‘It’s a gut-instinct business’ – Manager Joe Clarke on building artist careers
In the How Music Works series, Niall Byrne talks to people about their work
Band manager Joe Clarke: ‘There are bands on there who have five million streams who can’t sell 100 tickets in real life’. Photograph: Ruth Medjber
The success of a music manager for an act is built on relationships, strategy and working hard to get the best for your artist, says Joe Clarke, who manages the likes of Le Galaxie, Mark McCabe, The Blizzards, The Strypes, Kormac and Bitch Falcon.
“There’s loads of people working in management who are like the fourth member of the band,” Clarke says. “That’s not what a manager is supposed to be. A manager is supposed to be one step away looking at the big picture.”
Clarke’s management work is one of three strands of his company CWB, which can include putting on an airshow, producing events for councils or arts organisation, or touring big orchestral shows across Europe, such as The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses. CWB’s management roster also includes RSAG, Maud In Cahoots, Stomptown Brass, Jerry Fish and Jack O’Rourke, and five people oversee the acts.
Enthusiasm, opportunity, availability and activity are factors in adding a new band to the roster. The process starts with about 80 questions about what the band want, what they can do and what their personal situation is: how flexible they are to tour in Germany at the drop of a hat, for example. Management is often about seeing what others can’t as was the case with two bag-wearing Limerick comedians.
Around 2007, the Rubberbandits were becoming known for their prank call recordings. Clarke talked to them for two years before hatching a management plan with Paul Webb, that started with “a great 10-minute live show”, and exploded with the 2010 viral single Horse Outside.
They capitalised on the international interest that followed and Blindboy Boat Club and Mr Chrome’s careers were steered towards regular live gigs, MTV appearances, an Australian tour and a Channel 4 pilot.
“You’re getting phone calls from all over the world and you try and get that into a strategy to prolong a career into something that doesn’t become just a flash in the pan.”
While Clarke and Rubberbandits no longer work together, the split was amicable enough.“I think a mistake managers sometimes make is they hold on for dear life to an act when the act really needs some more expert advice,” says Clarke. “It’s a human business, we’re managing humans and we have to consider that at all time.”
When CWB got involved with The Blizzards, who had gone on hiatus in 2009 and returned last year, Clarke was faced with a different kind of challenge than growing a band’s career.
The Blizzards’ singer Bressie had become a mental-health advocate and a TV personality in the intervening years but while the band did well in the time before his celebrity, the playing pitch had changed completely and so had the age of their audience.
“The challenge there is not to dwell too much on the nostalgia because there is a great love for them,” says Clarke.
The plan now includes a publishing deal because Clarke says their songwriting could open up further opportunities in the industry. “We are showcasing their new songs as much as their live shows.”
It doesn’t always work out though. A manager may love an act but sometimes things don’t click or an act won’t break through as expected.
“Maybe you were wrong, maybe the timing wasn’t right,” says Clarke. “It’s a gut instinct business and when you go out on a limb for something that you really like and it doesn’t click, it can be heartbreaking.”
If things do work out and a band get an international recording contract, then there’s other things to worry about. Le Galaxie’s soon-to-be-released third album has a US record deal and that label has dictated that the album will be released in March 2018, despite the band having finished it in the early part of 2017.
A band can’t continue to play the same old live songs as fatigue can set in so Le Galaxie have cultivated opportunities as DJs through regular parties and monthly mixes. Those parties keep both the band and fans sated while they wait for the album.
“The DJ gigs have been spectacular at keeping the band’s visibility out there without over-saturating them in live shows. Le Galaxie built their reputation as a live band and we needed to find something that scratches that itch.”
Clarke warns that you can’t rely on streaming services like Spotify to do all the work when the album does come out. Getting millions of plays on a platform is great but there needs to be plenty of hard work to back it up.
“There are bands on there who have five million streams who can’t sell 100 tickets in real life. It’s quite easy to get a good run on Spotify but it’s about what you do with that success; that’s what a manager does. They harness small success into a career. It’s what happens next that’s important.”