MBW’s Manager Of The Month celebrates some of the artist managers doing great things in the global business. This month, we’re delighted to sit down with Chris Woltman – founder of Element 1 and the manager of the hottest rock band of 2016, Twenty One Pilots. Manager Of The Month is supported by INgrooves Music Group.
In a post-EDM era where ‘rhythmic pop’ dominates global streaming playlists, Twenty One Pilots remind us that you can never discount the power of a band sweeping in from outside mainstream culture.
The duo – Josh Dun and Tyler Joseph – are officially the fourth most-streamed artist on Spotify worldwide this year (ahead of Kanye West) and also have the platform’s fourth most streamed album.
That LP, BlurryFace, recently spawned five Grammy nominations, while selling over 1m in the US and more than 200,000 in the UK so far.
To many, it seems Twenty One Pilots have come from nowhere – repeatedly earning them the tag of 2016’s ‘hottest new rock band’.
Yet, in truth, TOP’s breakthrough success has been seven long years in the making.
It’s been a journey marked by self-determination, relentless touring and a brave refusal to rush to radio.
And for the past half-decade, manager Chris Woltman has been there every step of the way.
During their early career, Twenty One Pilots issued two self-released albums – 2009’s eponymous LP and 2011’s Regional At Best.
Across these records, the band established an intimate online relationship with their fanbase, swelling a cultish devotion which quickly saw their live shows become the talk of hometown Columbus, Ohio.
In 2012, TOP signed with Atlantic imprint Fueled by Ramen before issuing their major label debut with 2013’s Vessel. It hit No.21 on the Billboard 200, eventually going Platinum in the US.
Despite the power of a major record company behind them, Woltman and the band stuck with a steadfast strategy – ignoring any temptation to push themselves at US Top 40 radio, while continuing to serve moreish content to their mutating online fanbase.
“the most significant way of discovery is when a band delivers such a powerful live experience that people come back next time and bring their friends.”
“We knew early on that the power of discovery was something that we were fortunate to have – and that true discovery cannot be found in three minutes and 30 seconds of a song on radio,” Woltman reasons.
“Discovery could be in an image on Instagram that makes a potential fan ask ‘what’s that all about?’, a video on YouTube or a friend sharing a band that they just discovered – [things] that were not what the industry has traditionally viewed as being the key to success.
“The most significant way of discovery is when a band delivers such a powerful live experience that people come back next time and bring their friends. It’s been the anchor to the greatest rock bands in the world.”
Twenty One Pilots’ pop radio-averse strategy continued with the first three singles from Blurryface, released in May last year.
Explains Woltman: “We knew the [Blurryface] songs could end up on radio but we had the power of discovery so much on our side that we couldn’t not give it time.
“The Discovery process requires much more discipline and patience than running a single to radio and finding out in five or six weeks whether or not you’re going to be around for another week after that.”
“That process requires much more discipline and patience than just running a single to radio and then finding out in five or six weeks whether or not you’re going to stay around.”
The band and their team – including Woltman and creative director Mark Eshleman – finally agreed to Atlantic pushing them at Top 40 US radio with the release of Stressed Out, the fourth single from Blurryface, in October 2015.
The track charted at No.2 on the Billboard Hot 100, as the album hit No.1 in the US and No.5 in the UK.
Over Twenty One Pilots’ last two album cycles, the band have played seven tours and 550 shows to date, including two sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden in August.
Their current Emotional Road Show Tour is expected to shift over one million tickets by the time it ends in April 2017 – proof of a truly global, and devoted, audience.
In an age when labels are struggling to break acts in the wide-spanning realm of ‘rock’, TOP are on the verge of entering orbit.
“A breakthrough artist is a much more complex idea than a breakthrough song. Long term artistic careers have never been defined by the immediacy of radio singles.”
chris woltman, element 1
“A breakthrough artist requires a few things; patience, a belief in discovery, and a commitment to being out on the road live,” says Woltman.
“If you lose sight of those principles at the expense of singles being the driving force – on the radio or in the streaming world – then you lose the opportunity to have a breakthrough artist.
“You may have a breakthrough song, but a breakthrough artist is a much more complex idea. Long-term artistic careers have never been defined by the immediacy of radio singles.”
Woltman learned the benefits of patiently touring bands during his major label years, working with acts like Alice in Chains, The Offspring, System of a Down, Train and Maroon 5.
The California-based exec started working in the music business 25 years ago as an assistant for Promowest Concerts, before stints at Sony and SPK Records.
He then started running up the radio promotion track at Columbia, before joining Clive Davis’ J Records in 2000 and, eventually, becoming SVP Rock Music of the RCA Group.
Inspired by the opportunity he saw in digitized globalisation, Woltman left Sony in 2004 to set up his own label.
Element 1 sold more than a million records independently, before Woltman decided to focus solely on management in 2011.
He found Twenty One Pilots via an introductory email sent from the duo’s family friend and financial adviser, Brad Gibson (still their Business Manager today).
“Shortly after that, things really started to click,” says Woltman. “There was a magical show in Ohio at the Newport Music Hall where 1,700 kids showed up. It was filmed, and resulted in significant label interest.”
Fueled by Ramen was chosen because of the label’s commitment to propel the band’s live experience to a bigger platform – whilst allowing time for both artist and marketplace development.
As TOP songwriter and frontman Tyler Joseph told MBW last year: “As a band, we keep everything in-house, to keep it as authentic and real as possible. And with everyone at Fueled By Ramen, we don’t have to fight or set up barriers.
“We’ve earned each other’s trust, and it’s a real collaboration… we’re together in an inner sanctuary of creation – in a sacred space.”
Says Woltman: “What was happening on a local level was so powerful that we wanted to be very careful about finding a label partner that could remain true to the artistic vision.
“in the world we live in today, consumers move quickly, streaming is more singles oriented than it is body of work oriented. But the flip side is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Great songs and a great live experience has always defined what makes a band successful.”
CHRIS WOLTMAN, ELEMENT 1
“We also wanted to make sure that we had the ability to build a global strategy.
“None of that is a fast thing, especially if you want to be a sustainable rock band whose business is built off touring.”
He adds: “In the world we live in today, consumers move quickly, streaming is more singles oriented than it is body of work oriented, and all of those things make it very challenging.
“But the flip side is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Great songs and a great live experience has always defined what makes a band successful.
“You have to make long term decisions – even if that may involve significant short term risks.”
Woltman’s team at Element 1 works directly on tour marketing and product management – but the exec says he doesn’t have grand ambitions to grow his roster beyond a handful of acts.
“Where I am most satisfied is being part of the team that allows an artist to live out their dreams, whatever that looks like,” he says.
“If that success ultimately comes with not having a big roster, which is what I have always naturally leaned towards, that’s fine with me.
“Doing all the day to day work of an act like Twenty One Pilots is a significantly time-consuming reality. I have to make sure every decision made leads to a point which supports their vision. For me, that’s how management should be.”
“Where I am most satisfied is being part of the team that allows an artist to live out their dreams, whatever that looks like.”
CHRIS WOLTMAN, ELEMENT 1
Any closing words of wisdom for young artist managers out there?
“Stay true to what your vision is in the partnership with the artist you work with, even when forces within your business are pushing you to do other things,” says Woltman.
“It’s very difficult to practice patience in a world where a tweet can go out to millions and millions of people in a nanosecond – but it’s important.”
MBW’s Manager Of The Month is supported by INgrooves Music Group, a leading independent provider of distribution, marketing and rights management tools and services to content creators and owners around the world. With experienced & knowledgeable people, unparalleled commitment to customer service and thoughtful marketing solutions, INgrooves aspires to be the most transparent and solution-driven partner for labels and artists. Visit INgrooves.com for more details. Music Business Worldwide