ZOO LABS teaches business to artists, empowers them as entrepreneurs and directs resources towards their ventures. The process starts in their onsite intensive Zoo Labs Music Residency Program and expands to two years of artistic and entrepreneurial development. Since 2013, Zoo Labs has operated as an Oakland, CA based non-profit, and supported over 200 artists. Their goal is to empower artists to build and strive in their creative careers. We sat down with Brad Dollar, mentor and developer, to learn more about Zoo Labs creation and collective vision on why artist development is so important for aspiring songwriters. 


What is Zoo Labs’ origin story?

In 2013, Zoo Labs was established by Vinitha Watson. It was the midst of the Silicon Valley tech accelerator boom. She found that artist share a similar problem to tech entrepreneurs - they are forming startups with little money, resources and business skills. They were missing the business training to build a sustainable and thriving career. To provide a solution, she created the Zoo Labs Music Residency program. Today, Zoo Labs enhances the entrepreneurial spirit in artists, and to tears down the false stereotype that artists are broke and not fit for leadership positions.

What is Zoo Labs’ ultimate mission and who do you benefit?

We believe in the power of training artists as business leaders. We enhance this power by teaching artists business skills, empowering them as entrepreneurs and guiding resources towards their ventures. Having creative business leaders opens the market to more economic and cultural opportunities that can accelerate change.

What kind of impact has your residency program had for the music community and for your attendees?

Impact is dependent on the artists’ definition of success. We say there is success if a goal is laid out and strategically executed. Some artists want their entire income to be made from their art, while others are striving for GRAMMY nominations or fully funded campaigns. Another definition of success is economical. Our alumni go into the world and begin hiring people to complete their vision, subsequently passing jobs, acceleration and opportunities on to the communities surrounding them.

What are the benefits of focusing on artist development?

Creative expansion doesn’t happen in a vacuum and business growth doesn’t happen in a silo. The best parts of your art come forward when you open yourself to hearing other perspectives, forming patterns, seeking truth and being unique in your work. It’s the repetition of shaping and refining the product along with the strategy.  

What are some kinds of topics that you urge in your residencies that artists should be proficient in?

Our big program focus is getting to know your audience by understanding them as a customer. You learn a lot by finding out how your creations fit into people’s lives. Moreover, you build problem solving skills. You can define what people are missing or in need of. Then, you can notice new opportunities and fill the holes as you grow your product. We’ve noticed that building a strategy and pivoting when needed becomes habitual, once learned. Even so, a lot of artists are so connected to their work that getting out of the building and talking to people is not a priority (I mean we have 3 fully equipped studios - who wouldn’t want to play in there all day?). We teach artists a repeatable guideline, and confidence to go out there and learn from people.

What does empowerment mean to Zoo Labs?

Empowering artists as business leaders means giving them the tools to build strategy, and enhance their confidence in navigating the unknown. It is not easy to be both a creator and a business person. Being able to assess opportunities, identify risks, decide when to say yes or no, and test your ideas is key to empowering yourself. You are no longer afraid of the future if you believe you have a part in building it.

What advice do you have for independent artists trying to make a career in the music industry?

Dig in. Hone your craft. Build a team. Find mentors. Learn everything you can about crazy ideas in business that worked. Be authentic. Be available. Be professional. Show people your passion for what you do. Be clear about what you want to do and what you need to get it done.

How do you think the music industry has changed for artists/songwriters in the last 10 years, and what do you think still needs to change that can ultimately benefit artists?

The biggest shift is that artists have to carry themselves much further towards the finish line on their own before things like partnerships, deals and financial stability set in. This requires creatives, especially those in the traditional music industry model, to be business savvy. The result is that we see great success from artists that tap in strategies from other industries, such as tech & manufacturing. Then, as business leaders, artists have the power to negotiate with Labels or partners so that they remain in control. They know better than to sign off all their master rights, or even to turn down a show that doesn’t match what they are looking for. This is a signal that new revenue streams will open for the music and entertainment industries. There will be more cross-collaboration between creatives as leaders. The benefit is that artists will no longer be taken advantage of. They will be valued for their creativity and hustle to impact their world for the better.  

What does the rest of 2018 look like for Zoo Labs?

We are co-hosting a series of Thursday Evening shows at the Apple Store in Union Square in San Francisco for four weeks in October. We’re also running two residencies this fall where we will accelerate 24 artists (6 teams) to their intersection of craft and commercial viability. If you’re in Oakland on November 9th, stop by to see the teams perform! Lastly, on November 10th, we’re hosting an Understanding Your Fans Workshop at MusicExpo SF.


 As part of Songtrust's continued mission to support and supply songwriters and artists with insights and resources to be successful, we're collaborating with like-minded companies globally to discuss relevant topics in the music industry. These interviews are purely for educational purposes and do not indicate a partnership or exchange of services. 

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