In an industry that is constantly changing, one company is looking to do things a little different. Recognizing that the entertainment landscape is comprised of not just one form of entertainment or one genre of music, Iconic Entertainment, is shaking things up. Artist Manager, Ally Venable, has been an integral part of the company’s success. With a passion for great music and providing a much-needed platform for discovery, Ally has successfully blended her background in booking and artist management to support not only the artists on the Iconic roster but all artists who make up this community.
How did you end up getting into artist management?
My first job in Nashville was at Paradigm Agency where I crossed paths with Fletcher Foster. He managed one of the clients I was helping book for and out of the blue, he hit me up about a new job with him. He had an amazing idea to create an artist management company with a different type of culture. I was intrigued. While I didn’t know Fletcher well, I had always loved his spirit, the way he valued quality of life, and now his entrepreneurial spirit behind wanting to start a company. So, when he asked me to help start Iconic Entertainment and be an artist manager, I said, “I have no idea what this looks like, but let’s do it and we will figure it out!” I think he’s the only person who could have talked me into being a manager. (laugh) And so we launched Iconic from the ground up, and it’s been a wild ride.
How has the role of artist manager changed?
Nowadays, a lot of the A&R process is now left up to managers. It’s much more hands-on which is awesome because we have an opportunity to create this really personal touch. Back in the day, this was not always the case. Artist managers have always been the catch-all, but it’s even more so now, especially on the development side. We are getting involved with our artists at the development level and putting those things like songs, branding, etc. in place, even before the labels get involved.
What role does the artist management company or the artist manager play in the development of an artist?
I think development is a lot in matchmaking and helping artists build and maintain their brands. It’s about finding and knowing people in a really genuine way and learning what makes them tick. As a manager, I want to help create connections for people where they feel invested, needed and excited to be working together. It feels more natural and real that way. And thank God, there’s a ton of really talented people in Nashville. Helping creative people find a place to shine is truly one of my favorite parts of my job.
Does it get overwhelming to find new artists when there are so many different ways to consume music and be exposed to artists?
I definitely rely on my relationships. People send me stuff all the time! But there are also times I will come across an artist at a show or on apps like Shazam. I do try to keep my ear to the ground and just be aware of what everyone is working on. There are just so many ways for people to get their music heard, but for me, the right artists have really good music and great artistry. Those things will shine through.
With music streaming services and other ways to find music digitally, what do you see the future of music curation?
I think there is a real lack of curation in our music community. Even with the massive amounts of music we have in front of us, there doesn’t seem to be many tastemakers. For me, it’s about creating a personal brand, as in what people associate me with when they hear my name. Even as a manager, I find it important for people to recognize my own style. They will be more likely trust my taste. I want others in my community to trust I’m not wasting their time when I have them listen and say, “Hey, take a risk on this.”
How do you build trust with your artists?
We want to know the DNA of our artists because it is such a personal relationship. It’s being able to learn to think the way my artists think. We are in the trenches together every day, and that journey starts from the point of signing with the company through the span of that relationship. And, hopefully, that relationship deepens with time and my artists know they can trust me.
How do you learn to think the way your artists think?
Because I handle all of the creative for the artists, one of my favorite things to do with a new artist is sit down with them after their first photo shoot and watch them go through their own photos. I get to see what they don’t like about themselves. You might wonder why that makes a difference, but to me, it’s important because while I might see a photo one way and think it looks great, the artist knows what they are looking for in their own photo. They know what they like and don’t like, and this helps me get a better sense of what’s important to them. My job, as their manager, is to make calls for them. They have to be able to trust me and not worry about the decisions I am making on their behalf.
What’s been one of the biggest lessons you have learned from transitioning out of booking into artist management?
When I moved to Nashville from California and started working in the agency world, people thought I was too nice. When I moved into artist management, people started thinking I wasn’t nice anymore. At first, I was really confused, but I began to appreciate that my role as an artist manager is difficult. It really is true that you often times become the bad guy on behalf of your artists and you have to be ok with that role. I have learned to meet people where they are, hear them out, and approach each person individually with respect. It’s been a tough lesson, but most certainly a valuable lesson.
I know you mentioned you haven’t really had a female mentor from an artist management standpoint and learning some of those communication styles, I am curious how you have learned those things. Has it been just time and experience?
That’s a good question. I haven’t had a female mentor, per se, who has taken me under their wing yet. How do you ask for that? It’s an awkward question. So, for me, I have just trusted that the opportunity will come and for now, I just bounce ideas off of people I respect. That said, I have grown up with an amazing mom who is both strong and incredibly wise. I have an amazing husband and wing-women who help give me perspective. Most of all, I’m a believer and so fortunate that I have God as my rock when I start to feel a little lost.
What advice do you give you to young women who are starting out their careers in this industry?
I am currently a GrammyU mentor and am working with a sophomore who has stars in her eyes about getting into the industry. It’s so sweet. I’m like, “Man, I used to be so sweet.” (laugh) I am still a sweet-natured person, but you get toughened up a bit the longer you are in the industry. I shared with her recently something I’ve had to constantly remind myself about, and that’s to let this industry hurt you. There is this perception that, sometimes, business women are stone cold, harsh, bitter, or whatever, and I know I don’t want to be that. I want to be warm and I want things to hurt me so I stay tender-hearted. I think this industry still needs femininity. It doesn’t need women to become like men. Yes, you need to learn how to communicate with men, but really just people in general. Communication is KEY to becoming a good business person, but I never think being good at business should steal the spirit of being a woman. I believe there is a strength in softness and gracefulness. So, I told my mentee to stay sweet. Don’t become hard because you won’t like who you end up being. You have to check yourself continually, and at the end of the day, you will be a better business person and overall a better human. So yeah, that’s what I would say about being in the industry – don’t lose your spirit.
With Iconic Entertainment being a start-up, what would you say to others who may aspire to be independent artist managers or even start their own business?
I have a lot of friends and colleagues who have gone off and done their own thing. I respect that, but for me personally, after being a part of this journey at Iconic, I can tell you, it is not easy. To do it successfully and bring a new company to the next level is a whole different thing. People can start companies all day long but to me, it’s super valuable to pair yourself with an executive who has been around much longer than you. I think my generation, while I love our spunk and the can-do attitude, there is wisdom in aligning yourself with someone who can knock down doors you can’t. I will never be able to compete with thirty years of experience, so to have that alignment is absolutely invaluable, but I also respect what my generation brings to business. You hear it all the time – surround yourself with people better than you to make yourself grow.
What has been one of the biggest lessons you have learned as an artist manager?
I am super black and white and very decisive. I like clarity and not ambiguity, which at first, was a huge point of frustration for me in this industry. I have learned to keep things in play longer than I would necessarily like. By doing this, I have seen so many huge opportunities come that I wouldn’t have, if I would have just said, “pass.” I have learned how to hear people out fully before making decisions.
How did you end up getting aligned with Kelsea Ballerini?
Well, when we launched Iconic, our first two artists were LeAnn Rimes and Levi Hummon. About six months in, one of our friends over at Black River, mentioned they were working with a songwriter who they had just signed as an artist. This artist was in the middle of her first radio tour. This artist was Kelsea Ballerini. As with so many opportunities in this industry, we were connected to Kelsea through a relationship, and ultimately were all onboard. Things took off like crazy, and while we are still pushing forward, it has been a fun journey so far.
What keeps you motivated in this industry?
When it comes to music, I am a purist and when I hear something that is really good, it gets me excited again. I’m also inspired when I meet artists who are just all around good humans. You want to see them win and that makes it all worth it.
Do you feel this industry is driven more by business or good music?
I see both happening, but I’d personally love to see more good music win.
What do you think we as an industry can be doing differently to further support the artists and songwriters who make up our industry?
I don’t know. This is a big question. I think creating any type of community that artists can tap into and feel supported is huge.
I know you have a project you are involved with called the Cotton Mill Live. Is this sort of your way to give back to this community?
Most definitely – it’s my passion project. I got to know Gavin and Jeremy, the founders of Cotton Mill Live, when some friends of mine, Native Run, did a show at their loft (which is where the shows are held). Instantly I thought, “What is this magical place?” It was so organic and real. I had a business crush on them and just loved what they were doing. They started this event in their living room as a way to help their artist friends create content. Out of the blue, they hit me up and asked if I would be willing to help them. I said, “Yes, of course!” Now, my main role with CML is to lead all industry efforts. As invite only events, I collaborate with the artists we book to understand what they need before their show. We want to know if they are lacking people on their team, looking for a publishing deal, a booking agent, or whatever their need is. Based on their answers, I target my invites more heavily towards those type of people. We are seeing people’s lives being changed. It is a safe creative environment and is one of the most tangible things I can do to help create a platform for artists to shine. It is also a genreless platform, which I wish there were more of here in Nashville. We have been on a really cool journey and we have some really fun things in the works I can’t wait to share more of!