A surprising number of executives with indie pedigree are repping viral stars in a curious case of symbiosis, indie rock managers are taking on viral stars that, chances are, have never picked up a guitar. Among them: YouTube feline phenom-turned-bonafide brand Grumpy Cat, who is repped by Ben Lashes, a former A&R executive and member of alt-rock band The Lashes; Instagram sensation Marnie the Dog, who is managed by We Are Free (Beach House, Chairlift); and comedian The Fat Jew (real name: Josh Ostrovsky), whose career is handled by ex-Warner Music staffer and artist manager Alexander Ferzan with Diplo manager Kevin Kusatsu acting as advisor.
What do memes and music have in common? Both “bubbled up from the underground,” says Lashes, whose first experience with a viral star was the late Keyboard Cat. The 37-year-old got into the business innocently enough — Keyboard Cat came to him by way of a friend of his father’s — but today, his A Weird Movie management company counts the new iteration of Keyboard Cat (who boasts YouTube views in the hundreds of millions), Grumpy Cat (7 million Facebook likes) and Doge, the Shiba Inu who was named top meme of the year in 2013 by Know Your Meme.
Shirley Braha, owner of 12-year-old Shih Tzu Marnie the Dog, credits her experience with “DIY culture” as programmer of the popular, now-defunct cable-access program New York Noise and later MTV’s on-demand indie video show Weird Vibes. “It made me realize there are so many different ways to approach music and art,” she says.
Marnie’s popularity first soared after Braha, 32, began posting photos of her posing with artists like Mac DeMarco and Marnie Stern (after whom the dog is named) and later major stars including Miley Cyrus, Lena Dunham and Taylor Swift. Today, with 1.7 million followers, she is one of the most-followed dogs on Instagram.
For Ferzan, taking on The Fat Jew turned out to be easier than breaking bands — namely because there are fewer layers of approval and more scalable content. (Although that in itself can be a problem: The Fat Jew responded to recent accusations that he stole jokes by saying he never did so “intentionally.”) Plus, revenue opportunities can include appearances, product endorsements and even physical products, like their co-owned White Girl Rosé. Still, Ferzan warns, like indie bands, those brand alliances need to feel authentic. “We have full creative control,” he says, “but we still create stuff that brands are happy with.”
While none of the managers or owners would disclose financial details, Lashes told The Hollywood Reporter in 2014 that Grumpy Cat had generated $100 million in revenue since 2012.
And if all goes well, adds Lashes, “It’s like going from being a band in a dirty bar to having the masses chanting along.”
This article was originally published in the Sept. 26 issue of Billboard.