Interview with SLIM MOON, artist manager and A&R for Elliott Smith, The Decemberists and Sleater-Kinney - April 13, 2009
“It seemed more honest to me to work with the artist’s career as the goal rather than the CD sales.”
After having founded and manned the pumps of Kill Rock Stars, one of the most influential and successful independent labels of the last 20 years, and introducing the world to the likes of Elliott Smith (US Top 20 & UK Top 40), The Decemberists (Top 20 US), The Gossip (UK Top 30), Sleater-Kinney (US Indie Top 10) and critical and cult faves Deerhoof, Slim Moon has now found his true calling in artist management, “helping artists he loves, in the way that best suits him.”
The Portland, Oregon-based Moon talks to HitQuarters about why he made the switch to Shotclock Management, reveals his tried and trusted techniques for discovering new talent, his experiences as an A&R at two major label imprints, and how KRS has managed to clock up 18 years of successful service whilst remaining so stubbornly independent.
What was your vision for the Kill Rock Stars label when you started it in 1991?
I just wanted to put out my friends’ records because nobody was putting out my friends’ records. And to put out spoken word 7" records. It grew from there.
I wanted to be very invisible. Instead of telling them how to do things, I just wanted to be able to help the artists realise their own vision.
The label never seemed to focus on a particular genre of music, so what is it do you think that unites all the KRS artists?
I think they’re all sort of outsiders. Some people were very politically active and had a political message, but others were more sort of like rule breakers and outsiders in doing things differently.
In the early 90s, people who were some other format besides guitar-bass-drums were not really considered cool and certainly weren’t considered punk. And I worked with a lot of bands who broke those rules of what was supposed to be a ‘rock band’. These days that’s sort of old hat, like everybody has something odd about their line up, but back in those days it broke the rules.
Elliott Smith might seem like just another folk singer, but at the time in indie rock every guy playing solo was coming up with fake names for themselves, like Palace (Bonne ‘Prince’ Billy). It was considered career suicide just to release records under his own name.
Deerhoof seem to be a classic KRS band in that they are alternative yet unclassifiable, and doggedly follow their own individual path. How did you discover them and what appealed to you about them?
Yeah, they might even be the seminal classic KRS band. Two of the guys that were the original line up of Deerhoof were in a band called Nitre Pit. Two years after the International Pop Underground convention there was something called the Yo Yo A Go Go festival, which was very similar. Nitre Pit played and I thought they were really awesome. So I wrote to them and asked them to put out a record and they said they’d think about it, and then were back a little while later and saying, “we’ve broken up, but we’ve started this new band called Deerhoof.”
So the first Deerhoof 7” I put out was really all just improv music. There was a drummer and a bass player duo playing fourteen minutes of improv with seven minutes on each side. They had it stereo panned. If you panned it to the left side you could hear one song and if you panned it to the right side you could hear another song. I think it was actually 28 minutes of music on the first 7”. And then their first album was also really improvisatory music.
It was very unpopular, but we have stuck with them. They’ve been with KRS for fifteen years now. And finally, after several years of being the worst selling band in the history of KRS, they reached the point where they were the most popular band on KRS.
How did you first meet Elliott Smith?
I was asked to go on a tour with a bunch of solo artists. Carrie Akre from Hammerbox and Goodness, Elliott Smith from Heatmiser, Sean Croghan from Crackerbash, Tammy Watson from Kill Sybil, and myself went on a little two week west coast tour, and I met him on that tour.
How closely were you involved in his career, such as the album recording, touring, etc?
I put out his second and third album, and I was involved with several 7”s. I helped him find a publisher, a manager and a few other things - I was very involved for a couple of years.
But by the time the Good Will Hunting movie came out and he went on to be on a major label, I was no longer very involved.
Is it frustrating then when you help artists like Elliott Smith or The Decemberists find success and then they leave for a major?
I always had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand I saw what some other record labels did in building an infrastructure that could be attractive in keeping the bands, but in order to become the kind of label that can build up a band and then not lose them to a major, you had to become some sort of a corporation yourself.
So while it was very frustrating to lose those bands, it would have been even more frustrating to have to become part of the corporate culture and make alliances with major labels, and all the other things that I’ve seen the larger indie labels do.
So the set-up at KRS has only ever been able to support a certain level of success?
Exactly. And when artists get that hunger to move on to another level of success, they go to those great big indies that are really run like businesses, or they go to the major labels.
Given the difficult industry climate, many of those big indies have managed to survive by bowing down to corporate culture and business-like infrastructures, so how has KRS managed to keep going for so long but remain so resolutely independent?
I really just think good A&R. We just had to be good at occasionally finding new bands that sold a lot, since we couldn’t live off of the bands who we had found a few years ago who had left. We didn’t have a regular turnover that paid the bills. We just did that by just signing bands we liked and hoping for the best.
Has there ever been any major label interest?
Periodically. There was major label interest in the mid-90s and then about ten years later around 2004.
You yourself got involved major label business when you worked as an A&R at Warner imprint Nonesuch and then Rykodisc – why did you decide to abandon KRS and what was your experience like working in the big league?
I was tired of running a record label. The business part of running a record label had become the least fun for me. I wanted to try something different where I can work with artists and help artists without having to actually run a business. And I wouldn’t have just gone to any imprint or any major label, but if there’s a label out there, an imprint of a major who still does it right, who puts out records I respect and deals with the artists in a respectful way, Nonesuch was it.
When I started my label and I called it Kill Rock Stars, I hated all businesses. As I’ve grown older and matured I’ve learned to be more selective about what it is I hate and which parts of it I don’t like, and work out that there are some that run their businesses better than others, even on a large scale.
So I went there trying to help artists, but it just didn’t work out. There was a corporate lay off and so they laid me off because they had to do 10% staff cut, and then I went to another imprint because I met a woman who ran that label and I really liked her. She was a long time friend of one of my heroes. I really just tried to do it out of love of that relationship with Ruby Marchand at Rykodisc (read the HitQuarters interview with her here). As much as I love Ruby to this day, I just wasn’t enjoying the experience, and I started to get more and more convinced that the real way I wanted to work with artists was in a management capacity.
… which you did last year when you decided to work fulltime at Shotclock Management, a company your wife Portia Sabin founded in 2004. Are you enjoying the new life so far?
I love it. In the early days of running an indie label - in the 90s - I was a lot more involved in the day-to-day lives and experiences and decisions, strategy and the ideas of the artists that I was working with, and I really liked that.
And then later, it got to be where the artist came almost prepared to fight with the label - that the main relationship between the artist and the label was for them to be demanding more money or asking for more support, or complaining that they went to a store and their CD wasn’t there. I just realised that what I care about more is the artist and not the artefacts - I care about the artist I work with, not the CD I put out. So it seemed more honest to me to work with the artist’s career as the goal rather than the CD sales.
So it’s Portia that’s running KRS now then?
We liked the joke that I’m running the company that she started and she’s running what I started.
Were you concerned about leaving the label you created?
I would have been concerned except it’s in really capable hands of somebody who I have complete confidence in. It’s being run by somebody I see every day, and then her two most trusted employees have been there for fifteen years.
How has KRS changed since you left?
I don’t think it has changed at all except for a trimming of the roster. When I left there were about sixty bands on two labels and now there’s about ten. But other than that, I think they run their business the same, under the same principles, and they’re putting out basically the same kind of records as I was when I was working there.
For almost two decades, you’ve been at the heart of the US independent music scene, what have you seen changing in that time?
Indie music is a way bigger business than it was before. I think there’s a lot of fake rebellion in it now instead of genuine rebellion. Now there’s been over two decades of bands coming from indie and becoming popstars, there’s a lot of bands who start in the indie world with the actual goal of becoming popstars. When I started that was just not the case.
And there’s a lot more money in it, and that creates a much more business-like atmosphere - that includes all the deception and people treating each other poorly – and that takes some of the fun out of it. Now you still have those extremely business-like structures but a lot of the money in the business is going away. So you have this hangover of the business structure but at the same time you don’t have all that money in indie rock anymore.
Who’s in your management roster now?
Lou Barlow, Anais Mitchell, Thao Nguyen & The Get Down Stay Down. I’m co-managing the The Portland Cello Project with another gal in my office.
How big can your roster be?
That’s about as big as it can be unless I had more managers. We are still looking for another band or two. So, it can be a little bigger.
Where and how do you find new exciting artists to manage?
It’s almost pretty much in the same ways that I found bands when I was putting out records. Sometimes a friend or a band that I’m already working with suggests a band. Sometimes it’s a blind, unsolicited - when people write to you or email you. And sometimes you see them on a blog or in the press and then you go check them out when they come to town and see their show and start talking to them. I’ve never just written to somebody and said, “hey, I want to be your manager.” It’s always like a relationship begins in a natural organic way and then eventually you decide management would be a good idea.
Does that process happen very fast?
Right, but there’s also times when it has happened very slow. Thao and I wrote back and forth for six months before I became her manager. But I became Lou Barlow’s manager really fast, like in one visit.
What are the best outlets nowadays for helping your artists build an audience?
To some degree it depends on the kind of music and who the people are who may like their music. For some genres and styles, radio is still the best way. But I’m not an expert in radio. I feel like I understand press driven and word-of-mouth driven stuff a lot better. And so I tend to work with artists that are more in that vein.
For most of the time I’ve worked with bands I have felt that getting out on the road and having actually people actually see you and experience you playing your music live was the most important thing. And that radio was the most important way to spread the word when there wasn’t live music. And now for most of my artists it’s not radio anymore, it’s their MySpace page or mp3 blogs.
How significant are conventions like SXSW?
Well, I’ve gone to SXSW for fourteen years. I have had some great experiences there. I always have a good time and our artists always have a good time but it’s hard to measure whether it’s significant on a business level, like in a development level or creating breaks. But there are a few examples of things that I can concretely say happened.
The Gossip were still with KRS and Portia was managing them, and they played a showcase at SXSW and had a new set of songs that was much more dancey than their old songs. And in particular it was particular European business people in the audience who got really excited and it led to a bidding war between several record labels. So that was a concrete break that you can say happened only because of SXSW, because those Europeans wouldn’t have seen their new show and their new set in advance of their record coming out in any other way.
And one of my longest management relationships is with Anais Mitchell, who I met at a SXSW showcase. I just happened to see her play and thought she was terrific and went up to her afterwards and told her. She had a manager at the time and I was working at a label, so I experimented with the idea of whether the label I was working for could sign her, but that didn’t really work out, and then her and her manager parted ways, and so like a year later we ended up in a management capacity. Once again that was something that happened because of SXSW.
The best thing for me with SXSW is that if you’ve been doing this for twenty years you know people who work with bands in various capacities from all over the world, and then it’s the one time a year that you’re going to see them all, and reconnect.
Any other conventions that are important for you?
I should have gone to Midem this year, and I did think it could be important, but I have never been. I think Popkomm could be important, but I’ve only been once. I’ve only done a small amount of business in Europe over the years.
When you look back at your time with KRS and 5 Rue Caroline, what aspects are you particularly proud of?
Well, I’m proud of being an early component of some artists who went on to have greater successes like Elliott Smith, The Decemberists, Sleater-Kinney and Miranda July. But I’m also really proud of the records that we put out that were part of documenting the riot grrrl scene in the early mid-90s. I’ve always lamented that we didn’t work with as many bands who were as overly political as I might have hoped. But I really loved Bratmobile, Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear and Heavens to Betsy.
Do you still listen to all the old releases?
Oh, every once in a while. I listen to Unwound. I listen to a poet named Edwin Torres - that was a record I really loved. I listen to Sport Murphy quite a bit. He’s a singer/songwriter that never did well here, but I guess it’s gotten a following in France. I’m proud of most of the records, but I’m also sort of a voracious music listener who’s always on to the new sound.
Who should we be listening out for in the near future?
Well Anais Mitchell has recorded an opera based on the myth of Orpheus. When I say opera though, it’s an opera because it tells a story and doesn’t have any dialogue. It’s the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, but set in post-apocalyptic Depression-era America. And Hadestown is a flourishing walled city run by Hades and Persephone, where they still have prosperity inside while outside there’s just devastation.
The exciting thing is that the music is really terrific and that all of the different characters are sung by different vocalists. Anais is singing the part of Eurydice, and Ani DiFranco sings the part of Persephone, and a folk singer Greg Brown sings the part of Hades, and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver sings the part of Orpheus. And The Haden Triplets, who are the daughters of Charlie Haden the bass player sing the parts of the Faiths. So that record will come out this Fall, and that’s really exciting. It’s really good.
Shotclock Management has just got its first dedicated office in Portland so it’s growing concern. What are your plans for the future?
I frequently say, “If you want to see God laugh, start making plans.” We would like to grow. It has always been more fun for me to help a small artist who has tremendous talent, and to help them reach a larger audience, than to take over in the middle of a career that’s already reached a large audience. So I think we’re going the harder road, but I see us continuing to be really interested in development.
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Interview with Ice T manager Mickey Bentson
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