Making music to make a living

Entertainment | The BBJ took a look inside the local music scene to learn the ins and outs of being...

Photos by Josh Durias |

Bellingham may not be a music mecca like Nashville, Tenn. or Los Angeles, Calif., but that hasn’t kept local people from making a career in the music industry. And it’s more than just the big name groups that got their start here, such as The Posies or Death Cab for Cutie.

For every local band that is out there trying to make a name for itself, there is a whole group of businesses involved in getting that music out to the masses — from studios to record labels to venues. Here’s just a snapshot of the lively music industry in Bellingham.

The band: Yogoman Burning Band

It’s 8 p.m. on a cloudy Wednesday night in July and Jordan Rain, also known as DJ Yogoman, is about to start work. Up on the stage in the Boundary Bay beer garden, Rain beings spinning reggae and dance hall music to get the crowd moving and make it feel like summer. *This paragraph has been edited to delete incorrect information.

Besides being a DJ, Rain is also the drummer and lead vocalist for Yogoman Burning Band, a Bellingham-based, four-person “good times dance music” group, as he describes it. The band formed in late 2005 with the goal of working full-time as musicians.

“When I started this group, it was to make a living for my family and my band mates,” Rain said. “I really wanted to show my daughter that this is a valuable way to make a living. It’s a decent living and it gets better as our fan base grows.”

The band has put out three albums and Rain estimates they perform about 250 shows a year, most of which are outside Bellingham. The group plays in Bellingham about once a month and usually puts together a short West Coast tour every few months.

The band operates much like a small business: they produce their own albums, book their own shows, have a business license, and pay taxes at the end of the year. It’s a lot of work, but it all helps legitimize the notion that being in an independent band can be a career, Rain said.

Getting out on the road and performing is the way the band makes most of its money. Since there’s no big record label selling Yogoman Burning Band albums all over the country, the band sells most of its CDs and merchandise at shows, on top of getting paid by the venue.

“The challenge is in getting the word out, making a name for yourself outside of Bellingham,” Rain said. “Because there’s so much music out there and on so many mediums, it’s hard to create a buzz for yourself.”

The Internet has definitely made it easier for independent musicians to reach new audiences far and wide, Rain said, adding that the band has a pretty big following in northern California.

Jordan Rain keeping the rhythm rocksteady. Josh Durias |

“Overall, we’ve done pretty well as a band,” he said. “In some ways this band has made it, but not in the traditional way with big record deals. We’re all able to support ourselves by playing music and I consider that a success.”

The studio: Binary Recording Studio

Bob Ridgley has seen a lot of musicians and vocalists come through his Binary Recording Studio in the 22 years since he opened it. Some artists are more well known than others, but he leaves it at that.

“We keep it pretty private. We’ve had some big names come through here, but we don’t really talk about it,” Ridgley said.

The studio, just a few miles east of Bellingham, is an audiophile’s dream. The five separate recording rooms each have their own acoustic characteristics to suit all types of musicians, from heavy metal drummers to soulful jazz singers to large choirs. And if a musician is having trouble getting the perfect sound, Ridgley often knows how to find it.

“Working in a creative business is hard because we’re using words to describe ideas and feelings,” he said. “I take the time to understand people so when they describe the feeling of being warm and being in the mountains, I know what sound they are looking for.”

Ridgley also has the benefit of being a former musician. He played keyboards and jazz trumpet for 19 years, during which time he worked as a studio musician and toured with a band.

“There’s an advantage to having experience on both sides of the glass,” he said, referring to the large window that separates the recording rooms from the sound booth. “I spent most of my youth in studios as a studio artist. I worked with a lot of really good engineers who explained to me the physics of sound.”

Ridgley doesn’t play anymore, but instead devotes himself to the studio. And it’s not easy work. He typically spends mornings editing and mastering music or working with voice-over clients for things like audio books. Then afternoons and evenings are spent working with bands. Sometimes a band will rent the studio for an entire weekend and record a whole album.

“Most people say it’s a 14-days-a-week job because it’s day and night,” Ridgley said.

Many of the large record labels are struggling to adapt to the digital age and that has trickled down to the recording studios as well, Ridgley said, adding that he has seen several world-class studios in the country close in recent years. Binary Recording Studio, though, has survived as a boutique studio thanks to low overhead and rising demand for video services.

Besides audio, Ridgley is also proficient with a video camera and has shot everything from action sports films to documentaries.

“It’s a great business because of the interaction with people,” Ridgley said. “I love being able to work with people creatively. It’s fantastic — I help people’s dreams come true.”

Bob Ridgley at the controls at Binary Recording Studio. Isaac Bonnell | BBJ

The venue: The Shakedown

Hollie Huthman is fairly new to the music industry in Bellingham. When she and fellow co-owner Marty Watson opened The Shakedown in mid-April, she had no previous experience running a rock venue and bar — just a passion for live music and a knack for business.

Huthman, who is a bassist and an avid band photographer, was well-connected to the local music scene and knew that there was demand for a live music venue.

“With the absence of a medium-sized venue, I thought it would be a great way to combine my passions and talents,” she said. “And the opportunity presented itself.”

The day-to-day operation of the bar isn’t difficult, Huthman said, and booking bands has been easier than she expected. The Shakedown has at least three shows a week, on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights and most of the bands are local.

“Since we opened, we’ve had about 100 local bands,” she said. “We are pretty saturated with bands — good bands too. It’s not hard to fill a calendar.”

Promoting shows is the most time-consuming part of the job, Huthman said. She spends a lot of time working with graphic designers to produce eye-catching, artistically pleasing posters that will draw people in to see a show. Along with tried-and-true poster campaigns, Huthman also promotes shows on Facebook, where more than 1,000 people are connected to the venue.

When booking bands, whether they are local or well-known groups on a national tour, Huthman has to evaluate how many people that band might draw to a show. Oftentimes, local bands will have a more devout following than a big name group, which is testament to the talent and variety of musicians here, she said.

Though Huthman also works a day job at Whatcom Educational Credit Union, she is always excited to head to The Shakedown in the evening and be around people who enjoy music. (Most of the staff of 15 people are musicians.) And simply being a part of the local music scene is satisfying, Huthman said.

“One of the my favorite parts of the job and one of the results of creating this place is watching people have a good time, and having a good time with them,” Huthman said. “A lot of my favorite memories are from live shows. I like that I get to be a part of that for other people. Having a successful show where everyone has had a great time — that’s what it’s all about.”

Tags: ,

Comments are closed.

Related Stories