Posted Oct 28, 2010
Management, and what a manager does, are perhaps the greatest sources of consternation and confusion that I encounter from people getting started in the music business.
I’ve been incredibly lucky and blessed to have had, from early on, some very important relationships that have shaped my life and music career. Certainly one of the most profound of these is Darius Zelkha, my best friend and manager for the last thirteen years. There is nothing in my musical life, from my records to my ideas about goals to the very tour I’m on right now (Ottawa!), that Darius hasn’t been instrumental in the envisioning and formation of. And yet, none of these things happened by magic. There is no great well of secrets that good managers claim to draw from, just like there is no magic well from which songwriters net their songs. When someone comes up to ask me about getting a manager, I have two choices to make: I can watch their eyes glaze over as I tell them the truth - that they probably already know a manager in their lives and that hard work is the key to a career, or I can wish them luck. Most often I just wish them luck because the real truth is less romantic and sometimes, just to keep going, folks need the romance.
But “Making a Life in Music” is about getting past the bodice-ripping romance, so I wanted to interview the person who’s been my manager since before either of us knew what a manager was. Without further ado, Darius Zelkha.
Can you give a little background? How’d you and I meet?
We met freshman year of college. My first memory was of you playing your guitar and singing very (very) quietly to yourself in the hallway outside your dorm room (down the hall from mine). It wasn’t until I saw this a few nights a week that I realized you were serious about it and not (only) trying to meet girls. In many ways I think this was the basis of our friendship, and our friendship was the basis of our manager-artist relationship.
I came from a jam band / indie rock background (think Phish and Pavement) and I had never owned a Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan album when we met. I almost didn’t care much for (or about) the music you were writing at the time, I was more interested in your work ethic, weird/unique personality, and open-mindedness to new music. In other words, interested in you, not so much your music - at first.
Then you started playing me your songs and I started making mix tapes for you. We jammed together (I am a drummer), spent a little time in the studio and played a few shows. I created a graphic for your website and things kind of all flowed together. This probably is very typical in the music biz, but still I think most people think there is something “beyond” this that a manager is supposed to do. I’m not so sure that there is.
You alluded to your management philosophy as something that might be simpler than many suppose it to be. People come up to me and talk to me about managers as if they are the missing key to making a life in music; if they can only find one they’ll have all they need. Is that a view you encounter as well?
The biggest myth I encounter is that THE MANAGER is going to open doors for the artist. There may be some truth to this, but from my own experience the most successful artist-manager relationships are those in which both parties are on the same learning curve; not one where some all powerful, cigar-smoking backroom deal maker with gold chains holds the door for the artist to walk through. The mistakes you make, you make together, and the victories you have, you have together. It’s so much more fun to sell out a show in your hometown if neither of you have done that before. I think being on the same curve also serves as a motivator to focus on the details and not let “small” things slip.
So just what does a manager do everyday?
I wonder sometimes if the term “music manager” stems from the term as it’s used in baseball. I think there are a lot of similarities. As a manager, you’re responsible for the big picture. Is the team having a winning season? Is the artist’s latest release hitting the goals the two of you set together? As well as the big picture, there is a constant flow of smaller stuff. Should I have Uribe pinch-hit for Sandoval? When is the radio station picking up the artist from the venue tomorrow, and why is the appearance not listed on the radio website? Being a good manager means being able to juggle the many little things while keeping an eye fixed to the marks you’ve set for yourself. Both can be overwhelming on some occasions. Likewise, they can be boring, but the challenge always is to keep both in the air.
Going to the subject of juggling the small stuff and the large stuff, can you give you give us a glimpse into what you might do in a day?
It changes every day, but here’s a list of sample tasks for an average day of mine. This particular sample is heavy on touring since we’re in the midst of that right now:
• Call UK agent to discuss Spring 2011 tour routing. What venues are you holding for the artist to play? What do the offers look like? Is the venue standing or seated? How many tickets did we sell in town the last time? Discuss the Mumford & Sons show I went to last night with him. It was great, by the way.
• Call our merchandise designer to discuss a poster design and advertising materials for upcoming early 2011 dates. When these come in, send to Josh for review / comments.
• Call US agent to discuss on-sale dates for early 2011 show dates that are already on the books but not announced yet. Reach out to each promoter to confirm these details and make sure they have most recent advertising materials and posters.
• Create a budget for these dates. We’ll be travelling by bus. What’s the best transport company to use for this. We’ll be needing some hotel rooms on the days off so that the guys can take a shower (mercy, mercy!) Does the venue have an agreement with any hotels so we can get a better rate? The tour manager handles some of this, but I need to be in the loop because he’s got a lot on his plate as well.
• Make sure our publicist (she handles the press outreach) has the rough routing and is drafting a press release for the shows so we can secure some stories in the local press.
• Spend 15-20 minutes browsing these websites: Mashable, Pitchfork, NYTimes, Daily Beast for anything tech or music-related.
• Review mixes of a live show (on headphones) for a possible live release. Consider if it’s far enough along to send to Josh. Review the ad materials we used for the show and see if there’s a possible album art theme in there somewhere.
• Put in a call to Canadian booking agent requesting ticket counts for current tour.
• Confirm that Canadian and US merchandise arrived at specified hotel for upcoming tour dates. Make sure that Brian, our great merchandise manager, knows where to pick the stuff up.
• Update the Google Calendar with confirmed in-person press (radio visits, etc) and share the calendar with Josh so he knows what’s coming on the upcoming tour.
• The Canadian booking agent calls back. Our Canadian shows are doing great! Discuss possible summer festivals and encourage him to get offers in soon-ish.
• Listen to some of the demos from the new album Josh is working on (usually on a walk with the dog around the neighborhood.) Jot down thoughts, ideas, and considerations here for our weekly phone chat.
• Update the Josh website or ask Doug Rice, our all around wunderkind, to help with that.
• Browse booking agency websites or Pollstar to see which tours have been announced. Is there an opportunity to support a bigger artist or develop a co-play package here?
• Add to a running list of ideas of big picture ideas and goals.
Still, there are those all-important “contacts” that a big manager might have that a friend, no matter how enthusiastic they might be, doesn’t have. Surely contacts more important than enthusiasm and perseverance?
Perseverance is a more important life-value to have than any contacts when approaching the making a life in music. Still, I’d offer this caveat: There has to be friendship and trust underlying the manager-artist relationship that allows for perseverance to take place. If that patience is in place, perseverance is far more important than contacts. If there’s less trust, less friendship, then contacts are more important to both the manager and artist because the manager/artist relationship won’t last unless there’s quick forward motion for the artist, and that’s all that contacts are good for. They’re like quick sugar highs like opening slots and early festival appearances.
Let’s say that other artist’s experience is different from yours and mine and that they didn’t meet someone they could consider a manager early on. What would a manager look for in an artist?
I look for someone who’s confident enough in their songs/art that they don’t need to always be pitching themselves; and someone who has enough humility to be excited and grateful to have someone working on their behalf.
I personally don’t like it when I see an artist’s photograph on the cover of their album – it feels like a “pitch” to me. I’m always intrigued to see some weird found photograph or some unique illustration / design – this sends a signal to me that the artist is confident that the music speaks for itself and isn’t asking you to go into it with preconceptions. This is not always true, of course, just a gut reaction on my part.
Finally, the live show is hugely important. I should get tingles. Even after over a decade in the music business, I still get tingles when I see a great show, no matter where that show is taking place. It makes me want to text folks that night about it, even if it was just about a single lyric / song.
Conversely, what do you think an artist should look for in a manager?
They should look for someone who thinks about their art as much as they do. Someone who sends them TOO MANY emails / texts / ideas about their music. They should look for the person in their life who’s pushing them. Someone who’s a good listener but who isn’t a tool or a yes-man. There’s someone in their life who’s curious. Someone who’s a little bit competitive. Someone they can talk music with and someone who is ready to work hard.
I don’t think a manager needs any music business experience, but I do think they need to be comfortable with technology and needs to be a good writer and confident, coherent communicator. They need to be actively curious about what’s going on in the world, and a lot of the nexus of that today is the Internet / social media / Apple / etc. A willingness to work closely with new technology also shows a willingness to adapt to new ideas and landscapes, and believe, there is plenty of shifting landscape to go around these days!
Does an artist who’s just beginning need a manager?
Yes, but this person doesn’t have to be called a “manager.” I really believe that what a beginning artist needs is a champion. They need a person who’s going to want to engage them on topics big and small. Does this chord change work? Does this photo make me look fat? The artist needs someone who’s going to lend them money (or work for nothing) to make that next recording / show / album happen. This is way more important than anyone calling in music-industry favors for them.
What are some good ways to go about looking for a manager?
If the artist is doing their job and not sitting around waiting for something to happen, they’ll eventually run across a champion. They might meet them at an open mic, or via the folks that book these open mics at local clubs. They’ll probably meet other artists that are perhaps one rung higher on the career ladder and have a relationship with a manager. The first place to look for a manager, however, is that person in your life who is constantly telling you about music and sending you new music. Whoever that person is, they’re probably in a good spot to start working with you.
What is it that people seem to want when they approach you for management?
They want help getting to “the next level.” I think to most artists this means finding a label; finding an agent; getting on a tour; getting their songs placed in films or tv shows. Almost no one approaches me with the notion that this is a long-term partnership. It’s almost always based on “stepping things up.”
For example, most of the emails and phone calls I get from a great many aspiring artists start this way:
“Hi, my name is ________ and I’m an artist from _______ (some location).
I got your email from the Josh Ritter (or the Submarines) website. I’m doing well right now but am looking for ways to take it to the next level. I’m interested in talking to you about management. I have opened for _______ (artist 1, 2, 3) and _______ (local publication) said this nice quote about me. Etc Etc.”
These emails may be honest, but there is a formula to them that doesn’t excite me and I won’t usually listen to their music unless I love the cover art or a friend or fellow music person recommends them to me. To me, this form letter approach just says “Help me now, I’m stuck. Isn’t this supposed to be easier?” Guess what - it’s not. This stuff is hard. It never gets any easier. You either love the hard work or you don’t. But don’t worry too much! Even if your music may not be for me, if you love it, and you love hard work you’ll find someone like-minded to help you as soon as you really need it.
We’ve been hearing for years about the death of the music industry. Aside from the fact that it’s hard to make millions in music anymore, do you think this death is really all doom and gloom?
As someone who’s 33 years old, I was never around when the music business WASN’T dying. It’s been dying my whole career. I’m actually really thankful for that. I feel like at this point I expect things to be hard; I expect to have to persevere; I expect tickets are going to be hard to sell; I expect that the money is going to be hard to come by. To me, this gives younger folks a real competitive advantage over the fat-cats that are used to having things handed to them and have a laundry list of excuses for themselves and for their artist if a record doesn’t sell.
Any big, final lessons for those just getting started?
The biggest lesson I’ve taken from my 10 years as a manager (even when I didn’t call myself that) is this: Be thankful for what you have and use that as the basis for growing things. That famed opening slot isn’t going to push things forward as much as you think. That record deal isn’t going to, either. But that relationship with the local club booker, or your friend the iPhone app developer, or that blogger/coffeeshop barista…those relationships are very important. If all those folks want to come to your shows, and are telling folks about your music, you are going to do just fine.
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Stay Tuned! Next week, the venal, the helpful and the all out lusciously sinful “Jealousy and Ambition.”