Interview - Sam Feldman, manager for Norah Jones, Diana Krall, Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell - Apr 2, 2007
“If you can’t create a live career for yourself, you’re in big trouble. A live performance is the strongest career builder there is”Sam Feldman was the breakthrough co-manager for Norah Jones (No.1 US) and Diana Krall (Top 10 US).
His company, S.L. Feldman & Associates (SLFA), is Canada's leading full-service entertainment agency, and handles legends such as Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, and Ry Cooder.
SLFA has grown from a 1971-founded booking agency into a diversified entertainment company with a solid international reputation in the fields of music, film and television.
Feldman talks to HitQuarters about his work in film and TV, the shift in the importance and work dynamic of record labels, and the emphasis that must be put on a live show in today's industry climate.
You experienced decades of music history from the rock ‘n’ roll era to present days. How come music is still your passion?
I guess it’s in my DNA. I loved music since I was a kid. My mother was a classical pianist. There was always music in the home. It just inspires me.
Even this morning, Johnny Mandel, an old friend of mine, sent me some outtakes of the very first Frank Sinatra session ever on Reprise. At 7am this morning I just put it on and I love it!
What was your vision back in the days when you founded A&F Music with Bruce Allen?
Our vision was to represent talent that we loved, but talent that could succeed on a worldwide basis. To build a company that could have the influence to impact those careers positively.
How could you represent hundreds of artists at that time?
We didn’t buy our way into the business. We really built it up slowly. It’s always fun to have young artists, managers or promoters come into the office and tell us about the trials and tribulations of promoting one show or doing something in the business.
They seem to think that you kind of started at the top, but the truth is I was out there with a staple gun putting up posters just like the next guy when I started.
I got one artist that I started to manage and then another and another. What we found was that as long as we were able to bring on board extremely competent staff, in many cases maybe more competent than us, you’re able to expand your horizons.
And by doing so you create a sphere of influence that positively impacts your clientele.
You’re the man responsible for the establishment and growth of the Canadian music industry. How would you explain its success and international explosion?
If anyone could take credit, my partner Bruce Allen was there when Bachman Turner Overdrive broke a lot of walls down.
But if you look back in time, there has always been an inordinate amount of Canadian talent breaking through and influencing the world from as far back as from Oscar Peterson to Gordon Lightfoot to Neil Young to Joni Mitchell.
It’s hard to say why, but there is something about living in the north and something about living in the shadow of America that creates a real passion to create and expand your artistic horizons.
When you look at the population based in Canada versus America, it’s absolutely staggering to witness the percentage of Canadian success stories and records and concert tickets sold.
It extends into the film and television world with the number of comedy writers and actors and so on.
Canada is a very creative community. The west part of the country to some extent is even more so, because we don’t have the population based on an inherited star system here.
So you always look south, east. You have to get out of this territory, whereas if you live in Ontario with a very large population, you can have a mini star system there.
In some ways it can cloud your vision a little bit. You get a little bit too introspective as opposed to looking outside of the country for worldwide success.
Why did you expand in this full-service entertainment agency?
All the value and services that we can offer our clientele, if it’s creatively appropriate, is meant to enhance their careers.
One of the first things we did was to go into the theatrical business. And the hope is that from time to time some musicians who are capable can break into the acting world.
This is not the lynchpin or the main ingredient to our business, but it’s a value and a component, as I felt that film and music were in some sense merging.
The next thing we did was to open up a music supervision department for film and television.
A lot of artists who are perhaps too creative to follow into the mainstream of what works in that ever tightening pipeline of airplay, have an outlet for their music and the impact of a strong musical piece against a wonderful dramatic visual.
It can be really powerful, and it can really grow an artist career without having to spend a year making a record and then hope that the radio stations are going to play it.
How did you get music placed into film?
Some years ago, I was asked to musically supervise a fairly forgettable film called Iron Eagle 2, and I started to place the right kind of music on the right kind of visual.
I loved the creative process and loved the fact that I was able to do this, and then give some artist an opportunity.
At that point we thought we should open up a division of the company that focused on this exclusively, and we’ve done so.
It carries on to this day with offices in Toronto and Vancouver. We place hundreds and hundreds of songs in television and motion pictures.
How do you convince an artist to take you on as a manager?
They all have different agendas. What we have is a very direct approach. We tell them exactly where we think their career is and where we think they can go, so that their expectations and our abilities are somewhat in line.
We don’t make promises we can’t keep. Our track record speaks for itself. A lot of artists really like the comfort of a strong long career and good reputation.
And also I’d be associating them with the other clients on our roster. We represented Joni Mitchell for many years. As well as Diana Krall, Elvis Costello, Ry Cooder and Norah Jones.
These are all very credible artists. And when other artists see this roster of talent they want to be associated. It speaks volumes.
What artists are you currently working with?
On a management level it’s Steve Macklam, but I also work hand in hand with Norah Jones, Diana Krall, Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell, The Chieftains, Ry Cooder, Jesse Cook, Sondre Lerche.
This week, we started to consult for James Taylor. We’re helping him out during a transition period.
What is your musical direction in regards of who you take on?
It has a lot to do with the personality and character of the clients, and whether we believe they’re true artists. And we obviously have to enjoy the music.
How’s the new wave of homegrown talent?
It’s pretty good. We set up a division of the company called Watchdog specifically to develop contemporary new talents. It’s doing very well.
We have a new act called Pride Tiger who has an album coming out on EMI. Another artist called A Fine Frenzy who’s coming out on Virgin.
John McClaughlin who’s out on Island/Def Jam. We’ve always got our mind on developing talent as well as looking after our established clientele.
Do publishing companies present you with material?
From time to time, but most of our artists write their own material or work from the Great American Songbook. But we receive a lot of new and old songs and suggestions for our clients.
How do you work with your artists?
First and foremost, we take care of all their business needs and provide an environment where their creativity can really flow. So they’re not encumbered by business or logistic issues that kind of get in the way.
We are at the centre of the wheel. We will deal with their agent, publicist, lawyer, business manager, record company, and negotiate all those deals for them. And we make sure that they get the best possible deal in whatever arena it is.
Creatively we don’t crowd them. If we’re asked for our suggestions we’re happy to give them what we think. It’s always a counterbalance between ‘Here’s what we think works creatively’ and ‘Here’s what works in the marketplace’.
We don’t enforce that, but we feel it’s our obligation to say that if they’re doing something that is diametrically opposed to what could succeed marketwise, we’ll say:
‘Okay, if you want to take that particular direction, that’s fine. But you should be aware of the following potential risks if you want to do that.’
But whatever they do creatively, ultimately we support them 100%. Creative instinct is very powerful.
What’s usually discussed in the first meetings with a new artist?
We want to know how we’re going to deal with them. Laying out their vision for the future. What is their 1, 2, 3, 5 year plan? Where do they want to be? How do they want to get there?
Plus an explanation of all the deals that they’re about to get into or are in already. And then some suggestions of how we can make things improve.
Do you devise strategies for your artists in terms of what they should develop and how they can strengthen their brand name?
Yes, and every artist is different in that regard. There are some artists that may choose to utilize a corporate vehicle to grow their career, and some artists don’t feel they want to get anywhere close to any corporate association.
What is the time schedule to show some success for a new artist?
The old days of artists signing record deals where they had to put a record out every year no matter what, those days are long gone. You have to work around the artist’s rhythms and terms of what they create.
Who would you like to sign next?
What input do you have on the productions?
We facilitate, make suggestions as to who might be a good producer and a good studio. From time to time, what musicians can be involved if it’s not a band situation. Discuss repertoire.
How do you find new talent?
Because we’re in the agency business as well, we really have for all kinds of purposes 16 A&R guys out on the street looking for talent to work as an agent.
A lot of the times we may hear that a certain talent is absolutely special and we’ll find out if they need help in the management arena. If they have a manager, that’s fine, we’re happy to work with the manager.
We are fortunate enough that our reputation and our roster attract a lot of talent. We are probably getting 12 submissions every week for artists that want to be managed, from top level artists to brand new ones.
We review them and figure out whether we would have time to do the job, and make our decision.
How should unsigned acts present their material nowadays?
You got to have at least 4 songs on a CD, a picture, a brief synopsis, and a live showcase. Because these days, if you can’t create a live career for yourself you are going to be in big trouble.
What advice would you give unsigned artists on how to build a career?
First and foremost, that they have to recognize that they’re not just competing in their own backyard or their own country. They’re competing on a worldwide basis.
And that for professionals like myself in our company, when we review something it can’t be just good or okay, it’s got to be phenomenal, different, have impact. They got to be really objective about their own level of talent in any given time.
I suggest that they really understand the business side of the music business.
That doesn’t mean they have to clock their mind and get away from their creative endeavors, but it’s really important to understand what they’re getting into, because you can waste a lot of time associating with the wrong people.
Most importantly, they must have a live show that can convince and sell. Then they have to start promoting themselves. Letting people know about where they’re performing, so they start to draw and draw and build an audience.
Once there is momentum and there is an audience building, that’s when professionals, record labels and publishers want to get on board.
Who are the most valuable people within your network?
Influential record label executives, even though that’s starting to wane. Record companies are less important than it was three years ago.
But good promoters are important. Good publicists are extremely important right now. Apart from the business side of it like lawyers and business managers, I think that’s what you need.
How do you view the current music business climate?
Really bizarre, different, crazy like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s going through a total ground shift. Record labels are obviously in big trouble. People aren’t buying CDs. They’re just not buying music. Digital sales are starting to level a little bit.
People are kind of panicking. The worst part of all that is that it’s a lot harder to build a career when people are downloading or even buying one or two songs as opposed to a whole record, to really embrace what an artist is trying to put across creatively.
That makes it very tough. We’re fortunate to be involved with artists that are more album-oriented.
On the other hand, more and more talent is getting exposed. They’re getting the right kind of exposure just to get themselves started up. Radio stations have shrunk their pipeline so far that they only play very few records.
Record companies spending a ton of money signing new artists and knowing that only a very few of them are going to get airplay. Nobody is paying any attention to the development of new talent.
When I look at the Internet, like YouTube and all these ways of getting music exposed, in that way it’s kind of better. My son hears about a lot of music. He sure doesn’t hear about it on the radio.
So from that sense it’s good. On the aspect of creators losing income and record companies losing the income if they ever dreamt about developing talent, that’s the downside.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
In general, the whole notion that in the past a record label would raise hopes, invest money and then do nothing to market that product is probably very frustrating.
But I hate to generalize. I have a lot of friends at record companies. There are a lot of passionate people there.
Does it affect managers when major label A&Rs spend less and less time developing artists?
Yes. If you’re going to sign something then you have to commit to it. If you can’t commit to it, don’t sign it.
Which new avenues of exposure will you seek for your agency’s roster of musicians?
We will utilize every avenue of exposure that makes sense. We attack aggressively on all digital avenues. And we focus more and more on the audio-visual aspect of the business.
DVD and television become dominant as we veer away from radio. And we always focus on a live performance. We think that’s the strongest career builder there is.
Over the years you have contributed your time and fund-raising abilities to a wide variety of local, national and international charity causes and campaigns. Any new plans coming up?
Diana Krall has a benefit every two years for multiple myeloma. And this is our main focus. That’ll be coming up next year. Last year we had Elton John, Tony Bennett, Bill Clinton, Elvis Costello and Diana Krall. We raised a significant amount of money.
Other than that it’s like crisis by crisis. We got very involved with raising a lot of money when the Tsunami and Katrina happened. And then there are local benefits.
There are probably five requests every week for some benefit. Unfortunately, you can’t get involved with all of them, but you do your best.
We try to do as much as we can for Bill Clinton’s Global Initiative. I think it’s a very positive thing he’s doing there. Whenever he asks we do our best to supply talents and help him.
You were born in Shanghai, China in 1949. Is there anything that will lead you back to China one day with regards to your roots and music expertise?
China is opening up. It’s going to be a very viable market. When I started in the business, 60% of the revenues used to come from North America and 40% from outside of North America.
It’s the exact opposite now. The world is really opening up to western culture. I see China as a really viable market there.
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Next week: Interview with Axel Wirtz, A&R for Nevio (Top 10 Germany), Paul van Dyk (Top 20 Germany)