The fermentation of a localized culture extends far beyond any vat of hoppy beer. While it’s undeniable that Ninkasi Brewing Company has seen success in recent years, less is known about the relationship it has developed with dozens of local and regional independent musicians (Marv Ellis, Volifonix, Rare Monk) for mutual promotion and exposure — and the man who is making it happen.
James Book is a friendly, laid-back guy with shaggy hair and surfing photos hanging in his office — a classic SoCal surfer dude happily transplanted to the Northwest who is now in his fourth year as marketing director at Ninkasi.
With a twenty-plus year history in the music business, both producing others and recording as a musician — he played bass for The Flys, who had a top five single in 1998 with “Got You (Where I Want You)” — Book has always had a passion for music.
Prior to Ninkasi, Book co-owned a downtown clothing boutique called Shag with his wife and another couple recently relocated from Los Angeles, worked at a local rock radio station and recorded bands in various rented spaces on his record label, Top Secret Productions. He was shopping with his friend Nikos Ridge for a production studio to go in on together when Ridge, who was co-founder of what was then a fledgling brewery, asked him to instead come do marketing for the brewery because it was growing so rapidly.
In 2009, Book began drawing on his experience with direct marketing techniques he’d employed while promoting bands back in the ’80s (e.g. handing out roses with flyers to women on the Sunset Strip to advertise concerts) with his new position as marketing director for Ninkasi. He began recording bands who won the Ninkasi-sponsored contest Last Band Standing as a prize at a new studio tucked into a corner of the Blairally Vintage Arcade in Eugene’s Whiteaker district, less than 200 feet west of the brewery as the crow flies.
Fast-forward to 2012: Ninkasi has sponsored nearly 40 bands in various capacities through its outreach program, Beer is Love. Whether it’s assistance with studio time, mixing and production, gas money and vans for tours, pressing vinyl LPs, securing events (including Austin’s SXSW), putting download cards in beer cases or a steady flow of sponsored beer and gear, Ninkasi is hooking it up.
It seems too good to be true — so what’s the business angle? Basically, Ninkasi gets a lot of exposure. “Beer gets shared — it just does,” says Book, referring to sending bands on tour with beer, signage and swag to give out, “If they drink it with their friends, it’s sampling for us.”
The strategy, while certainly helping Ninkasi maintain strong roots in Eugene, even as it grows by sponsoring local talents such as Tyler Fortier and Adventure Galley, has also developed strong bonds in new markets all over the Northwest and California. “You’ve got to be relevant everywhere you go; I think that’s just good sense,” Book says.
Black Beast Revival, a self-described “dark and sexy rock ‘n’ roll” band based in Bellingham, Wash., is a prime example. After winning a recording session with Book through Last Band Standing-Bellingham, the Revival finished a five-song LP that Ninkasi then pressed to vinyl — the album will be available in January.
“It sounds awesome,” Revival vocalist Erin James says. “I’ve done so many recordings with so many people, and this is the first time I’ve come out of the studio liking what I’ve recorded. Dude knows what he’s doing, that’s for sure … it doesn’t have that ‘I’m selling out and getting sponsored’ feeling. It’s like, you’re providing great beer, we’re providing great music — let’s combine those things and do some awesome stuff. That’s sort of how I look at it.”
There’s also Eugene-based funk-rock band Volifonix, one of the first bands sponsored by the Beer is Love program, who released their second studio album (recorded with Book) called Space in June 2012. Lead guitarist Joe McClain says: “We recently went on tour to Montana. Well, they sent us on tour. They opened up new distributions in Montana earlier in the year and they wanted to throw a bunch of parties as a way of saying ‘Thank you for welcoming Ninkasi,’ so we went out there and toured around and played all their parties and had a blast. It’s a great relationship to have.”
Book agrees. “There’s no vision; I feel like we’re living in the moment. I mean, we definitely have a vision for our company, don’t get me wrong — we see ourselves as a national brand already, but the music stuff, it’s very much just goodwill and what has come back so far has been worth it.” A national brand staying true to its roots by supporting good, local music? We’ll drink the Kool-Aid, or Maiden the Shade, any day. The local sponsorship from Ninkasi continues with “An Evening with the Floydian Slips” at McDonald Theatre on New Year’s Eve.