Interview with DANIEL WEISMAN (part 2), head of Elitaste and manager for Mike Posner - Nov 28, 2011
“[Mike Posner] had success outside of music industry buzz. He was selling out shows all over the country. That's something labels can't create on their own no matter how much money you throw at it.”
One school of pop theory suggests that great music isn’t enough to breakthrough as a top artist, you also need an extraordinary image, attitude or back story to hook people in. Mike Posner isn’t out to whip up controversy, hasn’t risen out of poverty and family turmoil, and doesn’t have a outlandish fashion sense – in fact the only extraordinary thing about him, besides the music, is how ordinary he is, but it’s actually his “regular college kid” appeal that has really resonated with his fans and led to the breakthrough worldwide hit, ‘Cooler Than Me’ (US Top 10, UK, CAN, NZ, AUS Top 5).
For the second of an exclusive two-part interview, his manager Daniel Weisman, and founder of Elitaste and Likeit.fm, talks about his work in establishing the college campus hero, including hijacking iTunes’ educational channel, making the “one shot at radio” count, and matching him up with brands that “make sense”.
How did you find Mike Posner?
If you're managing an artist people are constantly hitting you up to check out so-and-so. I was managing Wale at the time and a buddy from college, Matt Graham, who was working with Jared Evan, sent me some beats for Wale that Mike had produced. I heard a couple of songs, ‘Cooler Than Me’ being one of them, and was like, "Wow, this kid is great!" He’s not a blower, he can’t go out and tear down the house singing the national anthem, but his voice is so unique that the second you hear it you know it's him.
I got in touch and I started talking with him on iChat everyday and giving him advice. No one was interested in Mike at that point but by the time his first mixtape (‘A Matter of Time’) came out people started approaching him and so I told him I wanted to manage him. I let the situation play itself out and he ended up signing with me about two and half years ago.
How did his career develop from when you signed him to when his first record came out?
From the time we started talking – which was three years ago – he was just making beats in his dorm room at college. He first needed a couple of songs on the internet, which got posted on a few blogs, and I told him he should then make a mixtape. He managed to put out [‘A Matter of Time’] on iTunes U through a loophole that allows you to get music on iTunes for free in a place designated for college lectures.
How was he able to do that and what was the response?
He found the guy in his school (Duke University) that was in charge of uploading content onto iTunes U. There was no rule against uploading music. A few other kids at other schools had put out music that way, but nobody had done it in such an organised way and with such cool features like Kanye [West]'s artist Big Sean and other up-and-coming hip-hop artists.
Immediately it shot up to the number one position on iTunes U. You could see it on the iTunes homepage on the right-hand chart, ahead of an intro to OS X, and a speech by Obama. Eventually, by the time his second mixtape came out seven months later, iTunes caught on and made him remove it.
He was able to reach the places where hip-hop mixtapes normally go up but then because his music was on iTunes U he was also able to reach a lot of kids that are not looking for mixtapes.
How did he get the collaborations with the other hip-hop artists so quickly?
He was friends with Big Sean. DJ Benzi, the DJ that helped curate the mixtape, had some relationships of his own, and I also helped.
How did it develop further towards the breakthrough with ‘Cooler Than Me’?
We put out another mixtape [‘One Foot Out The Door’] while he was still in school, and the combination of the touring and the second mixtape helped consolidate his fanbase so when it became time to go to the radio with ‘Cooler Than Me’, which we pushed as the first single, there was already an audience there that we were able to connect with.
He started to gain a lot of attention from all the major labels. I helped him navigate that and we ended up with Sony (July 2009). From there he went back to school to finish his degree. In his last semester of college he would be going to school Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and then touring across the country throughout the rest of the week.
How did you shop the deal to Sony?
Before I signed him, Atlantic had offered him a deal. When I signed him I took him to meet Jay-Z and he offered him a deal, and we took meetings with pretty much every label. At the last minute I spoke to Peter Edge and he wanted to meet. In the end it came down between Sony and Atlantic. The Sony deal was structured in a way that it was hard to turn it down. We've been very happy with them.
How easy was it to get meetings with all the record executives?
It was pretty easy because he was buzzing really hard and had had success outside of just music industry buzz. He was selling out shows all over the country. That's something labels can't create on their own, no matter how much money you throw at it. Nowadays it's all about what kind of momentum you go into your deal with.
How did the buzz originally build up?
Mike went to a school with people from all over the world. He truly broke out of his immediate social network. It was all people sharing with their friends. Eventually we got some blog love but it was really word-of-mouth that spread about this college kid that was making this great music.
At the end of the day it's about the music. Mike doesn't have an aggressive image like ODD Future, Kreayshawn or some of these other artists that broke virally very quickly. He's just like a guy you went to college with or the guy that lives down your street. Mike always wanted them to know more about his music than about how he looks like or how he dresses. But now that people know his music, we’ve been trying to build up that aspect of him more. People need to connect with him as a person and his image.
How did ‘Cooler Than Me’ come to be the breakthrough song?
‘Cooler Than Me’ was featured on both mixtapes. On the first one it was a sort of guitar driven song with Big Sean on it and then we got a remix done by a guy named Gigamesh out of Minneapolis and we put a version of the remix on the second mixtape.
When it came time to start talking about a radio campaign I felt pretty strongly that we were sitting on a massive hit record so I went to Sony and said, “Can you let us work this on our own and if it does well you guys can pick it up?" So we went back to Gigamesh and had him restructure the song to make it more radio friendly and then hired an independent radio promoter and started servicing the record in February 2010. Sony then picked it up and helped us drive it to the success that it became.
By July/August time we’d reached an audience of 105 million at radio and it went Top 10 in the Top 40, Rhythmic and Hot AC. We eventually sold three million singles.
Why was it a good idea to work the single yourself first before then getting Sony’s marketing muscle behind it?
Having it not come from the label made it feel more organic. It's so important where the record comes from and who burns it out first. Sony was very supportive but you only get one first shot at radio. It's so political in the US.
How did you help sell the song to radio?
We cut together a montage video of Mike performing the song at about 30 different shows. Most of the shots were from the stage into the audience so you could see the kids singing the words of the song. We synched it with the music and every time it shows a different show we put the name of the city where the show was. We serviced that with the record and presented them an argument that this is the record they should be playing.
So what would you say, is it better to go to radio independently or through a big label?
It depends. But I encourage artists on every level to take control of their campaign as much as possible and work in unison with the label. All the big artists from Akon to Kanye hire their own radio people to work their records on their own. At the end of the day the label has their own agenda and it doesn't always overlap with the artist's agenda. So if you are hiring the people that end up controlling the success of your record, they work for you rather than the label. In our case we hired someone and then at a certain point the label took over.
Was there a strategy in terms of which radio stations you hit first?
Yes, with ‘Cooler Than Me’, we first hit Los Angeles and with DJ Reflex, who is on Power 106, we had a supporter. We took it to Wild in San Francisco, we took it to Kiss in Cleveland, B96 in Chicago … We targeted the places where the programme directors are forward thinking and want to be early on stuff. It broke out of Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Did you get a booking agency involved early?
I hired a company called NUE Agency. They were booking Wale for me for a while and a few other cool up-and-coming artists. I didn't want to take him to a major agency because I knew it would be very hard to have anyone care about anyone only making $2,500 a show. So we went really aggressively with colleges. NUE killed it for us for a very long time! Unfortunately we parted ways a few months ago. They were very valuable in building Mike's touring business. They got him into Austin City Limits, Bonnaroo and on the Warped Tour.
So how does it work – are the universities all very connected?
A lot of times it wasn't the official school show, for instance at North Western in Chicago some kids created a Facebook group that was called ‘Bring Mike to Dillo Day.’ It was their end of the year show. It was like a petition where I think they got about a thousand members to sign up and ended up bringing Mike out for the show. He played with N.E.R.D. and Estelle. His name was just spreading around colleges. Some ambitious kid or a fraternity would book him for a 500-person show. They felt like they helped create who he was and they wanted to bring him to their campus.
It wasn't until the last semester at school that he started getting booked for the official on-campus stuff. Even at that point he was opening for Akon, Gym Class Heroes or Wale. Last year he was becoming the headliner for these shows. We still do college shows. The last tour in April was almost entirely colleges.
How was it with his shows at the very beginning?
He hadn't done any shows outside of his school before his mixtape came out. He did a show in Columbus the week the mixtape came out and everyone there knew the words to all of the songs.
If anyone tells you they can explain how something virally truly happens then they are lying to you. A lot of it is just lightning in a bottle. I mean, you have to start with a great product. With that first mixtape we got about 50,000 downloads on iTunes U. Within a month and a half he became like this college legend. They felt like they had ownership over him. He was this kid still in school at one of the top 10 schools in the country, signing a record deal.
We're going to have a new single out soon and for the album we're going to do a real ticketed tour in the spring.
What impact did the 2010 Warped Tour have?
We’d committed to do the Warped Tour in 2009 and so we knew our summer was taken care of – hitting 42 cities across the country it would get us in almost every city that we needed to be in.
We didn't know how the song was going to perform at that point but while he was on the tour ‘Cooler Than Me’ was exploding. When we started it was at number 36 in the charts and by the end it was at number six. His crowd got bigger and bigger and he did hours of autograph signing after every show. He had to come off the tour and do TV appearances and after show parties in almost every city to promote the record. It ended up very beneficial to us.
What happened after the success of ‘Cooler Than Me’?
I always knew how big ‘Cooler Than Me’ was but nobody else really thought it would be as big as it was. Even then I always thought we had a bigger records then that. When we came with the second single ‘Please Don't Go’ it ended up doing very well in the US and Australia, but didn't do anything over in Europe. We ended up selling 1,5 million singles here and it went top 10 at radio here but it wasn't as big as ‘Cooler Than Me’. We were all a bit surprised because it was a great record. It was kind of in the vein of other records on the radio at the time, he co-produced it with Benny Blanco who had a number of massive hits. It was dancey and up-tempo but for whatever reason it didn't connect as good.
Then we came with the third single ‘Bow Chicka Wow Wow’, which from an online and sales point of view, was a huge success. It had over 20 million views on YouTube and we sold a million singles but just mid charted at radio. Still all the first three singles went platinum – the first went actually triple platinum. We hope to make a bigger splash with the new music coming out.
How is the upcoming material coming along? Have you worked with any different producers this time around?
Mike produces and writes himself. Everything he does has his stamp on it. He has done some records with Benny Blanco again. He’s just worked with The-Dream, Diplo, Rusko, Labrinth and [Rivers] Cuomo from Weezer. He is probably over 40 songs done – we're just sort of narrowing it down. I think about 10 will make the album. We already have a pretty good idea what the first two singles will be. We are just waiting for a couple of features for them.
How did the collaborations with the other producers come up?
Through Mike, Peter Edge (A&R at Sony) and me. Mike told me last year he really wants to work with The-Dream. I ran into him at a Grammy party and eventually we got the dates set. I had lunch with the manager that manages Cuomo [Ron Lafitte], so we set that up and Mike went in with them last week for a couple of days.
Can you explain how your likeit.fm business works?
If you call a radio station and request a song then nobody answers the phone anymore. When I was working ‘Cooler Than Me’ on our own I asked a radio guy if there's some way we can direct Mike's fans online so that they can request a song. He said, "No, that doesn't really exist." I thought, wow, we should build something!
If you’ve got a lot of fans online then let’s make these people really matter. So I built the prototype and generated a bunch of requests. My girlfriend at the time was on our website and said, "We should do this for other artists!" So we started building a more robust version of it and sold a bunch of them. Clients include Big Sean, Joe Jonas, Diggy Simmons, Drake, Kreayshawn and some country acts. We’ve generated over 10,000 requests at radio for a hand full of artists. For my likeit.fm we are selling our service constantly, we just sold one to Kreayshawn and also to Big Sean and Joe Jonas. We are constantly looking for business opportunities.
How does it work? Do you sell a widget for Facebook?
Yeah, we sell a widget and a page that has all the data stratified and categorised and geo-target the user by their IP address. So someone in Los Angeles cannot request a record in New York and vice versa. We scale it by format. So if you want to target Top 40, Urban and Rhythmic or if we want to target Alternative and Country, you can change all that. Then we have real time back-end analytics you can see who is requesting what and where, Facebook insights and stuff like that.
How does it work on the radio side?
They see our little thing is creating an organic movement. We have no relation with radio at this point. Eventually I hope it to be a user created currency for requests. For now it's just a marketing tool. We've had radio stations respond to requests and tweet positively. It creates more followers for the station, more Facebook likes, and creates chatter and gives information about the user. It's a win for everyone involved.
People still like galvanizing behind their favourite artist and supporting them however they can. It creates an @ reply in the station's Twitter feed, which is not that populated. We have done research for the top radio stations with the biggest following in the country. Their way of engagement on Twitter is really low and so the idea is to create ripples in how you can support an artist – if you have enough people requesting it creates an impact and momentum on the station and they play the record more.
I saw you do a lot of branding and partnerships with companies as well. How do you approach that?
Most of them have come out of my work with the artists I work with. If you look at my website I've done deals with at least 20 or 30 companies. I strive to position the artist as brand friendly because I know how valuable brands in an artist career can be.
We went to Karmaloop, which is a big online retailer, to sponsor Mike's fall tour. In exchange we had their name printed on every single ticket and add map. They had local reps handing out discount cards. They were able to get a great return on their investment.
We partnered with Oakley in the ‘Cooler Than Me’ video. They designed a number of limited edition sunglasses that we used as props in the video. With Wale we did a very organic campaign with Nike. They helped us with the video and made some limited edition sneakers. When Mike was still in college we got in touch with Puma and they sponsored him in his last semester. We did a 12 part web series around Mike that was sponsored by Puma. They outfitted him and paid for the videographer and the editing and all that stuff.
It's very helpful because it's marketing resources, it's money, it's ingenuity, it's a partnership … Every artist that doesn't collaborate with brands is really missing out on a great revenue stream and marketing push.
What’s the most effective way of approaching such companies?
My number one goal is: let's do something that makes sense. I often see companies just going in on an artist that is hot at the time but people can sniff through the bullshit and go, I don't believe that this artist is using this product. But if the stuff happens really organically then people go, wow, that's genius!
So you just explain that the artist incorporates their product in their daily life anyway and that the artist has a great fanbase that is important for the demographic of the brand. So he can help promote the brand. Once you're on the call you deal deeper in it and write a proposal of how you envision the partnership will look like. A lot of it is just cold calling and cold e-mailing. I got in touch with a number of brands just by finding their contact online and reaching out to them.
Mike is a huge fan of Frisbee and so a few weeks ago I contacted Wham-o, which owns Frisbee, about doing something with Mike. They wrote back to me the same day. The next day I had a conference call with the marketing and creative director.
A you looking for new artist to manage at the moment?
I'm always looking for new artists – someone that has massive potential of appealing to a great amount of people. At the end of the day to get an artist to a global level takes a massive amount of work so you want to make sure that if you are going to dedicate two years of your life to getting this artist working properly so that the return that you make is worth it.
If an artist approaches me about management and I think, ‘I'm sure I can make $50,000 a year with him’, I ask myself is it really worth the effort for that $50,000 instead of just focusing all my time on somebody like Mike that maybe in three years time will be making that in a month?
What specifically are looking for?
Since working with Mike I'm looking for people that are self-contained – that can write, produce, sing and record themselves. Artist that can't do that are at the mercy of producers and other people. With Mike there is very little logistics going into him making music – he records on the road, on the bus … and there is never anything holding him back from being creative.
With Wale, for example, he didn't have his own studio and so we always had to get an engineer and studio time. You end up spending a lot of money and time on that kind of stuff. Mike recorded his whole album in his bedroom.
This new band I just signed, Capital Cities, write, produce and record themselves. They have their own studio and rehearsal space. They got started doing music for commercials and are now a band, so they are very much a self-contained unit. That's how you need to be in 2011.
interviewed by Jan Blumentrath
Read On ...
* First part of the Daniel Weisman interview focuses on Wale
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