Behind the Music: Michael Kaminsky

By the time Michael Kaminsky graduated college, he'd already run a succesful computer start-up and a college television station. He's since parlayed that production know-how and business-mindedness into a career as an artist manager.

Michael Kaminsky has always had an entrepreneurial spirit and an eye for talent. After starting his own computer company in high school, the California native headed to UC San Diego where he obtained a university grant and launched a popular college television station. In between classes, Kaminsky would search the web for up and coming bands and began directing and producing music videos in his spare time. Kaminsky stumbled upon a developing act called Taking Back Sunday and eventually went on to work for Fanscape, the band’s management company, before heading out to start his own venture.

Today, Kaminsky owns and runs KMGMT, an artist management company that represents acts like Dia Frampton and 3OH!3. His day-to-day endeavors involve overseeing all aspects of his artists’ careers, including handling press, licensing, recording, approving tour dates, and television appearances.

Get In Media: Tell us about owning your own management company.

Michael Kaminsky: I started the company about seven or eight years ago. I have seven artists now on my roster and I’ve hired a few employees to help oversee this. Management is very personal. It’s very hands on. You have to spend a lot of time on each artist. You don’t get a luxury of working with a ton of people. You pick the ones that you really like—that you connect with, that you understand, you have a vision for and you feel like you can do something for. You put all your eggs in that basket and cross your fingers and hope everyone does the right job.

GIM: What were you doing before starting your own company?

MK: I had a computer company in high school and it was doing well. One day I was with a colleague and he said, “I really like doing computers, but as you get older, the people in your social life are the people you work with everyday.” I then realized that I didn’t want to be doing this forever. I went to college and took a bunch of business courses at UC San Diego. Two years in, I was miserable, so I started a television station at my school. I got a grant from the university. It was called SRTV and it ended up being one of the biggest college TV stations.

I took an interest in production and I started emailing bands that I really liked that nobody had really heard of and would say, “Hey. I got this grant. I have all this TV equipment. Let’s do a music video together.” This band nobody had ever heard of called Taking Back Sunday had emailed me back and said, “Yeah we’ll be in town. Let us sleep on your floor. We’ll do a video together” and I directed their first music video and they started to do well.

Taking Back Sunday’s manager and I went to dinner one night and we were talking and she said, “You should try management. You should come work at the company with me.” She hired me and I worked with Taking Back Sunday for three years. When I finally felt like I had a little, tiny bit of knowledge, I left to start my own company.

GIM: Can you pick one of the artists on your roster and walk us through some of the noteworthy things that you’ve done with them?

MK: I met Dia [Frampton] and her sister Meg maybe seven years ago. I had just moved to Los Angeles. My roommate comes home from being on the road and he says, “Hey, I found these two girls. They are like 16 years old. They sing really well. They are coming to LA to go make an album. I told them they could sleep on our couch.” They come, and it’s a whole band—there are five of them and they’re staying on our couch for like two months, but there is something very charismatic about those two girls. I had just started my company and I said, “This seems like a good fit. We get along. Let’s do this.” 

They were on an indie label. This was back in the days of MySpace. MySpace Tom had heard them and said, “You should go on Warped Tour on my stage. The only catch is you have to build the stage every day.” The girls went on tour. Every morning at 6:00 they woke up and built the MySpace stage on Warped Tour. They did the whole tour and everyone fell in love with them. They did more tours. They sold a lot of records. Warner Brothers shows up and signs them. Everyone at the label is like, “Rock chicks are doing great! Paramore and Evanescence are doing great. Let’s put you with the biggest rock producer of all time and make a record for us.”

“As a manager, it’s very easy to be reactive and then make a plan. It’s very difficult to be proactive, but you have to be.”

We finished the record. A lot of the label gets fired, the label is sort of like, “We don’t know what to do with this rock record with these two girls singing.” It ended up not being the right fit. We went back to the label and said, “You know this probably didn’t make sense to do. Thank you, but let’s find something else to do.”

GIM: And then you decided to have Dia audition for NBC’s The Voice?

MK: I was talking to a producer friend of mine who was telling me about a new show they were developing. He said, “You should consider doing this show for Dia for singers.” The show ended up being The Voice. At the auditions, she blew everyone away. They asked her to be on the show and she ended up winning on Blake’s team, which no one had really expected when we signed up for it. Blake [Shelton] took her on tour after the show.

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GIM: Following the tour with Blake, what types of things did you do to continue to develop her career? Did you search for a new label?

MK: The Voice has their label. They are partnered with Universal Records. The interesting thing is that Universal Records in the U.S. is very different from Universal internationally. And she was on tour with Blake Shelton, which was 10,000 to 20,000 tickets a night, but it was a country show. We learned that Dia excels at her singing at the piano and doing more indie-style singer/songwriter stuff.

Part of my job is to analyze a lot of data. We looked at all of her metrics. We were looking at where are the songs reacting, who is a fan, how old are they, were do they live, what are they coming for? And we saw all this activity overseas in Asia. Dia is half Korean so we said, “There is a market that we are not advertising to that is naturally finding this and really falling in love.” Dia and I sat down and we made a list of all the countries in Asia that we thought would be good targets and one by one we would find a radio station in each city and we’d just call them up and say, “Hey, we have fans there. Here’s the music. What can you do?”

The first territory to really play it was Thailand. Dia would wake up at three in the morning to do interviews with Thailand radio stations and Thailand would get back to us every couple of weeks and tell us that the song was starting to do really well. Then the song went number one. After that, we would call all these other radio stations in all the other territories in Asia and say, “Hey we have a number one song in Thailand, why don’t you check this out?” And then South Africa came on board, Singapore and Indonesia, and all these countries started to jump in.

“As a manager you are probably the last person to be thanked and the first person to be blamed if something goes wrong. You need to have a thick skin and you’re going to be working like crazy—nights, weekends, busting your butt.”

We called all these radio stations and said, “We want to come out and see you and go on air,” and we booked a month long Asian tour. We’d show up and there would be paparazzi at the airport and a line of fans in the hotel lobby. Having an American artist in Asia … people were just completely losing it. She is still developing in the U.S., but it doesn’t matter. She can go overseas in Asia and play one show and be able to sustain herself for the next year.

GIM: What kinds of tools do you use on a daily basis? You said you do a lot of analytics for your artist.

MK: Most of the data is actually right in front of you. It’s about sitting down and figuring out how to interpret it and what to do with it once you have it. Facebook is the most obvious. You can click on your backend and it will show you your fans, the most active countries, the posts that people respond to the most. You can use Twitter and ask your fans, “Hey, tell me what you think about this,” and you can gauge from the reaction on a macro level where your fanbase is really active and responding. If on Twitter there’s a kid that says, “I heard you in this restaurant playing,” you can contact the kid and be like, “What restaurant was it?” Then I’d call them up and say, “Hey, I heard you were playing our artist. Maybe we should do something together.”

As a manager, it’s very easy to be reactive and then make a plan. It’s very difficult to be proactive, but you have to be. If someone’s playing your song or is a fan or you know someone at some company to just call them up and say, “I heard you were playing this song or I heard you came to this show or I saw you tweet here and I looked you up online and I know you have this job. Maybe we can do something together.” Some of my best friends in the industry are people who I completely hit up out of the blue and said, “I know this sounds weird, but I’ve been doing a lot of research and I think you like one of my artists. Can we talk?” and they go, “Heck yeah. That’s really cool. I really respect that,” and we end up doing a crazy-ridiculous deal together.

GIM: What are the skills that are needed in order to become a good manager?

MK: This sounds like a weird one, but you have to be financially patient. A lot of people want to jump in the music business and don’t realize that for the first couple of years at least, you will be making very little money. I think it’s the biggest barrier to entry. When I first started, I moved home. I had to live with my parents for three years out of college, which was embarrassing, but it was the only way to do it. I think the fastest rising artist I ever saw literally did not put one penny in their pockets for two years, so you have to understand the game—that it can be very fun, but it’s a very hard job and the rewards only happen if you make it happen and everyone succeeds.

On top of that, you have to be almost a good therapist with your artist. You have to know what they are going to think before they think it. You have to be able to make complete decisions on their behalf. If you can’t be really close with your artist, then it’s probably not the right fit for you. I’ve turned down a lot of artist who were already making a ton of money because I wasn’t the right guy. You are working 18 hours a day with this person and for this person. If you don’t understand every nuance about them and they don’t understand everything about you, then it’s not the right fit.

The last thing you want to be doing is literally spending your life working with someone that isn’t the right fit or who you don’t like or who won’t confide in you as a person or who doesn’t trust you as a friend. I also think you have to be incredibly hungry and ambitious. It is more competitive than ever in the music industry.

RELATED: Scott Booker, manager of The Flaming Lips, on his improbable career in the music industry and managing the iconic emblem of weirdness. 

GIM: How do you recommend that people interested in artist management gain experience?

MK: Get as much knowledge as you can and talk to as many people as you can going into it. The best way to learn this is just to learn by doing it. Find an artist, intern at a company that does anything in music, and go out there and learn how marketing works. You’ll have to learn how touring works and how a crew works and what their job is. Knowing your strengths and what you have to learn is going to be your first hurdle and you should be jumping at every opportunity. Even if it sounds like the most boring part of the job, it’s part of the job as a manager. If you hate sales and never want to do it, you have to know how it works to be a manager. Early on, finding everyone and every aspect of the industry that you can and saying, “Hey. Can I take you to dinner? Can I buy you a drink? Can I just sit with you for an hour?” You have to learn as much as you can.

GIM: What can people do to attract the attention of a management company that they’d like to work for?

MK: No one has ever asked me what my college GPA was. Everyone has asked me, “What have you done?” With finding a job in management or anywhere in music, you have to go get the foundation. You have to learn everything you can learn, but at the end of the day you have to get off your butt and go do something on your own. If you’re trying to break into the business, you need a blog that’s getting X amount of people a day. You need to have come up with a cool new app that you have coded. You need to have made a great merch design. You have to be actually doing something and creating something and be able to go around to people and be like, “I did this. I am a hustler. I can go out there and bring something to your team.” I don’t think the education by itself will lead you anywhere.

GIM: Anything else we should know about the job? Any other tidbits of wisdom?

MK: It’s probably the most rewarding, adventurous job I could ever imagine. You work like heck. As a manager you are probably the last person to be thanked and the first person to be blamed if something goes wrong. You need to have a thick skin and you’re going to be working like crazy—nights, weekends, busting your butt. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the whole world. If you’re looking for a 9 to 5, it’s definitely not the right gig for you.

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