As manager of artists ranging from Rancid, The Interrupters and Blink-182 through to Dirt Nasty, The Glitch Mob and Elohim, Kevin Wolff has shrewdly overseen a diverse stable of music creators and helped each push the envelope and establish themselves in the competitive music marketplace. First via Deckstar and then through the YMU Group, Wolff has applied a do-it-yourself approach to artist management that he honed through his experiences and years in the music business. BMI’s Associate Director, Creative, Los Angeles David Streit recently sat down with the man to pick his brain, glean some advice and find out how it all works. Here’s what he had to say.
Going all the way back to the beginning, what initially made you decide to get into artist management?
First and foremost, I have always been fascinated with music and the music business. Going back to being a young kid and reading the liner notes in albums, wondering what every person credited did. Second, I didn’t go to college and was terrible in school. I started DJ’ing in high school, which led to a relatively successful DJ career at a young age that opened up a lot of doors. After five years of working for someone else, learning as much as I could about the ins and outs of the business, I discovered an artist by the name of Mickey Avalon, took a leap and started my own record label and management company. I believed in that artist so much, and I knew I was going to do anything I could to make it work. And fortunately for me,…it did. From there, I built and managed a small stable of acts, whose albums I also released.
In my experience, artist managers wear a lot of hats, these days. Do you think the roll of artist manager has changed at all since you first started? Has the roll become easier or harder?
In my opinion, I have watched management and managers become more well-rounded and independent. When I started in this business, the idea of putting out a record independently, as a manager, was a bit of a head-scratcher for a lot of people. I think a wave of managers who grew up loving independent punk rock, hip-hop and electronic music that emerged from the CD era, saw the power of giving away music for free as a means to market their artist. These managers also used the power of the internet, for the first time, and adapted to early digital marketing and social media platforms. These managers recognized the future was going digital when others may not have – or weren’t ready to – accept what was coming. I think with that, the modern manager was born. In my opinion, the modern day manager is now responsible for wearing many more hats and now has to work through a much more competitive and saturated music economy than in previous eras.
What led you to create a management firm like Deckstar (now YMU) with co-founders and fellow managers, LV & Matt? What are the advantages of managing artists in a bigger firm?
It started as three young managers, who each had a client. We all got along and all of our clients got along. One day, it was just kind of like “let’s get an office together.” From there, we naturally began supporting and helping each other out and putting profits into resources for our artists. Cut to ten years later, and we’re still really trying to practice that same approach, but obviously on a bit larger of a scale. We are working to create an environment of shared knowledge and resources to help each other and each other’s clients out as best we can with a team mentality, instead of being siloed off somewhere. I personally prefer being around like-minded people to bounce ideas off of, get advice and inspiration and learn from. I find that to work to both mine and my clients’ advantage.
You have a pretty amazing roster of clients which spans genres from electronic to pop to rock. Is there a difference in the way you approach managing an electronic artist versus a rock artist? Or is it all in the same realm from a management perspective?
Generally speaking, every artist is different. Learning the subtleties of those artists and understanding and respecting the cultures and fans of those artists you represent is important. However, you would be surprised how something we learn from and do for Rancid can work for an artist like The Glitch Mob, …or vice versa.
As long as I’ve known you, you’ve been a huge advocate of releasing music independently. You have your own record label, Shoot To Kill Music, and seem to always support the D.I.Y. mentality. Are there any situations where you think a major label deal would make sense in the current state of the industry?
I would have answered this question differently two or three years ago, honestly. I think we are seeing major labels, for the first time, operate with more of a non-traditional, independent, D.I.Y. mentality, which is good. There is no denying the leverage major labels have. Major labels do indeed make sense for some artists. There are a lot of variables in deciding what is the route to go.
If you were to sign a new client, what types of qualities would you be looking for? Are there certain traits which stand out?
Talent, drive, determination, self-awareness, trust.
All the time, artists and songwriters I speak with are looking for management to help them with their careers in various ways. In your opinion, when is the right time for an artist to start working with a manager?
The short answer is ASAP. The long answer is there are only so many managers to service so many artists. And there are only so many artists that actually cut through the chatter of all the music being created and released. In a funny way, we all seem to find each other, one way or another.
Speaking directly to our readers who may be looking for management, do you think it makes sense for them to reach out to managers and management firms with bios and links to their music for consideration, or is that pretty much a waste of time? Should managers be approaching clients first?
By any means necessary. Just make sure it’s a stream and not a download.
Any last-minute thoughts, tips, shout-outs or soapbox rants you’d like to share with the readers?
If you get the art right, the commerce works itself out.