I’ve had the privilege of experiencing a wide variety of successes in the music industry. What’s mind-blowing to me, is that legendary industry figures such as Mark Kates, now consider me a colleague.

When I was a teenager, I used to group my CD’s by record company to figure out which label had the most artists on it that I liked. That helped me to figure out the direction in the industry I wanted to pursue. My manual calculations in the 90’s always led back to one label – Geffen. Little did I know, that the man behind so many of my favorite artists – Nirvana, Hole, Sonic Youth, and many more would someday become both my friend and colleague.

Mark has arguably more respect than anyone in the industry. He has seen all sides of the business, been a part of its evolution, and is at the forefront of the cutting edge elements of the industry – now managing artists such as MGMT, The Cribs, Doves, Mission of Burma and Lightwave Empire. Although 20 years has passed since I fell in love with Mark’s artists at Geffen, I can say I’m equally a fan of his current roster.

I spent some time chatting with Mark in particular about data, and how it influences his role as an independent global manager for all of his artists – whether they are one of the biggest in the world, legends, or are developing. Below are excerpts from our conversation.


Emily White: I’d love for you to talk about anything in data that you publicly can. What is surprising you about what is out there?

Mark Kates: As managers, we know that our fan bases are everything. There have never been more ways to try to reach them and find out who and where they are. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of data that is historically based and predates what we know now. Now we have the opposite problem. There’s so much of it that you have to be smart about what you can get and where you can get it. The principle is the only thing that matters – which is to keep asking questions. For me personally, what has really driven me on this path is questions that you can’t get an answer on or you can’t get one answer. That’s how you know you’re onto something.

The truth of it is, it’s not about any one artist. It’s about working with the technology available to us, much of which is being created and invented everyday. The hard part is, figuring out who is going to be there in tech in a week or a year. We try to get as much information as one can, based on the things we know.

I think the hard part about being a manager, especially being an independent manager, is that you don’t necessarily have dialog that directs you on big picture issues. You have to figure it out as it relates to you and your clients.


> And that’s not always the case at ‘bigger’ management companies. It has been my experience that the left hand isn’t always talking to the right. At Whitesmith Entertainment, we are an 8 person team. Our internal messaging and group email address is HUGE in sharing information. Maybe that’s a unique advantage that boutique and independent management companies have.

For sure. I look at it as an opportunity. All I can say is that I keep having these conversations and they keep getting me further. It’s a unique combination of questions that can’t be answered easily and people whose work is helped by the questions that you ask that actually help us get to where we want to go. It’s out there, you need to find it and figure out how you are going to find it. A lot of it is completely available, and you don’t even have to ask, you just have to be aware.

A lot of the digital music entities are into empowering artists and managers. And no matter what, I’m always trying to think of things that I’m not thinking of. What I’m saying is, I’ve been doing this a long time. And what keeps me most relevant is my relationships and I’m really glad that still matters.

But there are still some real disconnects out there. At an otherwise really great conference at Harvard Business School in March it was stated that if the music industry could get over its copyright issues, we could really get a lot done. That’s like saying if we could solve politics tomorrow, the weather would be better. It’s funny talking to you now, as opposed to when you were younger. You had sort of anarchy ideas that turned out to be mostly correct. And now I think the order of things recognises some people that don’t have the patience or don’t care enough to understand the world that they’re trying to enter. You can’t start a streaming service without the ultimate copyrights that make sure the way you succeed is by building a real audience that spends money. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe strongly in the value of copyright. And again, we’ve had conversations on this topic, I know you understand exactly what I’m saying.

I think it’s important in an environment where a lot of people don’t necessarily think that way. We have opportunities we’ve never had before. And we have unbelieveable cultural issues we need to overcome to maximise that opportunity. The other thing I’ll say is that I’m very excited about the current marketplace. I don’t think we’re at the end game yet, we’ll never be at the end game. But it feels a lot more balanced and manageable than it has been in any time since digital music became dominant – which is kind of saying something.


> Do you think data is as important for huge bands as it is for developing artists? Do you use data in different or similar ways based on the level of the artist?

Yes it’s as important. In some ways, the smaller the artist it is the more important it is. The beauty of starting now is that you start now with the now mentality, which is better than the mentality of even 6 months ago. Now, you know that nothing is more important than the data you accumulate from day 1. If the artist is established, whomever it is, anything they do is going to be newsworthy to somebody. But if you’re trying to make them known, you need to do everything you can to make them newsworthy to anybody. That makes data become more valuable because it tells you who is paying attention and you can incentivise people to share the song, etc. I think data matters even more to the smaller artists because you have different ways to reach people.


> What you’re saying really speaks to great independent management. Because no matter the level of the artist, it’s our job to find as many, if not all crumbs that are out there. A lazy manager of a big band doesn’t have to notice that Pitchfork picked up on your industry company’s e-blast. It’ll make your band as big as possible, instead of just being big.

The crumbs are a good analogy. I had to unlearn the record label mentality, which took me awhile. The timing ended up being incredible, which was fortunate more than anything else. It’s a really simple conversation in a way. It all comes down to that there has never been more opportunities if you can pay attention and maximise it.


> How do you balance obtaining the data that we want to benefit our artists with the privacy of users?

 As Americans, we have to realise privacy protection in every other country is a lot stricter than it is here. There’s a reason why this era of society trusts brands and advertising, who are trying to take compromising information from them, more than human beings. And we’re all guilty of it. Culturally this ship sailed a long time ago and many people just don’t care. Do I care about privacy? Absolutely. If the people we’re trying to reach don’t care about privacy, that’s their choice.

This system works on the information provider making decisions on human beings. The human beings have to decide if they want the information. If you’re not given the option to opt in or out, then that’s irresponsible. It’s like everything else we’re talking about – if you pay attention, it’s there. It’s like weather, you have to look at it, and think about it. I don’t want to invade people’s privacy, but if they want to let me in, I’ve got things they want to know about. It’s no different than any other thing in society. What do we do that isn’t opt-ing in from your choice of toothpaste to who you sleep with? The standards have changed on a societal basis. I’m glad to be able to reach people, that’s the best thing I can say.


Top photo © 123ducu/GettyImages

About Author

Artist manager Emily White is partner at Whitesmith Entertainment and co-founder of Dreamfuel. She also serves on the boards of CASH Music & Future of Music Coalition. She is a frequent contributor to midemblog and Midem speaker and moderator.

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