This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Ross Michaels, co-president, Park Avenue Artists.
Ross Michaels is confident that if every radio station went off the air, and venues dimmed their lights tomorrow, his roster of artists would still be working, and doing well.
As co-president of New York City-based Park Avenue Artists, Michaels is super focused on discovering compelling new opportunities for his roster outside traditional pathways, including content creation, music publishing, books, and app-related projects.
All in order to create, and sustain lengthy careers in which his artists will be able to communicate their music to the widest possible section of the public through different media outlets.
Working in many facets of the entertainment industry, including artist management, bookings, the theatre, music publishing, and the brand world has enabled Ross, and his partner David Lai, to develop a broad and far-reaching perspective to deal with artist career building.
The company’s first client in 2011 was the 2Cellos which began as a viral sensation and became a worldwide instrumental powerhouse.
Today, Park Avenue Artists oversees a mix of classical, folk, and opera singers, musical theatre performers, and instrumentalists.
All top quality and all continually working.
In addition to Park Avenue Artists’ two powerhouse attractions, the female singer/songwriter sensation of the moment, Yebba, and violinist Joshua Bell, one of the foremost classical musicians in the world, their roster also includes the classical string trio Time for Three; actor/singer/director Jordan Donical; young Mexican pianist Daniela Liebman; singer/songwriters Mia Gladstone, and Marco Foster; opera soprano Larisa Martínez who has been touring throughout North America, South America, and Europe with Andrea Bocelli for two years; and Broadway, and symphony circuit singers Ryan Silverman and Ashley Brown.
Their roster also includes the classical string trio Time for Three; actor/singer/director Jordan Donical; young Mexican pianist Daniela Liebman; singer/songwriters Mia Gladstone, and Marco Foster; opera soprano Larisa Martínez who has been touring throughout North America, South America, and Europe with Andrea Bocelli for two years; and Broadway, and symphony circuit singers Ryan Silverman and Ashley Brown.
Of late, Yebba’s album debut “Dawn,” released by RCA on Sept. 10th, 2021, has been a big focus at Park Avenue Artists. So much came flying in the last minute, including her being featured on Drake’s record, “Yebba’s Heartbreak” off his new album “Certified Lover Boy.”
As you may know, her album has been getting love from the New York Times, John Mayer, Anderson Paak, The New Yorker, the NPR Tiny Desk, and from practically anyone who has heard it.
In addition to securing a Trala app venture for Joshua Bell, Michaels recently piloted a Park Avenue Artists partnership with ICM Asset Management to identify potential acquisitions with right holders that are interested in exploring tailored financing options which allow them, via the ICM Crescendo Music Royalty Fund, to leverage their current catalog to obtain funding for future endeavors.
The first investment deal under this new partnership was the purchase of a set of royalties from Joshua Bell.
As co-presidents how do you and David divide the responsibilities of Park Avenue Artists?
David is very involved with Josh, and I help with the ventures side of Josh, and I am very involved with Yebba with Ina Ubaite, our executive director. David helps with a lot of things. His career is so expansive. He was in A&R, and he’s in theatre. So he helps with a lot of the business stuff. In general, we are attempting to become more of a media company with our artists as a focus. That is what David and I are spending more of our time on now.
We are trying to step away from a lot of the day-to-day for our artists by having people like Ina and (general manager) Cindy Liu oversee all that so we can help guide the direction of the company. So we can look for opportunities like Trala, like touring opportunities, and build them up, going from a company that is now 70/30 management to ventures ratio; and building up our ventures portfolio for our artists and ourselves so we are 50/50 across the board; and, as a result, have our artists and the company be less dependent on traditional forms of revenue.
For a bus breaking down in Nebraska on a tour with a client, you have staff to cover that. A lot of managers doing day-to-day don’t have time to figure out a long-term career strategy, or even have the time to dive deep into exploring the vast number of new opportunities available. They say they do, but they don’t.
You can’t if you are doing day-to-day. I am doing my artists a disservice if I am not able to think big picture and think creatively with them.
While at the same time understanding all of the new laneways available or you could open up.
Exactly, and truthfully, I have more value in that space than helping them unpack merch items at a show in Chicago. The reality is that there are people who are really good at servicing, making sure (the artist) gets a decent deal, and so forth. Ultimately, my value is trying to think in a granular creative way about making records, and doing proper marketing in the larger (media) avenues, and I have to be aware. I read so much to understand how the media that we create can be exploited, respectfully, and properly. If I spend too much time going with the day-to-day stuff, I am not giving value beyond what every service person can give value for the artist. I need to do value by bringing in new ideas, new projects, and helping them create bigger ideas. That’s really where my value is. It’s not in the day-to-day.
You have an intriguing staff, including hip-hop and classical artists, some with music business degrees; and a seasoned booking agent. Much of the staff started as interns.
As we were a young company, we were taking on interns. We used to have some junior office people, and either they left the business or they went off to do their own thing. There is something to be said about people who are hungry and really care about the artists. You can quickly identify that early on with some of the interns. The executive staff is myself and David. Cindy has been with us probably three or four years now, and she also oversees day-to-day for Joshua Bell and Daniela Liebman. Ina also oversees day-to-day for Yebba and Time For Three. She’s become a star in her own right. She was on the panel of Music Tectonics Conference 2021 (Oct. 25th), and she was featured in Hits Daily Double (Oct.13, 2021).
(A native of Lithuania, Ina Ubaite came to Park Avenue Artists as an intern while earning her degree at NYU before joining full-time after graduating. An accomplished pianist, she won first prize at the International Piano Competition in Moscow, and second prize at the Nikolai Rubinstein International Competition in Paris).
Laura Dunaway, we brought in from UTA (United Talent Agency) in 2016. She does booking for most of our artists and straddles the PAC (performing arts centers) and club worlds.
Previously Laura, while at UTA, booked a diverse roster of artists including Alison Balsom, Jake Shimabukuro, Jane Krakowski, Kishi Bashi, and Snarky Puppy. She also booked orchestras throughout North America. Obviously, knowing the language, and the PAC world environment, she has an insight of an artist’s value in the marketplace which is helpful for Ryan Silverman, and Ashley Brown who often work with symphonies.
Yes, exactly. And we learned so much about the PAC world while also learning how to sell a hard ticket with someone like Mia Gladstone or Yebba. She knows both club and PAC worlds, and she’s great at what she does. A lot of working with PACs is relationship-based, knowing what their programming consists of, and seeing if the artist is the right fit for the programming. Not necessarily the hard ticket.
The entire arts ecosystem has evolved beyond recognition in the last 10 years.
For decades. PACs booked shows directly as part of a subscription series, often risking a loss that was often underwritten by sponsorship or endowments.
Corporate sponsorship has largely evaporated in the sector, and the executive directors that once booked classical and jazz events have largely retired, replaced by people who relate more to rock, folk, or pop, as do their audiences.
So PACs are now more open to a wide range of genres and approaches.
Piano recital? Or playlist? That line is blurring even throughout classical music programming with programs where music is heard in ways previously inconceivable, encouraging classical music fans to explore beyond their usual musical hiking trails.
The pandemic forced the cancellation of a season’s worth of live shows, and a shift to streaming, but there were changes that were afoot before.
A signal of this is when Live Nation partnered with a lot of the sheds or bought up a lot of the sheds, and they started programming pop and rock acts, and musicals for amphitheaters or with the Joshua Bells of the world. Very much split now 50/50, I would say.
The PACs are still primarily a soft ticket business. But that’s a hard business. It is mainly built up of donors and local governments according to the PAC. So when an artist doesn’t perform there, it’s not really about if there’s a demand for tickets, it’s about are they culturally the right fit for the PAC? Certainly, the Joshua Bells, Yo-Yo Mas, Itzhak Perlmans, and Renée Flemings of the world, they helped bring a lot of attention to PACs. There are people who still hold season tickets.
PACs also book so far in advance.
Often they are booking 12 to 18 months in advance
Oh yes, sometimes. And now it’s all messed up because nobody is quite sure when they can book. In some cases, we are talking about dates in 2024 which is absurd.
Do your artists also work with outside agents?
Most have some kind of (outside) agent. Yebba’s agents are Kirk Sommer, Ben Schiffer, and Jared Rampersaud at William Morris (WME Entertainment). Mia Gladstone works with Sophie Robert and James Wright at UTA. So we do both. Sometimes, we build it (bookings) in-house with Laura, and sometimes with one of the more traditional agencies like WME, UTA, or CAA.
Many management companies don’t have a full-fledged house booker like you do with Laura.
Even for some of the artists that she does not book, Laura gives us so much guidance. The knowledge base is very important. I think that management companies—and, I might be bold in saying this—that they might be going to be the central nerve of the (music) business; where there will be management companies with digital departments, and with agents, and people who can produce recordings.
Kind of being this creative collective.
The truth is, maybe, an artist streams well, and they are making more money selling NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) which is a space we are getting into; or, maybe, they are making more of an impact creating a digital/audio work station plug-in (an electronic device or software application used to record, edit, and produce sound files). The whole point is that you start with the dream, and you start with the artistry, but you have to have enough active people who can help you amplify the right areas. That they can make the most impact, and typically, that becomes the most lucrative. It’s really exciting to be a management-media-music company. You just make things, and there are just so many different outlets where the art can be properly and respectfully exploited. That is what excites me about the management business now.
An artist needs a hard-working creative team to help them chase their dreams and goals and to attract whatever partners are needed. Management’s singular role is to fashion the clearest canvas possible for artists to do their best work. But how many artists can assemble a formidable management team early on?
A lot of things have to go right. There’s no doubt. Sometimes that will apply to a label. But I think that you are right. There needs to be a team, and you have to pick and choose and talk to the artist about what that team looks like. But too many people are too occupied with the idea that they need so much support from the beginning. That they need a lot of money. They need a label. They need a publisher. They need a publicist. That they need all of these things from the beginning when, in truth, we are building all of these things around you (as an artist), but have you to build what makes you special, and what makes you stand out. Typically, we are able to help identify those things with the artist. When people speak about artist development, I am very disappointed that they are talking about social media numbers. We’re thinking about artist development in regards to making great music.
And having a vision.
And having a vision. Everybody is so occupied, artists too, with the idea of, “How do I market the hell out of myself? How do I SEO (search engine optimize) my social media presence?” Meanwhile, “Well, we are polishing a turd right now. Let’s really focus on creativity. What is inspiring about you?” I am not saying that the things will become the biggest things in the world, but if you can develop a base of some kind of engagement, that people are buying your music or your artistry empowering you in some way, that’s something to start to build a team on.
Tell me how you two are creatively shaping the company with its mix of singers, musical theatre performers, and instrumentalists.
In addition to the very popular singer/songwriter Yebba and violinist Joshua Bell, the roster includes the classical string trio Time for Three; actor/singer/director Jordan Donical; young Mexican pianist Daniela Liebman; opera soprano Larisa Martínez; singer/songwriters Mia Gladstone, and Marco Foster; and singers Ryan Silverman and Ashley Brown who have been on Broadway, and are regulars on the symphony PAC circuit.
I like that this is a diverse roster of artists at different stages of their careers and that you and David are closely involved creatively with your roster, whether it’s producing Yebba’s “Evergreen” music video with Apple and Zane Lowe of which she owns in its entirety; or working with Joshua Bell on the multi-faceted projects that he has going on. You two and your staff get right down to ground level. saying, “Okay here’s what we have, and this is what we need.”
You aren’t just managers, media specialists, and marketers, you are also artist management creators as well.
That’s a great way of putting it. I think of how we shape our roster and how we shape of our company has to do with a through-line of musical continuity. There is some essence of musicality among all of our artists regardless of the genre. Obviously, I am biased, but I think that our artists musically are the best in their class. Joshua is one of the greatest artists out there. Yebba is pretty much revered right now as one of the greatest vocalists and songwriters in songwriting, and in R&B, and folk. Time for Three, in terms of their sound and their skill set, I don’t think that anybody has that.
So that comes back to the fact that David and I were producing records, and we are continuing to produce records. So the musical language that we have is something that we can talk to our artists about, and we can help create with them. I’m not saying that we are making the records with them. In Yebba’s case, it was basically, her and Mark Ronson really going in.
We help procure proper collaborations, suggesting ideas, and so forth. I think that a lot of our artists have been attracted to our roster because of how musical the other artists are. That is something that speaks to them and shows that we’re here for the music, and there is now a way that you can be commercial while being a great musician, and a great artist, and not necessarily being image-focused. So it’s our roots, and the fact that we are creating a lot of intellectual property with our artists based off of, “Let’s create something great together, and then the opportunities will come.” Instead of always pushing people at Spotify and Apple, and trying to market things. That all happens when you have the genesis of something great. The energy we focus on is how to properly network, and to try to get as many people to get into our artist more. So how do we create something with the artist that is so uniquely its own thing that the attraction comes to the artist rather than us pushing the boulder up the hill hoping that someone supports us. Usually, we create something great, then we get support.
For decades, the music industry relied on a traditional way of breaking an act. Get a manager, get an agent, get a label, get a music publisher, find a producer, record a series of singles or record an album, promote the music at radio, (and more recently streaming services, and to social media), and tour. There were some artists who broke away from doing that like Frank Zappa who worked with symphony orchestras and did films, but there weren’t many. For too long, the music industry was in a cultural straitjacket. The infrastructure fell apart only with the introduction of the internet.
The recording industry was the first media sector to feel the full impact of the Internet, and technology-empowered consumers. After peaking in 1999, most everyone was side-swiped by a technological revolution, and for some years faced a borderless global ecosystem that defied control or monetization.
However, with the growing digital music market, record companies, music publishers and rights holder began to cope with the seismic shift in their traditional business model
Right. My question to you then is that now that there is money back into the music business, and I am speaking on behalf of the record labels, do you think there is going to more of a conversation where record labels are investing more.
Well, we are getting a glimpse of that just now. It took a long time to drag them into accepting changes in their thinking. Still, they spend more time developing dedicated marketing strategies for the recorded tracks they control, including deep catalog, and worrying less about building their artists’ careers or their catalog.
At the same time, managers have taken over trying to develop a lot of those new career strategies.
Right and ultimately I think that a lot of labels are looking at things that are already moving.
Absolutely. They aren’t on hand Day 1, they show up on Day 2, after reading about an artist successful trending on streaming social media. And label don’t seem to have the patience. It used to be that an artist had 2-3 albums to make their mark. Today, it’s often a couple of tracks
Maybe that’s not so bad of a partnership. Then you kind of establish what works for you, and then they are there to amplify it. We’ve had great relationships with labels. We’ve had had bad record label relationships. There are so many nuances involved. But what has been the routine for us is, “Let’s start internally. Let’s build it ourselves. Let’s be as creative with the music as we possibly can.” We will help artists do that and then, typically, doors will open. Usually, that takes some kind of refinement.
In September, 2016, Yebba stepped onstage for a show at SoFar Sounds in New York City. Accompanied only by a guitarist, she delivered a remarkable performance.
Meanwhile, she had agreed to perform alongside Chance the Rapper for his “Saturday Night Live” appearance, and she ended up stealing the show. It was then decided to capitalize on the moment and upload a clip from the “SoFar,” and It went viral
The industry buzz surrounding her was then enormous, but the momentum came to a halt with the death of her mother by suicide. A very dramatic life changing thing.
She pulled back, kept away from most everybody, and buried herself in writing for months. That could have taken a lesser artist right off the board, but it didn’t.
Well, she stuck with it. I remember the succession of events because we recorded the SoFar show in September of 2016. Her mother passed in October 2016. Her contribution to the A Tribe Called Quest record came out in November right around the time that Trump was elected. I remember it so clearly. Then in December she went with Chance on SNL (“Saturday Night Live”) and contributed to the vocals of his tour, and then we put out the “SoFar” video which took things to the next level. The “SoFar” video has 17 or 18 million (YouTube) plays.
The fact that she was able with all of this stuff going on early in her career to maintain a level head, and also deal with her trauma which is what she was dealing with for years while also becoming an artist. I will never be more proud of an individual as I was with her because the development really had to deal with that trauma and then, as a result, she became the artist that she is.
I spotted her with the “Evergreen” video which has something like three million YouTube plays.
Yebba’s early days, I was very headstrong about, and still am, that this be a comfortable environment for her. We don’t necessarily have to put a record out, but (In 2017) Yebba independently released her debut single “Evergreen” which showed her versatility as a singer, versatility as a performer, and the beginnings of who she was as an artist. “At least, it will be a showcase for what you are doing.” It became this crazy wild success. It took off in the UK. Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, everybody started reaching out. It started the label connections, but for many years she kept her cool.
Yebba turned down several recording offers before she signed a recording contract with RCA in 2018. She did two-and-a-half years of self-homework, of digesting the trauma of her mother’s suicide before she’d make a recording commitment.
You are right. There are always these industry whisperings (with artists) leading to, “I want to sign right now. I want to take this publishing deal.” We always kept it straight and narrow. She kept developing and doing these collaborations. Obviously, Ed (Sheeran) and Sam (Smith) and they all came out at different times. She had one with Stormzy, and with Mumford and went on TV with them. It just kept incrementally building. It has always been about this next net positive gain for her both as this artist and coming to terms with her awareness that critically she’s very well respected, and will continue to grow a fan base.
Further breakthrough moments came with a publishing deal with Pulse Music and when she met Mark Ronson while he was working on his 2019 collection “Late Night Feelings” on which Yebba was featured on three songs, while everyone else had on one each.
She had been developing for years obviously as a singer, and with her dad.
Her dad is also an excellent keyboardist and singer, pastor Michael Smith.
Her Dad made her the music director of the church when she was very young. She’d lead music worship every Sunday.
This is a lady who had gold and platinum certifications, a pair of Grammy nomination, a Grammy win for a collaboration with PJ Morton on “How Deep Is Your Love” which was named Best Traditional R&B Performance.
As well she appeared on tracks with A Tribe Called Quest, Chance the Rapper, Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, Mumford & Son, Mark Ronson Robert Glasper, James Francies, Stormzy and A$AP Rocky, Rudimental, and Drake, all before her debut album.
That’s crazy. A big voice, and a lot of time, were the contributing factors to her success.
Before her debut album.
With a record deal in hand, Yebba buckled down on recording her debut album, “Dawn,” named after her late mother which, featuring A$AP Rocky, Smino, and Questlove was recorded at Electric Lady Studios in New York City and dropped on Sept. 10th, 2021
I have so much pride in how she has helped herself in this entire process. She is so in tune with what feels right for her. So even when all of the labels were putting in offers, she was like, “I have not formed who I am as an artist yet. How am I going to sign with a record label when I don’t even know exactly what I want to say? And this record that she just put out is a culmination of her expression.
She has made it clear you just have to continue to grow it the way she wants to build it as opposed to chasing the relevancy cycle, about the image, or being a celebrity-based artist. It’s always been this net positive for her. Look at so many artists that people respect whose music still stands the test of time. Amy Winehouse, and now, obviously, Adele can put a record out after five years, and Kendrick Lamar. I think that people are just as excited about his upcoming record, and you don’t hear from him much. It is because these artists have built such an engaged love for their music. That is what we are trying to focus on for her and all of our artists.
Unlike a lot of managers, you are deeply embedded in the brand world; bringing to the table, for example, Joshua Bell’s Virtual Reality experience with Sony Playstation, and his Embertone sampler instrument that is available for all Digital Audio Workstations.
You have been a talent buyer, and artist curator for such brands as Google, Hewlett Packard, and Jim Beam, and you directed and produced national TV commercials for Celsius Health.
While you continue to work with the traditional tools in the management toolbox, you have repeatedly opened up new laneways for your clients.
Joshua Bell has twice been the subject of a children’s books based on real-life episodes in his life: “The Man With the Violin” (2016), and “The Dance of the Violin” (2017), both written by Kathy Stinson, and illustrated by Dušan Petricic.
Then there’s Joshua partnering with the music education app Trala to make learning the violin accessible to all, with special emphasis on adult beginners. Founded in 2017, and funded by the CEOs of LinkedIn and Duolingo, Trala is an AI based music education platform that pairs students with online teachers, and provides between-lesson feedback and instructional videos.
These are off the beaten track opportunities, rarely explored by American artist managers, but highly profitable.
Oh, totally. I think that the future of an artist’s career is extracting more value or that there is more value to be extracted from artists like Joshua or Yebba or Time for Three than just trying to stream the hell out of their records. Than just trying to earn .003 cents per stream. Trala is an exciting new venture in which Josh and our company have stakes in the company. It’s educational. Its music base is growing. Its’ retention rate is very high among start-ups in its field. Music education has more engagement than passive music listening on Spotify right now. So in some ways, it is better fan building than just putting out records in so regards.
The Trala app fits Joshua so well because he’s always had an interest in helping find ways to increase and enhance the opportunities for music education. He has long been involved with organizations that focus on music in the schools and, more specifically, as an artist for Turnaround Arts which provides arts education to low-performing elementary, and middle schools.
As well, Joshua was a member of President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and was asked in 2016, along with David Matthews, and Smokey Robinson to participate in the first official government-to-government bilateral initiative with Cuba in the wake of President Obama’s earlier historic trip to there that year.
While in Cuba, Joshua met with Cuban musicians, played with the Chamber Orchestra of Havana, a young orchestra of mostly women; visited the Conservatory, and met with some string players; and visited an elementary school.
Upon his return to America, Joshua expressed a desire to bring the Chamber Orchestra of Havana to the United States and approached Live From Lincoln Center to continue the artistic dialogue initiated overseas.
Yes, and I have to credit David for how we landed the Cuba project. He helped produce and helped to champion “Live from Lincoln Center: Seasons of Cuba” which came about as a result of that trip. Basically, memorialized it as a PBS Special with Dave Matthews and Joshua and Cuban singer and songwriter Carlos Varela (called “The Poet of Havana”), Cuban pianist/composers Aldo López-Gavilán, and Jorge Góme; and soprano Larisa Martínez. And we brought over for the first time to the States, the Havana Chamber Orchestra to New York.
So it’s a perfect fit, Joshua being involved with the music education app Trala.
So that is the type of thing where we said, “Let’s try to extract more value instead of just being on the treadmill of touring. Let’s see if there are more pockets of value for artists like Josh and like Yebba beyond just putting out records and touring. I think that is the future of a lot of artists who have a very engaged base. I think it’s going to be less about scale, and more so about how we engage with art. The Embertone product which we created is Josh and his $14 million Stradivarius violin. We thought that up with the Embertone folks. It’s basically a plug-in, a $200 product that many hip-hop. and pop producers are using
It’s about Joshua performing on his 300 year old Stradivarius and creating samples and an interface for producers, composers, and writers who use DAW (Digital Audio Workstation including with Pro Tools, Logic, or Fruity Loops recording software).
I remember learning about George Duke through his audio plugin (Soul Treasures by Native Instruments). Then I fell in love with his records and who he was as an artist. But who would have thought that I would learn about that through a plugin? So there are all of these areas which we want to explore, but it comes back to the center genesis of what are we creating. Is it truly remarkable? Is it truly unique? Truly artistic? Then we will find a partner. I can’t tell you exactly how, but we will find support. It will be successful. It will lead to something else.
The crowning brand moment for Park Avenue Artists is its recent partnership with ICM Asset Management, and the ICM Crescendo Music Royalty Fund to help identify strategic investment opportunities within the music creator community. The first investment under the deal is ICM Crescendo’s purchase of a set of undisclosed royalties from Joshua Bell.
Unlike many of the standard catalog acquisition models popular today, ICM Crescendo offers such flexibility that creators or rights holders can consider selling rights to an entire catalog, select individual songs, a portion of the rights to selected songs, or other revenue streams altogether.
ICM Crescendo, with Park Avenue Artists as its partner, is interested in evaluating and purchasing revenue streams of artists who have demonstrated cultural investment, and consistency in their royalty income. The fund leverages a proprietary data-driven machine learning model to value royalties, working with rights owners to provide valuations.
ICM Crescendo recognizes the potent long-term earning power of credible artists like Joshua who may be interested in deploying capital to branch out into other business verticals
What ICM Asset Management purchased is your and David’s inside knowledge, and the way you view entertainment.
I think similar to the brands you mentioned, we attract a certain type of opportunity and it goes back to the musicality. David and I have learned so much about the business of hardware producers, and the people that are involved with the creative. There are a lot of brands that want to talk to us because we can connect to artists on a creative level and we have refined tastes that might fit within their brand.
So, the Google IO Conference thing was a good example with Hewlett Packard and that was a great thing and Jim Beam when we did their series. They are basically putting the ball in our court saying, “We need cool or artistic or musically refined artists or brands” or whatever. It was really nice to see that after all these years of putting out records, that our taste was noticed and got someone’s attention.
And it’s the same with our involvement with Crescendo. Essentially they are primarily an asset management company across many types of investment and portfolios, and they were looking for a partner who could help find great artists with our vision for a more refined taste. We met them through my friend Divo Springsteen (aka DeVon “Devo” Harris), he introduced John Legend to Kanye West (signing John Legend to Kanye West’s GOOD Music label in 2003), and he produced for both Kanye and John Legend.
For ICM Crescendo, you are targeting artists, producers, creators, and labels who are well respected in their fields and pursue culturally important projects. That their work’s impact has a long tail trajectory and corresponding streaming consistency?
So we met them (ICM) and they were basically like, “We’d like to partner with you to identify artists who demonstrate consistency in their royalty income. Obviously, there are 10 to 20 of them now who have signed up, but the difference here is that these are like micro deals. They don’t want to own property rights outright. They will buy 25% of 10 master songs or royalties or whatever. even if you are in a deal with Sony or Universal- they are seeking royalties and buying future revenues. It is kind of an independent option where you don’t have to sign your rights away. You can still do other deals as it’s not mutually exclusive, and there is no transfer of ownership.
A lot of artists are finding it interesting because they feel that there’s far more flexibility as opposed to playing the end of the career cash out which many artists do. This is the type of thing where they can do 10 on their Song Exchange royalties or 30 songs on their PRO royalties. Anything that stems from streaming, and there’s some predictability. So that’s why we found this interesting because we can approach some of these artists that we know who either are our artists or artists that we work with who have that kind of engagement with and talk about this musical legacy that will probably stream for years to come, where there’s some consistency. A person can say now here are a few other options out there including one of which is these micro deals. You are not recouping anything. You aren’t tied up in anything. It is just transactional. You go and use that money and reinvest in cryptocurrency or produce another record, whatever.
It’s very interesting. It’s a new venture for us. As a management company, our artists are our core business. We’re getting into ventures so our artists can be part of it, and not having to feel like they have to go on the road all of the time, or be dependent off of the traditional release of a record, go on the road with the right routing, there are so many ways which we have worked on in the past but we want to be as a much a music ventures company and IP company as we are a management company, and we want our artists to be part of that.
You said you have done 10 to 20 deals so far. With most deals ranging from $1 million to $3 million?
It’s a very diverse deal structure and primarily why many artists are finding it interesting.
It does feel that the song management firms involved with some of these funds are buying up assets, and retaining or building with shareholders.
The whole concept that seems to be confusing to me are these extremely high multiple evaluations off of companies that have just begun. It has become the norm though. So people are trading Monopoly money on top of Monopoly money.
We are in a world here where there are artists with decade-long careers saying, “When can I retire? When can I get off the train? How can I get a buyout so I can walk away?”
And someone offering $20 million, $30 million, or even $100 million, why not take it?
Yep. If I was that person, I would want to know what are they going to do with the catalog. What is strange to me is that since 2006 when I entered the business that catalogs in my brain were this dying business. The fact that there are these multi-billion valuations like Universal, and these funds that are now competing with the traditional publishers, means there is money back in the business. It is still so odd to me. I am so trained to think, “Oh, this is a dying business.” I got into the music business because I loved it. I love being around music, and being a part of it. Now all this money is a bit foreign to me. But if it means more opportunities to scale for our artists working with different ventures that attach themselves to music then that is a promising thing.
By now, it’s no secret that investors are willing to pay top-dollar to buy music catalogs. The most valuable catalogs now sell for 17-18x valuation.
A manager I spoke to recently said that people who were buying three or four times the earnings multiple over the evaluation of what is coming in are basically paying a premiumfor a news headline. I thought that was pretty interesting.
It is similar to a to some of these recent record deals that are being offered to artists that don’t make sense if you look at just the P and L, (profit and loss statement). They are paid being X amount of money as a hefty advance.
We’ve seen that first-hand because the reality is that they are investing in scale. Then all this money is coming in from records that they would have to do greatest hits releases 6 or 7 years ago, and new packages are continuously making money for them. They have to put that money somewhere even if it’s money into new artists that won’t necessarily make that money back. There’s so much money coming in that they are just trying to put the money somewhere. As a result, it is inflating the value of artist record deals in some form.
Your partner David Lai is certainly a force for sure.
David’s career is a whole story in itself. The man is multi-tasker to say the least. He’s done everything, and very professionally. David is an inspiration to me for sure.
(David Lai’s career traverses the full spectrum of entertainment. Within Broadway’s theatrical community, he is renowned as a highly-sought after conductor, music director, music coordinator, orchestra contractor, and keyboardist. He is the long-running music director/conductor of the Broadway company of “The Phantom of the Opera”.
He has also served as the orchestra contractor/music coordinator for Lincoln Centre Theatricals
Among his credits, working in different working roles, are Broadway productions of “Fiddler on the Roof,” “The King and I,” “Evita,” “Mary Poppins,” “Wonderland,” “South Pacific,” “Miss Saigon,” “The Woman in White,” “Riverdance,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Les Misérables,” and “Aspects of Love.”
Previously, Lai served as senior VP at IMG Artists (2012-2015); as senior VP A&R Operations, Sony Music Entertainment (2004-2014); and as senior VP at Park Avenue Talent (2007-2011). He began his music career in New York with a 15-year stint (1989-2004) at Sony Music Entertainment as its VP of Business Affairs.)
You two met at Planet2Planet Studios in Manhattan where you were head of studio operations while David was working on jazz pianist Eldar Djangirov’s “Re-imagination” album in 2007?
Yes, we met at Planet2Planet Studios. I was running the studio.
Planet2Planet Studios was in the basement of the building at 251 West 30th. It was a catacomb of 8 rooms with different levels of recording happening. It was where the Village People recorded all of their hits. As soon as you walked in the door, you could smell the weed coming out from the walls.
Wow, you really remember everything.
Nowhere in your bio do you mention working with Flo Rida. You weren’t just the head of studio operations, you were also producing there.
Basically, when I moved to New York I needed a hard fast skill to learn to get into the music business. Something that was in demand. So I went to learn how to engineer. That is why I went down to the studio. I felt that there was always a need for an engineer. Someone to record vocals or track guitars. Whatever it was. At least that would get me into the flow of things. I learned how to use ProTools and Logic. My first experience—do you know Kirk Yano?
Of course, the engineer who was a co-founder of Park Avenue Artists with you and David. He’s worked with the likes of Public Enemy, Mariah Carey, Miles Davis, Phoebe Snow, and The Killers, and toured as a musician with Snow, Savoy Brown, Scott Holt, and Texas Scratch.
Yes, he was one of the partners. I was an intern for Kirk when I came down to Planet2Planet Studios. The first thing that he made me do was to roll a joint for (West Coast rapper/actor) Xzibit which I thought was quite the introduction to the music industry.
Were you just out of Drew University in Madison, New Jersey?
I was actually interning while at Drew. So it was the last two years. It was 2006 and 2007 and I graduated in 2008.
I love that you have a Bachelor of Arts in music and political science. I love the combo. That’s why you and Joshua Bell get on so well.
Yeah exactly. If you go to a liberal arts college, you don’t know exactly what you are going to do. You just kind of default to poli sci or anthropology or something along those lines. I grew up in D.C. (District of Columbia). I was used to being around current events, and political life that was a part of my upbringing. It was also the thing that made me want to get out of D.C. because it is very inside the beltway. It is very conservative city. So you grow up, and you try to get to be a lobbyist or you try to become a lawyer. Typical D.C. Jewish family mandate. I’d always had this curiosity about New York.
Drew University is in Madison, New Jersey.
About 40 minutes outside of New York City
Drew University, which is private liberal university, is one of the best liberal arts colleges in America. Founded in 1867, it’s nicknamed the “University in the Forest” because of its wooded 186-acre campus.
Yes. You’ve done your research.
Did you live on campus because most Drew students do?
Yes, I did. I lived there all four years. It was smaller than most other colleges of that stature like Middlebury College (a private liberal arts college in Middlebury, Vermont). It was, maybe, two-thirds the size.
Meanwhile, your parents were freaking that you were interested in the music business?
(Laughing) I have to credit my parents. My mom and my dad were always like, “Whatever you decide to do, we support you, but you just have to work hard at it. If you want to be the greatest janitor. Go ahead and make sure that you take the right steps, and get educated.
While leaving leaflets on the law and dentistry around the house.
Yeah, exactly, Well almost everybody in my family is a lawyer. My dad is a lawyer. My sister is a lawyer. My brother-in law is a lawyer. My mom is actually an urban planner. So she helps to plan cities and that kind of thing. They are all pretty much into the health care field. My dad was sort of like a CNN talking head and was on the station when all of the Affordable Health Care Act stuff was going down. But my dad is also a musician as well. He taught me about music, and my grandfather was a jazz musician. He lived in Harlem playing jazz for years. My cousin is a full graduate from Berklee College (in Boston) as a jazz saxophonist. My aunt went to Eastman (Rochester’s Eastman School of Music). There’s a music lineage in my family. I am definitely the worst musician in that family, but there’s certainly a music lineage that goes back to my grandfather.
Were you forced to have piano lessons as your friends were playing baseball?
Exactly, except it was trumpet because it’s a B-flat instrument. So I had to in my mind transfer everything down a half step which was terrible. I started off with the wrong instrument because I didn’t have a concept of chords until I started playing rudimentary piano, and that was not until I was 12 or 13. I was playing trumpet at 6 and going to music theory classes. I should have started on guitar or piano, but at five or six years old, I thought, “I want to do trumpet.”
Which means when you played a C on trumpet, you’d hear a B-Flat. Any note played on the trumpet sounds a whole step lower. So if a trumpet player and a pianist want to play the B flat concert scale together, the pianist will start on their B flat key, and the trumpet player will start on C, since C sounds a B flat.
Trumpet is one of the difficult instruments to learn. It requires considerable daily practice to build up the lung power required to play the instrument properly. Being able to “hit the high notes” is a big deal.
Yeah, it is hard to get phrasing. I have all of the respect for some of the best trumpet players in the world. A trumpet player that I am very good friends with—I think he’s the next Miles Davis—is Keyon Harrold.
(A graduate from the Mannes Jazz Program at the New School University, trumpeter, singer, and composer Keyon Harrold has been featured on nearly 100 albums. He has played with Beyoncé, Erykah Badu, Rihanna, Eminem, D’Angelo and the Vanguard, Jay-Z, Common, Lauryn Hill LL Cool J, and Maxwell, to name a few. He was also the trumpet player behind Don Cheadle in the Miles Davis biopic, Miles Ahead. His 2017 debut solo album “The Mugician” featured guests Gary Clark, Jr., Pharoahe Monch, Big K.R.I.T., Guy Torry, Georgia Anne Muldrow, and Robert Glasper).
In terms of phrasing and the ability to make trumpet cool, which is very hard, he’s the guy.
But it’s a hard instrument. There are physical limitations. You get tired blowing on that horn for awhile. I don’t think that it’s the best instrument to start out on.
The centrifugal pull of New York City was irresistible to you. You traveled there likely with a bag full of Louis Armstrong recordings,
I think I was carrying Richie Havens’ records. I was a Havens fan.
And you had an ambition to work in the music industry. You quickly gained experience working at the recording studio.
I heard about this A&R job. I’ll just want to look at some point. But I’m going, “It’s easier said than done.” Instead, I was rolling joints for Xzibit while trying to mix his record at the same time. Yeah, and Kirk Yano and David were recording down there at that point. David was recording Eldar Djangirov who was a Sony Masterworks’ artist who had recorded a live album at the Bluenote in New York City (“Live at the Blue Note” in 2007), and we sort of got to know each other then
I remember that “Live at the Blue Note” album. Trumpeters Chris Botti and Roy Hargrove guested with the trio of Eldar Djangirov (piano), Marco Panascia (double bass), and Todd Strait (drums).
When I moved to New York I was doing anything and everything that I could. I was giving vocal lessons. I was running errands for people. I was hustling, and bustling as much as I could.
What was the original concept of Park Avenue Artists in 2011 with you, David, and Kirk? The original artists under that umbrella were Joshua Bell, Itzhak Perlman, Time For Three, and Renée Fleming. From the beginning, the company was very diverse.
Well, actually we didn’t have Josh at the beginning. David had worked with Renée and Itzhak when he was at IMG. Park Avenue Artists basically started off of the story of the 2Cellos (the Croatian duo of Stjepan Hauser and Luka Šulić). They put up a video on YouTube of “Smooth Criminal,” the Michael Jackson song, and it had gone viral. David, myself, and Kirk were working at another agency (Park Avenue Talent, a production arm of Jerry Kravat Entertainment). I was booking Western Canadian tours for jazz artists which was basically impossible.
The late Jerry Kravat was a consummate deal-maker character. Jerry Kravat Entertainment Services booked bands for weddings and other social occasions. Its production arm, Park Avenue Talent, produced concerts and corporate events. He either managed or frequently booked Barbara Cook, Eartha Kitt, Joel Grey, Cab Calloway, Bobby Short, Lena Horne, Mort Sahl, and Steve Allen, And Park Avenue Talent booked the likes of Kelli O’Hara, Paulo Szot, Eldar Djangirov, and Sutton Foster.
Yes, Eldar was also part of our roster at that point. Do you remember Irvin Arthur? He was a fellow agent and the former music director at Playboy. Man, all of the stories that I had heard from him about old school music industry. I would just sit there, and listen to all of his stories.
But long story short, Kirk came in contact with this Croatian duo 2Cellos. Within three weeks, their first video, a cover of “Smooth Criminal,” had something like 6 million hits. They signed to Sony Masterworks.
The three of you were involved with 2Cellos’ first recording, the self-titled debut studio album which peaked at #1 on Billboard’s Top Classical Albums chart in 2011.
And then they went on tour with Elton John (including performing at his Las Vegas residencies). So the three of us just looked at each other, and said, “Why don’t we just start a company? We love working with artists. We love managing artists.” It was the time that the internet was breaking things traditionally broken by a major label. If something went viral, you helped turn it into a viable thing. In 2011, if you told a major label that two Croatian cellists are going to do covers and videos and they are not going to sing any original songs, they would have laughed at you, but they went on tour with Elton John.
2Cellos toured with Elton for over two years, and they eventually switched management to Elton’s Rocket Music Management.
Yes. We don’t manage them anymore.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-80. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is a co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide,” and a Lifetime Member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
He is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.