How OkSessions is Shaping a New Model for Local Music

Many people today understand the value of the local food movement. Choosing to consume locally grown products is good for the body, helps the environment, and has a positive impact on the regional economy. The team at OkSessions wants everyone to know that these same benefits occur when you consume local music. 

By cultivating media content and new idea spaces focused on the central Oklahoma music scene, OkSessions works hard to benefit the entire community. With the mission of building a culture of music and arts throughout the area, the team strives to help Oklahoma grow an industry of sustainable musicianship. 

James Beach and Christian Pearson co-founded OkSessions. The Oklahoma City jazz scene served as the backdrop to the origins of their partnership.

JAMES BEACH: Christian was involved in the jazz scene and doing a lot of show promotion. I arrived in OKC trying to make connections around both technology and music. We brought together our own mutually exclusive projects that we were building around the same sort of thesis. We both wanted to help artists recognize what was here and to build a new, more supportive scene.

CHRISTIAN PEARSON: James and I met at an event I was organizing, and then we got lunch. He was focused on creating content driven by the artist community. From those early ideas came a million others. Through our conversations, we both came to realize that a lot of things would be necessary to develop the music community we wanted to see. We would need to host live events, engage civic and corporate partners,  and make content easier to create for artists.

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The co-founders come from very different backgrounds, with skill sets that turned out to complement the other very well. 

PEARSON: I'm from Oklahoma City, and grew up in this area my entire life. I've been in the music scene here for ten years or so, and also worked in the finance industry in banking. I've been playing in the bars and clubs and venues around Oklahoma City since I was a teenager. 

BEACH: My inspiration to come work here was that I saw the opportunity to get involved in something at a ground level. I wanted to see what would happen if we infused a scene early-on with a planned culture and better roadmap before it starts growing. I'm originally from in the northwest and participated in a lot of the music and startup arenas up there. I came to Oklahoma City because I was fascinated with working in a smaller scene. Getting involved in the DNA of what puts artists together and allows them to work sustainably ⁠—  what allows them to work better together.

While the goal from the beginning was to make OkSessions a profitable business, it took some fine-tuning to figure out the best business model. 

PEARSON: There wasn't much of a revenue model when we started. It's a challenge to develop a solid music culture and industry because it's multifaceted. We resolved to trying a bunch of different things, all of which would have their own revenue model ⁠— whether running a media source, hosting conferences, promoting shows, or managing artists. Those are all very different revenue models. The plan was to take a run at one for a few months, learn some lessons, and see if it gains traction. Even if it doesn't immediately pay off with tons of money, if there's a lot of people interested in it, that might be something we can iterate and explore further.

BEACH: The music industry is still turned on its head from recorded music being taken away as a product model. Today, from top to bottom, that foundation product is gone. So every musician out there is always looking for new revenue models. We're just one example of an industry that is trying to find new and different ways to allow musicians to create a sustainable living for themselves ⁠— ideally, without having to travel all over the world and sleep on every floor to get a gig. It's a challenging industry. 

With a lot of ideas and a mission to build a music scene in central Oklahoma that's sustainable for everyone, it took some time to find their footing. 

BEACH: Before this venture, I worked on a platform called GoShowGo, which made house shows a little bit easier. Through that project, I learned that just having the platform exist is rarely ever enough. It has to be built around a culture that loves and supports it. With OkSessions we’ve always strived to put the culture before technology, to put on great events, and place our values front and center while having a really fun time. 

PEARSON: One of the first things I did, before OkSessions, was hosting a jam session in my neighborhood. It was just a simple jazz show. But it got to a point where I think we had a really strong culture around it. Other people had jazz shows. But this had a little extra hype because of how we talked about the music, how we built relationships. The little things that end up being big things. We didn't just want to sell a ticket but create a scene where people know each other. 

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Over time, Beach and Pearson built out a platform that integrated with the local music scene in a variety of ways. 

PEARSON: OkSessions is not just a ticketing platform. Sure, you buy a ticket, and you go to show, but there's a lot that backs it up. 

BEACH: I think everything we're doing fits best under an umbrella of saying, we're in pursuit of a roadmap for other artists and communities to follow. That it’s a marriage of both technology and culture, to create a better music scene. Some core tenets like sustainability for musicians, Farm-to-Table music, valuing unique voices, and finding ways that everyone can bring something important to the table. The musicians that play at your local establishment, they've invested just as much time in their musicianship as national touring acts. We want to equip them and the community that surrounds them with a better tool kit. So they can play better shows with higher attendance, get higher engagement, and hopefully, sustain and improve, and be a part of a more vibrant city. 

PEARSON: For example, a small startup band may not have the budget to create a fantastic video. We want to help them figure out how that can be done cheaper, more efficiently ⁠— in a community way that gets that content created and has more people engaged to share it. Local shows might suffer due to lack of technology, but there's also a potential bright side. Think of Airbnb: you probably used to go brag about staying at the Ritz Carlton Hotel. Now a lot of people pass up the Ritz Carlton experience astay at the creative local bungalow that nobody's ever heard of when they're on vacation. That's the direction we want to push the music economy. 

We all know the Taylor Swift songs. And that's cool. You have that solidarity when you go to another country or another city. But say I'm going to Phoenix, Arizona. What do the artists in Phoenix sound like? What kind of songs do they play? Because music is and always will be such an oral tradition. If people dive into that, it's incredible. There's this lineage, and you can hear it.

BEACH: There are these undeniably unique voices and talents that are every bit as valuable as the things you see on national stages. They just have not had the megaphone to reach an international audience. I would rather see something unique and different that I haven't quite experienced before. I want to go to a show and hear musicians doing something exceptional.

While OkSessions is 100% Oklahoma grown, some brainstorming has already taken place about how the platform could expand on a broader scale. 

PEARSON: On a national level, you could go to any city and open an app on your phone, saying, "Okay, where's the cool thing that's only famous here." Creating a culture of people wanting to taste the unique music of these different locales. We already have that attitude with food. When you're on vacation, you're not like, "Hey, let’s find a TGI Fridays." But that's totally what we do with music. We go to these big arena concerts and stand on hard concrete; we pay $120 for those seats. Yet sometimes people refused to pay $5 or $10 to hear the local jazz guitarist who's played at Carnegie Hall. And I think it's just a communication thing. That's why so much of what we do is focused around media in addition to the live event.  

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Even as the OkSessions team dreams about the potential for a more significant impact on hundreds of local music scenes, the work here in Oklahoma is not yet done. 

BEACH: We haven't discovered a silver bullet to fix everything just yet. Or to make such a dramatic improvement that it filters all the way down to the musicians and their wages and how to make a living. But there are undoubtedly several pieces that we can work on. I went over to meet with the Music Cities Network in Denmark a year or two ago, to talk to them about how they really have proliferated music in some of the smaller cities in Europe and internationally. There is so much civic engagement that happens over there. 

Events have much larger budgets helped by city governments who are really taking an active approach to growing their art scenes. Sometimes tens of millions of dollars are being put up to create music opportunities, regional touring efforts, and local music. That doesn't happen here in the center of the country or a lot of other metros in the US. 

Music culture is a real part of the health and growth of a community. Not just in nightlife, but in creating opportunities for kids that are coming out of school. Maybe college isn't the track for them, and they're looking for something to apply themselves to. Having those opportunities be evident and safe, and accessible for everybody from the lowest income person in your community all the way on up. It gives people a sense of hope and value.

To keep the day-to-day operations rolling at OkSessions, it requires a lot of collaboration. The team regularly meets at StarSpace46 to brainstorm, create content, or just get together in a supportive coworking environment

PEARSON: Culture is really, really important in the office, as well as in the community. I like the balance that StarSpace has between being a professional space, but also a fun place. The people are supportive, and it fosters creativity.  Everyone cares about each other's projects, even in different organizations. It's essential for us to bring any of our interns and new hires into this type of place. 

BEACH: There is a cost in creating culture. If you just rent an office building and start from scratch, it's not only the assets, tables, chairs, and whiteboards ⁠— you need to be set up for the way people behave and interact and offer in creatively. It can be a challenge to start with such a blank slate. Small businesses like us can't often afford to invest in everything it takes to get all of that happening. At StarSpace, we get to build off an existing platform and focus our resources on our mission: building a more vibrant and sustainable music culture through media and technology.