Behind The Music: Allen Stone’s manager BJ Olin (Part 1)

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Behind The Music - Allen Stone

In my words…

For every successful Artist, there’s someone working tirelessly behind the scenes contributing to their success.

For too long now, the Artist Manager (who I call “the glue” holding it all together and the Artist’s biggest fan, confidant, and cheerleader) toils away for the most part in anonymity as the praise and glory shine down upon their Artist.

A Manager never rests.  They wake up each morning thinking about ways to make their Artist more successful and while the rest of the world sleeps, the Manager is still up working on their plans for World Domination.

A Manager’s DNA is not like most mortals; that’s probably why there are so few.  The passion, dedication, selflessness of putting oneself second, loss of sleep, money, and sometimes relationships in the pursuit of achieving your Artist’s dream and vision in an Industry where the odds are stacked against you may make some question your sanity and, at times, so do you until you watch your Artist “kill” a room and then you remember why you’re there.

The Manager, in my eyes, is the unsung hero.  It can sometimes be a thankless job and nothing raises my Irish more than an Artist who doesn’t publicly thank their Manager, especially at The Grammys.  It’s the Manager who will remain with you through thick and thin, because you’re building something together right?  It’s a partnership I liken to marriage; it’s not always going to be a honeymoon.

Artists, treasure your Manager if you’re lucky enough to have one.  If you haven’t thanked them lately, I suggest you call them after reading this and say, “Have I told you lately how much I appreciate you?”

They may ask if you’ve been drinking but I guarantee you’ll make their day.  A thank you goes a long way in a Manager’s memory bank.

Managers, hats off and my deepest personal respect for all you do!  – Robin

2013.09.02: Allen Stone @ Bumbershoot - TuneIn Stage, Seattle, W

Allen Stone @ Bumbershoot Festival 2013

 

This week’s guest is Allen Stone’s Manager, BJ Olin of Red Light Management.  Red Light is one of the most innovative artist management companies in the industry with offices in New York, Los Angeles, Charlottesville, Nashville, Atlanta, Bristol and London.  Red Light is like the ‘Harvard of Music Management’ – known for excellence.  It’s a company up-and-coming Managers dream of, work toward, and strive to be amongst one day in their career futures.  Besides Allen, BJ also guides the careers of artists Jinx, Jackie Tohn, Tingsek, and Stacie Orrico.

I caught up with BJ by phone at his office in LA after getting in from a flight from NYC recently.

GC: BJ, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule.  I’m a big fan of yours as well as your Artist Allen Stone.

GC: How did you get into the Music Industry?
BJ: In my youth, I was an active hobby violinist.  But when I went off to college, I had my sights set on becoming a professional runner until as fate would have it, I broke my knee, shattering my dream in professional sports.  In my senior year of college, I had some friends who were making a record and I was a Marketing major, so I said the 3 words that would forever change my life: “I’ll help you”.  Says Olin, “I had no idea what that meant, I had to learn everything but it sort of lead to everything else”.

GC: Do you think Managers find bands or bands find Managers? (chicken or the egg theory)
BJ: I liken it to dating. I feel when Artists search out a Manager it’s more of a desperate sort of thing even though it may not be, it comes across that way. But for me personally, I like to do everything on my own and take it out and pursue it on my end but that’s not to say it can’t work the other way, it’s just my personal preference.

GC: I know many Artists in Seattle want a Manager and have reached out to some local Managers.  Every Manager in Seattle gets frequent email inquiries as to management since there are so few to start with.  Do you think for the most part that Managers and Labels know who they’re interested in, who’s getting a buzz, selling out shows, and seek them out?  If that’s the case, is it even necessary or is it a waste of time for an Artist to pursue a Manager?
BJ: I think its very Manager dependent.  A lot of Managers might want to sign an artist that’s already buzzing with things already to manage.  I like to get involved very, very early to help develop the artist on the creative side, to basically start from ground zero, which is essentially what Allen and I have done together.  We’ve been working together for 7 years now, so for my personal preference, I like to get involved very early.  But I know some Managers that prefer an artist that is already growing, buzzing, that’s already being talked about, but that’s really not my thing.

GC: So, how do you find your Artists?
BJ: It’s different, you know I worked for Barcelona for 4 years and I met Brian (lead singer) and Chris (no longer in the band) at a coffee shop.  We were just hanging out and having coffee and they were with a mutual friend of mine so we just hung out and chatted over coffee.  We started working from there.  With Allen, I actually went to see a show at the Q Cafe and he was the Opener and that’s how I found him.

GC: Don’t you love it when you go to a venue to see an Artist and you stumble upon some other unknown artist who just blows you away?  You’re like “WOW”, who is that?  Especially at a tucked away place like the Q Café.  To go from there to where you are now with Allen is remarkable.
BJ: It’s taken a bit of time but counting each milestone is a very special moment for me and Allen.  It’s fun to see those things tangibly come together.

GC: What does a ‘day in the life’ of BJ Olin look like?
BJ: Every day is different and that’s why I love my job.  There’s not one similar day.  You know today I’m listening to Allen’s new record and the pre-mixes as we’re trying to lock-up the record and looking at his fall tour routing.  Yesterday, it was 11 hours on a flight with no WiFi, and the day before that were meetings in London, and the day before that was a show in London.  So it’s usually a lot of emails and phone calls, and communicating with the artist.  Once I landed last night in LA, I called my artist Jinx to go over some things.  So it’s sort of a very communication-heavy position.

2013.05.02: Prom Night with Allen Stone @ The Crocodile, Seattle

Allen Stone & Band @ Bumbershoot Prom Night at The Crocodile 2013

 

GC: In your opinion, what should an Artist look for in a Manager and when does one need to seek Management?
BJ: I think it depends on the artist.  I think there are a few common threads, one being, look for someone who’s very resourceful and will protect the artist in terms of relaying the artist’s vision to all of the parts of the team and Industry as a whole.  That’s why it’s important that every Manager be a good communicator as well as very resourceful.  For me, very early on, before I was with Red Light, I had to just sort of scrape and claw my way into finding opportunities for Allen and then taking one opportunity and changing it into two, and two into three, and three into four.  It’s a lot of that early on.

GC: So you can’t wait for an opportunity to come to you, you must go out and create it and make it happen.
BJ: Exactly.

GC: OK flip that, what does a Manager look for when considering representing an Artist and is it mandatory (if a band) that they have a band agreement in place prior to signing on with you?
BJ: I don’t have any bands in place right now but I kind of like the setup of just one artist and that artist hires out the band like Allen does.  It sort of minimizes the workload I have by having one person to communicate with instead of 5 or 6.  But when there’s a band, I don’t need a band agreement before I step in, but I can help them get one together once I come aboard with a band but it’s not a necessity by any means.

In terms of what a Manager look for in an Artist, it kind of depends on the Manager.  Some Managers want something buzzing now and something that will pay dividends immediately or almost immediately.  That’s not necessarily my forte, so to speak.

GC: Obviously you started with Allen from Day One and you’ve built it together.  You seem to like the old label model of developing the artist from the ground up and sharing in the success along the way.
BJ: It makes it more exciting for all parties involved.  What I look for is: How easy is it to work with them?  How mobile are they?  Are they married?  Do they have children?  What are their finances like?  Everyone’s coming from a different place in life so you have to build around their limitations.  Obviously, the less limitations, the better.  You have to lead into it for a few years before it will start to work unless you’re lucky.  You could get lucky and it could take off, but for the most part, it’s a lot of nights at Taco Bell or eating Ramen.  Saying, “OK, you want to have a band”, like I’m going through this with Jinx right now.  He’s an Independent Hip Hop Artist but he wants a full band.  And how do you afford that?  Even if we ‘could’ afford it, it’s always the artist that’s going to make money last, if at all.  You sometimes have to lay out the pros and cons of the artist’s desire, and it may not make sense when you weigh it all out.

GC: So as an Artist, you have to pay all the people who are taking care of you first and all the things you need then, and then if there’s anything left over, that’s yours, which is usually little to…
BJ: Not much, if anything.

GC: Some publications on the industry report that it can take up to 3 years to break an Artist and 3-5 years (if you can keep a band together long enough), before you might start reaping the rewards of your efforts.  What’s your take on that?
BJ: Yeah, in the way I want to break an artist.  I want to be in the interest of creating careers.  Living in LA and being surrounded by a lot of Managers, there’s a lot of the feeling the need to have something work immediately and I don’t think that anything that goes big and fast necessarily lasts a very long time, or at least that’s the Physics part of my brain saying the faster something takes to go up, the quicker it’s going to come down.  I would rather do the “slow burn”, where you’re growing at your own pace and it’s tricky because a lot of young artists, including Allen and Jinx, are all impatient.  It’s tricky when they see other Artists that are getting a record deal, or going on tour or doing things faster.  It’s hard to sit there as an Independent Artist who’s struggling and asking, “how come it’s taking me longer?  Why am I not going that fast?  Why aren’t things working as quickly for me?”  But those are all very detrimental perspectives to have I think.

It’s hard to convince your artist when seeing another artist doing well or getting a great deal but they don’t know the inner workings of that situation.  I’ve had friends sign big record deals and they take 2-3 years to put out a record and in that time they’re sitting at home with nothing to do while fighting with the label to release the record.  So they’re losing momentum, they’re not touring, they’re not building their fanbase, and the label is “shocked” at the fact that things aren’t working out.  But all your artist sees is they seem to be moving up faster.

GC: Or how about when your record gets shelved and you don’t own the rights or the Record Exec who signed you leaves and the new Record Exec doesn’t care about you or your project?
BJ: It’s inevitable.  Record Execs play musical chairs at major labels.  You can’t control that but you can control when you go to a major and what kind of deal you get if you build it right on your own.  Minimize your risk as much as you can but you can’t prevent the President of a label leaving and going to be the President at another label or your A&R guy leaving.  It all goes back to what leverage you have as an artist when you go to a label.  I think that when Allen signed to Capital a few months ago, we were obviously in a different position than 9-10 artists who sign with a major.  So I’m not worried per se, because the President of Capital left that we’re in a bad position because we’re not.  We’re kind of a “self-contained” unit.  We’re going to continue to sell-out venues in every major market, and it’s taking out the guess work for the label and basically handing them a project where all the work has been done.

GC: I’m sure they love that.
BJ: They’re a machine.  I don’t think labels are dead but I don’t know if they’re going anywhere anytime soon.  They’re definitely becoming more of a machine as opposed to Artist Development.  Not to say that there aren’t any labels that do Artist Development, it’s just not built into the system to be a thing anymore.  Because they all have jobs and mortgages to pay for where they’re worried about losing money and they need results and soon!

2012.07.20: Allen Stone @ Capitol Hill Block Party, Seattle, WA

Allen Stone @ Capitol Hill Block Party 2012

 

GC: Would you agree that Managers who are good at development are most sought after?  It’s hard to develop an Artist from the ground up but once you’ve done that successfully, your worth goes up.
BJ: I would. I think Managers who are good at developing are going to become the next influx of successful execs in the Music Industry for it’s dying out, someone’s got to do it.  Otherwise, we’re just putting out ‘One Hit Wonders’.

GC: So how do you keep your artists head screwed on straight as to the realities of the Industry?
BJ: You know, sometimes you can’t and sometimes it has to be a situation where they try and speed it up and then they trip a little bit and you gotta be there to sort of let them have their freedom and the space in their journey to kind of stumble a little bit.  It’s like OK, you tried that now let’s try slow and steady.  Sort of slow and steady wins the race.  But I’m actually fortunate where things are with Allen, for I can turn to my other clients and say “look it’s not a theory or a philosophy I have, it actually works.  It’s not rocket science, you can take out all the guess work and if you grow it slowly.  Somewhere along the way maybe something will ignite, but the slow build is not that difficult.  It just takes a lot of work.”

GC: What would you say to someone who would like to become an Artist Manager?  What qualities do you think they need most to be successful?  I think Managers know patience but artists, especially the young artists want it now!  They’re from a generation of expecting everything faster.  So do you feel as a Manager, you have to let them trip and fall a little even though it may be hard to stand back and watch in order to learn the lesson?
BJ: Be ready to be poor for a while.  Have some sort of income to pay the bills while you do management.  Anyone who wants to be a Manager must be resourceful and tenacious.  They’ve got to really know how to gather information and present it, know what the artist wants and build the plan around them.  You definitely need to foresee a lot of things when building a plan and have a contingency plan for the worst and hope for the best.  My contingency plan has a contingency plan.  You also have to be very flexible.  You’re talking about two personality types that are so vastly different.  A Manager has to protect themselves and their artists and their vision.  I have to trust Allen’s vision but also play Devil’s Advocate all day long.  If a label wants to do something and Allen doesn’t think it’s best, I have to lay it all out and show him the pros and cons of what was presented for ultimately it’s the artist’s decision.  Thankfully Allen recognizes that and appreciates that about me.  If the label wants to do something and Allen doesn’t, he’ll say “I don’t want to” and I’ll argue both sides, showing him the pros and cons that he may not be thinking about and at least give him ammunition to make a better decision.

GC: That makes sense.  Many artists don’t like the business side so can be short sided as to what is being presented to them.  Since it’s not their thing, it’s easier to say no.  They just want to create.
BJ: Yeah, a lot of artists become precious about the brand and their image and the content that’s being put out and how it represents them and all of that.  A lot of times you just have to remind them they may be over thinking it, sit down and show them options to do it another way, or show them if we do nothing, there will be radio silence.  There are lots of different angles to play. 

GC: It’s also been said that a Personal Manager is part: Friend, Confidant, Advisor, Protector, Cheerleader, Psychiatrist, Educator, Supporter, Wrangler, and wears many different hats on any given day.  Is this an accurate description?
BJ: Absolutely!  And again, I relate a lot of this to dating.  They’re potent relationships.  I joke with Allen all the time that his is now my longest standing relationship of any kind other than my Mother.  (laughing)  So there’s definitely moments as friends, he can tell if I’m stressed and he can tell when I’m tired or if there is something going on in my personal life.  He’s normally the first one to say, “How are you?” or “How are things going?”  Same with the Artist.  Making sure you don’t overwork your Artist is very tricky.

GC: I’ve always likened an Artist/Manager breakup to a divorce because it’s a huge loss that is personal and painful and it can take some time to get over.
BJ: Actually, I’ve been divorced so I know both sides of it and can say with a lot of experience that it’s very much like that.

GC: Describe your “worst” days as a Manager.
BJ: When I let a client down.  It could be in numerous ways but I’m inundated with decisions and I also can overthink them at times for every decision counts, even the small ones and if I make the wrong decision, or drop the ball, that’s hard to have to live with.

GC: Describe your “best” days as a Manager.
BJ: I’ll never get over being in another country where it makes no logical sense for a crowd who doesn’t even speak the language and shouldn’t even know your artist yet they’re singing along with him.  There is no drug on the planet that can equal that feeling!  When you see a sea of 6,000 singing the lyrics to your artist’s song, it’s pure magic.  Also having a day off with your client and taking a drive for a breather or sharing dinner and a shot, and looking over all you’ve done is the best.

GC: I look forward to sharing Part 2 of my interview with BJ Olin next Monday where we’ll get more in-depth about Artist Management and he’ll offer some advice to aspiring Managers.

2012.12.07: BJ Olin, Laura Jawer @ The Paramount Theatre, Seattle, WA

BJ Olin, Laura Jawer (Allen’s ex-tour manager) @ The Paramount Theatre 2012

 

About Robin Fairbanks

Robin Fairbanks has spent 30+ years in the music industry in many capacities. Working in the Seattle music scene since 2006 as a Manager/Booker, she's known for her ethics and artist development skills. Robin has guided the careers of many, but most notable as the former manager of Seattle's Fox and The Law for 3.5 years. Robin has spent the last 2 yrs consulting with Artists who seek her help as a music consultant and publicist with Setlist Music Solutions LLC. She also gives of her time as an advisor to Seattle Wave Radio, an Internet music station where she helped shape its sound as the ROCK Channel Music Director for 2+ yrs upon its launch in 2010 and where you'll find her music blog, "Bird On A Wire".