Mastering the Hustle 17: Self-Management vs. Representation

Mastering the Hustle
Martin Douglas
All photos by Brady Harvey

KEXP, Upstream Music Fest + SummitMoPOP, and The Recording Academy have partnered together to present Mastering The Hustle: a panel discussion with six annual events, tackling a different topic to help emerging artists make better decisions earlier in their careers. Throughout the series, we’ll be discussing everything from how to get airplay, legal and licensing, healthcare for artists, and promoting your brand.

If you've attended a Mastering the Hustle panel or read this editorial regularly, it's pretty safe to say you're one of many artists who have seriously considered making a career out of music. Maybe you've played shows around your city, or your region, or you've graduated to a couple of coastal tours. How do you know you're ready for a manager to take on some duties? Or are you the type of person who would rather take those duties on yourself, having full autonomy over the business of your career and keeping the 20% fee you'd be paying someone else?

In the seventeenth installment of our Mastering the Hustle series, four noteworthy members of Seattle's music scene gather to discuss the ins and outs of artist management and how to best conduct your business in that lane. In a panel moderated by KEXP DJ Abbie Gobeli (also manager of the groups ACTORS and tiny deaths), DeVon Manier (founder and Senior Talent Manager of Sportn' Life Music Group), Rachel Flotard (songwriter, musician, and manager of Neko Case, associated with Red Light Management), and Whitney Mongé (a self-managed musician who has made a strong name for herself locally) offer their perspective when it comes to managing artists.

Gobeli starts the panel in earnest by asking Mongé, an artist who does her own management, to walk her through a typical workday. Mongé begins with going through her mental lists of tasks and making sure she sends emails and does things she forgot to do the day before. "Every day I wake up with immense emotion and slight anxiety to get something accomplished within that day," she says.

Mongé then takes her mental list and drafts it into a physical list. Connection is important to what she does, so in addition to emails and people she needs to contact for direct work-related issues, she makes sure to follow up with other artists to maintain networking. In contrast to many of her peers (there is a reason why "artist's hours" is an actual term), Mongé is an early riser and usually heads to bed at around 10 pm.

Gobeli asks Mongé what the benefits are to self-management, to which she replies a huge benefit is simply looking back on a result of all the hard work she has put in. Another is the full autonomy she has over her career in music. "I want to be myself as much as possible," she says, "and that can change when you start building a team." Saving money is also a benefit to being self-managed, as you can keep the 20% you're giving to a manager for tasks you might be able to do yourself.

As for the downsides, Mongé points out the likelihood of getting doors closed in your face whether you represent yourself or not, but also the tendency for music industry professionals to not take a self-managed artist seriously. She cites a personal example in occasionally getting booked for festivals because she puts her name down in the columns for management and PR representation. She also notes not having someone immediately accessible to bounce ideas off of. "Maybe [the idea] is not cool," she says, "but there is nobody there to tell you it's not cool."

Gobeli asks Manier and Flotard to differentiate the job of a manager and the job of a booking agent. Manier points out a booking agent only works in the sphere of getting an artist performance opportunity, while a manager wears many hats. Flotard notes, "A lot of times, you are wearing more hats than you have heads." She jokes about making up names for managers and booking agents when she played in bands. She speaks to the experience of booking shows before email, when having your own name in the management column wasn't all that taboo. She also makes an important observation: "Even artists with a manager and a booking agent don't get calls back."

Gobeli asks Mongé if she has experience in reaching out for tasks she may not be entirely equipped to handle herself, to which she replies she's thankful for artists who value DIY ethos and the bounty of information we have at our fingertips because of the internet. She will outsource work whenever the need arises, like the time she took a screenprinting class at the Vera Project and the t-shirts she made turned out horribly. She now has someone who makes her t-shirts. She feels it's better to have to pay for certain things rather than overextend herself.

When asked by Gobeli, "When is the right time to need a manager?," Flotard jokes that when an artist wants a manager, they're nowhere to be found. "You'll know when it's time," she says. "Because you're gonna be so busy that you can't possibly do everything." She notes most managers start out working with someone who is usually one of their closest friends. "They usually find you in a lot of ways," she says to conclude her point.

Manier says in addition to artists being too busy, many of them take on management when "the waters look foreign to you." The business of the music business is its own language, and artists who don't know the terminology of artist contracts could get overwhelmed and lost in a sea of paperwork. Mongé adds that most artists putting out records and selling out shows might think they need a manager; she counts herself as one of these artists. But sometimes asking a friend in the know works just as well.

Flotard also acknowledges the possibility of getting a manager who doesn't mesh well with you as an artist.

On the subject of conditions, expectations, and wants that management seeks from artists, Manier prioritizes realistic expectations and goals, both short-term and long-term. Flotard adds richness and organization, engagement, and groundedness. "Your manager should be an extension of you, who knows stuff that you don't, and that isn't afraid to answer every question [...] or be vulnerable." Manier offers some sound advice: Don't expect your manager to know every possible situation as it pertains to your music career. The bond between the artist and manager is that of a team. A manager is not a gatekeeper of success.

Gobeli asks the panel about their expectations of themselves as managers, to which Mongé replies she's been looking for the right team members and the fact that her being a manager for herself has required a lot of effort, a lot of networking, and a lot of long days. Gobeli brings up the idea that artists in the Pacific Northwest sometimes feel they have to move to the biggest markets (such as New York and Los Angeles) to get a better shake at music industry success, ultimately asking the panel how management functions in this region. Manier says it depends on the artist or group's situation. If they are a group pretty much just starting, he will focus on building them regionally over the first two or three years. Flotard agrees that Manier's point is essential. However, she makes a crucial note: "With the advent of 'the internet' -- like telecommuting, you can be everywhere. It doesn't matter if you live in Halifax; you can reach anybody." As far as attracting a manager, location is the least essential component nowadays.

Flotard also brings up the incredibly rich music history of Seattle, feeling it doesn't get enough notoriety for it being the music industry capital of almost the entire coast. Seattle is fertile ground with music and licensing and tech companies all swirling around each other. Gobeli asks Mongé how she feels about being an artist in the region, to which she replies that when she moved here from Spokane in 2007, the landscape of the music industry and the general economy of Seattle was much different. She admits to feeling isolated as a busker, but when she started playing music venues and getting her name around town, the isolation dissipated. The city is rich with talented musicians, and that is her favorite part of being a musician here.

When the question of the artist/manager balance is broached, Mongé says someone can quit their day job and just make music, but it takes a lot of hard work getting into venues and getting people to come to shows; she recommends a solid social media presence because it's a great opportunity to sell more merch or get more people to come to your shows. Rising to make a name for yourself in music requires a great capacity for self-promotion. When Gobeli asks what is being invested from a managerial standpoint, Flotard answers it depends on where the artist is at. If there's a new album, she might look into radio or social media campaigns, "anything you can use as a megaphone to raise awareness about this project that is happening."

Manier agrees and adds that with the internet, there are the standard social media outlets, but there are new tools for artists to spread the word cropping up all the time. As far as tools go, Manier thinks Soundcloud is a great tool for electronic and hip-hop artists, while Flotard recommends Instagram Stories ("which probably means I'm behind," she jokes), which Mongé adds over 500 million people use Instagram Stories.

Gobeli brings up the topic of licensing, to which Mongé says it is a field she's always wanted to enter, "but there are a lot of snakes in the grass." Manier mentions the trickiness of the licensing world for some artists, saying it's best to start with local licensing (indie films, commercials for local brands). It's always good to ask peers for counsel or pursue companies with a strong reputation for licensing. But beware: Manier says to expect to make a lot of cold calls and have doors shut in your face.

Flotard adds, "There's the group of broke musicians that rides right alongside broke filmmakers. And they are buddies." There is a chance you could make friends with an aspiring or rising filmmaker and be allowed to score a film. Mongé adds that when you get into the licensing world (and even before), it is imperative to have a PRO (Professional Rights Organization) like BMI or ASCAP if you are a musician with copyrighted music. (The royalty checks may not be much, but they are more than Spotify will ever pay an artist.)

Manier adds the licensing process moves quickly, so make sure you have stems ready because if a company wants it and you're not ready, they'll move on quickly. Flotard agrees and mentions the field is crowded, and unless the company really wants your song, it's easy for them to find another song. Regarding the type of licensing the panel sees, Manier mentions placements in major motion pictures, ESPN, commercials, video games, and alcohol companies. Advertising is everywhere, so the opportunities are bountiful. Flotard adds podcasts often seek music. "Basically, anywhere music and commerce are happening, that's where licensing is," she says. Gobeli asks what else an artist should look for in regards to licensing, to which Manier says sometimes the length of term is specified in contracts. Flotard adds all terms of the contract are important to look at.

Gobeli asks the panel whose gender and race politics play into working in management. Mongé notes the music industry is most certainly not the exception to the rule of how culture is operated -- looking up statistics on working musicians, she found that 60% are male and 70% are white. "So there are a dramatic amount of people -- a specific type of people -- who are representing artists as working artists in general," she says. Mongé moved to Seattle to become an audio engineer and ended up becoming a working musician partly because of the dearth of women and people of color in the field of music engineering.

Manier answers by acknowledging the amount of whiteness prevalent in the Pacific Northwest as opposed to, say, Atlanta. The racial makeup of management varies from city to city in his observation. When it comes to his own experience, he's worked with artists from many racial and gender backgrounds. Because of the lack of representation in management, he tends to work with more artists of color these days.

Flotard speaks to the experience of being a woman in bands and participating in the music industry by acknowledging that sometimes you don't even notice you're being marginalized; it just happens. She is grateful that her experience is informed by being around strong, supportive folks. In the past, she felt as though "some guy held the key to where [she] wanted to go," but that landscape is changing. She feels fortunate to conduct business the way she wants. Manier agrees and points out the level of expectation from having started out as a hip-hop label owner who now manages a rock band.

Mongé adds to that by acknowledging the racial and gender expectations when it comes to certain styles of music. "Yes, music overcomes all these barriers and divisions," she says. "At the end of the day, music is human. It has nothing to do with race or gender, but if you really got to the nitty-gritty of the institution behind it, yes, it does have a huge play in it. From what genre you're 'supposed' to be playing to even just having access to things." She brings up coming from a poor family and notes income disparity most certain crops up in the music industry.

Gobeli asks Mongé about the process of crowdfunding her work, to which she notes the importance of connecting with people who are fans of her music, which is a great way to overcome the obstacle of financing your work. Gobeli points out that she manages a band who are playing 500-person (capacity) rooms in the United States and 1000-person rooms in Europe and is still having trouble finding a booking agent for them, and it was suggested that ageism might be a factor in the time it's taking in the search. She asks the panel for their opinions on the matter, to which Flotard responds that she feels ageism in the sense that she's getting older and is most certainly not always hip to the trends of music in the present day. "Has anyone seen fucking Mavis Staples this year?" Flotard doesn't feel the impact of ageism. Mongé points out that she's 32 and sometimes gets ageist remarks while feeling like she's still 18. She points out there are advantages to being a younger artist and ageism is prevalent from her perspective.

Flotard introduces the counterpoint that it depends on what kind of artist you're trying to be. "If you're trying to be Taylor Swift, there's a million young kids trying to do the same thing and they're not going to make it either." She underscores the fact that there is more than one destination when it comes to being an artist.

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