Friends At Work & This Fiction Announce 'Friends of Friends' Strategic Management Alliance: Exclusive

Seth Kallen and Ty Stiklorius
 Lauren Kallen

Seth Kallen and Ty Stiklorius

Artist management company Friends At Work has announced its new artist services program Friends of Friends, tapping boutique management firm This Fiction as its first strategic partner.

Under Friends of Friends, independent managers and management firms can tap into Friends At Work’s resources in tour planning and support, in-house creative production, philanthropic strategy and social/digital content development.

Friends At Work was founded in 2015 by former Atom Factory co-president Ty Stiklorius, with the mission of elevating the voices of culturally-transformative, socially-impactful artists and initiatives. Current artists on its roster include John Legend, Lindsey Stirling, Madame Gandhi and FLETCHER; the firm also oversees Legend’s FREEAMERICA and Show Me campaigns around criminal justice reform and has organized service-centric programs with the likes of Native Americans in Philanthropy.

Founded in 2014 by Seth Kallen, This Fiction counts bands like X Ambassadors, Great Good Fine Ok and Jukebox the Ghost among its artist clients. Like Friends at Work, This Fiction has actively pursued socially impactful projects: last month, the latter organized its first-ever music festival, Cayuga Sound, in Ithaca, New York and donated $50,000 in proceeds to 10 local nonprofits.

Stiklorius and Kallen -- both alumni of the community-centric Quaker Friends education system -- had already been collaborating for several months before deciding to formalize and publicize their joint venture. The two managers opened up to Billboard in an exclusive interview about their plans for implementing and expanding the Friends of Friends model, their passion for social impact work and their demands for more innovation and flexibility in the wider artist-management sector. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Billboard: There’s a wider trend in the industry now of record labels moving towards a customizable services model that’s friendlier and more flexible for artists. Do you see Friends of Friends as part of that trend?

Seth Kallen: I actually think of it as the exact opposite of any trend, at least in the management space. The most common trajectory for management companies like ours is either to join bigger companies, or to hyper-service our own clients without tapping into other resources and networks. There’s not one bone in my body saying, “I don’t want anyone else to be talking with X Ambassadors.” We want great managers like those with Friends at Work to get more involved with our roster and to explore opportunities for cross-pollination with their own artists.

Ty Stiklorius: It’s all about figuring out a fairer, more modern way to collaborate with other great managers, without anyone trying to completely subsume someone else’s brand. This is something I’ve had to wrestle with for a long time: when I left my job at Atom Factory to start my own company, managers would constantly tell me that I would never make it on my own and would have to let a bigger company like Maverick buy me out. Now that I’ve built up a more scalable infrastructure myself, I want to share my resources with other great teams, without simply taking over companies that people have spent many years building.

What sorts of resources can Friends at Work and This Fiction provide for each other?

Kallen: Our team at This Fiction is very small and nimble, but as artists start touring globally and having top 10 songs on the radio, there’s a question of whether you need to hire additional full-time staff. As I got to know Ty and the whole Friends at Work group better, it suddenly dawned on me that all these great people were already there, and there were all these ways we could collaborate -- whether working with Ty’s digital/social capabilities, or with creative directors on a new music video -- while still maintaining autonomy over our own brands and teams.

Stiklorius: Seth and his team have prolific experience managing bands, whereas Friends at Work manages a lot of solo artists. We’re also interested in the festival space and initiatives like Seth’s Cayuga Sound -- our entire company was actually on the ground at the festival, talking through multiple days around how we were going to be innovative and creative long-term at this intersection of music and social impact. A lot of Seth’s artists are also involved in their own social-impact projects, like X Ambassadors with the ACLU, and we want to be able to leverage our existing resources to help them in a positive way. We’re even exploring signing new talent together as a team under the Friends of Friends umbrella.

Regarding your mutual passion for social impact, how does that trickle down into your management practice?

Stiklorius: You can’t live a life of integrity if you’re not walking the walk and embracing transparency and fairness within your own business practices. I’m inspired by initiatives like the Rise Fund that think about business metrics beyond just profits and revenue. How many lives does your business save? What’s your impact on the environment? I think music companies should be thinking more about their own ethics, how they treat partners and what their business deals should look like in order to encourage the right incentives.

Of course, we're successful with traditional, more commercial metrics as well. But when you start with good habits and you don't delay your altruism, it sets you on a good path and gives you a deeper meaning than just needing to get another pop hit on the radio. It’s all about having these different pieces of the puzzle together to allow an artistic vision to thrive.

Kallen: With donating all the profits from Cayuga Sound, we were thinking about how we could use our growing platform to promote goodwill for the communities around us -- be that the local community in Ithaca or the music community in general. It’s rare for people in the industry to think like that, especially because that sort of currency won’t come back to you in cash right away. I tell everyone I work with that putting good energy out into the world and doing the right thing from the start always comes back to you in ripples.

What do you think are the most significant changes in business models for artists and management companies over the last decade?

Stiklorius: Right after I got my MBA, I went the traditional consulting route and joined the Media & Entertainment department at L.E.K. Irving Azoff and his management company had hired us to figure out how he could consolidate all the management companies in the music business under one roof, and even tack on a ticketing company for good measure. Now that I’ve been in this business for over a decade, I’ve seen managers go through difficult transitions amidst that sort of consolidation. Kudos to Irving for doing that, but we don’t have any intentions to mimic that model -- I don’t think it serves art and artists in the best way possible, nor does it properly serve the managers who serve those artists. With Friends at Work, we take a more thoughtful approach where we care about the health and wellness of the artist and the teams around them in addition to financial viability.

On the artist level, I think it’s significant that several of our artists at Friends at Work don't have label deals. Lindsey Stirling has been with us for almost five years and she's hit No. 1 on the Billboard dance charts and sells more albums than many of our signed artists, simply by distributing her music independently on TuneCore. It’s amazing to see that growth and success without any middleman clouding her own artistic vision.

Kallen: It's really the wild west in the industry right now. You're seeing major-label releases with millions of dollars of marketing support sitting at the No. 10 spot on the Spotify viral charts behind kids producing music in their bedroom. Artists now have the freedom to bounce across different genres and collaborate with other artists on a feature just three weeks after their big album release, because they’re friends and that’s okay. That same sort of flexibility should apply to how managers and labels change their business.

It’s both a positive and negative thing that the power is increasingly in the hands of listeners and fans. The industry has shifted a little too much at times towards looking at the data before just feeling emotions from a piece of music -- like freaking out when first-week Spotify skip rates are higher than X, or the ratio of iTunes downloads to radio spins is lower than X. Sometimes that data-crunching can be detrimental towards just realizing that you have an amazing artist who has a great message and a great song.

Are you open to working with other management companies under the Friends of Friends umbrella in the future?

Kallen: Yes, we’re definitely open to it. But picking future partners isn’t just going to be about looking for managers that make X amount of money a year. We’re not interested in cookie-cutter deals where we ask partners we barely know to sign on the dotted line. Culturally, it’s important that everyone trusts each other and has a similar attitude to the way business should be done in this industry.

Stiklorius: Treading carefully is really important. I’ve watched companies get too big too fast and try to take on everything at once, which is usually a recipe for disaster. We're going to be very discerning and careful with our future relationships, which take time to build and grow. We weren’t even sure about whether we wanted to announce this partnership at all. Growth will be slow and steady, as each partnership really has to be the right fit.


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