Nov. 22, 2022

Jesse Coren Talks ‘Mutual Friends’ and Music Industry

Jesse Coren Talks ‘Mutual Friends’ and Music Industry

Jesse Coren, founder of Mutual Friends artist management, shares insights from the music industry, from social media to philanthropy to work-life balance.

Jesse Coren is the name behind some of your favorite artists—Jeremy Zucker, Chelsea Cutler, Quinn XCII, and ayokay. He founded Mutual Friends, a New York-based artist management company partnered with Visionary Music Group, in 2017 after a decade at dGi Management. Coren says the mission of Mutual Friends is to “bring good to the universe through art and music” and support the artists on his roster. Mutual Friends is now a team of four, but it didn’t start out that way: Coren was initially the sole manager for his clientele when he started up the company and continues to expand his team. Over years of working for management companies, Coren has amassed extensive knowledge on every aspect of the music and creative industries, especially the drastic ways it’s changed largely due to the rise of social media platforms.


Brendan Jeannetti of Music You’re Missing spoke to Coren about social media, independent artists, work-life balance, advice for aspiring managers, philanthropy, and more.


I think something that's really interesting about Mutual Friends is the fans follow it. You guys have like 13,000 followers on Instagram. I feel like you don't see that with a lot of artists, like no one really cares about the back end of things. Why do you think the fans care about their favorite artists’ management?


It's really cool that we live in a time and sort of an industry now where there's a lot more visibility to what goes on behind the scenes. I graduated college in 2010, so in 2007 was my freshman year, and that's when I started to think about getting experience in the music business and ultimately ended up interning at a company that I then went and worked at for a number of years. And there was just very limited exposure to what happened behind the scenes in music. I had no idea what a manager was. So I think it's cool now that people are able to sort of get a more inside look just through social media, and I just think things are a little bit more transparent, so there's a much better understanding for just the average person, whether they're just a music fan or they are aspiring to get into the business or whatever the case may be. I think the bigger part that maybe differentiates us a little bit is that Mutual Friends is a community in the sense that a lot of the artists share parts of their fanbases with each other, there's a lot of crossover. If you're a fan of one of the artists, you ultimately may and do become a fan of some of the others. So I think just because of that and the nature of their collaborations between each other and whatnot, it's kind of been one of those things where it's not just one of the artists are their favorite. So I think when you peel back the layers and you realize that people are becoming a little bit more invested in what we're doing, which might differentiate us a little bit from your typical management company.


You mentioned prior to Mutual Friends, you were at dGi Management. I'm kind of curious to learn more about why did you pivot to managing independently or go on to founding Mutual Friends. What was the rationale behind that and what's kind of the risk and rewards with making that type of career move?


I started interning at dGi in 2007. The two partners, Yoni and Damon, are like my big brothers. I started working for them when I was 17. I owe them so much. A lot of what I learned and just a lot of growing up, I think happened underneath them. So they definitely shaped a lot of who I am and just a lot of my style as a manager and some of the fundamentals. They also supported me when it came time to bringing on Quinn and ayokay as my first two clients that I still manage today. They definitely empowered me to build my own roster and all that. They definitely do something slightly different. Their focus and their niche is more in like the celebrity DJ and open-format DJ space. As my time with Quinn and ayokay grew and I started to navigate the business side of the music industry and the pop side of things, it became clear that we were sort of occupying different spaces. Eventually, I just had this kind of urgent vision to go out and do it on my own and sort of build something that led that leaned a little bit more into what I was doing. Fortunately, I literally just got off the phone with one of the partners five minutes ago, and we still keep in touch and are friends to this day.

As far as the question of what does that entail and what are the kind of risks and rewards, it's definitely scary going out and doing it on your own. I had a really close relationship with Quinn and ayokay. And ultimately Chelsea was the next artist that I was in the process of signing when I left the company. There's nothing better than building something yourself and really shaping what it is that you want to do: the culture, the vision, the brand. That feeling is unlike anything. So I think the reward is being able to say that you shaped something and you were able to build something from the ground up and you have so much influence in what that becomes. Of course, the scary part is being alone and not really having people to lean on. Fortunately, I have a lot of friends, other managers who are independent managers, and we all lean on each other, especially early on when we were all kind of navigating it. I also give a ton of credit to the artists who are equally empowering in terms of wanting me to go out on my own and really build something. I was just really fortunate that they believed in me as much as I believed in them and still do. And I think that probably was the ultimate confidence that I needed to go out and do it on my own.


Definitely. I mean, energy for me really matters. Like, if I'm obviously really passionate and positive about this project, then I need people to be the same. And if they're not, then it's actually going to affect me and make me not perform to the best of my abilities.


Hundred percent. I think that's one of the biggest things I've learned through many years and different shapes of what the company had been and whatnot. It's hard to expect anyone to necessarily be as obsessed, but you just want to be working with people and be in situations where everyone's kind of visions and goals are aligned. And I think that to your point, there's just something so valuable in that, in having people really all share in that, for lack of a better words, obsession with what the goal is. When you have that, the output is incredible.


I'd love to pivot a little bit and just ask you for some advice on behalf of independent artists. A lot of our listeners are in fact independent artists, and if there's anyone who can help them out, it's certainly you. So here's a question for you that I personally get a lot. When should an artist consider getting a manager? And what should an artist look for in a manager?

That answer I feel like has changed a lot. Another manager who puts out a lot of content about aspiring artists has said this, and I think it's just very well-said, is we're just in this stage in the business where there's so much that an artist can do on their own. The time is when you've done too much on your own, when you've exhausted all your resources. And when people are coming to you.

You can't be early enough anymore. People really are just getting in earlier and earlier in artists’ careers. But between that being the case and the resources being at the artists’ fingertips these days. I really think that the right time is when there's enough going on where that interest is incoming. You hear a lot of people that are like, ‘I need a manager. I need a manager.’ And the truth is, sure everyone does, and at some point you will, but a lot of times you don't as soon as you think you do. There's also cases where if the right opportunity comes early, I don't feel like you should avoid having a manager early on. I would be hypocritical to say that because I started so early with all my acts, and obviously we've been fortunate that those relationships have worked out, and I think it's been incredible because of that.

But I was definitely chasing them. It wasn't like they were selling me, you know, And I think that's the big difference. You should have people at your doorstep really, really, really passionate, whether you haven't put out any music or you put out a ton, it should be incoming. Because I think if it's incoming, you're just gonna have the most passionate person. And so you answer the next question, that is of course experience and knowledge and their relationships and their reputation, and all those things are super important. I think that their passion level, their dedication, their moral compass, do you guys vibe well, anyone who cares enough and who's just as passionate can do it and can figure it out and can be a really, really great asset to your team. Early on, it was really more my passion and my dedication that I think is what made me the better fit than a bigger manager who had more experience.


I think that's a great point, just from my personal experience where we're in the process of throwing our first live show, and I was talking to this booking manager to book their artist, and they just wouldn't get back to me. But the artist really wanted to, and the guarantee payment that we were giving him is more than any other company would give him. And the booking managers didn't answer like four of my emails. So we eventually just booked it independent of him. But still, I'm like, you can't have that guy on your team if he's not giving you his all.


Totally. I mean, you have to be a priority. You could have the biggest team member, whatever side of that team it is, and if you're not getting the focus, then you're getting nothing. You're getting a great person who's not adding any value, you know? It doesn't really matter if it's not translating to your own career.


Another question I get is, of course, TikTok seems to be all the rage these days, but is it actually? I'm curious, what are some ways you're seeing artists leverage, both successfully and unsuccessfully?


It's all the rage in the sense that it's what the industry is most obsessed with right now. Is it the only thing in the world that matters? Absolutely not. Is it the biggest driver in terms of music consumption or discovery? Sure. My take is I think it's an amazing thing for discovery, it's an amazing thing for artists to reach their fans or to find fans. And I think that you have to, as an artist, be utilizing the platform because of all the opportunity that exists.

I've seen plenty of artists do an amazing job on the platform of building a fan base and connecting with their audience and having songs really connect and cutting through the noise and ultimately leading to so much opportunity. And I think that that's amazing. I see some utilizing the platform really well and maybe haven't had that break yet, but they're going to because they're doing such a great job on the platform. And we know over the last two years, you know, dozens if not hundreds of artists who have sort of had records break through.

But the contrary to that is I've seen too many people only use it. And I think that's where people are wrong. You still need to pay attention to all other platforms and other just ways of developing. Artist development still exists in the same way. And I think you still need to do all of the other things that you would normally do. I think a lot of people focus on TikTok to sort of cast a wide net and hope that something comes in, but then these things come in and they don't know how to follow it up. They don't know how to actually have that person become a real fan as opposed to just somebody who liked the video that they put on.

It's what you do with that opportunity of having those new people in front of you that makes the difference. That's I think what's gonna make a long-term fan and ultimately what will make career artists. So I think that the people that are just thinking about virality and are just thinking about how they can have overnight success and aren't thinking about what they're gonna offer as an artist that's different than others, they're the ones who I don't think are utilizing it well. 


I forget who the artist was exactly that we interviewed, but they experienced a viral moment. Whatever their distributor was and whatever went viral that they were trying to sell, they didn't have the backend to support it. So many people were trying to click, but it just wasn't working because they just didn't get that far. They were just aiming for the virality and not the sustainability of it.

Totally. It's crazy. In ways, I understand you're an artist, you're in your bedroom, and you've never really done any of this, and you're just cranking out content. You may not really even think that it's ever gonna actually happen, so you're not really prepared in that sense. But I just think that unfortunately, the business has pressured artists—and not just new artists, everyone now—for this overnight success and this virality and all that. It's just putting a lot of pressure on things that are not sustainable in a box. It's how then you make those things sustainable are the most important part, otherwise those moments come and go super quickly.


I'd love to hear what advice you have for artists or trying to grow their community and brand beyond social media.

I think really one thing that I look back on early and was hugely effective for us, was just getting on the road. Getting in front of people in real life is still just as valuable. Another big thing just from experience is collaboration and connecting with other artists that kind of could share a similar fan base or that you're just inspired by or that you really like or that you'd wanna associate with. Those relationships are super important. Everyone's kind of always reaching for what's ahead of them in terms of a collaboration or a cosign or whatever, but your peers are just as valuable, and if not, sometimes they're more valuable because you're growing together.

There's a lot of opportunity in cross-pollination in a sense, and coming up together and finding those people who you want to associate with and who there's this mutual respect for each other. There's just this organic thing that ends up happening where you'll find yourself discovering new fans just off of the association sometimes. You don't need any access to the industry to do that. People are doing that just online, in DMs. If you're reaching for people that you're a fan of, you feel like there's this connection and synergy, I'm sure that those people will feel the same way. You'll probably find that you'll get a lot of reception for that. There's dozens, but I think those are two things that are still super, super important.

Of course, there's always the more traditional editorial and press and cosigns more in that sense or just support or exposure you can get from that. And a lot of that still can be done without having really any relationships. As long as you're putting out good music and putting it together and packaging it in a way that cuts through the noise, and trying to find your fans and whether that's fans like the general public or fans within the industry.


I can tell you, our artists are definitely going to appreciate all of that insight. Going off of that, I kind of want to selfishly use your time to give some advice for managers and specifically on a personal note, I've been tuning into Mutual Friends for a while. I was at UMass, I think Chelsea Cutler was at Amherst, and I was like, ‘Whoa, she's the same age as me, and she's thriving in the industry. I can do that on the industry side of things.’ Definitely a large part of why I pursued a career in the industry. But I'm curious, someone who might wanna make that pivot to artist management, but not from scratch, like they've got some foundation laid. What type of advice would you give someone that's looking to become an artist manager full-time?

I think just building relationships, figuring out what you can offer to other people in exchange for an opportunity to learn from them. And there's a lot of means of doing that. There's so much opportunity, there's so many ways to connect, there's so many ways to learn from other people now. You don't have to be in the office with that person. There's just so many resources to learn about how to break into the business and how to be a manager or whatever side of the business you wanna be on. It's really just being resourceful with what's out there. 

The other thing is find artists that you're passionate about. And that doesn't always come right away, right? Like some people learned from getting amazing opportunities to work around other people who then help you navigate and learn and ultimately you can find your roster, or maybe you're just working across a roster that you're really excited about, and you can grow your career that way.

Find an artist that you love, and a new one, like somebody that you can actually kind of become a part of that team. Maybe it's somebody that already has a manager, but they're still early on and they could use the help because there's not really enough money coming in yet for them to hire out a full team. Any experience is good, ‘cause any experience, A) obviously you'll gain knowledge, B) typically it'll open doors, and C) if you have success with that artist or what you're doing there, you might just keep going and doing what you're doing and that could be all you ever do. There's plenty of opportunity for anybody. I just think it's about how just how smart you are and how much effort you put into using it.


Do you think someone who wants to be an artist manager should pay attention to metrics and analytics, or do you think it relies more heavily on how passionate you are about their potential growth?

I mean, you can't ignore it, you know, like I, again, I think that no matter what, the metrics could be amazing. And if you don't love it, I personally just like, don't do it, you know? That's my opinion. Because I just think that as a manager, you're just too invested in them personally. You're too, you're too close to it. There's, it's so, it's such a close relationship that you have to love the person and the project and the, you know, everything about the, the artist, because otherwise you go, you, you, you deal with so much stuff and you go through so much stuff, especially not even, especially early on always that if like that level of passion isn't there, it's just gonna become, it's not gonna be as fun mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. And I think it has to be fun in order to really do an amazing job and get through a lot of the challenges that come with being a manager.

 And I feel that way about being, you know, if you're an artist too, I think that's the same advice, you know, for, for that. Like, you have to have fun, you have to love what you're doing because you just go through so much that that if you're, if if you don't, it's not worth it, you know? But yeah. So I think, I think of course, if the metrics are great, if the numbers are great and, and you are a fan and you love, you know, the project and you see the vision and all that, then yeah, maybe that's a, a better bet than something that hasn't someone that hasn't put out music yet, but you really love, you know? But I don't think that it's kind of like mutually exclusive. I think you can kind of like, I think that the metrics and all that stuff have to come sort of secondhand or like a one A and a one B to how much you actually love and believe in the project.


In regards to being an artist manager, I feel like there's a stigma around working music, specifically in management, that you have to be married to your career. Do you agree with that? And how do you practice a work-life balance when fans can interact with artists 24/7?

I am probably not the best person to hear advice on how to separate because fortunately and unfortunately, yes, it's definitely a lot of my life. I have an amazing life outside of my job. And it's funny actually, it's something that I've thought a lot about as the company is growing. I've had this conversation very, very recently with even a lot of my team is like, I think I've always been extremely  married to job. I also am married, but fortunately my wife is actually like the reason that all of this came about and is the reason that I met Quinn who then ultimately became the start of my current roster. 


Shout out. What's your wife's name?


Shout out Becca. Thank you, Becca.


She and Quinn are mutual friends. I love my artists, I love the people I work with, I love what I do. So truthfully sometimes it's like, I'd rather be doing that, or I'd rather be working on something relating to my job than, than watching a movie or something like that. But I do think that the balance is really important and as the company's starting to grow and I'm starting to kind of build this culture. I'm really trying to spend a lot of my time adjusting and encouraging everybody to find that balance. And that balance is gonna be so different for everybody. And I see that already with everyone that we work with.

I think that that balance is really a personal thing. I think some people need different types of separations. Some people need a different daily routine. Different things are important to different people in terms of what they need in their personal life. And I do think it's really important to find the balance because the business, especially the job of the manager, is very 24/7, you know? You can definitely do this job without sort of being married to your career, because I don't wanna say that you can't, because that's not fair. I think you should be able to have a great work-life balance. I think you should live a healthy lifestyle.

You need to take care of yourself mentally first before you know any job. Finding whatever that balance is, is gonna be different for every person because if you don't find that balance, you will end up doing this around the clock, and you will end up feeling like you are married to the job. I'm very lucky again, that my wife is so supportive and is so close with the artists and feels so much personal investment in what I do and has seen it from the beginning. So I'm really lucky that that's the case.

There is a little bit of a 24/7 element of this job that is unavoidable. It doesn't mean every day needs to be 24/7, but this is definitely not a job where you get to the office at 9, you leave at 6, you shut off your phone, and that's it. It's never gonna be that. I think if you want to be in management, and that's something that's important to you, it's not the job for you. But if you really love the job and you want to do the job, and that's okay, everyone can find their balance doing the job. You have to be okay with putting others before yourself at times, and dealing with things that might not come at convenient times, and being on call for a lot of things, and giving up a lot of your personal plans and things that might be happening on a weekend when you have to be at a show somewhere, and all your friends are doing this. But I think that that exists for a lot of jobs, particularly in what we do.


I think that's super validating. So many people tell you that you need a work-life balance or work shouldn't be the most important thing in your life or whatever. But like you said, sometimes it's fun. Sometimes I don't mind devoting my whole week to it if I have to. Again, it's just picking and choosing when and realizing you’re in control of your schedule and the balance, whenever that may be.

Work is the most important thing to me outside of my family, and again, I'm lucky that I love what I do. So for me, that's a choice, you know? ‘Cause I think that my work, a lot of it is personal. My relationships in work are personal. There's a lot of enjoyment that comes from it. Like I said, I think you do need to find your balance, but you have to also know that this isn't your typical 9-to-5 job where you can shut off. That's just never gonna be what it is. But if you can accept that, but also find the balance and make sure you're looking after your own mental health and yourself, you really need to.

And there's that communication. I think that's one of the biggest things too, is the communication of that. We are constantly in a position in what we do to really make sure that we're looking after a lot of people. We put ourselves in that position and we make that promise to the artists. So we have to take that seriously and we have to be there, and a lot of that means the 24/7 nature of it. But I think a lot of that is just communication too. If you're communicating that and you have great team members or artists who understand, then I think you can find even more of that balance.


Obviously, you have a lot to be proud of. I stole this from TikTok actually: what is something that the general public might not know of that you're actually proud of?

I'm a new father. I have a 9-month-old.


Thank you. And so that's definitely number one. I wouldn't say that that's something that no one knows.

It's funny, I actually started writing a list of things that I'm proud of, like work-related things ‘cause you forget a lot of things as time goes on. You're like, ‘Oh shit, I like, I forgot about, whatever it is.’ Like something came up in an interview the other day that Chelsea was doing a performance in New York. It was for She Is The Music, which is an amazing organization that empowers women in music. And at one point in the performance, she was just talking and she was saying how she obviously produces a lot of her own music, and at the beginning produced all of her own music and still does most of it. Unfortunately, I don't think there's enough female producers, and I don't think that enough people empower females to have a hand in their own production.

And she was saying how just that early on she was doing all this stuff and that I really saw the vision and really empowered her to not give up the reins on making the music and to actually produce that music. And her first single was called “Your Shirt,” and it's now a Gold record. She was telling that story, and it was something where I was like, ‘I haven't thought about that in forever, but I'm really proud of that.’ I'm really proud that I empowered her and ultimately that she empowered herself. ‘Cause it was definitely not just me to do that, because I think it shaped a lot of her career and stuff that both of us value a lot in terms of empowering women in music.

So anyway, that motivated me to start actually making a list of work-related things that I'm proud of that I don't think about enough. So that's definitely one of those. I mean, I think just even the culture that we built, in terms of creating a place where people are supportive of each other, that artists are friends, trying to take what is a very competitive business—and we're still super competitive, of course—but I've tried to sort of create a little bit more of a family dynamic and really get relationships and friendships out of the business that will last a lot longer, I think, than anyone's careers will. So I think that's something I'm really proud of, and I wanna continue to sort of do that. And I'd want that to continue to be sort of in the DNA of what we do collectively.


Well, congrats! My very final question for you: what goals do you have left for yourself and your artists?

You know, continuing to hit new milestones, There's of course the literal ones, playing MSG, having a big record, having a top number one. There's a lot of the metrics sort of things that, of course, with anyone, that's a goal. It's become honestly less of a goal of mine. I shouldn't say it's less of a goal. I think a lot of, in a weird way, intangible things, like having the number one record and stuff like that, while they're obviously goals, they're not as meaningful to me as some of the more personal things and things that like really affect other people. And obviously, by way of having a big record, stuff like that, there's the other things that we can then do to impact people.

I think a big goal is to sort of focus a little bit more on like the charity component of the business. And it's something that we're really starting with small right now, but I really do want, and I've seen a lot of companies that I really admire who have done a really great job of bringing philanthropy into their company and making that almost its own arm that ends up becoming bigger and is separate and even bigger sometimes than the music. So that's definitely something that is a big goal of mine. I wanna have a really great, almost self-standing division dedicated to philanthropy in the company and do it in ways obviously that we can sort of use what we do on the music side with the artists to do some of that so that it's different.

And I think just continuing to do what we do now in 20 years, like have real long-term career artists and to be working with everybody that I do now in many years to come. I think a really good sign of success is how long you can sort of build and sustain a healthy, great relationship and career. And I think that that's something in a business that's very overnight, you know, quickly chasing the next and whatnot. I think being able to do that—and there's a lot of companies that I see have done that and I also admire—that's a really important thing for us.

And then of course the things that are still goals today that are goals every day, of just executing the artist's vision, doing things that help them change their lives and make them happy. You know, continuing to do that with newer artists and people down the line and give people amazing experiences and change and make a positive impact on other people. Yeah, I think that's the most powerful thing that we have the ability to do. So it's crazy to not make that a really big focus.

We are working with this amazing company, Amplify, and we're starting to basically create a program to bring artists into children's hospitals when they're on tour. So have them play an acoustic set or do a Q&A for children's hospitals while they're out on the road, people that can't come to the shows. So we’re doing a couple with Chelsea and a few other artists this fall. And so it's kinda like a trial, which I'm really excited about. We'll do a handful, and I wanna do it obviously with our artists first, but I do want it to be something that goes way beyond just ours.

But I want to get a real proof of concept down. And then by spring of next year, I want to have a proper plan to go out and hopefully get dozens of people to come in and do that every season. I just think we have so much ability, whether it's to raise money or to make a positive impact on people. We're lucky that we're in that position, so it feels crazy to not give back. That's definitely a big focus that I'm trying to just spend a little bit more time doing.


Good for you for even identifying that as a potential endeavor. I'm so excited to see the philanthropic part of Mutual Friends.


Follow Jesse Coren on LinkedIn, and keep up with the Mutual Friends team here.