• Courtney E. Smith

How Do You Ask for Money for Creative Work? With Liz Hart

How does a girl from Kirkwood, Missouri get to the Oscars? By being Liz Hart. She’s always been the girl from outer space, no matter where she goes. She was the kid who would put Black Flag and Madonna on a mixtape together because she liked them and not think twice about it.

I met Liz when she came into MTV to present Tapes ‘n Tapes when their first album dropped. She snuck us both in to see Ratatat at Terminal Five — she was working with the band but who knows if she remembered to get tickets or put us on the guest list. If you’re Liz, you know how to waltz right in. Oh, and that’s the night when I learned where in the worst venue in the world it is that the music sounds good: up in the wings where the road crew and bands stand. Your VIP tickets won’t get you in there. What I’ve learned from Liz is that rules are made to be broken or ignored because they’re made up bullshit anyway.

We spoke about her career, starting as a scrappy manager for bands in the Chicago scene and then working at the feet of legends. She was the first woman to work in A&R at the legendary XL Records, then she opened her own artist management company and promptly found herself working with an Oscar-nominated pop musician turned composer, Mica Levi. In her latest chapter, she’s using all the tools she got in her career to date to work in creative production for Verve Music Group. It means putting an entire aesthetic package together for artists including the prolific minimalist composer Joe Hisaishi, crafting album launch materials for Mandy Moore, shooting performances and photos on the banks of Real Foot Lake in Tennessee with S.G. Goodman, a developing artist she feels especially passionate about.

Where did you start in the music industry?

Liz Hart: “I worked quasi in management during my first jobs in the industry. I graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago with a degree in fashion design and photography and started doing costume design for bands that I was friends with. One of those bands got a big record deal. I went from being their costume designer to being their day-to-day manager because I knew the band better than the manager. On my first trips with them, I still had a portable sewing machine with me everywhere I went and was also managing them. That’s part of why I still have very strong opinions on what people should wear.

It seems like there are a handful of women in the music industry who stay on the executive career path and a lot of women who say fuck it and go off to do their own thing.

“Yeah. After I did some artist management, I moved to London and needed to get a proper job. I went to work as a legal assistant for a guy named James Wiley, who is a legendary artist manager and attorney, and also one of the principal structures for the Beggar’s Group of labels. He was one of Martin Mills’ original partners from the ‘70s. He thought I should stay the course and not go to law school but pursue business affairs for record labels. He felt I would be brilliant at it. I wanted to work with artists. You know, I was crazy. [laughs]”

Tell me about how that opportunity to compose came together for Mica Levi and what you thought about some of the initial offers?

“For Mica, it was an incredibly organic process. She did a collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra called Chopped and Screwed. It was going to be a one-off performance at King's College. They wanted to commission a work from her and she ended up turning it around and making a collaborative experience with the Sinfonietta and designing and building her own string resonant instruments to be used in the piece. That became her release Chopped and Screwed, which was the first classical release that had ever come out on Rough Trade, her label at the time. She got a call about a year later from Jonathan Glazer, who wanted her to score Under the Skin based solely on hearing this one album.

“Because it was a fully independent film, everything got made before it was sold for rights. We had a fully realized original soundtrack that we were then able to take around. Milan Records, an independent label, came to us. They knew her work, the label owner did his research and we had a great experience working with them. When it came to the score for Jackie, I fiercely protected it and took it to Milan, even though we had much higher offers from Sony and Universal. Milan offered more friendly deal terms and gave us more control. I negotiated for Mica to retain complete ownership over the masters and publishing. So even with Jackie, the music is licensed to Fox Searchlight. For them to do anything with it, they have to come to her. Everyone thought I was insane and speaking above my station. And I was like, well if you want to do business, these are the terms.”

This story ends with Mica getting a historic Oscar nomination in 2017. She was only the fifth woman composer ever nominated for an original score. And it was only her second film score.

“Some horrifying statistic like that and it had been 20 years since a woman was nominated. Right around the time Mica got her nomination, Laura Karpman joined the leadership of the music branch of the Academy. She is a staunch feminist and composer. She sent me an email inviting Mica to become a voting member.”

Liz, tell me about what you wore to the Oscars in 2017.

“Something I always talked to my artists about is how to use their public platform to champion their values. Especially for an artist like Mica, who is reluctant to be in the forefront, getting them to use that platform for something other than themselves can make them more comfortable. I took that to heart when I realized I was going to go to the Oscars and potentially be photographed. It was right after Trump was elected. It was a fairly dark time. I felt it was important to be visible and not just wear the little pin everyone else was wearing. I bought my yellow dress, but it didn’t fit me properly. So I made a belt that said: RESIST in glass beads that I hand sew. It took about nine hours to do the beadwork.”

Now you’re working with the Verve music group as a creative director and video commissioner. Those are different but tightly intertwined jobs. Is the creative director hat for when you’re looking at the full scope of the project and not just the video product?

“That's part of it. For some of the videos that I'm working on, I am creatively directing them or helping creatively produce them. The commissioning process is putting together the right teams, going out and finding the right artist, and the right director to translate the vision of the song. It's not that different from an A&R role where you're looking for the right producer to work with an artist. You're a creative matchmaker putting together teams, but also do work yourself on a creative level. It's difficult to put a fine point on how you do that or what makes it successful. But it's managing personalities, creative visions, timelines, and all of it.”

What are the mechanics, what goes into the job?

“The label will come to me with either an overall album or an artist or a specific song and say that they want to make content for that artist. It's my job to listen to the music and dream up a team to execute it in the best way possible. I then reach out to those directors, make sure they're interested, walk them through the process, help them develop a creative treatment, pick my favorites, and present them to the label. Once we have a direction that we're all happy with, I work through budgeting and bidding to make sure that we can actually afford to execute it. Then we go into pre-production and then we shoot. I manage the post-production process and ultimately get the video delivered. If I've done it right, I'm able to work with the marketing teams to make sure that we're taking the best advantage of whatever the creative is in their marketing plans.”

How often do artists want to be involved in figuring out what this content is going to look like?

“Quite often, actually. Some artists come to me with a fully fleshed-out vision of what they want to see. Then it's more a role of finding someone to execute their vision. Some artists come to me and have absolutely no idea what they want to do and I have to get on the phone with them or spend time with them in person until I can absorb what I think their vision is.”

How do you handle it when you’re the one directing the video or the EPK shoot or any other type of material?

“Sometimes it's great. It can be difficult when you start disagreeing with the artist. They are the client and you need to make them happy at the end of the day, even if you think they're making bad decisions. There have been videos I've directed where it's been an easy, super streamlined process from beginning to end. And there have been ones that have been painful were at the of the day, I didn't want to put my name on it.”

How do you decide what monetary value to put on creative work? And what do you do if the company disagrees?

“The head of A&R at Verve is Dahlia Ambach Caplin. We have been friends for a long time. She called me to pick my brain about directors when an artist on their roster needed high-level music videos done. After the third or fourth time she called, I was like, you guys gotta pay me. We did a one-off deal and I was going to commission that video freelance. A week later, they came back to me and asked if I could do another video as well. Two weeks later, they had three more projects for me. I told them I didn’t want to negotiate every single time they brought me a project and suggested they put me on retainer. So I made it into a job.

“Always ask for more than you'd accept because you can never go the other direction. My contacts are worth a lot. So when people come to me and say like, 'Hey, can I just pick your brain and get some context for this?' My relationships are currency. When I ask somebody for a favor that's that's money spent. If I do a favor for somebody, that's money in the bank. I carefully guard those.”

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