The past two years have been busy for a group of friends recording live music videos. Pony Rug is approaching 100 high definition videos showcasing Minneapolis artists and music. There’s an unquantifiable style with which every video is stamped. Every video carries traits of professionally warm lighting and the glow of the musicians, all stationed on a 4’x8′ tapestry rug with horses on it.
The Pony Rug series has become an iconic identifier of good music in Minnesota. It’s a unique type of venue that provides musicians with a high quality video, at no cost to the artist. That video becomes an instant tool to book shows, promote their craft, and encourage a new audience to give them a listen.
“I think it’s so essential for a performer to feel comfortable so that they can let their artistic expression really shine. I just felt like I could really let go and release in that space.” ~Hemma
Michael Gay, Sarah Elstran, Erik Elstran, and Justin Muffett started Pony Rug to recognize the abundance of musical talent who didn’t have proper representation. Tucked in a Northeast basement, lined with wood paneling, they crowded around a corner. The seven foot dropped ceiling had a light hanging from it. A small window was blocked off by poster board and Erik would squeeze into a little closet, manning the camera. The main eyesore in the room was the 80s themed hotel carpet. It was Sarah’s rug purchase at Antiquified that solved the issue. This cozy 120 square foot room quickly became the biggest stage in town.
Artists get an hour to record their original song, which is typically played 2-3 times through. Surrounding the artists are cameras, couches, and lights, all trained to capture each take. Like a live music venue, microphones are moved into position and a thorough sound check is done. Sarah and Erik strip back any guitar tuners, wild cables, and stray cases to ensure the frame looks clean. Justin hits record and Michael claps for a take. Then there’s a stillness as the artist creates their own aura before diving into the song.
They’ve since moved from the basement into Sovereignty Recording. The studio is located in the Waterbury building and, on the outside, appears to be a standard office suite. Once the door opens, the exposed beams and soft lighting welcome you into a much larger version of Pony Rug. Justin Muffett has co-run the studio since 2017.
Watching Erik, Sarah, Michael, and Justin shift into setting up for a Pony Rug session is a calculated exercise. They’ve done close to 100 videos already, and the layout is duplicated for almost every session. It’s just a matter of shifting studio equipment, microphones, instruments, and people around to make for a stage in the middle of the room. One large soft light is hung above the artists, while others are strategically placed in front. Within an hour they are setup and ready to welcome in the day’s list of musicians.
“It’s kind of this ever-flowing current of people finally reaching out or just hearing about it, which is wild because we have been doing it for a couple of years. Obviously we’re not like a household name or anything, but it’s good that people are still finding it,” Michael states.
He shares that the list of artists wanting to record a video has continued to increase. At any time, he’s dealing with close to 100 emails waiting to be read and considered. The hardest thing for artists to understand is the timeline from recording to release. Since each of the crew has other endeavors and jobs, being efficient is critical. This means they schedule artists all on the same day, recording 3-6 videos. They can then slowly release them over the course of 3-4 months. This also ensures that they have time to edit and mix each video slowly.
Pony Rug has also done residencies at different locations in the past. They took over the Aster Cafe for a monthly show back in 2017-2018 and, more recently, had an October residency at the 331 Club. This gives them a chance to showcase the artists who have recorded with them and raise awareness of the Pony Rug series. With the rug hung behind the stage, Michael shares the best part about these shows are the number of people that finally connect the rug to the name of the series. This light-bulb moment connects the concept and artists together.
Each of the Pony Rug team comes from a creative background. The Nunnery is Sarah’s group, Michael is Almighty American, Justin plays a multitude of instruments along with recording and mixing audio, and Erik is a BMX biker that also creates visuals for The Nunnery.
When they are together, it’s hard to imagine that it was just a few short years ago they all met. Sarah used to work with Michael’s brother at a coffee shop. Eventually, Michael and Sarah met through the brother. Erik and Sarah were dating and knew Justin already. When Justin moved from Michigan and didn’t know many musicians, they took it upon themselves to introduce him to Minneapolis artists. Michael finally met Justin the first day they started shooting.
“I mostly just do the social media and scheduling, so on days where we record I just talk and clap. I got a cush job and I get paid accordingly,” Michael jokes.
I had the privilege of observing Pony, Chris Koza, and Mother Banjo record their videos. As a team, the Pony Rug crew all handle their individual duties quietly, making the entire process seamless. There’s a cohesiveness that puts everyone at ease. They are quick to offer suggestions on what looks best for the camera or what allows Justin to strategically place the microphones for capturing the best sound. Artists are welcomed into the space and treated as equals. No pressure is placed on them for time, each artist can move at whatever pace they feel comfortable.
At one point in the session, someone asked, “Why do you guys continue to do this?”
Michael quickly responded, “Why not?”
The reply came as, “I know, but it’s a lot of time.”
Sarah then responded,
“It’s the response I think. We all come back to see that it actually makes a difference in their lives and that’s why we started doing it.”
Michael shares that there are the same benefits as being an active member in any community. The team has realized the workflow works really easily for them and it continues to be an extremely helpful tool for musicians. Having good videos can go a long way beyond just having a good sounding record. A video can paint a very accurate picture of your look, your sound, and what someone can expect when going to a show.
The Pony Rug team constantly hears from artists about how helpful the videos are in building an EPK (electronic press kit). For many venues and music managers, not having an EPK is detrimental in getting gigs.
The other beneficial aspect of the Pony Rug series has been the ability for national artists to find local artists to collaborate with for shows. Venues in the Twin Cities have directed touring bands to the Pony Rug videos so they can watch and align with a similar sounding artist. This has been resourceful for local artists capturing a wider audience by opening up for a touring band.
The Guest Room
Hemma – Musician
Hannah Hebl, aka Hemma, was living in Montreal and, upon moving back to Minneapolis, heard from Sarah Elstran about Pony Rug. She was writing songs and knew that the opportunity to do a video would be a lift-off for her. She knew she better come prepared with what she was about as an artist.
“I picked a song that was kind of my favorite song at the time and figured out how I wanted to perform it and how I wanted to look. Um, I maybe took it a little bit too seriously, but I just really knew that it was a chance to get some visibility online and within the community in Minneapolis,” Hemma shares.
They recorded in August and it went online in October. Hemma immediately heard the response. People saw the video and reached out to her to book shows. It was a serious launching pad for her. Now every time she performs that song she lets people know there’s a video and that Pony Rug is amazing for what they do for artists.
When asked about her experience recording the video she shares, “The lights are bright, first of all.” Hemma took the liberty of standing and came in with a very specific way of recording the song. She put her voice through an amp and played a beat off of her cell phone. Although she felt like a bit of a diva, she knew this would make her feel comfortable and it was exactly how she wanted to curate her performance. The support and freedom of Pony Rug were crucial to the performance and bringing out the best in her.
The Guest Room
M French, Musician
M French was one of the first batch of musicians through the Pony Rug experience. He squeezed down into Michael Gay’s ski-lodge-looking, wood-walled basement and met the full team. Being surrounded by talented people, in their own right and different spaces, made for an amazing reinforcement system during the recording.
“I think the big thing for me is the way that they contribute to the music community here. I love bring a part of the scene because everybody’s genuinely rooting for each other to succeed,” French states.
M. French’s Pony Rug video has provided some added exposure that, as an artist, helps to get future shows and build an audience. It’s gotten him shows at Ed’s No Name Bar in Winona specifically because somebody saw the video. The impact of having a visual aid is vital when booking shows and introducing yourself to other venues. French has also discovered other artists on Pony Rug by following their social media and listening to new music.
“My best advice going in is that you’re in the best hands you could possible be in from all angles. The people are going to be supportive of you and your music and you’re going to get a great video. I think that takes a lot of pressure off you as an artist,” French shares.
Pony Rug releases one new video every other Monday. Subscribe to their YouTube page to discover new music and see their full catalog of musicians. When submitting inquiries on doing a Pony Rug video, be patient as they handle a long list of requests each month.
Every second Thursday at 331 Club, Pony Rug will be showcasing musicians that have performed on the rug. Look for their monthly residency to start this coming February!
Music venues are the lifeblood of our community. By providing musicians the opportunity to showcase, collaborate, and experiment with their craft, venues are essential in their development. This series will continue to promote and support our local venues across Minnesota. Please see the previous articles below and go support local music. Our hope is these articles show the importance of supporting venues and places where creativity can thrive.