Interview with TONIA KEMPLER, manager to producers of Destiny's Child, TLC - Oct 22, 2007
ďA song has to be the perfect fit for an artist. Even though we may have hits, it will not do any good if itís not specific for the particular artistĒ
Tonia Kempler moved to lower Manhattan from her native Atlanta in July 2001 to expand her music industry managing and consulting business Emerge Entertainment, Inc.
In addition to expanding her own management endeavors in New York, she was the President of Enlight Entertainment, an Atlanta-based music industry management firm.
Enlight, with whom Kempler still works closely, represents Grammy-winning producer Kevin 'Sheíkspere' Briggs, who produced chart-topping hits, such as 'No Scrubs' for TLC and 'Bills, Bills, Bills' & 'Bug-A-Boo' for Destinyís Child. Other producer clients include, Anthony 'Dent' whose hits include, 'Survivor' for Destinyís Child and the no. 1 hit 'Friend of Mine' for Kelly Price and Sean 'Sepp' Hall.
Kempler exhibits a natural intuition when it comes to developing the careers of her clients. Her professionalism and charm have a way of forming many long-term bonds, which over time prove to be extremely rewarding for her clientele. She has an instinct for pairing her clients with the right advisers, such as lawyers and business managers. She finds the gaps in their individual teams and builds a solid foundation from the start.
How did your company Emerge Entertainment evolve over the years?
My background was in concert promotions and artist management. I was with a major concert promoter in the States called Concert/Southern Promotions, which later became part of Clear Channel and is now with Live Nation. By the time I was 19 we had formed a joint venture in artist management.
Then I went into business management in 1998 in Atlanta with a firm called Johnson Management Group. We handled L.A Reid, Tony Rich, Eric Sermon and Dent, among others who were managed by Tashia Stafford. She had a management company called Enlight Entertainment and worked with Shekíspeare who did ĎNo scrubsí for TLC and Dent, who did ĎSurvivorí for Destinyís Child.
I decided business management really wasnít what I wanted to do and I wanted to help Tashia with her company. My husband, who is the CFO of Capital Music Group, was recruited by Island Def Jam at the time to come to New York shortly after we got married.
That meant I had to leave the business with Tashia and move to New York. So I started my own company Emerge Entertainment, even though I still work with Tashia, Shek and Dent on a day-to-day basis. My first client in New York was Buckwild and it just grew from there.
Would you say your name is known for a certain style of music?
Yes it is, even though we have clients in all genres located in different parts of the world.
We have an artist in Canada that was pop artist of the year in 2006, with two No.1 songs in the country and we signed a rock band in 2005 to Universal Music Group, but predominantly Iím known for urban music because urban records tend to have different producers on the album, therefore allowing for more places to shop music and more opportunities for placements.
If you have a signed rock band they seem to write their own music and use one producer to keep a consistent sound. We are crossing over a bit to the pop-rock world but historically people hear my name and think: urban.
What is your part in the company? What exactly do you do?
Iím the president and itís a 24/7 job. When I started with Tashia we were working really hands on with the clientsí lives, dealing with every personal thing you can imagine, handling every little problem that came up - if an engineer went missing and didnít come back, we had to track him downÖ
There was not a concept of sending files via internet then, so if a session ran over causing us to miss Federal Express, we had to get up in the middle of the night and rush DAT tapes to the label via Delta Dash.
Luckily these days are over. I have successfully been able to work with the clients I have right now on a level where I help them to become their own managers, so to speak. So I donít micromanage and they only call me if there is a critical issue they canít deal with directly.
It allows me to be a more efficient manager during the hours that matter, if my clients are able to handle mishaps that happen in the middle of the night. Usually, those issue are things they know more about than I do anywayÖI am the manager at the end of the day, not the producer or artist.
I have found it helps for clients to be able to speak for themselves when it comes to conflict. If they are constantly having me do it for them, their relationships are either stunted or short-lived. So overall, I really push my clients to handle the small things head on and timely. Of course, I am always a phone call away.
I believe you are a better manager if your clients are self-sufficient. You get more done. So what I mostly do is network and close deals. Find other publishers and managers with writers that could be a good fit and put them together with the producers I manage, so that we constantly have new music, new blood coming through. Because not every song is a hit and not every song is shoppable.
So I try to keep as much new material as possible and try to build networks for each of my clients. One of my clients Kovas is a perfect example. Things came in through other managers who had clients to work with him. So he ends up with three or four songs on an album. The manager we found to work with him on a few projects was Daren Hall.
That relationship went on to Daren and me co-managing people together. We try to take every relationship and turn it into more. If the chemistry is there and they believe in a particular client I am working with or vice versa, why not, there is enough for everyone.
Just by being open and not being afraid that your clients will take off with other managers, you tend to build honest life-long relationships. Iím not afraid that my clients will take off and leave tomorrow. If I would have that feeling with anybody I wouldnít want to work with him or her anyway.
My clients take plenty of meetings alone and I know I can trust their judgement to handle adversity that arises. This comes from not being afraid to open and giving them the platform to build their company themselves, with what I have to offer being a compliment, but not the driving force. If my clients werenít their own driving force we wouldnít be the team we are today.
I do send them to meetings by themselves; of course I go to some. But different people click with different A&Rs so I like it if the A&R meets up directly with my clients. The A&Rs want to see the people who actually do the work, not necessarily me. They just want to know the clients have strong management to close deals and get things from point A to point B.
I have a very direct, honest and open style. Iím willing to argue with my clients over things instead of just going along with the flow, trying to make them happy. If there is something wrong I say it or if there is something questionable, I put it on the table.
What would you say is your companyís focus?
We have producers, artists, writers and some of my producers and writers are artists as well. We just have to keep them focused on both because getting a recording deal is one of the hardest things and you have to keep writing for other people, too.
My focus is the client and the person and each person requires a different side of me. So whatever their goals are, theyíre mine as well. Occasionally, I see more in them and my focus becomes helping them tap into their full potential.
How do you network and find other managers?
Itís a small world and everybody kind of knows each other. But we try to get a little more creative. We go online and if there is an artist we specifically want to get to weíll find the manager or some representative, lawyer, etc.
Out of that we try to find some client that we have that could be a perfect match. Sometimes it is the client that sends us on the chase, we know they would work for a specific project and set out to make that happen.
If I just keep my writers and producers working together we limit our opportunities and resources. Whereas if my producer works with someone elseís writer or artist there are two powerhouses trying to make things happen and we can cover a lot more ground.
I found out that pretty much everybody is accessible. Itís just how you reach out to them and you have to be consistent. Sometimes it takes a lot of calls to get throughÖ
How did you find the people on your roster? How do you look out for new talent?
Most of them found me. But I went to New York and it kind of took a life on its own and I had a few with me that Iíve working with forever, like Tashiaís client, Shekíspeare, Shamora and Orlando from Atlanta. But a lot of things came through word of mouth. People call me and I get packages daily and go through the music.
I wish I could take on everybody but I canít. It really has to be something that blows me away or somebody, who is coming to the table with a pretty strong discography or a really great attitude. When it comes to writers, Iím reaching out to publishers, finding out who is hot and trying to get my guys in with them.
What I found out is, you donít have to manage everybody; you just have to put your guys with the right people. The same song will get placed in the end.
What is important when it comes to demos that are sent to you?
A little bit of everything is important. I just recently had a guy reaching out to me that is making a significant amount of money with his music. But the music didnít hit me. Itís not just the discography, we do have to personally like it. I would take on a baby client with no discography, if their music would blow me away. Then Iíd put them in with name producers or help them learn under them.
Do you have an example?
Michael Severson is one of the top touring guitar players. He is touring with Joe, played on Live Aid with Destinyís Child, etc. There was something about him as a producer, his tone was very unique.
At times it can be dark and sultry and a perfect compliment to some of the other clientsí music, at other times it is the most soulful sound and completes any of the clientsí tracks or songs. If there is something missing he can fill the gap, he can replay samples by sound, etc.
When I first met him, he was able to work Pro-Tools well enough, so we decided to help him become a name producer, basically because of his tone and creativity.
There are only a few producers that are also excellent musicians, so for the most part they have to call in musicians. So when you find somebody who is capable of being a producer as well as being able to play, people tend to be willing to work with him or her. So what I did was I put Mike together with Buckwild and the music speaks for itself.
And it works both ways, Mike spends a lot of time replaying samples and that saves Buck some licensing fees, and Buck helps Mike with his own music and helps him become a better producer. They also co-produce some stuff. But itís hard to work with an upcoming person at this stage because the industry is so tough right now.
Should an upcoming songwriter just send out his best 2-3 songs, or the whole catalogue?
Thatís a hard question. Some people just want the best songs. I tend to like to hear more because everybody has a different opinion of whatís best. But there are a lot of people that get upset if they donít get sent the best of the best. So you should find out what each individual wants.
One problem we have with song shopping to labels is that the song has to be the perfect fit for the artist. Even though we may have hits, it will not do them any good if itís not specific for the particular artist.
The way to handle shopping for Ďspecificí projects these days is to give each client a detailed description of what is wanted along with a Myspace link, a website and/or a snippet from the label or manager.
If the client doesnít nail the song for the artist and we arenít comfortable sending the song, we set up general meetings for the client to go in and play songs for any project, therefore we keep it general and do not lose the A&R or executiveís ear in the future because we submitted inappropriate material for what they asked for.
It has become a very sensitive issue and it is critical our clients understand that you canít just submit anything, hit or notÖthe hit has to be precise for what they want or it will do more harm than good. We also send out company showcase CDs (reels), where we include the hit songs that werenít project specific and therefore not shopped.
We attach a letter saying Ďwe know that this isnít specifically for your artist but we just want to keep you updated with what we are doing.í This keeps all bases covered and keeps all music flowing without losing someoneís interest along the way. I must state that not all executives are that shallow when it comes to music, but in general the song-shopping field has become a tentative process.
How important is the actual style of a song? For instance you have a girl band looking for a song but the song has to have some country elements. Do you tell the producer to adjust the songs to the artist that itís pitched to?
Unfortunately yes. In the old days I would have submitted it along with an explanation saying we know itís not perfect, but you can hear where it is going and label execs would have grasped the concept and had the resources to spend on development.
But in the climate right now, it has to be almost a 100%. You can have a male vocalist and say íwe didnít have a female vocalist.í But the production has to be there or it's not going to happen. There are always exceptions and weíve had a few, but being as precise as possible is best.
What advice would you give a songwriter who has just a laptop setup at his bedroom but is writing amazing songs or beats?
They should reach out and not worry about their set-up. You would be surprised how many of the top producers take their laptops to hotel rooms, etc. Never take no for an answer. The main thing is to have belief in oneself. Even more than the music that we hear, itís the attitude.
What is their approach? Are they manageable? If I talk to somebody and they donít trust anybody, I break off the conversation. This is not a place for paranoia and with the business as it is today, nobody has time to talk someone out of a closet or become a therapist.
In the past, of course that was one of my many hats, but I canít let my other clients worlds be affected by the time it takes to hand hold these days. It wouldnít be fair to the hard-working people on my roster who have the right incentive and understand that no one is stealing beats. Because no matter how talented they are, I have found out that I canít help them.
I end up spending countless hours, days, months, years just to end up back at square one. So I would rather have a great attitude accompanying the talent I work with. You can move a mountain with a smile or you can make a river flow away from you with a frown. It is all up to the person.
My advice to writers is: work and write. There is always a place for good music. Just constantly reach out. If the music is good itís going to be heard by somebody eventually. Even people I donít take on. If I really love their music, I pass it on to people I know.
I have a huge network of other managers and I try to find teams for each of my clients. Whether a manager takes on a client or not should not always be the focus. Most managers have clients who are willing to sign a producer or writer to their production companies. So if you canít land the manager maybe you can intern for the managers clients.
There is always a home for the right person and signing to a production company and building it from there can be a positive start and give you an instant discography. Unfortunately, this is a name game, at the end of the day. For some reason that still gets under my skin, but I believe that is the way it will remain. The barrier for entry is low, so do what you can to be noticed and stand out from the crowd.
If there is an artist that my song is suitable for, how would you approach him or her?
I would find out who the A&R is on the project by finding out the label and I would call them like crazy and/or go online and try to find the manager and just drive them crazy if I believe in my song that much. I was just a girl from Atlanta, I didnít have all the connections here in New York when I came here, but I made them.
I just picked the phone and within a matter of a few years I became one of the top managers thatís mentioned in meetings when someone is looking for a referral. There is no right or wrong. This is a business where pretty much anything goesÖjust donít give up.
How do you handle a situation when the artist wants to rewrite the lyrics to one of your songs?
Usually my clients are Ok with it. It really depends on the song and what they want to do to the song. And if itís not really a hit when itís done, my clients would rather lose the placement than to let it move forward. Sometimes letting the artist rewrite lyrics can make the placement happen, but sometimes it can be to the detriment of the song.
Also, you have to take the original lyricist into account and make sure they are protected when it comes to splits. If the end result is a smash and it helped the song, by all means it was the right choice, but sometimes artists and their managers just want to get publishing and the artist is not a writer at all and the result is not going to help anyone.
This one question is a sensitive area and you have to make sure to carefully observe where all parts are coming from and whether or not egos are involved. One example - we had one artist who just wanted to change the song from past tense to present tense. They didnít have to give her anything for the song but they gave her 5 %.
Some of our producers are really open and they believe everybody has the ability to write inside them so they work hard in the sessions to pull it out. They sit together and talk about concepts, how they are feeling, what they are going through and write a song from there. Others are very sticky to how much of their percentage they give away. It is really a case by case scenario.
When shopping a song to an artist and the lyrics arenít quite there, the artist usually wants to go in with the same producer and/or writer and try to create something from scratch. They usually end up not taking the original song that was shopped, but rather end doing something else where all parties were able to make the song work.
Thatís actually how we get most of the placements now. It is too hard to have a perfect fit without being involved with the artist directly. So the best way is to get the artist involved.
How do things work when it comes to do the split?
Itís varies depending on the situation. It usually goes one of two ways. The lyrics are 50% and the music is 50% or all people involved in the creative process split the song equally. Sometimes it is split depending on what is actually done.
I make certain this is worked out the night the session occurs and not afterwards. It is one of those things no one really wants to deal with, but it is one of those things that must be dealt with sooner rather than later.
How do you actually find out about who is looking for songs?
After this long in the business I know a lot of the people at the labels, so itís just a matter of making a phone call. I ask what they are working on, what they are looking for, what the priorities are, because the priorities change from week to week. We want to make sure that the people that are looking for songs have not already been dropped, etc.
We get a lot of specific requests from labels too, because we have clients that specifically work for a project when they hear itís a priority. If we hear of a project that just needs a single we try to gear the guys to get that slot. My partner, Travis Morrison, also spends countless hours checking Myspace pages, finding other resources for the artists directly and reaches out to the manager.
Do artists you work with have to be signed? Is that important?
From a production side, if you are asking if they are contacting me to ask if my clients will write with them, yes, it is pretty important because you know time is money for the clients and unless they are really feeling somethingÖwell, itís hard.
I have to go to the clients and ask them to work with someone and whatís their upside to work with an unsigned band? They may never get signed, who is shopping it? Is there a chance that they get signed? Somewhere they have to see something but that can come in any number of ways.
For management, no, I prefer unsigned artists to shop to labels, because there is really no upside for me after the artist is signed.
It takes money and resources to work with a signed band and help build their career and that is impossible when the managers commission from the deal is not available to use to re-invest in that artist through the most critical stage. The signing is actually the easy part. Keeping the band a priority is the hard part.
Did it happen that you took on an unsigned artist or got him/her to some co-writing sessions?
We actually did take on a band. They didnít need any co-writes, they just needed help. Their music was so unbelievably good that I couldnít say no and they were signed after six months with Universal. They just had a rough little garage demo. Music is music and you donít have to have a great production when you are shopping it to managers.
You shouldnít have to send a manager a fully polished song. If you can explain the situation to the manager or publisher, they should understand it, see the vision and help you. But when it comes to A&Rs and artists, the songs have to be polished.
How much percentage do you take off your clients?
For most of the clients across the board itís 20%, because so much time, energy, work and research goes into it. There is so much that goes into management that you never get paid for. We shop hundreds of songs and we might get one placed. Thatís not the case for everybody, but for the most part managers do a lot of work that they never see income from.
We donít get a weekly paycheque, yet we put in weekly hours, if that makes sense. So, I donít usually back off my fee. When the clients really sit back and calculate backwards what 20% off one placement every two or three months really adds up to when subtracted from all the hours I put in, plus the expense of song shopping, they are pretty surprised to find I work for pennies a lot.
I usually donít debate the amount. People feel whether Iím worth it or not. That only changes if it is a client that is managed by someone already. Then I work out the percentage accordingly with the other manager. Or if it is another Shekíspeare or Buckwild that comes in with all their contacts and all Iím doing is closing invoices.
You can sell your publishing rights in America. When you place a song with Destinyís Child, for example, is it a kind of a buyout situation, a one-off fee?
I've never done a buy out. We do work out things for TV. But itís specific for that. When we deal with MTV they pay us a fee for the rights to use that particular production for anything they wanted on MTV. But other than situations like that I donít do buyouts.
To what extent do you have to manage personal matters of your clients?
If their personal things are affecting their productivity on the business side, then itís a problem. Then I try to help them. But I donít really get involved too much. Itís hard for me to make promises to managers, artists and labels if I have a client that canít meet deadlines because their personal life is in conflict.
How many of your songs do you shop over the Internet and how many actual CDs do you send out?
In an age where everything should be possible via MP3, itís still not as easyÖit still amazes me. I always call first. Some people cannot receive MP3ís (their servers donít allow them to accept large attachmentsÖthis is major labels Iím talking about!) or some people have different emails where they can accept MP3ís.
A lot of people still ask me for hardcopy CDs, depending on how many songs we have to send. The tough thing is, because we have so many clients I end up dropping off CDs. Because sometimes itís five or six people Iím calling on and that will clog up someoneís email which can be frustrating and I never want to be the source of frustration.
Where do you listen to songs?
We listen to it in the car and on the home stereo. When you listen to something just on the computer, you might miss something. We just had a fantastic song come in. We donít know who itís for but itís a hit. So we wanted everybody to have it. When we played it in the car the bass was unbelievably loud but that didnít come across on the computer, so we have to double-check everything.
How do you tell them when something is wrong? Are you getting involved in the creative process?
I handle it delicately because I trust them to do what they do, but I will tell them my opinion, Ďthis bass really killed my ears.í Or, if I send a song out and get a consistent feedback about one thing I will say, look, three people said XÖthey might have a point. Will you think about it? But that happens very rarely.
If I make a phone call I have to make sure that the label representative is going to take my call because I sent them the best of the best of what I have. Our clients think that all of their music is the best. So if I just send everything that comes through, I would lose both my fans and the clientís. Thatís why I want them to build their own relationship too so they understand firsthand, because sometimes we are going to disagree.
In a co-writing situation, who is paying the flights and accommodation etc.?
There was a time when the labels paid for everything, but as we know the labels cannot do that anymore. Downloading is like stealing from the bank. Labels sometimes cannot develop the artists as they should. So a lot of that falls back on the producer. I have a situation like that now; a girl group that we are going to go in the studio with.
But the producer is in New York, the writer is in Atlanta. Can the label find enough money to help us get her here? Or otherwise the session happens with somebody else. Or I have to ask her publisher if he could pay for it. I hate to do that because they end up paying the publisher back more than dollar for dollar Ė that is how publishing deals work. We make these judgement calls according to the situation.
What was the biggest moment in your career so far?
Whenever a client reaches out just to say, Ďweíve had a great life together so far, I canít wait for tomorrowí. That brings tears to my eyes just as much as when Shekíspeare is No.1 on the charts. These days when I think, why the heck am I doing this? And one phone call can change it all...
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Interview by Jan Blumentrath