Whitesmith: The brains behind the music

A candid interview with one of today’s most proficient artist managers

New York City’s Emily White has a cute, easy-going, youthful persona. You might not guess at first glance that the artsy, carefree gal is the entrepreneurial music business guru who co-founded Whitesmith Entertainment where she manages an eclectic group of up and coming bands and musicians, but she is. Her partner, Keri Smith Esguia, works on the opposite coast in Los Angeles, where she specializes in managing comedic acts. Together, the power-duo is a force to be reckoned with, representing artists such as Family of the Year, Margaret Cho, Urge Overkill, GOLD MOTEL and the irrepressible Elon James White among others.

Emily White of Whitesmith Entertainment. Photo by BriAnna Olsen

One of the first things that struck me about Whitesmith Entertainment was the fact that they specialize in truly artistic, niche performers. While some managers and labels exclusively focus on low risk clients who have either already hit it big or are cookie cutter top 40 mockups, Whitesmith specializes in eclectic, self-propelled performers who thrive on direct-to-fan marketing and amass close-knit cult followings. I got the chance to talk with Emily White earlier this week. Here’s a transcript of our conversation.

GRASSMAN: Firstly, I’d like to get a particular elephant out of our way. So many artists today seem to be confused as to what a manager like yourself actually does! Granted, there are variations in the services different managers offer, but in general, what is a manager’s role in the careers of their artists and clients? You are what is known in the industry as a personal manager, correct?

WHITE: I am indeed a personal manager, which means we advise and guide our artists on all areas of their careers with regard to the entertainment industry. We work directly with the artist on planning the next few days, next year, and the next 5 and 30 years of their lives and careers. Managers assemble teams including a booking agent, attorney, publicist, traditionally a label, and others. However, I feel very strongly about building up the artist’s business and not relying on outside partners who may not be there in 5 years let alone 6 months. Connecting with fans directly is the key to this, as well as owning and controlling ones creative rights.

GRASSMAN: I agree! Now, you’ve worked with a wide variety of artists, from the eccentric Amanda Palmer to the more folk-powered band, Family of the Year. Do you find that you have to employ different management techniques based on a particular artist’s genre or personality, or is there a consistent science to it?

WHITE: Each plan needs to be specifically tailored to the individual artist, absolutely.  However, I also helped to develop the Zac Brown Band at the beginning of his or their career, and had no experience in country music when we got started. Thus, what is consistent is great music, a powerful live show, connecting with fans both online and off, consistency in content releases, as well as fan interaction.

GRASSMAN: I’ve noticed that many of your artists bridge art forms. You’ve got Margaret Cho, musician and comedian. You’ve also worked with Alina Simone, musician and author. What is it about boundary-crossing artists that appeals to you?

Whitesmith comedian Margaret Cho and Amanda Palmer at SXSW 2009.

WHITE: We are so lucky to work with multi-dimensional artists, even within music alone. Brendan Benson is a solo artist, co-leader of The Raconteurs, who also writes songs for others and produces. I think it’s natural for brilliant creative minds to branch out into other fields. For us, it keeps things interesting and is also one of the many reasons why I adore working with my partner, Keri Smith Esquia. Keri brings a background in comedy, film and television to the table that really complements my music experience. That way, we feel like we can service each client in-depth, covering every base in the entertainment industry they want to hit.

GRASSMAN: That’s very true! It seems like as a team you are extremely well rounded. I also noticed that all your artists are very well steeped in the social networks such as Myspace, Facebook and Twitter. About two years ago my own music Myspace page started malfunctioning so I couldn’t update it anymore. It degenerated from a fan-hub to little more than a calling card. Thankfully, most of my listeners were migrating over to Facebook anyway, so I just reconnected with them there. (And since then I’ve regained control over my Myspace page). But what do you think about that MySpace-to-Facebook migration? Is Facebook the new MySpace, and how important are social networking sites like these?

WHITE: In an ever changing industry, social networking is everything. Artists can’t necessary rely on outside companies, but connecting with their fans on these networks is crucial. Are Myspace’s numbers down? Absolutely. However, there are still fans on Myspace, particularly in certain parts of the US and various countries. We believe in finding every fan possible, no matter where they are hanging out. However, to me, Myspace is more of a one-sheet at this point as opposed to a social network. It’s important that all content, tour dates, and contact information is up to date because when folks are searching for an artist, their Myspace page is one of the top links. And again, everyone knows where the info is on each page that they’re looking for, so keeping it up-to-date is a no brainer.

GRASMAN: Good point. Obviously you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket though. As with my MySpace experience, you never know when you could lose control over any given profile. You could lose your password, get hacked, the server could go down … there are a myriad of colossal difficulties that could arise and disconnect you from that fan group. Plus people delete their profiles all the time. How do you recommend artists protect themselves from this kind of debacle?

WHITE: Grow a strong email list and back it up! Fanbridge is my favorite and they automatically back up your database. I don’t see e-mail going away any time soon as the best way to connect with fans and share or sell content to them.

GRASSMAN: A lot of bands, particularly on sites like MySpace, seem to want to arbitrarily add as many people as possible. Do you think this kind of marketing is productive, or is it better to focus on a small group of fans and build a strong relationship with them?  In other words, which do you prefer: 100,000 fair weather fans or 2,000 hard core friend-fans and why?

WHITE: I’m all about focus and creating a tight-knit group. I’d rather have 100 passionate fans than 500 fair-weather, spammed fans. The initial group of hardcore fans is your base to keep spreading the word as they are your best promoters. In the modern era, it’s also fun to take care of those fans with high-end bundles, exclusive pieces of content, and concerts in their living room. Access to the artist is much more direct and for us, it’s a great way to reward the fans and hopefully keep them for life.

GRASSMAN: You’ve got a wide variety of artists that you are managing under Whitesmith Entertainment, from outrageous comedians to sultry singer-songwriters. Are there any particular artists or upcoming projects you’re particularly engaged in right now?

WHITE: Thanks! I’d like to think that our roster has a variety of artists, but somehow they’d all fit on the same Whitesmith-esque festival or bill.  As we state on our site, we take pride in working with artists who really have a deep meaning to their fans as that will connect with folks no matter what the format or genre. I’m honored to be involved with the early stages of Brendan Benson’s next album, as well as facilitating the release of Urge Overkill’s first new album in 15 years.

Emily White of Whitesmith Entertainment

Sydney Wayser and Family of the Year will both have new albums out this year and it’s been a pleasure to watch these artists grow and naturally develop to higher level careers every day.  We’ve also had a blast getting GOLD MOTEL organized and ensuring that everyone who will dig last year’s release of Summer House has heard it.  In addition, comedian Kevin Avery is working on some amazing projects for MSN as well as Thugs, The Musical, and we’ll have some exciting surprises with newish comedy client W. Kamau Bell this year.  We’re really excited and thrilled about everything going on right now.

GRASSMAN: It’s been evident in my own musical career that people are buying CDs less and less, and that digital downloads are more and more the rage. Are CDs becoming a thing of the past, or do you think digital downloads are just the newest craze and that physical packages are going to make a comeback once the hype dies down? And how are you and your artists coping with this transition?

WHITE: I think both can happily co-exist. Specialty vinyl shops in hip neighborhoods are never going to go away. Just as digital content in the mainstream is really only just getting going, with platforms like Spotify not even available yet in the US. Thus, it’s important to take care of everything that fans want, down from a free song in exchange for subscribing to an email list, up to packages in the thousands of dollars that include private concerts, flights to out of town shows, and unique experiences that couldn’t be delivered directly a decade ago.

GRASSMAN: I noticed on your website that your specialties include artist development, content releases, touring services, and online marketing.  What’s one of the first things you initially do for your artists? How do you as a manager go about laying the foundation for a successful run together?

WHITE: Cleaning up an artist’s online presence is definitely first.  Making sure the fans are being engaged with and taken care of is key. That is a big component of artist development that will help with the next content release and hopefully a strong touring career.

GRASSMAN: Well, since I am something of a diva myself, I usually wrap things up with a slightly selfish question …

WHITE: Haha! You don’t seem like a diva to me!  

GRASSMAN: Oh, thanks! Haha! But in all seriousness – how does an artist know when they’re ready for a professional manager? What are the prerequisites? And how do you recommend they go about finding one?

WHITE: We look for artists loaded with talent who are willing to work as hard as we are.  Beyond that, managers are looking for artists who have built up their fan base and live shows to a point where they can’t do it themselves any more. At the end of the day, we look for acts who have something to manage.

GRASSMAN: Well, thank you so much Emily White for the informative interview, and good luck in all your 2011 endeavors!

For more information on Emily White and her company, please visit www.WhitesmithEntertainment.com. Below you will find some of the performers Whitesmith Entertainment works with.

WHITESMITH COMEDIANS:

Margaret Cho| www.MargaretCho.com

Kevin Avery | www.KevinAveryComedy.com

W. Kamau Bell | www.WKamauBell.com

Sara Benincasa | www.SaraBenincasa.com

Selene Luna | www.SeleneLuna.com

Elon James White | www.ElonJamesisnotWhite.com

WHITESMITH ARTISTS & BANDS:

Brendan Benson | www.BrendanBenson.com

Family Of The Year | www.FamilyOfTheYear.net

GOLD MOTEL | www.GoldMotel.com

Sydney Wayser | www.SydneyWayser.com

WHITESMITH CLIENTS / CONSULTING:

Urge Overkill | www.UrgeOverkill.com


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Jennifer Grassman

Jennifer Grassman is a singer, songstress and pianist who inadvertently became a music industry trailblazer in the wake of the digital revolution. In addition to penning her quirky music industry column, "The Business of Being Diva," Jennifer writes songs and performs concert tours. Jennifer’s accomplishments include being nominated Houston’s best female vocalist and best songwriter and was named best keyboardist in the 2010 Houston Press Music Awards. She assisted in a campaign that raised more than $100,000 for CrimeStoppers and was commended by musician Tori Amos for her charitable efforts on behalf of domestic-abuse victims.  Jennifer has released three CDs, the most recent of which, "Serpent Tales & Nightingales," received accolades from Christianity Today, the Houston Chronicle and Brian Ray and the guitarist of Paul McCartney's band. You can check out Jennifer’s music at www.JenniferGrassman.com, like her on Facebook and tweet her at www.Twitter.com/JGrassman.

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