Interview with BEN DICKEY, manager for Spoon - Oct 20, 2008
"Working with new artists who are only starting out on the management side usually doesn't pay off"
Ben Dickey, who manages Top 10 US indie act Spoon, must have good instincts for success, since he states that all the bands he works with are bands he was a fan of.
Running an indie management and booking agency as well as record label, Dickey makes sure his roster is diverse enough so that there is always a single act that is suitable for a specific opportunity to grow, as opposed to having two similar acts competing for that same opportunity.
Dickey talks to HitQuarters about why indie labels are more important nowadays, and about switching labels or PR agencies in order to cater for an act's evolving needs.
What were your first steps into artist management?
I started out as a tour manager. I did that for about seven years and that naturally evolved into management. IĎve also ran a tour booking agency simultaneously with being a tour manager. Very early on I had a small indie label.
The tour management was the real entrťe way, but management incorporates just about everything. All the various shots Iíve had contribute to it.
I was an artist myself, briefly. My interest has always been more on the business side of things. Other than the experience of having toured myself, being an artist has been an additional perspective Iíve had, but I wouldnít say I had a management-related experience through that.
What was your vision for Post-Parlo Records, founded in 1999?
At the time, like many one man indie labels, I felt like there is a lot of good music being made in and around Texas where I stayed at the time that wasnít being exposed as widely or as prominently as I felt it deserved. I ended up working with a couple of young bands and put out their first releases.
I interned at another small label in Austin, but I havenít really had any experience other than this kind of trial and error, more error than trial, and just figuring it out as I went along.
I didnít have any huge expectations for it other than just really learning what it is about, learning how to run my own business. There ended up being a lot of people I dealt with back then that I still work with now, just in different capacities as a manager.
Post-Parlo is still actively distributed. At this point weíre more of a singles label. Weíre just going to put out this split EP series called ĎHomeí. But we arenít actively signing new acts to the label.
You started a booking agency (The Falsetto Agency) around 2000 as an extension of the label. Falsetto merged with Ground Control Touring in 2003, and you became one of the three agents there. What was your vision for Constant Artists Management starting in 2003?
Constant Artists started in 2003 purely as a management company. I started managing Mates Of State and Crooked Fingers.
Back then it was kind of the same feeling that I had when I started Post-Parlo, which was hear these talented artists who should be bigger than they are, should have a bigger fanbase, should be touring to more people, should be promoted in a different way. There was a lot of potential there that wasnít being met.
I took Mates Of State and Crooked Fingers on as management clients and made some changes along the way. I really just got in there and figured out what their goals were and then tried to reach those.
Along the way Iíve been tour managing Nada Surf in 2003-2004, and Spoon from 2001-2006. I ended up co-managing Spoon for a while. Then I took over as their sole manager.
What different ways and changes did you have in mind in order to give your artists more exposure?
It depends solely on the artist. It can be everything, starting from changing label, because it was qualified up to a point after which they werenít experienced in selling significantly more records of anything.
When you start talking about going from selling 10,000 or 20,000 records to wanting to be selling 100,000 records, then itís a different skill thatís involved, a different amount of capital is involved. Some labels just arenít adjustable in that respect.
Then it can be about changing booking agents, if the artist hasnít been happy with their work or if another agentís roster is more appropriate for them as far as touring partners go.
With Mates Of State, it wasnít about a change per se, no one was doing anything wrong, but we really tried to put an emphasis on helping fans get to know Jason Hammel and Kori Gardner from the band.
More personally, but also just take them out of the box theyíve been in, which was a cute indie pop couple. And really focus more on the two of them as more cultural icons.
What avenues did you explore for that to happen?
From the PR standpoint, we changed publicity companies. The publicist that works with the band now has put a real emphasis on getting more fashion pieces, more photo-based features. Really delving more into their craft, but also them as individuals.
A lot of it is an emphasis on the PR world as opposed to just sending out the album and letting people write as they see fit.
In April 2007, you left Ground Control Touring, moved to Los Angeles and brought your booking roster into Constant Artists, which now functions as an artist management and booking company. Why did you move to Los Angeles?
I needed a change of scenery. But I also felt that in order to staff up the office the way I wanted to it was getting harder and harder to find qualified employees in Chappell Hill, Texas, where I was. LA just has a deeper talent base.
Provided that management is the end goal and long-term framework for you, how big can your roster be?
I donít particularly want it to be a whole lot bigger than it is now, and I donít think Iíll ever want it bigger. I like the size of our office right now. We have a good staff of seven people. And thatís comfortable for getting everything we need done and creating the ideas that I want to be creating on the management side.
I donít ever want to be overworked or feel like weíve taken on too much and weíre not giving any client the full due that theyíre owed.
What artists are you currently working with?
On the management side: Spoon, Mates Of State, Explosions In The Sky, Crooked Fingers, Diplo, Okkervil River, Clogs, Two Gallants.
On the booking side: Explosions In The Sky, Okkervil River, I Love You But Iíve Chosen Darkness, Sarah Jaffe, The Paper Chase, Black Joe Lewis & The Honey Bears, Eluvium.
Any specific genre you focus on?
No. My goal, looking at the big picture at both companies, is that I really want to have the most exciting and the best quality artists in every genre across the board.
I like having someone like Spoon, which is an offbeat rock act that strains a little bit more towards the middle or the mainstream than others.
Then I also like having Explosions In The Sky, who are an instrumental rock band that are more akin to film scores and doing compositions.
I like having a diverse roster so that when opportunities come up, weíre not put in a position where weíre having to choose between our own clients as far as who we put up.
How do you choose your projects?
The musical style is one of the parameters. I donít think I would pick up another two-piece pop band, for example. It would just be too similar to Mates Of State.
Most of it has to be an interesting challenge for me. Either the artists themselves, or me needing to have very specific goals about where they want to get. I have to feel like I can help facilitate the making of that goal a reality.
There are plenty of bands I love that I just wouldnít be able to be any use for, because their expectations are unrealistic or because theyíre just in a totally different universe musically.
It has to be a real personal connection as well, because itís a very close relationship.
Are you looking for outside songs or do you prefer self-contained artists?
Today the vast majority of our clients are writers. Weíre not ever soliciting songs. We donít have artists that do primarily covers.
What does unsolicited material need to possess in order to grab your interest?
I donít ever listen to it. I have other people who listen to material to a certain extent, but really weíre not a volume business. Iím really never interested in something I donít already know about.
When did you meet up with Spoon?
I started working with them in 2000. I met them back in 1997. They were based in Austin at the time and I was as well. We were just part of the same music scene.
Did you develop them in any way?
Musically speaking, certainly not. Iím not involved in that creative aspect of any of our clients.
One of the big advantages of Spoon is that theyíve always had a very clear picture of where they want to be and how they think theyíre going to get there. With them itís a pretty collaborative effort. I wouldnít say that either of us has led the other.
Where do you find new talent?
All of our current clients Iíve previously been a fan of. I havenít been traditionally pitched anything. Itís always been like Iíve been a fan, Iíve had some connection to the artist and then we started working together.
What package needs to be ready in order for you to start working with a new talent?
That really depends. Someone like Spoon were already well established when I got involved. I prefer not to work with brand new artists that are just starting out on the management side. Itís a lot of work with no payoff whatsoever in nine out of ten cases.
I prefer to work with bands that had some ambition on their own and at least figured out some things on their own, whether thatís doing some touring or putting out a record etc.
What is usually discussed on first meetings?
It depends on whether the bands already had other management or if I will be their first manager. But in most cases itís about what their expectations are, what I feel that I can provide.
You find certain bands at a very underground level and then they become successful. What strategy do you use to help develop their careers?
Looking at what their infrastructure is and seeing what changes need to be made.
Howís the indie label climate doing currently?
Itís better than the major label climate. In most cases, being an indie provides unique opportunities. As technology evolves and as the climate evolves, being an indie is more and more important. It just allows for a lot more flexibility than the majors have. You can evolve much quicker.
Do you have presentations at major labels?
Not at the moment. All of our acts are on independents right now.
In what ways do you adapt to the fact that you as a manager have to do so much more work than it used to be?
All of our acts are on independents, so weíve always had to do that work.
How big are your financial risks nowadays?
Financially weíre not risking all that much, because weíre not actually putting up any money for anything. Itís more about risks of our time and energy. If we invest a lot of our resources in an act and it ends up breaking up or something, then that ends up being a waste of our time.
What is the goal you set for the level of success, as itís very expensive to promote and break artists, and the returns are not as great as they once were?
As a manager Iím not actually spending anything. Thatís what the label is doing.
What advice would you give up and coming managers?
I would advice them to go on the road with your bands and really get to know them on that level. Touring with an act is the best experience you can possibly have. You get to know them better and you get to really understand what theyíre going through when theyíre on the road.
How significant are music conferences like SXSW for you and your artists?
It could depend on what youíre looking to get out of them. Some of them are more important than others. SXSW is probably the best one in the States, because there are so many people there and you can really get to so many that havenít heard your artist and hear and see them all at one time. Itís as valuable as it gets.
Whatís in store for Constant Artists in the near future?
We have a new Crooked Fingers album that came out this week. We also had an Okkervil River record come out last month. Mates Of State are still very active. Spoon are working on a new album.
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Interview by Kimbel Bouwman