The Call From Yellow Phone
This weekend’s Yellow Phone Music Conference will showcase up-and-coming bands, with advice from top pros in the industry.
As the former manager of the Milwaukee band Citizen King, Jeff Castelaz knows a lot about the challenges facing up-and-coming bands. Castelaz, now the President of Elektra Records, will be one of the guest participants in this week’s Yellow Phone Music Conference held this weekend, September 4-7, at the Hyatt Regency in Milwaukee. Unlike many such music conferences, which concentrate on bands that have already made strides in the industry, Yellow Phone focuses more on showcasing undiscovered talent. The conference will present panel discussions and mentor sessions with respected leaders in the music industry, bringing together expert professionals, musicians and fans.
Over 40 panelists are scheduled to attend. The Hyatt will serve as a venue on Friday and Saturday for panel and group discussions as well as mentoring sessions. Immediately following this will be two-hour periods reserved for networking. The lineup of music performances from new artists are scheduled throughout restaurants and businesses in the Third Ward, and can be found here.
Friday’s keynote address will be in the format of an interview with Castelaz questioning Butch Vig. As a musician Vig was the drummer in the late 70’s, early 80’s, for Madison bands Spooner and Fire Town. Vig co-founded Smart Studios in 1984 with Steve Marker before forming Garbage in 1993 with Doug Erikson and Marker. Perhaps best known for producing Nirvana’s legendary album, Nevermind, he also produced The Smashing Pumpkin’s Gish in the early nineties, Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown and Foo Fighter’s Wasting Light.
Castelaz has a wide background in music, having also served as co-founder of Dangerbird Records and Cast Management. He got his start working on the concert committee at Marquette University, serving as a DJ at WMSE, and a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine and music editor for the now defunct weekly newspaper Downtown Edition. Castelaz spoke with me recently and we began by talking about his experiences with the music scene in the early nineties in Milwaukee and Madison.
Looking back, how did these experiences open a door to your career?
All those things gave me the opportunity to . . .pour the passion that I had inside of me into a synergistic mold. I could get up everyday and do the stuff I loved which was music. Promoting it, playing it, writing about it… I eventually became a manager because of all of that activity — sort of having two or three different career paths going at the exact same time back starting in 1990 when I was eighteen years old. Without those opportunities, places to go, people to be around…people like Bruce Murphy, Jim Romenesko…. who were the sort of editorial higher echelon at Milwaukee Mag back then… and of course Michael Horne who (had introduced) me to all of them…. I wouldn’t have (had) anywhere to go. I would have been just a passionate guy. And I probably wouldn’t have learned a whole bunch of things about myself had I not had that place to go and that field to play on.
You’re coming back to your home town for an event focusing on helping young musicians. How is that meaningful for you?
It’s meaningful for me… because being in a city like Milwaukee and in a region like the Midwest that has no real media capitals in it is a barrier to entry for artists who want to get involved in the entertainment business. New York and LA happen to be very big, very mean cities and unless you have a connection or a bunch of connections…what do you do then? So the idea behind Yellow Phone is let’s bring incredible people right to Milwaukee and let’s have these incredible panels and speeches and discussions right in Milwaukee and bring bands in and show them to all these people who are coming in from Nashville, LA, New York, London, and let’s showcase the best new talent we can get. Passing it on, paying it forward, giving back, is very important to me as a human being. It is not insignificant to give back from the well that spawned me.
What do you enjoy about helping people develop their careers?
The only way to keep it is to give it away, and it’s not ours anyway — we’re just borrowing it. And what the “it” is, is life itself, the opportunities we have, the rolodex we build up, the playbook that we get to develop being in our respective fields. When I was coming up in Milwaukee there were a small crew of us who became friends who were sort of the guardians and advocates of what I would call new music but what became alternative rock. And it was very lonely; it was very tough. We all worked very hard to put Milwaukee and Wisconsin and the Midwest on the map. And I would include Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin from the Smashing Pumpkins in that, obviously Butch and the guys from Garbage and Smart Studios were on that map, The Guffs, Citizen King, Die Kreuzen, the Violent Femmes. Part of what is “making it” in the rock and roll business is getting up and getting out and going on tour around the world, being successful all around the country, being successful outside of your home town. You got to take the show on the road.
I managed Citizen King and we recorded there a lot. It was a very pivotal location for me because we recorded there a lot and we became very good friends with Garbage there….so it became a place where I learned a lot and where particularly Shirley Manson (lead singer with Garbage) was very, very supportive of me, very, very kind to me, gave me a lot of time to talk with her to learn from her experience and again, she was paying it forward, paying attention to some little dude and being really cool about it.
You are on a panel entitled, “Artist Development, Career Development and Building Your Team.” Can you talk a bit about what that means?
Artist development is a holistic thing; it really should be called “business development.” The fact of the matter is that you’re constantly developing businesses; with each band (at Elektra) you’re developing touring, publishing, records, licensing for films and television shows and commercials. Those things together are what we call artist development, so it’s about how are we moving the entire train down the track, but each train is comprised of separate cars.
Can you discuss the importance of a team?
The best teams in music are comprised of people who are passionate about the artist and their music, so there’s an organic aspect to that. It’s not one size fits all. The fact is, there are two parts to it, there is passion and there is skill. So you have to have skill in this certain sub-genre, or this certain personality traits of the artist. Some managers are actually really great at managing difficult artists, some managers can’t be bothered with it.
You are a mentor in the sense that you are president of Elektra Records and manage artists like the Dropkick Murphys. What does mentoring look like to you in your daily life?
Being available to people some people you mentor and you’re with them 10,12,14 hours a day. Some people you mentor and then they move on and work somewhere else. The relationship changes its shape and it’s more like making yourself available to that person or those people.
When I need to get a hold of one of my mentors, which I did about 2 hours ago, I just send them an email and say, “hey do you have 5 minutes to talk sometime today?” So you have to know how to be respectful of that person because you have a unique relationship with them and in almost every case, the person that is your mentor is probably more busy than you are because hopefully they have been around longer than you have.
How does the panel format enable young professionals’ integration into the field?
The panel format allows a conversation to happen on the stage, and that creates a more robust dynamic for the audience… people get into arguments, people disagree, people want to one-up one another and the beneficiary of all that is the audience.
Vig and Castelaz will appear on Friday’s 4 p.m. panel “Artist Development, Career Development and Building Your Team” and Saturday’s 11 a.m. panel “Smart Studios. Where History Was Made.” Conference badges can be purchased online here. $69 student rates, $149 general admission.