This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: David Britz, president, WORKS Entertainment.
A decade ago, David Britz heard a knock on his office door, and ten guys paraded in proclaiming, “Hi, we are here for a management meeting.”
Britz immediately signed on to manage this new Atlantic Records’ signing, Straight No Chaser, which had recently exploded online with a decade-old video, “The 12 Days of Christmas,” incorporating snippets of everything from the children’s Chanukah song “I Have a Little Dreidel” to Toto’s “Africa,” that had racked up more than 10 million plays on YouTube.
From his office in Beverly Hills, Britz continues to manage these remarkable acapella standard bearers along with such high-profile clients as Morgan James, Jon McLaughlin, and Flight of Voices.
He and his partner Luke Pierce co-manage Brass Against the Machine and, with Faculty Management, co-manage 98 Degrees, and Home Free (which Pierce runs point on). Pierce also works closely with Straight No Chaser and Brian Culbertson.
As well, WORKS Entertainment oversees the annual Brian Culbertson’s Napa Valley Jazz Getaway, and Brian Culbertson’s Chicago Jazz Getaway.
Prior to WORKS Entertainment, Britz was VP Artist Development at Stiletto Entertainment, a Los Angeles-based entertainment production, management, and marketing firm headed by Garry Kief. From 2002 to 2012 Britz oversaw Stiletto Artist Management with a roster that included Straight No Chaser, Brian Culbertson, Laura Izibor, Spencer Day, and Matt Dusk.
Who are the principals behind WORKS Entertainment?
WORKS Entertainment is my company, but I don’t do what I do here without Luke (Pierce) and the team here. Luke is my partner and a key manager here.
How much personnel do you have?
In the office, we have 9 total team members.
You and Straight No Chaser continue to work together on a handshake basis after a decade?
The same with all your acts?
I would say most of them, probably 90% of them, yes. I do a contract if they want a contract. My feeling is that if I am doing the job that I am supposed to do then they are not going to want to go anywhere else.
If an artist wants to leave a manager, contract or no contract, they will leave.
As a manager, you are there for the triumphs of your clients, but also being there for their low moments. In 2015, you flew from Los Angles to New York to personally break it to Morgan James that Epic Records wasn’t picking up her option That had to be a gut-wrenching moment for you.
Yeah, and as much as you like to deliver the good news, and you hate to deliver the bad, I felt that this was something that she needed to hear from me in-person. To know that everything was going to be alright. That this wasn’t the end of her story. This was just a chapter in her book. It was something that was important to me. I sat down with her, and I said, “I know that we were in the Epic office and L.A. Reid (then chairman and CEO of Epic Records) walked in and committed to making a second record”—technically her 3rd record, but her second studio album—“said that he wanted to make a record, and that he was 100% on your team, and we have been in the writing stage on that record for the past three months, but I just got a call from business affairs, and they are out. They dropped us.”
What was her reaction?
She was upset but, to her credit, the more that we talked, the more the fighter in her came out. She wanted to prove everybody wrong. Nothing in Morgan’s career has ever been easy or ever been handed to her. She has worked for everything that she has despite having a world-class voice. She has never been given anything.
This was a lady who, upon receiving a rejection letter from the Julliard School in Manhattan, eventually convinced the head of admissions at Julliard to accept her by adding a 7th singer, one above the norm.
How many people have the stones to do that?
You advised her by saying, “You can make it a really positive part of your story. … Rejection is a part of the story of anybody who survives it or anybody who becomes a success in New York.” Morgan has since released numerous recordings including the “Ourvinyl Sessions,” the seasonal album “This Christmas” last year, and several unforgettable tribute releases.
She’s gone on to make multiple albums. Part of that (career recovery) is a fearlessness that allows her to do the projects she’s done. It allows her to cover D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah,” Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” and Jeff Buckley’s “Grace,” song by song. People cover songs, they don’t cover albums. She’s got enough confidence in her own ability to do it, and not just do it, but kill it. That is where you marvel at a talent, and you say, “Holy shit, that’s incredible, and I want to help you.” With ups and downs and things that happen with artist’s careers, when they can do something that incredible musically, it is almost a part of your journey as a manager to make it happen for them. When she came to me with this idea about doing full album covers, I had never heard of anybody doing this. I said, “I love it. Let’s figure out how to reach as wide of an audience as possible because this is amazing. Nobody else can do this.”
I love Morgan’s “Reckless Abandon,” her first solo independent album released by her own Hedonist Record label.
So do I. She wrote or co-wrote every song on that record. She still does some classical engagements. This year is the 100th year of (Leonard) Bernstein so she has done multiple Bernstein engagements. She’s incredibly versatile in that way. Her first love and desire is to be touring with her band, doing her soul music which is what she was put on this earth to do, but she’s an amazing, classically-trained singer. She can go out there and do Bernstein, and she can sing a Broadway repertoire. She has the ability to do anything that she wants.
Decades ago, when launching a new artist the strategy was to put in place a team with an agent, and a label that would promote their recordings at radio, and provide tour support. That system fell apart. Today, despite fewer major label signings, there are numerous routes available to gain early exposure. No label, no radio, no problem. There are viable options on hand.
Yeah, absolutely. It is about figuring out what strategy is best for a given artist. If it is not radio, and it’s not a major label, what we have done with several acts is to figure out other routes. “Okay, is there a digital strategy? What is the digital play? Can we use content creation to drive eyeballs, and to build a fan base?” We want to get to the point where the artist is generating revenue and has the ability to tour because the lion’s share of how artists make their money is from live. “How do we reach a wider audience so we can tour?”
You can create a dynamic social media footprint.
Social media, absolutely. Social media, YouTube, and content creation. All of those things are vital in the artist development strategy. With Morgan, when I first got involved, she was signed to Epic. They were about to put out the first studio album (“Hunter” in 2014). There was no real content created at that point. There was one music video. There were 10,000 likes on Facebook. Really small social metrics on everything else. I said, “We need to build a fan base because the record, while it’s an incredible record, it isn’t Top 40, so we are not going to rely on mainstream media to break this off the bat. We have to build fans. So that’s where we went into a content strategy mode. We said, “If you are open to investing the time and money into creating content, you are going to be able to reach an audience.” So Morgan started creating her own content which we were strategic about. She also started working with Postmodern Jukebox (a rotating musical collective founded by arranger/pianist Scott Bradlee). I think we did 9 videos with them. Her cumulative videos with Postmodern Jukebox have been viewed over 100 million times. Just those videos alone. Not even counting her own channel videos.
You made an interesting point in a Radio Promo 101 podcast noting that at one time relations between managers, agents and promoters were adversarial. However, with the emergence of touring as a prime revenue stream, many of those relationships have since turned into vital partnerships.
Yeah, and I think that it has to be that way. If you are working with the right partners, everybody’s’ goal is to work in the best interests of the artist. If you are working with the right partners, it truly is a partnership. Those are the people that I choose to work with, and the type of people that I choose to have in business with my clients.
Marketing of regional shows traditionally had been primarily overseen locally, and that’s still often the case. Given that you have done hundreds of dates with your acts, and that you have a fix on their fans, do you now try to have a say in how marketing funds are being spent in regional markets?
We are involved in everything when it comes to marketing for all of our acts. That starts with the date being confirmed, and with a marketing letter that is sent out to our promoters which basically outlines the particular strategy that we have for our artists that, as you said, works for us in most cases. What we do with our promoter partners is that we say, “This is the way that we normally operate. Here are things that have produced results in the past. If you have a suggestion, or if you know something that is unique to this market that we need to know about, let’s talk about it. This isn’t a one size fits all thing. But we can tell you that, based on doing hundreds and hundreds of shows with this artist, what tends to work.”
Simultaneously, you are likely overseeing social media support that provides a marketing messaging cohesiveness.
Absolutely. We have a two-man marketing team here that works across our entire roster. Kyle Novak (Tour Marketing & Merchandising Manager for WORKS Entertainment) has a really great way of maintaining communication throughout the cycle of a tour. Anytime that there is something newsworthy or relevant or there’s a new piece of content that is created, he’s dealing with it. Whether it’s with the venue, the promoter or both. We are constantly, not only just outlining a marketing plan at the top of the tour, but we’re continuing to add fuel to the fire throughout the entire lifecycle of the tour, and the project. We try to be good partners.
Arguably, labels once considered artists having, maybe, a three to five-year career run. They didn’t consider long-term. With the upheaval in the industry over the past decade, labels are now looking further down the road, “Where are we going to be with this act in a decade?” When Straight No Chaser was signed by Craig Kallman, the chairman/CEO of Atlantic Records, he likely was considering where Straight No Chaser was going to be 10 years later or more. That long-term strategy is more prevalent today with labels. So the artist/label relationship has deepened.
Yeah, I think that is about signing artists that you have a vision for. You mention Craig who is definitely someone who has a vision for the artists that he signs. He saw something that no one else saw in Straight No Chaser. He saw a movement. Straight No Chaser was on the forefront of this new wave of vocal music. It was before “Glee.” It was before Pentatonix. He saw that, based on the virality of their video (“The 12 Days of Christmas”), saw how many people were watching the video, how many people were sharing the video, and the fact that it was of the first viral videos, and he said, “There is something here.” The key was that we all had to figure out how to turn the success of the video into a business, and that was really the challenging part. Luckily, we had 10 really talented guys who not only could sing but had a charisma and that could not only carry a show but carry a brand. That is something that none of us could have predicted by seeing the first video.
[Straight No Chaser was born in 1996 when Dan Ponce, then a sophomore at Indiana University in Bloomington, hand-picked the original members from a show choir he was in. In 2007, Randy Stine, one of the bassists in the group, uploaded concert footage from the late ‘90s onto YouTube. “The 12 Days of Christmas” clip, incorporating snippets of everything from the children’s Chanukah song “I Have a Little Dreidel” to Toto’s “Africa,” went viral over the holiday season, and was viewed more than 10 million times. After Craig Kallman saw the video, he offered Straight No Chaser a recording contract with Atlantic Records.]
At what stage did you get involved with Straight No Chaser?
I got involved right after they signed with Atlantic. They signed to Atlantic around March 2008. I got involved around June or July of that same year. So before the record (album) came out, before we put them together with an agency before any of those things happened.
The amazing story about Straight No Chaser is first how it happened, but also how their career has been maintained, and how their popularity has grown.
The idea is to never think that you’ve got it all figured out. We grow every year. We have now been in business together for 10 years, and the business grows every year. The thing that I am probably the proudest about is that we have never rested. We have never taken the business for granted. We have never taken the audience for granted. Every year, as set out as part of our goals, we try to determine “How can we get better? How can we grow the business? How can we grow the relationship with the audience?” That is something we talk about each and every year.
Tell me about the experience of having a knock on your door, and 10 guys parade in, “Hi, we are here for a management meeting.”
Yeah, that was definitely something that had not happened in my career at that point. To work with a group of that size.
That was when you were working at Stiletto Entertainment?
Correct. I remember meeting all of them. I actually remember the first phone call that I had with Randy. I remember having that conversation, and getting off the phone, and thinking, “Wow, I really like this guy. I like this story.” These guys all went to Indiana University, I went to Penn State. So Big 10 Big schools. I had an instant camaraderie with them because of that. I wasn’t somebody that was born and raised in L.A. or New York. I grew up in Delaware.
So, like them, you are from America’s heartland.
Yeah. Then I remember meeting with them at the office and, again, having that camaraderie with them all because of our shared collegian experience. We all were basically the same age which was helpful as well. I was in some way their peer. They went into this atrium area in the middle of the office, and they started singing. There was this natural interaction and camaraderie between them that you only get when it is really natural, and really great. The way that they interacted with each other, the way that they looked at each other, just the natural interplay, I was blown away. I said “There is absolutely something here.”
It wasn’t certain that the group could attract audiences, but after the release of their Atlantic debut, “Holiday Spirits” in 2008, an 8-city tour was booked to test the waters.
Yeah, it was one of those things where we said, “There’s millions of people who have watched this video. There has got to be people who would come to a live show.” Again, this was still really early in digital metrics and determining whether or not virality or video views translated into ticket sales.
At the time the startling popularity of “The 12 Days of Christmas” video on YouTube was a rarity for the new platform. Today, you might get those metrics, and still not know if they translate in attracting a true fan base for live performances. Straight No Chaser came through an eye of a needle at a time when YouTube airplay could really explode an act.
Yeah and I think that you got a glimpse of their musicality and personality which is what really intrigued me, and I think intrigued a lot of people. The Agency Group was the agency at the time, and I was on a phone call with Steve Martin and Andrea Johnson having a conversation about this (touring), and saying, “Listen we have to try this.” I remember Steve distinctly saying, “I agree. We have to go for this. We have to put these guys on the road.” I remember having the conversation with Atlantic and saying, “We need these guys on the road. We can’t just sit at home, and hope that we get TV appearances to drive this project.” We had that conversation and they (Atlantic executives) were not necessarily onboard at first. But I really pushed the issue, and they wound up agreeing to do some tour support in order to have us go out on the road to see if there really was an audience. Now keep in mind that this is in 2008. We are in the middle of a financial crisis. The world is falling apart…
As well the music industry was reeling from piracy and plummeting music sales.
Absolutely. This is all happening simultaneously. So I really had to make a case for them (Atlantic) to come to the table with funds. To their credit, they wound up agreeing to do that, and we put out 8 shows and sold out 7 of the 8 shows on that first run. Then everybody said, “Oh wow.” From there, it was “How do we continue this?” I remember having discussions with Craig about what the next steps were going to be. We were going to make another record, and how it would be a non-holiday record. “Where are we going to go next?” We ended up recording the “Six Pack” EP (2009) which was their first non-holiday release. Then, as we started looking at the timeline on the project, Craig said, “Why don’t we make another Christmas record?” The guys were a little hesitant to make two Christmas records two years in a row, but the more that they dug into the material they said, “We could so six Christmas records.” They wound up getting excited about it, and we wound up doing another Christmas record in 2009 which was “Christmas Cheers” which did extremely well. It ran up the charts, and really solidified the recorded music portion of their business. Simultaneously to that we started working with PBS and recorded our first PBS special “Live In New York” during the summer of 2009.
Why so hesitant about another Christmas release?
The fear was that we didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as exclusively holiday because, when the guys were in college, the holiday music was just a small piece of what they did. Most of their music was kind of traditional pop fare. So they had trepidations about that.
In the ‘80s I handled publicity for the Toronto a cappella group the Mistletones, and found that there is a narrow window for both sales of holiday music and even performances by a holiday-based group. From Dec. 1st to Dec. 25th.
Absolutely. That is the thing. We wanted to be more than that. We knew that Christmas would always be part of their story, and what you do in that instance is that you choose to embrace that or you run away from it. We certainly are not going to run away from the thing that people know us best for. So we chose to embrace the holidays, but we also chose to also say, “Okay, let’s see what else that we can do in a non-holiday format that can continue to grow the brand.”
Straight No Chaser got a sizable career boost when they did their PBS specials.
Yep, again it was part of our strategy. Remember that we didn’t do PBS until 2009. We already had had a video that went viral. We had a huge press story with the fact that we had 10 guys, who had a 10-year-old video go viral on YouTube, quit their jobs, and get back together with their college buddies, go on tour and make a record. It is that story of second chances that everybody loves.
Everybody dreams of quitting their jobs for something they love.
Absolutely. Except me. But there was a great story there of second chances and getting your opportunity to live your dream. That is something that really resonated with people. We got a lot of media pick-up on that. We also had a really great record that resonated with people that went #1 on Amazon and went #1 on iTunes. So we had all of those things that happened in 2008. Then we recorded the “Six Pack” EP, dropped that, toured again in the Fall of 2009, and put out another holiday record, and we recorded the PBS special.
It was a pair of PBS specials that dropped.
What in hindsight that we did that was really smart, and I credit Nicolette Ferri who was our point person at WTTW, our PBS partner (as WTTW executive producer/director of national programming), was that we were talking about doing two different specials. Doing a holiday and a non-holiday version. So we would have this special which works during the holiday period when they (PBS) did their December pledge and have another one that worked in March and in the summer for their secondary pledges. That strategy was really, really effective. I think that a lot of folks tried to do that with other acts afterward. That strategy worked really well for us. But, certainly back on this point, is that PBS was one part of our strategy. Not the whole strategy.
PBS was instrumental for several decades in the development of jazz, classical and traditional music acts working without radio support, but there’s not the same impact today. There’s too much white noise out there now.
Yeah, the thing about PBS is that it has to be one part of your plan. It can’t be your entire plan. For a while, there was the thinking in the industry that if you had a PBS special that you were going to be able to break an act on the basis of having a PBS special. There are multiple acts that exist, or now don’t exist, who had that strategy, and who failed.
Today, as HBO and Netflix focus further on creating entertainment fare, we probably aren’t far from them developing music-related properties as Netflix has been doing with the comedy sector.
Yeah, I think we are definitely going to see that. The problem is the multiple levels of rights issues that exist when it comes to music and music-related content. What we need to do still is to find a way to be open for business in a way that protects the interests of artists, songwriters, and rights holders. We want to welcome all of the different vehicles that could possibly exist for us to get music into consumption for people because again. What I think was really smart is that labels, and everybody in the industry, started in recent years to embrace consumption in whatever ways music can be consumed. Whether it was Julie Greenwald (chairman/COO of Atlantic Records) being on the front end of music streaming or labels participating and agreeing to license their content for streaming or the rights holder that are now striking licensing deals with Facebook. We are now allowing music to be consumed in the ways that people want to consume it while trying to make sure that there is fair compensation to the rights holders.
Julie Greenwald was certainly in the forefront by recognizing the potential of digital music sales. In 2008, Atlantic Records became the first label to sell more than 50% of its music as digital files. “It’s not preparing for a digital future — we’re in the digital business,” Julie told Billboard at the time.
Yeah, absolutely. I think that it was a brilliant strategy. Julie and the team there deserve a lot of credit. They definitely were at the front end of what was really a musical revolution, but it was a revolution that the industry needed because we needed to find ways to make money. With dwindling physical sales, we had to be open to technology, and the ways to monetize technology. And they did it, and it’s now working.
People would be surprised to find that Straight No Chaser have had several gold records.
Two gold records. For “Holiday Spirits” (2008) and “Christmas Cheers” (2009)
A lot of their sales have come from the road.
Absolutely. Doing from 120 to 130 shows a year, they get in front of a lot of people. The remarkable thing about what these guys do is that every night, whether it’s a major theatre or if they are playing The Fox in Atlanta for 4,000 people or if they are playing in an arena at Mohegan Sun (in Uncasville, Connecticut), they are still signing autographs, and meeting fans after every single show. That is something that they did in 2008 and that is something that they do to this day. It has been part of what has not only built the brand, but it has continued to build their brand. They have never forgotten what built their careers, and what has built their audience.
All of which provides added value to the fan. Being able to have a member sign a CD, a poster or a program and pose for a selfie photo.
Reinforcing your concept of branding that the band is accessible.
Yeah. People know that the Straight No Chaser experience doesn’t end with the show. It also includes some face time with the band should they so want that. A lot of people do want that and the guys could be out there for an hour after the show. They could be out there for two hours. They talk to everyone. They sign autographs, and they meet everyone because they know that the show is not over until the last fan walks out of the lobby.
How many acts on your roster follow that “fan first” strategy? Do you suggest it to them? Do you say, “This is what has worked for us with Straight No Chaser?” Does your country a cappella group Home Free, for instance, do that?
Yeah. Luke, who runs point on Home Free is very much involved with everything that they do, and he has definitely got their heads around that. They were already believers. We have continued to reinforce the “fan first” strategy. Home Free does an incredible job of interacting with their fans, both before and after shows, and also online. Making sure that their fans are part of a community. That is definitely something that we always suggest to our clients across the board, but it is also something that they as individuals have to embrace. We are fortunate that every client that we represent are believers and 100% buy into the strategy of earning fans every day. Those are the people that we choose to work with. With a fractured media scenario, where everybody’s attention is being pulled in multiple directions, you can lose somebody’s attention quickly. You have to work to maintain that artist-to fan-relationship. Our clients work very, very hard at maintaining that relationship.
Home Free is in the midst of its fifth sold-out national tour in support of “Timeless” which debuted at #2 on the Billboard Albums chart in September 2017. The group found an audience after winning the 2013 title for season four of NBC’s “The Sing-Off.”
Home Free recently signed with CAA Nashville which has a considerable country presence.
Yeah, there are a few powerhouses in country music, and they are definitely one of the biggest, and broadest. It really comes down to the people, and the personnel, and there’s no big believer or champion in Home Free than Brian Hill. It is very rare to find someone that is that passionate, that is that much of a believer, that is so engaged, and who wakes up every day, and thinks about how he will work hard for the band to help grow their career. And when you find somebody like that, and you know that you have the ability to put them on your team, it’s hard not to do that.
Much like Steve Martin and Andrea Johnson with Straight No Chaser while at The Agency? Group.
Yeah, it was Steve who saw something in the band, and realized that he wanted them on the roster, and he was able to bring Andrea into the project. The collective there really was kind of the brain trust to launch Straight No Chaser. The work that Andrea did in the very early days when we were still proving ourselves, getting performing arts centers (PACs) to really buy into the band, finding money where there wasn’t, that’s the hard work. We were fortunate to do the business, but she had to do a lot of selling to get people to understand what this was, and what it was going to become. And it worked.
Straight No Chaser continues to be represented by Andrea at ICM Partners.
We had left The Agency Group before their merger with UTA (United Talent Agency). Our transition to ICM (ICM Partners) was when Andréa left The Agency Group and went to ICM (in 2014). That’s when we brought Straight No Chaser over there.
While boutique-sized The Agency Group was one of the world’s leading booking agencies, with a roster of over 1,000 artists and offices in London, New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Malmo, Sweden.
Well, when we were at The Agency Group with Straight No Chaser that was the right place for them at that time. Steve had a great vision for that company. Both Steves. Steve Herman, and Steve Martin collectively did a really great job of running that company in America. Obviously, with everything that Neil (Warnock) did in Europe. That’s a heck of team of people to have running a company. I got to spend a lot of time with all three of them. You know I worked a bit in Canada and was fortunate to manage two Canadian artists, Tomi Swick and Matt Dusk. Through the course of working with them, I got to really know Jack (Ross), Ralph (James), Steve Herman, Colin (Lewis), Omar (Al Joulani), all of the incredible people that came out of that Agency Group Toronto office that have gone on to do unbelievable things.
Anyone seeking to build a team around a new artist or even with an artist with a track record needs to figure out who in the agency world can work with the team. They have to find believers within the agency world.
And not just within the United States either.
No, absolutely. When we get into a project, let’s say if it’s a developing project, and we are putting together the team, or if it’s an established product and we are evaluating the team, we are looking for those people who get the project, and who want to be involved. Who are passionate and, to your point whether that is the North American team or whether that’s the international team, we are really fortunate to be working with some amazing people. With Straight No Chaser, to have the ICM folks that we have involved is incredible. Scott Mantell (upped to partner status at ICM earlier this year), who is working international, has done more for the band internationally than any agent ever had. He just put his foot down, and said, “I am just going to build this act’s international touring,” and he did it. And what we’ve done with Andrea over the past 10 years, it speaks volumes to the passion to the project, and the commitment that they have for our artist.
Today, with so many performing arts centers, festivals, and clubs in North America having open music policies, coupled with the City Winery and Bluenote club franchises and other welcoming venues, there is an abundance of venue opportunities available to your clientele.
Absolutely, and it is artist by artist, and market by market. It’s figuring out what the best situation is for each artist in a given market. It is very rare that we sell our tours on a national level. We did one tour last summer with Straight No Chaser and Postmodern Jukebox in amphitheaters with Live Nation and had a wonderful experience doing it. But what we have done throughout their career, specifically, is that we have worked with the right promoters in every market. We do that across the board with every one of our artists. Dan Steinberg, who is promoting Straight No Chaser in Birmingham, is also the same Dan Steinberg (at Emporium Presents) that put in the first $500 offer when we needed him to.
Dan maintains it was a $1,000 fee at The Aladdin Theater in Portland Oregon in 2009.
(Laughing) I can’t remember what it was, but it didn’t cover our expenses. Dan took a shot when we needed somebody to take a shot. We have had a few of those people out there. We’ve had Bill Rogers at BRE Present as a big early believer, and on the national side there was Mike DuCharme at AEG (VP of Talent AEG Presents), and Dan Kemer at Live Nation. Guys that came in early, believers, and are still active in our business to this day. Don Kronberg (president of NiteLite Productions in Itasca, Illinois) is another independent guy that was there for us. All these guys are promoters that do a lot of our shows to this day, and they are the people who took the shots early on, and who put their money where their mouths were.
As the recession slammed arts and cultural organizations a decade ago, many PACs slashed their budgets, and either canceled or postponed programs that had previously, perhaps, been underwritten by sponsorship or endowments. More importantly, many PACs also opened their doors to outside promoters.
Yes. They realized that they could make money without taking risks. So if I let somebody like Dan (Steinberg) come into my room, and he pays me a rental fee, and I also make a fee on parking and what not, I am making money while taking zero risks. So it’s a win for them.
Also, it’s better than having a dark night.
Absolutely. Also, the more artists that they get into their market and the more new fans that they can get into their room the better it is. So I think that it has been better for communities to have independent promoters go into performing arts centers and rent those buildings. It’s good for the community.
You are close friends with the artists on your roster. Could you work with an artist that you weren’t close to?
Yeah. My rule in working with an artist, in general, is that I have to love them or love their music and hopefully it is both.
Could you work with an asshole?
(Laughing) It would be tough. If I was really passionate about the music. I got into the business because I love music. So it would have to be really good music that the person that difficult was doing. But my normal operating procedure is that I like to work with people whose work that I appreciate, and who I enjoy as people. I am, happy to say that the artists that we work with that I do like them as people, The guys in Straight No Chaser I would be friends with working with them or not. I can’t say enough about Morgan James’ work ethic. I can’t say enough about Brian Culbertson’s work ethic. And what we have built with our Napa Valley Jazz Getaway with Brian who is 20 years into a career, and still growing his business every year. Those are the people that I am excited to be in business with.
You recently began working with singer/songwriter Jon McLaughlin. How did that come about?
Jon was the first of three on our summer amphitheater tour with Straight No Chaser and Postmodern Jukebox. Jon then had another manager so he wasn’t anybody that I was looking at the time even though I was a fan of his work, and was thrilled that he was on the road with us. Loved watching him perform, and got to chat with him a bunch during the tour. Then, at the end of the tour, he said, “I probably am going to part ways with my management.” We then had a couple of conversation, and it was, “Absolutely, I want to be involved.”
Jon is one of those acts that everybody respects.
He’s incredible. He’s an incredible talent. A wonderful personality. So funny. And as a singer and songwriter, he’s incredible. But I was amazed by what kind of piano player he is, and what a musician he is. He is an incredible player. World-class. We are doing some really cool things with him that are going to start to roll out soon, and that haven’t been done in the past. I told him, “I have some ideas that I think we should be doing,” and he was willing to listen to my crazy ideas. I’m hopeful that it will allow him to continue to grow his audience and do the things that he should be doing because he’s an incredible talent.
You and Luke Pierce co-manage 98 Degrees with Faculty Management.
Yes, 98 Degrees is a co-management with our friends at Faculty Management. We co-manage 98 Degrees with Steve Bilchik and Jared Paul. So Luke and I are both involved in 98 Degrees. Wonderful guys. When we first got introduced to the project, the 98 Degrees members were interested in doing a holiday project. We got some great feedback from the band, and we were able to distill it into a one sheet. We got some incredible label partners in the UME (Universal Music Enterprises) team headed by (pres./CEO) Bruce Resnikoff. They got really excited about the project. 98 Degrees’ catalog is with Universal so it made a lot of sense to do a new record (“Let it Snow”) with them. We had a really wonderful time putting that out this past year. We did a Christmas tour with them as well that was incredibly successful. Fingers crossed that we go out and do another one, but it was pleasuring getting to know these guys and to work with them. We really enjoy doing this with Jared and Steve. They are really good partners.
This is the sixth year for Brian Culbertson’s Napa Valley Jazz Getaway. How did it come about? From Brian performing in Napa over the years?
Yes. Brian used to go to the Valley, and play a lot. Mondavi (Robert Mondavi Winery) used to have a concert series, and there were a few others over the years that had occurred. Then those slowed down. Brian went to Napa for his 10th anniversary and just had a blast. Then he had a vision for an event that we could do annually in Napa. So he came back he to me, and said, “Hey, I really want to do a festival in Napa. I have a vision for it. It‘s 5,000 people. It’s at a winery. It’s going to be amazing.” And I said, “Brian we have one chance to do this right. If we swing for the fences, and if we miss, that’s it. It’s done.”
And who wants to be a promoter?
Right. That wasn’t what I was thinking about doing, but when you see a client get really inspired and you see the vision, you buy into the vision. It’s “Alright, we can do this.” I talked him down to doing a smaller event the first year and allowing it to grow. We put the event on sale year one, and we blew out in a week. We then knew that we had something. We also knew since we weren’t funding it outside that we had to be really strategic about growth. That’s what we have done over the past 6 years. I’m a big believer in what I call “micro festivals” whereas everybody is trying to program to 50,000 people, and trying to satisfy everyone I really like the idea of super-serving a specific community, and making a top-notch event for 3,000 to 5,000 people. I think that there is a real market in that, and Brian is a big believer in that. That is what we have built in Napa. We just have a blast putting on this event every year.
[Napa Valley Jazz Getaway 2018 (June 6-10, 2018) is slated to feature performances by Brian Culbertson & Friends, the Commodores, Kirk Whalum, Peter White, Faith Evans, Jonathan Butler, Norman Brown, Bobby Caldwell, Eric Darius, Nick Colionne, Avery*Sunshine, Al McKay All-Stars, Marcus Anderson, Lindsey Webster, Marqueal Jordan, Adam Hawley, Cecil Ramirez, and The World Famous Rick & Russ Show with CJ Flash.]
Brian lied to you about one aspect of the event.
“Trust me David, it won’t rain here.”
You had a considerable thunderstorm last year.
Yeah, we did. It doesn’t rain in Napa in June. It just doesn’t happen. We had a nasty, nasty storm. We had to end the event early. We have this team of people that work on this event, and they don’t get fazed by anything. It’s all, Alright what are we going to do? This is what we are going to do, and here’s how we are going to do it.” Everybody just reacts. It is just amazing to watch these great professionals that we have assembled for this thing just go to work.
And who know when the right time is to close down.
Absolutely. Once we knew that the stage was too wet, that it was going to be a hazard to put people back on the stage, we said, “For anybody that is still around we’re going to start letting people into the Bluenote, and Brian is going to perform.” So we let everybody in who had purchased tickets. They came into the Bluenote. There was standing room only. Brian and a few of the other artists played for two hours. People had the time of their lives. It was about making the best of a bad situation, and that’s what really good teams do. We made sure that no-one walked out, or felt that they didn’t get more for their money. And, at the end of the day, that felt really good.
A number of your clients have performed in the Far East. Is that market growing in importance for you?
We have had multiple clients all over Asia including China, South Korea, and Japan. Brian has been to Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo. We just had Morgan in Tokyo. I was really happy with what Morgan did the first time in the market. I know that it is going to be a very strong market for her moving forward. What I think is great is that on the club level there always wasn’t that ability to tour internationally at that level. What Steve Bensusan (pres. At Blue Note Entertainment Group) has done, particularly in China and Japan with his Bluenote network, has allowed people to traverse North America, then go to Hawaii, and then go to Asia. If you want to, you could play the Bluenotes all over North America ending with Blue Note Napa, then go to Honolulu, and then go on to Tokyo, and Beijing. You can do it all. It’s amazing that now exists for artists at that level.
All managers and agents need more dates in Hawaii.
It’s a wonderful market that I’ve gotten to know thanks to Dan Steinberg who convinced me to do a Straight No Chaser show there a few years back. He was like, “Listen, I know you guys haven’t been over here, but this is a great market.” We did our first show there, and it was unbelievable and what a tremendous audience. Now it has become an annual thing that we end every Straight No Chaser tour for at least the last four years we have ended in Hawaii, Honolulu or Maui.
Are Europe and the UK thriving markets for your management clients?
Absolutely. Straight No Chaser is doing pretty much every 18 months a Europe schedule. Brian is in the UK every year, and sometimes twice a year. London, specifically, has become a good market for him. Morgan recently did a 6 week run in Europe. Home Free has done a couple of stints over there as well. We haven’t had 98 Degrees in Europe, but we hope to change that pretty soon.
How did you develop an agent team for overseas?
When we moved to ICM, I started to work with Scott Mantell and I knew that this was the guy for Straight No Chaser. He was just determined to really develop an international profile for them. We had done some limited touring in Europe prior to that, and he was like, “Nope we are going to do all of this.” He was the first guy to do what he said that he was going to do. So that was incredible. Scott is also Morgan’s agent. That’s another instance where he again was able to do what he said what he was going to do. We developed a strategy and put a concept plan together. Put her in the right rooms at the right times, and it worked.
Where are you from?
I grew up Wilmington, Delaware.
What work did your parents do?
My mom was an accountant by trade, but she is also an entrepreneur. She started a chain of sandwich shops called Capriotti’s. My mom and my two cousins started this business, grew it, and then a few years ago exited the business. I think there are about 100 Capriotti’s in existence. So I grew up in very entrepreneurial family. My dad was in insurance. An incredible salesman who has an incredible way with people. So I got the business side from my mom, and definitely the good people skills from dad. It’s a good combination.
Stiletto Entertainment was your first job?
It was my first job. My first job out of school. I worked at Stiletto from 2002 to 2012. So 10 years.
An English degree from Penn State?
Were you planning to be a teacher or a writer?
No. I was a business major when I first went to school there. I really had a difficult time with accounting. My mom is an accountant, and I am really good with money and numbers. But the principals of accounting were something that I struggled with. So I asked myself, “What do I like to do? I like to read books, and I love to write.” So that naturally led me to be an English major, and that was, at least, a versatile degree. My original intention was to go to law school. I was going to find a way into entertainment before going to law school. But after taking the LSATs (The Law School Admission Test), and two weeks before I was going to graduate, I said to myself, “I’m not going to law school. I am just going to move to L.A., and get into the music business.” And I did.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-80. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
He is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.