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Interview with FERNANDO GIBSON, manager for India Arie - Sep 29, 2008

"I find a lot of new talent on HitQuarters."

picture Fernando Gibson, credited for managing No.1 US artist and Grammy Award winner India Arie, is currently focused on developing a roster of promising new acts, some of which he discovered here on HitQuarters.

He details his precise and insightful vision for working with and developing new talent.

He talks to HitQuarters about the business knowledge artists need to gain and the extra potential avenues they can pursue, about the importance of thinking globally, and about a more balanced revenue share with artists.

What route led you into artist management?

I started in 1989 as a keyboard tech on tour with an artist by the name of Freddie Jackson. I went from keyboard tech to stage manager to production manager to tour manager. And the next progression was management.

What was significant in developing your managing skills?

Observation. When I started, even as a keyboard tech, I had an interest in watching everything. I watched the stage managers and managers positioned over me. I watched what they do while thinking about what I could do better.

What was your vision for New City Entertainment, established in 1999?

Through the trials and tribulations of the music business, New City is basically a management company that is focused on doing great business. I donít want to say good business, I want to say great business.

That means Iím trying my best to facilitate the best deals for my clients to perpetuate their careers. Iím interested in earning fees, but Iím also interested in earning fees over a lifetime. There are other great managers that I look up to like Roger Davies.

I had the honour of doing a tour with one of my artists, India Arie, alongside Sade. I personally got to see how he Davies runs his organisation. He really had his business model together. And I wanted to emulate that as much as I could.

How did you first start working with India Arie?

I started as her tour manager. She fired her management and hired me in 2001. I took over from Jack Ponti. She felt they were ineffective.

What was it that made you want to work with her? Her unique style stood out, but were you convinced it would succeed?

I really appreciated her talent. Her songwriting, her voice, I thought it was exceptional. I think it was a bit of a risk, but I thought with the strategy that I implemented that we would succeed.

In what way did you contribute to her success?

Touring, exploiting other ancillary opportunities in exposing her to film and TV opportunities. And also trying to guide her and prepare her for certain directions. She recently started her own label, SoulBird Music, a subsidiary to Universal, but it was during my tenure with her that I suggested that she do that.

Why did you part ways?

The contract just ended. And we decided that she wanted to go in a different direction. She started to manage herself and then hired Reen Nalli. And she basically uses Reen more as a consultant. India makes pretty much all her own decisions.

What artists are you currently working with?

Iím working with an artist named Governor that is just by the end of this week signed to an indie label called Decisions Records. He was signed to T.I.ís label Grand Hustle/Atlantic. The music business being what it was, we asked for a release and we had an amicable one.

I have another independent artist, Nya Jade. Sheís on her own imprint Katako Records. And two brand new artists coming up that Iím developing now; Becka Pimenta, a 19 year old singer/songwriter, and a pop group, Chelsea & Cameron.

How big can your roster be?

I think my roster could be as large as Iím allowed to go. What Iíve been developing in the last two years is restructuring deals for Governor and Nya Jade.

It could be pretty large. I would assign day-to-day management per artist as I grow.

Youíre focusing on urban mainstream?

No, absolutely not. Nya Jade is in the adult contemporary/world alternative. Governor is soul. Becka Pimenta is pop/acoustic soul. And Chelsea & Cameron are pop.

I like to represent pretty much every genre of music. I also have a great appreciation for jazz and Iím really looking for the next jazz artist. Iíve recently been made aware of Esperanza Spalding. I would love to have an artist like that. Sheís amazing.

How do you choose your projects?

Honestly, itís by the way it makes me feel. I get referred, but if I donít like the music and I donít like the person behind the music, I wouldnít get involved in it.

Whatís usually discussed in first meetings?

I really want to know about who they are. And whether they have a realistic expectation for not only their art, but the business that theyíre about to become a partner in.

A lot of new artists, and I think itís mainly because of reality TV, have expectations that are skewed in a way that they see the profits before they see the work.

My interest is to make sure that there is a balance. That they understand that it is a partnership. And that it involves both music and business. And that the business requires a return on investment. So there are certain compromises that they may possibly need to make.

How should a new act prepare itself for a professional career?

Every artist should be, maybe not 50%, but maybe 30% to 40% a business person as well. You should concentrate on your art, but you should also hire professionals that are capable and facilitating what you need done in your business.

They should be aware. They should have realistic expectations. Today, we all know that not only is the economy suffering, but then in turn the music business is suffering. And that the deals of even two years ago are different.

The distribution, the management contracts; everything is different. And itís so brand new that I think every artist should educate themselves. There are portals like HitQuarters where they can go to and educate themselves about whatís going on.

What time schedule do you use for developing periods?

I really donít have a time schedule. I can give you my time as long as I see that youíre working. And, if we donít have a deal, it doesnít mean that youíre not good enough. It just may mean that the timing is wrong.

There are only four major labels, but many sub labels. But sometimes it could be that you are not presenting the music to the right person at the right time. It doesnít mean that youíre not good or the act isnít saleable.

What does unsolicited material you receive need to possess in order to grab your interest and start working with the artist?

In Becka Pimentaís case, it was a phone call. She found me searching HitQuarters. She called me based on my past experiences and other clients I represented.

We had a conversation. 24 hours later she sent me an email with her music, and it was rough demos, but her personality, work ethic and knowledge of the business stood out. And when I heard her music I knew there was great potential.

Nowadays, itís more about knowledge of finding out if this person has the potential. Work ethic and knowledge of the business are really important to me.

Do you prefer being self-contained or are you looking for outside songs?

Itís as hard to find a great artist as it is to find a great producer. Sometimes youíll have a great artist in terms of songs and not have great producers to pull from.

On the level of breaking an artist, you surely canít go to the bigger producers. Itís just cost prohibitive. Itís almost as if you need to find a stable of songwriters, producers and artists so that they all could serve one another to reach a common goal.

What strategy do you use to help develop their careers?

The strategy is the inherent selection. Itís the personality, the work ethic, their intelligence in regards to the business.

Itís really in the selection, I donít choose every single person that calls. Not that I feel that theyíre not good. It could just simply be that I canít see how I could sell this as a brand.

In what ways do you look for new avenues to develop your artists?

In branding, distribution deals, licensing deals, film and TV opportunities, voice-overs, acting, writing. Iím looking for what other things are possible besides oneís initial presentation and craft.

All of those avenues are avenues that not everybody can participate in, but surely for songwriters thereís four other extra opportunities that they could exploit in their craft.

Because I believe itís more about longevity. And I think that many of the artists that we have today are greater than what we can truly see, because they donít really have the ability to completely grow.

In what ways do you adapt to various industry-related changes over the years?

You now have to be everything. What the labels are asking for is, because of the years of excess are behind us, theyíre asking, as any professional would say be it the lawyer, the agent or the manager presenting the artist: why do I need to buy this?

So what you need to do is to develop that talent the best way you can. Not everybody has to have radio spins and MySpace friend numbers, but there surely has to be something undeniable at the presentation stage.

I find myself joining A&R in helping the artist select the music, imaging, packaging and presentation, even before I take my first meeting.

Can you give an example of what happens during a presentation at a major label?

Itís nerve-wrecking, but I have a few relationships with some really respected executives that allow me to Ďclean my earsí. When youíre very close to the project, when youíre the writer, the producer, the manager or the lawyer, you may love it but it may not have mainstream appeal.

So through some of the relationships that I have Iím able to not shop it but take a meeting, get a fresh set of ears to listen to it. I have friends that are radio promoters. Iíll ask at some occasions if a song could be played at a local station to get the reaction.

So Iíll test it in different mediums to see what the reaction is, before I take it to a full-on pitch to a label. Just to make sure that I know what Iím talking about and I truly have something. Because you donít want to lose that opportunity to be considered.

Where do you find new talent?

A lot comes from HitQuarters. And itís great because it happens in your sleep. You wake up in the morning and you have an inbox. You get through your email and find a lot more than what you could see out on the street.

I live in the New York area. Most of the talent thatís in my home area thatís developed to the point where theyíre doing shows and you could see them, are attached to a manager or a production company.

So a lot of it is definitely HitQuarters, people soliciting me, and every now and again Iíll search MySpace but not as much.

How can artists distinct themselves nowadays and remain individualistic and original?

I think itís really easy. You have to have faith. You have to believe in who you are. We all are individuals, but the problem comes in when other young artists copy someone else who made it. They want to sound like or look like someone else.

The truth of the matter is that the biggest artists of all time have been unique talents. Talents that can never be duplicated. There will never be another Tina Turner or Jay-Z. The timbre of his voice is different. No one will sound like Biggie, itís just different.

How big are your financial risks nowadays?

Itís huge. Although economically the deals are a lot smaller than they used to be. If youíre doing indie deals youíre looking at five-figure deals, whereas before it might have been six-figure. But an the same time, the cost to promote still can cost you six figures.

If you are going to try and break an artist by yourself, 300-350,000 US Dollars is what you should expect to start with. Anything less than that and you might be wasting your time. If you invest 50,000 you canít get lucky.

If you truly develop an artist from zero, it costs quite a lot. So the risks are extremely high.

Are the demands for success forcing you to sell your artists worldwide?

Itís not forcing me, I love it. It would be silly as a professional not to look globally. Iíve toured most of the world and Iím not arrogant to think that North America is the only place that you should sell.

Every manager, every label, every lawyer, everybody doing business should think globally. Itís just shortsighted if you donít think that way. Your business model may suffer if you canít sell globally.

What advice would you give up-and-coming managers?

I believe in faith. I also believe in patience. You have to listen. You have to become friends with your artist as much as you could. It has a lot to do with your selection. You really have to understand the root as to why that particular artist is doing what theyíre doing.

If you donít really understand why that rapper is a rapper or that singer/songwriter is a singer/songwriter, you could totally miss the opportunity to represent them thoroughly.

Itís all about having faith in the selection that you made being the correct one and then having a diligence and patience to see it through.

Do you attend music conferences? How significant are they for you and your artists?

Iím scheduled to do the next South by Southwest and Midem. I donít go to every single conference, just the bigger ones. Relationships and networking is the lifeblood of entertainment. Most deals are done with handshakes.

Most deals are done through relationships where the barriers are drawn. Any business is that way. You canít expect to do business on a higher level if you donít know the players.

If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music business, what would you do?

Understanding both sides of it, I would probably look for more artists that are able to show success in their careers. They should get a little more than what theyíre getting. There should be more sharing of the revenues at certain points.

I understand that the labels and the managers and those who invest, theyíre taking all the risk, but once that risk is paid back there should be an effort made to work out more equitable deals.

Thatís why you see a lot of the big legendary artists jumping ship, because they donít feel like the deals that they have are fair.

Whatís in store for New City Entertainment in the upcoming years?

New City Entertainment is going to expand into film and TV. Weíre trying to cover every aspect of entertainment as a full-service management company. And Iíd like to turn into a full-service media company.

I believe that in a digital era itís really about content. And I want to provide content by way of music. Songwriting, instrumentals, whatever type of music you could possibly use, Iíd like to play in every possible avenue thatís available.

So Iím going to change from a management company to a content provider.

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Interview by Kimbel Bouwman