BJ Olin is an artist manager with Red Light Management in L.A. 14 years ago we had a history class together at Texas Tech University. A few years after that he became one of my closest of friends and mentors in the music business. Together we ran all over Texas promoting shows for artists big and small. We managed some bands and dreamed big dreams. While his path has taken him on a round-about course, all this time later he’s still grinding it out for the artists on his roster – only on a little larger scale than we dreamed of back then.
Ryan: I know that every day, week, month is different, but for those who don’t know, what are some key things that keep you busy on a recurring basis?
BJ: Really just handling every single aspect of a client’s career whether it’s a tour and the things that happen on a tour. Ideally an artist has a tour manger that handles things that happen on the road, but things can always get changed on an instant and I can get called in by the tour manager. So, planning the tour. Planning producers, writers or the album process. And now I have two clients act as well, so those types of meetings. Like you said it, no two days are the same.
Ryan: So, what is the client list now?
BJ: Allen Stone, a hip-hop artist named Jinx who is down here in L.A. shooting the video for his single, a Swedish artist named Tingsek who has toured with Willie Nelson. He was on Universal Sweden for three albums and they just didn’t know what to do with him.
I have this girl named Jackie Tohn. She’s a female singer-songwriter and I’m not a big fan of that sort of plan or strategy but she acts, she’s funny, she’s got a great voice, killer songwriter. So we started working on this play that she wrote and so what we envisioned was sort of her having this play that was sort of funny and self-deprecating that has music engrained in it. We wanted the music to be radio-friendly in and of itself but to still work within the storyline.
Ryan: How would you define “success” (for an artist) today? Is it different for everybody? You may disagree with me, but I always felt like back in the day it was all about the record deal. Get the record deal and you’re set and the label will take over and move everything forward for you and now that’s absolutely not the case.
BJ: I don’t know that I’ve ever thought that the record deal defined success. I think even 10 years ago that it was just a crapshoot whether or not you got signed to a major label – whether getting signed based on talent or your having a massive fanbase. You never knew if the label was going to get it right – if they were going to handle you properly or if it was going to work at all.
It’s sort of safer and more healthy now just thinking that success is defined as “I’m supporting myself.” “I have a full-time job doing music” whatever that means. Actually, Allen [Stone] was the first person to say that where I was like “oh yeah, I like how he worded that” like “I just want to be able to do music full time.” And that’s breaking an artist if they can just do music full time and make a living.
Ryan: I think it’s hard because a lot of folks who had a label deal and then were let go – I think it has to be a shot to the pride (if not the bottom line) to still be supporting yourself. And I’ve heard stories of artists who had record deals who were still selling pizza when they weren’t on tour [to make ends meet].
BJ: Personally, I know a number of a close friends of mine who have been in that scenario. A former client of mine, Jon McLaughlin – he signed to Island Def Jam with a very competitive record deal at the time. And the label got it wrong. He didn’t really have a major fan base and they wanted to make him into this Disney, soccer mom, Abercrombie-type thing… way more pop-leaning. And at the time he was very edgy. Potentially the next Billy Joel – one of the most amazing piano players I’ve ever seen even to this day. Then, to his detriment, he was in a system where L.A. Reid was not going to drop him. L.A. Reid dropped Lady Gaga who went on to be the biggest artist on the planet so he wasn’t going to drop anyone else. So [Jon] was sort of trapped until L.A. Reid left and went over to Epic. All that to say, getting dropped is not always the worst thing possible.
Ryan: So, if getting dropped is not always the worst thing, then how can that play out for an artist’s benefit?
BJ: A lot of times, if your on a label for even one album, if you gain momentum on someone else’s pocketbook and then you get dropped it’s not the worst thing that could happen. That was the case with Barcelona before we parted ways. We thought: let’s roll out a plan in case they decide to drop us. Like, let’s assume they are going to drop us – which is fine – let’s just go. You know we spent 2-3 years building this on our own then a year on the label. Let’s just benefit from the resources (granted, minimal resources) and steam we picked up in that year and just keep going. You know, they ended up letting me go and then waited at least two years to put out that next record?
It’s tricky because once you start the momentum, it’s harder to recreate it and get started again rather than to keep going. If the scale is to 100 and 100 is the biggest act and you’re at 20 or 30 then you take two years off…
With Allen [Stone’s] record, we self-released it and regardless of the fact that it wasn’t going to sell hundreds of thousands of units, we wanted to have a seamless transition from this record cycle to the next. There needs to be a little bit of a break where you just let the fans breathe. Like in a baseball game where there’s this clutch double. The next batter doesn’t step immediately up to the plate. You know the crowd’s going insane and so you just sort of let the moment breathe.
Ryan: Part of it for you guys was releasing that album then, what was it 12-18 months later getting distribution?
BJ: That was not necessarily the plan. We knew when we were making it that this is not “the one”. This is the foundation we are laying and the next one is really going to knock it out of the park. So we just went ahead and self-released it sort of on a whim because Jimmy Kimmel was talking about booking him for the fall but they weren’t certain when, so we wanted to go ahead and get it out there [before that.] We ended up doing Kimmel the following March.
So we released it on iTunes and to my surprise we had the big banner on the R&B page. Then the “Unaware” video went viral which was totally unexpected. Then the album was #2 on R&B the day after we released it. So the next day I emailed my friend Molly who is the assistant to… the guy who books Conan. And I said “look, I’ve known you for years and I’ve never asked you for this favor, but I’m gonna ask for it now. I want to pitch Allen for Conan.” And I told her everything that’s going on. [She agreed and I emailed him with what’s going on.] Literally 20 minutes after I emailed him, he emailed me back and said “I have to book this…” We ended up playing Conan on Oct 26 and that was like the tipping point so to speak. And there have been a handful of those along the way.
Ryan: So with that, there are probably a handful of fans that have been with Allen for a long time who are really hungry for something new, but in a sense, you’ve been constantly relaunching would you say?
BJ: Yeah, I mean we re-released it almost a year ago at the end of July last year. So I think that when January/February rolled around last year we had a lot labels wanting to sign him and we just didn’t feel like it was the right time yet. You know it was a lot of labels wanted to basically buy the masters of this record, work this album, and then have this album working into the next one. But I thought it was very important for Allen to own these masters for his entire life. Since we believed this wasn’t going to be “the one”, I was like “any new fans we garner on the next record when you break through to radio, they’re going to go back and buy your back catalog and your going to own all that.” So it was a real long-term strategy and that’s going to be a steady stream of income for him for years to come.
And so, you know ATO [Records] felt good because they are related to Red Light [Management], they are Dave Matthews label. It was a situation where Allen owned the masters and they helped us sell the record. And to their credit they revived what was really a dead record. We were doing probably… 200 records a week… and now we’re close to tripling where we were a year ago.