Born and raised in the music industry, Nicole Barsalona is Founder of 525 Entertainment Group / Everyday Rebellion Entertainment, an artist management and consulting firm.
Born and raised in the music industry, Nicole Barsalona is Founder of 525 Entertainment Group / Everyday Rebellion Entertainment, an artist management and consulting firm. Barsalona specializes in artist development and international market development for artists including Prateek Kuhad and Mark Wilkinson. A passionate advocate, Nicole proudly serves as President of Women in Music, where she has served on the Board of Directors since 2013, and on the Executive Board for the Music Managers Forum (US).
Barsalona started her career at Steven Van Zandt's multi-media company, Renegade Nation, where a week-long temp gig turned into the most formative years of her career. Barsalona eventually she served as Chief of Staff and Director of Communications at Renegade Nation, and Road Manager to Van Zandt on tours with Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band. Highlights of her work include the CBGB Forever campaign, stakeholder development for the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation, Super Bowl XLIII, and international affiliate acquisition for the Underground Garage.
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Lawrence Peryer: Hello, Nicole.
Nicole Barsalona: Would you mind hanging on for 5 seconds? My daughter just came out of her room for her nap, and I’m just going to put her right back in.
LP: OK. Perfect. That’s perfect.
NB: Thanks so much. One sec.
NB: Oh, my gosh. I’m so sorry. Hi. [Laughs]
LP: [Laughs]. I feel like that’s –
NB: Oh, my god.
LP: – the perfect thing that would happen for our conversation.
NB: Of course, like, you know, just the new normal.
LP: Exactly. So, also the perfect thing that’s happening is my Bluetooth piece seems to be kicking on and off, so I don’t think it’s going to impact us too much, but I’m just giving you fair warning in case.
NB: OK, great. Also my computer audio has been going in and out, but it only – it picks a day. It seems like one day it’s not working and the next day it is, so I think we should be fine there too, but …
LP: That’s great.
NB: In case. [Laughs]
LP: Well, thank you for making time.
NB: Oh, thanks for having me.
LP: So there’s a bunch of stuff I’d like to cover, and this is definitely meant to be a profile about some of the things you are up to.
LP: So I’d love to start at the beginning. Where’d you grow up?
NB: I grew up in New York, in –
NB: – Manhattan, yeah, in the city, so kind of an alternative shelter, to begin with. A lot of people are like, “What’s that like, growing up in the city?” And I’m like, I don’t know anything different, so pretty standard. But now, raising a daughter, [otherwise], yeah, a little … A little bit of a different speed.
LP: Yeah. Where are you raising your child if not in the city?
NB: We’re in Boston now.
LP: Oh, OK. In the city itself?
NB: Yeah, in the city itself, but Boston feels like a town, and there’s no hustle and bustle, really, you know, relative to New York. So a lot quieter, definitely.
LP: Yeah. I grew up just outside of New Haven, and so that’s sort of the –
LP: It’s like the Mason-Dixon Line of New York and Boston, and I always tell people you can find houses divided, brothers against brothers, and fathers –
LP: – against sons when it comes to sports. And even orientation, you know, there’s New England versus New York.
LP: The lifestyle and everything, and –
NB: When my husband and I met it was a real issue. Luckily I didn’t care too much about the Yankees, but it would not have –
LP: [Unintelligible 00:07:52]?
NB: – worked out if I had, yeah. Yeah, he’s originally from Boston, so, very, very hard core sports fan.
LP: That’s very funny. For me it’s the opposite. My ex-wife is from outside of Boston, but we met in New York, so that [was OK]. So, yeah, I raised my first two years of my kids’ lives – let’s see, from – my first son was born in 2005, and we left New York in 2016. So, yeah –
LP: – a city kid. It’s a special thing.
NB: It is. It’s crazy. It really is. I feel like parenting is something that makes you call into question your ability and your decision making more than anything else in life. It’s like a really out of body experience. It’s like, wow, I’m shaping a human here. Is this the right call? [Unintelligible 00:08:40]. Is that the right rule to set? I don’t know. It’s just [unintelligible 00:08:44].
LP: Yeah, it always makes me laugh, the things that – you know, like you think about driver’s licenses, all the rigmarole around getting a driver’s license, and then any fool can have a kid.
NB: Right, right, it’s true. It’s pretty scary.
LP: It’s amazing the species has made it this far.
NB: I have been saying that for weeks now with Coronavirus. Honestly, it’s a surprise we made it this far, to be honest.
LP: How many children do you have?
NB: Just one.
LP: What age?
LP: Oh, wow. So you’re like full on. I can’t believe you’re able to string sentences together.
NB: Oh, it’s really a little bit of a challenge at the moment. Toddlerhood and quarantine is … something.
LP: Yeah, that is something. So my oldest is 15, and my youngest is 12.
LP: My 12-year-old is pretty severely disabled so he’s in a wheelchair and requires a lot of help, but even that’s much different than a 3-year-old.
LP: I always tell people he can’t run around and make trouble.
NB: Right. Right, I know. Yeah. That’s a whole other set of … of challenges.
LP: Yeah. It’s OK, though. So you grew up a city kid. And –
NB: Grew up a city kid.
LP: And what did that mean, practically speaking? Was the city your backyard?
NB: Yeah, it was. I really felt like – I’m not super athletic so it didn’t affect my need for running around. I really didn’t – I don’t think I really thought about it too much growing up. I think it was cool to have – I tell my husband all the time on Halloween we used to go the Natural History Museum and they did a whole thing for kids, and so there were different cool things growing up in the city I think we had access to. Certainly I was out at shows all the time as a kid with my parents. I don’t know – oops. Sorry, something just popped up on my Zoom. I don’t know if … My dad was an agent and he used to bring me to shows when I was really young, and I guess back in the eighties there wasn’t a problem with bringing an underage child into a bar, but – or a club, but can’t do that with my daughter too much these days, I guess.
But we were always out doing really fun stuff, and my parents were both real night owls and just really into art and culture, and so there was always really fun stuff going on. I don’t think I appreciated it as a kid going to – being dragged to museums all the time, as much as you do in retrospect, but it was a really cool way to grow up. It was a little bit more diverse in terms of the different things we could go do and see, I think, than necessarily what we’re doing now with my daughter. She’s only 3 – but they just had a really culturally interesting, artistic lifestyle so it was a cool way to grow up.
LP: Yeah. So were you as a young child – your parents were taking you to shows, they were taking you to their office, if you will?
NB: Yeah, oh my gosh. I grew up on the road. Every summer we’d go out on whatever tour my dad was doing that year. We’d pop around, and so it was a really fun way to just spend time – and again, it felt totally normal, because I didn’t have anything to compare it to. But now I realize – I mean, it was good that one parent was in the industry and my mom had stepped out. She was actually a rock journalist, and came over when the Beatles came over from England. She came over and moved to America, and actually did the first interview with the Beatles here in America for a UK publication. So she had an incredible start to her career as well, but she stepped out when I was 4. And I can see now how it would be a lot easier to have one parent off of work while you’re on tour, because I cannot imagine having a kid on tour right now. It’s just a lot of moving pieces.
LP: Yeah. It’s funny, I talk to other adult children who grew up in our industry, and it is amazing to hear … Your story sounds a little bit more sane and idyllic than some of the other stories I’ve heard. I’ve definitely had adult children of rock and roll tell me the things they went through now would probably be considered abuse.
LP: Not necessarily like they were abused but the level of neglect or the things they were exposed to was not cool. And it was much more on the musician side, not necessarily on the businesspeople side.
NB: Yeah. I have to say my parents did an incredible, incredible job of balancing it. I don’t know how, but especially in the eighties, all the stuff that was going on backstage, and who knows what on tour, you know. Now it’s different because everyone’s making smoothies in green rooms and doing yoga before a show, but back then it was really insane. I have one very vivid memory of being backstage at Jones Beach, and I just remember whatever we were doing there were a bunch of people who came into the room, and then everyone kind of like wink, wink, and my mom took me outside. So who knows what drugs were about to be done. But it was like – I remember that just because it was really one of the only times I felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there. Otherwise it was just really normal, and I think my parents did a really great job of keeping me sheltered to a good degree, so …
LP: Yeah. Well, I definitely – you know, it’s difficult to tell the context of your story without talking about them a little bit, and I don’t want to dive too deeply into that because I’d imagine a lot of folks ask you to rehash their lives and careers. But let’s touch on it enough to provide the right context for your story.
NB: Love it.
LP: So your dad was Frank Barsalona – you mentioned he was an agent, but he was sort of the prototypical agent for the modern rock and roll era.
LP: Helped to establish the modern concert promotor model, touring business, the regional promotor paradigm that was dominant really for the first 20 or 30 years of the rock and roll era.
LP: Ultimately those companies all folded into SFX, and ultimately Live Nation. That story, I think, has been very well told, and it’s a fascinating foundation story of our industry.
LP: But your mom’s story is super fascinating as well, and I feel like I’m embarrassed to say I’m less familiar with it, and I don’t know if it’s because it’s a less told story or if it’s a blind spot for me. But I would love it if you could talk a little bit about who your mom was and how she came into the rock and roll world.
NB: Yeah, I would love to. Yeah, she’s – it’s a little lesser told story because my mom is very humble, and my dad was a great storyteller, and loved telling the story of how everything came about on his side. So my mom was often the one fact checking his stories, and never really tells her stories. So she has an incredible one. She was born in 1938, in London, so during the war. Relevant now, because she tells me stories now about rationing and remembering her dad coming home after waiting in line for candy. You know, which now, when I’m like, OK, I have to pick up milk this week, in Coronavirus it’s very obviously different but kind of makes me think now as a parent how she grew up and how her parents were dealing with how terrifying the war was and the bombings in London. And they had little kids at home, and – so anyway, just fascinating to me now, hearing back on those early days for her.
And so she grew up in England, her older brother was an athlete, a soccer player, and got all the attention, as I hear it from her. And so she went out on her own a little bit and was able to do what she wanted, and what she wanted to do was be a journalist. And so my grandfather said to her, “OK, listen. I’ll give you a year or two. Give it a shot, and if it doesn’t work out, you know, whatever. You move on to the next thing.” But back then that was really something, because women really didn’t – you know, weren’t always told, sure, go for this, you know. You have a dream and a career that you want to pursue, in the forties and fifties, go for it. And she did, and so she started writing. She is an incredible writer, and I’ve been begging her to sit down and write her story. And she wrote for – I think it was “Disc” magazine, and a couple of outlets in London on Fleet Street. You know, took me to the pubs that she used to go to after work with her other staff. We knew a ton of the people now whose names we know in the music industry as leaders, and they were all just starting out in [London, in that 00:17:20] scene.
And then she came after – as the story goes, as I know it – when the Beatles came over for their first show in the US, which my dad was a part of booking. And she came over to write the first interview with them in the US for a UK publication. And so she was close with the guys, and met my dad and they became friends, and that relationship [unintelligible 00:17:44] over years. And he was starting his own agency, and so I think she – and he brought over a lot of the British Invasion acts at the beginning. That’s how he really set up his foundation, and I think it was a lot, in part, due to my mother’s reputation and the fact that she was British and she was its home base for a lot of those acts who were like, “Who’s this American guy?” You know, “Who is this guy who we’re going to trust our careers to over here?” And so it was a really cool thing. They used to have – whether it was The Who or the Stones, all of those bands, over for dinner, and it was very familial.
I grew up with – you know, whether it was Bono or Springsteen, or someone would be in our living room for dinner, and my mom would be making meatloaf – she is a great cook – my dad would be sitting on the floor [unintelligible 00:18:30] stories. I think that the two of them together just gave artists this really familial feel. They really loved what they did, and they really tried to make everyone a part of the family, and it was just a really cool pairing of different skills. They both complemented each other really well. So it was more of a – my mom doesn’t get as much of the credit but I think she was a really huge part of what made Frank approachable and gave a little softer side.
LP: Yeah, well, it sounds like just in her chosen career it was about other people’s stories.
NB: Totally, totally. And she went to Atlantic – before she stepped away she went to Atlantic and did press kits and publicity for artists there, and so a lot of cool stuff that she worked on. We actually have a few of the clippings we got out of an archive, so we have a little book we put together with some of her first articles and some of those bands, and some of the early reviews, which were really fun to read too.
LP: That’s amazing.
LP: And she was at Atlantic during – I mean, the peak – Atlantic’s peak rock era or initial rock era, right? As it transitioned from a soul and ethnic music label into a British rock powerhouse.
NB: Right, right. I mean, really incredible time in history, and …
LP: So how did your dad end up getting involved with the UK acts? Was he an Anglophile? Was he going to the UK talent scouting? I never really got the genesis of that.
NB: Yeah, you know, I have to ask my mom. That’s a really good question. I know that he had a really great sense of what … I think he had a really great sense of [what was popular], and he followed whatever he saw trending, in a way. So he got the call about the Beatles show over here, and the people were trying to break down barricades and things were going crazy, and so [unintelligible 00:20:36] I think we have something here. I think we’re onto something, you know. And so that stuff happened again and again. And we actually have this great series of interviews that were done that Steven Van Zandt had commissioned of his stories when he was still around to tell all of these crazy examples of the stuff happening at these early shows with these bands that just blew up out of nowhere. And so he saw those little things, and saw the enthusiasm of these fans early on, and then he would just call up these promotors who were young kids at the time, whether it was [Jon Landau? 00:21:16] – who was actually a journalist also, at the time, and a young, young kid. And Don Law was in college here in Boston.
And so he started these relationships with these young kids and would say, “OK, well, I have this band. Here’s what’s happening. Let’s try to work on this together, and we’ll make it worth your while. And we really see a future, and you just have to trust that the first couple of shows will probably lose money but then we’ll really see a return because these fans are obviously not going anywhere.” So I think he just had that – he had a really long-term vision, and he had patience, and he just asked other people to have patience. And if you were ever in a room with him he would always talk person to person, like, “Listen, trust me on this. Here’s what I think is going to happen.”
He was very calm and rationale, and so he ended up crafting these relationships with these younger guys, and they built these really great [long-term] relationships built on trust and a vision for longevity for these acts, saying, you know, we might not see much the first two shows, but we’ll see something. You’ll see these fans come in the door and be singing along to every song, and that’s what’s going to prove the longevity. But just established those relationships. Which is hard now, obviously. It’s a different system, different economy, but back then I think it was a pretty cool thing to really have someone have a vision for those bands in a new market, and build those relationships that saw that kind of growth ahead.
LP: Yeah, and to set a model that really was the paradigm for decades and decades. It’s a fascinating, fascinating accomplishment and story. So you grow up in this melting pot of artists and art and culture, and being in the city, and just that era in New York, just fascinating in its own right. Even if your parents had grown up in straight jobs, being in New York would’ve been fascinating during that era. So you leave New York to go to school?
NB: Yeah, I left New York to go to School. I went to Boston University, because, actually, Don Law was a dear friend at that point, and certainly a mentor, and him and his wife, Sarah, lived in Boston, right outside of Boston, and we used to spend summers coming to visit them. And I just fell in love with the city. And my mom was always pushing Boston; it reminded her of London.
NB: And I actually met my husband right before coming to college, in Aruba, of all places, on spring break in high school. And he was from Boston, and … Not that I want to say I went to school in Boston because I met a guy, but it definitely helped push me in the direction of Boston when I was deciding between a couple of places. So instead of coming here to school in Boston at BU I went to communications school. I did not want to work in the music business at all, had no intention. In fact, I wanted to go into corporate crisis PR, because those were the kind of skills growing up in music that I had honed.
LP: That’s [amazing].
NB: Yeah. Wanted nothing to do with it. And I was – Steven Van Zandt always jokes that I was like the Alex P. Keaton of the family. Not that I’m conservative in any way, but compared to my parents I’m just a lot more – I don’t want to say organized, because that’s not really true, but just I appreciate routine and regimen a little bit more than they do.
LP: Yeah, sure.
NB: Which is not saying much. So I wanted to go into corporate PR, and maybe even political crisis PR. And I started interning at corporate companies here in the summers, and it was just a real bummer. You had to be there at a certain time in an office, and wear office clothes, and … Which was not something that I was used to. Like, you know, being somewhere at 9 in the morning on time is just not a skill of mine. So Steven Van Zandt actually called right before I was graduating, and he said, “Hey, I hear you’re thinking of going to work in …” He always made funny comments. You know, like you’re going to – I was going to go study to be a nutritionist at one point – don’t ask. This is years later when I left his company and was having a crisis of conscience about being in the music industry again. But he was like, “I hear you’re going to go do something. Why don’t you come to my office? I need help. I’m doing a festival next week.” This was typical Steven, it was last minute.
And he said, “Come and help do credentials for the artists. I need someone who I can trust to help the artists figure out what they’re doing at this festival.” So I went to – I didn’t know he had a company. I knew he had been on “The Sopranos” and was in the E Street Band, but I didn’t realize he was running an entire company. And so I went to intern for him; it was supposed to be a one-week gig over the summer, and it turned into the first five years of my career, and were definitely the most influential, seminal times in my life, I think. Thus far.
LP: [Unintelligible 00:26:16].
NB: He is just – Steven, much like my dad – and my dad was a mentor to him. Much like my dad, has this way of challenging you. He doesn’t take any BS, and he doesn’t take any excuses. And he, I think, really pushed me from day one. And I was getting coffee for a year, it’s not like I was involved in high level work when I started, but he just threw me in the deep end. At the company there was no official training, there was no HR, you just kind of started doing a job. I was plopped at a desk and told to do credentials for a festival. I had never worked a day in my life on festivals or any other live show before. So it was just learning in the trenches, really, and it was incredible. And Steven is a person who holds you to the highest level, his expectations are really high, and his standards are high. And I think there’s just nothing better for a young kid who – I mean, I had a degree in communications and I was very – I had done crisis PR plans before, and I was like I know all of these things.
And at the end of the day it’s really nice to be pushed and realize that that stuff can be applied but it takes a lot more than that to be good at your job. There came a point years later where I was leaving his company after being on tour with him and Springsteen for years, and doing a ton of stuff with his label and the production company, and I was just working 24/7 and completely burned out. And we were moving, my husband and I were moving cities, and I said, you know what, I think I just – I need to take a break, and I think I might take a break from music. I think it’s just like – this is not – I don’t know how to craft a life where it’s sustainable for me. I want to have a family one day, I don’t want to be on the road 24 hours a day, seven days a week, I just don’t know if it’s sustainable.
And he doesn’t hold back, he tells you how he feels, and he was like, “You are going to squander your potential. I’m telling you right now. Don’t waste your potential because you’re nervous it’s not going to be like crafting a lifestyle.” You know, he was like, “Don’t be stupid about it.” And I left. I was like this is the decision I’m making. And so that’s when I decided I’m going to take a year off and I’m going to see – maybe I want to be a nutritionist. I really love health and wellness, and I took a couple of classes – ridiculous. I really was, I think, turning away from what I love and am passionate about, and where my skills lie. So he was totally right, and he was kind of – his voice was in the back of my head for a while, and finally I was like, you know what, I’ve always wanted to be an artist manager. I did it, ostensibly, for Steven while we were on the road, tour managing for him and running all of his stuff for ages, so I’m just going to give it a shot.
And I had always – I think when I was working with him and we were touring so much, and it’s just such high level work, and you’re getting requests all the time for things, so most of what you’re doing is turning things down. And his career had already – you know, it was already huge. It wasn’t like I was helping to craft some [unintelligible 00:29:34] I wanted to work the way my dad did with artists. He was an agent, but he was so much also like an advisor to them. He was really close, they would sit and talk for hours on the floor of his office or our apartment, and he had these beautiful relationships where there was just this mutual trust and respect. And he could really tell the artists what he thought, whether they wanted to hear it or not.
And that’s what I wanted; I wanted a really personal relationship with artists who I loved, and trusted and admired, and loved their work, and wanted to be a part of crafting their career, and getting it going at the early stages. And then hopeful staying on with them long-term, rather than … And it sounds ridiculous, because, you know, it was a lot easier working with an established artist. But rather than working at that level and then feeling like you’re not part of building the early, exciting parts where hopefully I can be instrumental in helping artists reach their goals.
LP: So it’s an interesting nexus. Not only did you walk away, or you thought you were going to try to walk away from your heritage, if you will, or you didn’t want it to become an inevitable destiny for yourself, but you wind up in a situation where you really melded aspects of both of your parents’ fields. I mean, I’ve always – It’s interesting. When I was growing up it felt like the things people aspire to doing in the music business where you start a label, put on shows, or be a manager.
LP: And I always thought being a manager is the toughest because could I really care about somebody else’s wellbeing and livelihood not only at that level, but really before anything else?
LP: And you talked about the being on the road, or the 2 o’clock in the morning phone call, and it’s – sometimes it’s creative insecurity, sometimes it’s dealing with personal messes. And that’s always – it’s always blown my mind, the personality types and the commitment, and I just don’t – I don’t … I really don’t understand –
LP: – at our level how people can do it. It’s an amazing … It’s an amazing, selfless act, and … You know. Very far from a sure thing.
NB: Right. I don’t think it’s selfless, I think there’s some kind of a weird challenge in it that I really enjoy. Like dealing with really difficult people – and neither of my clients right now are difficult at all, they’re the most phenomenally laidback artists, which is why we have such great relationships. But I think that all of that interpersonal stuff and those big personalities, I just love that, and I love being the bridge between those personalities and everyday people who don’t necessarily understand the big creative thing that’s happening with an artist, and the perspective. Even if it’s something like an ad agency person wanting to do something with a song, and the artist doesn’t because there’s some higher creative meaning for them, just communicating all of those intricacies, I just … I just love it.
And luckily – when I first started out and decided to try to be a manager, which I knew nothing about at that time, other than the actual managers I knew, but I didn’t know day to day what they did, really. So it took me five or six years to even sit on my computer and Googling things, really, to figure out what it was that I was doing. But I think that the first artist I worked with was – we had a great relationship to start, and then it turned really dramatic, really quickly, and she was just a very high maintenance personality, and it did not work out. And I would wake up in the morning and see texts waiting for me, and just feel anxiety already, and I just knew that that was not the right fit. So I think from that relationship I really learned what I would be able to work with and what I wouldn’t in terms of the creative personality.
So luckily I was – stumbled upon the two artists I work with now, who are just like … Work their butts off, understand what it means to need a manager, understands what a manager actually does, and that it’s not, you know – you can’t have a manager at a point where you don’t need one, or it’s not like an assistant. And just have the best the best work ethic, real visions for their career, so I’m not trying to come up with who they are and what they stand for, and all of these other things, they just are these artists, and we’re able to work together in a way that just tries to elevate what they’re doing. So it’s been really great.
LP: And who are the two artists?
NB: Prateek Kuhad, who is a singer-songwriter out of New Delhi, who has just taken off over the last few years; it’s been unbelievable. I met him in 2016 at South by Southwest; he was on NPR’s list, and I was just clicking through their Spotify playlist, heard him, his song called, “Oh Love”, from his debut album in 2015, which is still one of my favorite songs. It drives him crazy [unintelligible 00:35:02] play it for me at shows, but just an incredible, beautiful anthemic song. And I fell in love, and I emailed him, and I was like, huh, he doesn’t have a manager in the US. And prior to that I met my Australian artist a few years before that. He was busking in Sydney – Mark Wilkinson, incredible vocalist. And I was literally at an outside market on vacation, heard him singing – he was singing Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”, and it was just like you hear his voice and you’re like oh my gosh, what is that.
And we followed it, my husband and I followed it. My husband insisted on buying a CD, and I was like, oh, he probably just sings covers. His voice is unbelievable but it’s probably just covers, I’m not … Not interested in a cover just right now. You know. Had not managed anyone yet. And we bought the CD, and it was like my mind was blown, and we both became the hugest fans. And I just emailed him and was like. “You know what? Do you have a manager in the US?” Because I’m realizing that maybe is where I can bring value, is not to manage someone in the US day to day, because that’s – you’re just banging your head up against a wall, with so much saturation, and to find a cool angle, and all of this stuff that is necessary to market an artist who’s emerging. But if I have an artist who’s built a following in an international market, and has a story to tell there, maybe that makes it easier for me, and then we’re able to get a foothold in North America, and build out that way.
So that’s what we did with Mark, and that’s what we’ve done with Prateek. And with Mark Wilkinson I brought him over in 2013 for the first time. We had a label offer on my desk before he boarded the plane. I don’t know, people found us. It’s like the stars aligned. We ended up walking away from it, actually, because it wasn’t a good fit, and he’s had a great independent career, by choice. And then Prateek has been insane – he’s at the top of the indie scene in India, which is just a fascinating, burgeoning global music market. It’s just really interesting how things are shaping up over there. And he was on Obama’s list of best music in December, so it’s like I don’t even know. It’s been an incredible ride. And I’m lucky to work with two just incredible humans, also. They’re two of my best friends, and my co-managers are two of my dearest friends, and we’re just these really cool teams, and I’m so lucky as an independent manager who doesn’t have a company infrastructure behind me to have these partners internationally, and we just work together on everything, and … It’s a really great way that it’s shaped up.
LP: Yeah. What do you need to see in an artist to be interested to get involved with them managerially?
NB: Well, now it’s … I have to have slept more than three hours with my daughter – it’s really changed, I think, now that I have a daughter. It’s like I – the amount of time I used to be able to spend working was all the time, and I never really needed to sleep, and I could be up until 4 in the morning, easy. And now it’s like I just unfortunately have to set more boundaries than I ever have. I don’t go out on the road for full tours. I really have to set these things up so that I don’t go insane and my daughter doesn’t not know her mother. [Laughs]. The opposite is true; we are together nonstop. But that’s how I really want to parent, and I make it very clear to everyone that my family really does come first. My artists are also my family to me, so – but my daughter is number one. So right now it’s like do I have actual time to put brain space toward even helping someone?
And so a lot of times I’ll say, like, listen, I can’t take on any clients right now, but let me help you do this or that, or let’s work on this and I can give you any advice, or I can introduce you to someone. And then, if things pick up, I’m happy to keep the conversation going. Before even that, I think that the number one thing that all managers look for is are you a fan of the music. And some people I think will say, like, listen, if I don’t love the music but I see that other people love it, that’s a win also. I think it was Doc McGhee – I was reading something recently that he said that was talking about him and Meatloaf, and he was like, “I wasn’t necessarily a huge fan of what he was doing, but I saw the reaction of the fans, and I knew I was onto something.” So I think there’s that, just seeing that – you know, the indicators that people are into it.
For me, I really have to love the music. I have to be playing it at home in my spare time. Because otherwise it’s just way too much work and emotional investment. And I want to love my artists as people too. I want them to be a part of my family the way my dad treated his clients, and I want that to be like work is not work for me. I want to wake up in the morning and see 60 texts from an artist and be excited by it, and ready to dive in, and not like, ugh, gosh, Monday. I just don’t – it’s just – if I am going to do that, I’d rather take a real job and get a steady paycheck, and not have to worry about the other stresses of the music business.
So I think for me it’s loving the music, loving the artist, and just having them understand that no-one’s going to work harder than the managers but they need to work equally as hard. Because you really can’t put all of this time and energy into an artist when – managers are taking commissions, which at the beginning are zero, depending on what level you’re at, after expenses and god knows what. So just understanding that it’s a slog, and you really have to be 100 percent invested in the artist to be able to put that time and energy in. And to be able to market it. I’m not going to make calls and be like, “You have to listen to this,” if I don’t actually love it that much myself and think that it has legs. So I would just say you have to really love the music.
LP: Yeah, and that’s an interesting point. I think that’s another thing that’s always dissuaded me from management, is that I think my own tastes are too esoteric, and if I loved an artist so much that I wanted to work with them, I would count that as a bad sign. [Laughs]. I always tell people if you’re looking for me, purely from my A&R skills, like if you wanted me to program a festival or something, it’s going to be somewhere between free jazz and roots reggae.
NB: Oh my god. That is hilarious. See, I’m like top 40, like Taylor Swift, [I like] a really mainstream sound. Which, you know, is not – Prateek is very nuanced and gorgeous, and not pop at all, but I have a very mainstream sound, so I always joke if I like it, I’m pretty sure – I don’t love niche sound. So I do have a top 40 preference.
LP: Yeah. I do love a good pop song. A good hook, a good, powerful [unintelligible 00:42:12].
LP: I get that, and I’m not snobbish or immune to that in any way. I just don’t trust my A&R sensibility. So is your specialty – is your niche now you’re going to work with international artists and help them develop America?
NB: Yeah, I think that’s really … I think that’s really where I’ve been able to help the most. Like one of my artists is about – we’re about to sign a major label deal, and five years ago I never would have thought we would’ve built a career to the point where people were knocking on our door competing for offers. I just never envisioned that. So I really – I have been so proud of what we’ve been able to build. And I wake up every morning – my co-manager and I the other day were going through the bullet points from the last year, and it’s like oh my gosh, you know, but it’s only a matter of how good the artist is and how much work that artist puts in. And, I mean, what they do on socials, what they – there are so many things now that an artist has to do, and do well. And so we’re just so lucky to have the guys who I work with working their butts off all the time, and bring it to a place where we can get international eyes on it and then grow from there.
So that’s what I love; I really love doing that. I would not, not consider a US based artist. In fact, there’s one artist who has been on my mind for a while now, and I’m hoping to be able to put a little something in terms of my brain space into him, but … Yeah, I think that’s really where … I think that’s what helped me get to a place where I needed to be to help other artists. So I think now I’ve come to a point where I’ve worked with enough people, and I know all of these incredible – whether it’s A&R or agents, or publicists, people who I now trust and could be my team when I bring on another artist, to go to, to build up things, even domestically, to a point where it would make sense. So I think it just helped me get my feet as a manager under me and know what I was doing, and know who to work with, and hopefully, you know … Maybe when we’re out of quarantine and I have a babysitter again, or we go back to school, I can work with someone other than international artists.
LP: It also seems like you’ve got the potential to develop a secret sauce around helping American repertoire export into other territories because of your network now with co-managers and India or Australia, or other territories, and there’s an international playbook you can help develop as well.
NB: I tell you, the stuff going on in India is absolutely off the charts, and I think it’s going to be really huge and exciting, and so that’s what I’m really hoping. My co-manager and I have been talking about it a lot. It’s just like sharing everything back and forth so that we’re really a conduit for a lot of artists here to get in front of audiences there. Because it’s so strange even how connected things are there’s still huge gaps, especially in places like India. Even China. There’s huge emerging markets, and it’s just like you don’t quite know how to enter, so it’s nice to have those lifelines.
LP: Yeah, for sure, I would imagine. I would imagine, especially if you buy into the notion that all business, and our business in particular, is relationship based, it would not make sense if you could just march into another territory. I mean, you can’t even really march into Nashville and say –
LP: – hey, here, let’s do business, you know. So the idea that we go halfway around the world and expect the door to be wide open doesn’t really make much sense. But that’s a really interesting, unique proposition that you bring to the table. I want to make sure we get to – there’s a bunch of questions I want to ask you about women in music.
LP: Before we pivot to that, I’m curious – with the artists that you work with that are developed internationally and then come to – that you help bring to America, is the business world different? Do artist deals – not necessarily with their managers, I’m not interested in unpacking your business, but do labels function differently? Is the promotor model different? What do you see happening in some of those other markets that are just different from what you see here?
NB: It is so completely different. I don’t even know where to begin. The live shows – so Prateek in particular started out a couple of years ago doing house concerts, and him and my old co-manager over in India would set up these little shows. They’d string lights up outside, people would come and pay tickets, and it was all completely DIY. And then it started getting to a point where they were like, OK, we need to rent out an auditorium, but there’s no midsized venue there. There aren’t promotors and venues in the same way there are here; there’s not that structure yet. Which is reminiscent of when my dad started setting those systems up here back in the day. It’s like, oh, right, you need a guy who you can – or a woman [unintelligible 00:47:17]. A person who you can trust in Mumbai, because we need to send our artists over there, and we can’t rent out a random auditorium that we don’t know the specs of yet. You know, all this incredibly basic stuff that just does not exist in the structure, or hadn’t a couple of years ago, that we could just call a promotor and say, “Hey, we want to pitch a show.”
So they were literally renting out auditoriums and doing ticketing themselves. And now there are a few bigger promotors – they do a lot of – it’s really Bollywood and everything else there, so these promotors have started doing – they do it a lot of like – whether it’s a Bollywood artist or film and TV, events. So it’s not just music but they’ve started doing bigger shows. [Z! Live] is one of the promotors we just did, and they had these huge 9,000-person outdoor shows that we just wrapped up in December. And that was more of a promotor model, but they do like a … They basically do a buyout. And same for sync advertising, or writing for sync there. Netflix, let’s say, will come to you and say, “OK, we want this done. Here’s your fee. You get no rights to it.” That’s just … You know. A TV – maybe not – I don’t know about Netflix, we just did a deal with Netflix there with something else, but like a Bollywood movie, which is like everyone [buys? 00:48:49] to get into those soundtracks. It’s just a flat fee, so …
Here you have a million jumps through – hoops to jump through in terms of making sure that different people sign off on the licensing agreements, and if the artist has publishing and the master side, and you’re doing all of these things with paperwork. And over there it’s like, OK, we need it tomorrow, so either take it or leave it. This is the fee, and there’s nothing else that you get. So it’s just a total buyout, which is really interesting, and has definitely – it’s been complicated bringing Prateek over in that sense, because our publishers here are like, “What do you mean they need an answer in 24 hours, and they need the song written in 24 hours, and you don’t get any rights?” It’s just a very different situation, and the artists definitely don’t have as much negotiating power.
LP: I mean, NB, it’s hard for me to escape the fact that there’s a lot of similarities as the world that Frank walked into 50, 60 years ago in terms of the early promotor model in the late fifties, early sixties, of the artist just got paid a fee, they showed up, they did their work, and on they went. It’s fascinating to hear that. Here you are, the person who did everything they could to avoid being in the midst of all this, and you’re not only in the midst of it but at the ground floor again.
NB: I know. It’s weird. It’s weird. It’s fun. It’s a little different now because Live Nation does exist, and they are still coming into places like India, so it’s not totally fresh, but everyone will be involved in ten minutes there. But it has been really cool to see how it’s evolved even in the last couple of years in that market. Kind of a fun time. No rules, for sure.
LP: Yeah. Well, tell me – so – thank you for that. That’s fascinating. I love to hear about the machinations. Tell me about Women in Music. And just to give listeners two seconds of context, we’re not merely talking about women who work in music. This is an organization that you’re deeply involved with. I’d love to know about your involvement. I’d love to know the need – what’s the organization addressing? And maybe a little bit about how the organization’s role or place has changed in the last six or eight weeks, if at all.
NB: Yeah. Yeah, well, Women in Music was founded in 1985, so well before I got involved, and I think the needs back then were pretty different. I certainly group seeing it, and when I was young I had two mentors – one was Michele Anthony, who is now, of course, at the helm of Universal, and the other was Barbara Skydel, who was the vice president, technically, at Premier Talent, my dad’s agency, but, I mean, she did everything. Barbara was like – talk about a trailblazer, especially back then. Killer negotiator. Just a phenomenal human being. So those were the two women who really were my mentors growing up. And neither of them had families, and I really saw how powerful they were, how much they worked, how much they sacrificed day to day just to get where they were. And I don’t know if in those cases it was both a personal choice or just work-life was not a balance at all back then that you could even consider.
So I just knew that when I left Steven’s company that was really in the back of my head [unintelligible 00:52:20] women who I’ve looked up to my whole life don’t have the one thing that I’m really hoping to have for myself the way I grew up with my parents, having that little family unit. So that’s what set me back, I think, when I – and it, you know – it all works out, and I think it gave me great perspective when I came back into music, but that was really one of the reasons I stepped out of it, was thinking as a woman I just don’t see how this is possible. I really don’t. And so when I came back in I was on my own, I didn’t have a company that I worked for anymore, and I was going to try to do it as an independent manager. And I thought, well, I need a support system somehow.
And so I looked up – I think I Googled women in music, assuming that if something was going to come up it would probably be [the end of] that title. And the organization came up, and so I poked around and I saw that one of the women who were on the board at the time was Jennifer Newman Sharpe, who’s an attorney. She was independent, she went out on her own as a young executive, and I was like, you know what, I need an entertainment attorney because I need to figure out in terms of management how am I setting up my contracts, how am I setting up my company, all of these things. The other person who I had met with was Elliot Groffman, who is actually now our attorney for one of my clients, and someone I speak to every single day, and a guiding adviser for me in so many ways. But Michele Anthony took me into a meeting with him, because she was like, OK, if you want to work in management you need to see how things work on the law side of things.
And I went into that meeting – and Elliot is like an architect. He’s like the most incredibly brilliant attorney. And I talked to him about one of my first artists early on, and he asked me a million questions and challenged me, and I didn’t have any answers at that point, right? And I was like, wow, this is incredible, you’re right, [unintelligible 00:54:12] this and this, and this is what’s important. And so then when I finally went out on my own, I was like I need my own attorney who I can go to. I was like I just really – I don’t want one of the top attorneys in the business, I need someone who’s kind of starting out like I am. Because I am so intimidated by these huge – you know, like huge personalities and these leaders in the business who already have done it all and know all of these things, and I don’t. I need to be able to go to them and say, “I have no idea what I’m talking about. Can you take a look at this for me, and explain it to me as if I’ve ever seen a contract before?” Because I haven’t. You know.
And so I found Jen, and she was the perfect match. We talked on the phone, she took me through some basics, she reviewed all of my contracts, put together drafts for me, we talked about what my goals were as a manager, what that meant in contractual terms, all of the other things that I hadn’t considered that I want to consider going into an agreement like that with an artist. And she’s still to this day someone I will send – I sent her a contract two days ago because I was like, you know, these x number of people have already looked at this, but will you just take a look? Because you’re really – you know, she’s a person I trust in ways that – she will always tell me one way or another if there’s anything I’m overlooking, and just a huge, huge support. And so that’s how I found my community, through Women in Music. I met Jen; she brought me onto the board of Women in Music in 2013.
My fellow board members now – our VP, Moira McCarthy, is at Position Music, she’s in sync licensing. Bridget Perdomo is at Universal in sync for TV, film. And the two of them I emailed yesterday, or texted yesterday to say, like, hey, I have this offer, can you both tell me comparatively if the terms work, and should I push for more or should I not. These are just people who are my colleagues in my own business when I don’t have actual colleagues. And now certainly when people are working from home, seeing how isolating being on your own at home can be working, this is how I’ve been able to grow my community, is being forced to really reach out and find the people who I can go to when I need advice on something or just need someone to bounce something off of when you’re not working at a big company. So Women in Music was really how I found that community. Those were women who I grew up with a little bit over the last five or six years, and now still are going to daily for questions, or venting, or whatever it is. So they’re –
LP: There’s a peer support element of it?
LP: It sounds like there’s a large peer support element.
LP: And I’m [curious? 00:56:59], are there formal programs as well? What does the organization do outside of that?
NB: Yeah, so really it was set up as an educational nonprofit [unintelligible 00:57:11] 501(c) nonprofit, and it was based in New York for years and years, hosting panels and seminars to educate women on all of the things that now there are, of course, university degrees for this stuff, but certainly there wasn’t back in ’85. And really just to give that – you know, there’s this annoying saying. “If you can see it, you can be it,” [type of thing], right? So if you can see a woman who has crafted the career in life that you want in this business, then you know you can get there. And I think for me growing up I didn’t see that. I didn’t see a woman at the top of the industry who also had the kind of work-life balance that I was looking for. And so that’s really, I think, what – aside from the educational piece, which is so important, giving that peer support and those kinds of examples to look to is so critical.
So we’re a volunteer organization; we now have chapters all over the world, from LA to India. So it’s this really cool network, not only – and it’s not only for women, we hope to reach gender parity at some point with our members. We’re really just a community to support the idea of equality, diversity and inclusion in the industry. So men are a huge part of that, obviously, and still so much the decision making body of our industry, so we really kind of … We actually just launched a male allies program at the end of last year to activate male members to support equity. And we have – now everything’s virtual, of course, so we have webinars at least twice a week, which have been great, but we also have a mentorship program that we launched at the end of last year. Secret Deodorant was our partner in that and kind of – they had a deadline, so we had to really get it up and running, but it’s something that women in the membership community have been asking for, for ages.
And I think it’s been really helpful, especially now over the last few weeks, because women who signed up to mentored now have a lifeline that has been crucial going through so much change. And we actually had a few mentors who were senior executives who had been furloughed or laid off, and so I think that’s been a really helpful dynamic to see – whether it’s young women or [older] women in the middle of their career just looking for a mentor to get over a hump and look to the next phase of their career development. It’s been interesting to see that a lot of these women who have been furloughed or laid off – in these really executive roles – are now starting their own businesses, and their mentees get to see what that process is. And I think it’s going to serve even more of a critical role going forward too. We have a lot of job opportunities posted for members, and a lot of virtual learning now happening one-on-one through that program, and it’s … It’s an exciting time, and I think it really has provided a critical community element that now obviously means a lot.
LP: Yeah. Well, we’re very much at or nearing the end of our time, and I want to be respectful of the fact that you’re spending your precious [childless] time with me today. If I could ask just a couple of other quick things.
LP: I’d love to know what, in your either professional career or your personal ethos, you really learned from each of your parents. And I’d love to know what your feelings would be if 15 or 20 years from now your daughter says, “Mom, I want to do what you do.”
NB: Oh, god forbid. You know, actually she’s so dramatic, and she loves standing up on the highest platform she can find, and performing. And I’m like don’t you – if you – god forbid, you end up being an artist or in this business. No, hopefully at some point – and that’s part of, I think, Women in Music too. A lot of our work is geared towards just making things more equitable for future generations. So we’re actually launching this thing called the Workplace Initiative, which is going to rate the best places to work in music for women.
LP: Oh, wow.
NB: And things like that, to really set standards and raise the bar. But still, for me it’s not possible for me to bring my daughter on tour. The venue bathrooms are not clean enough, there’s no – a lot of the time there isn’t a green room for women, there’s no women’s room, bathroom, it’s just a bathroom and it has an old male symbol. You know, just like basic stuff that doesn’t exist, and I will not have my daughter out on the road 24/7 at gross clubs that don’t cater to … There’s no pumping room – not that there needs to be in venues necessarily, but we need to start thinking more about the women who are out on tour, the artists who are out on stage that need to bring their kids, and all of that stuff.
So hopefully if my daughter ever chose to get into this business I’m hoping the work we’re doing now, 15, 20 years down the line, will meet a really different set of standards for those women in the future. And I think we’ve gotten to the point where women in this industry won’t put up with it anymore. It’s gotten so ridiculous and outdated; we’re so far behind so many other industries in thinking about equity and inclusion in those ways. So I think it will be different.
And then in terms of … The influence of my parents – I think my dad was the most disarming, charming, tuned in person. Like he would stop – I remember when he’d passed away, all the doormen on our street in New York three blocks down, everyone would come over and just express their condolences. Because he just – everyone became his best friend. He would take walks at night. He was a really heavy guy most of his life, and he would walk, walk, walk to try to lose weight. Instead of sitting at home working at night he would try to take walks. And so he would just walk up and down the street and talked to all the doormen, and he knew everyone’s life story. And he would just give everyone advice. He would always try to join people together, like if someone got divorced he was trying to be like a little bit of a moderator. I remember one doorman a couple of doors down was having some fight with his teenage son, and my dad came home and talked about it one night. He was just really concerned, he wanted to make sure that they repaired the relationship. He just was that person.
Everyone to him was the most important person in the room. It didn’t matter who you were or what you did. And even at the venues a lot of the custodial staff, he would stay late talking to. And he was just a really, really unique character, and I think that one-on-one relationship he had with everyone, making people feel like he was their sounding board in a lot of ways, is something that he passed on that I really aspire to. And his honesty. He did not sugarcoat things for anyone, he really told – I mean, he wasn’t rude, he was very diplomatic, but he just really let everyone know where he stood on things. And if that meant that an artist was about to go out on a tour that he thought was a ridiculous spectacle, and they weren’t focusing on the right thing, and the goal wasn’t aligned with what they had set out to do, he would tell them that, even if it meant that the artist would walk away from the agency. So that I really admire and aspire to.
And for my mom, I think one great thing is she – and maybe this is a product of being born during the war in England, and being the underdog in her family, but she sets – she doesn’t set expectations. She doesn’t get disappointed by things. And I think that luckily she has passed that on to me; I’m very hard to rattle. I do not get stressed easily. I really – that’s why I was going to go into crisis PR. I really enjoy the challenge of madness and mania rather than get stressed by it. So that’s something – she’s just super laidback and if something doesn’t work out she doesn’t – she thinks about it for two seconds, and she moves ahead. And I think that’s something that is helpful in life, and I also aspire to pass on to my daughter too, that laidback, bigger picture vision. So not getting caught up on the little things is something that she instilled.
LP: Well, what a great basket of attributes for an artist manager. Thank you.
LP: I appreciate your time. I really do. I know that these are precious moments when the little ones got their head down and their eyes closed, so thank you for spending them with this conversation.
NB: No, thank you so much for having me.
Artist Manager, President Women In Music, and Consultant
Artist Manager, advocate, and consultant, Nicole Barsalona leads Everyday Rebellion Entertainment (fka 525 Entertainment), specializing in artist development and international market development for artists like Prateek Kuhad and Mark Wilkinson.
A passionate advocate, Nicole proudly serves as President of 501(c)3 non-profit organization, Women in Music, where she joined the Board of Directors in 2013 and has helped usher in record growth since becoming President in 2019. She serves on the Executive Board of Music Managers Forum (US), the largest and leading trade organization for music managers in the U.S.