Paul Kulak likes to say that singer-songwriters are his only vice.
It’s more like an all-consuming passion. In 1999 he created, and has since invested his whole life in, Kulak’s Woodshed, a North Hollywood video recording studio and live performance space. The Laurel Canyon Boulevard storefront has hosted thousands of artists, ranging from the famous likes of Jackson Browne and Christopher Cross to teenage composers and people who’ve postponed their musical aspirations until their children grew up.
“I had a crazy dream to open a small venue for singer-songwriters where they could come in and feel at home no matter what your level of talent,” the 62-year-old Kulak says at the Woodshed, amid the mismatched used furniture and wall-mounted album covers, posters, distressed playthings and other bric-a-brac that lend the place a Salvation Army store look.
The appeal to anyone hoping to be heard in the competitive and often exploitative L.A. music scene soon became apparent. Especially since Kulak provided everything — staging the shows, recordings, the Woodshed’s pioneering live-video webcasts — for free to the artists.
Until his money ran out.
“I paid for it myself for the first 10 years, then we had to turn into some semblance of a real business,” Kulak says, still feeling lousy about the necessary decision.
Some musicians have never forgiven him for that. Many others, though, discovered that what they got for a nightly rental of $300 was a bargain unmatched anywhere else in town: recordings of a live webcast, two-hour show made with a 24-track console and six HD cameras (including the remote-controlled “skateboard cam” Kulak mounted along tracks on an upper wall), plus 100% of any ticket and merch sales they could generate in the 49-seat listening room.
“We are the only video/recording studio where you can earn all of your rental cost back and even make a profit,” Kulak notes.
Though it has 10,000 hours of shows archived, the Woodshed has rarely made a profit. There have been fundraising performances to literally keep the lights (and sound system) on. Lifelong bachelor Kulak lives a Spartan lifestyle; pet doves have been his main companions since the COVID pandemic shut the venue down 22 months ago.
Yet it’s still there, thanks to an SBA grant and a couple of Go Fund Me campaigns. Kulak has booked a handful of recording sessions since October, although the Omicron surge has postponed the first show with a live audience, featuring Severin Browne (Jackson’s brother) and James Lee Stanley, that was scheduled for Jan. 7.
“People have asked me the last few months, ‘You barely survived for 20 years while you were open, and now that you’re closed you’re still surviving. How do you do that?’“ Kulak notes. “You might say that I’ve got some of the toughest fingernails in town. Hanging on for dear life for 20 years kind of prepped me.”
Of course, a lot of musicians spent lockdown time learning how to make their own recordings and webcasts, and Kulak wonders how many of them will still find what he has to offer relevant. Another question is, will the cozy community of local regulars and visitors from around the world regenerate under COVID protocols and concerns?
A self-described “socially autistic” loner who’s wrestled with chronic depression his whole life, Kulak somewhat dreads the prospect of interacting with performers and patrons again.
But as with any vice addict, there’s no choice.
“I don’t have anything else that I want to do,” Kulak says.
And if history is any indication, he’ll somehow make it work.
“I think the most impressive thing is that someone like me, with all my faults and hang ups, would be able to not only create something that others like but to be able to rather miraculously keep it going 22 years,” Kulak says.”