Category Archives: Interviews

Interview: Royal Bliss Continues to Offer Truth After 18 Years

Five-piece rock band Royal Bliss stepped out of the garage and onto the stage while most folks their age were headed to the dorms. Based in Salt Lake City, they crafted their sound, spinning and weaving influences along the way, and just put out their ninth release in June, an EP titled The Truth.

From recording disasters to broken relationships and lawsuits to injuries, Royal Bliss’ 18 years as a group has seen its fair share of ups and downs. But that’s what makes for great rock music, right? They even got signed to major Capital Records, only to return to independence and distribute their music with TuneCore.

The Truth was co-written by veteran Nashville producers Monty Powell and Anna Wilson, signifying a new direction for Royal Bliss as they embrace a more country sound. Guitarist Taylor Richards was kind enough to re-hash some memories and talk about the new record below:

You guys got together as teens. Explain how it feels almost 20 years later to still be writing, performing, and building momentum as a band.

Taylor Richards: Well it still feels great to create new music. Three of us have been together since the beginning, and now we have two new members that have added some spark and musicianship that we did not have when we started.

We still jam, we still argue about a riff or a lyric, but it’s always a great feeling when you are in a creative environment. This newfound country genre twist has garnered some great new momentum that looks to be very exciting. The Nashville scene has embraced this new thing, and here we are — almost 20 years into being a band, it’ like the feeling of just getting started. We are loving it! All the new songs are some of the best we’ve ever written. We are very proud of this little EP.

How would you break down the fusion of rock and country in terms of the music you were influenced by and grew up playing/writing?

I grew up listening to my parents’ music — Beatles, Beach Boys, John Denver, Kenny Rodgers, Elvis and such– but when I actually started getting into guitar at age 13, I was heavily influenced by Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and CREAM. Royal Bliss’ music has always been an evolution of some sort. We started out a [with] a Pearl Jam meets Sublime kind of vibe. We always had acoustic songwriter elements with the folky stuff, and through the years we even had some hip hop, funky rock, hard rock and reggae sound as well.

I think what is making our current music sound so different than what is going on in the country world is that we are coming in from the outside. We aren’t a cookie cutter product of Nashville. We are just seasoned musicians and songwriters that have been honing our craft for many years and just now getting a little notice from the industry in a genre we never thought we’d be in.

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Has it been interesting to see the ‘pop country’ phenomenon that has swept the United States over the past decade?

Pop music that finds its way into a sub-genre is always going to sell and catch on. I am a sucker for a well-crafted catchy pop song. With the [pop-country] explosion it’s been interesting to see the reception country music has gotten with this. Bigger crowds. Better sales. More stars. It’s great! Some of the stuff I’m not a fan of, but if it’s well done I’m easily converted and become a fan.

Being from a place like Salt Lake City, what was it like trying to break into your music scene in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s as a country rock band?

When we started, we were in high school and we had lots of friends. We had a band. And all our friends would come out to these little shows. Through the college years the SLC music scene was actually thriving. I personally knew four or five bands that had gotten major record deals, only to fall apart or break up.

They never lasted. Maybe that’s why we have been successful. We are still plugging away. It hasn’t been easy, but it has been quite the ride!

You’ve equated to being in a band for eight to ten years out of high school as your version of college. How important is keeping the chemistry alive for so long?

I think it’s kind of true. People go to college to educate themselves on a career. Same with musicians. We go out on tour, we write and record, and we learn through trial and error. This can take years to understand and learn in a constantly changing business.

There is no school, no book that educates you on how to be a band on the road: How to write songs with said band. How to read contracts, or book shows. How to tour and not kill each other. Some aren’t cut out for that kind of lifestyle, and some think it’s a glorious life of riches and fame. But really it’s not.

It’s about all of the opposite. Smelly vans, playing in front of nobody, missing birthdays, holidays, weddings, and relationships are hard to keep.

Money is always tight. So if you can find a group of musicians that have musical chemistry and can get along with each other outside of music, you might have something. That’s the hardest part: keeping a band together.

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Going from indie to major back to indie, tell us about your experience releasing music utilizing platforms like Kickstarter and TuneCore.

The greatest feeling is getting a major label record deal. They promise you everything that you can imagine. And when they don’t follow through, or they shelf your record, it is the absolute worst feeling in the world.

All your hard work — gone. They don’t care that you poured your heart and soul into making that record. Thankfully we never got a record shelved! Being independent is great and all, but it has certain limits.

When the record company comes along they have the power to take things to another level. Promotion, marketing, radio…they can take you all the way to the top if you’re lucky.

When you go back from the major label deal to independence, you lose all this momentum and power that the major label gave you. How do you compete with the big dogs now?

Well, we toured a lot. We gained fans the old fashioned way. Made friends at radio stations, venues and in bands across the country to help move us along. And it kind of worked. We used every bit of our major label connections to help us through the independent side of things that we didn’t have before we had a deal.

We utilized kickstarter to help generate some money for radio and marketing and promotion. Our fans got behind us, and we almost doubled our goal. It was a huge success. [Services] like TuneCore helped make it easy for us to get our music uploaded into the digital world and helped us understand the new music business model that we hadn’t ever dealt with. The back end is great, too.

Tell us more about The Truth – what kind of themes and topics are you guys covering?

I don’t think there is a general topic for the album, but like all our albums it’s about life. What we are currently going through. Songs that connect with us and that the listener can hopefully connect with as well. But we have to feel it first. If it doesn’t make us feel anything, than we usually move on.

The song “The Truth” is about finding someone in your life that keeps you going or keeps you grounded while you get caught up in the craziness of life. (Especially life on the road.)

“We’re All Livin’ The Dream” is about the working man getting to celebrate with his friends on the weekend. Or from our angle, working the 9-5 during the week so we can play on the weekends and live our dream!

“Going to Hell” is a funny topic. We are from Utah, and most people would think we play devil music and I’m sure they think we’re going to hell. But really it’s just about making decisions and it sure seems that whatever decision we make, we’re probably all going to hell. (laughs)

Upon dropping a new release after almost two decades since getting together, what kind reflection takes place? Or is it simply ‘On to the next one!’?

Ya know, I’m not really sure? We have been doing this for so long, that in one sense it is a little “on to the next one”. But I think for this one, we have taken our songwriting to a whole new level.

Also the fact that the industry is calling our new EP a country record, it makes things very exciting. It’s like we are a brand new band again. I’m excited for the things to come.

What other plans does the band have for the rest of 2016?

Tour. Write. Record. Repeat. (laughs) We are on all of the Live Nation country festivals this summer, and we just signed an agreement with William Morris agency. We have a few things in the works that I cant announce just yet, so ya’ll will have to stay tuned.

Interview: Ron Pope on “One Way Ticket” Doc, New Band & More

If you’ve been a reader of this blog (or a TuneCore Artist) for a little while, you may be familiar with singer/songwriter Ron Pope’s impressive independent music career. To catch you up, Ron went from performing his songs as a busker in New York City subways to touring the world over several years without the help of a label. He’s been a champion of adapting to the trend of streaming music and implementing the tools available to him to garner a fan base that spans continents.

Well, it would appear that he has no plans to slow down! Earlier this year, Pope released his latest full length album with a new artist collective backing him up, and took them all back on the road with him. From the time they began recording through their tour, the filming of the upcoming documentary One Way Ticket was underway. The film captures Pope’s goal of becoming a household name while remaining a completely independent artist.

More than just a tour documentary, One Way Ticket aims to present an artist who is control of every facet of his career, and the hurdles in place for music creators when it comes to truly ‘breaking’ in the age of the Internet.

One Way Ticket premiers June 29th in Brooklyn at the Nitehawk Theater, and if you’re in the area you can grab tickets to it here. TuneCore is proud to have been a part of Ron’s exciting career for almost a decade, and we caught up with him to discuss the documentary, his new album, and of course, the digital music landscape:

Begin by telling us a bit about the formation of your new band.

Ron Pope: The band came together very organically. All the guys I’m working with on this project are very busy New York session players; they’re my first-call guys and have been for years, but they’re always busy. It was a miracle to get them all together for a tour. Originally, our plan was for them to play as my backing band and then to go back to life as usual. No one even considered “starting a band” at first; we were just doing a tour with them as my backing band.

We went to Georgia and moved into a lake house for a few weeks to begin rehearsing and recording; while we were there, it just started becoming apparent that we were becoming a band in the most basic sense of the word. Everyone was sharing input and helping to shape the music and getting along insanely well. It was all a happy accident!

In what ways does the music you’re creating with the new band differ most from your previous solo stuff?

At the end of the day, all of my records have been made up of songs I’ve written by myself, (or with friends), and then produced on my own, (or with friends), utilizing various musicians to back me up. In that way, whatever the album cover says is fairly inconsequential; my first album, when I was “in a band”, (Ron Pope & The District), is no different than Daylight or the newest album. They’re chapters in the same book.

What kind of reaction did you get from longstanding fans?

I’ve been blessed with fans who are willing to follow me as I shift gears from one sonic world to the next. When I released Calling Off The Dogs in 2014, with all its crazy orchestrations and wild compositions, they were just as receptive as they were to Atlanta or Ron Pope & The Nighthawks, (which are much more organic sounding recordings).

At the end of the day, the production and all the arrangement stuff is just window dressing; the songs create the context, and my fans seem to realize that better than most.

After plenty of recording and touring as a solo artist, what inspired you to reach out to Kelly Teacher about filming your ventures surrounding the creation of this album and the tour?

Although my name has always been on the marquee, calling me a “solo artist” at any point is something of a misnomer. I have always recorded albums that feature full bands and have also always toured fronting an ensemble.

I knew that this tour was going to be special and when Ted Young, (who worked on this project with me), suggested that we have someone document it, I thought it might be an adventure. In the beginning, neither Kelly nor any of us knew exactly what the movie would be about; the point of our story came into focus as we moved forward together. I hate to keep using this term, but it was very organic.

At what point did this film shift from being a story about an artist and his band to a commentary on the state of the music industry?

All of that happened naturally. We went into this journey hoping to capture our travels and the making of this record; we ended up telling a much more complex story. That started with talks around the breakfast table and conversations over smores at the lake house.

Kelly just kept capturing things that seemed to point towards something more significant than just a concert film or a “band makes a record and goes on tour” movie.

Do you feel you’ve gained new insight on ‘making it’ as an indie artist when reflecting on your recording/touring with the band vs. your previous experiences?

Every day, I find myself learning more and more about how to keep progressing as an artist and a businessperson. Living at the intersection of art and commerce can be a daunting experience, but the deeper you dive into the process, the more adept you becoming at navigating it all.

Are there any particular obstacles that you feel have gone from ‘terrifying’ to ‘doable’ for indie artists over the past few years?

I have always been of the mindset that anything is possible if you’re hard working and creative enough. As Kanye said, “Never gave in, never gave up, I’m the only thing I’m afraid of.”

It’s on YOU to get yourself where you want to go. There is very little about this business I’ve ever found “terrifying.” We’re not in a race against the clock to try to cure a terminal disease; we’re adults who get to make up stories, stay up late, and make noise.

I think it is important to maintain perspective; even when music isn’t your job, if you want it to be, you have to treat it like it is and do hard, focused work; but beyond that, you can’t let it drive you crazy. The business is complex and multifaceted; control what you can control and don’t sweat the bullshit, (because God knows you’ll have to wade through mountains of that to get where you’re going in this game).

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What do you feel indie artists who watch One-Way Ticket will be able to take away from the film?

I think the movie really gives people a sense of how hard we work every day. My career didn’t come out of nowhere; we spent a long time working very hard to get to this point and continue with that work each and every day.

That is probably the most important lesson a young artist can take from the movie; if you want it, outwork your peers and go get it.

It’s been awhile since we’ve talked to you about streaming – which has been a big part of your career. Any thoughts on the progress that’s been made in the past two years?

The emotional tone within the industry in regard to streaming has shifted significantly in the last couple of years, obviously. In 2014, I felt like I was part of a very small minority of artists who were excited about the possibilities that streaming offered.  In that era, we saw marquee artists like Taylor Swift taking their music off of Spotify in protest.

Now, we see Ms. Swift starring in advertisements for Apple Music; clearly, the prevailing winds have shifted. I think that the conventional music business has finally come around to the idea that steaming affords them real value.

That’s been the biggest shift in my mind; less people are crying that streaming is causing the sky to fall and instead, those people are trying to find ways to generate revenue via these platforms that aren’t going to disappear any time soon.

Interview: Jessie James Decker on Her Holiday Release

Jessie James Decker stays busy. She’s a burgeoning country music star who tours and records for an ever-growing fan base, is mom to two children and married to NFL wide receiver Eric Decker, and was cast on two different reality TV shows (Eric & Jessie: Game On and Redneck Island)! While not all independent artists are expected to juggle this kind of schedule, Jessie does so with style and grace.

Hitting the stage for a talent show at the age of nine, Decker was bit by the country music bug early. After years of hard work trying to stand out and make waves in Nashville as a songwriter and performer, she landed a deal with Mercury Records, who aimed to position her music in the ‘pop’ world. A ‘country girl at heart’, Jessie eventually began releasing her music with Big Yellow Dog Music (distributed via TuneCore) and embraced her desire to continue creating true country tunes.

In early December, Jessie released This Christmas, and we wanted to chat with her about her journey, the indie country scene, and the benefits of releasing and recording holiday music. Check it out below:

You’ve been performing country music since you were a young kid. What is it about this genre that drew you in and truly developed into a passion for you?

Jessie James Decker: I grew up all in the south so it was so natural to just fall in love with country music at an early age. It was always on the radio in the car! LeAnn Rimes was my first record and I learned how to yodel listening to her version of “Cowboy’s Sweetheart”. I actually used to yodel in competitions when I was younger. I was always drawn in by the stories. The music is all about being real and true to yourself—and that’s how I live my life.

Tell us about the differences between recording under a major label and an independent label like Big Yellow Dog Music.

I’ve loved the freedom of writing and recording music on my own over the past few years and really letting my fans guide the process. They’re very quick to tell me what they love and what they don’t! With the way the music world keeps changing, I feel like we are beginning to not need to rely on a label anymore. I have sold more singles and albums than a ton of signed artists who actually have hits on major labels. It’s all about the fans!

You’ve had an inside look at the Nashville indie scene for over a decade now. What are some of the biggest hurdles you see facing indie country artists?

I think it’s just about getting the word out there. I’m very fortunate to have the support of my fans. I’ve been lucky enough to go #1 on iTunes with my releases just based on the strength of my fan base.

Similarly, what kind of new opportunities for artists in this scene have you seen arise in the past 5-10 years?

Social media has opened so many doors. It’s a great way to give people a taste of what you’re working on and let them know it’s out there.

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What is it about the holiday season that inspired you to release last year’s “Baby! It’s Christmas” and this year’s This Christmas?

Spending time with my family during the holidays is the best and that has inspired my original Christmas music . Eric definitely inspired those two singles and a song called “My Santa Claus”, which is one of my favorite originals on my new Christmas album.

Do you have any fun family traditions around the holidays? How important was music during the Christmas season growing up?

My mama was always playing music at Christmas! My favorite was Amy Grant’s Christmas album that my mom would play over and over again! I loved being able to record some of my favorite classics, like Vince Vance & the Valiants “All I Want For Christmas Is You” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” for my Christmas album. I also did a duet of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” with Joe Nichols and included a bonus version with Eric for the fans, which they are loving!

It’s pretty cool to consider that you’re giving your kids these personal Christmas songs to enjoy each season. How has having children affected your songwriting otherwise?

Being a mother and wife has definitely matured me. I think more about what I’m writing and putting out there now! But I still think it’s important to be yourself even when you’re a mom, so my perspective hasn’t changed too much. I just brought Vivianne on stage with me at the Opry to sing “This Christmas”. She loves being on stage and insisted on coming up with me. She’s such a little entertainer already.

Cam Meekins on Starting His Own Label, Raising Money for Suicide Prevention

Boston-based MC and producer Cam Meekins has gained a lot of music industry experience in a short amount of time. By 2012 he had dropped his third mixtape, signed a deal with Atlantic, and racked up over a million YouTube views. While Cam used TuneCore to distribute prior to his signing, we were psyched to have him back in the community after leaving Atlantic to start his own label, Lamp City.

Meekins’ newest album, Stories From the Green Line, is due out September 21, and he’s got it available for pre-order on iTunes – but there’s more to it than just a free track before the album gets released. Cam has committed to donating $20,000 to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention if Stories From the Green Line gets 5,000 pre-orders! (Contribute by copping your pre-oder here.) In an interview, we ask the young artist about his beginnings in Boston, his time with Atlantic, and using your influence to make a positive impact:

You came of age during an era of total accessibility for hip hop – from the big budget albums to varying underground subgenres. Who were your earliest influences?

Cam Meekins: No doubt, early 2000’s hip hop was the music I grew up on and was what motivated me when I started making music of my own. Early on my influences were Kanye, Jay-Z, etc. Because I started off as just a producer, I used to always re-make old Kanye beats. Once I got more into rapping I really learned a lot from studying Atmosphere and the whole Rhymesayers circle. To this day some of those Rhymesayers people I know personally now, and I just look up to what they did for independent music and let that motivate me to try to make that level of impact with what I’m doing with music and with my record label, Lamp City.

Beyond hip hop, where else did you initially seek inspiration for your music?

Sublime, Dispatch, Thelonious Monk – in high school I got super into jazz piano.

In what ways do you feel your songwriting has evolved as you’ve acquired more years of experience, both in life and in the music industry?

Oh man, as an artist or writer of any kind, you’re constantly evolving. But for me personally, as time goes on and I get more years in the industry under my belt, and more years of life experience, my writing has gotten more direct. I feel like I am able to express myself better than when I was younger; just knowing the right way to say something.

Boston isn’t an easy city to break out in as a hip hop artist. You’ve admitted in your own songs that you grew up just outside city – explain your experiences connecting with your local scene.

Most def. I’m from the suburbs outside the city. I live in the city now, but as a teenager, I had to spend time putting the work in in the local music scene out here just to get enough respect from people who control the live music shows to take me seriously.

Really though, it all comes back to a fan base and believing in what you do. I always focused on keeping the fans I had happy and engaged with my music, and that’s really paid off for me. I do music so that I can connect with people, and when people on the outside looking in see the power of such a devoted fan base, they give you respect and they want to work with you, and that’s how it happened in Boston.

Your internet buzz started while you were in your teens. How did you handle transitioning that success to hitting the stage and marketing yourself offline?

For a lot of up and coming musicians, this is a really important question and hopefully my answer can help people understand this phenomenon going on in the industry right now: An online following doesn’t automatically correlate to touring success or album sales. Social media is absolutely amazing and has changed the game for music, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle.

It’s still incredibly important to be out on the road, meeting every single fan that you can, because that one-on-one human interaction is what builds devoted support. That type of support is priceless. Early on I built a buzz online, but it was only once I started touring that things really became real for me. Think of any artist that is really killing it right now in my lane: I guarantee you all of them spent grueling hours on the road, probably years ago before you even knew who they were, building up that touring fan base one person at a time. It’s the people that stick with it that really get somewhere. It’s definitely hard sometimes but when you start having great shows it is absolutely worth it.

Most kids these days graduate and head to a dorm. You graduated and bounced to LA with a major label record deal. Tell us about adjusting to a new coast and any pressures associated with recording for Atlantic.

There weren’t really any pressures, but major labels (at the time that I was at Atlantic) were still trying to wrap their heads around what was happening with social media, and that confusion really led to my frustration. . I love the guys I worked with over at Atlantic. Some of them I consider good friends, and others I look up to as business people and mentors.

But even from the first day I signed the contract in Mike Caren’s office I had a plan. I was 18. I knew I wasn’t going to college, but I wanted an “education”. I honestly decided that signing a record deal would be such a great learning experience. I could always get out of it sometime in the next two to three years, take what I learned and start my own company – and that’s exactly what I did. I consider it my college education. People might not believe that was my intent, but it was.

After leaving Atlantic, what was it like to regain control of your career and start anew?

A little bit rocky, but also a very rewarding process. The biggest thing about running your own label, frankly, is understanding the depths of distribution that major labels already have, and having to build those relationships yourself. TuneCore, for me, was a huge player in that way.

What kind of a role has TuneCore played in your musical journey both before and after your life on a major?

Well unlike Warner Music Group, TuneCore cuts me checks every single month. But beyond that, I’ve been a TuneCore member since before there were any resources for artists beyond distribution. It’s very cool to see as a small label owner, and an artist, the types of expansion TuneCore has made into publishing, marketing resources, and other creative resources. That type of business model really makes it apparent that you can do this stuff independently, you just gotta build the right relationships and for me the relationship with TuneCore has been very helpful.

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You’ve committed to donating $20,000 to suicide prevention if the pre-sale orders of Stories From the Green Line hits 5K – that’s pretty impressive.

On a more serious note, I really think that being an artist or a brand, or someone recognizable online just gives you so much influence. With influence comes the ability to make a positive impact, and people are going to be willing to follow you down a road if you explain to them you’re being genuine and you actually have a reason to do something like this.

Suicide is obviously a big problem, but it has personally affected me and my family in a couple different ways and I often write about it in my songs. I came up with the idea to do the donation because I am always trying to think outside the box about unique things to do, but it also had the potential to be meaningful to a lot of people and raise awareness to a foundation that really deserves it: The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

What other ‘stories’ are you hoping to tell on your upcoming album?

This album is really about giving people a first hand account of my life. As always, for me, I get inspired by day-to-day life, and I just want to tell my stories about love, work, my social life, whatever it might be, and come at it with a unique perspective that hopefully can resonate with people.

Got any additional touring/promotional plans for the rest of 2015 and into 2016?

Yes, I am doing a nationwide Stories From The Green Line headlining tour this fall.


You can catch Cam Meekins on his upcoming tour on these dates!

 

Artist Management Series: Paul Steele

In the finale of our Artist Management Interview Series, we chatted with music industry vet Paul Steele, founder and CEO of Good Time, Inc. Paul has been working with artists in some capacity for about 15 years, getting his feet wet in college. Handling management for Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors, Judah and the Lion, Ellie Holcomb and Kris Allen, Good Time Inc. acts as a management, label services and marketing company.

With us Paul discussed how he got involved as a rep for Aware Records, the importance of maintaining a ‘hobby mentality’ in the music industry, and why being a good person in business can go a long way.

How long have you been in artist management and how has the way a manager/artist relationship begins changed in the last 5-10 years?

I’ve been doing this since around 2000. I started in college when I was at TCU in Ft. Worth. I had my own company, and then rolled that up with two other companies, forming Trivate Entertainment in 2005. I started Good Time Inc. in 2011.

The relationship is always kind of fluent. It depends where the artist is in their career when you start with them. When you start with a younger artist, they’re a little more wide-eyed, so you’re helping cast visions, and you’re doing a lot more for them because they’re just getting started. Whereas if you’re working with a more established artist, they may have already worked with other managers; so there’s a different job description. Yes, the relationship has changed over time but it’s also really relative to where the artist is in their career.

Management is like marriage. If you work with someone who has had a couple managers, you’re really working with someone who has been through a couple of divorces. The best manager is like the artist’s ‘chief of staff’.

How did you begin as an artist manager?

It was a complete accident. As a freshman in college I was in pre-law; a philosophy major with a psychology minor. At this time, Napster had just come out and I was discovering a ton of music. MySpace wasn’t even a story yet, much less an idea. There weren’t a lot of ways beyond word of mouth, Napster, Morpheus and KaZaA. For me, college was a great time to discover new interests, as I think it is for many, and there were some people making music around town. I liked to promote things, so on the side I helped put together a couple of shows.

I was my mom’s musical puppet as a kid – she thought I was going to be god’s gift to the world and I wasn’t. I was a terrible musician. I really liked the way it felt to get music heard and somehow I started promoting more shows and bands. I was also listening to the college radio station a lot, and I remember when I Train’s first single, “Meet Virginia”, came on.

They were a tiny no-name band out of San Francisco, on a small label out of Chicago. I found that out by going to the record store and seeing Aware Records on the back of it, and wound up being an Aware rep for the for a couple of years, (one of the only in Texas). Within that two-year period they signed John Mayer, Five for Fighting, going from a five-person label out of Evanston, IL to a powerhouse with an upstream deal with Columbia. That’s really what piqued it, they (Aware Records’ staff) became mentors of mine. I was learning a lot with Aware, thought I knew a ton, and every six months I’d realize I didn’t know anything. I just kind of kept finding bands to work with. I dropped out of school a few times, went on tour, worked for free under a couple of managers – I kind of did anything I could do to work in the music business. College is a get-out-of-jail-free card to do stupid things and (most of the times) not have them ruin your life.

In those years, what stood out as key lessons have you learned as an artist manager?

Probably the biggest takeaway, which was passed down to me from a mentor, which is treat everyone you meet in this industry with the utmost respect that you possibly can; because you never know if you might be working with them. SO much of this business is luck, and you don’t know when luck is going to strike someone. Don’t ever condescend someone because you feel better or more powerful than them. You really never know where things will take them…or you – you may need a favor from them in a few years!

Second, kind of in the same light, be a person. So much of this business is transactional – asking someone how their day is going goes a long way. The assholes don’t win as much as they used to. You’ll feel better about yourself at the end of the day and you may get more out of that relationship because they like you.

Three is the music business is a hobby that people make money at through various times in their lives. We’re trying to make money with art, and that is never lost on me. The people I work with, I’m very thankful to work with them, but this is a very volatile industry. Any time this becomes something I don’t enjoy, I can leave. I’m happy to be paid and be paying several people off of a hobby. The entertainment industry contributes less than 1% to the GDP to all of America. Do this because you love to do this and you’re going to work your ass off. Don’t expect this to be a normal job. The only way you’re going to make is it if you do everything and anything you possibly can.

In your experiences, what are some of the biggest misconceptions of an artist manager’s role(s)?

Management is the worst job in the music business, by far. The reason I say this is because it’s the only job that doesn’t have clear lines of definition. When you sign with a booking agency, you know exactly what you’re getting. They get you shows, they get you on tours, and they get you on festivals and soft ticket opportunities. When you sign with a label, they get a record paid for, recorded and distributed. Publicists – you’re hiring someone to get you reviews, on blogs, (hopefully on TV shows) – you know what you’re hiring them for.

Management is the catchall. And no one is good at everything. There are people who specialize in all sorts of things. We have a six-person staff and they only work on four artists. Management is probably 75% of what 11 people total work on. And we’re a decent sized management company for our roster. You can do 10 great things for an artist’s career, but if you didn’t get that one thing they wanted, you can get fired. Managers are expected to help with press, bookings, and label services now. Finally we decided if we’re going to be doing these things we should set up companies for these things. We didn’t really mean to become a marketing company.

It’s just funny. People expect the world, and no one can do that.

Explain the importance of managing an artist’s expectations when it comes to getting the desired results of any given career goal.

We are doing the best job we can, and the only way we can do that is to know the expectations of the clients. Every six months we have our artists establish goals. We do six month, one year, and ‘dream list’ goals. Who do you want to tour with? Do you want to be on TV? What kind of shows? This gives me the chance to say, “Well that’s not happening.” Or, “That’s a good idea.” No one should be working harder than the artist. Having goals that can be revisited every month and checked off is important.

A lot of managers think they’ve found this amazing talent. I see talented people all over the place on the way to work every day. If they don’t have the right work ethic, they can’t cut it. People tend to forget this is a job.

Some artists remain focused on staying ‘independent’. What components are key to this goal and what can managers do to maintain this identity?

I think it depends on the artist and where they’re at in their career. Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors are fiercely independent, but they’re ten years into their career and they’ve been on labels before. For a guy like Drew who’s not beholden to radio, he’ll probably remain independent. His wife, Ellie, is niche and we’ve had radio success, but she’ll likely remain independent.

We want to do what the artist feels is best for what they want to accomplish. We have artists that want to be independent, and we have artist that could benefit from a label if the setting was correct. We don’t need a label for everyone we work with, but I don’t think labels are bad. There’s a lot of great labels out there, independent and majors – just relative to what the needs of your artist might be.

When we go to radio, we don’t have a Coldplay to leverage. There’s not a one-size fits all mentality for every artist out there. To quote Drew Holcomb: “It is the worst time ever to make a killing in the music business. It is the best time ever to make a living.” There’s more indie artists out there paying their bills with their music than there ever have been in history, and that’s great.

In the case that you’re being presented with a label deal for an artist in 2015, what factors do the artist/manager team have to take into consideration?

Again I think it depends on what kind of music you make. The reality of it is you’re probably never going to recoup the records if you do a major deal. From my perspective, I want a guarantee that there’s going to be money spent on promotion.

The term is very important to me too. If things go south, I don’t want the artist to be stuck on a label with no option to make another record. As long as my artist is in a position where they’re going to be promoted and they can continuously create, that’s a big deal to me.

Plenty of the A&R guys you might sign with, are a different company by the time an album comes out. If the guy/girl who gets you in the door leaves the label, you’re potentially screwed. It’s difficult to rely on the relationship with the label because the relationship is a volatile one, (less so with independent labels). The only reason I’d sign someone is if it’s a major label is if they want to be truly famous. It’s near impossible to accomplish ubiquity as an indie.

Do you get involved in the licensing and publishing side of your artists’ careers?

We try to be a non-copyright owner. We consider ourselves a true service company. We instead help service, distribute and market/promote records, then get paid a little more to do those things rather than own them. We’d rather get paid for our labor and our work than get a copyright claim. Technically speaking that may be bad business, but I think it’s right business. I’d rather work for someone for 20 years and never have anything mucked up than have the copyright – and that’s a hobby mentality. I want artists to win, and that’s why I got into management.

Artist Management Series: Mark McLewee

We’re back with the second installment of our Artist Management Series, where we’ve been talking with current managers of independent artists about their day-to-day roles and responsibilities, how their coveted position has changed over the years, and the lessons and misconceptions they’ve encountered.

Last week you got to learn about Vanessa Magos at New Torch Entertainment, and this week we’re psyched to share our chat with Mark McLewee from Red Light Management! Mark has been helping with the day-to-day management of Bonobo, ODESZA and Ki:  Theory. Check out the interview below.

Has the way artist/manager relationships begin changed much in the last 5-10 years?

Mark McLewee: While I’ve only been in the business for five years, it hasn’t changed much. It’s still a process: an artist finding a manager who truly believes in the music and them as a person first. It’s important for an artist to remain focused on finding someone who isn’t going to be a yes-man or someone to just turn the keys over to and say, “Go do what it takes to make me a successful musician.”

It’s all about finding a person the artist can trust; someone who believes in their music, and can be their advocate. You want someone to bounce ideas off of and be a reality check, but also guide you through this ever-changing and often daunting landscape.

Vice versa, managers are ultimately looking for an artist who’s willing to put in the work that’s required. An artist who has a clear vision of what their art is and how they want it to be presented to the world. It’s the manager’s job to go out and help execute that mission – to bring in opportunities that grow the artist’s career without compromising their art, and to handle all the details.

How did you begin as an artist manager?

I started as an intern at the Artist Farm, working with the Infamous Stringdusters, basically helping out wherever I could. Then I began helping with their merch and I helped them build a website. I tried to glean as much as I could from artist managers and members of the band themselves. From there, I got a job over here at Red Light doing day-to-day management through some connections I had made while at the Artist Farm.

The reason I got into artist management came from growing up in a family that had professional artists and musicians in it. I wanted to be able to help artists share their art with the world while also helping them maintain a small business, because that’s what most artists are: a small business of which they are the CEO. It’s important to make sure that when their music career is over, they have something to fall back on and have something to rely on after all the hard work.

As an artist, you’re getting into the music business for the first time, and you go into it somewhat blindly – you don’t know what you should be looking out for.

What are a couple of the key lessons have you learned as an artist manager over the years?

I think that good music will prevail. It has a way of finding its way into the public ear and making itself known. The job of a manager is to facilitate that and to set your artist up to be rewarded as much and as fairly as possible for creating that music. It’s kind of a daunting proposition to take mediocre music and make it into something sustainable that can generate revenue for an artist. It’s a great gift to find an artist that makes amazing music, and it’s our responsibility as managers to make sure they’re rewarded for that.

I guess the old adage of “It’s not what you know but who you know” is as true as ever in the music business. As much as there are horror stories about managers, agents and lawyers taking advantage of artists, there really are a lot of good people in the music industry who really care about music and artists. It can be harder to track those people down, and it seems a lot easier to find people who are ready to come in and just add you to their roster. But if you can track down a great team of people, it’ll end up making a huge difference in your career.

In your experiences, what are some of the biggest misconceptions of an artist manager’s role(s)?

That’s hard for me to say. I think at least one misconception is that there’s sort of this sense of, “If I link up with a manager, he/she will know what to do and I can just make music. They’ll steer the ship and tell me what I need to do and guide me. They’ll take care of everything.” It’s a ‘hand-the-keys-over’ mentality. I don’t wanna harp on the small business notion, but the artist needs to be the leader and personality of their business. Even though you might have a manager in place, and later down the line a bigger team, you’re (the artist) still the central guiding force, and your team needs to know you’re as invested in it as they are.

It becomes much more of a partnership than simply letting someone else steer. There are certainly managers that will do that, but to me, that’s not a sustainable relationship that turns into a lifelong career, one where an artist is looking back 10 years at music they can stand behind.

Explain the importance of managing an artist’s expectations when it comes to getting the desired results of any given career goal.

I think it’s important in any aspect of life that your expectations are modest and you hope for the best while planning for the worst. Especially with young and independent artists – there’s always gonna be this phase of transition from hobbyist musician to professional musician – and that’s not a flip of the switch from working a 40-hour a week job to being a professional musician. It could be months, it could be a few years, (it could be never); there’s a stage where artists have to double up on a full time job and a full time music career. Many younger artists who see others go at it independently may not see that these people went through these career stages, too.

When you begin working with an artist who lacks the network of a booking agent, publicist, etc., how do you approach building one with them?

If you didn’t have those built-in connections, I think there’s a lot to be said for getting out there as an artist, and hustling as much as you can. As an indie artist you should feel like the time to say, “I really need a manager or agent!” is when you’ve exhausted your personal energy and relationships. And when you’re at the stage where you have opportunities presented to you that you need help figuring out.

People recognize hustle and genuine artistry. Whether it’s staying up all night finding music blogs and writing to every single one, knocking on the door of your local venue so you can get an opening slot – these are hustle plays that people, especially managers, recognize and want to work with. As a manager, it’s great having an artist who’s working as hard as you to match that energy. One connection leads to another, and it’ll sort of snowball from there. It’s not just sitting at your computer writing tweets, I’m talking about getting yourself out there and sharing your personality and drive with people.

From a management perspective, the industry is full of personal connections that can help build a team without the need for a label. Like-minded people tend to gravitate toward each other and as a manager, the further in you get, the easier it is to find a team that shares your vision and work ethic.

As more artists want to maintain their ‘independent’ status, how can managers assist in this goal?

Definitely. If you want to talk about the difference between now and 10-15 years ago, it’s totally possible to go in eyes-wide-open knowing and being fully aware of what you’re getting yourself into. Knowing about striking deals with labels where it’s more mutually beneficial and not just contingent on tons of sales. There are all kinds of great PR and independent radio promotion firms that can help you do all these things that were previously just this mystery behind the wall of a label.

That said, a hardworking label can be a great addition to your team. We have the great fortune of working with an indie label that is very receptive of the artists’ vision, and is going to put in the same amount of work that you are. There’s no longer the sense that ‘to make it’ you have to be on a major label. Personally, a misconception for me prior to getting into the music business was that there was this sort of “yes or no” when it comes to the success of artists. There’s definitely a continuum of success, and there’s no formula to follow.

When it comes to being presented with a label deal for one of the artists you work with, what factors do you and they have to take into consideration?

There’s two sides to it, one side being the level of commitment that the label is willing to put forward; not necessarily just speaking financially, but basically putting forward a legitimate team who is willing to battle for us like our agent or lawyer when it’s time to. I think there are some great indie labels out there that have good people who love music and will stand up for it, but those aren’t always the labels who come knocking with record deals.

The other side is probably more obvious – making sure the deal terms are fair for your artist so you aren’t relinquishing too much control. That’s where, as an artist, you want to have a manager and lawyer who have worked on multiple recent deals.

Having that stamp of approval from a credible label can certainly open up doors for an artist, but if the right team isn’t in place, it won’t serve the artist well in the long run.