When keyboardist Gideon Berkowitz founded the largely Denver-based Hg Collective last year, he had the antithesis of a traditional band in mind. Bands usually have someone anointed leader, he says, and if the leader has an unhealthy ego, the creativity of other members is too often suppressed.
“You get to a level, and the band decides, ‘Okay, a contract has to be put out,’” he says. “You record. And then in the contract, the leader, the songwriter and, say, the label or whoever else is involved — they walk away with the money, and the rest of the guys get nothing or very little. And then the band breaks up.”
Berkowitz, a commercial airline pilot by day, was in a band that was in the process of breaking up in March. Around the same time, COVID started wreaking havoc on the music industry. His professional musician friends saw their tours and session work dry up. Berkowitz saw an opportunity to try out something new.
He’s seen a lot of bands get taken down by the egomania of one or two members, so the founding principle of the Hg Collective is that all members are treated equally. For that to work, everyone has to come into the collective with an open mind and a willingness to collaborate.
“It encourages everyone — every single individual in the collective— to contribute musically,” he says. “There’s no ‘Oh, you can’t do that. You’re not the leader.’ Because of that, we get incredible music.”
For now, the work is non-paying. Should a song blow up, then the people who created the track share part of the proceeds, and members who didn’t work on it also get a small piece. It's all in the interest of avoiding internal discord.
Berkowitz says that there are around 25 people working with the Hg Collective. Recording, mixing and mastering is all done remotely, in the interest of safety during the pandemic. The collective includes bass players, keyboardists, vocalists, a rapper, guitar players, horn players and more. Most, but not all, are based in the Denver area.
“We started off with like five core guys,” he says. “We’ve had a whole bunch of add-ons in the past month or so. … It’s not just musicians. It’s engineers, producers, business pros — like people who do search engine optimization.”
The members also have a five-person focus group made up of non-musicians that they bounce the rough versions of songs off before they finish them up. The focus group was populated with people who listen to music from a more amateur perspective. The musicians want an honest opinion of the songs from someone who won't just be listening for the output level of one high hat.
“They don’t know what mixing means; they don’t know what mastering means. They can’t listen to music except for as a whole," Berkowitz notes. "They can’t pick out the drums or the bass or whatever. It’s really interesting to listen to them.”
So far, the collective has released a cover of a Portishead song, "Roads," and an original, “Rikki Tikkiness,” a boombap piece of hip-hop connected to a fundraiser for the music nonprofit Youth on Record. Hg will follow that up with the neo-soul track "Reckless" later this month. Future releases could fall into numerous styles, as musicians in the group play a range of genres.
“The really cool aspect of this is we aren’t conforming to any genre,” Berkowitz says. “We will touch on anything from hip-hop to EDM and everything in between — pop, country, funk rock, soul, everything.”
The two dozen or so members don’t all work on every song, and Berkowitz doesn't want them to approach songs that way. Too many cooks, so to speak. The group doesn’t rehearse, either, and collaborations basically start with someone laying down, say, a bass line and shuffling it off to a drummer or guitarist, who can add what they want. Berkowitz likens it to the musician equivalent of Mad Libs. The way a song starts out might be completely different from how it ends.
“It’s pretty interesting and kind of exciting,” he says. “You send off a song with this preconceived idea of what you want it to sound like. But the drummer might throw down something totally outside of what you’re even thinking.”
Some genres have more mass appeal than others, but Berkowitz doesn't want to approach making music with just the number of streams or sales in mind. Some of the members come from jazz, and while a jazz record probably won't be as popular as an EDM record, he wants to see songs of all different styles. Right now the collective is working on a straight-up pop tune.
“It’s really catchy,” Berkowitz says. “I don’t like pop music at all; I’m not involved in it. But I heard it...and every morning I woke up singing it in my head. I’m like ‘Why is this song in my head?’ Extremely catchy.”
He says that whatever genre a potential song might be, he encourages the musicians to nudge the envelope.
“I don’t want to repeat,” he says. “I don’t want to keep doing what everyone else is doing. We have to separate ourselves from the herd.”
He hopes to see the collective take to the stage at some point — even if it would be unusual to have a hip-hop, country, EDM set all under one roof on the same evening. Presently, he's shopping the music around to record labels and publishing companies. At some point, Berkowitz sees himself transitioning more to the business side of things as the collective matures.
“I’d like to get a publishing deal,” he says. “My commitment to my artists and musicians and engineers is I’m going to work my ass off to do everything to get them paid. That’s why I started the collective — as an alternate revenue stream for everyone who got screwed by having their tours canceled.”
The Hg Collective can be contacted at LoveTheHg@gmail.com. "Rikki Tikkiness" is available at Bandcamp. "Reckless" will be released on February 19. Look out for more releases from the collective in the coming months. Check out theoghg.com for more details.
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