A state-of-the-art independent music label sets up shop in Saranac Lake
IF YOU COULD STAND on Jeff Oehler and Sue Bibeau’s glassed-in Saranac Lake porch and crank back time about eighty years, when this All-America City was synonymous with sickness, you’d find yourself sharing company—perhaps wedged between cots in this very spot—with four tubercular women who cured here. That things were different back then is an understatement: No Burger King or Monro Muffler along Lake Flower Avenue. You couldn’t hear the roar of motorboats or snowmobiles on the lake or the squeal of tractor-trailers braking at the Main Street intersection.
Launch forward, back to the future, and there’s music on this second-story porch. Seated at a dining room table, Oehler weaves the tracks of a mandolin on a pyramid of computer equipment. His monitor displays the music through erratic zigs and zags. And just around the corner in the hallway, where private nurses once floated back and forth to check on patients, Bibeau sits at her computer and tweaks a compact-disc cover design for the soundtrack to American Pie 2, a popular teenage flick. It’s one of her many free-lance jobs for Universal Records.
This cure cottage on historic Helen Hill is headquarters for Beehive Productions, devoted to graphic design, and Hive Music, a co-op label and music production company—founded by Oehler and Bibeau. Working with musicians seems cool enough, but tack on the uniqueness of molding such a contemporary, technological business within the walls of Adirondack history and you’ve got something extraordinary. The original buzz, at least for Beehive/Hive’s founders, bloomed ideologically and geographically far from the North Country, but this is where the company now grows and evolves and “where we plan to stay and put down roots,” says Bibeau. “We love it here.”
There was a time when Bibeau didn’t know much about the Adirondacks—“l knew they were up there somewhere,” she confesses. But after she and Oehler met, and he brought her from New York City to his family’s camp in Minerva and his mother’s home in Lake Placid, they escaped the macadam whenever possible. A cure cottage in a historic village is certainly the polar extreme from EMI Records, the music publishing and recording giant in bustling Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, where Oehler and Bibeau met in 1994. He worked in the artists and repertoire department and needed a back- stage concert pass, so she—a member of EMI’s art team—designed it for him. They connected immediately, and conversation revolved around their shared frustration with mega-bucks music-recording behemoths, particularly the corporations’ disregard for musicians who, as Oehler describes, “get swallowed in the machine.”
“We just started talking about how the artist is at the end of the pile in a major industry like that,” explains Bibeau. About two years later, fed up with the system and ready to take a chance, they decided to launch their own business.
The idea to branch out independently was a risky one. But since they are artists themselves—Bibeau is a designer and illustrator with a fine-arts degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art; Oehler studied guitar at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and The New School College of Jazz and Contemporary Music in Manhattan—diving head-first for the sake of uncompromising work was natural. If anything, they’re deeply intertwined with the aspiring artists jamming in the subway, gigging at bar mitzvahs, weddings and backwoods taverns, and dragging themselves along the road night after night. Still, Oehler and Bibeau were savvy enough to nurture Hive Music slowly, beginning their venture with Beehive Productions.
“The plan was to use the graphic-design work to allow us to have a few years to build up the music production,” explains Oehler. Their first office consisted of two desks and two computers—and Smokey, a Shetland sheepdog, adds Bibeau—in a tiny Brooklyn studio apartment. Despite the lack of space, the business thrived. Beehive Productions was contracted by artists such as Sinéad O’Connor, Red Hot Chili Peppers, George Thorogood and Erykah Badu, and just two years after its start, Oehler and Bibeau realized their dream with the creation of Hive Music. The entrepreneurs also took their union past business; they’ve been married five years, and that cardinal backstage pass remains, pinned to a bulletin board in their home.
What remains as well is the couple`s mission to make good music. Though minuscule compared to industry monsters such as BMG, Sony or EMI, Hive Music isn’t a David and Goliath scenario, insists Bibeau. “We’re more pro-independent than anti-label,” she explains.
Unlike traditional record labels and production deals where artists have virtually zero ownership, are given little voice and receive a royalty from which all costs are deducted, Hive Music establishes co-op deals. Artists share ownership of master recordings, take an active role in the creation of their music and in the direction of their careers. Oehler and Bibeau call this “grass-roots development.”
“We really want to work with artists to help them develop their own cottage industry and keep the power independent,” says Oehler. “More often than not, fledgling artists have their careers destroyed because they’re not ready for the pressures and responsibilities that come along with a record contract. [Record executives] aren’t exactly pro-artist.”
Oehler contends that artists could earn more money selling ten thousand copies of a record they made with Hive Music than they could selling three or four hundred thousand with a big record company because of the way royalties are structured. “lt’s the songwriters who should make the money,” he says.
So far five bands—artists from New York City, Minneapolis and down the road in Saranac Lake; mostly acoustic, songwriter-based groups—have joined Hive’s roster, including Brendan O’Donnell, a.k.a. george, Marc Teamaker, Safetycan and most recently, Dan Seiden. Last summer Seiden, a singer/songwriter from Brattleboro, Vermont, moved temporarily to Saranac Lake. His CD Orville—named after guitar maker Orville Gibson, buried just thirty miles north of Saranac Lake in Malone—“is a record with a provocative statement,” says Seiden. “People think it’s a breakthrough for me.
“And Sue’s just so good and easy to work with—so successful, too, and a joy to be with,” he continues. “Jeff’s got values that see him through as a producer and businessman. You don’t find a lot of people who are involved in original, quality music like that.”
Seiden attributes Orville‘s distinctive sound to Oehler’s vintage collection of guitars—twenty-plus—and he guarantees ther’s not one guitar made after 1960 on his album. lt’s these instruments that Oehler and Bibeau feel are the most crucial components of their equipment—more important than amps, microphones or computers.
Almost nine months ago these instruments were mounted on a wall in the old brick Troy building in downtown Saranac Lake. This was Hive Music’s nine-thousand-square-foot loft, a space with acoustics and aesthetics that would rival any hip Soho studio. But the reason Hive moved, why most of the equipment is in storage in Vermontville and their beloved collection of guitars came to be stacked in a corner on the porch, is remarkable. Next door, a stone’s throw from where Bibeau and Oehler live and work, is the future head-quarters of Beehive Productions and Hive Music. The condemned home, with explosions of insulation sagging from broken windows, will be torn down by the village in November.
Plans to rebuild are in the works, with an estimated completion date of next summer, when Hive Music welcomes its next co-op partner, a band from Ontario. Oehler says the new structure will maintain the style and integrity of the site’s original house, built in the late 1890s. He and Bibeau discovered early photographs of their Helen Hill neighborhood in the Saranac Lake Free Library’s Adirondack Room archives. “We’re designing the house to look like it would have been,” he says.
The structure will contain recording and design studios and offices, and, Bibeau maintains, “it’ll be homey, and will fit in the neighborhood.” Most importantly, Hive Music and Beehive’s new digs will serve the musicians, the majority of whom escape the city for what Oehler calls “a working vacation” and the therapeutic North Country air.