By Jennifer Buonantony
Photo Credit (pg1), John Rutledge
Every musician in LA wants to know what it takes to make it big. We caught up with David Benveniste (Beno, for short) to find out how his artist management company, and label Velvet Hammer Music and Management Group decides who gets the golden ticket.
When you walk into the offices of Velvet Hammer Music and Management Group, you instantly feel at home- albeit an exquisitely decorated and extremely hip, yet comfy, home. The lush couches and pillows, edgy artwork and framed music prints, and the smell of incense certainly all impress while putting you at ease, not to mention the warm greeting from his staff. It is not the stuffy, pretentious glass walls and framed vinyl you expect to see from the office of a company that boasts such chart toppers as System Of A Down, Alice in Chains, Deftones, and Cypress Hill.
Beno himself, is equally approachable, yet polished. He is known in the industry as an entrepreneur, innovator, and expert marketer, and it shows as he begins to articulate his views on the music industry.
Q: Did you always know that you wanted to work in music and become a music manager?
A: I never knew I wanted to be a manager per se, but I always loved music. Throughout elementary school and high school, I was always super keen on finding the next cool band- sneaking out and seeing young bands play, big bands play. I've just always loved music. It was super inspirational for me as a kid and I just always followed it. My brother was ahead of me when it came to music trends. He was a couple of years older than me so I found out about new bands from him and then made my own assessments and opinions of them. It was always in our blood.
Q: Who were some of your favorite musicians growing up?
A: I loved the 80's new wave revolution out of the UK. I loved everything from Soft Cell to Heaven 17. I loved the hair metal era. I enjoyed bands like early Motley Crue, Ozzy, Black Sabbath, and Iron Maiden- all that stuff, even Ska with bands like Madness and The Specials. I loved all genres of music, I really did, and I think my heart growing up was probably more so in the 80's new wave Depeche Mode type music. If you look at my client roster now, you can tell I am a rocker by heart too, so my taste literally sort of transcends genres.
Q: You signed your first client System Of A Down when you were right out of college at University of Southern California. How did you decide to go after them?
A: When I graduated from college, I was just spending some time on the LA music scene. I grew up in Beverly Hills, went to Beverly Hills High School, college at USC. When I finished school, I spent a couple of years just going to shows and enjoying the culture of music. I wasn't working at the time and I was just going out and embracing it. One day my buddy calls me up and says, 'Beno, you have to come see this band in rehearsal. They are an amazing band in LA, they're unsigned but they have a little following... they are amazing, come see them.' And so I went to the rehearsal space and I saw them, and I was just floored by what I saw. Just the raw power, passion, the ethnicity in the music, the musicianship, there was something palpable. I literally went home that night and I went to my father, who had wanted me to go to law school, and I said, 'If you want me to go to law school, can you please support me and give me the financial support to develop this act. I don't know how, when, or where, but I am going to make this band one of the biggest bands in the world- they are so special.' And he backed me and he financially supported me while I developed them and we worked together and that band, System Of A Down, is still the cornerstone of my company.
Q: What was that like for you, to start out with this band and help them to become these huge, mega stars all at such a young age?
A: It's been amazing, you know we all came up together. Everyone in the band and I, we all grew... the band grew, the company grew, each of their careers grew. It's great, it's been an amazing, wild, ride and obviously with management and personal management and career management there are ups and downs. I try to sign special acts and work with acts that are unique and obviously System- musically, culturally, socially, emotionally, every which way- they are very special so it's been really a passion thing for me. Everything I sign... you know, Alice In Chains, for example, they were one of my favorite bands growing up and I had an opportunity to try and help them bring back their career and you have iconic, important records and people in that band. Deftones is one of my favorite bands and Cypress Hill and even our younger bands. This pop artist Jackson Guthy that we are working with, Coheed and Cambria, Pepper, Touché Amoré, everything we do we try to find important acts in each genre.
Q: After you signed System Of A Down, how did you go about finding your next few bands and what attracted you to them?
A: It's a vibe, it's an energy. Seeing a band live that blows you away and feeling that there is star power in the band, that there are amazing songs, that there is something culturally that will connect at the street level, at the visceral level with young fans, nothing compares to that. So I look for that. I don't necessarily look for anything 'quick fix'. I want the long, slow build with bands that will be around. If I hear something I love, I will go see them. But I will never sign anything without seeing it first live, you can't do that.
Q: How have changes in technology affected the music industry and your clients?
A: It's helped in the way where it levels the playing field. Whether you're a huge star or a kid in a backyard in Omaha, Nebraska, when you hit 'send' you can transfer files and get music to anyone, anywhere in the world immediately. That helps in terms of giving the ability and access to people who otherwise wouldn't have that. The flip side is that with digital file trading, a lot of the importance of the record and kids buying the record for its purpose, its message, its musicality in its entirety has sort of gone away. It's becoming more of a singles driven business again and obviously piracy has really hurt revenue for a lot of bands and companies. I think it really hurts new bands. For the older bands that are established whether it's Eminem or it's Coldplay or it's Madonna or it's System... or if it's Bruce Springstein or if it's AC/DC or whatever it is, those bands have built their fans on artist development and have had years and years of penetration and interaction at the fan level. For new bands, the new kids, with radio, they just have a song now. If it's a great song and they play it it's about the song rather than the band and that's where I think it really is the short end of the stick. There is no artist development any more so it's hard. The other thing is kids are used to thinking, 'I like that song, I'll take it for free.' They don't know any better. It's not their fault. There's been absent communication between the established companies and the consumer.
Q: At Velvet Hammer Music and Management Group, you have the management component, the publishing element, and the record label. How are these facets important to each other and what do you do to try to overcome some of the obstacles you just mentioned when concerning your bands?
A: For me, it's all one stop music entertainment. So it's about what is right for the artist on the management side- we're very ethical, we base our philosophy on how we role out every band, on what we feel is the long term win. Investments need to be made in bands and sometimes you get them back and sometimes you don't. That's the nature of the business. Ultimately, I think in terms of one thing. At the end of the day, what is most important is how do you create a relationship between the bands and the fans where the fans will always be there- where the band can go into any market and sell tickets. That's the power of any band, to be able to go in and sell thousands of tickets in any market. That way the fans are happy, the bands are happy. That's their livelihood. If a bands great and there is demand for them live, that ultimately is the tell tale.
Q: In addition to Velvet Hammer Music and Management Group, you previously also owned the company Streetwise Concepts and Culture which was known for its marketing strengths and reached over 60,000 youths. Did this company emerge from the need to market your bands, how did they work together?
A: When I started with System and we first got signed to Columbia Records, I knew that if it was just 'send it to radio', we would be done, because the band was very unorthodox and it was very much a culture thing, a street thing. So I literally started going into chat rooms and talking to kids online and giving them my home number to call and would play them the demo. I'd tape it from tape to tape and that's how the street marketing team started. From there, we started to develop. Other bands started coming to me when System came out and started doing really well in every market. So other bands came and then corporate America started knocking at the door. We started going into gaming and consulting and all sorts of different things at that level on how to communicate with those kids and how to get to them. Corporate companies would come to us and say, 'How do we get to these kids, how should we create test groups, what do you think they'll like?' We were sort of a go-between for those kids and corporate America because we had the knowledge and the know how of the dialect, the communication. We built this group, reaching over 60,000 kids, from product. We just built the mailing list and the interactive list. It wasn't just one huge list, it was more teams. Each team would have between say two and four thousand kids based on product. So if you were more of a music person you'd be focused on music, if it was technology we worked with Nokia, if it was food & beverage it was Coca- Cola or Subway... so we built up these teams based on the kids' preferences and it was very effective. It just so happened that my heart and passion is in music and the marketing was straying too much into corporate America so we took that technology and took that philosophy and applied it to our bands which is where it all started. We have a great business.
Q: Are there any bands out there on your label wish list? Is there anyone you passed on that you regret?
A: I mean, look, there's always bands you looked at that you say, 'Hey that band, God I didn't see it, and they're big now'. Obviously that happens. All I can say is that I am a huge music lover and I love all types of music and there are bands that I have my eye on absolutely but we'll see if lucks on my side and I get the meeting with them.
Q: Are there any artists or recent album releases that you admire or any recent trends in music that you see?
A: I'm really a huge fan of a record we just did that I love that's a Cypress Hill/Rusko collaboration. We took Cypress Hill's seminal rap outfit mixed them with the biggest underground dubstep DJ and just yielded something spectacular that I think is going to be pretty ground-breaking. It will come out in February or March.
Q: What about all these talent competition shows now like American Idol and X Factor? How do you feel about them ,do you look to them for new talent?
A: I think they find new talent. I think some of it works and some of it doesn't just like a record label, just like a manager. That platform that they have is phenomenal, it gets artists in front of 15-20 million viewers a week. It's amazing exposure. It's great for these young artists because that's their chance and if they have a chance to get on TV and a chance to showcase their talent and be exposed, then good for them. It doesn't work for all artists, it's a certain thing. And no, we don't really ever scout these shows. We have a pop artist that would fit perfectly on one of those shows, not that we'd use it. I am not closed off to any type of artist or venue. If it's great, I want it.
Q: Where do you see the industry going in the next few years?
A: I think that there has been a huge influx of so-so music an so-so young bands and so-so management philosophy. I think that the tree will be shook and I think that a lot of the things that aren't real whether it be companies, or bands, or managers, or whatever will slowly go away and that the strong will survive. I think it's natural selection and I think that the real bands that connect will always have their place in the hearts of fans through live engagements. You can't download a show. You have to go pay the ticket price, go enjoy the show, go buy the T-shirt. I think that those bands are going to always be around. I think that the monetization of digital music and file sharing and that whole evolution will continue to have its ups and downs. I don't think that the recorded music business will ever be as lucrative as it once was when you had to buy the record. But I think that's what happens. Marketing wouldn't be as good without the Internet so you have to look at the positive to understand the negative and vice-versa. It's about working with what you have, it's about working with the kids, it's about bringing the bands closer and closer with their fan bases. That's where the industry is going. If the band can touch their fans, they will create an absolutely long-lasting real preserved relationship and that's where it's going. That's what we do here at Velvet Hammer. We are very, very in touch with the fans of the bands. It's really about brands. It's not about a song, it's about how do you create a name for your act that whether you're in North America, South America, Europe, Russia, wherever, that brand means something. I think there's also a lot of great cross-pollination going on between outside music brands and music brands. Car companies and film and TV and products all want to incorporate music. They want to get in with the bands because that universal language is great for their consumer and the bands want to get with that consumer platform to get that many new eyeballs looking at their band, and I think that's important.
Q: At your company, in terms of branding, is it a collaborative process?
A: As a manger, you are sort of being hired to be the CEO of the band's company. As the manager and the management company it is your responsibility to help develop their product as well as have a game plan to role that product out once it is developed. Whether that's radio, touring, TV, press , marketing, it's our job to really create a plan to expose that product. For example, we have a new artist that I am absolutely over the moon about. His name is Jackson Guthy and he's an amazing prolific writer- young, fifteen, a super performer, has an amazing record, pop with a soul twinge- he's really great. The whole teen, tween thing is big right now especially with outside tie-ins. We have a plan for his brand. There is a lot out there right now and only the strong will survive. That's the way it always is.
Q: Over time, what makes a band or brand have longevity?
A: It's how that band or brand connects to the public. It's the message, the quality of the music, the live show. Rick Rubin, is the most prolific producer in history and one of the brightest most forward thinking minds in the music business and I happen to be fortunate to work with him on System Of A Down. He signed System when I was a young, novice manager and he once said something to me that never left my mind. He said, 'Beno, a billion things have to go right for a band to be as big as they get, it doesnt just happen.' There are so many components. Part of it's luck, part of it's management, part of it's quality, part of it's the band, part of it's the fan, part of its the sky (chuckles) part of it is… it's timing and a billion things that have to go right. And that's what matters. You know when you look at the bands, and I think we can all name the really big bands, you also have to think of all the hundreds and thousands of bands that don't make it.
It seems there is no golden ticket to success, but a band who can sell tickets is certainly the most likely to succeed. In the end, the music business is well just that... a business. It takes a strong leader, a good philosophy, and passion to even compete. As I leave Velvet Hammer Music and Management Group, I can't help but think Beno's advice could be applied to almost any brand, so it's no surprise corporate America knocked down his door. Aspiring bands, take note of his playlist.