The importance of mentoring new musicians during a pandemic [OP-ED]
I have always been motivated to help people. A common trait I have gleaned from my time in Artist Management is that the best managers have a desire to identify talent and bring it out in people by facilitating ways of empowering them to take control of their careers and creativity. It’s almost innate.
There’s an abundance of complexities that come with being an Artist Manager (I’m sure there’s a lengthy scroll documenting them somewhere) and a major one is the sheer amount of emails we deal with on a daily basis.
When the pandemic hit last year and the dust settled after cancelling a year of international touring across my roster, I found myself with fewer emails. Less income too – story for another time. The decrease in emails allowed me the space and time to remember the pure joy of hearing a new artist’s music for the first time – and connecting with it. This is the spark that encouraged me to pursue Artist Management ten years ago.
Early last year I heard a snippet of Julia Wallace’s tune “Song About Lying” and I felt it. You know when you really feel it? Yeah, that feeling. It was being produced by Jono Steer who I had just started managing. Jono told me that Julia had received a grant to come and record at The Perch Recording Studio in Castlemaine but unfortunately the pandemic got in the way. They decided to collaborate remotely via email.
Julia tracked everything herself at home in Western Australia (except drums, tracked by Leigh Fisher remotely) and sent it over to Jono to co-produce and mix in Victoria. Not a single Zoom or phone call between them, just some music back and forth and a completed debut EP. I was impressed. When there’s a deep creative connection in music, the process is natural.
After the EP was mastered, I emailed Julia on Jono’s behalf and asked her how she was planning to release the music and if she could send me more details about the project. She sent me information on her background in performing music (namely playing the Flugelhorn), how she plays in five bands (very Perth) and how this EP was her cathartic side project and her first release. Julia told me she was 20 years old, studying and teaching kids maths and spelling as her day job. I later found out that she was actually 19 and almost 20, but “being a teenager is embarrassing.” She’s 20 now so I can tell you that. I’ll get her permission first, so if you’re reading this – she has approved. I asked what she wanted from her music and she said, “You know that feeling when you’ve had a long shitty day and you are on the train or in the car home and you want to just disappear for a minute and get lost in a song? I would love for my songs to be that for someone.”
That was exactly what her songs were for me, but replace “day” with “month” and “on the train or in the car home” with “in the midst of a global pandemic.” I was sold.
Throughout lockdown, I spent much of my time connecting with friends and colleagues in the industry to check in, especially likeminded people who work for themselves. With Julia’s permission, I sent her 4-track EP to publicist and manager Alyse Newman at Aanthologies and that’s where the idea of a 6-month mentorship program was born.
With the benefit of space and time to daydream and think, we decided the mentorship program would be designed to help Julia by introducing her to all realms of the industry, empowering her to take control of her career. Behind-the-scenes information isn’t widely publicised which can lead to artists leaning too heavily on other people (managers, labels, publicists, lawyers) to take control and make stuff happen. This can create a powerless dynamic and become frustrating and deflating for an artist.
Our concept was simple – we wanted Julia to feel she had a support network where she could lean on us to ask questions and ultimately navigate her own path. We would cheer her along and use our skills to help her find an audience. The fun stuff.
When I was Julia’s age, I was entering the music industry by voluntarily filming bands I loved. I was honing a craft in filming, editing, journalism and scouting new music. I found it difficult to be heard. We were offering a service and a skillset for free and it took time for people to understand what we were trying to build – a creative community, a way of showcasing high quality live videos when there weren’t many others offering filmed content. Regardless of talent, cold calling is difficult in the early days and sometimes you just need a vote of confidence from one or two people to help you along.
It’s a common theme for young female-identifying and gender non-binary managers and artists to feel unseen or unheard by people in positions of power. The journey can take longer for us. It took a while to value my own skillset as a manager, especially because the management model sets a precedent that we work for free until the artist begins earning and therefore enables us to commission, which can sometimes take years. When the industry tells you to work for free, it can be detrimental to one’s self-worth, especially when you are young and starting out. It doesn’t take long to get burnt when you’re generous. It can take a long time to realise you’re being taken advantage of. This is a conversation I’ve had across all roles within the music industry – but particularly experienced by artists and freelancers, the ones who have no obvious support network protecting them. Unfortunately people will continue to cut corners where they can until you learn to create your own boundaries. These are the learnings I now want to share, especially with people starting out.
This was our opportunity to share knowledge with Julia as she was soon to release her debut solo project.
When Julia told us she’d love to be involved in our soon-to-be mentorship program (which didn’t quite exist yet), Alyse and I discussed all of these thoughts and ideas and decided our aim would be to ensure Julia felt empowered and supported with knowledge and confidence in her decision making. Knowledge is power and understanding the deals you’re getting into, what role everyone plays on your team and what your expectations are is imperative for your own growth. It is also important that the artist cares about these things, which Julia does. We combined our managerial skills and Alyse’s publicity skills to execute an EP rollout over the course of six months.
Julia was the perfect candidate – having had a deep history of playing and performing music, she quickly understood the necessities of starting her own solo project. She viewed it as a creative release, but also as a business – while remembering to have fun along the way.
We had a goal to provide Julia with enough knowledge and information to feel empowered to be self-managed and gain a clear understanding of the role of a manager. I wanted Julia to know that managers don’t just take control of your career and publicists can help you tell your story exactly how you want it told.
After a few (hilarious) Zooms with Alyse and Julia and getting to know Julia’s combination of incredible raw talent and self-deprecating humour, we kicked off the mentorship program. There needs to be a strong element of trust in this scenario and Alyse and I were basing all of our trust on shaky Zoom connections and the fact Julia was really great with reminding us that Perth was a few hours behind. “She’s so smart” we’d say. “She always gets the time difference right, without prompting!” It was an opportunity for us to embrace working remotely, as we would soon find ourselves in a world where this is essential. First and foremost though, we were driven by Julia’s amazing creative abilities and her musical talent.
Throughout the six months, we formed an independent partnership with AWAL to release Julia’s debut EP. While we guided her through some of the more traditional strategies around releasing music, we also all had free rein to break the template and find interesting ways to tell her story. We reminded Julia that ideas could be lead by her – what she wanted to talk about in interviews, where she wanted to play her first shows, who she wanted to collaborate with, which publications she aligned with and if something didn’t feel right, then we didn’t have to pursue it.
Together we learnt about Julia’s stories and discussed how we could tell them – how she recorded her whole EP herself in a shack with one Rode mic and an interface she was given for her 12th birthday (which I’m sure she thought was embarrassing but we reminded her it is empowering!) We talked about the uniqueness of having four Flugelhorn players in your 7-piece live band – we also both learnt what a Flugelhorn was.
We coordinated Julia’s first live show at Small Time Group in Melbourne, we helped her organise her first hometown show at Barbes in Perth. We encouraged Julia’s funny ideas, we looked at press shots and visuals while she chose her collaborators, we watched her music get added to all the hip Spotify, Amazon and Apple playlists, we made t-shirts and we witnessed Julia start to garner an international audience.
Check out Julia Wallace playing ‘Place in Mind’ at Small Time:
We saw some wonderful reviews building on triple j Unearthed and listened to Julia’s music get played on triple j for the first time. We watched her make a website and a Bandcamp and a YouTube channel, while she registered her songs with APRA/AMCOS, PPCA and the like. She was beautifully introduced to the Australian media by Hayden Davies at Pilerats who coined her one of Perth’s “most brilliant and forward-thinking acts of tomorrow.” We met with prospective team members over Zoom – lawyers and agents and whatnot. Julia received lots of amazing publicity from the likes of NME, Pilerats, AIR, Mixdown, RTR and triple j. She did her first interviews and got added to FBi, RTR and lots of radio plays on various stations around the country including triple j. We received emails from her favourite record labels and helped set up connections for future releases and we encouraged her to apply for grants.
Julia came to Melbourne to play her first show and organised co-writes with new Melbourne friends. She ended up coming to watch Angie McMahon and Ainslie Wills at The Bridge Hotel in Castlemaine, where she joined Angie on stage to play Flugelhorn and sing backing vocals and eventually joined Angie and Ainslie singing their final song, a cover of “A Case of You” by Joni Mitchell. Julia met Jono Steer for the first time and collaborated on two new tracks face-to-face at The Perch Recording Studio in Castlemaine, which are yet to be released. I even had a crack at playing the Flugelhorn, which we now affectionately refer to as “The Flugey” as if it was always a dear part of our lives.
So despite the shitstorm that was 2020 and beyond, we found joy, humour and career progression in mentoring a new artist during the pandemic and I can quite confidently say that collaborating with Alyse and Julia was one of the best things to come out of 2020.
It was a reminder to share knowledge, collaborate remotely, support each other with humour and celebrate the wins. It reminded me to embrace a love of creative consulting and creative strategy which was lost somewhere between the world news and an overwhelming inbox. It reminded us that working on a project you love, with encouragement from people you love working with, always comes easy – even in the face of a pandemic.
This article originally appeared on The Industry Observer, which is now part of The Music Network.