She Persisted #3 Chyna Brackeen

 “I've never really believed in fall-back plans. I think the best way to make something work is if you don't have another option. When you absolutely can't fail, you're going to do everything in your power to succeed.” ~Chyna Brackeen

I was feeling a little bummed about the the DIY struggle last night and my good friends Tim and Susan Lee gave me some sage life-advice. They said, “You know Christina, there are paddlers and then there are floaters in this life.” Seems legit. I like to think that the people I surround myself with are paddlers. I see Chyna as an Olympic-class paddler.  I want to be like Chyna. 

I’ve been watching this woman persist for at least a decade. Well before she knew who I was, I knew who she was. Before I ever met her, people told me that she was a smart, determined and hard-working individual who got shit done.

Most of Knoxville probably knows Chyna as the organizer of the Rhythm and Blooms Festival and as the manager of local favorite the Black Lillies. I see her as a jack of all trades. She’s a woman that exudes the persistence. I’ve watched her launch her own company, Attack Monkey, while simultaneously launching the careers of many musicians. She can solve just about any crazy problem and do it with gusto and class. If you’ve ever witnessed her behind the scenes at one of her events her phone is constantly blowing up with emergencies. She puts out fires with a couple of phone calls or texts and moves on to the next hurdle. 

I believe I’ve also seen people try to glom on to her success. I can see why. I mean, any sane indie artist would want someone like Chyna in their corner; she goes above and beyond for her clients. She treats them like family and she means it. It’s tough to tow the line between exerting strength in your business relations while at the same time maintaining a heart. I can say now I’ve seen her soft side. Her heart is true and her compassion limitless. She delivers with fairness. As I’m sure many a woman can relate, sometimes when we are assertive with our decisions we are labeled a bitch. Any time someone disagrees with us, we risk being compartmentalized and discarded.  

I wanted to take this opportunity to share an inside look at the work she does. I think you’ll be surprised at how deep her to-do list is!

Not everyone is aware of the many hats you wear! Besides organizing the very successful Rhythm and Blooms Festival here Knoxville, can you give us a little insight on some of the jobs that are on your list?

 

I stay busy! Currently, I manage four artists, produce or co-produce three festivals, handle public relations for a couple of musicians and I'm the talent buyer for a few events. I also consult with artists, festivals and venues and I've sort of become the de-facto consultant for people who are doing crowdfunding campaigns. Occasionally I will get pulled into a random project, like the time I organized a city-wide scavenger hunt for a large corporate group that was visiting or the time I put together an event in which people rappelled off of a building downtown. A "typical" day (there's really no such thing) might find me doing a site visit for an event, booking a festival, lining up a producer for a client's new album, making sure posters are sent out to venues for my artists' upcoming shows, coaching an artist through a major life or band change, reviewing a ton of contracts, and researching travel options for a client's tour. 

One of your roles is that of “artist manager.” This title probably brings to mind the old-fashioned notion of that guy who is there to make sure the lead singer didn’t get drunk and pass out after sound-check. What are some of the most common misperceptions you think people have about artist management?

Making sure the lead singer doesn't pass out can definitely be part of it! There are actually all kinds of artist managers out there. I think there's been a perception that there are these shady "managers" who are really just profiting off of an artist - and those do exist, unfortunately. Then there's the kind of manager who has a ton of clients but doesn't really get in the trenches with any of them ... that manager might surface every once in awhile to make a well-timed phone call to a major sponsor or big producer, maybe they snag a huge record deal (for whatever that's worth these days). Those guys often don't even interact with their clients very regularly, they pop in and out but they aren't really THERE on a day-to-day basis (in fact, they usually have another person in their office who deals with the nuts and bolts things like making sure a booking agent gets a tour put together).

I remember one of the very first in-depth conversations I had with Cruz Contreras, who is the bandleader of The Black Lillies. He was telling me horror stories about managers and other industry people he'd worked with in his previous band, and he said something I will never forget: "The manager is the guy who is having a fancy steak dinner while I'm changing a tire by the side of the road in a snowstorm." That was his experience, that when things went wrong the manager was nowhere to be found.

I would never be comfortable working that way, it's just not how I operate. I'd feel guilty all of the time!

As a result of those kinds of managers, though, I think there are a lot of people who think that artist management must be easy money, or that anyone can do it, or that managers don't do anything at all. Or there's a lot of confusion about what it is that managers do. I get a lot of comments from people that are like, "Oh, so you're the booker for the band!" Well, I did book shows until the band was doing enough business to justify a booking agent. And now I manage the booking agent and make sure that job is getting done - which means I am still intimately involved in routing a tour, reviewing offers, sending them back if they aren't good enough, and ultimately making sure the tour is put together correctly. And that still takes a ton of focus even though someone else is doing the work of getting the dates secured at each venue (and sometimes I do have to step in and call a venue myself to get something on their calendar).  

"Oh, so you're the publicist?" Well, for some of my clients. But others have a publicist that is separate from me, someone whose sole job is pitching to the media. But I'm still very hands-on when it comes to writing a press release, determining who we need to target, lining up interviews, etc.  

"Ok, so you go on the road with them all of the time and make sure everything is cool there?" Once again, that's something I have done and still do at times. But some of my clients have tour managers who do that for them. And again, someone still has to manage the tour manager, and that's my job.

That's often about the time I get the question, "So ... what is it that you do, exactly?"

Essentially, my job is to make sure EVERYTHING gets done, that there's a strategy in place and that we are executing it. When a client has a small team, which especially happens with emerging acts, that often means I personally handle all of those tiny details myself. But when there is a larger team, it's my job to manage the whole team and make sure everything is working like a well-oiled machine. The funny thing about bringing in new team members is that it doesn't really make my job any smaller - in fact, because there are more people who need to be communicated with on a daily basis, it's actually busier. And all of that is in addition to the relationship with the artist, which is of course a key factor. 

The Black Lillie at a secret pop up show during the 2017 Rhythm and Blooms Festival. 

The Black Lillie at a secret pop up show during the 2017 Rhythm and Blooms Festival. 

What makes you different from other artist management?

There are a few things I do differently. First, I take a holistic approach to management. I believe that an artist will do his or her best work when he/she knows that the basics are covered. So I want to make sure that he/she has a safe place to live, food on the table, a reliable touring vehicle, the instruments that they need, and is in the best possible emotional place. This means that I've often provided those things in one way or another ... or sometimes that I've chosen not to get paid so that the money that would go to me would cover something that the artist needed.

I also don't believe I should be making more money than the artist makes. Trust me, not every manager agrees with me on this one.

I've never been all that great at work/life boundaries and I consider the artists I manage to be my family. And the relationship that I have with them is pretty hard to categorize. It's actually probably the most complicated relationship I've ever encountered - sometimes a "boss" who is driving things, other times an "employee" who is taking direction, an accountant, a therapist, a confidant/best friend, a sister, a mother, a wife, an assistant, a loan officer, a bill collector. It's super weird, and we've got to be able to communicate about anything and everything. I probably know more about a lot of my clients than their own parents, spouses or children know about them. To me, the artist/manager relationship is an awful lot like a marriage: your manager is intimately involved in your finances, they know your clothing sizes, they probably know when and what you last ate and who you ended up going home with last night, We're going to have fights - big ones - but we've got to know that we're both so committed to the vision of the art you're creating that you'll be able to move past the conflicts and get right back to work.

Panel @Rhythm and Blooms "Covering Your Ass" where we discussed legal issues bands have to deal with! 

Panel @Rhythm and Blooms "Covering Your Ass" where we discussed legal issues bands have to deal with! 

Honestly, I probably care too much. I don't take on a client unless I believe it what they are doing 110%. And I eat, sleep and breathe my work. I have a reputation for being really tough (the common term is probably something more like a "bitch" if I'm being honest), but my management clients will tell you that I cry when things go wrong. I'm very emotionally invested in them and in the work we do together.

I'm not the kind of manager who pops into your life and makes one really important phone call on your behalf, and then disappears. I'm the kind who will work my ass off for you and jump in the trenches. I'll dream big with you and make the 150 calls it takes to get past 149 people who say no, and to the one who say yes. But I'm also going to want you to let me into the creative process. I'll respect it and give you space, but I want to be included. And that's not always easy for artists. 

What is the most insane thing a musician, yours or someone else's,  has ever asked you for?  

Honestly, I'm not sure I think of any requests from musicians as "insane" anymore. But let's see ... I was talking to a band about a potential management relationship and one of the band members asked if I'd vet all of the girls at their shows to find the hottest one who'd be willing to sleep with him that night. He didn't want to have to waste his time looking.

There are definitely crazier things than that but I'd be spilling secrets if I talked about them! 

The title of my blog is “She Persisted.” I imagine that your work week goes well beyond 40 hours.  Do you make yourself stop at a certain point or do you love it so much you just keep going?  

Oh, I am a textbook workaholic.I am trying to learn how to step away sometimes. I'm an insomniac and it's pretty common for me to work into the wee hours of the night/early morning, then get an hour or two of sleep and jump right back into it when I awaken. Lately, I have experimented with not taking my computer into my bedroom at night and it has helped! I've also forced myself to go out with friends even when I had a ton of work to do. That's been really good for me, too. I will admit that it makes me antsy when I am away from work for too long, though.

I talk a lot with my peers about how the music industry tends to be a boys club. Have you experienced any blatant sexism?  (That just got me thinking about blatant sexisms terrible cousin: overt sexism). 

I was raised by a strong woman (my mother was one of the first female executives at IBM), who in turn had been raised by a strong woman (my grandmother owned a very successful chain of dry cleaners starting in the 1950s). Of course I knew that women had fought for equal treatment, but I honestly grew up thinking that it was ancient history. I was taught that if I was smart and worked hard, I could do anything I wanted to do. And so I did. I think there were probably plenty of times that I encountered sexism and just didn't even notice because I was too busy making things happen.

But then I started working in the music industry, and yeah ... all the damn time. I'm very outspoken and I've often called people on their blatant misogyny, but there have been a few things that caught me off guard.

I think any woman in the industry has plenty of stories about how they were asked which guy in the band they were sleeping with/married to, or when it was assumed that they were the merch girl instead of the frontwoman of the band/band's manager/tour manager/sound engineer. I've also heard some of my own artists talking about how female sound engineers "always suck" or how female musicians don't take music seriously (and I've read them the riot act for saying these things ... unfortunately, that's almost always followed by an encounter with a really bad sound engineer who happens to be female, or a female "musician" who doesn't actually know how to play her instrument, and then that pisses me off even more!).

I've dealt with quite a few blustery men who think that they can talk over me, treat me like an idiot, or put me in my place. If I'm only going to be dealing with them for a few minutes, I usually just roll my eyes and move on. But if it's someone I have to have more regular encounters with, I can bite back pretty hard.

And I could give you a laundry list of times when a less-qualified man who was a "cool hang" was given a ton of respect (or a promotion, or a raise) while I was told that my (very well-informed) input was nagging or annoying, that I wasn't qualified to have an opinion even though I was the person with experience.

But the big ones were things like the time I went to settle a show, and the club owner took me into a room in the back where another guy was sitting holding a gun. The club owner locked the door, stood blocking it while his friend pointed the gun at me, and told me that I could "make more money tonight if you give us what we want." It was legitimately terrifying. And then they laughed and said they were just messing with me. It didn't feel like a very funny joke.

THAT. IS. NOT. FUNNY.

In the course of your career, you’ve taken a lot of risks. Can you advise someone who is thinking about going out on their own how to rise above the fear that comes along with leaving a cushy job and venturing into the world of entrepreneurship?  

I've never really believed in fall-back plans. I think the best way to make something work is if you don't have another option. When you absolutely can't fail, you're going to do everything in your power to succeed. So I guess my biggest piece of advice would be to just do it. It's not going to be easy, there will be many days where you doubt yourself or you wonder how the hell you're going to pay your bills - but you'll learn how resourceful you are, you'll learn to hustle, and I think you'll find out pretty quickly whether you're cut out for a life of entrepreneurship. 

Finally, what advice can you give to young budding musicians about how to handle the stress of starting out on your own and learning to BALANCE the tasks of recording, booking, publishing, recording, financing, merchandising, branding, performing, touring and all the million other things we need to learn?

Learn from other artists. Talk to your fellow musicians and find out what works (and doesn't) for them. Research bands who are a level or two above you and see where they played to determine which venues you should be playing. Find out what press coverage they got so you know which outlets to try to pitch. Network with bands in other towns so you can trade shows and help each other out. Find tools that will make your life a little easier - apps that help you track your finances, or services that will help distribute your music or send posters out to the venues you're playing.

Sometimes it's really hard to sell yourself, so ask your fans or friends what it is that they love about your music. Hear yourself through their ears, and it will help you to determine what your strengths are as an artist and what your message should be as you try to promote yourself.

 Schedule time to do some of those necessary, yet uncomfortable tasks. Every Tuesday at 5 pm, maybe you spend an hour getting your finances in order from the past week. Or maybe on Thursday mornings you have a two-hour window for booking and promoting shows. When you schedule it and you stick to your schedule, you can knock things out without feeling so overwhelmed.

You have a lot of work to do before a manager or booking agent will take you on. Being an incredible artist isn't enough, you've got to build your audience and start making some money. When there's too much work to do, but you aren't quite at the point where you need to bring in a manager or agent, consider finding an intern or a music fan who wants to help out in exchange for free admission to shows, or merch, or maybe a little cash.

It's hard, but remember that the only sure way to fail is to give up. If you work hard, consistently, you will begin to make headway. You're going to have setbacks, you're going to have failures, but the people who succeed are the ones who keep pushing forward. So go forth and kick some ass!