Choosey label

James Cavern launches his own record label to raise the quality of Sacramento’s music scene

James Cavern, seen here at Concerts in the Park, says Sacramento's music scene needs a real competitive spirit.

James Cavern, seen here at Concerts in the Park, says Sacramento's music scene needs a real competitive spirit.

Photo by Felipe Silva

Whenever James Cavern hears “Let’s Get It On,” he chuckles.

It all started during his blind auditions for The Voice, when the Sacramento soul-pop singer-songwriter performed Marvin Gaye’s song and got his last lesson in a music-industry crash course. He was rejected by the entire panel of season six hosts, which included Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine, R&B singer Usher, Latin pop star Shakira and country singer Blake Shelton. During Cavern’s performance, none of the hosts pressed their big red buttons to twist their thrones toward him, which would have demonstrated an impulsive, honest interest in his talent.

You can find a clip of Cavern’s 2014 audition online, but there is a brutal video critique relayed by a total stranger, a fedora-wearing YouTuber.

“James Cavern,” he begins. “His parents are from Vietnam and they are not supportive of his singing … They want him to be a doctor or a lawyer … so that he could take care of them. Or, maybe they just heard him sing.”

Three years later, Cavern recounted The Voice experience as a wake-up call. It grounded his perspective on what the music industry demands, which includes a level of self-awareness he doesn’t think is pervasive enough in Sacramento’s music scene. His newly formed label, Tree Tone Records, is Cavern’s remedy to what he views as a stagnant, soft music culture in the city. He envisions Tree Tone as a curation and networking tool to elevate the artists he respects. The label’s mantra is simple: “Support local music because it’s good, not because it’s local.”

So, as the SAMMIES celebrates its 25th year at Ace of Spades next week, Cavern, who’s a Hall of Famer, doesn’t plan on being there. Instead of attending the awards show, he’ll be at a gig in a Rocklin suburb supporting Inland, an indie-rock duo signed to his label.

“It’s about not wasting people’s time,” he said. “You can pump someone up about being a great singer when they’re actually not, and they’re probably going to pursue that for 10 years. And when they didn’t make it anywhere because people weren’t pushing them or giving respectful critiques, now they’ve just wasted a decade of their life.”

It’s not that he thinks Sacramento’s music scene is brimming with mediocre artists he’d rather not courtesy clap for. Cavern said sees plenty of talent around the city.

Instead, it’s a culture of mediocrity that he’s concerned about. Maybe too much rah-rah Sacramento. Not enough respectful competition and honest criticism about what the city has to offer, especially as it’s changing.

“We’re leveling up as a city when it comes to food, the beer scene and the arena,” Cavern said. “There’s a lot happening right now that is really turning the tides for Sacramento, and in turn, everything else should go up, too. Especially music.”

Cavern thinks it’s due time that Sacramento was frank about the general caliber of its talent. In his opinion, the SAMMIES don’t perpetuate the honesty he craves with so many awards holding equal weight, and neither do shows like last month’s First Festival, which garnered around 3,500 attendees at River Walk Park. He said the majority of the artists didn’t belong on the raised stages with grandiosity that emulated larger fests like Outside Lands and Coachella.

The label is off to an impressive start with a small lineup, which includes Inland, Sacramento rapper emcee Soosh*e! and Las Vegas-based R&B-soul artist Cameron Calloway. Through Tree Tone, Calloway recently released his debut EP and Inland, a single. More music will continue to trickle throughout the year and a Tree Tone-hosted art block party is planned for Labor Day weekend in September.

Like many independent labels, Tree Tone doesn’t operate with a heavy cash box. Instead, in Tree Tone’s coffer is Cavern’s Rolodex, nearly seven years of experience in the music industry, and perhaps more importantly, exacting standards for music.

Cavern said The Voice defeat doesn’t haunt him. Instead, it’s made him reach higher, and he wants his hometown to do the same.

“I basically got rejected on national television in front of millions of people,” Cavern said. “And what’s funnier is that some people will never know what that will feel like, or even come close to it. They’ll never even come close to being rejected. That’s such a weird way of thinking, but it’s something that’s been instilled in me for a while. You shoot for the sky, and if you fall short, you’ll still be a lot higher than the average dreamer. That’s the type of mentality that I hold myself to, and I want to hold the rest of the city to that level.”