“You’re gonna want to put in earplugs for this,” the teens told me before two of them launched into a song of their own creation that featured crunchy guitar licks and hard-hitting drum patterns. It was infectious rock ’n’ roll, and those of us listening bobbed our heads and tapped our feet to the driving beat. This musical excerpt was courtesy of Jose Jimenez and Casmali Lopez, but spontaneous performances are a common occurrence in this venue, a small studio within the Santa Barbara Boys & Girls Club on Canon Perdido Street.
The afternoon I visited, teens were exchanging musical ideas in the gigging area, singing karaoke in the engineering space, and laying down tracks in the recording studio. It was a typical afternoon in the three-room space that exists thanks to the nonprofit Notes for Notes.
Started in Santa Barbara eight years ago, Notes for Notes formed with the idea of giving kids free access to musical expression. “It was just the one little idea,” explained CEO and cofounder Phil Gilley. “We started at the Teen Center [on Chapala and Victoria], and then the S.B. Bowl got involved.”
The seed for Notes for Notes was Gilley’s, but it was Rod Hare, who sits on the S.B. Bowl’s educational outreach board, who helped grow the idea into a far-reaching nonprofit model. “Notes for Notes’ [formation] is essentially a buddy movie,” Gilley said of his partnership with Hare. “We consider each other cofounders in this because it really was just a roomful of gear and us hanging out before [Rod] stumbled upon us and got the Bowl involved. He saw the national implications of how we could spread.”
What started as a “roomful of gear” in 2007 has grown exponentially with no evidence of slowing down. Early on, the decision was made to take MusicBox Studios on the road, so to speak. “We thought we can just creep down the coast, or we can plant our flag and establish ourselves nationally,” Gilley explained. “So that’s when I moved to Nashville and launched these two out here.” With its presence secured in the U.S.’s country-music capital, Gilley and Hare set their sights on expansion in California. “Now we are actually creeping down the coast to Ventura,” he said. “We opened in Santa Monica last year; West San Gabriel opens in about six weeks. I think Ventura will open in the beginning of 2015. And then San Francisco in January. … We have five clubs now, and by the end of next year we’ll have at least 12,” said Gilley. New sites include Detroit, Brooklyn, Austin, and Atlanta, thanks in part to a generous recent partnership with the Country Music Association, whose assistance will help set up the next five MusicBox locations.
It’s easy to understand why Notes for Notes is achieving such success. For the past decade, public education arts programs have been squeezed out due to budget cuts, the tragic result being that many kids do not get introduced to music and the magical outlet of expression it offers. Notes for Notes remedies that with the space and gear for kids to explore their creative curiosity — for free.
“There are no fees, so there’s no competition in our eyes,” said Gilley. “A member does not represent a dollar. … So there is no need for scholarships for those who can’t pay, which would otherwise create a one-up, one-down dynamic, and young people are really sensitive to that. The moment they feel like they’re one place and another youth is in another, it makes it really hard to start a conversation.”
Another critical aspect of the formula is building relationships; each MusicBox location has a director who imparts their knowledge, dedicates their time, and sets the tone of the space. “It’s really the program director who is in the studio every hour, who makes those facilities what they are,” Gilley explained. “At our core, we’re a relationship organization, and music is the conduit. … It is the starting point either to a relationship that is built on learning music together, creating music together, learning something about someone else, and, most importantly, learning something about yourself.”
In addition to careful staffing, Gilley and his team have caught the eyes and ears of a number of established musicians. Here at home, Jack Johnson and Glen Phillips have both popped by the Notes for Notes studios to play a few songs, jam with the kids, and answer questions. (Both Johnson and Phillips are on the nonprofit’s advisory board, which includes other luminaries such as Jeff Bridges, Joe Bonamassa, Slash, David Crosby, Martin Gore, and Seymour Duncan).
In its latest incarnation, Notes for Notes has kids getting to record — in absentia — with well-known bands. Gilley explained, “It’s still in the works, but we’ve been working closely with the band Capital Cities. We did a project this past summer at Bonnaroo, where we actually brought a mobile recording studio down to the festival. We had produced half a dozen songs in the [MusicBox] studios, which featured the kids, then we went on-site and started reaching out to artists to come in and lay something down on these tracks. Our goal over time is to actually sell a track, with all the proceeds being split between Notes for Notes and a scholarship fund for the kids on that track.”
By Courtesy Photo