I’m ecstatic to have Denise Martin as the inaugural feature in my new blog series: Behind the Art. She and I share many similarities, as we’re both married to the rock stars that we manage. I always enjoy time spent with her, commiserating and swapping tales of the job. I thoroughly enjoyed interviewing Denise, and I intrinsically relate to so much of what she says here.
Artist Manager (Eric Martin of Mr. Big). Follow Denise online.
What prompted you to pursue the business side of music? How did you happen into it?
I started playing drums at 14 and was in my first band by 15. My Mom drove us to my first gig at The Stone in San Francisco and after the high I experienced from playing on stage, I knew I wanted more. Being that we were all 15 and 16 years old, we didn’t have many options of folks to book us so I became the drummer, booking agent, PR gal, band accountant and overall manager. That was my first taste. Little did I know this would become my long-term career.
Who all is on your roster?
I have one artist only and that is my husband, Eric Martin. Not enough time in my day to handle more than one. A few other artists in this genre have approached me and asked if I’d manage them. I do so much more than just manage Eric. I wait on passport and visa lines, I order and sell merchandise, I maintain his website, I book tours, I negotiate contracts, I do accounting, I schedule, I book flights, etc. I had to ask myself if this is something I’d be willing to do for someone else for 15-20% and the answer was “no.” I have a personal investment in Eric and will make the best decisions I can for his career. At this point in my life, being a wife, mother and manager, I can’t say that I’d be willing or able to put that into someone else’s career right now.
Who’s the first artist that got you started? What’s the story behind that?
Well I started out as Eric’s friend and years later became his girlfriend. A year or so into our relationship, his drummer quit (day of show) and I became his drummer. This went on for several years. When we went on tour together, I was the drummer/acting tour accountant/tour manager/band Mom/therapist and everything else.
Now this is really Eric’s story to tell but we’re so intertwined between husband/wife and manager/client that it has become mine too. Eric had two managers that managed his solo career and Mr. Big- Herbie Herbert and Sandy Einstein. After the band broke up in 2002, Herbie retired and Sandy was just handling Eric’s solo career. He demanded a cut of Eric’s publishing which is something Herbie agreed not to take years prior. To ask your artist for 20% of his publishing 20 years into his career is completely out of line if you ask me. They fought for months over this and Eric would not budge and give up his publishing (which is essentially retirement to any artist). His accountants, lawyers, industry friends and family all told him to send this guy walking and not give up his publishing.
A couple of days after our wedding, Sandy sent Eric his resignation letter. It was a tough blow for Eric but something that was completely necessary. They had run their course and with Mr. Big out of the picture, Eric had to reestablish himself as a solo artist and this manager didn’t have anything left in the tank for Eric. They were a very tarnished marriage. Enter new wife. Now I didn’t know a thing about managing an artist. Like I said, I only handled my youth bands. I did have an accounting degree and knew numbers (which would help me greatly in this career). This was sort of the beginning of the internet becoming a huge part of business and I was pretty savvy with it so I sort of took the reigns all the while booking Eric meetings with managers in the Bay Area. He went for a few meetings and didn’t really connect or they didn’t know what to do with him. It became this standstill, which catapulted me right into the driver’s seat of his career.
As a woman in a male-dominant business, what gender-based obstacles have you encountered and how did you overcome them?
I remember very early on, I was dealing with a lot of Japanese men from the label. They didn’t really take to me and I started getting frustrated. I decided to set up an email account from Eric’s website and just title it “management.”
I never signed my name and just did business as “Management.” This worked for a few years until that first face-to-face meeting in Japan. At that point, we had already established a relationship and things were calm. I remember the VP of the label saying “your Eric’s wife and manager?” We grinned at one another and moved on. That’s one instance though. I’ve had lots of other men try to give me the “little lady” talks and in each instance I decide how I’m going to handle that particular person. If I feel that I can do better business by being the “little lady” and playing dumb then I’ll do that. Most of the time I don’t. I try to remain calm and let them know that I know what I’m doing and need to be respected. I find it’s pretty quickly dismissed when they realize you’re speaking the same language.
As a drummer, it’s an entirely different beast. I have guys telling me I get gigs because I’m a “novelty.” Yea that’s right a friggin’ novelty. These are some of the same guys I grew up playing in rehearsal studios right next to. They saw me come to shed every single day and are pissed because they’re too cocky or too busy of players to get the gig so they call me a novelty. That to me will always be worse.
When I started playing with Eric, I had one of his fans offer me drum lessons. He told me that this was a gig he should be doing and that I hit “like a girl.” You can’t imagine what kind of rage this instilled in me. I started working out at the gym after that and working on my arm strength. Eric’s gig is demanding for a drummer and this guy was right. I wasn’t hitting as hard as I should have been hitting. A few months later, my drum tech changed a bass drum head, swapped out a cymbal and poured Nu-skin on my hands because they were cut open and bleeding everywhere. This all happened mid gig. I still hit “like a girl” only now people ask me to play softer.
Was there a particular moment when you felt you’d “made it” as a music industry professional?
Never. I think if you get to that point, it’s time to retire. It’s just like anything in life, I am constantly working to get better and better at it. I learn something new in this business every single day. I think if I took a band from garage to the top, I might feel like I had “made it.” That’s something that is extremely difficult to do these days but would feel so rewarding.
How is managing your husband, and how do you make it work?
I’m not going to lie; it’s tough. There are many times I want to walk away and just let someone take over and go back to being his wife and playing drums in other bands. This is just not in the cards. I’m in too deep and we actually do this pretty darn great together. I’m a morning person so I will have been up since 4am some days and when my rock star finally comes downstairs, it feels like mid day to me. I used to bombard him with questions right away, before he would even take a sip of coffee. Hair sideways, eyes half shut and just staring at me, he would say, “can you let me wake up.” I’m such a Type A personality that I needed answers NOW so I could handle my business and wrap my day up. I have since learned that this is not the best approach for a manager and especially for a wife. We tried to do Monday morning meetings where I would present him with the entire week and get answers from him. Now, 12 years into this position, I know what works for him. I know what to say yes to and what to run from. There are certain things that still require his input and for those matters, they are 99% email handled. I send him a list of questions and he responds at his leisure. If I get antsy, I’ll say, “Hey can you check your email, I really need some answers to finish my day.” He’s pretty good at responding to that. With technology, it makes this job somewhat easy at times. I put everything on our shared ical and just send him invites to interviews, gigs, etc. He wakes up, looks at his calendar and knows what he has to do. The less talking we do about business, the better we can focus on being husband and wife under our roof.
What makes you want to research an artist that’s unfamiliar to you?
Well I started in this business listening to and playing funk, hip-hop and r&b music so when I connected with Eric, he was really my first introduction to the rock world. As we started dating and going to shows to see his friends that were touring and stopping in San Francisco, I would start listening to their music. Bands like Aerosmith, Kiss, Night Ranger, Toto and Def Leppard were not on my radar at all until Eric took me to their shows. Of course, I met the band members and became curious about their careers and how they wound up where they did. It’s pretty fascinating actually. Players like Steve Lukather (Toto) played on some of my favorite records growing up and I never even knew it until I came home and basically cyber stalked his career. Ronnie Montrose too. I remember sitting in his studio chatting about some of my favorite tunes and I mentioned, “Brown eyed girl.” Ronnie goes, “oh you mean this one” and riffs the intro of that tune. I said “yeah I love that tune.” Eric turned to me and said, “you’re looking at the guy who played on that song.” Wow, that was a moment.
I’m really fascinated with musicians. I recently went to see One Republic, only because I loved the opening band, The Script. I came home and found out that the singer had this insane production and writing career. The live show always makes me come home and research an artist.
Where do you live and why?
San Rafael, California. I’ve toured the world and there’s no place I’d rather live. I love going to Hawaii to turn everything off and just decompress but this place is home. I can be to the city in 15 minutes, ride my bike to the top of Mt. Tam, hit Stinson beach for a quick paddleboard session, run the trails of China Camp, snowboard Lake Tahoe all while seeing kids I went to high school with. Most people that grew up here want to come back. It really is the most beautiful place to live.
What is your morning routine?
I wake up super early. When I’m booking a tour or Eric’s doing a record, most of my business is overseas so it’s wise for me to get up early and have a few rounds of email communication in before I try to plug everything in. I wake up, grab my cup of coffee and sit at my computer until I hear the pitter patter of our twin boys. They wake up, I make breakfast, their lunches, chat with them while they eat, send one of them upstairs to wake up Daddy (when he’s off the road) to walk them to the bus stop. After that, I go back to the computer for another couple of hours and then usually split for a bike ride or some form of exercise. That’s usually followed by grocery shopping, cleaning the house, running errands and/or hooking up with a friend for a quick lunch. After that, I come home, check back in with the laptop and see if I have anything else that has to be done before I grab the kids from school and become the afterschool-sports-taxi-cab service. Once the day is done for the family and they’re all in bed, I plug back in for a couple of hours. It pans out to be a full-time job, I just don’t work 9 to 5!
What constitutes a productive day at work for you?
Clicking “send” on an email that contains a completed itinerary with a booked tour, hotels, flights, deposits, riders, etc. all handled. That means I’m done…for the moment. The amount of work that goes into booking a tour is ungodly. Those who have never done it will not understand the amount of stress this can cause. You may have crossed and dotted all letters but you can never prepare for the obstacles that occur on a tour. Cancelled shows, missed flights, sick musicians, bus breakdowns, promoters not able to pay guarantees with a full house waiting for you to go on and perform, etc. Having said all of that, hitting “send” on that itinerary means that for just a day or two, I’m free to sit back and relax, stress free…until the tour begins! I also love sync deals. It’s super high pressure, fast paced and feels huge when you land the deal.
Is there anything unusual about your workspace? What do you keep on your desk? What’s the view from your workspace?
My office is in the front of our house. I watch Eric and the kids play basketball out front when I work sometimes. That always makes me smile. My desk has my wedding photo and a super cute one of my boys, a couple of monitors, a telephone, printer, 10-key and lots of post its. My file cabinets are full and alphabetized (I did mention I was Type A right?!). On my wall is my accounting degree, my two favorite awards of Eric’s (Writer of the year and Publisher of the year) and my snowboard that my friend airbrushed with a music note, my kids silhouettes and dog tags with my and Eric’s initials on them. I have a couple of white boards that are always filled with stuff, my bookshelves with my music, law and accounting textbooks on them and my mountain bike hangs from the ceiling. This is MY space. I love this room and everything about it makes me happy. Sure I could put my snowboard and mountain bike elsewhere but they drive me to get my work done and get out and use them.
Do you have a peculiar habit?
Yes. I’m anal and overly organized. I label shit…with a label maker and love people who do the same.
Please recommend three songs (any genre, any artist) and tell us why you like them.
Squib Cakes, Tower of Power. I’m a drummer and they’re T.O.P., arguably the funkiest band to ever walk the planet and they’re from right here in the Bay Area. Tight grooves, melodic horn parts, funky guitar, what more do you need.
I Forget to Breathe, Mr. Big. You know I had to throw one of these in right?! When you’re the wife of a songwriter, you live with these songs just as long as the writer. Eric walks around the house playing, humming and singing all the time. I heard this song in its baby stages and then recently on the new Mr. Big album “Stories We Could Tell.” It’s such a great groove, great story and my guy has me singing this chorus in my sleep. It must be a good hook!
Seven Days, Sting. I loved the Ten Summoners Tales album. Every song on that record is flawless. Sting is a musical genius. The drummer in me digs odd time signatures and grooves that make you think. Vinnie Colaiuta is one of the finest at this stuff. He makes an odd time groove feel like something you want to dance to. As much as I’m a drum fan, the song has to be there. This song is impeccable.
As I’m also an author, I’d love for you to recommend three books and tell us why you like them.
Any of the Chelsea Handler books, particularly “Are you there Vodka, it’s me Chelsea.” I love to laugh and this girl kills me. I was hysterically crying while reading this book. Eric is an audio book guy and I bought this one for him and we listened together. We were dying. She’s extremely intelligent and quick. You won’t be disappointed if you like to laugh.
I’m also a sucker for any kind of self-help books. I found Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth” very intense and spot on. It’s about the inner ego we all have and quieting that to find the real you. I would fall asleep reading this each night and then test out my new methods the next day. It’s the kind of read that you can only do in small sections since you want to practice your new tools as you learn them.
“Does the noise in my head bother you” by Steven Tyler. This guy writes just like he talks and for those of you that know Eric, he and Steven are basically one in the same. I’ve seen them in the same room together and they’re long lost twins. The book is all over the place and it’s like an ADHD journey but it’s fascinating. He’s such a good storyteller and while he jumps from place to place, you’re happy to just be along for the ride.
Do you have an industry friend who helps and inspires you?
I have several. In the beginning of this career, I would always reach out to Eric’s songwriting partner, Andre Pessis. Andre’s been around for years and was able to give me lots of great information. Our publisher, Ronda Espy who is also a music attorney, is another great source. I can call her with a question that seems so lame to me and she’s always there with good advice. Recently, Eric has reconnected with Mr. Big’s former manager, Herbie Herbert. Google him. We spent the weekend at his house on the coast and listening to some of his stories of managing Journey, Santana, Steve Miller, Roxette, Mr. Big, etc were intense and fascinating. I was hung up on a story he told me about getting off the plane and going straight to a venue and asking where his office was. They would set him up with a room of phones, faxes and stuff where he’d conduct business. Being an internet kid (I’m 38 so I guess I’m not a kid anymore), I started this business working from my computer. I do 99.99999% of my business through email. It’s easy to hide behind our computers and be strong. Hearing his stories of having to fly places for meetings and talk to promoters on the phone to book tours seemed so ancient and yet so intriguing. That’s how this business started. Those relationships are no longer there because we don’t have a face to put to that email address. Herbie inspired me to make those connections. I’m good at this job but I want to be great. Herbie was great.
Do you play a musical instrument? If so, which one(s), and for how long have you played?
I play drums and have since I was 14. In college, I had to play a noted instrument so I could get through some theory classes so I picked up piano and trumpet. I wouldn’t say I “play” those by any means but I can give you the note you’re asking for!
Do you have any superstitions?
Eric gave me one of his. I was never superstitious until he freaked me out. Every time I fly, I have to kiss the plane before boarding. I kiss my hand and tap, tap the plane. The flight attendants are always looking at me when I do this and I’m always embarrassed but I have to do it. Thanks Eric. Our kids do it too!
What phrase do you over-use?
“That’s awesome.” I love the word and don’t care if I over-use it. It’s just fun to say and is so telling to so many situations. It’s just “awesome!”
Do you have a funny story related to your job, whether it be planning a tour, or on tour, or at a meet-and-greet with one of your artists?
Nothing stands out in particular right now but I always find it fascinating to sit back and watch girls flirt with Eric and really work to make something happen. I’ll be sitting right there and most of the time they don’t know we’re together. It’s fun to look at him and just have that grin and a nod. It’s actually even funnier when they DO know we’re together and still try and work their scene. I have too many “code of the road” stories that are extremely entertaining but I shall remain silent. For those of you that don’t know “code of the road” means whatever you see or hear on tour, stays on tour. Very “What happens in Vegas.” Being the only girl on the bus tour after tour has given me so much dirt on these boys. I love that type of control!!!!
What is something about yourself that is essentially unknown and maybe even surprising?
I am a total boy band junkie. Something about those cheesy pop songs is music to my ears. Years ago, Mr. Big’s merch company was doing N’sync as well. You can see where I’m going with this right? Eric was my date to a 3rd row night of insanity watching those boys perform. Now I will defend them forever. They sing, they dance and have over-the-top stage production. It’s pure entertainment (if you can get past thousands of screaming girls). NKOTB was actually my first concert. The musician in me is not proud of that but the eternal Teen Beat lover still smiles about it.
What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?
Practice and play with other people. You can be really good playing by yourself but you’ll never get better unless you play with other people. Timing is everything and you need it to be a solid musician. Get a metronome and sleep with it under your pillow, practice with it, gig with it. Gig as much as you can. Don’t turn any gigs down, take risks and learn the business. Don’t waste your time dreaming of “getting signed,” just be the best player you can be and get your name out there. The great gigs will come.
What advice would you give to someone interested in getting into the business side of music?
Run! No, it’s really a great business but you have to be prepared to work around the clock at times. The job doesn’t have a start and end time. When something comes into your email box, you have to be prepared to handle it whether it be a gig offer, sync deal, writing offer, tour, etc. If you’re good at multi-tasking, a good communicator and a hustler, this is the career for you. If you’re not a musician and not in that scene, find some musicians that you believe in. Ask them if you can hang out and learn their world. Insert yourself where you can whether it be booking them a show, sending out their email campaigns or driving them around. Build a relationship all while either taking some business classes or reading some music business books. Listen. Remember you work for the band; they don’t work for you. This is the artist’s career and you have to listen to what they want. Sometimes you have to turn down deals that you think are right but the artist flat out hates it. Be patient.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
I love my job. I wasn’t planning on this as my career but it’s turned out to be great. Luckily I have a talented husband and client. He works so hard and affords us this lifestyle that is pretty great. I get to stay home and work for/with him and be home for our children. We’re happy, healthy and doing what we love. Life doesn’t get much better than that.