In a music scene like Brooklyn’s, it can feel overwhelming to zoom out and see the inner workings of the whole machine. It feels like every day, a new artist is born out of Brooklyn’s music community, beginning a quick rise to notoriety. While the sheer caliber of incredible musicians who foster their talents in our borough is impressive, there are integral people working diligently on the sidelines, making sure those talents aren’t squandered.
The first person on that list is an artist’s manager, the person who sticks by a musician’s side every step of the way, always there to represent his or her best interests. A name that has repeatedly come up in conversations I’ve had about some of the most promising up-and-coming musicians is Salty Management, a local team of managers who work with the likes of Mitski, Skylar Spence, and Mutual Benefit. Curious to know how one team managed to attach themselves to some of the best new artists around, I reached out to Chris Crowley, co-founder of the bicoastal team, and Jeanette Wall, part of that team, about the ins and outs of artist management.
Juliann DiNicola: Chris, let’s start with you. When did you decide you wanted to manage artists, and why start your own company rather than joining up with an existing agency?
Chris Crowley: I started the management company back in San Francisco in late 2010 while I was still in college with my business partner and best friend Chad Heimann. Throughout college we interned a good amount in the music industry in S.F., and started to feel we were gaining a stronger understanding of the different facets of the industry as a whole. One day we were in between classes and we were going to hang at Chad’s apartment before our evening class, and our classmate Mario asked to join us. When we got to Chad’s apartment, Mario asked if he could throw some of his music on, and it was like a four-song EP he and his friend recorded in a closet in the Tenderloin. It sounded really great, so we said we could help them get some shows around town, and share their music to people we knew. Mario was like, “Oh, so you’d be like our managers?” And then we just decided to start a management company.
In college Chad and I were doing a lot of things with the Salty moniker, including a newsletter/blog, throwing shows, working at the radio station, etc. So we were used to just going at it by ourselves. As we’ve grown over the past few years, we’ve had some offers come in from other companies to be absorbed into a bigger system, but we believe strongly in being independent, and working with independent musicians and doing it our way. I don’t see that ever changing.
JD: What do managers do, exactly? Really.
Jeanette Wall: You make sure everyone on an artist’s team is doing their job, especially the artist. You help create opportunities, and do everything you can to foster positive growth in an artist. You also advance shows. And go on bagel runs. And see the big picture of an artist’s career while noticing the small details all at once. You do everything you can to make sure the artist can focus on growing, performing their best, and interacting with their audience.
CC: The most important job as a manager is to understand your clients’ short-term and long-term goals. Once you know what your client really wants out of their careers, you set forth to build a team around them to help execute these goals. This team can include a label, booking agent, publicist, licensing team, etc. Once the team is assembled, it’s important to keep all these people on the same page, and make sure everyone is simultaneously working towards the success of the project.
Once you figure out a plan for the next six months to couple years out, it’s really about working day in and day out on the big picture goals while also dealing with less sexier day to day tasks like booking travel, advancing shows, reminding people 1 million times to reply all to their emails, etc. Even in 2015, it’s not a given that people understand the “reply all” function of emailing.
JD: How did the two of you sync up and begin working together? What is your working relationship like as a management group?
JW: Chris and I met the night that he went to see Mitski for the first time at a potluck. I had just written about her first single from Bury Me At Makeout Creek for PORTALS. I’m sure I told him something like, she’s going to melt your heart, or something.
CC: As time passed, we were both really freaking out about Mitski more and more and were trying to help her out. We always Mom and Dad-ed it at the shows and fanned out in the front row. At the time I really wanted to manage Mitski, and Jeanette was helping out too, so I asked her if she’d like to co-manage.
JW: Chris and I split everything with Mitski 50/50. We’re equal partners with her. It’s really awesome to have Jessi and Chad and Haley on the West Coast to be able to bounce ideas off of and learn from. We all have different backgrounds, and different expertise.
CC: The working relationships at Salty can go a few ways with either solo management or co-management. Jeanette and I manage Mitski 50/50, but the company is also comprised of my partners Chad, who I co-manage a few acts with, and Jessi Frick who runs one of my favorite labels Father/Daughter, and also manages a handful of amazing acts including Mutual Benefit, Gems, dd elle, and more. It’s really humbling to work with people who have a strong, diverse taste in music, and sincerely care about the careers of the artists they work with. Everyone is allowed to work with whoever they feel passionately about, and often times we’re interested in the same acts, so we get to work together if it’s the right fit. For instance, Jeanette and I manage Mitski together, but I also manage Giraffage, Beat Culture and et aliae with Chad, and manage Skylar Spence on my own. The dream is to always be working with each other on different projects, which helps our artists too.
JD: Who was the first artist that made you think, “I want to help make this person’s career better?”
CC: For me, it was Mario’s band back in 2010. That was the first project where I thought, “I think I can help out here.” It was kind of this cool, gritty, blues rock/hip-hop project with a raw sound I hadn’t heard before. They had a good run locally, but eventually the band broke up and never made it onto the national scene. But that was our first act, and they helped give us the inspiration to start a management company, so we owe those guys a lot.
JW: When I was in high school, I worked with a singer-songwriter from my hometown. I just did a lot of basic outreach through Myspace for him, ran his digital store (i.e. mail orders from my parents’ house), helped him book shows, and got him to be the No. 1 “unsigned” artist on Myspace. It was really a goofy time for A&R I guess, because I was 16 and answering emails from all major label reps. He ended up signing with Universal Republic. I’d say he was the first, but he was also my childhood best friend. Then there are also artists like SSWAMPZZ, QUARTERBACKS, and Dumb Talk who were really inspiring in starting my label, who I could definitely say the same thing for.
But Mitski was the first artist I met who made me really want to manage her. To me management is like marriage, and I feel like the three of us really have an unmatched level of commitment to each other. That’s always going to be really special to me.
JD: What qualities make you want to work with an artist?
JW: The music sets my brain on fire. Like, I love a lot of bands. I’m saying they have to emotionally set me on fire. A band has to make me go a little crazy. I also only want to work with bands who work really hard, remain unentitled, and make music for themselves. I would say I want to work with artists who don’t see a ceiling on their potential career, but always create realistic goals. It’s an incredibly hard balance, one that you learn to achieve rather than one you just have.
CC: I like to be immediately drawn to/obsessed with the music on the first listen. Sometimes it can take a couple listens to understand something better, but it’s always nice when you press play and immediately fall in love. It’s also really nice when you find something on your own, and get to form an honest personal opinion on it, without having to hear the noise from the blogs and what they think about it before you’ve had time to process it yourself.
I enjoy working with artists who are good people, who I would be friends with outside of music. We’re an independent company run by friends, and we like to make our artists feel like they’re part of a family. I consider everyone we work with a member of my family, and a really good friend, so it’s nice when you feel that connection with an artist you work with.
I love when an artist’s live show is just as good as their album, if not better. When I first saw Mitski live, I was so taken aback I couldn’t find my words for a whole five minutes after the se–that’s the kind of feeling you should have with every artist you work with. Also, when you manage someone, you’re going to see them play live a lot, so you really have to enjoy it for your own sake too.
JD: I’m sure working so closely with artists can face you with annoying complications, from Skylar Spence (fka Saint Pepsi) having to change his name, to huge milestones, like all the incredible press around Mitski destroying SXSW. How do you balance the good with the bad to help the artist move forward?
JW: I was texting Mitski the other night about her first headlining show in Little Rock. She said it was quiet there, just what they needed after SXSW. Here’s the thing, there will be a lot of firsts, just as many good as there are bad. You’ll have your first trip to Austin for South By, and you’ll have your first flat tire along the way. You’ll have your first piece in Rolling Stone, and you’ll have your first bad review the next week. You’ll have your first sold-out show, and you’ll have your first show that you play for two people in the middle of nowhere. I think that continues on through your career. You just have to celebrate the littlest victories, and constantly be focusing on the positive, be you the manager or the artist.
Mitski said on stage at her last show in Austin, “I would rather be tired doing music than be tired not doing music.” That has to be your attitude no matter what you’re doing.
CC: Yea, each day is a bit of a rollercoaster. Sometimes you wake up and there’s great news, or new opportunities in your inbox that get you excited for the day. And then by the end of that day–if you’re me–you might be yelling at your computer, or seconds away about throwing your phone at the wall.
Having a long career is about never letting the bad things in the present cloud your view of the end goals. There will always be situations out of your control, or that you don’t see coming, but it’s important to just let those moments pass and continue thinking about tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. I find usually for every bad thing that happens, there’s three or four more good things coming in, or on the horizon. So really you just do as much damage control as possible, and continue looking forward.
JD: What is next for Salty Management as a whole? Any artists you have an eye on?
CC: I think the goal really stays the same: keep working with independent artists who we feel strongly about, and help them realize their dreams. That’s always been our mission statement, and the more we grow as a company, the better chance we have to continue on with that mission.
There’s so much great music coming out of New York these days. I especially love everything the Epoch is doing currently including Small Wonder, Eskimeaux, Told Slant, and Florist. All of those projects are incredible, and so is the storyline. If you have a chance to check out their documentary that just came out, I definitely recommend it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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