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Interview with JORDAN KURLAND, manager at Zeitgeist for Death Cab For Cutie (US Top 5) - Oct 26, 2005

ďWe were able to negotiate a lot of creative freedom because they had had so much success before doing the major deal,Ē

picture Ö says Jordan Kurland about Death Cab For Cutie, whose latest album ďPlansĒ entered at No.4 on the US Album Chart. He manages them and runs his own company, Zeitgeist Artist Management, out of San Francisco, USA

Read about what managers and artists discuss in the initial phase, how Jordan finds new artists and Zeitgeistís involvement in music festivals.

How did you first come across Death Cab For Cutie?

I met them in 1998 when their first record ĎSomething About Airplanesí came out on the indie label Barsuk. I was at the North By Northwest Music Conference and I went to go try and see them play. I heard very good things about them. I missed the show, but I bought a CD. I ended up touring with one of my clients, the band Crumb, two months later. I became friends with them through that.

How did they manage to bring out their debut in 1998 on Barsuk Records?

They were all friends from college. Josh Rosenfeld, who they knew, started his indie label Barsuk Records. Barsuk has done a fantastic job of nurturing the band and building their huge indie fanbase over the past years.

How did the deal with Atlantic Records in the fall of 2004 come about?

Atlantic came to us. They had been selling so many records at that point. The band had never showcased for anyone. They released records and toured and did their own thing.

They had been contacted off and on for years by major labels. And after ĎTransatlantacismí had been out for a while and was doing really well, we started talking to labels. After talking to pretty much all of them, we were all excited by what Atlantic had to offer.

Death Cab For Cutie has joined Atlantic Records via a long-term, worldwide deal. Their recordings will be released by Atlantic and distributed domestically via WEA and outside the U.S. via Warner Music International. Future albums will be released on vinyl domestically by Barsuk.

Did the switch to a major label result in any artistic compromises?

We were able to negotiate a lot of creative freedom because they had had so much success before doing the deal.

They were wary of leaving the comfortable situation they've had at Barsuk. But since Josh and the rest of Barsuk have been close friends with them, and have matched them hour-for-hour working for the success of the band, they would never have made a move without their blessing.

They continued to do exactly what they already did, but with more resources to make the records that they've always wanted to make. Atlantic's willingness to support the way they do things in terms of marketing and creativity has been exciting for them. The transition has been a seamless one.

Have you had any significant input in terms of how the band has developed?

Iíve worked with them since 2003. I love their music. And I like them a lot as people. I didnít change anything. I just worked on their behalf and worked with them to strategise and figure out the best things to do.

What works with them is that theyíre all very smart about their careers. They got to a place where it was becoming very overwhelming. They needed someone to help out.

The challenge was how to let the band grow. It was by letting them continue doing what they were doing, and allowing them the comfort to make the right decisions and continue to build their career without compromising.

How do you normally communicate with the band?

We go over all aspects of their career. It could be anything from routing a tour to which interview they should be doing. And ideas about their live shows.

I spend a little bit of time with them in the studio. Theyíre very self-contained when it comes to recording. They pick the material themselves. It can be different for each client, but usually if they record fourteen songs and need to figure out which twelve to pick or what order the songs should be in then I offer feedback.

I always look at it like itís their career and their legacy, and Iím there to help guide them. Ultimately, theyíve got to make the record that they want to make.

My feedback can range from how a song is recorded to what sequence the record should be in. Or which songs should make it on the record. Or I might suggest that a song theyíre thinking about leaving off the record should be on it.

Iím not a producer. If they play me something I give my opinion on it, but by no means do I pretend that Iím adding production value. I give my opinion based on where theyíre coming from and what I think they need to be doing.

Who is the producer?

Chris Walla produced all of their records and is also in the band. He has built a solid reputation as an innovative producer and engineer, having recorded albums by other acclaimed independent artists including the Decemberists, Hot Hot Heat, and Nada Surf, among others.

What happened with The O.C. TV show and its character Seth Cohen (Adam Brody) last spring? How did they come to be asked to appear in that show?

Adam Brody who plays Seth on the show is a huge Death Cab For Cutie fan. He turned to Josh Schwartz, the creator and executive producer of the show, and he ended up writing them into the script. The characters Seth and Summer were arguing in a car about a Death Cab song.

The O.C. TV show has become an influential outlet for underground rock, which is very uncommon for network TV. It just hit at the right moment. The way that O.C. has incorporated music into the show has been very smart. It worked. A lot of the times itís presented differently. People now look at that TV show as a way to find out about great new music.

What was the most important factor in their break?

With that much of exposure - whether itís the press or the O.C. TV show playing your song every week - if people donít respond to it, then itís not going to make a difference.

At the end of the day itís got to be about the music. And with ĎTransatlanticismí they made a very beautiful record which appealed to a lot more people than anything else they had released.

What are their future plans?

Theyíre touring this fall. Theyíre going to do an international tour early next year in Europe, Japan and Australia. Another U.S. tour in the spring.

Your entrťe into the world of artist management was through music journalism. How did the shift towards management come about?

When I graduated from college, I got a job working for a management company in San Francisco. I continued doing free-lance writing on the side. Then I diverted more of my attention to management. It worked out that I had a little bit of success. As a result of that I didnít have time to deal with writing the way that I wanted to.

I like the ability to choose who I work with and what I work on. I like being on the frontline of everything. And serve as the business end of the creative entity.

Can you outline what your company Zeitgeist does?

Itís a management company founded by me at the end of 1998. At that point I only had someone working for me part-time. I was managing a band named Creeper Lagoon on Dreamworks Records, and a band called Beulah on Capricorn Records, and Matt Nathanson who I went to college with and still work with.

Itís a company comprised of a small dedicated staff that lives, breathes and believes in music. The goal is to do the best job we can for our artists. Each relationship with one of our clients is different. They have different needs and aspirations.

We take a thoughtful, grassroots approach to career development in the hope that our clients will be able to continue creating music for a very long time. The artists that we feel can have that are the ones weíre drawn to.

What are your activities?

Each day is a little different, which is one of the nicest things of artist management.

Itís a lot of time on the phone, a lot of time on email. I spend a lot of time talking to my clients, tour managers, record labels, business managers and booking agents.

Zeitgeist provides an array of consulting services ranging from talent scouting to political and environmental outreach. We work with both non-profit and for profit organizations. All consulting work revolves around what we know best Ė music.

Hari Berrier joined Zeitgeist in May of 2001. How did your co-operation with her start?

There are four of us that work here now. She started helping out as an intern for this indie music festival called Noise Pop. At that point I had one person working for me. It totally made sense to hire her. I had met her through the online music magazine SonicNet. But it was more because she had offered to volunteer and help out.

Is that right you become co-organiser of the Noise Pop festival?

Yes, Noise Pop Brand Music Festival is a San Francisco indie music festival thatís been running since 1993. Iím friends with the founder, Kevin Arnold. In 1997 I offered to help keep track of the logistical nightmare, and since then Iíve co-produced the event.

It features the best national and local bands to be found in the modern music world. Itís the longest standing independent music festival in the nation.

What artists do you currently work with?

Apart from Death Cab For Cutie, there is Matt Nathanson, The Postal Service, Smoosh, Jimmy Tamborello, The Velvet Teen. We recently started doing US representation for Feist on Interscope Records.

How do you actually find the artists?

Going out and buying records that I hear about or read about. The last couple of years we havenít been super-active about picking up new stuff. We get a lot of unsolicited material and itís hard to focus on it. It tends to be more of something through a friend of mine, or somebody who books clubs, or someone else who works in the business making a recommendation, or reading something about it.

We get anywhere from a couple to 15 or 20 demos a week. We try to listen to as much as we can. If someone whose taste I already know and trust sends us something then weíre going to listen to it a little bit faster.

Do you have any tips for aspiring artists looking for advice on how to approach the business?

The most important thing is to develop your live show and try to develop a fan base in your hometown. A lot of artists send out demos and hoping to get a record deal or go on and do a national tour when they donít even have fans at home.

Itís about building slowly and branching outwards. Not everybody lives in a place where there is a live music scene, but if Iím in a place close by and work there to develop a base, thatís when you start to take notice. And then branch out from there.

How ready-to-go must artists be before you take them seriously?

Itís generally if someone has some sort of fan base. But if I heard something that no one knew about and I thought it was amazing and I loved it and wanted to listen to it 24 hours a day, then I would want to meet with them and make sure that their personalities made sense, and that my ideas for them was in line what their ideas were.

What do you do to convince a band/artist to take you on as a manager?

Iíve been doing artist management fulltime since 1995. I try to be myself and answer questions. I tell them about what my company does and how I would approach their career. How I think we can help them.

Sometimes thereís one meeting or two meetings and sometimes it could take six months. An artist-manager relationship should be the most personal relationship that an artist has, because weíre really acting as their mouth, everywhere else and now.

What is discussed in the meetings?

It depends where the band is in their career. If theyíve sold a fair amount of records, itís a much different discussion than with a band that is just getting going. Itís about overall strategy. Sometimes they have a very good idea of what they want to do and how they want to develop. And sometimes itís about getting information from them and trying to develop that on our own and going back to them and talking it through.

Can you give an example of where it didnít work out with an artist or band?

Thatís happened a lot. Iíve certainly met with a few artists who didnít want to hire me, who thought someone else would do a better job. But you can be excited about a band and then meet them and realise their personalities are not going to be a good match, or they have different ideas about their career than we have. You have to be careful about it.

What do you think of the current music business climate?

The current music business is still having a lot of problems. Where my heart is, which is in indie rock and independent bands, things are going great. But itís adjusting like anything else. Itís figuring out how to make it work with the Internet. Ringtones and the additional outlets will help to bring more revenue. I donít think itís ever going to be doing as well as it was doing twelve, thirteen years ago, but itíll see better days. Itís already more on its way to seeing better days than it has been over the last years.

To me itís been exciting to see a lot of bands, whether theyíre Death Cab For Cutie or Modest Mouse, where youíve got very credible artists that are selling a lot of records.

What has been the greatest moment of your music career so far?

One of the most fulfilling moments was when Death Cab For Cutie debuted at #4 on the Billboard chart last month.

What do you see yourself doing in 5 to 10 years from now?

Thereís nothing in the music business that interests me as much as artist management. I feel fortunate that Iíve been able to start a company in San Francisco and work with bands that I care about and believe in.

Zeitgeist will keep growing. I donít have a design for a huge company. I like it being a little bit small. I would like to have more people managing stuff, because I like the idea of being able to work with more clients, and my time is limited.

Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman

Next week: Interview with Jim Chancellor, A&R at Fiction/Universal UK for Snow Patrol and Ian Brown