Interview with KYLE FRENETTE, manager at Middle West for Bon Iver, S. Carey, The Daredevil Christopher Wright - Jul 25, 2011
“It always helps to have an intriguing and inspiring story to go along with a record - one that fits the aesthetic and people can latch onto.”
Indie-folk band Bon Iver (US No.2, NOR & DK No.1, UK Top 5) attracted headlines recently when their sophomore album debuted at #2 on the Billboard 200 despite never having notching up a single radio hit. The feat may be symptomatic of the album chart in the digital age but that shouldn’t in any way obscure the achievement, which crowns the swift and extraordinary rise of Justin Vernon’s singular outfit. We speak to the band’s co-manager Kyle Frenette, co-founder of Middle West Management and head of Amble Down Records, about Bon Iver’s remarkable breakthrough.
The Wisconsin native talks about the significance of intriguing back-stories, meeting the high expectations of Justin Vernon, and finding favour with influential websites.
When you started your label Amble Down Records, you said it was to promote the music being made in your area. With Middle West Management, the name suggests that it’s been founded with the same regional philosophy …
Yeah, to an extent I would say that’s correct. Short answer: yes. Long answer: most of our bands are based here, so it just made sense.
You were managing artists as part of Amble Down, so why did you decide to found a new dedicated management company in Middle West?
It was mostly because I joined forces with my partner Nate [Vernon]. And Nate’s not directly involved in the label, so I figured that it would be best to separate the two.
So who do you both look after and how do you share your managerial responsibilities?
Him and I both co-manage Bon Iver and S. Carey, then individually, Nate manages GAYNGS and Solid Gold, and I manage Volcano Choir and The Daredevil Christopher Wright.
When it comes to the bands that we co-manage, the responsibilities have just fallen into place in the time that we’ve been doing this together (just over a year). I mostly handle the legal and finance stuff, while Nate handles a lot of the touring and marketing aspects. Day-to-day we decide who’s going to do what and go to it. We assist each other with our other bands as well whenever we can.
How did you first get involved in managing artists and how did you learn the ropes?
I founded Amble Down Records in 2007 while I was in college, and shortly after that I met Justin Vernon, who’s from the same town that I am, Eau Claire (Wisconsin). I sort of looked up to him growing up. He and his friends are the reason my friends and I began playing music in high school.
I had heard [Bon Iver’s debut album] ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ on MySpace in the spring of 2007, and immediately knew that it was an amazing record that the rest of the world needed to hear. At the time I had released two records on Amble Down. Knowing that Justin was about to venture out on tour with The Rosebuds, I got in touch with him and offered to assist in releasing ‘For Emma …’ From there, he and I began publicising it and shopping it around to labels.
Justin and I come from very similar backgrounds and are both pretty grounded individuals very much in love with the place we come from. From the beginning, we’ve applied these ideals to the way we approach business together.
It’s been four years now. In which time I’ve acquired three more management clients and several bands/musicians on the label side. I continue to actively build both my label and management rosters.
When you were first introduced to Bon Iver what were your initial impressions?
Very few times in my life have I come across music that does what ‘For Emma…’ did to me. It’s a rare feeling, a rare happening - where you just hear a piece of music for the first time and have to immediately take a step back, floored by it, thinking, ‘What is this? This is amazing!’
What did you think you could add to the project?
I wanted to help Justin cultivate the release and present Bon Iver to the world the way that he wanted it to be presented in understanding and applying the aesthetic properly around its release. He and I clicked, and we were able to accomplish this fairly easily together.
I also brought a different business sense to the table and got things structured pretty early on.
Did you have an idea of the level that you thought Bon Iver could reach?
The first time Justin and I met I had put together a bunch of questions for him. One of them was, “What are your expectations; do you envision this going big; do you envision signing to a major label?” I remember his response being pretty short and hopeful – a simple, ‘sure, why not’, or something to that effect. Our hopes were high - we didn’t know what to expect.
I knew the music was good, and I knew that’s what mattered most. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t expect it to be successful, but I didn’t expect it to be this successful. Standing here now and seeing what Bon Iver has become and what it’s has done over the last four years … it’s all pretty surreal. I try and not think about it too much.
When Bon Iver’s debut was first posted on MySpace it was accompanied by the romantic back-story of a heartbroken Justin creating an album alone in a cabin in the wilderness. That story later invariably featured in any subsequent media coverage of him. Who came up with the idea to do that?
Justin and I both did. I set out to write the perfect bio that told the story behind the record. I wrote the first draft, passed it on to him, and he came back with a bunch of edits. We passed it back and forth a few times until we had it right and then put it up.
Did you think that however good the music, it needs a talking point that attracts attention and strikes a chord with people?
It really helped, and I think it always helps to have an intriguing and inspiring story like that to go along with a record - one that fits the aesthetic and that people can latch onto. Though, first and foremost, the music needs to be there.
I’ve used ‘the story’ example on other records I’ve been apart of, but none have been this successful.
Artists like Owl City and Kings of Leon were memorably first introduced with their own interesting back-stories. In such a competitive marketplace, do you see it as important that your artists not only create great music but also have a story and a character that fans can connect with and the media can latch onto?
The music is most important overall, but a good back-story is secondary for sure, and, although I don’t know if it’s always necessary, it definitely does help. I think it can get a little gross at times, if it gets out of hand. But like the artists you mentioned, Owl City and Kings of Leon, their stories and their characters are very intriguing.
Owl City, for example, is very kitschy music - you’ve got to be of the right mindset to enjoy it, or the right age for that matter – but, I’ll admit, that when I first heard it, I really related to reading his story – realising that he’s just a kid doing what he does in his parents’ basement in the Midwest. I’m around his age, and I was a kid dreaming in my parents’ basement at one time too. Reading that got me to listen to the music.
So what was the next stage after posting the album?
From there we just did our best to assemble a team of people that fit well with the ideals that we shared.
The debut album received a lot of acclaim from the blogosphere and from influential publications like Pitchfork. For indie acts, is finding favour with certain online publications and blogs always an important part of your plan?
Yes, always. I mean that’s how Bon Iver was signed initially. Back when Justin and I first got together, the very first attention we received was from a music blog called My Old Kentucky Blog. MOKB wrote the first widely read words, and from there it snowballed.
Out of that first pressing of 500 CDs we did of ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’, I only sent out 17 to press, mostly blogs. And most people were just listening and sharing the music with each other through streaming or file sharing.
With mainstream acts it seems like you can have big hits regardless of whether you get good reviews. With your artists, would you say good reviews are critical?
I still believe that to an extent any press is good press, and that bad press can help you sometimes too, but yeah, good reviews are critical.
What was your plan early on in terms of touring Bon Iver?
The first tour had us opening for Black Mountain for six weeks across the U.S. and Canada. To be honest, that tour was a bit of a gamble. We didn’t really know how people would perceive the bill, because Black Mountain is a heavy rock band from Canada. Bon Iver’s music didn’t mesh well at the time. Somehow though, it made sense and was a successful tour.
From there we decided to try our hand at headlining. We did a successful headlining tour in the summer of 2008 and just kept building each market from there. It was a pretty quick ride due to the amount of exposure the record was getting.
How much did you take advantage of social networking?
As much as possible. Early on, we were streaming the record on this website called Virb. It was a new social media site at the time. We sort of accidently partnered up with them by streaming ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ through the duration of the record’s campaign.
I’ve always tried to remain on top of our web presence as much as possible, especially going into this new record’s campaign. We just launched our new website last week and we’re on Facebook and Twitter. I’m always keeping and eye out for the next thing - Google+ maybe, if it catches on.
You mentioned that Bon Iver’s record deal with Jagjaguwar came about as a result of the media interest. So how did that actually happen?
Back in October 2007, Pitchfork reviewed ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’. After that we were invited to play CMJ [Music Marathon] and began receiving more and more label attention. We talked to a lot of people. We talked to some majors, some independents, and out of all of them, Jagjaguwar just seemed to share those ideals that I spoke of earlier: coming from the Midwest; coming from a similar background; and doing their own thing in building somewhat of an indie music empire in a small town (Bloomington, Indiana) much like Eau Claire. We felt at home with them the most.
When it was released on that label, the album charted in the lower reaches of the Billboard 200 but then slowly rose higher and higher as word-of-mouth spread. What kind of things were you doing to help keep that buzz going?
In the beginning we weren’t promoting it on AAA radio, we were just servicing it to college radio and doing our best to accommodate as much of the CMJ Network as we could. Radio was tough in the beginning. It still is.
We kept the snowball going online. We were doing a lot of online media and regional media. Early on, Justin did a lot of interviews. All in all, it was the online media that kept things going – helped it spread.
Bon Iver has had significant success in his songs being licensed for TV. Did you always think that his music was very “license-able” and actively pursue this area from the start?
Yes. We learned as we went along in this regard. It was the support of Jagjaguwar that really helped us pursue some of those relationships, in the ‘music licensing’ world that is.
Do you have any creative input with your artists? For instance, with Bon Iver’s latest album, did you discuss how Justin was going to move forwards creatively from the last record?
I do, sure … I never directly discussed the creative direction of this record with Justin. I mean, with all of my artists I give them my honest critiques. Though, with Justin specifically, I trust his abilities to the utmost, and I knew that what he was going to come up with this time around would be great. This record’s sound definitely blew my expectations out of the water!
You’ve said that with Bon Iver’s latest album the stakes are a lot higher all round. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Sure. Easy. We’re just dealing with a lot more people in this operation, with more money, more fans, and more expectations.
And what’s being done differently this time?
Well, the operation is bigger overall, and so we’re taking what we learned last time and applying it to everything that’s repeating, and then using that knowledge base to guide our way through this uncharted territory of higher expectation.
Bon Iver feels like a bigger act this time around. How do you make sure that it doesn’t lose the ‘indie’ sensibility while you move up a level?
It’s something I definitely give some thought to, but it’s hard to say, because this industry is shifting in my opinion. I mean, ‘indie’ isn’t as much of a title as it used to be with so many ‘indie’ bands hitting No. 1 in their first week or even winning a Grammy for that matter.
In fact Bon Iver’s second album attracted headlines for hitting #2 on the Billboard album chart without a Top 40 single. What do you think the factors were behind that?
I don’t know, to be honest. I read a very interesting article in Billboard about that shortly after it happened - about how when we were No. 2, neither our record or the record at No.1 by Jill Scott had a Top 100 hit single. The article focused on how that’s becoming more and more of a trend these days, such as with a band like Cake hitting No.1 in their first week.
I think it has to do with this so-called ‘digital age.’ It has to do with a lack of long-term sales. Bands in these niche markets with niche audiences are hitting No.1 in their first week because their dedicated fans are going out and purchasing their records right away.
Middle West Management is in its early stages at the moment. What are your plans for the future?
To keep doing what we’re doing while maintaining healthy growth.
interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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