How an enlightened attitude and a new business model helps bring major and developing artists’ music to market.
David Macias is probably not a name that rings many bells with music fans, but if you have enjoyed the recent work of Jason Isbell, Lucinda Williams, Steve Winwood, Rodney Crowell, Bruce Hornsby, Charley Crockett, Greensky Bluegrass, Alanis Morrissette, Darlingside, Parachute, Patty Griffin, Asleep At The Wheel, Delbert McClinton and Liverpool’s own Robert Vincent, to name only a few, you have enjoyed the benefits these artists have gained from working with artist services company and quasi-label, Thirty Tigers. The company was founded twenty years ago by David Macias and Deb Markland and has been steadily building its roster and services ever since until they have reached the point of being able to attract artists of the calibre of Jason Isbell and Lucinda Williams. The Thirty Tigers business model is refreshingly different, they provide a range of services to their artist clients who retain ownership of the final product. Additionally, the model requires Thirty Tigers to make a profit margin closure to that of the very competitive grocery retail sector’s 10% than that of more traditional labels. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson met up with David Macias in his Nashville base over Zoom to get the lowdown on the Thirty Tigers approach, to find out what drives the company to deliver high-quality recordings by respected artists, many of whom are on record as saying their careers have reinvigorated by the Thirty Tiger financial model or that it has enabled new artists to really start developing a career. The work of Thirty Tigers is not restricted to American artists, and David Macias describes his long-standing relationship with the Americana Music Association UK. David Macias is more than aware that most listeners are really only interested in the work of their favourite artists, but if you are even only slightly interested in a modern music business success story that has delivered benefits to artists and to listeners as well as the company itself, then read on, and if you are a musician then it may give you something to think about.
The music industry is having to deal with streaming and the longer-term impact of COVID which has proven difficult for a lot of artists and music industry support staff and organisations, but Thirty Tigers continues to be one of the music business’ bright spots. Americana UK has interviewed quite a few Thirty Tiger artists and everyone has had nothing but praise for the company, and in some cases, they are making money for the first time in their careers. Clearly, you must also be making money otherwise you wouldn’t have been around for twenty years and you seem to have really taken off in the last five or six years, so how does the Thirty Tigers model work?
Before we get into the details of Thirty Tigers, I would just like to say in fairness to my friends and brethren in more traditional labels, I think they are doing OK. I think in a weird way the pandemic, though we didn’t know it, has created a real upswing in the context of revenues and that. Obviously, we wouldn’t have wished for it, and we know it has made it incredibly difficult for a lot of our artists, but strictly from a revenue standpoint, it has been good. People weren’t able to spend their entertainment money going to concerts and things like that, so they were looking to entertain themselves at home. A lot of labels are really driving now, and I know we are as well, and we definitely do have a different philosophy in how to divide the pie. We try to do it in a way that artists are fans not only of the work that we do but also the business relationship that they have with us.
I came out of a sales background, and I’m a believer in the idea that sales is just about removing all impediments to a yes. When it comes to is it a good deal for them financially, then absolutely, do we work better than traditional labels then I think we do. Once you start knocking off all the reasons why people may not feel comfortable in leaving a traditional label model, then we get more opportunities to talk to people and have discussions about whether or not we have a strong vision about how to take their music to market. What I tell my staff all the time is that we didn’t make this music, we don’t own this music, so we are here strictly in a capacity to serve. Sometimes I will hear music where the talent is really good, but if I don’t have a good vision of how it fits in the market place then it is not going to happen. We owe our acts a vision for how we are going to help them to succeed. We definitely get to have a lot more conversations than we used to, that’s for sure and I’m grateful for that.
You offer a range of potential services to artists, is it pick & mix, or is it more heavily structured?
Basically, our service is a holistic backend label, staffed for our clients as well as possible. Any time we bring someone on we do everything in our power to help take their music to market. We have a radio promotion team, we have marketing people, we have digital marketing people, basically, the only two things we don’t have in-house, and that is very much by design, are PR and film and TV sync. We have such a wildly eclectic roster, we are very strong in the americana world but we also work with a lot of artists that are not in that world, so to be able to have a credible advocate who really understands the artists, and is able to express that to journalists is a huge part of it. Journalists are only going to cover things when they feel there is a compelling story there to tell, that is their job, they are storytellers, and if you have a publicist who doesn’t understand the story or isn’t a credible advocate for that particular story it is not going to go as well as it could. I felt from the beginning having one person trying to be that credible advocate for the wide array of artists that we serve would be just unrealistic. We prised that out of the model, and both here in the States and elsewhere we keep our relationships with independent publicists, and those are some of the most important relationships we have, so we can go and talk to them. We do everything else pretty much internally.
As far as the business model goes, the artists own their work, we don’t even licence it. The contract is a distribution deal, but we bump up the rate we pay our friends at The Orchard who handle our distribution worldwide. The Orchard have been fantastic partners for us, and we bump that up by ten or twelve points, and within those ten or twelve points we cover our overhead costs, and not to get all nerdy on margins and things like that, when I came up with this the idea was to operate on no less than a 10% gross margin and 3% net margin which is not unlike other businesses like the discount retailers here in the states, and I guess like Tesco over there. Those companies are used to operating on those kind of margins and it is about being efficient and really good at what you do. While Sam Walmart was an influence on how I thought about things, I must say that we make sure all our employees have insurance and we have never polluted a river, haha, but other than that and strictly on margin structure Sam Walmart was a definite influence. You have seen businesses build to a really good size by offering their customers lower rates for good work and good service and good products, and being able to make up for it in volume sales. We get the pleasure of working with a lot of artists, but those individual artists have their recordings, their publishing and they only have a finite number of ways to keep themselves afloat financially and to make money.
You can have a model where there is no diminution in the quality of service, and I admit I’m biased and I am proud of my staff, and I think we do as good if not better work in marketing our artists than the more traditional labels. People get a really great service at a very low cost to them, and they get to make more money assuming we fulfil our mission, which I hope and think that we do, and this business can grow to be a pretty big business. Twenty years in we are a good solid business, and we are profitable and the artists make a lot more money and I’m proud of the work we do for them.
In terms of your business model, who do you view as your customer, is it the artist or the listener?
It is the artist. Let me put it this way, we care about the consumer, the listener, of course, and a lot of times when we are advising artists on issues on how they are going to take the music to market the customer comes up. One question I get asked a lot is do we still need to make CDs, and I’m like absolutely you should because even if it is only 10% of your product mix, that 10% of your audience who wants to buy your music in that way is the way they choose to consume it. So, if you don’t make it available to them you are basically telling them you don’t care about securing their business, and it is up to Thirty Tigers to help artists manage their inventory around that. We definitely extend our customer service orientation past the artist to the end consumer, but we consider the artist to be Thirty Tigers’ customer. Our job and our relationship is with the artists, and our mission is to help them to express the emotional core of their work out into the world, and to do it within a business structure that works for them monetarily. It is not always easy, but we continue to grow and have our artists, on the whole, say really nice things about us. I don’t think you can ask for much better than that.
You have a very good model that has allowed you to grow well, but how do you avoid the business risk of growing too quickly and not being able to maintain the quality of service that is your key selling point?
I don’t know whether we have a grand strategy around this, I think we just try to be very cognisant of not filling the boat too full. I mean, we turn away a lot more projects than we take on and even turning down things that I don’t really want to turn down, but I encourage something called constructive confrontation within the company. If there is an issue that is precluding a member of staff from doing their job in the best possible way, it is up to that member of staff to say something. It doesn’t matter if it is me who runs the company, or if it is anybody in the company, I just expect that to be handled with love and respect and with the understanding that the reason it is being brought up is not to be territorial or antagonistic, but it is to solve a problem. If members of staff give voice to their issues with love and respect then good results will flow from that.
About four or five years ago my staff constructively confronted me, haha, about our release schedule. They were like, look, you talk about all this stuff about marketing and revealing the emotional core of the artist, but you are not giving us enough time to do that because we are putting out too many artists and we are not keeping up with the basics. It was a really important thing for me to hear, and as a result, we put things in place whereby we schedule with input from the staff and we discuss what is too much, what is the point when we think we are filling the boat up too much and we can’t deliver the work we promised the artists we would do. Sometimes it is painful for me because I love all kinds of music, and that is one of the things that gives me great joy is to be able to help artists I believe in, but sometimes the bandwidth won’t let us do that. We have some internal things to help us not create an environment where our quality diminishes.
You’ve celebrated your twentieth anniversary, but from my perspective I have the sense that the company really took off about five or six years ago, something seems to have happened where you have become very noticeable.
We have never had a downward year in terms of sales since we started, our sales have grown every single year. The first year of our existence we didn’t have a distribution deal and we were strictly a consultancy, and then in our second year we did a distribution deal, which has now become our core business, and since then our sales every single year have increased. I feel it was around 2009 that we really started to accelerate, but our sales from 2019 to 2021 have been up over 50% which is just phenomenal. I don’t know if we are going to be able to keep up with that rate of growth, haha, but I think we do better if we just keep our heads down and worry about the work we are doing for our artists. We don’t even have a PR firm handling our corporate affairs or anything like that, I do think if we keep our heads down and work then everything else will take care of itself. I struggle to answer questions on how we are perceived by the outside world, haha, I just want people to say they are good people at Thirty Tigers and they bring value to their clients. I want our clients to be able to say that, and while it has never been perfect, that is always my main focus.
The artists I have spoken to who are on Thirty Tigers have said that. The newer artists have said you’ve made it viable for them to start a career, and older artists have said you have enabled them to extend and reinvigorate their careers.
I really think that is how it ought to be, and another thing I tell my staff is that nobody ever bought a Thirty Tigers record, they have however bought a Jason Isbell record, they have bought a CeCe Winans record. The only thing that people who are actually spending the money care about is the artists and their music, that is it. Obviously, internally within the industry, Thirty Tigers’ reputation is important and that does matter to me, but ultimately I try to keep everybody in the company’s attention focused where I think it should be, which is helping the artists reach their audience. I don’t want people to be falsely humble, but I do want them to be humble about what it is that we are there to do, if it weren’t for the trust of our artists and the incredible work that they do, we wouldn’t even have a business. I know that can sound like it is full of shit but it is true. Literally, the only thing a consumer who is spending their $20 or £20, or whatever, on a piece of vinyl or CD or download cares about is the music our artists are producing, and as long as we can remember that then we won’t drink our own Kool-Aid and get so full of ourselves that we are unbearable, I would really hate that, haha.
Traditional labels actively seek out new talent or offer big deals for established artists, how does Thirty Tigers develop its roster?
It can happen in any number of ways. There are definitely some people out there, like certain managers, that I actively try and meet. There is a handful of people that I’ve met along the way who have a great eye and ear for talent, and if I can help invest in their artists and help them grow and make more money for their artists assuming we can succeed together, that is great. The manager will do well, the artist will do well and we will do well. I just try and maintain a good network and I also work at it. I go to Folk Alliance every year and in the US it is one of the key places I go. The number of relationships I’ve come out of there with is amazing, the Americana UK Conference is another one I try and never miss because it is important for me to be present and hear from people whose opinions I respect about what music is moving them. It gives me the chance to also talk about music that I am excited about, so I try to work really hard to show up and be present. I’m on the phone all day with managers, lawyers, just seeing what is new. I’ve also got a great and talented A&R executive and Vice President for New Artists and lead for new artists who has been with Colombia and Epic Records, Warner Chappell, and she keeps her ear to the ground. We both share the duties of trying to find exciting new acts, and she has brought in some great talent, so I’m not doing it alone.
Was Nashville a natural choice to base Thirty Tigers in, as you are primarily but not exclusively americana?
Nashville was solely because when the major label world I used to work in invited me to explore my destiny elsewhere, haha, that is where I was living. It is a great music community, and there are great attorneys here and just so much infrastructure that I don’t know if I had decided to place it somewhere else, whether it would have gone as well, maybe it would have, maybe it wouldn’t have, but Nashville has been my professional home since 1997 when I was working for labels. Also, thanks to people like Jack White and The Black Keys, the idea of what Nashville has become has changed dramatically. It used to be solely a country and Christian music town and now it is so much more. You have all sorts of exciting and vibrant artists and executives and talent throughout the spectrum of the music business moving to Nashville. It is a great place to ply your trade.
Has having artists like Jason Isbell and Steve Winwood associated with Thirty Tigers helped with securing other artists?
Sure, sure. Steve Winwood is a fairly recent working relationship, and I think probably the first big act we had, and they weren’t big when we started with them, and we did our part and they were managed by one of the best managers I know, someone called Dolph Ramseur, was The Avett Brothers. The first record we did with them did like 2,000 copies, and the last one that we did with them, ‘Emotionalism’, is at almost 400,000 and they went on to sign with Rick Ruben and he brought a lot to their career as well. Just the fact we were able to play our part in their success made people like Jason Isbell feel comfortable that we could do the work for him. Once we had done the job for The Avett Brothers and Jason Isbell then Lucinda Williams feels more comfortable coming. There is a lot of word of mouth in the artist community and the manager community. Believe me, if we weren’t doing the job and we weren’t taking care of our obligations on the financial end, word would have gotten out. Once you are fortunate enough to be able to work with talent that extraordinary, and you do well with them and they are happy with the working relationship, it is fertile ground to keep growing and maintaining word of mouth.
Things are clearly going well but very few things in life are perfect so are there any things that keep you awake at night?
I’m not sure, honestly, I’m pretty happy and content. There are some situational things, like this week I was trying to navigate supply chains as they pertain to vinyl and dealing with all that, but that is just a thing we are going to have to put our heads together and figure out, and we think about that all the time as we try and get ahead of things so they don’t just land on us. I have a great person who does nothing but help navigate and negotiate the terrain around physical goods, and it is a tough moment but a situational thing. I hope I am not being blissfully ignorant of some industry trends that are waiting around the corner to eat our lunch, but I don’t perceive them and I think we have a solid business and I think I have been able to, with the help of Nancy Quinn who is the General Manager of the company and the other half of my brain when it comes to running this business, keep to what we have mapped out for the business and largely meet our sales and margin goals. We feel good that we are largely in control of our fate, and as long as we keep our heads down and focus on the right things like serving our artists. A few years ago I think I let myself get a little bit distracted trying to open some other types of businesses such as a podcasting arm and a publishing arm and all that kind of stuff. We didn’t get the podcast thing up and running, and the publishing ran at a break-even pace for a few years, but it wasn’t our core business and it wasn’t something I was super passionate about and it wasn’t something we were going to be good at. So, over the past few years, we have tried to whittle it down to the things we are good at. We have a great business, and I think that one of the things and the lesson learned over the last few years, is to keep focused. Just because I can do something, doesn’t mean I should.
A lot of people should heed that advice, haha.
It probably took Nancy hitting me over the head with a piece of 2 by 4 for several years to get me to actually believe that, haha, god bless her.
Do you still personally manage Patty Griffin?
Yes, I co-manage with a woman called Carolyn Rosenfeld who is Patty’s tour manager. I’m not bad with dealing with the road, but Carolyn is one of the all-time great tour managers and she has worked with Patty for a long time. It sort of got to the point where Carolyn was justifiably making all the decisions when it came to things on the road, and it became very apparent that we were absolutely co-managing her, haha. I finally acknowledged that and called her up one day and just said hey we are going to split commissions and do this because that is the reality of what has been happening. It has been a great partnership, and I’ve worked with Carolyn for five years, it isn’t like we haven’t had different thoughts about the approach and stuff, but we have never had a crossed word, there has never been a moment of disrespect and nothing that we haven’t been able to work through. Patty has been just amazing to work with, and I still pinch myself and I’m still not 100% sure how that happened, but I will take it. She is just one of the best artists that I know of, and I’m such a big fan, and to have the honour of helping and playing a role in guiding that career is just great.
She has had a really great career.
Yes, and it is still going. We’ve just finished our post COVID tour where we went out with Gregory Alan Isakov, and that tour could not have gone any better. Everybody stayed safe, almost every show sold out, I mean there were only one or two on the whole run that didn’t. I know I’m biased, but I feel like she is a Joni Mitchell or a Leonard Cohen, she is somebody who just continues to be incredibly vital as an artist and isn’t coasting on past glories. She is endlessly creative and she doesn’t look at the marketplace, she doesn’t dwell on what she has done before and she has no fear, she just opens up her heart and just lets it out, and I am endlessly proud to work with her.
We like to share new music with our readers, so currently what are your top three tracks, artists or albums on your playlist?
Probably the things at the moment that come to mind are firstly a Cuban artist called Cimafunk, and his first record, ‘El Alimento’, that came out about a month ago, and he is joined on the album by people like George Clinton, Lupe Fiasco and Ceelo Green and they have anointed him as like their funk brother. Cimafunk’s music is like this incredible mix of funk, Afro-Cuban music, pop and I just think there is nobody like him, and he is one of the biggest things happening in Cuba and now the rest of the world is just starting to find out about how amazing he is.
Another record I can’t quit listening to is one that isn’t coming out through us until July, a country artist call Kimberly Kelly, and I am now just obsessed with it now we have the final mix. I don’t think there is a day that goes by that I don’t listen to that album. She is very traditional in a kind of ‘90s kind of way, but like every single song on it is just phenomenal. When every song on an album is great, I can’t wait for the world to hear them and Kimberly Kelly.
This is going to be a weird one but it is just what sticks in my head, and it is something I have started listening to more at the beginning of the pandemic and it brought me great joy, and I still listen to it as often as I did. You know, when Spotify gives you your report at the end of the year of what you listened to the most, it is Nick Drake’s mother, Molly Drake’s ‘Tidal Magnificence’. I listen to that music all the time, it gives me such joy and peace. I love it, there is just something so profound and classic, and it is just so gentle and lovely.
That is a weird threesome I just threw out there, but Cimafunk, Kimberly Kelly and Molly Drake are probably the three things I’m listening to the most lately.
That is very interesting, and Molly Drake, while she wasn’t a professional recording artist, you get more than a hint of where her son Nick got his talent and inspiration from.
To be honest, I don’t even know where those recordings were unearthed, they were just home recordings, but I think I’m in the top 1% of Molly Drake listeners in the world, haha, and I’m also a big Nick Drake fan as well, and i listen to him quite a bit as well. There is just something about her music though that is just so comforting through a difficult time, and I haven’t really let go of it. I was aware of it, but I don’t know what caused me to dive in, but it just immediately met the lockdown needs of comfort and solace, and hit the mood I was in. and for whatever reason I gravitated to it. So, for those of you who haven’t spent time listening to Molly Drake, go do so, haha.
Is there anything you want to say to Americana UK readers?
We do get the opportunity to work with some UK acts, and I’m very grateful for their faith and trust in us, but even just within the community, I did the keynote speech at the very first Americana UK Conference way back when, and I try and come every single year. The community there is very meaningful and important both to the company and me personally. I am just grateful for the friendship and partnership that I find through this community and I don’t take it for granted, and with that, I don’t think I have anything else to say, haha.
Visit the Thirty Tigers website here.
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