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Interview with DAN FRASER, manager at Nettwerk for Barenaked Ladies, Sarah McLachlan - Feb 12, 2001

“Who would have ever said that skincare and music go together? But it was a great opportunity - it helped sell CDs and helped introduce new music to new fans.”

picture Dan Fraser manages US Multi-Platinum acts Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan at Nettwerk Management in Vancouver, Canada. Nettwerk also organizes Lilith Fair, a North American tour featuring female performers. Previous artists have included Dixie Chicks, Mya and Sheryl Crow.

How did you get started in the music business and how did you become a manager?

Initially I was an engineer - I mixed sound. Then later on I hooked up with Terry McBride (HQ interview). I was working with Sarah McLachlan at the time, whilst Terry was running Sarah’s label, and he really felt that his heart was more in management than labels at that time, so we just put ourselves together and started a management company.

What was your break for success?

Sarah did a really big part of it for us. We did Lilith Fair as well, and once we did Lilith Fair it kind of set us off. We’d also started managing Barenaked Ladies whom we broke in the US three years ago. Their last record (‘Stunt’) went four times platinum in the US, and the new one that’s currently out now (‘Maroon’) has gone platinum in the US in a relatively short time, 10 weeks.

What’s key to your success as a manager do you think?

We have a great team of people. As a company we come after an artist and we put a team together around him, and I think that's really important. Because if you are the one and only manager and you don't have a good team around you, then you’ve either got to be on the road 24 hours a day, or you're in the office, and you can't really do both. Being on the road 24 hours a day with your artist doesn't necessarily give you the best way to manage a career.

We go after radio very aggressively, and on the live side of things we're very controlling, but we put a great team of people around an artist, and I would say that that's the key to our success.

When success comes there's definitely a little bit of luck involved. There are a lot of managers out there who work hard but don't necessarily achieve financial success. You might have a great artist, you might think they’ve put together a great record, and if your goals are realistic for that artist at that particular moment in time then you can always be successful.

But if it comes down to pure finances it's a tougher situation because it takes a lot of money to make an artist successful, particularly in smaller countries. We're a Canadian company and to be successful in Canada you have to sell gold, which means 50,000 copies. With today’s environment in the music industry, you need to make three videos to achieve gold or platinum-selling status, and then there’s all those dollars spent on marketing. So basically, the band is financially strapped even with a gold or platinum record. We always say, "You can have a gold record, but not a wall to hang it on."

And I think that in Europe and other parts of the world things work in a similar way, because you can sell gold or platinum in your market and it is not guaranteed to bring you big financial rewards. The key to financial success is to break elsewhere in the world in territories other than your own.

What are the creative challenges of being a manager?

Just staying fresh and coming up with new marketing ideas. We have a big roster, so it’s important for us to stay fresh and focused. When you’re working 12 to 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, you can easily begin to stagnate if you don't try to reach out and find fresh marketing ideas, fresh ways to make an artist.

The music industry is so quick that you can be on top one day and touch rock-bottom the next.

What kind of network of business contacts does a manager need to develop?

You’re always travelling and you never know where an opportunity is going to come from. Particularly in today’s environment, where sponsorships and marketing opportunities are readily available, you have to network with other people and with other businesses constantly, which means that you have to be very outgoing and not afraid to try something new.

At Lilith Fair one of our sponsors was Bioré, a cosmetics company. It initially came about through a contact, and we saw that this might be a great way for us to market Lilith Fair so we decided to try it. We had the young, up-and-coming artists playing at Lilith Fair put together a free CD sampler, which Bioré’s field staff handed out to the hundreds of thousands of people that came to the shows, effectively marketing new music to all of these people at no cost to them.

And Bioré gave the CD sampler away with their new product - a skincare product! Who would have ever said that skincare and music go together? But it was a great opportunity, it helped sell CDs and helped introduce new music to new fans, which is ultimately what we wanted to do.

How do you find new talent?

First of all, we have offices in New York and Los Angeles. Then we have very young, very aggressive staff. As a management company grows, you start to get different lawyers, different labels coming to you.

Now I can pick up the phone and talk to five presidents of major labels and they have artists and different projects that come to them, and they'll bring them to you. Some of it is just word of mouth, your reputation preceding you.

When you're able to take a young talent, and you're able to develop that greatness from the get-go, that's the most fulfilling and generally the most successful way. And it’s ideal when an artist comes directly to you, because it means that they’ve done a bit of research on you and they really want you to manage their career.

When it comes from other people or we’re approached by people involved in a bidding war or something like that, we generally back out of those kind of things, because we don't think it's very healthy.

Have the sources of new talent changed in the last years?

For us definitely because we rely on the input of new, young staff. I'm 37 years old and Terry is 39, and we like and enjoy what we were listening to 12 years ago. As I see it, it used to be the case that you would go out to the clubs and see lots of live music and you would choose from there, whereas nowadays it seems like people are sitting in their home studios, maybe writing, and all of a sudden you sign them. Perhaps more songwriters than bands are being signed than 10 years ago.

What do you look for in an artist?

Commitment to their craft. Someone who understands that it will take a lot of work. We look according to our idea of what talent is.

The best thing is to have your artist educated in the music business, so that they can understand why you’re asking them to do certain promos, why you do certain marketing, why their record gets held up, why you tour at this particular moment or why you don’t tour at that particular moment. The more educated an artist is, the better it is for the management company.

A lot of old school management companies take the attitude that the artist doesn’t need to know anything, that's why they’re there. We don't look for that blind faith. It’s nice when an artist phones up and asks why he’s doing something. That’s great, they’re creative too, maybe they’ve had a good idea for it. The more they know about the music business the easier it is for us to get them to work harder.

What do you expect from your artist when you have decided to take them on? What can they expect from you?

It depends what stage they’re at. Some artists we've taken on and they’ve claimed that they’ve had a record ready to go, and we’ve said, "No, continue to write." Other artists have finished their record, been out touring for a year, and all of a sudden they have a difference of opinion and they change management company. They come over to us and say, "We want to go write a new record," and we say, "No, we’re going to tour with the old record."

It just depends, basically it’s just down to commitment, working hard either which way, and also being able to listen to us and to be able to see exactly what direction we want to go in. We’re very straightforward, and usually that eliminates the client from coming to you and then deciding not to go ahead with a plan. If we sit down with an artist for a meeting to see if they want us to manage them, then we say, "This is how we would see your career going, at this stage this is what we would do." So they’re either going to come back and say yes, or they’ll go and look for somebody else.

How did you come into contact with Sarah McLachlan and Barenaked Ladies, and what made you take them on?

I was mixing different bands in Canada at that particular time, and I got hired on to mix one of Terry's bands at Nettwerk the label, a band called The Grapes of Wrath. Then I worked for Terry on another one of his bands called Skinny Puppy. Later, Terry asked me to start working with Sarah. That was 11 years ago.

Terry was brilliant in his stuff, and so were Rick and Martin, his other two partners at the label. The music was great, and I really liked their approach to the business. They were responsible for their artists, financially and morally responsible to their artists, and I thought that was a real plus. I liked the way they worked. They were a very young, independent record company at that time, and they stuck through it. They managed to actually be successful when it is very difficult for even a major to be successful. I found it exciting that seven people could be cramped into a tiny, tiny office and actually make it work, and have talented artists: when I listened to The Grapes of Wrath and to Sarah McLachlan, I thought, "Wow! These people have talent."

Do you accept unsolicited material?

We do receive material from numerous different artists every week, obviously because we're a label as well. Usually when we get unsolicited material, it goes through the label’s A&R department, where it gets listened to as it comes in by junior people and A&Rs, who will then forward it to more senior people within the company.

How would you advise unsigned artists to approach the music business?

I think that they need to be educated, now more than ever they have to know the music business. You should take on a manager if you’ve got really good material, and you should understand the manager’s role and understand what the manager expects of you. The more educated an artist is about the music business the better, because that means that they’re going to have a longer career.

How involved with the repertoire and production are you?

Sometimes we get ourselves into trouble with the labels because we choose the producer, or we want another video director, or want to work radio hands on.

We have a staff of people who are basically pluggers, indie radio people that go out and get ads for our artists. When we plan a tour, whether it be clubs or stadiums, we do all the set designing in house, and all the ad managing for the tour; we do all the album artwork in house, all the advertising that's done for the records; so we work very differently to most management companies, labels, and promoters. It's a different way of going things, but we're very, very hands on, which is the best way to be.

Sarah does most of her ad managing - she'll help with John Robin and our art department; they sit down and they'll take her artwork and will develop it into an ad. She's very hands on with her artwork for her records, and very hands on with the industry trade in general.

We broke Dido in America recently, and it can be very challenging to break a female singer/songwriter, particularly as the record was dead eight months ago.

What are the pros and cons for Canadian artists, being so close to the US?

Some people think it's a plus, although I think there are many drawbacks. It's very tough to break a Canadian artist in America. You can look at Celine Dion, Shania Twain, Sarah McLachlan, Barenaked Ladies as examples but a Canadian artist is nevertheless very tough to market across the border. And also Canada sometimes eats its own.

I remember that with Barenaked Ladies we sold out a show in the US, so we went to the Canadian press and said that we’d sold out a show in Buffalo. And all that the Toronto press would say was that it was just the Canadians going to Buffalo, and the Americans said that is was just the Canadians coming down to Buffalo, that it’s just a border town.

In Toronto we can only sell 600 tickets, but in Buffalo we can sell 12,000. It can mean nothing in the US - you have to break further down south of the border than just a border town.

It's almost a kiss of death to be really hot. We played in Boston on the launch of their last record, where they were forced to shut down the city centre - it was supposed to be a small gig with the band, and 80,000 people showed up. The Canadian press actually said that the band was exaggerating these numbers! They didn't celebrate the fact that we actually shut down all of downtown Boston and had 80,000 people there, they tried to downsize it.

But also in Canada there're lots of plusses too. The Canadian government offer things like CanKong, there are factor grants, and video grants that you can get. Nettwerk as a label probably wouldn't exist if it wasn't for factor, videofact and Much Music. Much Music is highly influential, much more I think than MTV, and it's a great tool.

How important is the potential crossover factor to the US market, when signing a new artist?

The crossover factor to the US market is crucial. You can have three records that are all multi-platinum in Canada, and the next one stiffens and you don't have any money to live on. Because you have to sell 50,000 copies to a small demography, plus how expensive it is to tour, to make videos, in Canada you're competing against the M&Ms. It’s a 1.2 million dollar video versus your 30,000/40,000 Canadian dollar video. You're forced to spend more money on making videos, on touring, which inevitably takes away from marketing and just adds to your debts.

What has been the greatest moment of your music career?

When we finished Lilith Fair, which is a travelling festival in North America, and we realised that we had given so much money to charity. Lilith Fair had 11 artists performing each day. We rotated all of these artists on three different stages, and each summer there was anywhere between 150 and 180 artists featured. We donated $1 per ticket sold to the local charity, to women shelters and homes and different things like that. At the end of the four years that we ran it, we’d donated a lot of money.

For me that was probably the biggest moment, as well as watching Sarah win Grammies, that's huge! For people to see where our roots come from, and to watch her be so dignified and so honoured by the music community. I think those are the two big moments.

Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman

Read On ...

* Nettwerk CEO Terry McBride on why he wouldn't sign with a label
* Singer-songwriter Josh Rouse on his experiment on releasing music through management company Nettwerk