10 questions to ask when working with artists

Guidance for the head as well as the heart when working with creative talent

Welcome to late March on South Beach

Miami — home of the Dolphins, the Heat, maybe an MLS team; Scarface, Dexter, Ace Ventura; the gateway to the Americas.

It’s also home to Winter Music Conference (WMC), a slightly misleading name as a) I can count on one hand the number of people I know who have attended the actual conference, and b) winter is these parts is 80 degrees (not exactly Canada Goose weather).

For the uninitiated, WMC is a week-long event in late March consisting of pool parties, club nights, people-watching, networking, spring breakers, tricked-out cars, new music, sunburn, more pool parties, and the huge Ultra Music Festival.

In short, you probably wouldn’t want to bring your Mum along.

Breakfast time

During my WMC 2014 visit, I had a breakfast meeting one morning with a US-based music industry friend who I’ve known for several years. We’ve never done that much direct business together but have followed a similar path and ethos in our respective careers, so whenever we get together the conversation is always flowing from the get-go.

This time I wandered down to see him at the Mondrian Hotel, out of the glare and madness of the Collins Avenue hotels (I’ve never understood the appeal of paying $400+ a night to have a 12 hour party outside your window from 11am every day), to be greeted with a big welcome and a pre-paid large and tasty breakfast from my compadre — he was looking well; business was good.

I was wearing a slight hangover and mild sunburn (didn’t listen to my Mum’s advice), but after imbibing a small vat of filter coffee, we got chatting and conversation moved towards working with new talent.

Working with new people there’s often a lot of unknowns, particularly in a competitive business that also has large elements of gut instinct and passion involved. When it’s a new artist there’s a lot of investment involved — blood (sometimes), sweat (often), tears (before bedtime), and of course time and quite possibly money.

Therefore I feel it can be useful to have something to help guide the head as well as the heart.

During our chat, I was reminded me of an old note I made and never finished. At the time I wasn’t able to list the contents of this note verbatim to my breakfast partner, but he got the gist and we threw a few ideas around as to how it could tweaked to be a useful tool for everyone involved in creative business relationships.

This post is a much belated write-up of those ideas.

The Questions

I started using this list of questions when talking to prospective clients (usually artist managers, either by email, phone or in person); some people really didn’t like answering them, and some just didn’t answer them at all, but I found that I got a lot of value from the responses of those that did.

This list was created for my music booking work but with a little tweaking it could be used in a bunch of different scenarios.

I’ve made a few notes alongside some of the questions as to the reasoning for their inclusion.

1. Who is in the team and what is their experience?

(i.e. PR, Manager / Assistant, Label, Accountant, Lawyer, Publisher; but also other people who may be Brands, Advisors etc.)
An artist manager friend drilled this one into me — you’re not just taking on an artist, you’re taking on the whole team, and it needs to fit. You’ll probably know pretty quickly if it doesn’t fit.

2. Who take cares of the back-office work?

Never to be underestimated — if this stuff isn’t handled well it can create a lot of pain all round. The pain I have experienced here is broad and deep (especially when I was starting out), and definitely not for a pre-watershed article such as this.

3. What partnerships and affiliations are in place/planned?

Whether it’s brands, record labels, support gigs…leveraged partnerships can be hugely important. I’ll write more specifically about these another time.

4. Does the artist want to be famous?

This is my favourite one. I received answers that were either an instant and adamant Yes, an instant and adamant No, a very long pause for consideration before answering, or getting one answer before swapping for the other, then something in the middle. It sounds an obvious question but the answer will tell you a lot. It’s also worth noting there are different levels and perceptions of fame.

5. Who do they admire?

Which other artists and why? People in other fields? This can help both tactically and strategically. Often you hear about other artists they don’t want to be associated with too…

6. What do the team want from this relationship?

Money, love, friends, attention, long-term partner, short-term fling?

7. Is there any funding/investment in the artist?

Without anything here, it’s unfortunately tougher to succeed.

8. Who is the audience and what demographic?

Top-line social media numbers don’t cut it — genuine insight is what’s needed. Who are we actually talking to? Where are they? How engaged are they? What are their habits and interests?
Whilst a manager should know this stuff, it’s not their primary role or skill and I firmly believe there is a need for more business analysis/data science capability in the music business; not just in large companies nor as a bolted-on marketing function.

9. What makes this different to everything else out there?

In business-speak this would likely be referred to as a USP or Unfair Advantage. Hugely subjective in the music industry but still relevant. Star quality as I mentioned here is a good USP.

10. What is the happy ending to the story?

I like this one because it encourages visualisation- and it’s actually a lot harder to answer than you may think.

(Optional extras)

11. What do you want?

12. How will you know you’ve got it?

(These two are nabbed from an NLP video I saw online but are very good questions to ask, and are surprisingly difficult to answer, especially the second one; what are the things that will let you know you’ve got what you want?)

Whilst there’s not really any substitute for gut instinct and a personal relationship, I feel this little set of questions can really help accelerate a decision making process, and the strategy and plan that (hopefully) follows it.

I’d love to hear your ideas for ones to add, change or remove — you can let me know on Twitter if you like (@howardgray). For more thoughts and discussion about music, entertainment, business and technology, feel free to subscribe to my email list or join the Stems music industry meetup event I help organise.

Ways to Win in Electronic Music

Working with various artists, labels and collectives in the last few years, as well as trying to keep an eye on what’s going on in the music industry as a whole, I’ve noticed a number of traits that have tended to lead to success.

There’s certainly no magic formula for succeeding (if there was, things would get boring pretty quickly, even if in our more rapacious moments we may believe otherwise), but I’ve had a go at distilling down four elements that can certainly help get there.

Some artists are in the position where they have two or three of these, and a few maybe even have all four. I’d say if you’ve got at least two of them you’re in a pretty good position.

Of course, these elements aren’t permanent; they can shift, slip, expand and contract on an almost constant basis.

In this post I’ve outlined these elements, with a couple of artists who I think are good examples. I’ve put this together with electronic music in mind, I’d be interesting to hear whether you feel this applies (and to what degree) in other genres.

And I’ve left out the Fifth Element (or rather the First) as its value is too large to be dissected here — great music. That kinda goes without saying ☺

The Four Elements

1. The Tribe

2. The Niche

3. The Hit

4. The Star

1. Be part of a dominant tribe

Many things in life revolve around the concept of a tribe.

This great book by Seth Godin covers the subject far better than I ever could — in it he says that, broadly speaking, a tribe is ;

any group of people, large or small, who are connected to one another, a leader, and an idea.

I’d say electronic music is no different.

You could call it brand (and there a lots of examples of brand and marketing being an element of success — in fact, that could be the subject of another series of blog posts on its own…), but more from a purist’s point of view I think the idea of a tribe ties in better with where all this came from in the first place.

It’s also not as easy to sum it up in the types of (buzz)words that brands tend to associate themselves with, but people want to be part of something, something that connects them. It sounds corny but music is one of the best ways of bringing people together.

If an artist is part of a tribe who have dedicated followers, that association alone can put position them in a place where they wouldn’t otherwise be.

How to create, lead and bring in new members to the tribe is something for another post (I‘ll be writing about that some time in the near future).

There are a bunch of tribes out there in electronic music, one good example of where a tribe has become successful and created a halo effect around itself is the German deep house collective Diynamic, led by DJ and producer Solomun.

2. Own a niche

In an industry where there are three major labels who seem to have a stranglehold on the mainstream, it would be safe to assume that a niche is not a good place to be. The likes of Bob Lefsetz have written about this on numerous occasions, and the excellent book ‘Blockbusters’ by Anita Elberse also looks at the head vs the tail and why the Long Tail concept may be a red herring.

For the most part, I agree — things are generally moving towards being a headliners’ business, but I feel that it can be a different story if you can own a niche and a lot of people overlook the value in this.

By ‘own’ I’m not talking about the $$$/£££/€€€ (although it often goes hand in hand), but more about being a figurehead — the person or one of the people who is instantly associated with a certain genre/sub-genre/movement.

I think people underestimate the fan bases, businesses and longevity of artists in particular niches — sometimes they go onto have either fleeting or longer term crossover success, but a lot don’t and can still maintain long and successful careers.

photo: Resident Advisor

A good example in electronic music is Chris Liebing. He’s been around a long time; honing his craft, playing challenging underground music, never really crossing over, and certainly never having breakout mainstream chart success. However he seems to be as popular as he’s ever been, with an ardent fan base and a packed worldwide gig diary. I’d also recommend his Resident Advisor exchange — an insightful look into his history as a music fan and DJ.

When I think about heavier, underground, full-tilt techno — he’s one of the first names that springs to mind. He’s a figurehead, so much so that for me his name is almost an adjective for a particular sound.

3. Have a hit (or a few)

This one is more obvious, but a hit track can change everything for an artist almost overnight.

The explosion in popularity of house music (particularly in the UK) over the last couple of years has included numerous top 10 national and international chart hits for artists that were otherwise relatively unknown and underground up until that point where the sound tipped into the mainstream.

The traction an artist can suddenly get from a hit track seems to be as strong as it’s ever been, especially in the live arena (but certainly in other areas such as sync). Festivals need to be able to sell many thousands of tickets and booking an act with national radio support, high chart placings and Shazam virality is going to get the attention of customers who may not be familiar with only niche and underground names.

As I mentioned earlier in this post, it’s a headliners’ market right now and the rewards for being one can be significant, especially when compared to a middle that is often squeezed.

The other side to this coin is that when there’s only 1 or 2 hits and the next release doesn’t connect, things can get much tougher. One of the harshest examples of this is when an artist is perceived to have departed the scene that they came from (aka ‘selling out’) and are unable to find a place in the underground again. The risk of this is arguably getting greater as the speed of turnover on all fronts increases, so it’s about good management and positioning to ensure an artist protects against the downside when they start to crossover.

The examples of artists who have had a number of hits and risen from underground to overground are pretty numerous and obvious; a few from the last year or so include Sigma, Gorgon City, Breach and of course Disclosure. (always good to see a ‘Howard’ representing…)

4. Star quality (or an unforgettable impact)

One of the first festivals a close friend went to was The Big Chill festival (in 2007 I think — feels like aeons ago now). On his slightly dishevelled return after 3 days in the wild, we went to the pub for a catchup.

The first thing he told me was about a DJ who played the previous afternoon. This particular act was playing a set of big bass-heavy music, which was just starting to become popular in the UK at the time. More notable though was that he was pulling the needle off the record currently playing, rewinding tracks at seemingly random times, letting tracks finish without having the next cued up, and various other faux pas — possibly due to a degree of intoxication.

The crowd went nuts, and DJ was a guy called Skream.

Whilst inebriation may not necessarily equal star quality, it’s worth remembering why people admire rock stars (and arguably DJs too).

It’s not just their musical ability, it’s that they’re larger than life and ignore the rules; they operate in a way that regular people can’t, don’t or won’t.

Whilst a purist would say it’s all about the music, particularly in a live event setting people want to be entertained and to feel a connection with the performing artist. A slightly bored bloke looking at his laptop doesn’t always hit the spot here. Skrillex stage-diving or Steve Aoki riding a dinghy across a crowd more likely does (whatever you may think about that…).

I think a good example of someone who has a big personality and projects it well is Eats Everything

So if you can be part of a tribe with a global band of ardent followers, own a particular niche or movement, notch up some hits, and happen to possess that elusive star quality and buckets of charisma, you’ll probably do ok.

Easy, right?

Got an opinion? Let me know on Twitter (@howardgray).

You can also subscribe to my email list, or join the Stems series of events for more thoughts about the music industry, business, and technology.