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Beychella and the Top Notch Recordings fire:  triumph and tragedy

LA LA Land:

Patrick O”Heffernan

Coachella weekends are usually a little quiet in LA.  The clubs  and venues are all open of course, and bands are playing in the usual places.  But a good bit of the music community – musicians, fans and executives, not to mention agents and media (except me) –  is frolicking in the desert.  The allure of Coachella was especially strong  this year because the BAF – Beyoncé Anticipation Factor, and the rumors of the Triumph she would produce on the Main Stage.  So the Empire Polo Grounds and the surrounding dust bowl desert fields were jam-packed. The Palm Springs motels booked solid, the pool parties used enough water to refill Owens lake, and — with the exception of reports of rampant sexual harassment — everybody had a good time when they weren’t standing in line for food/water/bathrooms or a parking spaces.

But back in LA, Coachella weekends are also a good time for independent artists and producers to get great weekend studio space that would be usually be booked. Many artists skip the $459 Coachella tickets and use the time and money to rent recording space and hire producers to get their EP’s and albums finally done.  Unfortunately, two of those who did take advantage of the lull and go into the studio for a nonstop weekend of work are now dead and two more are hospitalized in critical condition.  They were the victims of arson at Top Notch Recordings in Studio City which was burned to the ground Saturday morning.

According to police reports, the fire was allegedly started shortly before 7 am by  Efrem Z Demery, 28, of Los Angeles, who had been arguing with 28-year old Devaughn Carter and 30-year old Michael Pollard at their Top Notch  studio space several hours earlier. Top-Notch has 13 recording studios in its one-story building and it ran 24/7, so it was not unusual for the independent producers and musicians who record there to work all night or work into the wee hours and then nap before wrapping up and going home.

The cause of the argument is unknown, but it apparently it enraged Demery, who has previous arrests for burglary, and he went to a service station across the street, filled up a can of gasoline, returned to Top Notch and poured it outside of Carter and Pollard’s studio and then lit it up and ran.  Witnesses say the building filled with smoke and flames in minutes and they had to carefully negotiate the hallways as they exited the building. Over 80 fire fighters arrived from serval companies and put the fire out in a little over 30 minutes, but the damage was done.  Carter and Pollard are now dead, a young man and a teen-aged girl are in critical condition at a hospital, and Top Notch Recordings are closed permanently. Demery was arrested on murder and arson charges and is being held without bail, facing life in prison or even the death penalty.

So LA loses a popular high quality recording studio, we all lose two talented artists and the lifetime of work they would have given us, a young man and woman may lose their health, and no one knows why.  I suppose there are many questions that should be asked: would sprinkler systems in studios save lives in fires or ruin equipment in false alarms; would security guards at music studios protect those working or cramp their creativity and raise their costs;  what is wrong with our society or with the music business that enables a person to think that an argument justifies arson and murder.   After all, this is not Empire; it is people in LA trying to create music and make a living. 

I don’t know if those questions will be asked, or if they are, will be answered.  I certainly hope so.  And I hope that the asking and answering doesn’t dampen spirits, but instead lead to safer spaces and more rational people.  Maybe that is asking too much. 

But like everything else in life, we can also find triumph last weekend.  Beyoncé produced not only a stunning show, but a stunning statement at Coachella, giving an ecstatic performances as the first Black woman headliner at one of America’s greatest music festivals. 

At a time when women have been in the backseat in music awards and the industry as a whole, and the music establishment has had a difficult time understanding the power of rap and hip hop and a non-white audience, Beyonce’s talent and statement blew open the doors.  The music world is changed.  That is a lot to hang on a single performance, but she did it.

So the music community in LA took two tragic steps backward while the music industry took a triumphant step forward last weekend.  Two artists lost their lives and LA lost a great studio, but Queen Bey broke a vinyl ceiling.  I just wish Devaughn Carter and Michael Pollard had been there Saturday to see her. That would have been three steps forward;  a triumph and no tragedy.

Patrick O’Heffernan, PhD., is a music journalist and radio broadcaster based in Los Angeles, California, with a global following. His two weekly radio programs, MusicFridayLive! and MusicaFusionLA are heard nationwide and in the UK. He focuses on two music specialties: emerging bands in all genres, and the growing LA-based ALM genre (American Latino Music) that combines rock and rap, blues and jazz and pop with music from Latin America like cumbia, banda, jarocho and mariachi. He also likes to watch his friend drag race.

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