(A good 10 minute read)
Our latest interview is with Sophie Reeves, an artist relations extraordinaire and the founder of Assembly Vault. Sophie has managed tours for the likes of Foster the People & Skrillex in addition to directing artist relations for major festivals such as Something in the Water, Hard Summer and BeachLife.
Given Sophie's experience on both sides of the touring business, she shares some incredible insight into what it takes to manage artist relations at every step of the process. She literally grew up in the business, so get your notebook out, you're in for a good one.
Here are some of my favorite takeaways from our conversation:
- Artist Relations represent the festival and the talent buyer.
- After the event, recapping with artists and staff is a key step to learning and improving.
- You need technology that’s shareable and collaborative.
- Over communicating is critical to a successful Artist Advance.
- An old-fashioned phone call can make a big difference.
- Being proactive and doing your own research goes a very long way.
- You HAVE to know how to delegate tasks, but make sure you take care of your team.
- Always try and pass your knowledge and expertise forward.
Photo Cred: Matty Vogel
You ready to kick this off Sophie?
You bet. Let's do it.
Where did you grow up?
I’m from Nashville, Tennessee but I was born in Texas. When I was a couple of months old, my dad got a job in Nashville. At the age of 14, we started to move around a lot. I lived in Kansas for five months, then Arizona, and then Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada which is where my mom is from. I lived there until I was about 21. I moved back to Tennessee to go to college and that’s when I started working in music. Then I ended up in Denver and now I’m finally in LA. I’ve been all over but Nashville is my home.
When did you know you wanted to get into the event business?
I grew up around music. My dad and my mom are both in the music business. My dad was a songwriter and then he worked at Warner Brothers as their Vice President. In the 90’s, I can remember going to my dad's office and selling Girl Scout Cookies to Faith Hill.
After I graduated high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I worked as a bartender and did my own thing. When I was 21, I was ready to learn again. Music and the music business was the only thing I wanted to do.
I got a degree in music business which led me to my first event. Growing up, I wasn’t a big concert goer. During my last semester of college, I got a free ticket to the Bonnaroo Music Festival which was only 30 minutes from my school. I took the weekend off and drove out there by myself. It was the first time I’d ever been to a music festival and it completely changed my life course. It was the coolest thing I had ever done. I went back home to finish the semester. I was interning at Capital Records in the publicity department in a windowless room. I loved being outside at the festival. I realized I didn’t want to be in an office. I researched Pretty Lights and found his direct email address on a website. I emailed him and told him “I’m about to graduate and I want to work for you”. He emailed me back and it took us two months to meet face-to-face.
He had just gotten a booking agent, which was a big step for him. He called me two days later and said, "We're going to go do this five-day run in the south and we’re in an SUV and a box truck. We need someone to sell merch, do you want to go?” It was a foot in and within one year he was headlining Red Rocks. It catapulted me into events and I’ve been a tour manager most of my career. In the last five years, I became more interested in the event system and I started picking up artist relations gigs and producing events for different artists. I love being able to do both sides because I understand what both sides are going through.
If I was hanging out with your friends and they had a couple drinks in them, how would they describe you?
Perfectionist, passionate, energetic, or silly. I definitely can be a perfectionist.
Photo Cred: Matty Vogel
If you're managing the artist advance for a festival, when do you typically start that process?
It differs from festival to festival. My preference is to be brought on as soon as possible, as soon as someone knows an event is happening. Six months out is usually when I get brought into the conversation, and then things really get going about three months before the event.
How do you deal with the handoff between the booking side and your side of things?
Sometimes when I'm brought on, the whole festival lineup is complete, and sometimes it's not. If the festival lineup is complete, I receive a list of all the artists that are performing and all of the contact info. Most of the time I'm handed outdated riders, so I do my own research before I start my outreach. I also start separating the performers by day, which helps me put everything on a macro and micro timeline. Before I start reaching out, I make sure I have the right contacts and confirm it’s ok to reach out. I never know what stage their contract is in and I have to wait until everything has been finalized by the booker before I can proceed. I am a representative of the booker and it’s important to me that they approve what I’m sending out.
During that process, what are the biggest challenges that you consistently see from event to event?
Finding the right contact information can definitely be a struggle. Riders are constantly getting updated so the event may have one that’s out of date. Tour managers can also move on, and if someone doesn't work for an artist anymore, they don’t feel the need to pass on new contact information and they won't. Getting someone to respond to that initial outreach can be a challenge. The first line of the first email I send out says "If you're not the right contact, please let me know immediately so I can make sure to get this into the right hands."
What are the different pieces of information you have to collect from an artist for a show?
It's everything that's going to happen from when the artist arrives to when they leave. The biggest things are:
- What time are you arriving?
- How many people are you coming with?
- How many of those people are artists and how many of those people are crew?
- Where are you staying?
- Do you need transportation?
- Are you going to eat on site?
- How many dressing rooms are you expecting?
- What do you need in the dressing room?
- What equipment do you need on stage?
- What time are you leaving?
- What vehicles are you bringing?
- Where are you parking them?
- How many guest list spots do you have?
Photo Cred: Matty Vogel
What technology do you use to collect this information and keep track of it all?
I’ve worked with numerous applications over the years. A Google Sheet is great because it integrates with other things and provides a clean output to manage information, but that can break down when you have a number of artists to manage. Lennd works really well for building a system of forms that can be sent out at different times and automatically integrates with the credentialing, catering and ticketing. It’s great because it removes manual steps and processes that are error prone and slow your decision making, which has an impact when you’re dealing with constant changes.
Also the information needs to be in a table so you can tally and divide it, and you also want something that can be easily shared with multiple people.
You’ve worked on both sides as a tour manager and now as an artist relations director for a festival. Do you have any tips for ensuring artists submit their information on time?
I'm going to sound like a broken record but over-communicating is so important. I reconfirm and use words people say to me back. When I was a tour manager, one of the hardest things was that every festival uses different software. Half the time they work well and other times they don’t. Sometimes you just need to get on the phone and personalize the experience for an artist’s team. I also set reminders for the various due dates at different events I’m working.
What are some of the roadblocks you can run into when working with artists and how do you address them?
The hardest part is that sometimes an artist’s team doesn’t have answers until the last minute and they don’t understand how helpful it is for me to have information in advance. We can have a hundred artists coming into a festival, and I have to digest all of the artist riders and pre-shop for them. I have found that picking up the phone, making that call, and saying “I'm happy to help you. What can I do to make this process easier for you? Do you want to just run through the questions on the phone?" can make a difference.
Photo Cred: Matty Vogel
Is there anything special that you do to make sure that you’re having an impact on your artists?
I always have an area on the questionnaire asking if there is anything else I need to know about your show or that you need. Each festival also has different rules and guidelines, so I go through every submission and look into the details. If we don’t offer on-site parking and an artist hasn’t advanced their transportation, I will reach out to their team and call it out. I also like to re-communicate details over and over again such as how many credentials and meals they get. I also like to leave little treats and notes in dressing rooms or hotel rooms.
So, it’s all about anticipating potential breakdowns between what an artist has advanced and how things are actually working for this particular show.
Exactly. Because if you think about it, an artist may be advancing six festivals at the same time. It's really about doing your part to make sure each artist is going to have the best experience on site by following up with anything that they left out or may have misunderstood.
Do you have any tried and true methods for managing credentials and guest lists?
Most changes happen once everything is finalized, which is one of the hardest parts about my job. If the artist wants to add people, I will ask them to go back to Lennd and enter the new people into the system and we’ll approve them. I push back to make sure they go through the processes that we’ve developed. Even if we speed them along faster, it's still going through all the steps and protocols to make sure it was safe. I have to stay true to what the festival wants and keep everyone safe and secure.
Are there any manual processes that you want to see replaced or automated?
Catering. A lot of artist relations teams hand out meal tickets that are turned in to get a meal at catering. You can have catering built into an RFID wristband. However, It becomes difficult when not everyone on the team needs catering. When an artist checks in, they may put on the wrong wristband and end up with no catering and get upset. I still haven’t figured out that system other than handing them a paper ticket.
What are your top priorities once you get on site and what are the typical challenges that you're faced with there?
The first thing I do when I get on site is I do a walkthrough. I arrive about 10 days before the show begins, so at that point the stages are built and everything is in Lennd. I make sure that everything has been set up properly. You want to make sure the internet & power is working, you have keys for the dressing rooms, and you have all the contact lists. I put everything on walls for a quick reference. I also make packets for all my artists liaisons including the channels for the radios. When you get to site, you want to make sure all the systems you have developed are put in place.
What are in those packets that you're giving to your team?
I usually hire an artists liaison per stage and hand over everything that’s been approved to them. I will print out the advance that was done in Lennd so they can have an overview of their meal tickets and credentials. It also includes a map of the venue, a list of radio channels, and a welcome letter. The letter will remind them to bring a phone charger, dress appropriately, drink water, and take a break.
Photo Cred: Matty Vogel
How does your job change once the show starts?
Once the show gets going, if I've done my job really well, I am in the middle of a hurricane and it's very calm and it's great and I get to eat a meal. But if you can imagine a festival with one hundred artists on the lineup, everyone is going to have a change. I would say I'm on the frontline of anything that has to do with credential changes, catering changes, or anything that was changed in the last 6 months. Sometimes I’ll find myself in the office texting one person on the computer, talking to another on the landline, radioing someone else, and I'm on my cell phone with someone else. It can feel like I'm directing an airport because you have to know how to delegate the tasks. It’s also really important that I’m managing the staff and making sure they are taking care of themselves.
What's your responsibility for load out and after the show?
After the show ends, I will do a recap with my staff and send a questionnaire to find out what they would have liked to see differently. I like to get their perspective because they are out there doing the work and there could be lots of things I don’t see happening.
I also do a recap with the artists as much as they want to participate. I try to talk to the artist reps and ask, "How could we have done some of this better?".
What are some of the key departments that you collaborate with while working on an event?
The festival producer is the person I'm in the most contact with at the beginning. I work with the producer to manage the transportation, artist catering, artist riders, and backstage decor budgets.
The security department is a huge one for me. A lot of artists that are coming into festivals have their own security personnel and some of those personnel are armed. We want those artists' camps to feel safe. We also have to make sure the festival is a safe place for everyone. I’m managing those expectations with artists and making sure that they know that their car is going to be searched and swept for bombs.
Photo Cred: Matty Vogel
Parking is a department I’m always dealing with because everyone in an artist camp wants to come and bring their own car. We don't have endless parking. I have to make sure there is signage to indicate artist parking and make sure we have enough spots allocated for buses.
The production manager of the festival and I also work hand-in-hand. We are the ones reaching out to all of the artists' contacts, and we make sure that we're on the same page and not reaching out at the same time.
I also work with the accounting department to make sure I’m staying on budget, people are getting paid, and I have the cash that I need.
Do you have any tips on how to coordinate with those different teams?
Weekly calls with the department heads are my favorite for any event. They may start as bi-weekly calls and switch to weekly calls two months before the event. They help us collaborate together, and I love to send questions in advance and have a weekly agenda.
I also like to create a system and process with all departments to share files and information. It helps me work closely with accounting and other departments on things such as the on-going budget.
When you're hiring people to join your AR team, what are you looking for?
I really like proactive people. I’m very open to people reaching out to me. I get a lot of emails on LinkedIn. When I started, no one handed information over. I learned so much but I had to make mistakes while doing so, and I try to pass that knowledge forward now.
Prior experience in artist relations is helpful, but you can have experience in anything like working at a store and having personal communication skills. I usually ask people “Why do you want to do this?”. If they are looking to be around famous people, that’s not the right reason. If they want to be backstage and help an event be successful and have fun, that’s something I’m looking for. It’s definitely fun.
How do you see events changing over the next 10 years?
Should I mention the elephant in the room and why we're all at home? In the near future, there are going to be major changes with the way events are run just because of the coronavirus. We’ll have to change how we sanitize and communicate. I'm still trying to fully digest how those changes are going to happen.
But in the next 10 years, I see a lot more integration with technologies, whether it's augmented reality, virtual reality, or different types of other software that we use.
If you could interview anyone else about their best practices, who would it be and what would you ask them?
I definitely would love to speak to whoever organizes the Olympics or a presidential debate. I can't decide between the two. A three-day festival is a huge undertaking. I cannot imagine the longevity of the Olympics. Everything including the opening ceremony is so precise to the second. It looks like they have everything perfectly put together. I would want to ask “How do you keep track of each piece of the puzzle?”
Thank you so much Sophie.
No thank you. It was a lot of fun. I think it's really important to share our experiences.
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Assembly Vault is a full service production company fabricating ideas into real life concepts. From large scale event planning, video production, tour management & budgeting, the unmatched efficiency of Assembly has allowed our clients to use Assembly as a one stop shop for any job. Our mission is providing the tools our client needs to succeed in a competitive market as well as understanding budgets, goals and vision.