Hoping to capitalize on the talent and ‘untapped market’ of West Michigan music, the historic record label’s return could put Sparta back on the map as a creative hub, operators insist.
Hidden just north of Grand Rapids, nestled in an unassuming farm town, Fenton Records resides in a small storefront on a quaint block in downtown Sparta.
An historic building, it has the bones of an old theater: Out front, a colorful arched nameplate stretches to the sky with the word, “Fenton,” etched in blue lettering.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Fenton Records was booming with business, recording bands such as The Jades, Poor Boys Pride and The Barons.
Now, 50 years later, with a new owner and renovated space, Fenton Records is experiencing a revival, and hopes to once again flourish, not only as a studio but also as a record label and music publishing house.
“When Fenton started, those were really the heydays for recording studios,” said Chris Anderson, president of operations.
“What we’re trying to do is kind of marry the past and the present … to show how we started, but also where we’re going. We still want to be a recording studio, but also evolve into a record label and a publishing company. I think having the combination of all three of those will really put Sparta on the radar.”
The studio is working on building a roster of artists and from there will begin to transition into a supporting label role. With a thriving music scene in its own backyard, Fenton plans to work with artists from as close to home as possible and with those of all genres.
“West Michigan is a very untapped market. There’s a lot of talent here,” Anderson said.
“People think you have to go to Nashville or L.A. to be discovered, but I think in Grand Rapids there’s kind of a rumbling under the surface of talent. We want to be on the precipice of discovering that talent. It’s time to put a spotlight on this city.”
On a frigid yet sunny winter’s day, Anderson walks along the sidewalk in downtown Sparta and stops in front of the studio. He pulls open the double glass doors and leads the way into the space. Directly inside is a small cafe-like storefront with large windows and a few tables and chairs. Soon a small diner will welcome locals for breakfast in its music-themed space. Through an open entryway is a performance area with records lining the wall where Anderson says a Saturday night music showcase will soon take place.
Further inside the cavernous building is its heart, a live room and recording booth — the same one used 50 years ago. A polished red drum-set sits in the corner and a hefty Hammond B3 Organ commands the center of the room.
“When the studio started in the Sixties, it was a time when you had to go out and find a recording studio if you wanted to make a record,” Anderson said. “It was a golden era of recorded music…but then we went quiet for a little while.”
When original owner Dave Kalmbach departed in the 1970s to pursue another business venture, the studio became stagnant.
CREATING A SPACE THAT ACTS AS A COMMUNITY HUB
It wasn’t until two years ago that the doors reopened when Sparta resident Greg Peak purchased the building and the rights to the Fenton name. Peak invested $225,000 into the project, including purchase of the building, upgrades and equipment, with a vision to revive it and create a space that will act as a creative community hub.
“He felt Sparta needed something like this to put on the map,” Anderson said.
“I mean, think of Muscle Shoals. Who in the world would have gone to a place like that to record? I see the potential of people here in Sparta. I believe there are a lot of hungry kids out here who are doing rock and doing metal and hip hop, and we want to be here for them.”
Though only 30 minutes from Grand Rapids’ thriving music scene, Fenton plans to tap into the creativity that lies in its own backyard, in addition to the rest of West Michigan. The studio has hired engineer Ken Theis and plans to provide practice rooms and offer music lessons for the Sparta community. Already, the Sparta High School jazz band has utilized the studio.
With a space nearing the end of renovation and a vision for its own community, Fenton is left only with building a roster of fitting artists, a task the studio is carefully evaluating.
“It would have to be a relationship where trust is a mutual factor. We’d ask the artist to have a fan base, to be touring, to really commit to what they’re doing,” Anderson said.
“But above all, we really have to like the music they’re making. It would be a close relationship where artist development would be the focus. If we can be a pathway to a bigger label, then fantastic, we’ve done our job.”
PHOTO GALLERY: Fenton Records
Photos by Ricky Olmos and courtesy of Fenton Records