Interview with CYNTHIA B. HERBST, manager for Madeleine Peyroux - Nov 10, 2008
ďIíd be interested in an artist who is out there working, and feels that they didnít reach their true potential.Ē
Cynthia B. Herbst presents a fascinating glimpse into the contemporary classical and jazz markets.
As early as 1982 she already took the Vienna Symphony on a coast-to-coast tour in times when only big labels would undertake such an operation.
Currently managing a host of composers and artists including jazz wonder Madeleine Peyroux (Top 40 US, Top 20 UK), she talks to HitQuarters in revealing detail about working classical and jazz just like every other genre - including heavy touring and business planning.
Her insights, however, are relevant to artists in any genre who want to learn more about how one operates as an independent in the music industry of today.
What is your background in the music industry?
I spent most of my teen years becoming a concert pianist. But by the age of 19 I realised I didnít quite have the personality to be a performer. I felt much more comfortable behind the scenes.
When I went away to graduate school I shifted into composition. I taught electronic music at Hunter College in New York.
My Harpsichord teacher Igor Kipness told me one day his manager needs a helper. I got a job there for 18 months and then Mr. Kipness came to me and said: ďI think you should start your own company.Ē So I did that and found some angels who helped supporting my business in the early years.
That was in 1978. I called my company American International Artist because at the time I started literally 50% of my business was abroad, a lot in Europe.
I made the first coast-to-coast tour for the Vienna Symphony in 1982. That sort of put me on the map because before that time only the big companies like Columbia or ICM had made big tours for orchestras from Europe.
It was a big success so it made people aware of me very very quickly. My roster grew very quickly and I had an office in L.A. and New York and spent a lot of time in London and Vienna doing business. That went on for about 10 years.
Then I began to manage composers. No one at the time was really managing composers. One of my first clients was Anthony Davis who not only composes, he writes operas as well. So I was with him for ĎThe life and times of Malcolm Xí.
Anthony is African American and comes from a jazz tradition so that opened some doors to other African Americans in jazz and classical music. So I stopped doing all the big tours for the big orchestras or ballet companies, which were very high risk. I focused then in composers in jazz and maintained a small segment of my roster for violinist, conductors, pianist etc.
Some of my artists such as Ian Hobson (British pianist and conductor), Andres Cardenes (Cuban violinist and conductor) or Bill McGlaughlin (conductor, who has a radio show on WFMT out of Chicago that is indicated nationally, called ĎExploring Musicí) have been with me since the beginning of my company.
Madeleine Peyroux, Jane Monheit and James Carter are functioning highly right now; they are the busiest at the moment. In addition to that I have Roberto Sierra who is probably the biggest international name composer on my roster.
I also have the baritone Steven Marking and the new addition Sarah Pedinotti, who is a country/roots rock singer songwriter. What attaches her to my company is that she is a singer songwriter first and foremost, when she first came to me two and a half years ago she was just very quirky.
How many people are working at your company?
I have four people working here. I have a full time assistant, a virtual office in New York, a German young lady who handles all the contracting and advance work. Madeleine Peyroux and Jane Monheit for example have road managers that work directly with me. Iím kind of a hub, a hub for all the artists, labels, road managers, and press people.
What is the main business?
The biggest part is still live performances. Most of my artists who write are also self-published so I work with a law firm that administers their publishing. So I have to see all of these deals. I see all the reports from record companies informing us where we are at radio and sales. The bulk of my time on a daily basis is focused in one way or the other in live performances.
There is a tremendous work to do with record companies these days because of the radical change in the record industry. We are all partners so if one segment is weaker we have to help the other in any way we can, to make it work.
Would you say the classical sector was as influenced by changes over the last years as the pop sector?
I donít really know about the pop side of music, so itís hard to say. At this point with people like Madeleine for example who is licensed to Universal outside the US I have not seen a decline in her sales at all. When she tours there is always a huge spike.
How many units do your artists sell on tour?
Madeleine for example has a record coming out on March 10th and then we are immediately on the road in the US and then go to Europe. I can assure you that in the US as she tours she will sell hundreds of records. When we would be touring 18 months after the release of the record there will be fewer sales.
If you compare the numbers of sales on the road and in stores, what is the relation?
Stores and online still surpasses everything we do on concerts. I suspect out of the box she will sell several thousand that first week.
How do you promote/sell your artist?
It varies with what the artist does. With Sarah Pedinotti for example we start in the geographic area closest to her. She is based in Saratoga Springs, New York and we have now created a tour where she goes to a club in Burlington, Vermont called Highr Ground, we go to Cafť 939 in Boston then to Longfellow Square,in Portland, Maine and we go to the Livingroom, or Jazz Pub in New York City.
In the last month we have used that routing again and again so that each time she builds up her audience base in all of those clubs and they all have colleges around them. She has increased the numbers on her emailing list by a tenfold. And of course with her Myspace and Myfriends she has managed to increase that incredibly as well.
She can send out emails for live performances and when she has a new record and she sells tons of products, itís only what she does on her own. We still building our team, we are still looking for making a good match for a booking agent for her and a label that is interested in her. We have people coming down to the shows so I think itís just a question of time.
My approach to management is that I try to create for each artist the exact team to provide everyone the best potential. I must say when I signed her I did not expect it to take quite as long as it had taken to get her further. I think part of the reason is the climate that we have been in in the last two years.
Labels are not willing to take any risks, they are not so willing to work in the development area, and that is clearly what Iím doing with Sarah. As a business, we support her financially, help her to tour and offset some of the touring expenses so she can be on the road, because live performances is the best way to expose an artist to the world.
My style of working is do one thing at the time and build on it and whatís then nice to see is that she sells out all of the venues that I mentioned above. The aim for next year is to go down to Florida, which will cover North and South Carolina, where there are massive college and university markets that are prime for her type of music.
What kind of record deal are you looking for with her?
Iím actually looking for a partnership record deal and willing to discuss even some of her publishing. Historically the artist always kept their publishing and did not share with record companies but I think we are in a time now where we cannot be quite so extreme about that. We canít expect the record companies to take on the full risk.
So I opened up a bit, willing to share some of the publishing. Not 50/50, it depends what the label is prepared to do. A lot of times you get into catch 22: If you donít have a booking agent, record labels say: ďWhat can we do with you when you are not out there playing?Ē Booking agents say: ďIf you donít have a record deal, we cannot get you shows.Ē
Thatís one of the reasons you have to look at the whole pie and say: letís share some of this now so that we get the support.
Would you sign new upcoming artist in the Classic/Jazz field at the moment?
To be honest, in this instant, I probably would not. But that has more to do with what I have on my plate right now. Iím very cautious with how I spread myself in terms of the time and energy that is required. Madeleine has been off the road more then a year now except some spot shows.
During that time some very intensive work has been going on. Writing songs, putting the production team together and working with the labels. Breaking a new artist now is so difficult, just to even get the ear of people. At this time, therefore, I wouldnít take on another sdeveloping artist.
What would be interesting for you then?
I would be interested in an artist, who is out there working, and feeling that perhaps they didnít reach their true potential.
What would be the main area where you think you could help with your company?
Itís hard to say that on a superficial level. Getting the right team around the artist is very important. But often itís about getting the artist focused and have them be very clear about how they see themselves in the marketplace. What is realistic?
I found out that artists often shoot themselves in the foot or hold themselves back because they get very excited and energised and things start to get implemented around them. Six months later the artist is off to do something else. So I act as a kind of stabilizer in a way of having the artist being creative but also build a little reality zone around them to see what really is possible.
I think they need someone who interfaces those ideas and talks back and forth so that they gain energy from that. For example you have a jazz singer but then they start singing pop tunes or Broadway material and suddenly there is a lot of confusion in the marketplace.
Sometimes artists come into a situation were everything is just the same. Even in the classical world: Same orchestra, same repertoire again and again. Thatís when I get in and get composers to write new songs or commission new work. I do a lot of commissioning work.
What specifically did you do when you signed Jane Monheit?
I refocused her and told her to focus on absolute jazz. The standards, something she didnít do for about 10 years. Because people had tried to cross her over and make her a pop singer. She has the ability to even make a new song sound like a standard and thatís precisely what we have done on the record last year.
Now she comes out with an absolute hardcore jazz record, wonderful rhythm sections. She has an interesting story to go with it because she had a baby while she was halfway through recording. We will use two initial tours, one in Europe and one here in the States to make it really clear to the market place that she is back.
What needed to be done on the business side when the record was finished?
Jane is signed to Concord, in the US. Concord is distributed in Europe by Universal. At Universal I work a lot with Wulf Mueller in the international department. Wulf works with a company called Bremme und Hohensee that knows precisely all the specific places in Europe where we had to go.
For three weeks she will do a promotional tour in all the best places. Not necessarily the biggest places, that will come in July when we come back and tour the jazz festivals. This will give an opportunity to all the people who remembered her from before. Then we will also meet with label people and press people.
Is it all covered by ticket sales or do you invest anything upfront?
Itís a combination. Tickets will be part of the income stream and Universal will give us some tour support to make it totally possible. They cover international travel, for example. This comes from an understanding and total belief by Wulf Mueller and the people at Universal that this is a very good investment.
Jane is the kind of artist that can inhabit a stage. I saw her singing ĎOver the Rainbowí in acapella in a club in New York and 350 people stopped eating, drinking or talking. You could hear people breathing.
Can you give any advice to upcoming artists? What are the biggest or most common mistakes that are made?
The biggest mistake that almost all artists are tempted to make is when they spend a lot of time and energy trying to figure out what they have to do to get noticed rather then focusing and clarifying to themselves what it is that they do.
Sometimes I feel that especially with younger artists; they are listening to other bands and say ďoh, they have a record deal maybe our record should sound a little bit more like that then.Ē Thatís never true. What makes a record jump off the shelf to people like me or A&R people is that when I put that record on it just grabs me.
It doesnít matter if itís rock, jazz, or classic; itís about something total. That only happens if the artist is clear about what they are doing and not afraid to put it out there. Because eventually if you hang on in there long enough you can connect the right dots. You find the right record company, the right booking agent etc. Then to tour locally is very important. You can always get gigs in little venues.
You have to take small steps consistently and constantly. For example you have to have something on the web that is functional and interesting. Now there are programs where you can select zip codes on peopleís buying interest for example so itís easier to make email blasts for a concert for example.
Upcoming artists should rather make a five-song demo, not 12. Then you scout out for an artist that you think you have something in common with. Then you contact the booking agent, the manager and the label that represents those artists. You give that a try and wait for feedback and just be persistent. Even for me, I cannot take the entire world on my plate every single day. So I work in segments.
How do you find investors?
Itís hard, especially at the moment with all the economic craziness. I have done some support of the artists that Iím developing out of my own pocket.
How does a contract with you look like?
I usually sign them for 3-5 years worldwide exclusive for everything that they do. But it differs. With some artists, I handle everything in their life. Iím their home away from home. Everything comes here and everything clears here. For others itís a bit more piecemeal.
What were the biggest moments in your career?
That is hard to answer. I can give you a few examples. I donít know if one is more important than the other though. It was huge for me after less than three years in the business to be at Carnegie Hall in New York standing with the entire audience in a sold out house for the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.
But just last October, Madeleine Peyroux was in Carnegie Hall and once again the whole audience gave standing ovations. Here is the woman I worked with for seven or eight years and just watching her grow to a fully matured artist was exciting. Iím in a dream business. I help people manifest their dreams.
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Interview by Jan Blumenrath