It sounds like a dream. Musicians of all kinds gather in a studio space to eat, drink, talk, get extravagant and elaborate gifts and chill on a patio. The guest list is exclusive and unyielding, and there is a big-money sponsor behind the event, which coincides with the monstrous and incomprehensible conference known as SXSW, thus attracting the highest order of both artists and attendees to the region. There is no dominant genre represented, and the spectrum from hip hop to rock to afro-beat is well represented within the walls, inside of which, music pours out into the world. And, despite the money spent on the affair, this isn’t where the A-list comes to play. In fact, there isn’t a present-day “A-lister” in attendance, and they might be spurned if they didn’t play nice with those on the inside.
Converse Rubber Tracks, now in its fourth year at SXSW, is an uncompromisingly altruistic endeavor. Originally begun in New York as a way for Converse to provide a place where musicians could get a chance to record and produce what their musical talent provided, regardless of their resources, the effort is an expression of Converse’s desire to give back to a community – hard-working musicians – that has always championed their brand. Converse’s iconic Chuck Taylor sneakers have adorned the feet of musicians for decades, setting the trend of successful sports brands making a splash in pop culture long before the other sports brands made their way into the cultural conversation.
They are and have always been the brand of the upstart, the signature footwear of the stage that gave birth to The Ramones, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, The Roots, Blondie, Green Day and countless others. Odds are, if you like a band in rock or hip hop or alternative, you are a fan of a band that has laced up Chuck Taylors that were well-worn and shredded from miles of stagetop real estate, along with even more miles of pavement, whether while lugging gear from venue to venue or setting up to busk for dinner money. “Chucks” are quite nearly required wardrobe for every band trying to make it, and it has been that way since before Rocky Balboa ran up the steps in Philadelphia (which, it is interesting to note, he did in Chuck Taylors).
So, for no other reason than to give back, Converse established and is continuing to grow the Rubber Track studios, worldwide, to provide professional spaces and professional instruments, along with professional mixing for any band who can prove they’re willing to work for it. They set up pop up studios in whatever cities draw artist who are hungry for success in music, which means they are fixtures in New York and Los Angeles, as well as Montreal and São Paulo, where the music industry has definitive hubs. But they also appear alongside conferences and festivals. If there is a chance for the next Ramones or the next Nirvana to emerge, Converse Rubber Tracks is happy to find a way to make a home.
Which is precisely what draws them, time and again, to Austin, Texas, for SXSW 2015, where they have curated a number of local and international bands who applied to make use of the space during the early part of SXSW Interactive. Bands like local favorites, The Tontons and Austin Music Awards darlings, Residual Kid, record a few tracks at the Converse set up on the east side and are treated, quite frankly, like rock stars. They get new shoes. They get food. They get the ear of Jed Lewis, Global Music Marketing Director for Converse. They get to rub elbows with Dan Zaccagnino, founder of Indaba Music, a sampling consortium that is legendary in what they have provided to the music industry, at large. They get to walk away from their sessions with track that belong to them and them alone. No rights are shared with Converse, Rubber Tracks or even the studio they worked in. And none of this, not a single lace, not a single note is paid for with any currency other than the sweat and wear that it takes to make a band work.
Hard Proof, an Austin-based band composed of a variety of members who likely long for the day when they can quit well-paying day jobs and play music profitably and full-time, were getting the Converse treatment when we arrived to sit in for a few minutes. At ease with the studio, but perhaps a little nervous about the kindness and the attention, they all were languidly gathered in the patio, under cool skies, to shoot the breeze, show off their tattered Chucks and get ready to make the most of their opportunity. Little did anyone know that the band, once they gathered with their 10 members who all arrived at various times later in the day, they would pound through what a Rubber Tracks sound engineer would later explain as “the most killer six-song session” that any band could produce in any length of time, even though the staggered arrival only allowed a significantly curtailed amount of time.
And they were but one of the bands given just such an opportunity. While chatting outdoors, the humorously-named but impressively talented band, Tela Novella, were making the most of their time in Shine studio, working out the chord changes and the levels for their own impressive array of instruments.
All of this is done with no return on investment for the company. They give everything away to the musicians and are as faithful as the shoes they produce. Stories filled the air of the patio of Chucks that survived floods, friends and “that one fateful night in New Orleans.” But even the stories aren’t required as payment. Rather, they’re simply enjoyed by all.
Multiple inquiries were made and were met only by more altruism. Rubber Tracks isn’t the only gift that Converse gives to the music world that has keep them on feet and on stages. They have partnered with Indaba Music for an entirely different endeavor, which provides high-quality and professionally mastered samples for free use to musicians. Their sample library is built by the musicians who visit their studio spaces and includes the efforts of those aforementioned A-list musicians, who partner with Converse and Indaba to pave the way for future musicians. It is, in short, the never-ending cycle of “paying it forward” for musicians, whether they are starving or they remember when they were.
By doing so, Converse has ensured that musicians, whether scraping to see daylight or drowning in the limelight, will forever remember how Chuck Taylors carried them at some point or another in their careers.
It’s an unconventional way to operate a business, but it manages the one feat that many corporations cannot confidently proclaim – it makes the Converse brand a true one. And it helps to make the “dream” ever band entertains come just as true as the Chucks on their feet.