It was a show that felt like the best of L.A. — an accomplished L.A. backing band, a smattering of L.A. acts that represent what we do best, a selection of national acts that complement our current jazz and hip-hop renaissances. The show, dubbed "How We Do: L.A.," went down at the Theatre at Ace Hotel, a symbol of downtown L.A.’s rebirth, and one of the most gorgeous theaters in the city.
It was an evening that brought L.A. underground hip-hop influencers Sa-Ra Creative Partners back together, with a cameo from SoCal adoptee George Clinton. It showcased a beat scene-inspired set by Toronto instrumental group BadBadNotGood and unfurled a towering performance from saxophonist Kamasi Washington. It was eclectic, expertly curated and flattering to L.A.'s identity of jazzy musical innovation.
So it might have seemed a little strange, if you noticed at all, that it was put on by a Dutch file transfer company.
The show was curated by Gilles Peterson, the new creative director at WeTransfer and a near-legendary British BBC 6 DJ with a reputation for eclectic, globe-spanning taste. WeTransfer just opened their first U.S. office in Venice this week; it’s Peterson’s job to make the company look cool at it establishes its presence in Silicon Beach.
You might not think WeTransfer would care much about building a cool brand. It's a company that, after all, does one very basic thing: enables the sending of large files from one person to another. But WeTransfer is trying to carve out its niche in the creative industry, hoping to gain credibility with musicians and other creative professionals who regularly use services like WeTransfer to collaborate on projects.
Unlike similar services like Dropbox, We Transfer positions itself as a tech solution for creative types. The service's spartan website features a simple download link positioned over the top of high resolution wallpapers, which often feature artists or photographers but can also function as striking advertisements.
The company chose L.A. as their new U.S. base of operations both because, they say, of their belief in a burgeoning creative community here, as well as for more practical concerns. "From a business standpoint, it’s much cheaper than San Francisco or New York,” says Damian Bradfield, the company's chief marketing officer, who moved to L.A. from the Netherlands last month. "Salaries are more competitive, churn with employees is far less, and I think there’s a lot of goodwill to have more of a startup community."
As the company grows, so too do its ambitions, particularly in the world of music. Artists like Prince and Moby have shared free music with fans via WeTransfer, which at the time seemed like a purely utilitarian move. But Bradfield says the company sees big potential in moving more intentionally into the music sphere.
He uses Moby, who released an album of ambient relaxation music for free via WeTransfer earlier this year, as an example. "If we really try to take what Moby did, just sharing a link, and then build an experience around it where [musicians] can... track their performance and maybe even stream or host within that space, but create it as their own space — I think there’s massive potential."
Last year the company added L.A.-based pop star manager Troy Carter to its board. Carter, who helped build Lady Gaga into a superstar, fits well with the direction in which WeTransfer is trying to move: He’s a serial investor in tech companies like Uber and Warby Parker and is currently employed at Spotify, where he helps develop relationships with artists. Both qualities are helpful for WeTransfer, as it makes its business play in the U.S. and aims to attract musicians to its service.
Peterson represents the other pillar of the company’s outreach strategy. The DJ is known for pushing obscure acts to new levels of notoriety, and his taste jibes well with L.A.’s current soulful hip-hop resurgence. Peterson was named creative director in July, and since then has been working on a new internet radio station called Worldwide FM, "powered by" WeTransfer, that will be partially based in L.A.
Last week, Peterson held a three-day L.A. pop-up downtown for Worldwide FM, and starting in January, he'll broadcast two hours a day from WeTransfer’s Venice office, with other broadcasts taking place from London and elsewhere in Europe. Peterson hopes that by then, the station will be ready for WeTransfer to regularly send users to the station's website via its highly-trafficked wallpapers.
It was Peterson, of course, who curated Wednesday night’s show, working with ensemble leader and arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson to assemble a lineup that vibed in a very L.A. way. "When you do these kinds of launches, you want it to be special,” says Peterson. "There’s no one more special, in a way, than someone like Miguel, who I can actually curate with."
The show was also an excuse for Peterson to shine a light on one of L.A.’s influential but perhaps lesser-known hip-hop groups. "The key thing is Sa-Ra,” says Peterson. “For me, they were the catalyst for a kind of serious global impact from L.A. [Sa-Ra] cements the Stones Throw heritage and the future. We’ve got to get the light back on them a little bit, because the kids don’t even know who they are."
L.A. vibes permeated Wednesday night's show, even in sets from the out-of-towners. BadBadNotGood, who played first, are, on their face, a jazz combo, though their sound is also an approximation of the L.A. beat scene with live instruments. (They took a moment to shout out Flying Lotus.)
The rest of the acts were backed by Atwood-Ferguson’s ensemble. Gaslamp Killer provided his customary energy. Nai Palm of Aussie band Hiatus Kaiyote turned in a bombastic, Chaka Khan-ified take on Wings' “Arrow Through Me." East coast R&B singer Bilal sang Prince's “The Beautiful Ones" with all the airy inscrutability that made the Purple One himself seem so steely and yet so vulnerable.
Sa-Ra, who took the stage with an effervescent George Clinton in tow, showed that, perhaps surprisingly, their sound is more P-Funk-influenced than we might have remembered, with its weaving grooves and sudden flashes of harmony. It was their first show in seven years, and they were in fine form. (Peterson could be seen during their second set standing in the aisle of the theater, grinning like a little kid.)
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But it was Washington who made the walls melt. When he played, the big Atwood-Ferguson ensemble seemed to shrink a bit. One couldn’t help thinking of John Coltrane, not just because Washington led the band in Coltrane’s “Resolution" but because of the sheer spiritual intensity of Washington’s playing. Like Coltrane, Washington blows like he’s reached the outer limits of what an instrument can take. It’s an otherworldly thing to witness, Washington’s act, a thing out of proportion to everything else on stage, let alone the little orange WeTransfer logos set up on the corners.
The last thing on anyone's mind as they filed out of the theater just past midnight were seamless product integrations, or increasing upload speeds. But it certainly didn't hurt WeTransfer, whose ambitions depend on the blessing of the creative world, to looked so keyed in to the L.A. scene. Who doesn't look cool standing next to Kamasi Washington?