Jam in the Van, a Venice startup success story, finds its niche in the music business one road trip at a time

By Bliss Bowen

Danielle Sullivan of Portland’s Wild Ones Photo by Christopher Mortenson

Danielle Sullivan of Portland’s Wild Ones
Photo by Christopher Mortenson

Living in Los Angeles, we’re surrounded by cars — surely some statistics geek could determine that Angelenos see more wheeled vehicles per capita than residents of any other U.S. metropolis. After a while they meld into one amorphous blur.

No one who has spotted the Jam in the Van bus would claim it blends in with the scenery, however, unless they’ve been snacking on Alice’s mushrooms.

Created four years ago by Venice-based friends Dave Bell and Jake Cotler with seed investor Louis Peek, Jam in the Van is, in oversimplified terms, a mobile studio. Its premise is ingeniously simple: Invite bands onboard. Make quality performance videos. Share online. For free.

That concept caught on fairly quickly with independent artists after some early bumps in the road.

When the first van — actually an RV — collapsed near an abandoned west Texas goat farm in 2012, a successful IndieGoGo campaign enabled an upgrade to another psychedelically painted (by ubiquitous Venice artist Jules Muck), cozily remodeled, bohemian-vibed, solar-powered mobile studio.

In action, it’s a hub of creative community and a winning proposition all around: for Jam in the Van’s hard-working crew, for the bands invited to play and “get heady” in JITV’s tricked-out hippie pad, for the lifestyle brands whose advertising budgets support the enterprise (Lagunitas Brewing Co. currently leading the charge), and for the fans who log on to view new performance videos and interviews uploaded four times a week.

LA Canvas dubbed JITV “the new MTV.” Ryan Bingham, Blues Traveler, Jurassic 5’s Chali 2Na, Gary Clark Jr., George Clinton, Dustbowl Revival, John Fullbright, Leftover Cuties, Matisyahu, Meiko, the Mother Hips, Pimps of Joytime, Black Lips, Rebirth Brass Band, the Record Company, Xavier Rudd, Allen Stone, Switchfoot, Otis Taylor, Tea Leaf Green, the Wood Brothers, Lukas Nelson & the Promise of the Real, Venice’s own Insects vs. Robots (featuring Willie Nelson’s other son, Micah) … JITV’s video library testifies to a wealth of interesting, passionate music being created beyond mainstream radio’s factory gates.

Pre-JITV, Cotler toiled in a law firm, and Bell was “doing the Hollywood assistant thing” for TV production companies. Both were ardent music lovers. Cotler, a veteran festival-goer, persuaded Bell to make the trek to Bonnaroo in Tennessee — his first festival.

“I’m a big Springsteen fan, and he was headlining, so we went and I loved it,” Bell recalls. “We were trying to book an RV for the next year’s festival; joking around, Jake sent me ads for an RV to buy on Craigslist, and said, ‘Why don’t we buy one for nothing?’ I said, ‘Why don’t we have some bands play in it?’ Two weeks later, we parked in Jake’s backyard” in Venice, and were soon filming JITV’s first session — with the Muddy Reds, who Cotler had seen at a house party. They’ve learned a lot since then.

“They were complete professionals,” Venice resident Chris Isom says of his band Nocona’s experience. “The Jam in the Van format is such a unique opportunity for bands to put up or shut up in terms of playing a venue without a big sound system or a ton of high-tech gadgetry, and/or being able to deliver their content in a stripped-down, no-bullshit manner to a relatively large number of people. We are firm adherents to the Minutemen/D. Boone/Mike Watt ethos ‘we jam econo,’ and we live that. JITV gave us an opportunity to try and prove it.”

“Jam in the Van is an amazing resource for new bands entering the market,” says Grand Ole Echo organizer Ben Reddell, who played bass with Louisiana country boy Rod Melancon in a JITV segment last year and also helped coordinate recent shows in Echo Park where JITV was present. “The content they generate is at such a high standard in not only audio and video quality, but also in vibe and feel.”

Bell says the acts they choose reflect the type of concerts they would want to attend.

“There are definitely certain styles of music we like for ourselves personally, but we want the platform to be eclectic,” he says. “It’s just gotta speak to us. For me, I like artists and musicians to be authentic.”

Over six mid-March days at Austin’s South By Southwest festival (“Definitely the most corporate we get all year long,” Bell says), they filmed 42 bands — including American Aquarium, Futurebirds, Son Little, the Plain White T’s and Surfer Blood — at the GQ Magazine-JITV House. It was a far cry from three years ago, when they filmed barely two dozen bands and camped out in a tent.

During the second weekend of Coachella, Jam in the Van set up camp with five kegs of beer at a nearby ranch and recorded performances by Saint Motel, Phox, Radkey, Bad Suns and Chicano Batman. They’ve also set up microphones at Bonnaroo, High Sierra, Moogfest, New Orleans Jazz Fest and Telluride Blues & Brews.

On Saturday the JITV crew drives to Desert Daze in Mecca, Calif., to work with War Paint, Dan Deacon, RJD2, Minus the Bear and Deap Valley, among others. Later next month they hit Napa Valley’s BottleRock fest and Monterey’s California Roots Festival.

“We put out four new sessions a week — Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday,” Cotler explains. “So we have to make sure we have enough bands to fill those blocks.”

A small army of sound engineers, camera operators, video editors and interns help them pull off major events. Day to day, the JITV load is shouldered by Bell and Cotler.

“We get hundreds of bands hitting us up every week,” Cotler says. “Dave and I are on the computer all day, working on the website or contacting people about events and raising money. If I come across music that I like, Dave handles the front-end stuff, I handle the back end — it’s like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna book this guy.’”

“It’s our baby, so it’s our curation,” Bell adds. “The two of us are the tastemakers, and we take pride in that.”

Their curation has developed a lifestyle brand attractive to their corporate “partners,” which begs the question: How do they keep JITV self-sustaining and independent? Do sponsors ever dictate artist choices?

“No, it’s more like we have this platform that artists want to be a part of; they know the content is going to be excellent,” Bell says. “And that it’s not some corporate company coming at them. Because of that, certain companies have seen our platform as a way to get their products and their brand into the hands of hundreds of musicians. We kind of bridge that gap between the two, yet keep it authentic. We don’t necessarily tell our sponsors who we are filming beforehand; they just buy into it and [trust] that if we’ve selected them, it will be a good band.”

Bands, meanwhile, are welcome to use their video for self-promotion and booking gigs, though they can’t upload it to their own site.

Cotler says they’ve discussed doing a podcast, if they can find time.

“Hopefully in the future there’s gonna be more money and more time and we’ll be able to keep expanding,” he says. “One definite long-term goal is to have our own festival.”

Another goal is to find new headquarters, hopefully in Venice.

“We all know that Venice is one of the more pricey neighborhoods in a pricey city,” Bell notes. “I don’t see us going far from here. Eventually we’d love to have more jam vans around the country at different places at all times. But I think our roots will always be based here.”

To learn more, visit jaminthevan.com or check out JITV’s YouTube channel, youtube.com/user/JamintheVan.