The Sound of Things to Come

Sugarshack Media roots modern streaming culture in community through their 1940s Bonita Springs bungalow where they record their live music sessions.

BY August 1, 2022
Sugarshack backyard
Bands come from all over to record in the palm-covered Sugarshack backyard. The group also shoots commercials for nonprofits and startups, but music is at the heart of everything they do. (Photo by Omar Cruz)

Let’s start vibing,” Eddie Kopp says. It’s a muggy June evening and Eddie—the founder, director and lead editor of Sugarshack Media—and his team are ready to roll with the night’s performers, Bachaco, a Latin reggae-rock outfit from Miami. Sugarshack’s audio director, Alex Casement, and Eddie spend about 30 minutes figuring out the band’s composition. The stage is tiny—much smaller than it appears in the videos. “When bands come through and first see the space, you can see the shock on their faces. They’re like, ‘Oh, this is it? It’s so small! OK, let’s do it,’” aerial operator Spencer Paterson says. It’s part of the magic, a word the group often uses to describe what happens at a Sugarshack Session—the live, acoustic recordings they’ve been streaming on their YouTube channel since 2014.

While Eddie and Alex deliberate, Spencer and Sugarshack’s art director, Arian Antonucci, set up their cameras, and director of photography Justin Kaczmarek claims his post at the camera dolly. The scene is charged but easy. The men have their choreography down.

There are many roads you can take when talking about Sugarshack: A business magazine may write about the company’s meteoric rise and the digital marketing savvy that got them there. A music site may dissect the group’s technical prowess for producing label-quality content and their influence in propelling modern reggae. An architectural journal would wax poetic on the 1940s Bonita Springs bungalow where they film their acoustic sessions that broadcast to 348,000 subscribers and millions more around the world.

But, at the heart of the story are five guys with a synergetic bond and shared love of music. “We were friends before anything else,” Eddie says. The 30- and 40-something-year-olds have been building Sugarshack together since the beginning; they share equal credit for successes and flack for the misses. But Eddie is the connector. A U.S. Air Force veteran, he graduated from the military eight years ago and went on to focus on the things he loves: playing drums, wakeboarding. He started to dabble in filmmaking while curating a list of creatives who could be part of something bigger.

Eddie recognized the talent around him: Arian was a fellow wakeboarder and art director for local watersports start-up Gator Boards. Alex played in local band Orange Juice and graduated with a music degree from the Conservatory of Music at Purchase College in New York. Justin worked with Eddie at Ruth’s Chris Steak House and was refining his craft as a photographer when he was pulled into the project. Spencer went to high school with Eddie and was the ultimate jack-of-all-trades. “I was like, ‘I don’t have much money, I own one camera—but I have this idea and you guys all love music, so you want to try this out?’” Eddie says.

Eddie also recognized the potential in the downtown Bonita home he shares with now-fiancee, Lisa Hamilton. The group’s namesake base, the Sugarshack, is a gem—one of those thoroughly Old Florida properties shrouded in palms, with a high acreage-to-square-footage ratio. Sitting on a tributary of the Imperial River, the home has a large backyard with a gazebo and boat access. The yard flows into the neighbors’, but no one worries about fences or restricting access. 

At the June session, a guest suggests that the home should be added to the National Register of Historic Places. “This is where the authentic history of Bonita Springs is being created,” says Kyle Moran, whose investment firm, Moran Kennedy LLC, has its sights set on downtown Bonita’s evolution.

“The house is everything,” Eddie notes. Before the music channel was formed, Eddie shot a makeshift video for his friends’ band on the 12-by-12-foot deck, where Sugarshack Sessions are now filmed. Watching the three musicians play in the Florida night, he knew he had something special: “I thought, ‘This is it; we’re going to do this for every band.” 

He recruited his crew and together they created a YouTube music channel, where they stream live, acoustic recordings from the Sugarshack. The subtropical setting is perfect for the modern reggae bands they mostly work with; the home’s rustic appeal, ideal for the stripped-down sessions. “There’s an emotion that gets lost when you have the amps and everything set up … It’s all produced, whereas, when you have the acoustic guitar, that’s their fingers, their voice creating the sound,” Spencer says. “You see the artists’ true talent,” Eddie adds. They don’t do much to edit the sound, and they embrace imperfections, often rolling with the first take. The hawks screeching overhead, the crickets in the background—it all becomes part of a song. In shooting and editing, the team plays with filmmaking techniques and lighting to amp up the dream-like effect. “Oftentimes, people will end up liking the acoustic versions of the songs we do better than the originals,” Alex says.

Over time, the music sessions grew into a music label, which grew into a full-fledged media company (with commercial work for local startups and nonprofits), which evolved into them all quitting their day jobs and committing to the project. It’s all happened organically. The next venture will be some version of a music venue in downtown Bonita, which they hope to announce this fall.

Though they don’t subscribe to any genre—they’ve had hip-hop, Americana and alt-rock groups come through—the guys have an affinity for modern reggae. Slightly Stoopid was a major get; so was Grammy-winning Soja and chart-topping Big Mountain. They have their sights set on O.A.R., Sturgill Simpson, “and Jack Johnson, of course,” Arian adds. When they discuss their favorite moments, it’s not the bands’ star power that stands out, but the vibe and moments created. “I get goosebumps when I think about the session we did with Etana,” Justin says, referring to the Grammy-winning Jamaican singer they recorded in 2018.

After the sessions, bands get a turnkey package with videos, clips and photos they can use to promote themselves on social media. Since most of the Sugarshack guys are musicians first, they can relate to artists and understand their needs. The bands also get exposure through the Sugarshack channel, and Sugarshack banks on the artists’ audiences. “If you look at a map, you see Florida and this little bubble growing. And then we get a band from California, and you see a bubble pop up there. Then you have New York, and suddenly those bubbles start blending and you have the entire United States covered,” Alex says. Those bubbles now stretch as far as Brazil (their number two market), New Zealand and the Philippines.

As they grow, they’re adamant that the original Sugarshack locale in Bonita will always be part of the equation. A few times a month, about 30 people descend on the home when it becomes an outdoor recording studio. Being mindful of neighbors, all guests receive headphones, and the music winds down by 9 p.m. It’s never been an issue. If anything, people cheer them on from across the creek or stroll over for a beer and a listen.

The fact that Sugarshack has grown organically, doesn’t mean it’s been easy. The project is a labor of love, and with these guys, the phrase doesn’t seem trite. The mostly self-taught bunch has learned as they’ve gone and slowly built on their successes. The gravel driveway is now covered in cement, allowing a more stable platform for cameras and comfortable seating areas for guests. The $40, DIY softboxes Justin created using gifted bulbs and Home Depot tubs have been replaced by pro-grade Aputure lighting. Instead of chips and salsa set out for bands, there’s now a hospitality arm with catering and a bar. “There’s something special about the core five. We’ve navigated huge roadblocks. Other people would have called it quits,” Eddie says. “But the fact that it’s us five in it is 100 percent the reason we’ve been able to make it work and persevere.” They learn from each other, have each others’ backs, hold each other accountable. “For us, this is a dream job,” Arian says.

Everyone plays a grounding role in the group: Arian, the oldest, is the father figure (he’s also dad to the group’s first “Sugar Baby,” his 5-year-old Mia). Audio engineer Alex, who also handles the team’s finances, comes at things from a studious and philosophical perspective. When asked about his love of music, he refers to science and how audio waves powerfully affect the mind and body. Spencer is judicious and ingenious. He’s the guy who will MacGyver his way into building a drone from scratch. Justin’s the jokester, always making the group laugh (“He’s like our little brother,” Eddie says. “And a real Florida man—always barefoot, he loves nature.”). Eddie’s military background comes through in his ability to organize and mobilize his troops.

People gravitate toward the guys’ charisma and genuine belief in the art and mission. The “Sugar Wives”—as the group affectionately calls their significant others, who form the supportive backbone of the operation—are usually at every session, so is the expanding team, including a designated golf-cart driver to shuttle guests between the house and a parking lot down the street (another courtesy for the neighbors). There’s also Elard “Chino” Yong, the director of strategy and development and an SEO whiz; audio assistant Barrett Zablo; social media coordinator Nick Chionis; David Alpert, who helps with sponsorships; and Bryce Ivie, the co-owner of the local kratom tea brand Good Fellow Botanicals, who oversees hospitality. Bryce leads the new partnership with Airbnb Experiences that allows anyone to purchase tickets to attend a session (until recently, they were invite-only and limited to friends and family). The owners of Chartreuse, the wildly popular craft cocktail bar up the street, usually show up to mix drinks, and chef Greg Letsch comes down from St. Petersburg, FL, with his smoker and Southern-inspired recipes to feed everyone. Everyone chips in with their talents; they see the potential and want to be part of the magic.

The Sugarshack home is filled with tokens of affection from the community and beyond. There’s a bag of the coffee Naples’ Narrative Coffee Roasters developed for them. Local woodworker Mike Richards made the marquee that welcomes bands. A neighbor did the painting of Hawaii-based The Green—the first farthest-visiting band—that hangs in the living room. After catching the session, she went home and promptly recreated the scene. “It’s a special spot and it just produces creativity from it, because of what the band brings, what we try to bring to capture it, what their roadies experience—everything that happens in this little space is powerful,” Spencer says in an episode the group taped for their new podcast. The guest bathroom is filled with fan art, too—most of which pays homage to a key member, Gnomeo, a blue garden gnome that makes a cameo in every session.

A housewarming gift from Lisa’s mom, Gnomeo sat on the deck, where band after band encouraged the group to leave it planted until it became a trademark of the Sugarshack brand. Gnomeo shattered before a performance in 2016, and Spencer jury-rigged it back together. Later, Arian’s friend Victor Ovelar, a Fort Myers frame artist, properly resealed and repainted the ceramic, bringing it back to life. “In a way, Gnomeo is representative of us,” Justin says.

At the June session with Bachaco, the skies gave out. The team pivoted and adapted, shooting as much as they could until they eventually had to postpone. “Now, you’re getting the true Sugarshack experience,” they commented. Things go wrong, schedules are improvised and plans change. But, everything flows. Clustered under canvas tarps, with the chef’s smoker going, bistro lights illuminating the space, and other young creatives discussing the music and their own passion projects, you can see what the fuss is all about. The brand’s reach may be global, but the magic happens at the Sugarshack in Bonita Springs.  

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