A 21st Century Band Manager
In the mythic history of rock-n-roll, artist managers are the long-suffering, behind-the-scenes fixers. Back when rock was a drug-fueled fantasy trip, concerts meant trashed hotel rooms and groupie swarms, and managers spent as much time on damage control as on business matters. Times have changed.
A 21st century music manager has to understand the physical / digital divide, find the right promotional mix, and still attend to the traditional tasks of running a live-music business. To understand band management in today’s age, look no farther than Ulf Oesterle, an assistant professor of music in the Syracuse University Setnor School of Music, and owner of Aux Records, an independent record label that is setting the standard for modern music management.
A music enthusiast with a passion for Rock and Metal, Oesterle began his career in college radio, a job that required Oesterle to work with many major labels promoting bands touring through Central New York. That constant exposure to the daily grind of the music business taught him about the business models music syndication.
In 2003, after being approached twice with job offers from a traveling band, Ulf did what any music entrepreneur would do. He borrowed $6,000 against his student loans and launched an independent record label. That was the birth of Aux Records.
Fun fact: the name Aux Records, pronounced [O Records], came from watching a cooking show featuring a French dish.
Oesterle is a man of many skills, and juggling the needs and opportunities for multiple could be the work of an entire ensemble, but Aux Records and the management business have been a one man show since the beginning.
Aux’s artist roster is an eclectic mix of genres ranging from Emo Rock to Acoustic Folk to Hard Core, the genre where his passion resides. Though a majority of the bands he manages are under Aux Records, he sometimes acts solely as an artist manager or artist consultant. The difference between an artist manager and an artist consultant is that a consultant is contracted on an as-needed basis for bands providing situational advice. A manager works daily on behalf of an artist focusing on all aspects of the artist’s career.
Whether managing a band on his label, or consulting on a specific artist’s problem, Oesterle approaches every situation from perspective of an artist manager rather than an independent owner. “I always approach the process as an artist manager, because what’s best for the band is ultimately what’s best for the label,” says Oesterle.
Managing more than one band at a time requires a disciplined division of work. Oesterle devotes time to each of his bands every day, but also tries matches their work schedules to his.
“Typically when the bands are more active, I tend to be more active as well. Sometimes it is only a little web work but other times it is planning for the studio or visiting practices or just meeting with the bands,” he notes.
Since his role is split between running Aux Records and acting as a band manager, there isn’t a hard line between the two. “I work for the bands, so when they need work done on the web, social media posts, or additional scheduling I am there to do it” he says.
As he finishes a vinyl order for the band Thoughts In Reverse, he is already thinking about his next tasks. Oesterle’s next concerns are scheduling studio time for The Brilliant Light and Honor Bright, and negotiating a merchandise deals for Afro Nips. He is also organizing writing sessions for the duo.
In the digital age, it is crucial for an artist manager to understand the quirks of music distribution. The strong decline of physical CD sales, and the rapid shift to digital downloads and streaming have been seismic changes to the music industry, but reality is never so clear cut. There’s no better example of that than the persistence of vinyl records.
While they do sell MP3s and CDs, two of Aux’s bands, Safe and Thoughts In Reverse, are typically distributed on vinyl first. In Oesterle’s experience vinyl still has a strong dependable market, so while he understands the need to “be digital,” keeping a profitable channel like vinyl is smart business.
Oesterle relies primarily on the Sound Garden here in Syracuse, and Brooklyn-based stores to distribute his vinyl records. He has distribution agreements in 25 different states, and letters from fans across the country are a healthy sales signal.
For digital distribution, Aux Records uses TuneCore to help aggregate the band’s music into digital music stores, and Noise Trade to provide digital downloads in exchange for an email address and zip code. The demographic information collected within the Noise Trade platform is useful for market research and helps Oesterle plan touring schedules.
Aux Records complete roster consists of thirteen bands. The active roster includes Thoughts In Reverse, Safe, ToTs, The Afro Nips, Anorexic Beauty Queen and The Brilliant Light. There are seven bands on the inactive roster: Honor Bright, Merit, caleb micah, The Pilot Lies, The Icon And The Axe, Fazeshift, and For The Horizon.
Being a band manager in the 21st century doesn’t mean you have to work for a large company or living in an expensive metropolis. Ulf Oesterle has created a successful independent record label, and has happily managed 13 bands over 10 years out of Syracuse, New York in the heart of livable CNY.