Behind The Scene: Women in Music President Nicole Barsalona

behind-the-scene:-women-in-music-president-nicole-barsalona

photo credit: Michael Zorn

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“I was immersed in music growing up but I never thought I would work in the industry. It was just part of my life,” reflects Nicole Barsalona, who currently serves as the president of the nonprofit Women in Music and manages artists at her company Everyday Rebellion Entertainment. Barsalona’s father’s Frank was a pioneering agent later inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, whose clients included The Who, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, Tom Petty and U2. Her mother June was a journalist who traveled from the U.K. at the age of 18 to cover The Beatles’ first U.S. tour and later worked as a music publicist.

“I had a bit of an alternative upbringing,” she observes. “I was always up late and tired at school the next day, even as a tiny kid, because my dad would drag me to shows and use me as the excuse to leave early. My mom often would be on the spot, having to whip something up when my dad would bring a band home for dinner. Steven Van Zandt said I was like the Alex P. Keaton of the family, certainly not for my political leanings, but because I was always a little bit more buttoned up. I was always telling my parents to turn the music down and telling them what time it was and that we should all go to sleep. But it certainly was fun and it set me up well to go into music, which I didn’t think I would do.”

What eventually changed your mind and led you to work in the music industry?

I went to college for communications and crisis management. Women’s studies was also a focus, which comes full circle later on. Then, after I graduated, I was off for the summer, trying to figure out where I would go next. I thought I was going to go to a PR firm but then Steven Van Zandt asked me if I could help him out for a week. He was putting on a festival on Randall’s Island [Little Steven’s Underground Garage Festival on 8/14/04] and he said, “I have these bands coming in from all over the world, and I need someone to do their credentials and work with the bands. I need someone who understands how to deal with all of these different personalities.”

So I ended up doing that and it was madness. We were up all night, every night, and the bands were in the office every night. He put this rotating stage together on Randall’s Island so that everything would be seamless but that broke early on. Then, there was a hurricane [Charley] blowing our way and we had a guy on a Doppler in one of the trailers checking the status of that. It was just absolutely insane and it felt like home.

That was when I realized that a nine-to-five corporate job didn’t really make any sense for me. That was where I was most comfortable and somehow knew what I was doing, without formal training.

I ended up working for him for the first five years of my career. It seemed more like 15 because it was jam-packed full of experience but it was a great five years. I started as an assistant putting together press kits and getting everyone coffee, and then ended up being Steven’s executive assistant and chief of communications. I also was on tour with him, with Springsteen and the E Street Band, for a couple of years at the end. While we were on the road, we were also running his production company and indie record label—and the million other things he was doing.

It was a fun experience and a great way to learn so much. I even had an agent license for a minute because we were booking bands at his company. Meanwhile, he was working on distribution for the record label, so I was calling record stores in Helsinki and then radio stations in Russia, signing them on for the Underground Garage radio show.

Did serving in all those varied roles lead you to decide that management would be the best fit?

Well, it was a great introduction to a million different parts of the industry. I think Steven has the most energy of any human I’ve ever met in my entire life. He is constantly inspired and so intensely creative. He’s working all night, every night. This was the time of fax machines, and we used to come into the office in the morning and there would be piles of paper that had come in through the fax machine overnight. They were full of his chicken scratch—stuff he would’ve just been ideating overnight.

I think he really gave me my drive to do a million things at once. He has this push to constantly be doing something and moving something forward. He has this incredible ability to do that in like eight different ways. So I got such a vast array of experience in so many different areas of the business. It was an incredible and wild few years.

Being on the road, as kind of his tour manager, was another great experience. I think that’s when I realized artist management was really where I wanted to be, so that I could advise an artist and be a part of that creative process. But I wanted to be there earlier on, as part of the building stages, so that I could help an emerging artist craft their career.

You set up your management office in Boston. To what extent were you concerned about being somewhat geographically isolated?

It seems silly now because everyone’s virtual, so it doesn’t make a difference, but 10 years ago, it was definitely a concern. In fact, I spoke to a couple of local managers—Mark Kates of Fenway Recordings (MGMT, Mission of Burma, The Cribs) and Dalton Sim, who was at Nettwerk at the time and had fun., Guster and some really cool bands. They encouraged me to do what I would do anywhere else and not let it bother me.

It’s important to keep in mind that, with management, it takes a while. You put in so much work and effort up front, and you don’t know if it’s ever going to pay off because establishing an artist takes a long time. So it’s just a lot of plugging away, hoping things will work and networking.

It was certainly mentally exhausting at the beginning thinking, “How am I gonna do this from Boston?” There are great music schools, but really no industry to speak of.

At that point, my father had been out of the business for a while and I was looking to gain experience. So I was on the train to New York quite often and I attended a lot of industry events.

It was during this time that I first connected with Women in Music. For instance, I realized, “I need an accountant.” At Steven’s company, we had an accounting department, we had a legal department, we had all of these things. But, on my own, I couldn’t read a contract and feel confident that I knew what I was doing on an artist’s behalf. So I needed all of these extra resources and I was so grateful to find help through Women in Music.

We had a Google group at the time and, if you emailed the Google group with a question, people would get back to you. I had a publishing contract in front of me and didn’t know what to do about it. But a friend who worked in publishing said, “OK, let’s get on the phone for 10 minutes and I’ll walk you through it.”

All of a sudden I had this network of people to lean on. I was able to grow and learn with my peers and a few mentors. I would go to a conference like SXSW or Music Biz in Nashville and I would get in touch with people I knew were going to be there.

It was really critical for me, at that point, to have those resources, and I still work with these women all the time. So it’s just been a really incredible way for me to build out what I needed.

Now with Women in Music, being able to do that for others is really rewarding and just so important.

Can you talk about the mission of Women in Music as well as some of your recent programs and initiatives?

Our mission is educating, empowering and advancing anyone who is female-identifying in the music industry. We have members across all gender identifications. Men often will email and be like, “Can I come to this event?” I’ll say, “Of course, we need allies. We need you in the loop.” We were founded in 1985, and we’ve gone through a lot of different iterations.

Historically, it was a networking and educational group in New York. Then, when I moved to Boston, I was on the board and I thought, “I know a few people here who work in the business. What if we start chapters in different places and see if it sticks. Then, we can connect those women to everyone in New York and LA, and make it a little bit more of a web.”

So we started a Boston chapter and different board members moved around the country and started chapters. Now we have members wanting to start new chapters everywhere you can think of. We currently have over 25 chapters around the world— from LA to India, Japan, South America, Romania.

Over the last two years, we had to switch to virtual programming but it allowed us to bring our educational and career development tools to all of our members around the world. Now it seems kind of crazy that we weren’t doing that before. We’re able to connect people in ways we weren’t. We just did a conference with Midem and had leaders from across South Africa talking about the growing market there. I’ve learned so much from our international chapters. And it’s so helpful that we’re all clued in a little bit more to some of the emerging markets that are so important to our industry overall.

Something else that’s been really important is reaching out and connecting with women at a very early stage. We did a study with Berklee College of Music a few years ago that showed that mentorship was one of the biggest indicators for women’s success later in their career. So we’ve launched a mentorship program, which we host annually and that’s been really important. We also have an executive internship program that our diversity and inclusion council started last year, which has just been incredible. It basically opens up paid internships in the industry at different companies to candidates who are diverse across all indicators—and who wouldn’t otherwise have had a chance to get into the business.

We have volunteers all around the world working nonstop on behalf of our mission and seeing these things that are actually changing the course of people’s lives and careers in real-time. It’s just incredibly inspiring. I don’t know how our teams do it because everyone has really demanding day jobs. It’s hugely inspiring.

Just as Women in Music has a global reach, you work with international artists in your managerial career. You’ve had recent success with a musician from India [Prateek Kuhad]. How did that come about?

I came to realize that working with international artists was a way that I could provide a benefit because the market here is so saturated. I didn’t really know what edge I could give to someone here. But internationally, I could say, “I know the North American market. Let me bring you over and try to launch your career here and grow it internationally.”

The first artist I fell upon was this Australian, Mark Wilkinson. I was in Sydney on vacation and just heard him singing at this outdoor market. He was busking and I followed his voice. I had to find out who he was.

Prateek, who’s from India, was on an NPR Spotify playlist of recommended artists prior to SXSW in 2016. I was clicking through it and I heard his song “Oh Love.” I fell in love with his song, his voice and the music. Then, I looked him up and I discovered he was in Delhi.

I thought that was so interesting because like many people, what I thought of as Indian music is what they think of as folk music, with a sitar and traditional Indian instruments. So I emailed him and his then[1]Indian manager, my original co-manager and I said, “I would love to get together and learn more about you.”

I learned that Prateek was part of this indie-music scene outside of Bollywood that didn’t really exist until recently. There’s an upwardly mobile middle class in India, and they are buying tickets to shows and are really connected on the internet to the rest of the world. When you say you’re an indie artist in India, you are reaching a lot more people than when you say you’re an indie artist in America. Prateek also has an incredible bond with his fans that he’s developed through social media. I think the last show he did was 6,000 or 8,000 people outdoors.

A couple years later, he was on Obama’s favorite-music list of 2019. That was a huge deal in India. Prateek was on every single TV show and in every huge publication. It was a really exciting moment of pride that an artist outside of Bollywood, without all of that money behind him, had made it onto Obama’s list.

To see that growth and be a part of it over here has been really exciting. It also has involved trying to train the market on what an Indian artist sounds like. When I first pitched radio, they would say, “We’ll send it to the world music department.” And I was like, “No, this is not world music. He’s more like Sufjan Stevens or Fleet Foxes.”

We had to be pretty strategic here, and we worked with Shore Fire and Marilyn Laverty, who is a phenomenal publicist, on a strategy for how we were gonna talk about Prateek’s Indian-ness in the press.

So that was an interesting cultural crossover and lesson about how to discuss things when people kind of make assumptions. Then, when we got to the stage with cold/mess, his most recent EP, we didn’t have to talk about it because no one cared. The music spoke for itself.

How has COVID impacted your clients who live and tour across the world?

It was tough—although, luckily, they have careers that are sustaining enough that when they’re not on the road for a year and a half, it doesn’t quite break the system. Still, Mark Wilkinson makes much of his revenue from touring and he loves being out on the road. So it was tough to not be able to leave Australia because they had really strict lockdowns. So, if he left, he wouldn’t have been able to get right back in. That was complicated.

Then on the India front, when the Delta variant came out, it was really bad there. The only way to get Prateek here to record his first album for a major label was to get him a special visa. For a little while, it looked like we were going to have to route him through Russia, where he would need to quarantine for two weeks before he was able to come to the U.S. But, eventually, we were able to get him over here directly.

So it was all a matter of everyone knowing that nothing was necessarily going to happen the way we wanted it to. There were a lot of extra hoops to jump through and things were constantly changing. So we tried to take everything with a grain of salt, adjusted our expectations and kept our fingers crossed. Moving forward, I hope that everything else will seem less dramatic compared to COVID times. It adds a little perspective to everything.

What’s on the horizon for Women in Music in 2022?

Right now, we have more members and more partners than ever before. I’m really excited to amplify those partnerships and make sure that we are getting as much funding and as much support as possible to run our programming. We want to keep educating and advancing women in the business. It’s been an incredible two years of seeing the growth and seeing these really impactful changes taking place. I’m excited to continue the momentum there.

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