In this edition of Disruptors, Juliette chats with creative entrepreneur and founder of Winston House, Corey McGuire, about how he turned his Venice Beach live/work loft into an artist haven and creative cornerstone of L.A.’s West End music scene.
You moved to L.A. from the Pacific Northwest correct?
Yeah. I grew up kindergarten through high school in Vancouver, Washington, which almost feels like the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, even though it’s a different state. Then I went to Seattle Pacific University and graduated from there in 2013. After that, I visited L.A. and kind of officially made the move down here around January of 2014.
What prompted you to move to Los Angeles?
Well, in college, I really got excited about two things. The first thing was this organization Charity: Water, which was started by a guy named Scott Harrison. When I was a junior, I watched one of his videos and beyond kind of waking up to the clean water crisis, I was also just really inspired by Scott’s mission and the fact that he was this young, well-spoken guy that was trying to approach charity from a completely different perspective. They had great branding and were really conscious of the marketing side as well. I think it’s very much like our generation to want to figure out how to create initiatives that do all the things that normal businesses need to do while also giving back at the same time, so I started finding ways to get college students involved with their organization.
At the same time, I had caught the entrepreneurial bug, so the second thing was a couple of little projects aimed at finding ways to get college students involved in charity through music. I realized pretty quickly that being in Seattle, I just wasn’t connecting with the majority of the music industry, and also I wasn’t surrounded by a lot of people that were trying to create the same types of things that I was.
Through a connection I had to Summit Series, I ended up in Los Angeles. I didn’t know anybody but I had a few leads on some connections I could make. This guy named Sam Salisbury became my first friend in L.A. He is a very, very social person, and I met a lot of people pretty quickly through him. Then we came up with this idea to rent a big house together with some other friends. There were six of us living in this really big live/work loft. I was the youngest, was the least connected, and had the least amount of things sorted out in my life at that point, so there were a lot of benefits to living in that loft. I learned a lot and met a lot of people through all those folks.
Did that live/work loft become the first iteration of Winston House?
Kind of. In the beginning, we actually had to set up an LLC to collectively rent the place as a group and so almost as a joke, we called the LLC Winston House after my childhood dog. Between our roommate group, we’d call the place Winston, but it was really a year and a half to two years after we got in there that my idea for Winston House itself became a thing.
In between then, I changed the name like three times. At one point it was called West House. At another point, it was called Electric House because we’re on Electric Avenue. But, ultimately I landed back on Winston House because I just had an emotional attachment to it. I had done a lot of growing up in those first couple of years living there, so the name felt indicative of the journey I was on. Plus, what happened in the house was very representative of the type of people that I wanted to attract to the actual Winston House concept, so for all those reasons, we ended up keeping the name.
Talk to me about the original concept for Winston House.
The original idea emerged through my experience of being a young creative person that was new to the city and really wasn’t sure where to go. As I said, I came to L.A. not knowing anybody, just wanting to make friends with people and ultimately make my projects happen. Obviously, that’s not a unique thing as there are millions of people that have made that same pilgrimage to Los Angeles for decades now, but it can be an isolating place because it’s so spread out.
What really powered Winston House, in the beginning, was that we had this kind of core group of 10-30 people who were mostly new to the city and so there was all this energy around being new and going out and meeting as many people as possible. We wanted to be the spot where people could go to do that. The idea I was trying to figure out was how do I do something that’s kind of, from a footprint standpoint, somewhere in between a Starbucks, which are almost everywhere and are super easy to walk to in a lot of cases, and a Soho House, which are these larger compounds in more creative cities. We wanted that neighborhood feel with the location and the walkability while still having this element of knowing who you’re going to be around when you go there.
Winston House has long been known for its popular Thursday night artist showcases. Talk to me about how that came to be.
I had started giving away beds and couches to artists to sleep on in an effort to build a community for artists. The shows started to happen almost by accident. Get enough artists hanging around and they’re going to want to play music for people.
The shows really aren’t normal concerts––they are unique in that you have to get invited through a friend. You show up having no idea who the artist is that’s performing. Sometimes it’s a huge name. Sometimes it’s an artist playing their first show ever. And when the music starts, all of the conversations stop. It really just becomes this moment of everyone in the crowd paying complete attention to and supporting the artist.
The thing is, when we threw our first show, it wasn’t like we were super connected in the music industry or anything. At that point, I didn’t have a single manager, agent, or label that I could have called and said, ‘Hey, can you help me book an artist?’ It just built week over week through us hosting these events and people hanging out in the house. It was great because you could feel that there was this real energy of discovery. We were all interacting with a lot of new people, new things, and new ideas, and in a lot of cases, the artists and the audience were discovering each other for the first time as well, which was really fun.
In my opinion, the thing that really makes Winston House so special is the community. It’s this feeling of showing up to see friends and being there for a show, but also it’s knowing that between songs and before and after the show, you’re there to meet and connect with a lot of like-minded people.
Do you remember the moment when things started to take off and the creative community began coming to you?
Yeah, it happened really quickly actually, as early as late 2015 before we even knew what Winston House really was. What we realized pretty early on was that there were a lot of people that were starving for community and starving for music and art, so we became popular as far as kind of a being this weird little pocket of Venice that was for a younger, creative crowd.
Since then, Winston House has become a cornerstone of Venice’s creative community in a way. Talk to me about how that happened.
First off, there’s nowhere in Venice or Santa Monica where people can go on a consistent weekly basis for new music. I think the fact that we have our own unique approach created an opportunity for us to become this really great destination for people who are looking for that sort of thing. Even now, after thousands and thousands of people have come through our doors, there is still kind of this loosely associated group of 100 or so people that are around most consistently and really feel like the heart of the community.
I love that. Winston House basically connects the dots between artists and other members of L.A.’s creative community.
Yeah, definitely. The way I look at it, if myself and my team can do anything to help out an artist or help out our community and you know, do 10 favors for them, let’s say without ever asking for anything in return, it creates a different type of relationship. It’s not us going, ‘Come to our venue.’ It’s not, ‘Come to our restaurant/bar.’ It’s not, ‘Come to our event.’ It’s just being deeply involved in people’s lives and trying to find ways to create opportunities for them. Obviously, the best way to make friends is also by doing things for other people, but that’s just kind of naturally how I operate.
One of the first pivotal artist performances that took place at Winston House was Justin Bieber. That really changed the trajectory of what you guys were doing and turned Winston House into a much more buzz-worthy thing as far as the wider music industry goes. Talk to me about how you came to cross paths with Justin.
At some point in 2016, I met Justin Bieber through Corey Harper who was the first artist that was staying at Winston House. Corey had met Justin through Cody Simpson who had been staying at the house too, and so Justin had been hanging out a little bit. Then it was kind of as simple as he came over one Thursday afternoon, and it happened to be the same day we were putting on one of our shows. I guess he liked them and just asked if he could play. That was kind of the first time it started to become a buzzy thing in the industry because Justin posted his performance on Instagram. It was definitely a major turning point and a big accelerator as far as the people we were meeting and getting connected to.
I have to credit Cody first with that because it was really his being around and hanging out that brought a lot of new people into our orbit. We certainly didn’t know anyone of Bieber’s caliber or any other celebrities, but Cody did have those relationships. So, it was Cody being in Venice and his friendship with Corey Harper that was really the spark for it.
I imagine that as bigger name artists began to find their way into the mix, the industry would have been quite receptive to helping you grow your idea. Was that the case?
Oh yeah. We’ve had an enormous amount of support from the industry. Many of the biggest acts that have passed through Winston House have come from working with our friends in the music industry, whether it’s agents, labels, or management groups.
I definitely still like when we can just have things happen organically and some of our best nights have happened because an artist just showed up and asked if they could get up on stage or it came through a friend or something, and that stuff definitely still happens. But, at the end of the day, there’s just a lot of really friendly, collaborative people that work in the industry here, and everyone’s trying to do the best things for their artists to move their careers forward, so a lot of our stuff comes to us that way now.
I understand Billie Eilish performed at Winston House very early on in her career prior to having been “discovered” so to speak.
Yes and no. She had definitely already been discovered from the standpoint that she was signed to Interscope and The Darkroom through Justin Lubliner. So, she had things going on and a great team, but I think she may have only had five songs out or something. That first song ‘Ocean Eyes’ took off on SoundCloud and got some traction on the streaming platforms. It’s crazy to look back on because it was definitely at a moment when she had thousands of followers as opposed to 64 million, and a lot of people that were in the room, maybe even the majority, didn’t know who she was yet. So, it was very early in the process from that point of view.
As a kid from the Pacific North implanted in L.A., I imagine you faced some challenges trying to transition Winston House from a dream into a viable, financially sound business. Take me through that.
Definitely. There was pretty much no business model around Winston House at all in the beginning. It was basically a very expensive loft in an expensive area, and it kind of survived on our vision, mission, and ethos really. Of course, there were detractors who would come around and say things like, ‘Well wait a minute. So you’re spending all of this money to basically throw cool parties every week?’
It really wasn’t until I had a pretty serious conversation with a friend, Jay Rosenzweig, who introduced us, that things really started to change. He came to L.A. and checked out the Winston House loft and met some of the people involved. We had lunch and Jay just gave me an opportunity to kind of open up and be honest with him, so I told him, ‘I’m behind on rent already, and I have no idea what I’m doing with this thing.’ It was kind of a very vulnerable moment.
At that point, I didn’t have any of the right experiences or relationships or even a clear enough idea of how to build our concept let alone take it to the next level. I thought I did, but looking back now, I know I didn’t have any of that. It was almost accidental.
The next day, out of nowhere, Jay just sent me $10,000 and basically said, ‘I don’t know where this thing is going, but if nothing ever happens then consider this a donation. If you’re able to figure out a path forward, I can give you more money and also we’ll treat it as an investment.’ Mind you, there are probably a hundred people out there with stories like that about Jay because he just wants to help and he loves music and art so much. But, I just remember breaking down and crying when that happened. He ended up not only investing a lot more money himself but also bringing in a lot of people that he knew. Winston wouldn’t be around if it wasn’t for Jay. It probably would have been stopped dead in its tracks pretty early in the process.
That was incredibly generous on Jay’s part.
Yeah. There have been a lot of people that have stepped in at various moments like that. It’d be too long of a conversation to get into all the different groups that have helped out but we have been very lucky. In the beginning, it wasn’t like we raised a bunch of new investment dollars and had a set plan and all that. It was kind of like we were constantly finding ways to stay alive and people were taking a shot in the dark just to help me out because they liked me and liked the mission.
Beyond your popular Thursday night showcases, you guys also act as a facilitator between the community and artists and causes they are passionate about. Talk to me about the “impact side” of Winston House.
I think being involved with social causes is in my DNA, in the DNA of a lot of people on the team, and in the DNA of Winston House itself. Generationally speaking, through social media, we’re all sort of being woken up to problems around the world and especially to our blind spots. We all think we care so much and that we’re so quote-unquote, ‘woke,’ and then we get moments like right now where we’re in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests where there’s this explosive unrest. That stems from the unseen––wrongs that have happened that we just haven’t been aware of because it’s just not our own experience.
But, beyond the initiatives we take on and that we really want to be helpful with, it’s also one more way that we try to be of service to artists. Artists have huge hearts and they obviously have a platform to be able to help, and so if an artist wants to support a cause, it’s always exciting to me to be able to try to help out in some way.
Let’s talk about some of the specific social initiatives Winston House has been involved in. I understand you guys helmed a pretty high profile digital campaign in support of the March For Our Lives protests?
Yeah. So that concept, which we called Spark The March, came about after the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and as a group of young student leaders were spearheading the March For Our Lives movement. Our initiative came together in less than a month. At the time, it felt like there was this really big march being built in Washington D.C., and marches all over the country, and people like Scooter Braun, and I think Oprah and Ellen DeGeneres, all these real heavy hitters in the entertainment industry, were super focused on it. Interestingly, to me, it seemed like there wasn’t really a digital side to the campaign that was being done in an organized way, and so that’s what triggered the concept for Spark The March. The idea basically became, ‘Let’s get a bunch of artists to post to Instagram at the same time, with the same message, 24 hours before the march to help get more young people to show up and use their voices.
How do you measure the impact a digital campaign has on a real-world issue?
It’s really different depending on the campaign. On that specific one, it was plain and simple in that our goal was just to help get the word out as far as possible, and there were billions of impressions from it. I have to imagine it played at least a small role in getting a lot of people to show up at the marches in their cities, but it’s very hard to measure exactly how much of an impact you’re having on something like that. That’s not always the case. There are times where it’s a lot more tangible as far as the impact on reaching specific people.
What are some other initiatives Winston House has been involved in recently?
We’re always involved in different initiatives, but some recent ones include the Creative Community Fund, Defeat by Tweet, Support + Feed The Kids, and Safe and Sound. We played a little different role in each of these.
For the Creative Community Fund, we were partnered up with the amazing Pandemic of Love (a grassroots, volunteer-led mutual aid organization), helping support their concept by giving back to artists in need during COVID-19.
For Defeat by Tweet, we helped organize a digital campaign with Flighthouse, Noah Centineo, Yungblud, and a bunch of other artists.
For Support + Feed The Kids, we partnered up with Bonduelle and LAUSD to get plant-based foods to families in need.
With Safe and Sound, we helped promote local Venice charity Safe Place for Youth through their livestream with Lil Dicky and other Venice artists.
This past year, you decided that in order to move the Winston House brand forward and into the next phase of its existence, you would have to change locations. Ultimately you landed on your new boardwalk property in Venice. How did that come to be?
Well, like I said, in parallel to Winston House becoming this popular thing over the past five years, I’ve sort of always been trying to figure out an actual sustainable business to put at the heart of the community and Winston House itself. During that time when I was kind of grasping at straws, trying to keep the thing alive and partner with the right people, I met another guy who has been hugely important to the Winston House story and his name is Jake Matthews.
With Jake, I lucked out majorly because he’s one of the kindest, most fair people out there. He’s another guy that just loves both music and art so much.
Jake’s been in real estate for a long time and is also amazing at getting deals done. He had this idea to buy a spot on the boardwalk and bring a new type of thing to the area that both really respected the history and the culture of Venice, but was also designed and programmed in a way that appealed to the new crowd that was in Venice. The place is called The Waterfront and they marked their first year fully open last year, which was just a smash success. Thousands and thousands of people have come through every weekend, and so it’s been a really big thing.
When I met Jake last March, we kind of hit it off right away. It almost felt as if within 24 hours we were like, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna work together.’ Ultimately, what we decided to do was create a new company that we’re calling Local Los Angeles, which is a hospitality, entertainment, and nightlife business, and we’re building out this portfolio of brands, particularly in the west side of L.A. right now, starting with the brand new version of Winston House.
What’s in store for this next phase of the Winston House story?
What’s gonna make this new version of Winston House really unique is that it’s no longer a private residence––it’s not a live/work loft. Now, it’s zoned as a restaurant/bar and for live performances. It’s going to fit more people, have proper hours, and it’s going to have an element that is open to the public, so it’s different in so many ways.
At our old spot, the Thursday nights always felt like we had to worry about noise and the neighbors, and it was always a little bit of a gray area––I almost always felt like we were kind of getting away with something, you know? I was really hesitant to have our Thursday nights go super late or do anything on multiple nights of the week out of fear of getting in trouble, so some of our best ideas and things that I was really excited to work on, have kind of sat dormant. Now, we actually have a space that can house them and so we want to use all of these new resources we have in this new space to continue to be a center for the community and find unique ways to work with artists and help them achieve the things they want to achieve.
Talk to me a bit about your long-term goals for Winston House and for yourself personally.
The long-term goal for Winston House is to be able to open them in major cities all around the world. At the end of the day, it’s about people and it’s about relationships, and so I’d love to see Winston House become a sort of neighborhood institution because of our active role in the community every single day.
Currently, we have a new digital series called Spotlight, a concept that was created by one of my partners, Alejandro Reyes-Knight. He’s been involved in Winston House since the very beginning so I’m excited to have more opportunities for him to build Winston through his content.
For me personally, I just want to continue to be more and more successful, and connect with more and more people. Of course, the bigger Winston House becomes, the more connections I can make and the more leverage I will have to be able to continue to build new brands and new concepts as often as possible and be more deeply involved in larger impact initiatives.
My friend Justine Lucas, who was the Global Director of Programs at Global Citizen and is also the Executive Director of Rihanna’s Clara Lionel Foundation, is way more dialed in and experienced than I am with these artist and cause-based initiatives, but we’ve been able to team up a couple of times and are always talking about these kinds of projects. I think it’s a shared dream for both of us to be able to someday have a brand that becomes the go-to for any artists that want to be involved in a cause. Essentially, we’d advise them on where to best spend their time and energy, and also the best strategy to actually make the impact they want to make. On the nonprofit side, we’d be a one-stop destination where they can bring the problems that they’re trying to solve, and we’d be able to provide the right marketing campaign or the right talent to be involved with it.
There are definitely brands out there that do that, but not too many, so I think because Justine and I are so drawn to those types of initiatives, and we’re both always involved in stuff on the side, we’ve talked about the idea of having something like that together someday that we can work on full-time. Who knows, but it’s definitely a long-term goal.
Created by writer, music journalist, and associate editor here at CelebrityAccess, Juliette Jagger, Disruptors is an ongoing interview series that highlights industry executives and creatives under 35, who are rewriting the rules of the game and moving the cultural needle in the digital age. You can find Juliette online via www.juliettejagger.com OR on social media @juliettejagger.