“How do you stop being a rock star?”
Saporta, 39, is sitting over a half-eaten salad at a swanky, dimly-lit hotel-restaurant in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. He’s in town from Los Angeles, where he lives and runs The Artist Group, a music management company he co-founded in 2015. Once known for his purple hoodies and skin-tight, neon-yellow denim, his lanky, 6’4” frame now favors crewnecks and neutral colors.
He’s quick-witted and passionate, as our dinnertime conversation jumps from the ‘90s hardcore shows he used to attend to his thoughts on modern trends in publishing deals and songwriting credits. A lot of Gen X industry types would resemble a certain Steve Buscemi meme if they spoke at length about the cultural significance of Brockhampton, but Saporta’s winding path through the industry gives him a certain sincerity that shines through. “I want to be known as a person an artist can speak to without feeling they’re being bullshitted by an industry person,” he says. “But also as someone who will go out there and fuck shit up.”
After Cobra Starship put out what would become its final album, 2011’s Night Shades, Saporta struggled with what to do next. The band left on a high note: “You Make Me Feel…” peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100, tying 2009’s “Good Girls Go Bad” as Cobra’s biggest hit. There were three years of lucrative international touring, including those Bieber dates. But when he took some time off in 2013 to get married, he started to question the traditional recording-artist career path. “I’m 32 years old — am I really gonna get back on this horse?” he recalls thinking.
So Atlantic Records sent him to a writing camp with producer Thomas Troelsen in Copenhagen, where, in summer 2015, Saporta says he wrote some of the best songs of his life. Later that summer, however, he received two life-changing phone calls: Atlantic Records general manager David Saslow, a longtime friend, had suffered a stroke. And Saporta’s wife, the designer Erin Fetherston, found out she was pregnant with their first child.
“Right then and there,” Saporta remembers, “I had this thought cloud: I’m done.”
Saporta was born in 1979 in Montevideo, Uruguay, to Jewish parents, Jeanette and Diego. Diego’s father had settled in Uruguay after his father — Diego’s grandfather — died in the mountains of Yugoslavia while fleeing Nazis during World War II. Saporta spent the first four years of his life in Uruguay until, he says, a dictatorship came to power that made it difficult for his father, a physician, to practice medicine, so the family relocated to the U.S. Because Diego had to attend medical school all over again, the family also had to start from scratch.
Saporta, his parents, and his two-year old brother settled in a one-bedroom apartment in Flushing, Queens, where a curtain divided the parents’ and kids’ sleeping quarters. They lived as unauthorized immigrants on expired tourist visas for four years before they all gained permanent resident status. “I’m an immigrant of an immigrant of an immigrant,” Saporta says. “Better have your oh-shit-box with your gold and silver, ready to get the fuck out. Better make sure no one tries to fuck with you, because everyone tries to fuck with you.”
Saporta was 12 when his father finished med school and the family moved to the affluent suburb of Springfield, N.J. This was when he first got serious about music — hip-hop and rock at first, though his focus drifted to the latter around 1993, when he saw Nirvana on their In Utero tour. He frequently bussed to the city for punk and hardcore shows and eventually joined his first band, a scrappy pop-punk outfit called Humble Beginnings. Shortly after, he began to play and organize shows in New Jersey. “It was nuts — hundreds of kids would come out to all these shows at New Jersey at legion halls,” remembers Ben Jorgensen, former frontman of Jersey emo mainstays Armor For Sleep. “[Saporta] was my idol at that age.”
It wasn’t until Saporta co-founded his next band, Midtown, in 1998, that kids outside of Jersey started to feel that way, too. Heavily influenced by its Garden State neighbors Lifetime and Saves the Day, the Saporta-fronted pop-punk quartet built up enough of a following to attract the attention of up-and-coming indie Drive-Thru Records which put out its debut LP in 2000. Saporta also introduced the label to Florida quintet New Found Glory, whose put out an album that same year — one that vastly outperformed Midtown’s, eventually going gold.
Instead of regrouping for a second album, Saporta did something surprising: He took another band under his wing and started managing Armor For Sleep when he was just 21 years-old. Saporta felt Midtown’s contract ceded an unreasonable profit percentage to Drive-Thru, and he was eager to learn the business and help other bands avoid what he felt were his own mistakes. “In school, I’d never get into fights myself,” he says. “I’d get into fights when people picked on other people. I looked at Ben like my little brother. I didn’t want him to get screwed and I fought for him.”
For Armor for Sleep, they got a manager who could speak their language. “As a musician himself, he understood what made our songs special in ways our future managers didn’t even understand,” Jorgensen remembers.
Saporta immediately made a difference. When the producer Armor had enlisted for its debut album, 2003’s Dream to Make Believe, went AWOL, Saporta connected the group to a guy named Ariel Rechtshaid, who at the time had few production credits outside the ska band he fronted but would go on to produce for Vampire Weekend, U2, Beyoncé, Madonna and others. New Found Glory’s success also triggered a pop-punk gold rush, during which established labels dangled rock-star dreams in front of young artists but offered them contracts that didn’t always have their best interests at heart. “They wanted to own their publishing, all their merchandising rights,” Jorgensen remembers. “Many of the scene’s torchbearers signed terrible deals.” Thanks to Saporta’s guidance, however, Armor For Sleep has always owned the masters to its debut album.
“There were always multiple plans, and multiple levels to [Gabe’s] plans,” remembers Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz, who became close friends with Saporta around this time. “I remember sitting in my house, and this guy is looking at spreadsheets of wind farms in Uruguay [as potential investments]. Like, who actually reads this stuff? But it was always done sincerely — I’m sure the wind farms were subsidizing rural farmers or something. It all makes sense when you meet Diego.”
In 2005, after Midtown’s breakup, Saporta founded Cobra Starship. “Gabe evolved from being this pop-punk guy from New Jersey,” Wentz remembers. “When we’d go out to a club, he’d be like, ‘We’re going dancing.’ It made sense for him to start Cobra Starship because it was more authentic to him at the time.”
The new band caught the zeitgeist in a way Midtown never did. “Snakes On a Plane (Bring it),” their debut single, soundtracked the patently absurd 2006 Samuel Jackson flick and introduced Cobra Starship as glammed-up party rockers rumored to have formed out of a peyote trip in the Arizona desert, or at least be good friends with Fall Out Boy. The latter was defiitely true; a partnership with Wentz’s thriving Atlantic imprint Decaydance (which Saporta calls his first artist-friendly deal) and the oversight of Crush Management (which facilitated the Snakes synch) made Cobra a Warped scene sensation, and later propelled those two Hot 100 top 10s.
But Saporta admits that when he was most successful, he was also at his least happy. “Writing music and dealing with your demons, going on tour and sharing with fans — that takes an emotional toll on you,” he says. “You can be on top of the world, on top of the charts, and just be fucking miserable.” Saporta permanently damaged his voice by delaying surgery on a cyst on his vocal cords for a 2010 co-headline tour he couldn’t cancel. Rigors of the road led to the departures of two original Cobra Starship members. On that 2011 Justin Bieber tour, in between Brazil and Argentina, Saporta turned 32. Bieber was 17.
“What else am I going to do?” he remembers wondering. “I took a swing at pop. I experienced it to its fullest.”
Don’t you miss the adrenaline rush of performing?
“People ask me all the time, and I can honestly say, not at all.”
In 2015, Saporta launched TAG alongside Mike Carden, a longtime friend who’d spent eight years with Cobra Starship labelmates The Academy Is… When Cobra split, Saporta had several industry job offers on the table immediately, but remained focused on building something of his own. With exactly zero artists on TAG’s roster, they set up a spacious office-studio headquarters in Hollywood and laid out the company’s guiding principles.
“People were like, ‘Are you still going to the studio and playing shows?’” Saporta says. “I drew a hard line in the sand: ‘I’m not doing anything on the artist side. I want to be taken seriously as a manager.’” He insists Cobra Starship won’t reform anytime soon, and while he’s open to lending his artists songwriting and production insight, he generally avoids formal co-writes. He’s not “the manager out pounding drinks down at the bar,” he says, but he’s already had “a good cry” with most of his artists.
TAG’s roster hovers around 10 artists and covers a diversity of sounds and styles: dance-pop newcomer Naomi Wild, garage-rock party starters Palm Springsteen, former Skrillex protegé Mark Johns. The most promising of the bunch is Tessa Violet. The witty, yellow-haired indie-pop artist first gained a substantial fanbase as a teenaged vlogger in the late ‘00s before shifting focus to music about three years ago. “It was just me writing songs; I had no contacts in the industry,” she remembers. A fellow YouTuber put her in touch with former Atlantic A&R exec Mary Gormley, who tipped her off to Saporta. Violet had no idea who Midtown were and was only vaguely aware of Cobra Starship. “Gabe wasn’t this manager with a huge, proven track record,” she says. “I felt like he’d work harder.”
Violet’s first release alongside the Artist Group was “Crush,” a bubbly pop gem that arrived last summer with a delightfully goofy music video. Shot in an ordinary supermarket and filled with DIY visual gags, Violet’s vlogger charm shines through. “I take people who want to be stars and say, ‘Okay, this is how we can do it without selling your soul,’” Saporta says. The “Crush” video has been viewed over 30 million times on YouTube, but no one’s rushing anything. Violet’s debut album is already done (and quite good), but like many artists rethinking the traditional album rollout in the streaming age, she and TAG plan to release it in bite-size bits instead of immediately dropping a full-length.
Saporta would rather play the long game, even if it means turning down easy money-makers if the fit isn’t right. He moved on from another, more famous YouTuber he’d prefer not to name (“one of the biggest kids from that world”) after three months of collaboration didn’t pan out. Before the rap group Brockhampton became a Billboard 200-topping cultural force, Saporta spent a good deal of time with core member Matt Champion, when the rapper-singer was focused on his solo material. At one point during a Skype tour of TAG’s headquarters, Saporta gestures over his shoulder to the office wall: “Matt was here a lot when we were building the studio — he helped us get this TV in.” Later, he shows me one room, adjacent to the studios and outfitted with a bed, where one artist used to live.
Saporta’s vision for TAG includes what he sees as a resurgent middle class of artists — artists who have something to say and can cultivate a loyal fanbase, even if it means they’re touring theaters, not arenas. In other words: Cobra Starships are great, but so are Midtowns and Armor For Sleeps. In the mid-to-late-2000s, between the end Napster and the onset of streaming, Saporta says he watched a small pool of superstar songwriters dominate at the expense of smaller bands. “My theory is all the smart kids who were great songwriters said, ‘There’s not a way I can make money being in a band, but I can move to L.A. and be in the songwriting and production world,’” he explains. “They started jamming songs onto records. Then it became, ‘If you want a hit song, you gotta go to this person.’ Labels bought in, and artists couldn’t get by on their own songs anymore.”
But with new tools like Spotify’s nascent direct upload service for indie artists, Saporta sees opportunities for musicians like the ones on his roster to make a comfortable living off their work without traditional hits or major label push. And unlike Spotify, Saporta openly admits he’d love to eventually turn TAG into a record label. “I think I’m informally a label already, considering everything we deal with: the DSP, distribution, artwork, release schedules, marketing plans, A&R,” he says.
Still, any fledgling management company faces an uphill battle. “Everybody is a DJ these days; everybody is a bedroom producer,” Wentz says. “As a person who runs a label, finding artists that cut through all the white noise is super hard. Labels and managers will sign artists way too early, development deals are way too expensive, and everybody is so panicked.”
That uncertainty is at the core of why Saporta broke the mold in the first place. “There’s a stigma in this business that artists don’t know shit,” he says, leaning over his salad. “That the real smart people are on the business side, not the artists.” Just a glance at those ridiculous contracts disproves this outright. This is where Saporta’s outsider path is so crucial. “I didn’t become an artist just to make money,” he says. “Artists want to do what they love full-time, so they don’t have to work other jobs. Their goal isn’t just to be rich — they also want to be happy.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story featured a quote saying David Saslow had suffered a heart attack in 2015, which is incorrect. Saslow suffered a stroke in 2015 (and is now fully recovered). We regret the error.