Welcome to music industry week! Instead of heading down to SXSW this year, we decided to highlight a bunch of music industry professionals who work in various parts of the business to keep it running all throughout the year. A single week down in Austin might seem glamorous for a time, but the truth is the music is an industry just like any other, and if it’s your goal to work in music, that goal is totally attainable without a “networking” trip that costs hundreds of dollars.
You don’t need to travel down to Texas and brush shoulders at overcrowded showcases full of cheap beer, questionable immigration policies and ubiquitous corporate branding. If the point of going to SXSW is to get familiar with the music industry, skip all that and read our interview series instead to find out where you may fit in. There’s so many areas to work in aside from playing music, or even writing about music, and the purpose of this series is to spotlight lesser-known but essential roles that keep the music world spinning. Yesterday, we spoke with a music publisher, today we talked to an artist manager.
Alexis Rivera is the founder of an unconventional LA-based management company called Echo Parks Records. But clearly, they’re doing something right because their roster includes indie giants like Chromatics, Johnny Jewel, Melody’s Echo Chamber, Poolside, Todd Edwards and more. While managers have notoriously gotten a bad rap as out to scam and prey on artists, Rivera is seeking to rethink and redefine the role that good management can have in artists’ careers. Read the unlikely story of his path to artist management below.
How did you first get into music management?
Initially, I was a music critic. My only 9-5, Monday through Friday job as an adult was as a music critic at AOL. I would find a cool band at a show, or hear a cool record from England or something, and my editor would say ‘Well who’s the publicist?’ Or ‘what label is it on?’ ‘Did somebody pitch it to you?’ They were really dismissive of people who weren’t on labels and didn’t have publicists. I felt that people could go to any website to find out about Coldplay or whatever, and I was getting frustrated. I basically got to the point where I was like, if this is being a music critic, I don’t want to be it.
Later, I met this band Junior Senior from Denmark, I’d heard their one single because my friend in London sent me the 12-inch. So even though it hadn’t come out in America, I knew who they were. The band would come to LA, but hated it here, because the label would always put them up in like, West Hollywood. So I gave them my number and said next time you’re here I’ll show you around. They came back about a month later for some TV promo and did a sold-out show at the Troubadour, where I met their manager. I didn’t know what a manager did, and I still don’t know what a manager does. However, I will never forget the manager talking to them outside of the Troubadour, yelling at them, talking down to them like they were children, and not respecting them at all. I remember thinking ‘I don’t know what the f*ck a manager does, but whatever that is, that can’t be it. And anybody can be a manager if this guy can be a manager.’
Kids always write to us that they have a dream to work in music, but people think it’s impossible to get into. And in many ways, it is. If you look a certain way, if your name is a certain way. It is weird to me how often people stop doing things because of somebody’s name. My name is Rivera, and there’s not very many Riveras working in music in this country.
How did you land on the name Echo Park Records for your company? That throws some people off, who think it’s going to be a label — plus your office is in Highland Park, not Echo Park.
Echo Park Records started as a party. The first official one was at this Mexican restaurant downtown called Lil Pedros in 2004. I threw a party for Junior Senior and put a few other bands on the bill that that on paper, genre-wise don’t fit. The owners were thrilled with the turnout and wanted to give me a stake in the bar if I started throwing parties there consistently. My one condition was I got to handle all the booking, and I named the party Echo Park Records after a story my dad told me about a party in LA when he was young that you can read on our website.
Eventually, we sold the bar, largely the primary owners had drug issues, but all these parties started out of it — A Club Called Rhonda started out of that bar — because once it was gone a lot of us freaks didn’t have a place to go to. So me and my friend Jeppe, who is the singer of Junior Singer — he’s gay I’m straight — started a mixed party back in 2004 named “La Polla Loca” that’s slang in Spanish for “The Crazy Penis.” From booking bands at that bar, I also began managing a couple different bands, not really knowing what the f*ck I was doing early on, but I knew what I could do well and how to find the right audiences for the right artists.
I started managing a band that was super popular in LA, and when they started blowing up, little by little other bands started contacting me. Then, my friends who were in bands, who were way more successful would start saying ‘Hey do you want to manage my band?’ And I would tell them their manager with a lot of experience would probably do a better job, but they‘d say ‘we have more faith in you.’ So I started managing people little by little. But the funny thing as, all the groups I liked and who I was working with, I think they’re super cool, but I don’t think the industry thought they were cool, or they didn’t fit a type.
Why did you want to be an artist manager instead of starting a label? What’s the difference to you?
I think that subconsciously it kind of seeped in from my childhood. Basically in every Latin community in the Southwest there’s a Latino community center, but it’s open to all, and every Monday in the town where I grew up they would have a show that was like a five dollar cover. It was mostly jazz and blues groups, but every once in awhile they would have Blondie or somebody that was kinda cool. Because I’m an only child and my parents had no money for a babysitter, they would take me every Monday. So sometimes I would fall asleep listening to these old jazz and blues musicians talking about being f*cked over by record labels, and never making the money from royalties. Even then, I was like ‘These people are eighty years old and they have to tour? It’s not right.’
On the other hand, when success happens to somebody, they can change a lot when money gets involved. Money isn’t my priority and I don’t want to work with people like that. I had several bands leave after they blew up or not pay me my commission, but I decided I don’t want to work with people like that. I realized that if people who knew me and where I came from could do that kind of thing, I didn’t want to be involved. If somebody wants to stop working with me, fine. I don’t want the money, I don’t want to work with them, f*ck them. To this day, we don’t have contracts with anybody.
What are things you look for in artists you choose to manage?
The main thing is finding artists who are unique, who are confident of their abilities, but don’t have egos and are hard workers. Most of the people we work with, they’re quiet people in a lot of ways. All they care about is the music, they don’t care about social media or even really know how to use it. Some of our acts will go a year or two without posting on social media. I never want to manage somebody who is “funny on Twitter.” It starts affecting the music. I just want people to be well known for their music, I don’t really care if they have one-liners on Twitter or cool filters on Instagram. I like a little bit of mystery. With the acts we manage, it’s all people I’m a super big fan of.
Echo Park Records is a very unique management company, for instance the no contracts thing. Can you talk about the reasoning behind those choices and why you guys operate the way you do?
My biggest thing is that it’s okay to make mistakes. I didn’t go to USC like a lot of people in the music industry. I don’t have any contacts, it’s all just you try to do something, and if it doesn’t work out, then you learn from that and you move on. We are a very unique management company because nobody we manage is on a record label. We do a couple things that don’t make sense. A lot of our groups don’t even play that much. Everyone says acts have to be on a record label and they have to tour.
Right now, none of our groups have a publicist, which is another thing that’s weird. The only way you can really get press is if you have a publicist. But most of our groups own their homes, and I would rather them pay their mortgage than pay a publicist. I don’t like forcing anything on anyone, there’s things about the music business I don’t like and I know my artists don’t like it, because when they’ve tried to do them, they feel uncomfortable. My main thing is, I want artists to feel comfortable.
None of your artists are on labels, can you talk a little bit about what means for them?
I think with musicians, why shouldn’t they own their music? They’re not making it to get rich, they’re making it because they have to. I just believe in artist ownership. Ted Leo, Frank Ocean, Chance The Rapper — artists are beginning to talk about this very openly. The problem is people are not independent, people want money, and they’re scared to do things differently than other people. But you find those people like Frank or Chance The Rapper, that are unique.
Chance The Rapper is going to change things for so many people. I hate people dissing him and Frank Ocean for having a marketing deal with Apple — f*ck that. Just because they’re getting money from somebody, that doesn’t mean they’re signed to a record label. When you sign to a label you lose all your rights. Those guys tell Apple what to do. If you go on Spotify, you can see who owns the music. I think it’s cool that my artists own their own music, because the money is going straight into the artist’s pocket. This ties into why I hate SXSW, so much of the music industry is like a members only club, a frat, or a sorority. I feel like SXSW spends the money of artists. The only people who really pay at SXSW are the artists, and they always lose so much money. Everybody else has a hotel room the label is paying for etc.
Labels are great to get you on the radio, major labels especially. If you’re an artist that wants to get played on the radio, you should be on a major label. They can make that happen. Very rarely do artists on indie labels get on the radio, so I guess you’re going for the credibility of an indie label. Back in the day, people would get everything on one label, but I don’t think that’s the case anymore either. Indie labels are as bad as the majors, with less money. But they get away with sh*t because everybody thinks they’re cool, meanwhile some indie labels have done the most horrible things to my artists. People didn’t really understand when Prince was writing “I’m a slave” and rebelling against Warner Brothers. People didn’t get that. But when you’re a small independent artist and the label won’t let you put out your music? It’s horrible.
Speaking of money, what is the expected rate when it comes to management?
Most managers charge 20%. We don’t, we charge 15%. We’re doing fine, I have no complaints, I own a house. But it becomes harder. Most management companies charge between 10% and 20%. I would say 15% is on the low side, 20% is the industry standard. There’s a lot of poaching, there’s managers I know who try to poach our acts. Our acts always either forward me the email or reply to it and CC me, telling the person approaching to talk to me about it. Also, to artists, you don’t need a manager until there’s something to manage, or until your situation becomes unmanageable. When you can’t do your day job and be a musician, that’s when you need help.
What’s the most important thing for somebody who wants to be an artist manager to keep in mind?
I think you should love music and not care about money. Be observant. I’m always trying to observe smart people and surround myself with smart people, whether it’s the people that work for me or the people I work for — they’re all way smarter than me. Always try to be the dumbest person in the room, and find artists whose music you’re passionate about. A lot of the groups we manage have soundtracked super important moments in my life — the night I fell in love, the night I turned 30, the night a friend died. I can remember our artists doing all of that stuff. So I would find music that you really care a lot about, and if you have decent taste, it probably means other people will care about it.
The most important thing is to have a long term view. Glass Candy used to give songs away on Myspace, and people thought it was stupid. When the music industry says you’re killing music by devaluing it, and there shouldn’t be a free tier on Spotify… it’s like have you heard the ads? They suck. If you have $10 a month — which a lot of people don’t have — if you have that luxury, you pay it. Just because somebody doesn’t pay that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to have music. We decided recently that all of our groups’ new records will be free downloads somewhere, they’ll be for sale too, but somewhere, on our website or our Facebook we will make it a free download. But I would hate to have somebody not be able to hear music because they don’t have money. I know my artists feel the same way.