It started with vegetable oil and a bus that broke down on an almost daily basis.
Davis Hart, 25, grew up in a recording studio after starting a band when he was 14. As a teenager in his hometown of St. Augustine, Florida, he decided to ask his “gearhead” neighbor how to get a school bus to run on vegetable oil to cut down on travel costs.
Eleven years later, that trip next door has turned into a cooperative record label called Elestial Sound. In addition to his rentable vegetable oil buses, Hart is in the process of building a co-op recording studio, live practice rooms and an apartment for the label’s artists inside a renovated warehouse near Waldo Road.
Hart also plans to create a permanent apartment in one of his buses, in addition to a business office, a recording studio, control room, live room, practice room, area for shows and a residency complex.
Hart said he plans to finish the recording studio and practice rooms within two months so artists can begin recording. Meanwhile, larger projects like the garden and residency complex could take a year because they require clearing the land of trees.
Although the label is moving forward, it came from small beginnings.
“[It came] pretty much out of necessity,” Hart said. “That’s where all great ideas come from.”
When he was 17, he embarked on a four-year tour, alternating as musician and manager on a homemade tour bus that limped across the United States.
After the hardships and difficulties of not being able to hold a steady job while on the road, Hart got an idea: Why not charge bands to go on tour with him?
The idea quickly led to the creation of the artist-run, cooperative record label.
Thirty-two people are now equal-share owners. Hart said some are more active than others, but they rely on a group of five board members, including Hart, who make executive decisions in weekly meetings about the direction of the company and potential ventures.
Ideally, each owner brings a different element to the company. Hart runs shows and brings artists on tour, while other owners are in charge of printing T-shirts and running the finances, among other duties.
“I thought, ‘Well, [the other co-owners] can crank out T-shirts for not only my band or your band, but for other bands we care about that maybe don’t have that skill,’” Hart said. “Maybe that band will then have a skill that I don’t have in whatever way. Maybe they have contacts at Pitchfork.”
A cooperative record label is not common, according to Hart. When he founded his label, he only knew of a few now-defunct examples. Many are only able to garner a handful of co-owners and fail after a short period. Elestial Sound quickly accumulated its artists, allowing it a level of sustainability.
JP Wright got involved with the label two years ago and became a co-owner soon after. The 2010 University of Florida grad has done everything from touring with artists as a tour manager in the buses to handling the merchandise shipping. He said he is now helping with the construction of the warehouse when he can.
Wright said the label produces mainly electronic music as well as genres like soul hip-hop, acoustic and dream pop. They’re trying to coexist with the current Gainesville music scene while finding a niche outside of the punk genres, he added.
Daniel Halal, the owner of Arrow’s Aim Records in downtown Gainesville, said he’s seen a more positive music vibe in Gainesville over the last few years as more people attend live shows.
He also echoed the sentiment that punk is what the city has been known for, but added Elestial Sound is getting bigger by bringing a positive energy through the unique music they produce.
“Gainesville has a good music scene,” Wright said. “There are a lot of different things going on. There’s a vibrant punk scene and has been for a while, but we’re trying to do something different. We’re trying to carve out a little space.”