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Interview with DAVID BENVENISTE, manager for System Of A Down - Dec 3, 2001

"Dedication, persistence, resilience and an eye for talent - if you have those ingredients youíll win."

picture David Benveniste, Manager and President of Velvet Hammer, has for the past five years been the brain behind some of rockís most prominent bands. He has an impressive managerial roster that boasts the likes of System Of A Down (platinum with album ďToxicityĒ Ė US No. 1), TapRoot and Headspace, who are both signed to his label Velvet Hammer Music/Atlantic.

How did you get started in the music biz and what has been your route to becoming a manager/president?

Iíve always been a big music fan, I liked to go to shows, mingle with the audience and see where their heads were. I really just wanted to be a part of a culture that I love and it happened naturally and organically. I came across System Of A Down and we started working together. The bass player Shavo was managing the band and as the band started getting more attention he needed to focus more on the music soÖ I took over. It was a marriage made in heaven. I did work with a couple of acts prior to System Of A Down, but those projects never came to fruition.

How does Velvet Hammer work?

We have about eight people who work here. We handle all the day-to-day personal and business management. We do all the deals for the bands and are their spokespeople. You know you grow with a band. In the beginning the trust factor has to be built. Iíve been working with System Of A Down now for five years so there has been a lot of trust. I started the company myself and it slowly, but surely grew, and I now have three companies. I have a label through Atlantic Records, Velvet Hammer Music, my management company, Velvet Hammer Management, and my marketing company, StreetWise. Between all three I have sixteen people working for me.

What characteristics do you consider necessary in order to be a good and successful manager?

Dedication, persistence, resilience and an eye for talent - if you have those ingredients youíll win.

Are there any large misconceptions about managers?

I think that people think that management is a wonder job. Really, itís very rewarding, but at the same time very demanding. You need to have a set level of dedication just to be able to do it, because itís not always a bowl of cherries. Itís difficult at times and takes a lot out of you, you are responsible for dealing with, and putting out fire. Thereís a very large scope that you see as a manager. You have to deal with everything from problem solving to accolades, itís a very thorough job.

What are you currently working on?

System Of A Down just released their sophomore album, ďToxicityĒ, and are touring to support the record. TapRoot is currently doing preproduction on their second album, Headspace is recording their first, and S.T.U.N. is about to as well. So thatís three records that weíre making at one time. We are also developing a band called Pome from Sacramento.

Relationships always form in a very odd way, so I couldnít say one specific thing that brought all of us together. Each act stands for an important element in how I am trying to build this company. Iím not trying to build it on bands that have a certain sound or style, I have to respect the bandís music, period.

Which were the important factors in breaking System Of A Down?

The main thing I focused on, as a manager, was to make sure all the business aspects of the band are in accord with the creative aspects. First I needed to make sure that we went to radio at the right time, that we had the right tours, and that the bandís art was exposed with the right timing into the right outlets. Also, creating presence on the streets is very important because you build a true fan base and create anticipation for the bands music and tours. But, whether itís the street, radio or touring, you strategically need to roll out the exposure of a band, to create a picture for the world of what the band is about.

At which moment did you feel that they were going to break?

I knew from the beginning that it would only be a matter of time. System Of A Down is the most unique musical and intelligent band Iíve ever listened to, it all starts with the music. I could be the best manager in the world, but if the music isnít there to start with and if the product isnít any good it means nothing. System Of A Down is at the A+ level of writing and executing live. They have amazing, intense, live shows and I fell have written one of the most important records of the year. Theyíve toured, had radio success and itís just snowballing at this point, Iím not surprised.

Which are the key tools for you, in order to break a new act?

Again, start with the music, get a strong record label and strong management, period.

How valuable is it to work with street-teams?

Well, I have my own street-team company called StreetWise. I think itís the most invaluable thing. I can pump out 40 000 or 50 000 sampler tapes or CDs of music even before a bandís album has been released which creates excitement with the kids before it hits the stores.

How do you find new talent and what do you consider the most effective method?

We have a very good network of people around that help me find the right talent. There are plenty of ways: word of mouth, chance, through our Street Wise street-team, and through bands that we work with. For instance, Headspace is a band that I signed that came to me from the guitarist of TapRoot, who introduced me to the band. I always like to find acts and groom them myself.

What do you look for in an artist?

Music is the most important thing, and everything else stems from that. Music, dedication and attitude are very important. They donít have to have knowledge of the music business because thatís something they can always learn. Image is an evolution. Itís something that grows and changes with the band.

What would your advice be for unsigned artists on how to approach music biz people?

Iíd say let the music speak for itself, follow your dream, and look up a good manager.

Do you accept unsolicited material?

Absolutely! I have no prerequisites. I like to find the talent early on and I have to be involved with bands before thereís any hype on them. Some weeks Iíll get twenty demos, some weeks Iíll get two. Most of those I get, I listen to.

Can you offer some words of advice to unsigned artists, in regard to contracts?

Donít ever sign a contract without having a good entertainment attorney to look at it.

American acts seem to break in the European territory with much more ease than European acts in the American territory, for the moment. In your opinion, if you agree, why is that?

Because American record labels are much stronger, it seems that they understand the business more. Americans understand the European market more than Europeans understand the American market. American acts also work a lot more overseas than European acts work over here.

Has the amount of time given by labels to new acts before they break decreased in the last decades? If so, why and is it a problem for you?

Yes, I think thereís a lot less artist development going on these days in the music business. Thatís why I think that itís even more important to have an important band that can tour and that has street-teams, because you need to get the kids on the street in touch with the music.

I think people are less patient. Theyíre dealing with budgetary differences, recessions and I think that people these days are much more interested in a quick fix than a long-term project.

I personally havenít had problems with this because I havenít accepted that as an answer. I try to work with good labels that have amazing bands.

Do you think that a system for artists, modeled after the actorís situation where acts would be free to record for any label they would wish, do you think that is desirable and do you think it would work?

No, I think itís a totally different business. But if they have a contract with a label and the labelís not happy and the bandís not happyÖI think theyíll let them go anyway. It happens naturally.

How important is payola to radio in general when it comes to rock acts?

I canít really comment on that because thereís a lot of things that go on in radio that nobody knows about.

Does payola exist?

I believe so.

The Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart is based on both airplay and sales; do you think that this is a good system?

Sure the Top 100. Each different media can choose how they want to quantify their results and itís perfectly understandable and perfectly fair for Billboard to try to do that.

Should it be based only on sales?

NoÖI donít think so, thatís what The Billboard Top 200 Album Chart is.

If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?

I would make sure that bands had more of the royalty on record sales than they have now.

Which has been your greatest moment(s) working in the music biz?

My greatest moment happened in September 2001 when I learned that System Of A Down had charted number one in the country on The Billboard Top 200 with the release of their second album. It was a very gratifying moment after the many years that I have put in with the band. Every week one band in the world gets to be number one on the top 200 and we, against all odds, achieved that.

Interviewed by Jean-Francois Mean

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