Jordan Kurland – Founder of Zeitgeist Artist Management

[quote style=”boxed”]As you get older and wiser you realize that the core business principles apply everywhere. [/quote]

Jordan Kurland is the founder and owner of Zeitgeist Artist Management, LTD. Formed in 1999, with offices in San Francisco and Manhattan, Zeitgeist focuses on cultivating long-term careers for independently minded artists. The company’s roster includes Death Cab for Cutie, The Postal Service, She & Him, The Head and the Heart, Bob Mould (ex-Husker Du and Sugar), New Pornographers, AC Newman, Surfer Blood, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, and Rogue Wave.

Jordan is also a partner in one of the nation’s most respected and long-standing music festivals, Noise Pop. Dubbed “its own institution” by the San Francisco Weekly, Noise Pop has been showcasing the most influential independent national and local artists for the last 21 years. Since its inception the festival has featured a number of acts that at the time were unknown but are now rock music mainstays including The White Stripes, Shins, Death Cab for Cutie, Spoon, The Flaming Lips, and Jimmy Eat World, to name a few. Additionally, Jordan is the co-founder of the Treasure Island Music Festival. Launched in 2007, the two-day boutique festival has been described by Spin Magazine as “a full blown love affair” and was nominated as the 2012 Music Festival of the Year by the concert industry magazine, Pollstar.

Jordan sits on the board of 826 National, the Stern Grove Festival, and Air Traffic Control, an organization dedicated to connecting the music community to social action. He spent five years on the board of directors of the Independent On-Line Distribution Alliance (IODA) ending with the company’s partial acquisition by Sony in mid-2009. He served on the 2012 Obama for America Entertainment Advisory Committee. Also in 2012, along with renowned author Dave Eggers, Jordan founded the website 90 Days, 90 Reasons. For each of the final 90 days leading up the election, the site posted unique daily perspectives penned by different public figures as to why President Obama should be re-elected. It featured a diverse array of contributors including Ben Stiller, Anne Hathaway, Shepard Fairey, Al Franken, Jonathan Franzen and Moby. In 2004, also with Eggers, he helped to curate and produce the Future Soundtrack of America CD and “Future Dictionary of America” which fea tured artists such as REM, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Tom Waits, as well as writers Paul Auster, Kurt Vonnegut and Michael Chabon. The project raised over one million dollars for progressive causes around the 2004 election.

Past artists that Zeitgeist has represented include Feist, Creeper Lagoon, Beulah, the Estate of Elliott Smith, and the founder of the seminal punk band X, John Doe. Prior to forming the company, Jordan spent four years at David Lefkowitz/Figurehead Management where he worked closely with Primus, Charlie Hunter, and the Melvins.

Where did the idea for Zeitgeist come from?

I had been working for an artist management company in San Francisco for nearly four years. I had learned so much but slowly came to the conclusion and gathered up the courage to branch out on my own. At that point, I had a couple bands I was managing through the company, and I felt secure in my capabilities. I had a strong desire to build something that was more of a reflection of me and my taste in music. So I took the plunge.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

When not traveling, I wake up early – between 6 and 7 – make coffee and look over all the emails that came in overnight. If I have my son, I drive him to school, head to the gym, or go straight to the office depending on the day. Most of my days are not super structured. I typically have a few standing meetings but the rest of the day is about what’s on my list to get done and what comes my way. I get in, get caught up, and check in with staff.

We have a tight knit, open space office, so there are lots of questions being fired throughout the day. There’s a lot of off-the-cuff planning.

One thing about managing artists is that you never quite know what each day is going to bring. I would imagine that’s true for many jobs. I’ll begin my day thinking it’ll go in one direction, and it ends up down an entirely different path because we decide to pursue a new idea, or there is a fire to put out, or a client calls and we spend an hour on the phone. My job requires me to be both proactive and reactive to everything that comes through the door or inbox.

In terms of being productive, I rely heavily on my employees to keep me focused and in tune to what’s going on. Tunnel vision is a hazard of the job. There’s so much travel involved, I’m dependent on the people back in the office to keep me appraised as to where my attention needs to go. It took me a number of years to understand both how to delegate and how to trust the people who work for and with me.

How do you bring ideas to life?

We, as a company, spend a lot of time trying to think of new ways to debut a song, announce a tour, or launch an album campaign. A good portion of our weekly meetings is spent on this and more often than not, we come up blank. But, when a great idea hits the mark, you can feel it and often it seems almost effortless. Then it’s all about execution.

An example: The concept for the Postal Service audition tape that has now been streamed hundreds of thousands of times came over a lunch with the band’s A & R guy from Sub Pop. It was then fleshed out internally, then with Ben and Jimmy, and handed off to a great director, Tom Sharpling, who carried it to fruition.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

One trend that excites me right now, as much in work as in every day living, is the realization that in order to be productive and creative we all need to step away from our computers and phones. I’m admittedly a capital offender when it comes to checking my phone and I know – as it’s happening – how much less productive that makes me. We all need time to think, to reflect, and to clear our brains. Otherwise we are constantly reacting. I try to implement a ‘no screen time’ policy during our weekly office meetings. It keeps us much more focused and productive.

It excites me to see so much written on the subject and, more importantly, to see people actually doing it. I think we’ll all be better for it.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I’d say my general curiosity. I might jump around from what’s in front of me to something else entirely, but it’s taught me to discover things, to be creative, to expect creativity from those around me. Curiosity demands a degree of flexibility. I just think it’s been good for my career path.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

Right out of college, I was living in LA, and was hired at a small management company. It was kind of a hybrid job / paid internship. It was completely undefined. They didn’t really know what to do with me. I didn’t really know what to do with them. There was no real role for me. I stayed for a few months and eventually was let go. This experience taught me a lot about management. The company was very well intentioned; I was just expecting something different. And they were expecting someone with more experience. This job taught me about hiring and allocating responsibilities for my staff. I learned how important it is to have realistic and defined expectations of your employees.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I’ve definitely made mistakes in my career, but if there was one thing I wish I’d recognized from the beginning, it was that the core business principles applied to my industry. It was so easy to say, “Oh, I’m in music, things are different”, but really, they’re not. As you get older and wiser you realize that the core business principles apply everywhere. Looking back, I wish I’d understood and appreciated traditional business structure earlier on, and not felt like my industry was exempt somehow. Now I know, those core business rules are the norm.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I always try to evolve. I try to stay agile and adaptable. Especially in this day and age, when the Internet and tech continues to define and redefine how we communicate and learn about things. Personal and professional adaptability is more important than ever. I am constantly evaluating where our company is and what it needs to be as the music business evolves. What services we should be providing, what our staffing should look like, are there new areas that we need to learn about and spend more time on.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

Hiring good people. That’s the absolute key factor for me. But beyond that, I’d say being attuned to what’s going on in the world around me. It’s not a strategy so much as looking at and examining what people are reacting to. This helps me get a sense of what I feel will come next. Some of it’s instinct, some of it’s guessing. Ultimately, at Zeitgeist, we manage bands we believe in and people we are excited about, hoping that at some point it will connect on a larger level. But overall, just looking around, continuing to learn and always evolving. There’s no crystal ball nor magic bullet.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

One failure I recently experienced was losing a couple key staff members. I had not been paying enough attention to the business part of my business. That’s a challenge of running a small business. When you don’t have an HR department, things slip through the cracks. It’s so easy to get caught up in your work, the release of a new album, a tour going on sale, the needs of our clients, and neglect the day to day operations. When it happened recently, it was a wake up call. Clients are the people I’m here to serve, but the only way I can keep them happy is if I keep the people who are serving them happy. The good news is that it rattled my cage and I know I will come out stronger and more competitive.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

The Internet has brought some major changes to the pool of talent. With YouTube and social media and sharing platforms, someone who might not have been labeled as “talent” is all of the sudden attracting huge crowds virtually. I think there’s a place for managing all this talent. Not just bands or musicians, but chefs, entrepreneurs, graphic designers, what have you! Talent management doesn’t have to be exclusively artists in the traditional sense of the word.

Tell us something about you that very few people know?

This will blow my indie cred out the window, but I think Neil Diamond is one of the greatest songwriters of all time.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

We use much of what Google has to offer. Gmail, Drive, Calendar, etc. As a small business owner, I don’t want to spend a lot of money on backend systems, so it’s pretty amazing what Google and Apple offer in exchange for simply knowing everything about you … Kidding. Sort of.

Square is another one that has totally changed the game for touring artists. It used to be expensive and difficult for small bands to have credit card machines out on the road. Now it’s one of the easiest parts. Square makes a world of difference for selling merchandise at shows.

And the last thing, I’d have to say is mapping software. When it comes to touring, the difference between now and fifteen years ago is night and day. We used to have to get our almanacs out and say ‘Okay, it’s approximately this many miles between Omaha and St. Louis’. It saves so much time, money, and logistical planning.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I highly recommend a book called Mastery: The Keys to Success and Longterm Fulfillment by George Leonard. It’s a humbling book that taught me about drive, practice, and setting expectations. . Leonard’s message, or missive, is that you have to work very, very hard for a long period of time in order to excel at it. Mastery is a life long process.

This hardly counts as mastery but when I started Zeitgeist, everyone told me, it’s going to take 5-7 years to hit your stride. I thought I’d get there sooner, but it was literally year five when I saw the company start to take off. Nowadays I am much better at setting realistic expectations.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

I really admire Seth Godin – as lots of people do. His approach to the way he sees the world and marketing is fantastic and, importantly, easy to digest. This is crucial for busy people.

John Kabat-Zinn wrote a book Wherever You Go, There You Are. It is a profound yet easy to digest book about meditation and mindfulness. It’s not an understatement to say it changed how I view life. It reminds you to be present. That’s an important quality in business that is all too easy to forget.


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