Wesley Verhoeve is the founder of Family Records, an independent record label whose roster includes Wakey! Wakey!, Pearl & The Beard, Casey Shea, and others. More than just a label, the company also offers artist management and development services. Along with Family Records, he is the curator for a weekly concert series in New York City called Cross Pollination, and a writer/blogger on all things related to the music industry.
I’ve read Wesley’s blog, followed him on all the usual social networks, and always found his insight and commentary on the state of the industry to be on point, interesting, and entertaining. He has a keen business sense and thinks like an independent musician, so I wasn’t surprised to learn he has an MBA and formerly taught business classes at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, not to mention experience as an independent musician in The Undisputed Heavyweights.
Wesley originally came to New York City for an internship at The Verve Music Group (my former place of employment) before moving on to another major label at Sony/BMG. After that he began working for Engine Room Recordings, an independent label, and is now putting all his energy into Family Records.
There’s a lot to learn from somebody with Wesley’s experience, especially for us independent musicians. I was recently able to ask him a few questions for MusicianWages.com.
CM: What’s the main difference between working at major labels and independent labels?
WV: It’s like with any big business versus a smaller one. Smaller companies are more nimble and flexible, they tend to innovate out of necessity and are not as well funded as bigger ones. Bigger ones tend to have more power to affect change, but also have to deal with inertia and a bigger resistance to change. As an employee these differences of course directly affect the way you do your job.
How has your experience in The Undisputed Heavyweights influenced your approach to artist development with Family Records?
Well, Family Records really just started as a name to put on the first Undisputed Heavyweights album. After that record it made sense to stick it on the solo projects of the two other band members, Casey Shea and Jeff Jacobson, and a compilation for a concert series I founded with a friend called Cross-Pollination. Growing the Heavyweights was me learning on the job about what works and what didn’t work as far as getting people to shows, making the shows something special, interesting press, etc. Previous to the Heavyweights I had already been learning about all of this through Cross-Pollination and by co-managing Jaymay, an artist we discovered through the series. I loved doing it, it was going well, so it made sense to apply what I had learned to other artists as well, starting with Wakey!Wakey!, then still a solo act.
Along with music, you have a background in business. How has this helped you with your current endeavors?
I think that the specific system under which I learned about business has been more important than the actual topic matter. I went to a school that focused on analyzing situations, identifying what works and what doesn’t, and then optimizing and improving the business around these findings. It is a pragmatic and solution oriented model that can work in business just as well as in any other field. Working in the modern music business is essentially working on a string of crises, challenges and semi-related problems that need constant analyzing and fixing. Many hurdles are constantly thrown up, and we have to jump over, duck under, go around and smash through these hurdles together with the artist.
You have been running the Cross-Pollination series for a long time now (5 or 6 years?). What’s been the key to keeping that series alive?
My friend and CP partner Jay and I have hosted exactly 300 of these shows over the last 5+ years and we decided to overhaul the series for 2011 with a few big changes to keep it exciting, innovative and relevant. More on that soon. :)
I’m constantly realizing that many of the artists I love were at one point playing in somebody else’s band, but today I get the feeling a lot of people try to do their own thing exclusively from the beginning. Have you noticed any relationship between the success of artists with a diverse musical background versus and artist with a single project (their own) on their mind?
People who have tried and failed before with other projects, but are still sticking with it and going for it generally are easier to work with than brand new fresh artists that have no experience. The latter group has to deal with growing pains and expectations based on assumptions, whereas the former group already knows a little bit about what can happen and how to deal with disappointments.
What do you look for in a developing artist before you decide to work with them?
1. Are they amazing and unique creatives that care enough.
2. Are they amazing people that I can be in a tight and healthy relationship with. (It’s like dating almost)
3. Are they hard working and passionate folks with real hunger to make it.
4. Are they in it for the right reasons.
5. Are they kind.
Finally, I recently saw a list of dozens of pieces of advice from CMJ for today’s independent artists. It was not only overwhelming, but at times self-serving (ie. “Everybody should use a service like… mine”). Do you believe things need to be this complicated? What two or three things do you believe artists should be focusing on the most?
I don’t believe in a list that you can follow to success, or a service that you must use. If you do what every one else does, you won’t stick out too much and people won’t notice you. I believe in amazing music, amazing performances, working hard and being kind to people. Consistency, persistance and originality. And sticking with it.
I just learned something interesting about the current movie “it” guy Zach Galafianakis. To the general public he came out of nowhere as an overnight success starting with The Hangover and 6 months later he is in every movie. Well, this “overnight success” actually had a talk show on VH1 ten years ago and it got canceled after 9 weeks. That’s a decade ago! And that wasn’t the first thing he did either! Six years before that he was hired as an SNL writer and he lasted two weeks. That takes us 16 years back in time, and that wasn’t the first thing he did either!
Fleetwood Mac released their first truly successful album (self-titled) in 1975, and their big mainstream break through came with “Rumours” two years later. Those were their tenth and eleventh albums (!!). Things move faster these days, and it doesn’t have to take 10 albums anymore, but at the same time artists and people in general also get down so fast to the point of giving up when it doesn’t happen for them right away.
If you truly care, you need to stick with it.