There has been an incredible amount of discussions recently about the lack of women in the Jazz industry – and the music industry in general. Women at the 2018 Grammy awards won only 11 awards out of 84 categories and there was a significant amount of debate about, Neil Portnow, the Recording Academy president’s controversial comments to reporters stating that women needed “to step up.” Well, women have been ‘stepping up’ for years.
Over the years, in the Jazz world, the number of women linked to Jazz legends, fiercely working behind the scenes is significant – Nellie Monk, Lorraine Gillespie, Lucille Rollins, Mona Heath, Sue Mingus, Rosemary Hutcherson, Sandy Jackson, Iola Brubeck, Sandy Jordan to name a few. But there are also many women, behind the scenes, who stand alone that also need to be celebrated. There is of course, room for a much bigger article about this, but I would like to take this opportunity, for now, to explore one such woman.
Maria Avgoulis has been Ola Onabule’s manager for nearly 20 years and I have had the pleasure of speaking to her on several occasions. Maria says, ‘I don’t care if you are man or woman, I don’t take ‘No’ for an answer if I have set my sights on a particular goal’. I’m pretty sure that sounds like someone who has been ‘stepping up’.
Interviewer: Fiona Ross (FR) Artist Manager: Maria Avgoulis (MR)
FR: Can you talk us through your background and your journey to becoming an Artist Manager?
MA: People arrive at becoming an Artist’s manager through many different routes but I think there is probably a common thread that binds us all. The desire to support an artiste’s career in all the ways necessary to allow them the freedom and time to create. Creativity requires focus and single mindedness and absolute concentration if an artist is to realise their fullest potential. I would describe it as vocational. One must have a certain level of devotion to the cause which places money or recognition much further down the list of goals or priorities.
In my case I was always very interested in the arts, particularly literature which I studied at Birkbeck University, London. It was a phenomenal experience to pursue such an amazing degree and to do so in the centre of London. I was surrounded by people from so many cultures and backgrounds and I felt very much at home. Discussions and debates about books and writers were so immersive and opened my mind to many differing viewpoints. The course also included a whole module about writers from America and the Commonwealth. New writers emerged for me such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka from Nigeria, Indian writer, Mulk Raj Anand and African American writers such as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. Groundbreaking individuals who helped to change people’s attitudes and at the very least opened people up to the experiences of others.
Earlier on in the course I started working at the legendary William Morris Agency. I was fortunate enough to work for its only Literary agent, Lavinia Trevor. She was firm but a fair task master from whom I gleaned the essential rudiments of managing artists and steering careers through a complex business towards success. She represented US writers such as Tom Clancy, James Michener and Nancy Price whose books were blockbusters and being made into movies at this time. She also represented her own roster of writers which included the highly respected British author, Louis De Berniéres whom she nurtured from his first novel, The War of Don Emmanuels Nether Parts. It was if you like, a broad training and understanding of the entertainment business as the agency worked in all areas of the arts. Novelists, theatre directors, script writers, film actors and film directors and music artists were all part of the roster. I was able to see the cross pollination between different areas of the arts and the way in which careers developed sometimes over many years with the guidance and support of the agents and agency.
FR: You exclusively manage one artist – Ola Onabulé – and have done so for many years. What is it about working with Ola that inspires you to work solely with him?
MA: True! It’s been an incredible adventure and journey guiding Ola’s career for almost 2 decades. I have project managed 11 studio album recordings, arranged tours and sponsors across the world. Working solely with one artist was not my original objective but has evolved quite organically. Managing an artist effectively requires almost inhuman amounts of dedication. One of the biggest challenges I faced earlier on was trying to adopt a long-term strategy for Ola’s career. It felt like the most important thing was that the artist could sustain himself from earnings from live performances and intellectual property etc. throughout his career and build around that foundation. As an artist, Ola is wholly engaged in and feels fully responsible for his artistic vision. I felt this was essential and invaluable facing the challenges of a long-term career in an industry that places huge value on explosive short term success. Artists are not athletes and any pressure that makes them feel that they have to race to the goals or measure themselves against others as though they were competitors is entirely counter-productive. Supporting an artist on their journey requires a great deal of patience and determination. For the work to endure and the for the artist to maintain his sense of integrity in the art, it is important that he or she is able to fully focus on the creative process unhindered by daily distractions. To quote a favourite author, Arthur Miller: “art has always been the revenge of the human spirit upon the shortsighted.
FR: You travel around the world with Ola, working with a wide and diverse range of people from varying backgrounds. Are there any challenges and highlights?
MA: I never had a calling to travel as I am quite a homely person, but I must confess the last 10 years of extensive travel have been very interesting and rewarding and I have discovered that I am even more of a ‘people person’ than I could ever have imagined. One of the great benefits of travel is that it provides myriad opportunities to meet new and fascinating participants in our amazing industry, many with invaluable local knowledge, uniquely different backgrounds approaches and viewpoints. I often marvel at the serendipitous moments that unfolded organically on these ‘away trips’, moments that have gone on to become important career defining next stages in the development of Ola’s career in that country.
Another important benefit of travelling with an artist as a manager is you can affect damage control for the inevitable mishaps and contingencies that will occur as unavoidable consequences of taking an artist and several musicians to several countries within a relatively short period of time. I used to try to affect such control ‘remotely’ from home, but trust me, it just does not work! You learn to spot the challenges as they develop for the artist so he or she can do their thing without having to stress about problems with airline bookings or non-existent hotel rooms or whatever 5 minutes before they go on stage. It’s one of the most enjoyable parts of the job for me, to assist and support where necessary and to implement the imperceptible changes that make it a little easier for the artist to do what they do.
FR: It is well known that the Jazz Industry is male dominated although things do seem to be slowly changing. What has your experience been?
MA: It is true to say that like many industries ours is mostly male led, but I have never really felt uncomfortable about that. I am a twin with a twin brother, so most of my childhood was spent with him. We were a rambunctious, fearless pair who would challenge and test one another endlessly. Having such a powerful bond with a brother since forever has always made me feel at ease with members of the opposite sex. I suspect that I am able to convey in an unconscious way that I don’t feel inferior to or enfeebled by anyone whilst at the same time never allowing myself to be intimidated by any of the more uncomfortable interactions I may have had. It is true to say that as a woman I may be less well represented in this industry, but I can’t afford to spend too much time dwelling on this. I came to England as a small child from Australia and lived in a very small village in Somerset, so I was the ‘foreign kid’ and I was used to feeling distinct and unique from a very early age. If anything, the resulting isolation gave me a sense of determination and motivation. I don’t care if you are man or woman, I don’t take ‘No’ for an answer if I have set my sights on a goal.
FR: How have you found the ever-changing emphasis of using Social Media as a key promotional tool?
MA: Social Media is the most wonderful tool an artist or manager could have at their disposal. It has revolutionised the way in which artists promote themselves, the way in which record labels and promoters build the name of artistes. Of course, it is an ever changing medium that no one completely understands but everyone is learning on the job so to speak so an even playing field in a sense. The use of social media has opened up the world to artists and thinkers allowing them freedom to connect with others and promote their work almost entirely without limitation. Of course, there is a caveat to that. It is that very quickly these companies become extremely corporate in their behaviour. Companies such as Facebook realised the enormous potential to create wealth of a kind never imagined. They have been able to harness the contacts and data of over a billion people worldwide growing into one of the most powerful entities in the world. The use of Facebook for example is incredibly helpful to an artist who is travelling internationally as they are able to connect with the people who attend their concerts with a click of a button and effectively build a worldwide database of people who genuinely enjoy the music and feel connected to the artist. This allows the artist to remain in the hearts and minds of his/her audience reminding them of their activities as their career develops with no borders or barriers to who can follow the career of that artist. In my opinion aps such as Facebook, twitter, Instagram are remarkable tools that allow the artist to interact with their audience whilst allowing the audience to follow their career trajectory. Social media and the internet in general has been invaluable tools for me as a manager. I have met people as I travel around the world and been able to keep in touch with them very easily through Social networks and introduced my artist to people through this medium
FR: Who inspires you?
MA: Courageous people who are unafraid to speak up for others and challenge inequity. The word passion is overly used nowadays but I am inspired by people who live life with passion and fearlessness and who live every day as though it is their last.
FR: Do you have any words of wisdom or advice you could share for anyone wishing to pursue a career in Artist Management?
MA: Don’t do it!!! No just joking… But seriously speaking, do this job because you really like people, your relationships will never be more tested than it will be by this profession. Do this job if you think of yourself as a facilitator, someone who gains a great sense of achievement from creating possibilities for others. Someone who has an immense positivity, such that when the problems arise your singular thought is that the show must go on and you are willing to pursue every avenue to make it so. I would also say to such a person to develop the ability to cultivate good relationships as they are an essential aspect of managing an artist’s career.
Artist Manager: Maria Avgoulis
Interviewer: Fiona Ross
Photo credits courtesy of Ola Onabulé‘s management.