Spotlight: Bon Iver Manager Kyle Frenette on Turning From Music to Politics & Why He's Running for Congress

J. Scott Kunkel
Kyle Frenette

"You'd be incredibly surprised how similar setting up a political campaign is to an album campaign."

Over the past week, in a rare instance for the music industry, an artist manager has been making more headlines than his Grammy-winning client. Kyle Frenette, who has spent more than a decade shepherding Justin Vernon and his band Bon Iver's career as one of indie rock's most beloved acts, is running for Congress in his home state Wisconsin's 7th District and ever since announcing his candidacy his schedule has been full of interviews, appearances, phone calls and meetings.

"Let me put it this way," he says over the phone after a day of engagements in the Tomahawk, Wisconsin. "I now know how my artists feel."

Frenette's decision to run as a progressive in the predominantly Republican district aligned with his 30th birthday last November. He says he'd known he wanted to be involved in politics in some way for some time, but hadn't been sure how until he decided to just go for it and make a run to take down Republican incumbent Sean Duffy, whose up for reelection this year. Since then, Frenette has been working fully to gear up his campaign. 

"Working in the arts is a complete expression of who we are as humans, it's a complete expression of our freedoms and I've just been feeling lately more and more that those freedoms are in jeopardy," he says. "I knew I had to do something and it wasn't necessarily like a specific moment. It was just taking a look at my home district and wanting to give back even more than Justin and I have given back to the place that raised us."

While the former Billboard 30 Under 30 honoree from Chippewa Falls still has to face off against at least four fellow Democrats currently running in the Aug. 14 primary election before making it to the November general election, he already has his sights set on Duffy -- a former Real World cast member and Ashland County district attorney who has held his seat since 2011. Duffy supported Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign (the district went Trump's way by 21 points over Hillary Clinton) and has defeated his Democratic challengers in the past three elections by double digit margins. Still, Frenette is optimistic that he can appeal to common values and help unite a region that's been so divided. 

"We've had crazy presidents before, but this is nuts," he says. "Not only is 2018 at a time to hold politicians like Donald Trump and my opponent, Sean Duffy, accountable for the egregiousness of what they're doing, but to also use it as an opportunity to swing the pendulum back and elect people who are going to care about more than just the few and wealthy donors and give back and uphold the bold and progressive vision that I think my generation is moving towards."

So far, Frenette's platform is focused on issues like developing job opportunities (he said "brain drain" is a big problem in the district), establishing a universal healthcare system, providing quality, well-funded public education and protecting the environment. And he says he plans to remain focused on these matters, rather than "the divisive policies that so many people bring up." In order to reach more conservative voters, he intends to encourage conversation and create environments where that can be done. At a time when he's heard stories about farmers refusing to sell hay to one another over politics, he says finding commonality is crucial. 

"It's always been about helping your neighbor here," Frenette explains. "It's always been about coming together as a community and talking to each other and getting things done and doing that good, Midwestern work that my grandfather and my father taught me. And that's not the case as much anymore."

Currently, Frenette is on what he calls a "sabbatical" from managing Bon Iver and his other act S. Carey, while his staff at the Middle West management agency he co-founded in 2010 carries on without him. If he is elected to Congress, he says, "we'll have to figure something out," but he's just taking things incrementally for the time being. Meanwhile, his experience in the music industry is proving useful. While Frenette hasn't held political office before, he points to the business experience he has gained in building Bon Iver into a multi million-dollar business that employs 30 or more people at a given time as proof of his qualifications. As well, building up a solid list of contacts has been helpful at this early stage when public donations are crucial to running his campaign. 

"You'd be incredibly surprised how similar setting up a political campaign is to an album campaign," he says. "It's staying true to a message, it's promoting a human or a band and an aesthetic and maintaining your integrity while making yourself vulnerable and having so many people tell you what to do."

SPOTLIGHT:

Profits are being put before people. Maybe this has all been a longtime coming. I only have so many years on me. But man, what's happening now has been nothing short of a wake up call for all of us. Who are we? Where are we headed? Change hurts, I guess. But I have hope. I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't. I believe our nation's best days are yet to come. Just look at these amazing kids in Florida and all that they've done in the midst of tragedy. They have in fact called B.S.!

I've learned more about money in politics than I ever wanted to. Campaign Finance Reform is so desperately needed to save our democracy. I'm going to play the game now in order to get in there and help change this flawed system for the better, but damn! I now spend most of my days on the phone asking people for money in order to keep this campaign going. I guess I just never believed it was truly this bad -- even our elected representatives are having to dial for dollars and likely as much as or more than they spend their time governing. It's been eye-opening, to say the least.

Something I never thought I'd do is leave music for politics, but here I am, and I can already tell I made the right choice. We're only just getting started and this campaign has already been so challenging, exiting, rewarding, fun, demoralizing, uplifting, you name it. Right now at least, in this uncharted territory of our history as a nation, I couldn't think of anything better I could be doing.

It's good to have a solid network of people around you who have your back no matter what, who know you for you and can call you out on your B.S. regardless of what it is you're doing -- be it working in music, running for office or trying to break the record for most Pop-Tarts eaten in one siting. I've always had a solid network behind me and it's because of those people I've been able to challenge myself as much as I have in my life -- to strive and go above and beyond. 

Spotlight is a new Billboard.biz series that aims to highlight those in the music business making innovative or creative moves, or who are succeeding in behind-the-scenes or under-the-radar roles. For submissions for the series, please contact spotlight@billboard.com.

 

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