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Taking on Topper: A Conversation with moe.‘s Manager

This month’s reader interview is with moe. Manager Jon Topper. We solicited questions on-line and then posed many of them to Topper while he traveled northbound en route for Turin, NY, already in the planning stages for moe.down 7.

What is the best piece of advice you can give an individual who has begun managing a band for the first time? (Question from Keith M)

JT- Don’t give up your apartment in Manhattan without getting paper.

That comes back to the story of how I became moe.’s manager. I was promoting shows in Buffalo and I was friends with those guys. I put them on some of the shows I was doing. Then I got an opportunity to move to New York City. Right before I left, Al came to me and said, “Topper, would you like to help out?” Al was motivating the band to do more than play the Buffalo area. I said sure and we got to the point where Al and I split up the booking together. Then I grew into booking the band and I spent a year where I was promoting a club in Manhattan and at the same time booking moe. myself.

These guys were working day jobs and when our three markets started happening, we made a decision. This is what we believe in and we want to go for it. Let’s all give up our jobs and move into one house in Albany, so we only pay one rent. I had a great apartment on 88th between Central Park and Columbus that I loved. So I turned to the band and said, “I believe in this. I’ve been working with you for a couple of years now. But I don’t want to give up my apartment and all that without becoming your manager.” We all agreed to do it and we did paper [i.e. everyone signed a formal contract].

What is the biggest mistake you’ve seen a first time manager make? (Tim V.)

JT- Not finishing college. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. And that goes for the band too.

Suggesting that band members remain in school certainly delves into the realm of their private lives. How active a role should a manager take in that context?

JT- I think to a certain extent a manager has to be pretty involved in the band’s personal lives because anything that one member of band does affects the living of the other members of the band. So the manager and all of the members have to maintain a very open relationship with each other about their personal lives.

A number of folks wrote in asking when will moe. be coming to their town. Can you talk a bit about how those decisions are made?

JT- You want to go through how we book a tour? Usually I’m planning out a tour anywhere from six months to a year in advance. What I do is I put a routing together and I try to put a fall and a winter routing together at the same time. Then I’ll show it to the guys in moe. and explain, “This is what I’m thinking and these are the reasons why I’m thinking we should be playing here at that time.” Then the band will look at the schedule and all together we’ll tweak it. The band will point out, “Topper, we haven’t been in Austin in a long time, we should really be going down to Austin.” Sometimes I’ll say that’s a good idea and sometimes I’ll say we might want to skip it for now and go back for one reason or another. Then after that’s done, I usually take it to the agent and the agent will say, “This is good routing but you’re forgetting this market and this market,” and give me the reason why we should be playing one market instead of another.

Many managers leave much of that to their booking agents.

JT- There are some managers who turn it over to the agent and say, “Just book us our tour” but I’m not that kind of manager. I talk to almost every promoter in the country. I ask what their opinions are, should we go bigger here or stay the same? Should we have support on a show? I talk to a lot of promoters to get their opinion besides talking to my agent and sometimes I’ll get on the phone with my agent and a promoter to talk to them both about it. Sometimes I’ll even call another manager to ask what they think. I definitely have group of people out there that I’ll call for opinions whether it’s a tour or a special event or whatever.

How did you decide upon Asheville for New Year’s Eve? (Question submitted by many)

JT- That’s one of our favorite towns in the country to play. It’s a great a place to spend a weekend and we thought it would be something different.

Do you see any gains/losses in opening for ABB this past summer? (Jason P)

JT- All gains. We got to play in front of a crowd that enjoys live music. We got to be affiliated with legends of the jamband scene. We got pretty good catering. We got exposure to a lot of fans who have heard about moe. but had never seen them. And on top of that, I want to say that the Allman Brothers Band and family treated moe. great. They treated us better than an opening act

Are you sick of listening to fans bitch about the website and tour dates? (Chris W)

JT- Nah I don’t really care (laughs). I’m never going to satisfy everyone.

Do you read the boards and do they have an impact on your decision making (Tom M, Brian V)

JT- Yes and yes.

Can you give an example?

JT- The cruise. I thought that maybe we’d do another cruise but people haven’t stopped talking about it for two years, so that made me look for another situation and the right timing to do another cruise.

I’m always looking in the late winter/early spring to see people's recommendations for moe.down. I read the boards all the time. The boards have a lot of impact.

Any advice on how to follow up with a festival when you are submitting a band to play? (Will)

JT- My biggest advice is keep bugging the shit out of the festival you want to play. Tell those people, “We want to play it, we want to play it” and if you don’t get on it the first year, you’ll get on it another year. Just make sure they know you’re alive.

This reminds me of something else. I did a conference once and I sat on a panel with an agent and a kid asked a question. He said, “I know this guy in a band that’s doing really well and I’m not sure if I should ask him for an opener or call the agent for an opener.” The agent’s response was, “Well you should call me for the opener and we’ll see what you have to offer and we’ll decide if we should bring it to the band.” My response was, “You know, that’s an agent’s response. A manager’s response might be the same but if you’re a musician and you can get to another musician that you know, then contact the musician. It’s our job to do what they want us to do.” You know if there’s a band out there and they want to us to hear their music, it’s not a bad thing for the guitar player to email Al, for instance. Our band members are all good with checking stuff out.

Are there any bands out there over the years that you thought had a good chance to succeed, but never did? By success I mean the band went from playing small clubs to doing tours, larger gigs, bigger fan base, notoriety, etc. (Kevin H)

JT- God Street Wine. I was a big fan of theirs in college. I can’t really break down why they didn’t have that success because I didn’t know them personally. I had a chance to promote them a couple of times when I was in college and I was able to bring them to Buffalo. I can say that after I promoted them twice and did a great job with them on a Tuesday night, they decided they wanted to play the bigger venue with the bigger promoter instead of giving me the Saturday night. And maybe it was an agency thing because I can tell you that their agency doesn’t exist today and that could have been one of the reasons because maybe that was happening all around the country.

This was the time that Spin Doctors and Blues Traveler and Joan Osborne were all having great success. I remember when Joan’s album was just starting to happen, the God Street Wine guys were staying over and they said, “It’s funny, all of the bands that open up for us are getting way bigger.” But at the end of the day I don’t really know why it didn't work out for God Street Wine, whether it was an agency thing or a management thing or a band thing. I don’t know who wasn’t listening to whom.

I can list a whole bunch of bands I thought were amazing that never had success when they should have had. One band I thought was amazing in college was Bim Skala Bim but ska never caught on much as it should have. In the early 90s a band like Shockra was amazing to me. I think Thanks to Gravity was a great band. Agents of Good Roots were an amazing band I don’t understand what happened. They should have had huge success. But unless you know what goes on personally with a band it’s hard to say why somebody didn’t have success.

How much of a blow do you think the jamband community has taken as a result of the decision to end Phish? (James M)

JT- I think it sucks that Phish quit. I think because of their size and success they brought new people continuously into the scene who then checked out other bands. Overall, I think it’s harder to pick up fans now that Phish is gone.

What are your thoughts on bands with day jobs? Do advise to tour endlessly, or to build a home base and go out on weekend trips as frequently as possible to outside markets? (Will)

JT- I believe you start off by on the weekend on building a home base and trying to build two or three markets. Then once you can bring in a certain amount of money in those markets you can start to expand. This was a strategy moe had. Our big three were New York, Albany and Buffalo and so once we knew we had those big shows at the beginning and end of a tour, we could go off to someplace like Colorado.

How important is a booking agent to a young band’s career and at what point should you try to get one? (Carl G)

JT- I think a booking agent’s pretty important. I think there’s something to be said for a band starting off the first couple of years booking themselves. It’s the best way to network and really start to learn who’s on your side. But after a couple years I think having a booking agent is important. To have another person on your team to help you strategize is key. I’m all about having as many people on your team to argue with as you can

Does moe. have any intention to expand its live soundboard offerings via one of the on-line services? (Question by many)

JT- We already do DiscLogic although we haven’t been as aggressive as we should be with putting up shows. We’re going to try to change that over the next six months, putting up more archival shows and new shows. You can also find our catalog on eMusic and iTunes and hopefully over the next six or seven months you’ll find more live shows in those places also.

In terms of offering a whole tour, do you feel there is a downside?

JT- This is something the band and I debate all the time. Being our own record label and dealing with the retail world and being record junkies ourselves, we find it very important to support the retail stores, especially the mom and pop stores. So we try to even things out between putting out stuff for them and putting out stuff on-line. It’s a debate among us whether it would be fair to put a whole tour up and leave the retail world out of it. This is the perfect situation of something that I can see debated on the boards.

Will you be signing additional bands to your record label? (Question by many)

I think it’ll happen at some point in the next couple of years. There are people that some of us have brought to the table but we haven’t gotten to a point where we all agreed on somebody. At this point in the stage of Fatboy records that would be a big financial undertaking, so we all need to agree because it’s work for all of us.

Has moe.down grown too big for Turin, NY? (Chris L.)

JT- No I’m on my way there right now to make Turin bigger. [Editor’s note: this conversation took place while Topper was driving up to Turin, looking at the fields he anticipates using for next year’s moe.down]

Between moe.down and snoe.down, moe. seems to consistently throw some of the best festivals…any insight into how to run a successful festival and why moe.‘s do so well? (Josh)

JT- I think first off you have to work with a promoter who is willing to get on a golf cart and go pick up the trash himself. I think that’s important. I always believe you never ask anybody to do anything you wouldn't do yourself. I’ve been the type of manager who has gone to the storage space and loaded our tractor trailer myself with the help of Chris Burrows.

I also think giving fans their own space at festivals is what helps create a good environment. Giving them time to relax and enjoy being with their friends instead of pounding them constantly with music and activities.

I recently graduated from college, and wanted to try and get into the music managing business. As a music minor and avid musician, I know a lot about music. Is there any entry-level job you suggest, or should I just try and get a position in the music field and work my way up? (Kevin)

JT- I think I’m in a special club where I became the manger of moe. and have grown with the band. Along the way I’ve met a lot of people who worked for management companies and worked their way into becoming managers in that management company. I think it’s two different mindsets because those guys have never spent time in a van or lived on $20 for groceries for a week with a band but you have to be lucky enough to find a band that you love that are young and have the same dreams and goals that you do.

Now that everything has evolved quite a bit from those early days, what would you say currently is your biggest challenge?

JT- It comes back to their personal lives. Everybody has a different agenda with their families, whether it’s getting married or having a kid or a kid’s birthday or being home for Halloween trick or treating. That’s the hardest thing to balance out. Somebody wants to take family vacation in January, somebody wants to go in April and somebody wants May. It’s balancing five guys personal lives with their work lives and making it fair for all of us. I think I’m lucky, though, because the individual guys in moe. realize that there’s four other people who depend on them. As well as the seven, eight, nine other people they employ.

When moe. writes new material what is your role there in terms of making musical suggestions, offer criticism, etc.? (Melanie B)

JT- It's funny, I don’t have too much of a role in that stuff but I’m as big a fan as any moe. fan. So I have my favorite songs. You’d probably be surprised what some of them are. It’s funny, “Seat of My Pants” has never been one of my favorite tunes but “Not Coming Down” was my favorite tune for a year and a half. That was the song I always wanted to hear. “Bullet” has always been one of my favorites and “Tambourine.” I have my favorites and I have some that aren’t. I’m like any moe fan, “Ahhh, I’ve heard that one.” On the other side, I love “Plane Crash.” I hear people complain about it except when the band didn’t play it or six months or a year after 911 when they said bring it back. What makes me a fan of moe. is I think they write amazing epic rock songs and “Plane Crash” is a huge song.

What is the status of the moe. DVD project that previously has been announced (Question by many)

JT- We’re currently working on a DVD and it’s taking us a long time. On the band side of things, they really want to put one out but they want it to be a great DVD and something different and cool. It’s going to happen because of how badly they want it and hopefully that will be 2006. But on the management side of things, and as a live music fan I believe that more people will become fans of moe. and other bands like Umphrey's and String Cheese by listening to a recording of a band than seeing a DVD.

One great thing about the jam scene is the atmosphere. When you’re listening to a live tape you’re imaging yourself there. I don’t get the same feeling from watching a live DVD as I get from listening to a live moe. tape, a live Phish tape, a live Dead tape, a live Umphreys tape, a live RAQ tape. Listening to tapes makes me want to be there. I watched the Paul McCartney DVD and I said, “I don’t want to be there.”

I think our fans want it too but I think the best way to get turned on to moe. is to go to a show. And you know something, if they’re off that night, they’ll get the energy form the crowd. And that’s how you get turned on to moe. because if the band is a little bit off, the fans are working the band so hard to keep it going and vice versa. They feed off each other. I’ve been at a moe. show where two songs into it I've been, “Oh my god, it’s not happening,” and then at the end of the night I’m like, “Holy shit, that was the greatest show I've ever seen.” You’re not going to get that from a DVD.

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