Interview with CHRIS SMITH, manager for Nelly Furtado, Tamia - May 21, 2007
"Demos are not a good way to meet people, because itís not that raw. I have people come in and sing for the entire office,"
...says Chris Smith, who has his own vision of developing artists from all aspects.
Smith, manager for Nelly Furtado (No.1 US) and Tamia (Top 20 US), also has his own in-house labels for urban and reggae music.
Smith talks to HitQuarters about how difficult it is to predict success, about how difficult it is to take risks without job security in the industry, and about the short attention span of today's consumer.
How did you become one of Canadaís platinum managers?
I surrounded myself with talented people and helped them out. I went to college for marketing. Each part of this business is marketing. I supply my marketing skills to a music direction.
What is the make up of Chris Smith Management?
CSM is a full service artist management firm founded in 1990. Blacksmith Entertainment is a record company within Universal. We had success with Divine Brown going gold up here on the label.
Fiwi Music/Jamaica Records is our record company in Jamaica that has been there as long as CSM. We shoot vinyl globally with not just our own artists but anyone else that we see fit to record a track with.
Itís a sort of a single-based reggae music label with global distribution.
Tropic Electric Records is a venture with Universal Canada. Itís meant to be a fusion of tropical sounds and electronica. I put out a couple of pieces.
Itís just a little hobby of mine. When Iím in the mood, I put something out on that for the dancefloor.
Finally, thereís Blacksmith Music Studios, located in Toronto.
Whatís the advantage of having offices in New York, Jamaica and Toronto?
The advantage is that when I go to New York Iím sitting there with my laptop. Iím everywhere. Business is global. I have to be able to meet and have people be able to meet my local people.
Having people in Jamaica, London, New York, Toronto, itís just a part of being in a global business.
How do Canadian urban artists compete with the Americans, who are dominating the airwaves and retail?
Canadian urban artists are still sort of finding their own identity. Theyíre having a hard time. When theyíre unique they seem to cut through.
That means using what is Canadian and all the blend of different cultures to create their own sound. But when they try to sound like Americans, itíll never work and it has never worked.
Canadians are now starting to have more confidence in their own voice. The Canadian voice, meaning weíre a melting pot of different cultures.
For us here, thereís no Canadian urban dialect. Weíre sort of creating our own with a strong Caribbean influence, the American influence, and the pure Canadian influence.
Thatíll become the Canadian urban sound that hopefully soon will be adopted by the rest of the world.
What artists are you currently working with?
In my company I have day-to-day managers, and I oversee everyone. I oversee the A&Ring and the making of the records.
Weíre doing a Fefe Dobson record, a KreeSha Turner record, a Jon Levine record, Courtney Johnís record, Al-Beeno record.
Iím in there with the artists understanding where they are musically and my staff handles the day-to-day scheduling of different things.
Weíre constantly making records. Records that weíre making this year will be ready for next year, and last yearís will be ready now. Thereís a constant flow.
Why donít other labels take artists the way you do?
Theyíre not as smart. Theyíre in a short-term chart business. And when youíre playing that game of ĎI need to keep my job this weekí you have no time for artist development.
As a manager you expect to be in business for your client forever. Youíre a little more patient and youíre open for artists that are not necessarily about Ďwhatís on the chart this weekí.
If you work for a record company you canít take that chance. You need to put the numbers on the board now. Itís really about instant fixtures for the market share.
Whereas, Iím a lifer. Iím in this forever. I can build and be patient with artists that are not making a dollar this year but they will make 100 dollars next year and up to a million dollars in three years.
I have that patience because Iím building a company. But the industry is not structured for that with the declining sales and everything.
Why did you think it was time to take greater responsibility and get more directly connected to the creation of the entire product?
No one wanted to sign Divine Brown. Everyone passed on her. I wanted to prove that we could take a heavy set black woman that has got an incredible soul voice to the top of the charts.
I was like, hey, it can be done here. Iíll do it if I get the opportunity. I did it just to show that Canada sells a lot of black music. You just have to make the right black music.
How do you create the right team around an artist?
We do artist development now for three years. Sometimes you surround them with the wrong musical team and itís not in line with the artistís attitude.
The artistís attitude and emotional state of mind is important when youíre trying to market a record. It needs to be consistent.
You hit and miss. But you listen and you live with music. I live with the music for two or three months before I start a project with an artist. Just so that we have the right producer to start the project with.
Just knowing everyone and knowing what the artist overall objective is and what they can bare as an individual. Then you build a team around that.
Their attitude, meaning their persona, their ambition. You have to understand that, and then you go into your database of people that you know and build the team around them.
What are the reasons for failure?
99% of everything fails in the music business. The fact that weíve had five or six platinum acts in Canada, weíve been hitting.
The reason for failure from my end is just sometimes I made the wrong decision for singles. Sometimes the artist makes the wrong decisions. At different times weíre all making the wrong decisions.
More often then not, itís the impatience of the record company. At any given time, all three parties believe that you have a hit.
And for it not to work is because people that are actually doing the final work for the record company side of it just donít have the patience. The radio, they donít have patience right now.
There are so many uncontrollable variables these days that it makes it impossible for us to predict success. At any given time, weíre all responsible.
Because we made the wrong moves. I signed them to the wrong record companies. I supported the wrong hit.
Whatís the difference between managing artists and producers?
Producers arenít responsible for the song after theyíre finished with it. They hand it off and someone else will run with it. Hopefully itís successful.
Theyíre only working for that week. Theyíre working on the song. And then someone else will do all the work. Whereas with managing artists, youíre there for life.
How do you convince an artist to take you on as a manager?
They convince me to take them on as a client. If I had to convince them, itís really hard. I try to have the clients that want to work with me. They tell me why they want to work with me. I either agree or disagree.
Whatís usually discussed in the first meetings with a new artist?
A new artist will sit there and explain to me what their dreams are. Where they want to go. I listen in the first meeting and take mental notes.
On the second meeting, I challenge some of the things that they mentioned in the first meeting. I tell them about the things that my company is good at, and leave them with those thoughts.
By the third meeting we sort of challenge each other, whether Iím ready to work with them as in their hopes and dreams. Or they understand our methodology and are ready to hand their hopes and dreams over to us.
Do you devise strategies for your artists in terms of what they should develop and how they can strengthen their brand name?
Everything is about branding. Itís your name or song or whatever, and itís a question of lining all your messages so that your brand is consistent in the marketplace.
And make it simple for the consumer. The consumer right now is very fickle. And they all have Attention Deficit Disorder. You have to get their attention.
You only have a short window. When you do get an opportunity to have an audience with the consumer, you better have your points and everything in line. Because theyíll move on real quick.
Why donít you accept unsolicited material?
We try to mail all that back. For us Itís just friends and word-of-mouth. Sometimes people say, hey, can you please listen to this person. I have them come in and sing for me.
Demos are not a good way to meet people, because itís not that raw. I have people come in and sing for the entire office. Thatís how we judge. Once they leave, then everyone gets to say and have an opinion on the artist.
How should unsigned acts present their material nowadays?
Unsigned acts need to go to clubs and work their material. You can mail something in, but these days you have to take the step yourself.
You have to meet people halfway, because weíre all out there very busy.
You perform everywhere and anywhere. You put money together to make an independent video. Get part-time jobs to hussle to do all that. Get in that car and drive around playing bar after bar.
What advice would you give unsigned artists on how to build a professional career?
Understand the meaning of professionalism first. And just keep doing it. Go at it, donít give up.
Are you offering your artists artist-friendly deals?
My management contracts are one page. If thereís anything in there thatís not fair or that they donít understand, I take it out.
If I have to say Ďdonít worry about it, move oní then thatís not a good point and I donít really want to be a part of it. Both parties should understand, accept and agree every single point.
How do you view the current music business climate?
Itís very boring and generic. Thereís a lack of creative freedom. Itís all in a box to maintain this weekís ratings. Itís unfortunate. No one is taking chances.
How can people take chances again?
If someone knew theyíre going to still have a job in five years, they will take chances. In the old days, an A&R man was best friends with the President. Then they knew they were a team forever. So they would take chances.
These days, you just hire a number and you donít even get to meet the Chairman of the company. Why would you take any chances?
Why would you be that guy developing an act down the hall when everyone else is putting out points on the board? Itís not a smart move for corporate ladder climbing.
In the old days, you didnít have that. They could just be creative and as free as they want to bring in new and cutting-edge artists.
These days, you better get something that sounds just like the thing the DJs are playing this week or you will not have a shot.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would change 90% of the people that are working in it right now. Probably 95%. And keep all the music lovers. And build with them.
And let them go out and hire their friends and people that would be loyal to them. So that thereís job security. Thatís allowing them to take more chances, because once thereís job security you can take chances.
What would you like to sign next?
I would like to sign the next thing that brings a tear to my eye.
What kinds of artists would you like too see gain more popularity?
Iíd like to see more reggae artists on top of the charts. Reggae has contributed a lot to this global music scene. But the infrastructure has never been that good to keep a consistent supply of great reggae music out there.
Thereís a lot of talent in Jamaica, just no infrastructure to support it. But weíre working hard.
If you wish to publish this article, or parts of it, you are welcome to do so after having received an approval from us. Requirements are statement of origin and link to HitQuarters. To get an approval, please contact us.
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman