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Emily White Is Here To Help You Build A Sustainable Music Career

July 7, 2021

Emily White's career in entertainment spans continents and concentrations. A modern maven, White's experience and expertise as a manager, educator, and consultant has most recently led her to author How To Build A Sustainable Music Career & Collect All Revenue Streams, a No. 1 Amazon Best Selling book and podcast. 

Paranoia Makes Progress

The day she graduated college, instead of walking the stage, White embarked on a three-continent trek as tour manager for The Dresden Dolls (who were on tour with Nine Inch nails, beginning at Coachella). 

White first encountered the band while going to Northeastern University in Boston. After seeing a Dresden Dolls performance at her school, White introduced herself to frontwoman Amanda Palmer. The pair struck up a friendship and professional relationship, with White soon becoming a core member of the band's team. Palmer has since become known as a groundbreaking flag-bearer of the modern independent artist movement.

"I don't think we realized we were doing anything groundbreaking, and I think oftentimes, people don't," Emily White tells RootNote. "They're just creating something new. To me, it was just doing things that made sense, but to Amanda, it was survival."

When The Dresden Dolls first emerged as an art punk cabaret group in Boston in 2000, they weren't able to book any "normal" venues for shows. So they played art spaces and lofts, slowly building a following that Palmer tracked by building her own email list (at a time when email list software and even the idea of a "list" itself was in its infancy). 

"This is something that I say to her face, but that came out of paranoia for Amanda," White says. "Even though it was super brilliant. There weren't conferences and articles talking about direct-to-fan marketing for artists or anything. She was just like, 'Well what if you go away? What if my lawyer goes away? What if my booking agent goes away? This is all I have to communicate with my audience and share our music and shows.'"

It was that mentality — coupled with being self-described nerds with a knack for Internet culture — that helped Palmer, White and company ultimately build the foundation for the modern "indie" musician. The kind of artist that cares about their fan data, thinks about content ownership, speaks directly to their fans, and looks for ways to build a team around themselves — as opposed to the more "old school" method of hoping to score a ticket on a major label ride.

Building A Sustainable Music Career

Fast forward nearly 15 years, and White has established herself as a thought leader in the industry for independents and beyond. She is an adjunct instructor at NYU's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music and recently released her second book and accompanying podcast, How To Build A Sustainable Music Career and Collect All Revenue Streams

"It's so interesting, because I always thought I could empathize with artists because of my tour managing background," White says. "But now I feel like I can really, really empathize. With this second book, I really had an inherent need to share this information with the world." 

The book is a masterclass in everything artists and their teams need to do in order to set themselves up for independent success — and not miss any of the money that's owed to them along the way. White's ongoing podcast of the same name is meant to bring each chapter of the book to life while also expanding on them with insights from some of the industry's most thoughtful musicians and professionals.

To date, White's podcast guests have included people like Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Imogen Heap, Zoë Keating, Patrick Sansone (Wilco, The Autumn Defense), Molly Neumann (President of SongTrust), Akin Aliu (CAA), and many more. 

"The guests have been really organic," White says. "I've been really lucky." 

Case in point — Justin Vernon's episode originated from White asking her NYU students who their dream guest speaker was. When "somebody from Bon Iver or their management" topped the list, White figured she'd just go straight to the source. "Justin was doing a few shows in Brooklyn, so we took a field trip to Kings Theater and set up in the afternoon; he was really generous with his time," White says. "The recording was just a crappy voice memo for my own feedback, and when I listened to it I realized it brings chapter one to life. So I went back to their management and asked permission to use it, and then that episode completely blew up. But it all comes back to what I preach, which is authenticity."

White says she gets pitched guests for the podcast but only wants to bring people in if they really fit. She also plans to have a definitive end to the podcast (in September), unlike her first foray into the medium, a podcast that accompanied her first book, 2017's Interning 101

"This is a set series, a set vision," she says. "Which I think is part of the reason this one, like anything, is more successful than when I first did it."

Manager, Manage Thyself

White and her Collective Entertainment co-founder Melissa Garcia currently work with a handful of artists, athletes, writers, entertainers, and activists. And under her previous company Whitesmith Entertainment (co-founded with Keri Smith), White worked with musicians and comedians such as Brendan Benson of The Raconteurs, Margaret Cho, The Hush Sound, Amanda Palmer, Eric Burdon, Family of the Year, Hockey, The Autumn Defense, Fox Stevenson and W. Kamau Bell.

In other words, she knows exactly what needs to happen, from A to Z, to launch a successful creative project. And yet it never fails: the minute you become the creator, you learn something new — and if you've been paying any attention over the past 15 years, you'd know to never get comfortable with only last year's knowledge. 

"There's a ton of stuff I've learned, which I try to share through the podcast," White says. "And then there are some just practical things where I need to take my own advice." 

But through instinct, White has also just naturally found herself doing things with the book and podcast that she recommends any other creator do, too. "Really extend the length of your release," White says. "I've been monetizing this book for three years, but I didn't necessarily plan that. I launched a pre-order when I was halfway done with it and was able to recoup the costs before it even came out. I would love to see artists doing similar things. Instead of just holing up in a studio and then being like, 'Ok, here is my masterpiece,' you can be engaging and monetizing along the way."

#iVoted

In 2016, the United States presidential election was decided by about 22,000 people in Emily White's home state of Wisconsin. In nearby Michigan, it was under 11,000. And across the entire country, voter turnout was down. 

"I was like, '22,000? That's our basketball arena in Milwaukee,'" White says. "So I thought, 'Why don't we put together some sort of sick concert and tie in voting?'"

With only herself and an intern, White created the first ever #iVoted activation during the 2018 United States midterm elections. "We activated over 150 venues throughout 37 states to let fans in on election night if they showed a selfie from outside their polling place," White says. "We got a lot of great press — it was an idea that just kind of caught fire."

Thanks in no small part to her years of tour managing experience, White knew the right promoters and people to reach out to in order to make 2018 a success. The team was preparing for 2020 — including having holds on arenas in major swing states — right when everything came to a screaming halt. 

"So we pivoted to produce the largest digital webcast in history," White says. Fans digitally RSVPd by taking a picture of themselves outside their polling place or with an unmarked mail-in ballot. The #iVoted team also turned to data to make 2020 an even greater success. 

"Instead of just booking people we hoped voters would like, we reached out to the top-streaming artists in swing states," White says. The result? Over 450 artists from Billie Eilish to Trey Anastasio to Living Colour joined the cause. 

"We're already gearing up for 2022," White says. "I want to return to venues but also hopefully webcast as many as those venues as possible so we'll have an even wider reach. We're hoping to build literally the world's largest festival." 

Big Pictures and Small Nuances

So what is it that makes White able to not only conceive of so many grand visions — from entertainment management to authoring to combating voter apathy — but also pull them off? Ambition and experience.

Oh, and the Internet. "We have all this access to information now," White says. But information without context can be hard to decipher, and ambition without experience can lead to a lot of mistakes. She notes how cc'ing her touring mentor when reaching out to promoters helped her get #iVoted off the ground. 

"I never thought that my background as a tour manager could help drive voter turnout, but I knew how to speak the language of promoters," White says. "I knew a lot of promoters. My mentor is very beloved in that field. I copied him on emails and added him as a co-founder and he was like, 'You know I didn’t rally do anything,' and I was like, 'Dude some of these guys have been your drinking buddy for 25 years — I know exactly what I’m doing by attaching your name and copying you.' Big pictures and small nuances."

And that's what White teaches, not only in her books, or to her students at NYU, but to artists and managers at all stages of their careers. 

Key Takeaways

So what kind of big pictures and small nuances can you expect to learn when you dive in to what Emily White has to offer? "The number one thing [artists] need to learn is the literal power of data and connecting with your fans directly," she says. "Email addresses, phone numbers — so many artists are so obsessed with Spotify numbers and promo, but I want to hear about artists who know how to communicate with their fans." 

"I also see way too many artists and songwriters who aren't collecting on their publishing," White says. "They think that if they're set up with their PRO as a writer, then that's it and they're all set. But they're missing out on money." 

And what about for artists who aren't sure what they can do by themselves and what they need help with? "Read the book," White laughs. "But seriously. The parts you keep pushing off? Those are the areas you need help in. Some people think they need an entire team, and others are probably doing too much. I think there's a difference between needing help and wanting help, and I know because I navigated those areas myself. I think you should do it yourself so you can understand it, and then that will make you a better boss."

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