Starting at the Top Left: Jessie Payo, Danny McGaw, Hannah Siglin, Omar Velasco, Mendeleyev, Tina Schlieske, Erland Wanberg, and Hana Aluna. | Credit: Amy Ryerson

Any artist would have been happy to see the people who gathered on the roof of the Canary Hotel on Thursday, October 21, for the Santa Barbara Records launch party. From chart-topping rockers to Hollywood A-listers, the cream of our creative community turned out to hear short sets from four artists — Tina Schlieske, Danny McGaw, Omar Velasco, and Jessie Payo. They were celebrating the release of CaliAmericana, a compilation album featuring eight recording artists with ties to our city, including the four who played the launch party, plus Hannah Siglin, Erland Wanberg, Hana Aluna, and Mendeleyev. 

Credit: Courtesy

The release of CaliAmericana signals the arrival of Santa Barbara Records, a new independent record label dedicated to leading positive change in the music industry and generating cultural and economic capital for artists in our community. Music industry veteran Billy O’Connell, the general manager of Santa Barbara Records, served as master of ceremonies for the event, which also featured remarks from Tariqh Akoni, a native of Santa Barbara and world-renowned guitarist/music director, who serves as the new label’s Director of Artists and Repertoire.

It’s common knowledge that the music industry has been in turmoil at least since the turn of the 21st century, as traditional approaches to earning money from music have been upended by digital methods of content distribution. With the business systems for developing talent and getting music to the public struggling to cope with changes in technology, artists face shifting challenges and moving targets as they seek to manage their individual careers. It has never been easy to make it as a musician, but in 2021, with so many options and no clear path to success or sustainability, the task can seem overwhelming. 

Enter Santa Barbara Records, with a plan. When I spoke with Akoni the day after the event by phone, he explained the goal of this venture very clearly by saying, “We are creating the support system for our artists that I wish I had when I was starting out.” A graduate of San Marcos High School, Akoni rose through the ranks of the music world on the basis of his extraordinary skills as a guitarist and arranger, arriving at the pinnacle of success with his most recent gig as music director for multi-platinum recording artist Josh Groban. 

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As head of A&R for the new label, it’s Akoni’s job to find the talent and nurture their sound in a way that will not only offer them immediate success but also allow them to build a sustainable life in music. “Everything we do is dedicated to leaving the artists better off than when we found them,” Akoni said.

If you detect a note of revisionism in that statement, you have good ears. Record labels do not have a uniformly positive track record when it comes to artist development. Too many promising musicians who signed major label contracts have been stymied by long-term deals that promise the world and end up leaving their music without the distribution and marketing required to reach an audience. Billy O’Connell teaches this at Loyola University, New Orleans, where he is a professor in the university’s School of Music Industry. His knowledge of the ins and outs of recording contracts, marketing plans, touring, and rights holding comes from decades of experience, first on the label side at Sire Records during its peak of influence, and then as the manager for such artists as the Pixies and Throwing Muses.

With Santa Barbara Records, O’Connell and Akoni are united by the goal of creating a new model for independent labels, one based in a realistic yet ambitious view of what a recording contract can and should do for the person who signs it. It’s an exciting venture, and with the high level of talent to be heard on CaliAmericana, it’s already attracting the attention of some of the music world’s most influential players. For more information, and to obtain a copy of CaliAmericana, visit

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