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DharmaDen aims to rebuild a community of music and art after COVID

Paige Koehler performs at the DharmaDen production and event company's first show at The Template in Ocean Beach.
Paige Koehler performs with her band at the DharmaDen production and event company’s first show at The Template in Ocean Beach.
(Courtesy of Eric Neilson)

For many local musicians, comedians and other artists, the lockdowns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic took away their venues and audiences. And as restrictions continued, they found their community drifting apart as well.

Eric Neilson, co-founder of DharmaDen, aims to put it all back together. The Ocean Beach resident envisions local musicians performing again, whether in studios or on stages, local art filling homes and local cuisine being celebrated.

“DharmaDen is a media production and event planning company focused on community building via local music and art,” Neilson said. “During the pandemic, a lot of musicians wanted to perform, but they wanted to do it virtually.”

Before the pandemic, musicians, comedians, songwriters and others were able to regularly connect through the many local venues hosting open mic events. It was at one such event at Lestat’s West in Normal Heights where Neilson met Rachel de Koekkoek, DharmaDen’s other co-founder.

As the pandemic restrictions took hold, it didn’t take long for the two to realize their community was falling apart, with artists unable to perform and the public unable to find and follow upcoming talent.

So in May 2020, Neilson set up a studio at his home.

“My living room is about 10 feet by 12 feet. I built my own absorption panels to help with soundproofing,” he said. “We put up tapestries and stage lights on the ceiling. We started off with a couple of cameras, a tripod, extra mics and other recording equipment.”

From the homemade music venue, Neilson and de Koekkoek recorded and produced videos, which they uploaded to YouTube.

Neilson said the idea for the sessions came from a radio show he hosted while in college at the University of New Haven in
Connecticut. Local student musicians would perform on the show and then discuss area music venues.

The first DharmaDen video featured de Koekkoek, a singer-songwriter.

“We started with solo artists. First Rachel, then me and then other close friends,” Neilson said. “Once we started building up our reputation, we reached out to some other artists. And more and more people were seeing our platform.”

Anthony Frijia preps for a session recorded in DharmaDen's original location in co-founder Eric Neilson's Ocean Beach home.
Anthony Frijia prepares for a session recorded in DharmaDen’s original location in co-founder Eric Neilson’s Ocean Beach home.
(Courtesy of Eric Neilson)

To help promote the new artists, DharmaDen would give them content from the video sessions. In exchange, Neilson received the artists’ time and cross-promoted them through the YouTube channel.

The idea has been so successful that “DharmaDen Sessions,” as the channel is called, now covers three distinct categories. “#TunedUp” features original, local musical talent, while “#SpeakUp” features spoken word and poetry artists and comedians. By January 2021, the channel added “#ThatTimeIBombed,” consisting of podcasts of local comedians sharing their worst stage stories, hosted by Zoltan Kaszas.

“Our camera work, audio, the work flow and post-production work — it all keeps getting better all the time,” Neilson said.

La Mesa musician Andrew Barrack, one of Neilson’s friends from the pre-COVID open mic days, was one of the first artists to perform for a TunedUp session at Neilson’s home studio.

“I’ve known Eric about four years now; we’ve always had great conversations about the local scene and what we can do for the local music industry,” Barrack said. “He is really trying to make sure everyone still has the opportunities to gather and meet people and have the friendships and support they need in this business.”

Barrack, who describes his own sound as “pop music with a jazz, funk and rock influence,” said DharmaDen’s help has been invaluable for many beginning artists.

“They produce good, high-quality video that we as artists need but don’t usually have the resources for,” he said. “He’s helping as many independent San Diego musicians and artists as he can, but he’s also opening a space for food vendors, jewelry makers and more.”

DharmaDen took another leap forward last August when it was offered a monthly residency at The Template in Ocean Beach. The Template is an art cafe, entertainment venue and community center that hosts classes and workshops.

“The vibe at Template is amazing; very harmonious with what I envision happening with DharmaDen,” Neilson said. “We want artists to be able to share their work free of judgment, with an actively engaged audience.”

Co-founder Eric Neilson speaks with the crowd at a DharmaDen session.
Co-founder Eric Neilson speaks with the crowd at a DharmaDen session.
(Brady Cooling)

The Template was one of the only venues with an open mic available to artists during the pandemic, using a large outdoor patio for performances. It now has performances every night.

The Template co-owners Sunshine Ray, who goes by Shine, and Marie Perry said they couldn’t be happier with their relationship with Neilson.

“Eric usually does a well-rounded event with two or three bands — some experienced, some less so — and adds artists and vendors. He often has chefs added as well,” Shine said.

“He operates at the highest level of live performing. It feels very professional and clean. Eric really wants to promote the bands just getting their feet wet. He’s supporting them and showing them what to expect of contracts, venues, everything, and really coaching them up.”

Perry said Neilson’s work “is very concise, very organized and very thoughtful.”

Neilson said The Template residency has enabled him to open up his platform to the public and provide more gig opportunities for local musicians. He added that at least half his revenue generated through sales is going to the artists.

“In our living room, we started with just one original song per musician, and then we started doing two to three songs each. At The Template, the shows are an hour long,” Neilson said. “We only record the first five songs, and we give the artists back the first two.”

Afterward, the videos are available on DharmaDen’s YouTube channel, and the artists can use the videos they receive to get more gigs, since most places want to see footage of the artists at live venues.

Artists performing at The Template for DharmaDen Sessions include the Gnarly Heads, Riston Diggs (playing with the Gravities), Gaby Aparicio, Paige Koehler, Miro Imani, Israel Maldonado, Anthony Frijia, Blazing Jane, the Resinators and more.

Neilson said he is very pleased that he got Diggs and the Gravities together. Diggs won a 2020 hip-hop/rap San Diego Music Award with his producer and partner, Sly Beats. The Gravities are a soul and groove collaboration.

Riston Diggs and the Gravities play together in August last year.
(Courtesy of Eric Neilson)

With COVID restrictions easing, Neilson continues to build up the artists, platforms and audience attendance and hopes to bring shows to other venues as well. “I just finished a sticker tour,” he said. “I went around OB on my bike delivering DharmaDen stickers all over town.”

But as a student at the San Diego State University College of Business, Neilson said he’s careful to balance his goals with his studies.

“I was a communications major but switched to marketing. As the project has grown, I need better business management skills,” he said. “I’m juggling a lot of hats with promotions, market analytics, product placement and more.”

He also is building a team of student volunteers and planning events at the college with campus organizations, as well as possible shows at The Template.

Plans also include livestreaming of DharmaDen events at The Template.

“You’ll be able to log in from your computer and see the event live and later access the sessions on YouTube,” Shine said.

Israel Maldonado plays during a DharmaDen "TunedUp" session in February.
(Brady Cooling)

Barrack said he intends to continue his collaboration with Neilson. He recently left on a month-long trip to film a documentary on COVID’s impact on independent music venues. With new music of his own set to be released later this year, he said hoped to get a show booked at The Template when he returns home and record an acoustic session with Neilson.

“Eric is taking his skills of event planning and audio and video and knowledge of what the venues need help with and is a staple in the scene in the best way possible,” Barrack said. “Everyone can have ideas, but Eric has the follow-through.”

Shine agreed, saying: “Each event gets better and better. People who follow Sessions see the beauty in what is happening. ... I think it’s going to be really special to see the progression.”

DharmaDen Sessions can be found at youtube.com/dharmadensessions. The Template is at 5032 Niagara Ave. See its schedule at obtemplate.com.


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