Interview with STEVE BURSKY, manager at Foundations for Owl City, Dispatch, Breanne Düren - Jul 11, 2011
“[Universal Republic] see Owl City as representing the future of our business. This idea of a kid in rural U.S. being able to make songs in his basement that sound like Top 40 radio could never have happened ten years ago.”
When Universal Republic recommended a manager to hot new signing Owl City (US & UK No.1) rather than pick out a seasoned pro with years of success under their belt, they went with the relatively untested talent of then 27-year-old Steve Bursky, of Foundations Artist Management.
Bursky may have had no experience with a major mainstream act, but he had proven himself to be on the pulse of the new online-orientated music industry when he oversaw U.S. jam band Dispatch build a massive grassroots fanbase by employing such pioneering promo tactics as using file-sharing to generate revenue. With the home-grown web success story of Owl City very much a product of this new age, Republic clearly felt a manager in tune with online spaces and social networking was more important than one with a dazzling track record. Owl City’s phenomenal subsequent success – with single ‘Fireflies’ attracting over 6 million sales worldwide and album ‘Ocean Eyes’ hitting top 10 in UK, USA and Germany - has shown their decision to be an astute one.
As Owl City release its follow-up album and Dispatch finish up a run of massive sell-out shows across the U.S., the Foundations founder talks to HitQuarters about how to assess potential managers, what’s involved in laying the groundwork for a successful career and why Owl City represent the future of the music industry.
As the name implies, Foundations is focused on building an artist’s career “from the ground up”. Why are you keen to start working with artists so early on in their careers?
We enjoy getting involved early with clients because we’re able to help lay the groundwork for long-term careers, whereas if you come in after the act is already established or been through a few record cycles with or without success, you spend a lot of time correcting mistakes or adjusting plans that were not properly executed. There’s also nothing more fulfilling then seeing an act rise from playing in bars and clubs to playing arenas.
That isn’t to say that we don’t work – or want to work - with acts that already have something going on, but this has just been our way of doing things as to try to get involved early and be with our clients for the duration of their careers.
When I started the company in 2000 the only type of artists that would empower an 18-year-old kid who had not much of an idea what he was doing were acts that were young artists at the very early stages of their careers.
At what level would an artist be at for you to start taking an interest in leading their careers?
With the industry the way it is right now, it’s harder than ever to see an artist cut through, and so anyone, be it a manager, an agent or a label, is looking for a spark that they can add their expertise to and take to the next level.
It might be an artist that has a buzz touring-wise in a specific region of the country, or an artist that has had some success with getting their music placed in film and television, or that is starting to get written about in the press … Those little rays of light are the things that we as a company look for. ‘Okay, these guys have shown they can make some inroads on their own, and with our help we’re confident we can help them take the next level.’
Obviously we’re looking for incredible songs, great musicianship and/or vocal chops, but it is those early talking points that we think can open the door to other opportunities.
What are some factors involved in laying the “necessary groundwork for a successful future in the music industry”?
The short answer is: do everything you can to not have a one-dimensional career. In other words, so many different things need to be happening simultaneously at a high level in order to have great success. Impressions are everything. You have to be able to put on a great live show and develop your touring base. You have to be able to have a great online presence and be able to connect directly with your fans in the online space. Ideally you have to be able to create music that will generate critical acclaim and be accepted by the press, and that is also accessible to the film and TV community and easily licence-able.
You shouldn’t just focus on one area to drive your client’s career.
Great press alone can’t move the needle, but great press in conjunction with smart touring and a great online presence and songs in Grey’s Anatomy, for example, can begin to move it.
So the biggest thing we always try to focus on with our clients is a full roll-out where all areas of exploitation are focused on.
So focusing on one area is a mistake many artists make early in their careers …
Early on bands generally focus on the little victories: ‘Oh I got this song placed in this film’, ‘Oh I sold out a show in New York City, ‘Oh I got written up in Rolling Stone!’ Those little victories are great, but they need to be happening in the context of a cohesive plan - one where a kid goes and sees your sold out show in New York, then the next day hears your song on a CW show on television, sees you on a Pandora website take-over, and then the following day sees your music video on MTV.
Unless all these things are happening in a way that they’re a piece of a larger plan and puzzle, it’s really hard for those victories to make a real impact. The message is be really smart about having a plan and a vision on paper where you are constantly moving the ball forward – and be ready to adjust this plan as other opportunities present themselves.
How did you first get involved in management?
I’d got involved with my first band as a freshman in college, and built the beginnings of Foundations, which at the time was me sitting next to my bed at a desk in my dorm room trying to figure out this thing they call the music business.
My first client was Dispatch, whom I’ve been with now for eleven years. We joke about them here in The States because they’re often called the biggest band you’ve never heard of [laughs]. One of the guys went to my high school and I was younger than all of them. When they were in college, they formed a band and would keep coming back to play for us after school. I fell in love with their music and went to see their concerts. They had a manager at the time and I was given the opportunity to work directly with him as a passionate second hand, who had little idea of what he was doing.
I came in super-excited about the band, having the fire and naivety that ultimately led to me helping create opportunities. I was learning as I went – you’d make a mistake, realise why you made that mistake and not make it again. Frankly, the beauty of those early days is that the industry is one where there are no rules. Pretty early on I took the approach of “learn as you go“ and “think outside the box”, and focus on the future as opposed to the past.
My advice to anyone is just get started! We’ve got a great internship program here at our company and this is what I tell all of our interns. Don’t wait for the opportunities to come to you, because you look at so many of the success stories of great young managers or other brilliant people in the business and they’re ones who say, ‘I’m not going to wait for it to come to me, I’m going to go get it.’ Now is a better time than ever for young smart hungry people to get into the music business. There are no rules anymore.
Do you have any advice on how an up-and-coming artist should assess potential managers?
Meet with a lot of people! Some managers take the approach of ‘it’s me, me, me, you’ve got to work with me …’ But we like to tell potential clients that the best way you can make this decision is to go have ten meetings and really see what different people bring to the table. We think that we’re great at what we do but we’re not the perfect fit for every act. And we only take meetings with acts that we really believe we can make a difference in their careers.
There’s equal value in youth and passion and work ethic as there is in years of industry experience, especially today - our business is very different than the business that many people in the industry had great success in. I’m 29 and our whole team is young, and if our clients didn’t believe in us and our passion, creativity, savviness, and our fire then we would never have had a shot at many of the acts we currently work with.
What are some things that artists should be watching out for?
Management is such an interesting role with an artist because you are the artist’s voice. You sit beside the artist and they’re the creative and you’re the business, and together you run this little empire [laughs].
So much of a management-artist relationship is about gut and it’s very personal - how well do you get along with the person, can you look that person in the eye and really trust them, do you believe that they’re going to be there not just in the good but in the bad?
The artist-manager relationship goes deeper than any relationship an artist will have in their career. So it is one that should not be taken lightly, and it is one that the artist should be very diligent and thorough in researching prior to making a decision.
What stage were Dispatch at when you first started working with them and how did you then help lay the groundwork for their career?
I started with them when they were playing small - 100 to 200 seat clubs in the Northeast markets of the U.S.
They were an incredible grassroots phenomenon. We worked hard to build their core following through grassroots promotion on and offline, through incessant touring, and the net result was that ten years later they had in June one of the biggest tours in The States.
That’s been a project that I’m so incredibly proud of because they’ve always gone against the grain. They never had mainstream radio, never been respected in the press, always shied away from signing a record deal … They did it on their own terms counter-culturally and have one of the most powerful fanbases I’ve ever dreamed of being a part of.
These kids discovered the band the old-fashioned way - learning about them from their friends or reading about them online. It was all word-of-mouth. And that sense of self-discovery in a fanbase is so unbelievably powerful.
They were famous for using file-sharing and illegal downloading to their advantage. Can you explain how they successfully exploited that as a promotional tool?
In a time where the music business tried to shut down Napster and did successfully, Dispatch was embracing it, because they viewed their recorded music as a loss leader for the generation of revenue in other areas. So the free file-sharing of their catalogue, while it didn’t yield financial gain, did help sell tickets, sell merchandise, build an online following, build an offline following. So they used the free file-sharing to win over fans that they could then go build their touring and merchandise business off of.
They had no airplay, no press, the online music space was really just getting started, and they would go tour the country and there would be a thousand kids wherever they went. A kid would go see a show in Boston, Massachusetts, love it to death, go back to their dorm room, call up their buddy in San Francisco, tell them to check out this band Dispatch that they saw, the kid would sign on to Napster, get the songs, love it, spread it around. It’s a pretty remarkable story of how this free viral file-sharing becomes a tool to generate revenue in other areas of the business.
There’s this great online model called Amie Street that I came across a few years ago, which is an online music community where there’s a library of hundreds of thousands of songs. Everything in the library starts out as free, and then as it gains popularity within the Amie Street community the song raises from zero up to 15 cents, 30 cents, 45 cents in proportion to the number users downloading a song, and ends up eventually when it becomes “very popular in the community” at 99 cents and an album ends up $9,99. The whole mindset is that in the early days music should be used as a tool to win over fans, but once you have fans you want to be able to make money off that music.
How has the whole experience informed the way you exploit the web to promote your clients today?
I think the same mindset holds true. We want to use our music as a tool to sell our artists. In the early days, if we can use a free song to capture an email address or capture a connection via Facebook or via Twitter, we’ll do it. What’s most important to us is that we have a way to directly to communicate with fans of the bands.
If I incentivise John in London to join the Owl City mailing list by saying, ‘if you join, we’re going to give you this free exclusive track’ then the value of that one track we cannot realise financially, but the value of being able to connect directly with John via email for the rest of Owl City’s career is priceless. We want to continue to build up the artist’s direct connections with fans, and if we can use the music as an incentive to see that, we always do.
Universal Republic is said to have recommended you to Owl City’s Adam Young. Why did they see you as a good match?
[laughs] I don’t know. You should ask them. I was honoured that they thought of me. They have many managers they work with that have had more of a track record of success.
I think they saw, and see, Owl City as representing the future of our business. I mean, this idea of a kid in a tiny middle of nowhere town in rural U.S. being able to make songs in his basement that sound like they can be on Top 40 radio with no engineering experience could never have happened ten years ago. He put the songs up on Myspace and people started reacting. That would have never happened. He would have never been discovered.
Also, ten years ago, a major label who signed a band that they were about to invest a bunch of money in wouldn’t have called in a 27-year-old manager. Prior to Owl City I’d had zero success at radio. We always view radio as the gravy because it’s something we can’t control. I can control how we’re directly connecting with our fanbase, how our online roll-out is, how well our tour does, but the radio is always been kind of this nebulous purple-headed monster that if it comes, great, and if it doesn’t then, oh well.
So by hiring a young management company who understands the business circa 2011 over a seasoned industry vet, who might not understand the online spaces well or social networking, showed a lot of understanding on their part of where this kid was going to end up having success.
Were you aware of Owl City at that point?
No, I wasn’t. Avery [Lipman] (HQ interview) and Monte [Lipman] sent me his Myspace page really early on. I have a long history with Republic. They’ve been great friends and allies. When I graduated from college and moved to New York they gave me an imprint deal through Republic. I was running a record label through them while building the management company. Frankly, my label wasn’t particularly successful so, again, the fact that they still reached out to me showed a lot of character.
They are some of the best research guys in the business - as soon as something in the online space or on radio is reacting those guys are the best at discovering it.
And when did you get involved?
At the end of 2008. Myspace was hugely popular at the time and he was making songs in his parents’ basement and putting them up on the site. And then through a deal with CD Baby, he put songs up on iTunes, and just started to build this viral phenomenon online. Ultimately, he had a ton of kids visiting his Myspace every day, and then that was translating into sales in terms of digital tracks and then merchandise.
We got involved when he literally had never been on stage, never had a proper record release. His story is pretty incredible - he released his debut in summer 2009, had one of the biggest songs of the last decade in ‘Fireflies’, which went No.1 in 24 countries, sold over 6 million copies worldwide, had a platinum record here in The States, and had gold or platinum records in another dozen countries.
What appealed to you about Owl City?
Firstly, his story - the notion of this 23-year-old kid, who had no formal engineering or producing training and no real formal musical training, making this incredible music out of some farm town in Minnesota and getting this much attention just virally on his own.
And then also I’d say that the music itself I found immediately inspiring, dreamy and different. It all starts there after all.
Adam Young only played his first gig after signing the label deal. Wasn’t there a concern that he might not ever be a natural live performer?
Well, absolutely. It’s funny, when I met Adam and we started working together he said to me, “Steve, I don’t ever want to play live. I’m too afraid. I’m shy.” We started working together in November 2008, and by February 13th 2009 he was on stage [laughs].
I booked him two gigs on February 13 and 14, and they blew out immediately. I’ll be honest, they weren’t the best shows – and he’d be the first to tell you that. So much of what Adam does in the studio is this brilliant textural dynamic music that is really hard to recreate live and so it was a challenge to figure out how you recreate this electronic orchestra in a live space.
And man, he’s come such a long way. They’re on a North American tour right now, and have six multi-instrumentalists out there covering so many parts. The live show has gone from okay to brilliant. He’s always been a perfectionist in the studio and the live thing early on took a backseat, and now he stepped it up to a whole new level live.
How much of a factor is live performance for you with your clients?
For most of our clients it’s super important. First of all it’s an area of the business that from a financial perspective can be very lucrative. But also if you’re going to have a career you need to be able to go play out live and connect with your audience.
It’s not for everyone, but for certain bands it’s a key piece of the development. With Dispatch they had to tour 200 days a year to build the kind of following they had. With Owl City, because there were a bunch of other drivers - radio, press, great presence of retail online etc. - he doesn’t need to be on the road 200 days a year, although we kept him on the road pretty close to that [laughs].
Besides simply posting quality music online, how was Adam actually able to use the web to build up such a huge and loyal internet following?
Internationally his only web presence was Myspace, and he literally responded to every single message that came through. He was also constantly posting blogs. Early on, and still today, I think people feel like they know him, like they got a direct connection to him because of how he approaches his connection with them online. It was an integral piece of the development and continues to be integral today.
And why do you think Owl City proved so popular to the mainstream?
Part of what worked about Owl City first time through was that the music was so incredibly different than everything else in the mainstream, and his story was so incredibly different.
He’s a shy mad scientist [laughs] that is as creative as anyone I’ve ever met, who happened to have huge success in the pop space but isn’t and has no desire to be some big pop star. He has no desire to be in the tabloids, he has no desire to be on television, he wants to create music, he enjoys performing, he’s getting more comfortable with some of what comes with success, but what’s pretty amazing about Adam is that he started off as this humble shy inexperienced kid in Minnesota, and even after probably one of the most successful 18 months of many artists’ careers he remains this humble shy kid, and that’s pretty amazing and something that I have huge respect for.
Can you explain how the massive grassroots internet buzz of Owl City was harnessed into a major label act without losing the indie appeal of the “boy in a basement” back story?
We as a company focus on the things we can control. The fact that there was this huge radio and video story that built this unbelievable success on the last record was all on top of the work that we were doing to continue to grow his audience online. Through that process we never lost his direct connection with his fanbase. We placed that at the top of our priorities.
Even the fans who would go hear him on the radio would come to do more research and see this incredible online community of other fans interacting with Owl City.
We never let it become second fiddle to the mainstream drivers that were driving a record, and Adam continued through his website and through his different social properties to continue to interact directly with the fans.
How was the marketing campaign co-ordinated to further the home-grown, indie aesthetic of Owl City?
Early on we sat down with the label and, frankly, butt heads a little bit. They were ready to send him into the studio with big producers and polish him up to try to become this thing that he wasn’t. But we put our foot down and said, “Look, the reason you signed this kid is because it’s working. Whatever it is about him - his music, his interaction with his fans, his brilliance in the online space - these things are connecting with people, and as soon as you change that you lose what’s special about this artist.” To their credit, they really listened and they got it.
He made his debut record and this current record totally on his own, the same way he did his songs prior to being signed, and while there’s definitely been more of a focus with his success in trying to take advantage of some more of the mainstream pop opportunities, those haven’t become more important to us than continuing to keep him in this kind of independent spirited online space that he started.
Owl City started touring across the globe relatively early. With the massive international success of ‘Fireflies’ was it a case of “now or never” in terms of strengthening the relationship with the fans?
If you don’t start early touring internationally it’s really hard to develop it later in your career.
If you get used to touring at a certain level domestically here in North America - you’re in a tour bus, you’ve got ten people out on the road, a good amount of expenses to put on your show – and then you have to go start over in the UK and start playing 200 seat clubs, it can be really hard to go backwards.
With all of our artists, if we believe that there’s going to be an international appeal - even if that’s just that we think this artist is going to have success in Australia and Japan, for example, because we think culturally what they’re doing works there - we pick the pockets that we think will work and we try to get them there as early as humanly possible.
It was also important to us to make sure that Adam wasn’t a faceless artist. So that people saw the Owl City advertisements in the Tube and heard it on Radio 1 and Radio 2, and read about it in the Mail On Sunday. We wanted him to be playing at Shepherds Bush [Empire] so that they could go see him live.
At times artists forget that if a country is supporting their music they need to give them the respect of showing up. How could you possibly have great success in Japan or Australia but not take the time to go visit and perform for your fans? It means a lot to a country, and certain countries in particular, like Japan.
So it was important to us early on to get him over there, and then when things started to take off in the mainstream, we’d already established a bit of a base.
Some have seen Owl City’s second major label album as a make or break on whether Adam Young is a career artist or just a one-off success story. What have you done to help solidify his status with this latest release?
It’s been a little bit different. The business as a whole is in a different place than it was two and a half years ago. There’s a lot of things going on right now at Universal that have made this release a bit tricky. But really it’s more of the same. It’s continuing to focus on the things we can control, and that’s a common theme in this conversation. That way you’re set up to have a career without just relying on the label to get airplay, for example.
If with our label partners we’re able to get a song on the radio even half as successful as ‘Fireflies’ was then we’re off to the races, but if not we’re still going to have a base audience that’s going to buy our record and attend our shows and he’s going to have a career with or without another radio hit.
Breanne Düren was first introduced to most people as a backing vocalist for Owl City. What was the breakthrough point when it was decided that she should pursue a career as a solo artist?
We noticed early on that Bre had great potential - she’s a great songwriter and has beautiful voice. It was a natural progression for Bre to make sure that she was capitalising on this brilliant opportunity she had with Owl City to get some of her own music out there. So while she remains totally committed to touring with Owl City, we helped her make an EP at the end of last year that we put out independently this May.
Ultimately, our goal was to lay the groundwork again through this opportunity for her to have a career in the future. It was pretty natural, and Adam was happy for her to begin to spread her own wings.
With this foundation, what’s involved in laying the groundwork for a career on her own?
This year was meant to be a development year for Bre - using the EP to introduce her to the industry and to the press, while continuing to tour with Owl City.
We did a publishing deal, and the goal this year was to write 30 songs while she’s on the road for the next half year so that come end of the year when Owl City takes a little bit of a break she can go record a full-length.
What’s in the pipeline for the rest of the year?
Owl City right now kind of full speed ahead with the new release. Dispatch is going to go make a new record. Passion Pit is making a new record. Dr. Dog is making a new record. A lot of bands are in the studio [laughs]. We’ve got a Stephen Kellogg & The Sixers release late this year. On to the second single for Young The Giant. The Low Anthem is out touring on their record. Tokyo Police Club is out touring. So, a busy year.
How do you see Foundations developing into the future?
We talk about it all of the time. We need to continue to show that we can take artists from the early phases of their career to the levels of an Owl City or a Passion Pit or Dispatch, or some of the more successful clients on our roster. We need to continue to grow our core team here in New York with smart young hungry people that share a vision.
We intend to continue to align with other great managers with great artists to share a similar vision for the future and similar work ethic.
But most importantly, we need to continue to align ourselves with great talent. At the end of the day, our success is tied directly to the success of our clients, and so it all starts with music, it all starts with having the opportunity to work with talented musicians, and if we continue every year to grow a little bit with artists that we’re proud of and artists that we know we can make an impact on, I’ll be happy.
interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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