(The following interview is from Pollstar's 2020 Management Directory, pick-up your copy HERE)
Danny Rukasin and Brandon Goodman of Best Friends management may oversee one of the most stratospherically successful artists on the planet in Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas, but their feet remain firmly rooted on terra firma. This may be because the dynamic management duo cut their teeth managing a number of bands who wound up on the Warped Tour (RIP). With its DIY ethos, fan credibility and down-to-earth approach to the music business, Warped helped breed a generation of live music execs who are the real deal steeped in camaraderie, community and a passion for music. It also didn’t hurt that Rukasin and Goodman surrounded Eilish with a team of similarly minded ballers who put the lost art of artist development way ahead of fast cash. This includes Paradigm’s Sara Bollwinkel and Tom Windish, Darkroom’s Justin Lubliner, High Rise PR’s Alexandra Baker and others. Here Rukasin and Goodman explain best management practices – even when your client is 13 – the importance of not skipping steps and, of course, The Hippos.
Pollstar: Perhaps the most important thing I found in my research is that Danny played trombone in The Hippos.
Danny Rukasin: Oh boy. That’s true. We were the first release on Fueled by Ramen, which was owned and run by John Janick (who now is the Chairman / CEO of Interscope). And then in addition we signed to Interscope a couple years later, well before John’s tenure, but it’s just kind of a fun circular moment for me personally.
Did playing in the Hippos inform your perspective as a manager?
Rukasin: I was always paying attention to the industry and business side of music just as much as what was going on with the band creatively. I was also interning at MCA Records in various departments and focusing on what we were doing to develop the artists on the label. At the time we physically had to hand out flyers to our shows, we handed out CDs at other shows – that was the best way to get your name out before the Internet – and then obviously the relationships I gained from those days are still people that I talk to and share ideas with, in fact our manager was Jillian Newman who still manages Taking Back Sunday to this day and I learned a lot from her.
We were both at a company managing artists. Brandon had other clients and I had my clients, and when the Billie project came about, it was just so good and so quality in terms of their age, what they were doing and the sonic mastery – it just was undeniable. And because both Brandon and I live in L.A, we were always sharing music and artists we came across and got excited by. Working on Billie (and Finneas) together really came about from talking, showing him the music, and since he was also really excited about it, we decided to work together on it.
Had you worked on anything together before?Goodman
: Danny and I had managed artists together previously, but we were also there to give input or help out even if it wasn’t on a client we co-managed.
Management can be one of the most demanding jobs in the music business. You work incredibly close with an artist who becomes like family. How did you decide to get into management?
Goodman: It’s time consuming and involved and there's an emotional level you might not be dealing with in other types of work; but, it's also the most rewarding because you are the closest to the artist and you’ve seen these people create and grow as artists. That’s what I love so much about what we do.
What about the other clients who don't make it, is that one of the hardest things to endure?
Rukasin: The one thing about artist management, is it’s managing artists who want to be managed and want to take other people's opinions. Then it’s also about expectations for management, too. It’s understanding what the artist is trying to accomplish and trying to make sure we as manager / artist are taking the right steps and working towards those goals.
Did those early tastes of success encourage you to keep going?
Goodman: We’ve had different goals with different artists over time. Starting off, I don’t think I ever had the goal to have a client win five Grammys. That was never a goal, because that wasn’t something the bands I listened to growing up ever achieved. Getting a band on tour in my early twenties, I thought that was success. And then having a band on the Warped Tour, I thought that was success. I grew up going to that tour, so having a band eventually play it was exciting. Success can mean a bunch of different things.
Were you part of the Warped Tour community?
Rukasin: Kevin Lyman did a great job of developing that brand and it was something fans planned for every year. You also had multiple bands, say 50 bands on the tour. It was an amazing community for those artists to tap into and develop their audience. We had 10 bands on there at one time. We were involved in one way or another, hellogoodbye, Never Shout Never, The Ready Set, Man Overboard, and others – bands who had really created their own identity and developed a very hard core culture and following.
It wasn’t about building a stable of clients; it was, and still is, about finding artists that we are passionate about and want to work with.
How did Finneas first reach out to you?
Rukasin: He had a band called The Slightlys. He had sent me a cold email to potentially work with a producer client and sent songs he had written and self-produced. They were really great songs.Didn’t he write down the name of the producer and put “motherfucker” in the middle of it?
Rukasin: He wanted to connect with the producer, “Eric motherfucking Palmquist.” Eric Palmquist was my producer and still is. That grabbed my attention!
How were you able to segue from Finneas asking for a producer to managing him and Billie?
Rukasin: It was a year in the process. He reached out, I connected him with my producer client, they worked on an EP together and it took time for them to finish it. Then he’d ask my advice on how to release it, who to release it through, what new media outlet to release music with. He didn’t have much guidance in the industry, so I helped him along the way. I wasn’t doing it because I wanted to manage him, it was just because I saw a very talented kid who had something great going on and I wanted to help him. Obviously because my producer worked on it I felt it was the responsible thing to do as well.
That would seem a great lesson for any up and coming manager: lend a helping hand to people you believe in – you never know where it’s going to lead.
Rukasin: Totally. Too many talented people out there and sometimes they need guidance to become great! But I don’t think any of us can say that this success would have happened or not happened because of it. It took a long time for us to start managing them and not just because we wanted to develop it a certain way, but because we needed to make sure we weren’t rushing them into a situation where they looked back and were like, “Oh my God, that was crazy. My daughter has now been exploited by the industry and will be a footnote.” We took it very, very slow intentionally for that reason.
So “Ocean Eyes” was something of a focal point, what was your reaction when you first heard it?
Goodman: I thought it was incredible. At the time it was recorded, Billie was only 13. And by the way, the version that’s out today with hundreds of millions of streams, that's the same recording that’s on Spotify and Apple Music today. That’s a song that Finn wrote and produced in his bedroom when he was 17. I was all in. Immediately I was like, “This is incredible.”
Rukasin: I first heard it one night and listened in awe probably 10 times in a row. I then immediately texted Finneas to learn everything there was about it – learning it was Finneas who wrote it and his 13-year-old sister who sang it blew my mind!
One of the first things I did was schedule a meeting the next day with the family. Even though I managed other clients, like what Brandon said, if you’re excited about something you will go all in. But when someone is 13 or 14 years old and Finn is 17, and they don't have experience in the music industry and what we’ve seen in our time, the first thing to find out is, “Is this something that you really, really passionately want to do? Or is this something where you guys are just messing around, and you want to sing a song and put it out and have fun? Do you guys understand what’s about to happen? Because we understand it.” I’ve seen things happen time and time again where the industry starts to get rabid – and it happens at the highest levels. Everybody started reaching out, but the key was really trying to understand what Billie, Finn, and the family were comfortable with, what they wanted to do with this music, and us not trying to push it faster than they wanted.How did you build your team, especially in terms of live and getting Paradigm’s Tom Windish and Sara Bollwinkel? Rukasin:
It took time to meet with everybody who was reaching out from the labels, agencies and the publishing side. We had to make sure people were in it for the right reasons and actually believed in the artist and had the same philosophy about how to develop the project. And to also find somebody we all got along with, because we have to spend so much time together. It's important to know that they're good people and they're great to be around. It took time to figure out what label was right and in turn make sure the deal was right. In terms of Tom and Sara, Tom has his roster and history in terms of being a great artist-friendly agent. He understood the trajectory and what we were trying to do on the live side and then he of course was working with Sara through Paradigm and thought that she'd be a good addition to the team.Goodman:
Tom and Sara understand how to build a touring business in a credible way by taking the right steps at the right time. That was very important to us. The idea wasn't to try to make Billie a pop star in the traditional sense. We wanted to be aligned with people who understood the overall strategy.Alexandra Baker at High Rise PR is awesome, too. What were the first shows you booked?
Rukasin: There were a couple of shows we put together on the fly, “ghost” shows, for Billie to get her feet wet performing with the band. Initially it was Billie, Finneas and two of the guys from the Slightlys. We did a couple of very small things on our own. Tom started helping out with finding a couple of shows. We did a show in San Diego that was super early that we didn't really market. Same thing with a couple of other shows up the coast. The first real official show was probably School Night at Bardot, which Tom and Sara booked. And then we did a festival in San Diego called CRSSD Festival and that was more of an official Billie Eilish show. She opened up the Friday of the festival.
As for Alex Baker and High Rise, she came to us before the labels via Tom who was working with her on Lorde and clearly she had a great ability to work with amazing younger artists, and as we all did, she very quickly understood the project and loved it. From there she really helped craft an amazing press story around who Billie was, and continues to be an integral part of the team today.And how old is Billie at this point?
Goodman: She was 15.Oh my God - and how was her stage presence and performance at that age?Rukasin:
Because she had done a lot of choir performances and dance and has always been in performing arts, it lent to her having a good sense of what it was like to be on a stage performing. But if you want to talk about what she was like then to now, it’s a completely different vibe. She has developed into such a commanding performer. But you could always tell she had a sense of confidence, that she knew what she was doing.
We chose Tom as the agent before we signed to a label. We had label meetings and one of the first meetings was with Nick Groff at Interscope who brought Justin Lubliner in to talk about what his label was doing. What was interesting about Justin was he’s a younger guy, but had a great understanding of artist development, especially in the digital streaming era. He understood some of the online PR that needed to happen with artists at that level, especially in the SoundCloud and early Spotify realm we were in. But also he had a deal through Interscope and we loved everybody at Interscope because we trusted what they’ve done with artist development and obviously what John Janick has done. They knew how to focus in on what an artist was trying to do. They weren’t trying to make Billie something that she wasn’t, which was integral. John and Steve Berman were incredible throughout the entire process and knowing that they weren’t going to try and make Billie do something she didn’t want to do.It’s interesting how many doors “Ocean Eyes” opened. It's such an undeniably hooky, well-produced, well-crafted song. Is one of the keys having a song with that much truth and resonance to open up doors all the way up to the top of Interscope and Paradigm and wherever else?Goodman:
I think it was everything. It was obviously the song itself and the production, but also, I don't want to say it exploded – there wasn’t a “TikTok moment,” but it definitely went on the Hype Machine charts and was featured on a ton of blogs. If a song is really good, people will find it.So we're talking about maybe 2014 or '15?
Rukasin: “Ocean Eyes” came out in November 2015How did you get her fully out on the road and what were your general touring strategies? Rukasin:
At that point it was about putting a live show together. We weren’t necessarily thinking, she’s got to be headlining the Troubadour or Echo in six months. It was more, let’s just try and get a show together, get 30 minutes of live music together that everyone feels most comfortable doing. At that point she had three songs released on Apple and Spotify, and SoundCloud, so it was a very little amount of music. We didn’t release “Bellyache” until way later. And that was the point where we felt she needed to have a built-out live show. We booked School Night and CRSSD and realized she needed to develop a live side so she could physically engage with her audience. We put her first headline tour together for the fall of 2017, and that’s when two more songs come out, and then the EP.What kind of rooms were you playing?Rukasin:
300-caps. We did the Echo, we did Baby’s, we did Schubas in Chicago. We were in the small venues.
Goodman: We did the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco.Rukasin:
The Drake in Toronto.
The key was that every tour we ever did sold out immediately and there were tons of fans who still wanted to come but couldn’t get a ticket. It was a really special thing to be able to go to one of Billie’s shows early on. As we started playing larger venues on each subsequent tour, we never skipped steps. It’s something we live by and it’s been a big part of the story, especially in touring. For example, in Los Angeles, after we played the Echo on the first tour, we played the El Rey where we did two shows, and then we did the Fonda on the next run – we did three of them. On the next tour, we did two nights at the Shrine and one night at the Greek. Now, we’re doing three nights at the Forum.My God.Goodman:
It was the same thing on a global level. In London we played a venue that was a few hundred people at first.
We did Heaven on Valentine’s Day two years ago. Islington was the first show. The goal with doing international shows early on was to make sure we approached this as a global artist, and not have to play catch up in markets outside of the U.S.
Same thing, though, we never skipped steps in any market and now when we go back to London in July we’re doing four nights at The O2 arena.
What was her social media activity like? Goodman:
Everything was growing exponentially. We were at a point where we were doing basically 5 percent growth per week across Billie’s socials, which is insane if you think about it – Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, everything was growing at 5 percent per week. It was nuts. Billie hit 500K Instagram followers a little over two years ago over Christmas (2017) and then by the following March, she hit 1 million followers. She now has over 55 million followers so you can see the rate at which her following grew.
She hit a million right around her album release.And that is her, you aren’t writing her posts? Goodman:
That would have never worked. Everything that she does is authentic. Kids see through bullshit more than ever, because everything is out there. You can’t just make someone look like something they’re not. Fans will see through it. With Billie, with Instagram, it’s always been a hundred percent her. She posts what she wants to post. She controls it.Did she have that voice and presence even when she was younger? Goodman:
She knew what she wanted to have up there. She knew what was lame and what felt cool and interesting to her. She has always been very attuned to posting things she liked, that was always important to her and still is.
She’s in such an interesting niche in the pop market that is so real and not a part of the saccharin pop thing. She tells you to feel your emotions, if it's anger or sadness that's okay. It's a real voice for kids that hasn’t before been out there.Goodman???
She’s very much herself and her ability to be open with her fan base has given a lot of kids strength and made them feel comfortable and embrace who they are as individuals. She has been open about her struggles, and talks about things that have been hard for her. Everybody can relate to that because at the end of the day, she’s human. She’s still a teenager. Everyone struggles at some point and in some way. She has had an enormous impact on so many in such a positive way by being open with her fans. Danny and I often get emails from parents expressing how they feel Billie saved their child’s life, or from fans who tell us how much Billie means to them and how her music gave them strength and made a positive impact on their life. There is a lot of power in her music and what she represents as an artist.Who else is on your team besides Tom, Sara and Justin? Goodman:
We hired a day-to-day to person for Billie who goes on tour with her. She’s amazing. Her name’s Laura Ramsay, and of course Billie has an incredible touring team. We have an amazing tour manager Brian Marquis, an incredible production manager Nicole Massey, and a long list of touring professionals. Billie is close with the whole team. That’s a big part of the group, and it’s a big, happy family. Not to mention her parents are really, really involved. They both go on tour. Their father Patrick works in production, and their mother, Maggie, is essentially Billie’s personal assistant. She's always with Billie and helps her with whatever she needs. This is a family that's in this together that supports each other and gets to experience all of this together, which I think is very special.How has her superstardom changed your jobs? You now have a day-to-day person, are you still in touch with her every day? Goodman:
We are. Danny and I are very hands on. We didn’t hire Laura until a year ago when Billie was already selling out tours. It’s just now there’s so much happening and so much information that needs to get transmitted back and forth and having Laura there helps us manage the flow of information and get answers quickly and efficiently.
We are still there brainstorming and translating what Billie wants to do musically, visually, and creatively, so we fully understand and can convey her vision as it evolves. It’s really exciting to watch.
It’s myself, Danny, and Laura. We have another great member of the team with Sam Schulman, who works as our coordinator.
Not that you’re doing multiple O2s and Forums, are you developing production to keep up with that scale?
Goodman: Yes. As the venues on tour have continued to grow, it’s been important to have production that makes the most of those size rooms. It’s important to invest in the tour so that Billie’s fans continue to come back and experience a new show and hopefully topping the previous. They are paying money to come see a show so we want them to feel they are getting their money’s worth.
Putting on a great and interactive show is one of Billie’s biggest priorities, and our collective goal from day one was to almost make the shows bigger than the rooms we were playing in, so we could blow her fans away.When you were playing clubs, it felt like underplays, are the arenas going to feel like that, too? Goodman:
It’s funny, because we never knew what Billie’s cap was. We’re like, “Wow, we sold out this show at the Echo.” And then we sold out the El Rey, and then we sold out three nights at the Fonda. We didn’t know what her ceiling was and then we did two Shrines and the Greek, those sold out immediately. Then we sold out the three Forums. We still don’t truly know the ceiling is or how many tickets she can sell.Rukasin:
Again, we kept booking the tours before we knew where we would be but sticking to not skipping steps, so by the time we’d get from on sale to the start of the tour, the demand was so much greater than our capacities, so the fans have always felt so lucky to be in the room and watching Billie perform.You've been Billie’s manager throughout her massive rise and it’s organic and really amazing. Do you feel the essence of what you do is the same or is it different from what you’ve always done? Goodman:
I think it’s the same in the sense that we are, in the simplest form, an advocate for the artist. We’re there to make sure Billie and Finneas are getting out of their career what they want and making the most of their time with the least amount of resistance. We’re still doing the same thing. With Billie, the sky’s the limit as far as opportunities and the ways that she can create artistically. That’s how incredible both her and Finn are. I think they’re going to do all sorts of really interesting, unique things, because that's how they think. They want to continue to push the envelope on their creativity and not just repeat something they already did because it worked previously.