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Interview with BRIAN AVNET, manager for Josh Groban (US No.1) and producer David Foster - Feb 16, 2004

“We’ve sold over a million records with Josh Groban through the Internet.”

picture Based in Los Angeles, Brian Avnet has managed artists for thirty years and his experienced hands are currently employed in looking after Josh Groban (US multi-platinum) and Toni Braxton (US multi-platinum). He was also president of 143 Records, where he signed and worked with The Corrs (US platinum).

In this interview, he discusses, among other issues, his work with the renowned songwriter and producer David Foster, whom he also managed; he stresses the importance of an international perspective for managers; and he decries how the team around Josh Groban have worked to break him.



How did you get started in the music business and how did you become a manager?

Starting out in the theatre, I met an artist named Bette Midler and became her road manager. Through her, I met a group called Manhattan Transfer (click on artist or song names to listen to Real Audio files – Ed.) and went on to become their manager. That was my introduction to the music business. Manhattan Transfer were an interesting group, but very hard to market, because they weren’t a radio-friendly act and much of their marketing was based on their touring. Whilst managing them I received a great deal of guidance from Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun. Ahmet ran Atlantic Records and Nesuhi ran WEA; they were key figures in the European and American markets.

Nesuhi was a phenomenal human being. He took me under his wing and I learnt Europe and the rest of the world through him. That is important in the management business today, because if as an American manager you just think about America, you’re wrong. It’s extremely important to break an artist internationally and therefore you have to understand the rules of working on an international scale. You can’t come across as an aggressive manager and throw your weight around. You have to understand what is required for every country and what setting up an act involves.

Then I became involved with other artists: I managed Jean-Luc Ponty, Colin Hay from Men at Work, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and I merged with Danny Goldberg’s company Gold Mountain. It was at that point that I met and started to manage David Foster. I realised that David was known, as a songwriter and producer, in the Asian market, because people in places like Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia read the liner notes and so producers and songwriters are often more famous than the artists.

I decided to take David to the Pacific Rim, including Japan, and we made him an artist. It’s hard to conceive him touring in America, because he’s a record producer, but we toured in Japan and sold out three huge concerts. Then we took him to Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Korea. He wound up selling two million copies of an album of his hits that we put together. That would never have happened in America, but it happened in those markets. At the same time, I took people like Diane Warren over to countries like Malaysia and organised forums in which Diane explained to Asian recording artists how she put songs together.

Eventually, David signed a deal with Warner Brothers that enabled him to set up his own label, 143 Records, which he wanted me to run, so I did. We signed a group called The Corrs and they wound up being huge outside America; they sold twenty million records and are still doing well. But after a while we realised that, in the American market, “logo” labels like ours were in a bad spot, so David sold the label back to Warner Brothers and became senior vice-president there. I managed David for over eight years and we did many things together, including working with Céline Dion and Barbra Streisand, among others. Managing David was a very interesting experience.

What experiences have helped develop your skills as a manager?

There’s no school for managers, you have to learn it in the field as you go. Personal contacts are what it takes. For example, I know every head of every local record company around the world. You may have an artist who sold well in Benelux, but can’t sell in the UK, and you have to understand why. You have to understand what the formats are and how you break artists in new markets.

The only way to know that is by dealing directly as a manager with the heads of record companies, with marketing people, and with all sorts of companies around the world. I’ve developed that over the years and it’s very important for a manager. It’s a tough business though, particularly for managers, who get none of the credit but all of the blame.

How did you first learn about Josh Groban?

We received a CD and Josh’s voice just blessed us. We arranged for him to sing at the previous governor of California, Gray Davis’s inauguration. That was about six years ago. He went on between Coolio and Kenny G, and he was totally unknown. He did a great job and then he left and we didn’t think much about him. Two months later, we were doing the Grammies and Andrea Bocelli didn’t show up for rehearsal. David called me and said, “Get the kid”.

We called Josh and he was nervous, he didn’t want to go. We talked him into it anyway and he went on stage, sang with Céline Dion and blew everybody away. Rosie O’Donnell was the hostess of the show and she told us that she wanted him on her show the week after. We got him on that and later on the Ally McBeal show, and that’s what really got him started.

When he came to us he just had this incredible voice. He had no recording experience and he was actually getting ready to go to college, Carnegie Tech. David and I were very interested in him, but we did not want him not to go to college. Eventually, his father called us and told us that Josh was interested and asked us if we could get him a recording career.

What did you see in Josh that made you want to work with him?

I have been in this business for thirty years and I’ve never heard a voice as natural and powerful as his. He is also a very smart young man, one of the smartest I have ever worked with. He learns fast, he’s about the work, and he doesn’t much care for the trappings of celebrity, the limousines and so on. He’s a hard-working young man and it’s amazing what he is able to deliver.

For example, when we started working on the first album, he had no idea what a fader was, but when we finished the record he was helping David Foster mix it! And David only ever allows a few artists in on the mix. Josh co-wrote three songs for the second album, and he did a great job, so he’s really starting to develop as a new artist.

Did you draw up a plan of how you were going to work with Josh when you signed him?

Absolutely. We had a hard time getting him a record deal though, because record companies were afraid that they wouldn’t be able to get a voice like that on radio. We finally got a deal with Warner Brothers, which we drew up with Phil Quartararo, then president of Warner Brothers. Josh was new to the record business, so I asked a friend of mine who managed Sarah Brightman if Josh could go on her tour.

Josh didn’t know what a tour bus or road manager was, as he’d never toured before, but he did about fifty dates with Sarah Brightman, singing one song in her show, and that way he learnt what the business was about. We were half way through recording the album but stopped to put him on the road. It was a great learning process for him and when he came back he had a deeper understanding of the business. It was a very important part in the development of his career.

The most important part, however, was the marketing plan that was put together to market Josh, by myself and a gentleman at Warner Brothers named Diarmuid Quinn, whom I owe a lot to. We were very careful about setting the record up for Josh; it was all laid out in a very detailed plan.

He never toured for the first album, instead he did a lot of television and that’s what broke him. Ally McBeal was of course important, and then we got him on Oprah, which in the US is a very powerful medium for selling records, where he was very well received. We also got him on 20/20, a documentary show on ABC, and he even sang the closing song at the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games. He was magic on television.

David does a lot of charity events, so with David’s help we got Josh on a lot of them all over the world, such as the Andre Agassi charity event in Las Vegas. We did about fifty charity events and they were a part of getting people to notice him.

David and I had set out just to make a great record, and not worry about radio. We always thought that the public should decide what Josh meant to them and that he should not be labelled as one type of artist of another, because once you get labelled, you have a hard time breaking out of the mould. Josh hasn’t been labelled and that’s good.

Did you focus on any particular issues when developing Josh as an artist?

As he was so young, we had to be very careful with his voice. He worked with a vocal coach, David Romano, and training had to be taken slowly, because a voice is a muscle that can be hurt if you overdo it. We were very cautious, but Mr. Romano was a tremendous help. Josh now takes vocal lessons at least three times a week and takes great care of his voice.

We had to develop his voice correctly before we could ever think about him touring. When you tour you have to sing for two hours and you have to be careful with a voice like his.

What were the most important TV shows?

Without a doubt, Oprah, 20/20, and all the morning TV shows in America. Morning shows give great returns, as opposed to late night shows, which don’t add up to great record sales. Women who watch the morning shows loved Josh, and they went out and bought his records.

What led to the special on PBS (the network owned by the 349 American public television stations), “Josh Groban in Concert”? Did it serve to widen his fan base?

That was a very important piece in the puzzle. I felt PBS was a good place to take Josh. Because he hadn’t taken off yet, they were a little reluctant at first, but there was a gentleman there named David Horn who got it. We didn’t want to do just a regular special by putting him on stage; instead we wanted to put very interesting guest artists on with him and give a unique kind of presentation.

I found the director, Daniel Ezralow, who was American but had staged operas in Europe, and he helped me put the show together. The guest stars were John Williams; Andrea Corr, the Corrs’ vocalist; David Foster; Angie Stone and Lili Haydn. It was a unique presentation and it really showed off Josh’s versatility as an artist.

In the end, I believe that the DVD of the PBS special is to date the biggest selling DVD on the American market. It has sold over six hundred thousand copies, so obviously we did something right. As a manager, I’m very careful about how he comes across on television. Television is such an important medium that if you don’t do it right, you can really shoot yourself in the foot.

Without TV, would you have been able to get Josh on commercial radio?

It would have been impossible. Radio would not touch Josh. His new song, “You Raise Me Up”, is just starting to get airplay on the top radio stations and I don’t think they can ignore him anymore. The public is now pushing for radio to play Josh and I think that something very interesting is going to happen. We have airplay on AC Radio, and to get pop radio too, which we’re close to, would be amazing.

What role has Josh’s website played in his breakthrough?

When Josh did Ally McBeal, we saw on the show’s website that the beginnings of a fan base called the Grobanites had started to form. We then, together with Warner, developed a website called joshgroban.com, which has probably had ten million hits since it’s been around. That fan base helps us in a lot of ways. For example, when we put Josh’s tour on sale, the entire forty dates of the tour sold out in less than an hour. An artist who had never toured!

The Grobanites just continue to grow, and if you go on the Internet you’ll see the movement that they have created. There are two websites, joshgroban.com, which is free, and then there’s a fan club called friendsofjoshgroban.com, where you become a member and get perks, like getting to order tickets early when he tours. Oprah is known to have said, on air, after the Grobanites had inundated her with calls, “OK, Grobanites. You can stop calling me, Josh Groban is on now.”

What artists do you currently manage?

Toni Braxton, Josh Groban, Kenny Rankin and a new girl called Reneé Olstead. Kenny Rankin is a great jazz artist. He doesn’t sell a lot of records, but I love his work and that’s why I manage him. You’re going to hear a lot about Reneé Olstead; she is my and David’s next big project. She’s a fourteen-year-old Texan girl who sings like Ella Fitzgerald.

How do you find new talent?

Once you’ve been around as long as I have, the artists contact you, especially when you have an artist as hot as Josh. All of a sudden people think you know what you’re doing and they start calling you. I also get calls from record companies that want me to do projects and that gets my attention real quick. If you know the record company is interested, half the battle’s over.

Do you accept unsolicited material?

Not really, because it’s almost impossible to deal with everything you get. I usually go looking for new artists; they don’t come to me in the mail. Still, I try to be fair and listen to as many as I can and the staff also screen some of it for me. We get about 15-20 packages per week.

What do you think of the quality of unsolicited material?

You rarely get a great demo. I’d also rather hear something that’s raw as opposed to overproduced, because when it’s raw you can really see if the power is there. An overproduced demo really turns me off.

What traits are indispensable in an artist whom you want to sign?

Obviously, they have to be talented, but they also have to be interested in their career. I’m interested in artists who really want a career and who understand music. I couldn’t work with a studio artist who couldn’t do it live. I also don’t care about looks or image, because we can develop an image. Great artists come in all shapes and sizes.

What area in particular do unsigned artists need to learn more about?

The recording process. It’s important for artists to understand how to make a great record when they go into the studio, particularly because the process is so expensive today. Artists must understand that it takes a lot of work to make it happen; they have to be ready to roll up their sleeves and get on with it.

How involved are you with repertoire and production?

Having had the opportunity to work with great producers like David Foster, Walter Afanasieff and Ahmet Ertegun, I’ve learnt a lot. I wouldn’t say that I know what a surefire hit record is, but I try to get in my two cents when I’m in the studio. A song might run to four or five minutes, but when you go on television you have to edit it down, sometimes to two and a half minutes, and you have to keep that in mind whilst you’re making the record.

How much do you take radio into account when considering a new artist?

I don’t take it into account that much, because I think radio is all screwed up, especially here in America. There are so many formats and I just don’t buy it. Years ago we used to try to ensure a record got played by hiring independent radio promoters, but I’ve learnt that the public will tell you whether it’s an honest effort, as they did in Josh’s case. We let the public decide and now radio is going to have to play it. I don’t play the radio game.

Are new ways of breaking artists needed?

Yes, and I think we’ve found one, for which Josh is the perfect example. It’s called television.

Considering record labels are less and less concerned with developing new artists and instead want a ready-to-go package, including songs and productions, do you think managers will be primarily responsible for the development of new artists in the future?

Without a doubt, because I think that the record business is going through a major upheaval right now and they’re going to have to cut costs. Managers and producers are going to become very important in the development of artists, especially when the record company listens to you and you can create an intelligent marketing plan, as a manager in my position can.

When a record company sees that you know what you’re doing, then they will really work with you and that’s very important for management. You just can’t say let’s spend this and let’s spend that; you have to have a plan that works and I’ve been lucky enough in my career to have come up with them.

If artists share the costs of making the album with record labels, the artists’ share of the costs being deducted from their royalties, do you think they should also share ownership of the masters?

Well, of course we’d like that, but record companies are never going to give that up. There are exceptional cases, such as the Four Seasons, who owned almost all of their masters. But there is another way to do it: the Internet. There are artists now who don’t use record companies, who just create their own labels and market their CDs on the Internet. The Internet is going to become an interesting adjunct to the record business. In Josh’s case, I can guarantee that we sold over a million records through the Internet.

Will online sales in digital formats create a boost for the music industry?

Absolutely, and the record companies are learning how to deal with that now. You’ll see less retail and more Internet sales; however, not everyone has a computer but anyone can get to a record shop, so they aren’t going to go away.

Do you agree with the fact the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) is tracking and suing certain file-sharing individuals?

Yes. When people download without paying for it, it hurts the writers, the artists, the record companies and everyone else involved. That has to be brought under control and it’s going to be very difficult. In China and the Pacific Rim, for example, piracy is rife.

What major changes have affected the industry over the last few years?

The key to this business is having a great team around you. You need record companies to break artists, but you all have to be friendly. In the old days, it used to be, they’re the enemy, we have to beat ’em up and take all their money, or vice versa. But that’s not the case now, it has to be a team effort, and that’s what we’ve started to do now, to work together, as a team, and we have to continue this team effort to take it further.

Another change is going to be the Internet. We really developed that with Josh and his website and I think that that’s going to be a major factor in breaking artists. It’s something that I concentrate on; for example, we have a guy on the road who is constantly shooting footage of what happens on the tour and then we upload it to Josh’s website. It’s experimental now, but it’s going to be a big booster of record sales.

What has been the greatest moment of your music career?

In all my years of experience, it has to be having an artist as great as Josh—a phenomenon that nobody thought would happen—and a producer as great as David Foster, because the combination is just tremendous. And all the people at Warner Brothers, the incredible team around this young man, who have proven to me that everything I wanted and tried to do in terms of marketing was worth it.

What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years’ time?

The same thing I’m doing now, because I love being a manager. I ran a record label and it was fun, but I didn’t have the freedom that I have as a manager. I’m thinking of producing some Broadway musicals. Broadway could use a shot in the arm and Josh is of course a natural candidate for that.

He has already tried his hand at it: he sang part of Chess, the musical, at a charity event for the Actors’ Fund of America. He rehearsed it for four days and it was amazing. There are things that we’re going to do in that area, and I’m also toying with some film ideas.


Interviewed by Jean-François Méan



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