Interview with ARI MARTIN, manager for Sum 41 - Nov 5, 2007
“It's labels that have been making the financial investment in new artists. If that goes away it will hurt everyone,”
... so observes Ari Martin, manager for Sum 41 (Top 10 US), and Brand New (Top 40 US), but not without commenting further on the huge potential the current industry climate offers.
Martin made a U-turn from studying law to music management out of a desire for hands-on work in the industry.
He talks to HitQuarters about the extended roles managers take these days, the importance of artists having a clear vision integrating music and image, and balancing gradual development with high-profile marketing.
How did you start out in the music business?
Originally my plan was to be a music attorney, but by the time I finished law school I realised that I was much more interested in the hands-on creative aspects of the business.
So, upon passing the bar, instead of moving onto a law career I ended up with an entry level position at Epic Records.
What has changed over the years about managing artists?
With labels undergoing so much upheaval, it's become even more important for managers to supply many of the traditional label services.
This can include anything from A&R and art direction to marketing and radio promotion.
What artists are you currently working with?
At the moment it’s Sum 41, Brand New, Toby Lightman.
What do you think is important for an artist in this kind of genre?
For an artist in any genre, the most important trait to look for is a secure vision of who they are. This doesn't mean that a new artist needs to have all the answers. But they should have a strong sense of their music, their audience, and their image.
It's a manager's job to help shape that vision and to formulate a way to translate that vision to the listener, but it all needs to emanate from the artist.
How do you choose your projects?
I look for things that inspire me musically. From there, I need to see a clear path on how to market them. That's not to say it needs to be easy.
The best careers require a lot of work and a lot of time. But the path to get there should be fairly easy to conceptualise right off the bat.
When did you start working with Sum 41?
Back in 2001 we used to manage a Canadian band called Treble
Charger. The lead singer, Greig Nori, met the Sum 41 guys in Toronto and helped them record an EP, and brought Nettwerk in to manage them.
How does that specific market work for what is essentially a punk band?
First I should point out that Sum 41 does not consider itself a punk rock band. They are greatly influenced by punk rock, but that's in addition to metal, new wave, classic rock, etc.
It's important to mention that because there are a lot of people who get very worked up about what is and isn't ‘punk’. But in general, marketing for punk rock is a lot like any other ‘lifestyle’ music. To really flourish in the genre, a band has to be a credible part of the scene.
The key to that kind of acceptance will always revolve around touring. That means playing shows like the Warped Tour and packaging with similar bands. And of course the music has to be credible to the hard core fans, press, and online community.
How to balance PR with keeping 'street credibility', which is often important for punk?
My view is that almost any kind of exposure is Ok as long as the band or artist are being true to themselves.
For example, I don't think it violates anybody's ‘cred’ to appear on TV, as long as the artist is performing their material their own way
without compromising their music or image.
I think the trouble starts when a band does something promotional that's out of character.
Beyond that, there are punk bands that eventually move their music in a more slick or pop direction and that usually means they're making a conscious decision to possibly lose some early fans by embracing the mainstream.
Do you work with street teams? If so, how does this benefit the band?
Yes, any band that appeals to a young audience in particular can benefit from street teams. Ideally, the street team is helping to spread the word and expand the fan-base through online and offline grass roots marketing.
Also, the street team keeps the fans engaged with the artist throughout the album cycle and beyond.
What would you like to sign next?
I'm open to virtually any kind of artist. But an artist that has some sort of self-sustaining base to build on is the most appealing.
What's usually discussed in the first meetings with a new artist?
Normally it's an overall strategy for their career, along with how to address the immediate concerns of whatever stage they're in.
Every artist is different. They might walk in having to start completely from scratch. Others might be fairly far along in their touring career, but need a producer, or a way to get their music online, or help with mail order, merchandise, etc.
If they haven't toured much, we'd help them get an agent, crew, musicians, whatever's necessary.
What input do you have on the productions?
That depends entirely on the artist. In most cases I'm hearing the material at each stage of the process.
Offering input is always tricky. Every artist has a different threshold for constructive criticism, so you have to be tactful and timing is everything.
When did you team up with Peter Zizzo?
Peter is an old friend. When I met Toby and heard that she needed a producer, I thought they'd make a good team.
Was the aggressive marketing strategy approach for Toby Lightman a risk you could take?
I'm a big fan of the slow and steady approach. However, some artists do require the big major label push out of the box.
Toby is essentially a hot AC/pop act, as opposed to a grass roots or press-driven artist who is eventually worked to radio after a long period of development.
Front-loading a project is always a risk, but sometimes waiting for things to happen organically and never going full on when you had the chance can be a risk as well. There's no one-size-fits-all campaign.
How do you convince the gate-keepers at the video channels and press nowadays?
Everyone wants a convincing story that's going to persuade them to give you that slot. Video, radio, press, and retail are all looking to each other and elsewhere for indicators.
You've just got to build your case with whatever you've got, whether it's online activity, ticket sales, an international story...etc.
Is Tom Gates your only partner in your team?
Yes, currently Tom is the only other manager I work with. He's the one who told me about Brand New. It's very important to have someone on board who hears about great bands at the early stages!
Do you look for outside songs for your artists?
No, but I’m always looking for good co-writers and writers/producers.
How do you find new talent?
It varies, but it's usually through a trusted recommendation, either from an attorney, a label, publisher, promoter, even another artist.
How should unsigned acts present their material nowadays?
A link to a website, MySpace or PureVolume page is probably the best way. That gives a music industry person pretty much all they need to pique their interest.
What advice would you give unsigned artists on how to build a professional career?
Do as much as you can on your own. Play local shows, have an online presence, build an email list.
Try and make contact with other artists in your genre. If you can create a small scene with like-minded artists, it's easier for fans and industry people to discover you.
What's your view on artist development?
Mainly that there's no one way to do it. Ideally you'll build a career in stages, but some artists arrive fully formed and ready for an aggressive radio and video campaign.
But even when you're developing an artist gradually, it's such a competitive marketplace that you have to try for any exposure you can get, as long as it's in line with the artist's image and integrity.
Are you looking at different platforms to expose your artists?
That's a must. No one wants to depend solely on radio if they can help it.
We concentrate on mobile platforms, online, licensing, sponsorships, and corporate tie-ins of every sort. Obviously the right TV placement can have a huge impact.
How do you view the current music business climate?
As most anyone will tell you, it's frustrating. Music itself is very healthy. More people are consuming more music in more ways than ever. But the industry can't seem to agree on a way to monetise it.
Currently it's hitting the labels the hardest. But that will soon trickle down to the rest of the industry because historically it's labels that have been making the financial investment in new artists. If that goes away it will hurt everyone.
What kinds of artists would you like too see gain more popularity?
Well, I'm a fan of the ‘70s singer/songwriters. Back then artists like Rufus Wainwright or Amos Lee would be having big hits. I'd like to see an era like that again.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
Again, we have to figure out how to make money in the digital world rather than fighting it.
Other than that, I'd create more mainstream outlets for a wider variety of new music. There's a lot of great music most people never hear unless they're really searching.
How significant are events like The Concert Industry Consortium?
It's a cliché, but it's a business of relationships. Meeting people that you may only know by phone can really help you do your job. And a really good event like CIC always has informative panels.
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