“I think anyone who is really in this business for the right reasons is in it because they don’t have a choice.” – Dave Aguilera, Maphia Management CEO/Founder
Everyone has their own theory on what will save the music industry, whether the solution lies in live shows, satellite radio, Netflix-style albums, crowd funding…whatever. A case can be made for any and all of the above, but Maphia Management founder Dave Aguilera’s theory comes down to one thing: drive.
A veteran to both sides of the industry, Aguilera knows a thing or two about drive. The Southern California native’s foray into music began on the streets of Sunset during the heyday of SoCal punk rock. Aguilera’s early successes were as a co-founding member and guitarist for OTEP (Capitol Records, 2000-2002) and Bleed The Dream (Warcon Entertainment 2005-2007), before he later transitioned to the business end of the industry as VP of A&R for Breaksilence Records, plus additional stints with a number of reputable management companies and labels. Aguilera’s eye for talent and knowledge of the industry made him an integral part of the breaking of several successful artists, including Yellowcard and most recently heavy metal’s most talked about band, Butcher Babies (Maphia Management/Century Media Records).
I sat down with Aguilera in Venice to talk about his unique perspective on the music industry, the inception of Maphia Management, and why he thinks certain aspects of the music industry are better now than ever.
Maphia Management will host a free show showcasing the company’s roster tomorrow, March 18th, at The Troubadour in West Hollywood. The concert will feature performances from the legendary Santa Barbara punk outfit SNOT, Philm (featuring Dave Lombardo of Slayer), Hell or Highwater, and, off of the Maphia roster, Evolove (produced by Mikey Doling of Snot).
The event promises to be one of the biggest outings of the season for the Los Angeles heavy music scene, so get there early.
Tell me about your history in the music industry.
Dave Aguilera: My history goes back to when I was five years old. My mom was obsessed with Elvis. We’d watch movies about Elvis. Anything to do with Elvis, I would watch. I would put on little mini shows for my family, and my older brother would be my roadie. Then when I was ten, I cried and cried and cried until my parents bought me a guitar. It just went from there.
I was in my first band at thirteen, and then like every kid, you get in trouble or you hang out with the wrong people, so I went through that. I stopped playing music for about ten years, and then when I was in my early twenties, I decided that I wanted to be in music again. Then I did it…and I did it for fifteen years.
That’s when I met the guys in SNOT and that whole crew. It was really weird because I didn’t know a single person in the music industry. Not one. I didn’t even know how to start a band. Me and my friend just decided to start a band together. He was the only person I knew that played bass, so I didn’t really have a choice. [Laughs] We found a drummer and were like, “Well, how do we play shows?” “I don’t know.” So we started writing songs in the garage, and we went down to the Sunset Strip. Anyone we could meet, we’d say “Hey, what do you do? You’re a promoter? Cool. Where do you work?”
We just started to get to know everybody. We were at every show. We were on the Sunset Strip seven days a week.
What genre were you playing in at the time?
This was the mid-90s, so I’d say we were more pop punk. It was when Lit and Blink-182 and all those bands were popping. We were definitely on the more hardcore side of punk, but we slowly progressed and became more of a pop-punkish rock band.
I met the right people, ended up in a couple cool bands, got signed, and traveled all over the world. I’ve always been one of those people where if my heart isn’t in it 150 percent, I won’t do it. It’s all or nothing for me, and in 2007, actually on Warped Tour, I could just feel that my heart wasn’t in it anymore. I had been doing it for so long and already surpassed all of my dreams. At that point, I felt like the only reason to stay in a band was to make money, and that is the worst reason to be in a band. So I just decided “I’m out.” I’ve been managing bands ever since.
How did you transition into management after being an artist?
With the exception of one band that I’ve played in, I’ve pretty much always been the guy that started the band, picked the band members, did all the business, made all the merch…I was always the tour manager slash leader, so to speak, for every band I’ve ever been in. That’s just my personality.
I knew there was no way I was going to go and start a new career. That would be insane after all the connections I made after fifteen years of being in the business. I just figured that with my experience I could either be a manager or a tour manager, and I was really just over being on the road.
Ironically, a few other people that I met over the years thought the same thing. I actually posted something on Facebook as a joke saying, “I’m retired” (whatever that means), and within two or three days I had three job offers, so I started managing. It’s been a long road. The funny thing about management is that, like life, the more you think you know, the more you realize you don’t know. Every year I think, “Man, I’m such a better manager than I was last year.” It’s just a natural progression. I think that’s a good thing because as a human being and as a businessman, you’re constantly trying to push yourself and be better.
Who were the first bands you managed?
I worked for this company called One Moment Management, and I helped out with Escape the Fate, but more on the touring side. The real bands I first managed were Eyes Set to Kill, whom I still manage, and this band called LoveHateHero. That was in ’07.
What do you think the advantages are to being an artist first and then going into management?
I think there are advantages and there are disadvantages.
I always use the analogy of football coaches. The best football coaches are the ones that coached in college and played. As an artist, I think the learning curve is a lot shorter because you already know the dynamics of bands and how they work. If you’ve never played in a band, that’s something really hard to learn. There are a lot of really great managers out there that have never played an instrument in their lives, but I just think it probably took them longer to figure out the dynamics of how it works. It really is insanely chaotic on the road. That’s why they call it “the traveling circus.” You can’t learn that unless you go out on the road.
The disadvantages are that I think as former musicians, we probably over think things a little bit. Just because we were there, ya know, and we were in their shoes. Sometimes I think that can be a disadvantage because instead of just thinking of things as business, you might take it too personally because you understand the dynamics too much. Sometimes that can get in the way, but I think it’s the reason I’ve picked up a lot of the bands that I have. I think at the end of the day, they just trust me a little more because I’ve been there.
Is there a mantra or philosophy that you follow as far as working with your bands?
There’s a little caption that I came up with that’s on my email signature: “It takes a lot more than talent to make it in this business.” I’m sure someone said it before me, so I’m not trying to claim it by any means, but I came up with that out of frustration.
There’s this one kid — and I won’t say his name — that I used to manage that I sincerely believe is one of the most talented people I’ve ever met in my life. He’s an insane songwriter. He’s fucking beautiful; he walks into a room and girls just go nuts. From a manager’s standpoint and from a label’s standpoint, he is the perfect package of a frontman, but he’s just a complete mess. He walks into a room, and within ten minutes, everyone hates him. You know what I mean? For some reason he can’t get it together, and he can’t understand the aspect of selling yourself.
Really, that’s the business we’re in. We are in this business to make connections and sell ourselves. At the end of the day, it’s a product you’re selling. If your product is your face and your songs, that’s still a product. He would just mess it up no matter what. I took him to SXSW, and by the end of it, pretty much everyone just hated him. I’m still friends with him to this day, and he still hasn’t gotten any better. I mean, there are tons of talented people out there, but just because you’re talented doesn’t mean you’re going to make it in show biz.
SNOT – Whisky A-Go-Go Reunion Show 2014. Photo by Jeremy Hinkston.
When you sign a band or when you are looking for new artists to work with, what do you look for? What really grabs you?
Drive. Before I even pick them up, I’ll assess whether they have talent or not. If they can’t play live, I won’t pick them up. They have to be good live. The music business is doing so bad right now, and the thing that’s saving bands is being good live. So first and foremost is drive, and then, “Can they play live?”
It’s so hard to make it in a band these days. Everything is working against you, so unless you have that personality where you are literally willing to stand on the fucking train tracks while the train is coming at you, you won’t make it in this business. You have to do everything. If that means you don’t sleep for three days, you don’t sleep for three days. If you’ve gotta eat fucking dog food, you eat dog food. That is what I look for.
Carla Harvey (Butcher Babies).
What do you think are the biggest obstacles for an emerging band in hard rock and metal? Besides the obvious lack of terrestrial radio for alternative music, I feel like all the TV shows or awards shows within the genre really cater to older bands and fans.
The same ones that have always been there, and it’s obvious why people want to work with those bands: they’re the big ones. They’re the ones that generate the most income and get the most eyeballs on their websites, so I totally get why they want to work with the bigger acts. It’s always been that way, and it will never change. It’s just smart business. If I owned a magazine, I would want Korn on the cover before I would want some small band that nobody’s ever heard of because I need to sell magazines.
I think for emerging artists, it really just goes back to what I was saying. It’s about drive. The ones that are constantly just trying and trying and trying. If you just try-try-try, eventually a door will open for you. If you just try once and give up, then you’re just going to move back to Kansas or wherever the fuck you’re from. I’ve never been successful at anything I’ve done simply by talent. If anyone who really knows me was asked to describe me in one word, it would be driven. You can knock me down twenty times, and I’ll get up twenty times. That’s just how you have to be in a band or in this business. It’s the ones that do it for the right reasons, the ones that have no choice — those are the ones that will make it in the music industry.
Brandon Saller (Hell or Highwater), Aftershock Festival 2013
How long has Maphia Management been around?
I started Maphia in 2002. Maphia was originally a clothing line, and then I found this little band that most people have heard of by now called Yellowcard. They were playing in my friend’s garage. I was playing in bands at the time, so I brought them to my manager and we co-managed them. I was more just day-to-day and nobody really knew who I was, but essentially I was the one who found them, so that’s when I decided, “I’m going to start a management company and start managing bands.” I had worked with two or three different management companies, and I worked for a record label for two years. I wanted to get my feet wet and see how everything works from the business side.
Then in 2010, I was working for a record label and a management company. I quit both in the same day and started my own management company. I only had one band: Eyes Set To Kill. It was just me hanging out with my dog Peanut everyday in my living room. That’s where it started. I started looking for bands, started finding bands, and then finding people to work for my company. Now we have five employees and a bunch of cool bands.