool that we product stuff, but people are doing so much stuff around here. We don’t put music videos on our website, but we should. I want people involved, so You Are AVL means anytime you are at a concert and you hashtag IamAVL or YouAreAVL, it populates on the same page. Anyone who wants to show a clip or concert photography from a show in Asheville can tag us and it would populate on the website. The only challenge would be the curation.

LDT: What kind of connections are you looking to make or do you need?
JB: From the beginning, we’ve talked about I Am Portland, Denver, San Francisco… If we had an investor or partner with capital that believes in this idea, we already have connections to venues in other cities to integrate what we’re doing.

We have the long-term goal to be that community-based music web channel that is focused on the artists in the community and exposing the music scene in the community to the greater population. The biggest challenge is funding it. Ideally, it should be community supported with advertising from local businesses.

The number one thing for me, at this point, is to find a partner who believes in what we’re doing and the vision. Someone that can help us tighten up the business model. We’re music fans and musicians who want to work around music. We’re are open to talking with anyone who is looking to invest and help and expand our vision.

I would be really interested in connecting with musicians and booking agents, publicists, people who represent bands that want to work with us when they come through Asheville.

We have plenty of artists, designers, cameramen, video editors. Our crew is built off of love – we fucking love each other. It would be neat if we could afford to have a business manager so we have someone to do scheduling, distribution and make sure the people are willing to work to make that schedule happen. We are working towards having a person who manages social media on staff. We have always done everything “all hands on deck”-style. As the business evolves, I see us needing more specific roles to maximize efficiency and productivity.

LDT: What is your outlet from work? What is your passion, what gets you out of bed in the morning?
JB: My wife and my kids get me out of bed in the morning. It’s basically just music. Every day I feel like I wake up and I’m just excited to create art for whatever reason. Whether I’m creating it myself or helping someone else do it, that’s what gets me out of bed every day.

I like to feel like my time on this earth was spent creating something beautiful or lasting. I’ve grown into the role of being a facilitator, a bridge to help people get where they need to go. If I can help people make their art eternal, or if I can create some myself through my own music, that’s what drives me, that’s my passion.

LDT: What’s going to be your question for next interview?
JB: How did what your parents did shape or not shape what you have done? How did your background from growing up shape your decisions?

Let’s Do This! Stop, Collaborate & Listen
If you’re interested in a future collaboration or learning more about Josh Blake and the Independent Arts & Music of Asheville (IamAVL) project and the Funk Jam at Asheville Music Hall, you can send him an email and connect on social media using the links below:

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