Nelson Wells – The Art of Indie Music PR

Team Clermont has been a unique company promoting music artists both locally and nationally for over 20 years. They are a small, dedicated team who focuses on up-and-coming musicians as well as established music artists. Co-Founder Nelson Wells, father to twin daughters, is keenly aware of the ever-evolving trajectories of music fidelity, delivery, and is a “futurist” regarding the protection of artist’s rights over their creative endeavors. Team Clermont was the first of its kind to accept crypto currencies like Bitcoin and Litecoin for music or tech PR campaigns. Their clients include Warner Bros. Records, Mute Records, Astralwerks, Domino, R.E.M., Asthmatic Kitty, GreyDay Records, SubPop, and more. Wells has spoken about PR and music marketing on panels at conferences like SXSW and CMJ. Team Clermont has carved a unique niche in a music world which is evolving at the speed of light. He’s both focused and easy going, with an unstoppable passion for music in an industry which is in constant flux and innovation. We spoke at the Team Clermont office in Athens in January, 2020. – Mark Katzman

AthensUncharted: Is it true that you started doing music promo right out of college in Athens?

Nelson Wells: Right out of UGA. I was still in a management position running a branch of a marketing company in town and was asked by some local Athen’s musicians at the time if I would manage them. I knew nothing about the industry, but they saw some potential in me, so I reluctantly agreed just as I was putting in notice to leave the corporate world. By twenty-five I had already had enough of that. So I started doing artist management and PR rights out of the box, 3 years out of college. I loved the town despite my lack of excitement about the University.

AU: Has music always loomed as a major influence in your life?

NW: Yes, as a musician in the school bands and High School marching band music was deeply rooted in my blood, and I tinkered on the piano we inherited from my great-grandmother.

AU: What music was exciting to you as a young man?

NW: I was a product of the 80s, so I quickly fell for the sugary, easy to follow 80s pop, like ELO (Electric Light Orchestra), Men At Work I suppose because I grew up listening to my parents 8-Track and vinyl collections which included lots of albums from The Beatles, Emmy Lou Harris, Crystal Gayle, the Eagles, Three Dog Night, Aretha Franklin and Dolly Parton, to name a few.

AU: What is the mission of Team Clermont?

NW: Our mission is to work with the most passionate and unique artists in the world to expose them to the world.

AU: In what ways do you work with clients? Is it primarily leading to college/independent radio?

NW: We are a PR firm first, so most of our work is publicity work. We began as a radio promotion firm and transitioned into a full service PR firm in 2001. Radio promotion still makes up half of our business, but we’ve expanded and grown in different directions and also now offer Spotify Playlist promotion for a small, select group of underground indie artists doing unique indie pop music.

AU: How did your association with Hootie and the Blowfish happen?

NW: That was brand new. It came from starting the first rendition of this company 4 years before it became Team Clermont. I started another company with a woman named Caroline Burruss, who is still in the music business. We were Revolution Promotion Management at the time. We split it off after 4 years of that company. I bought out Caroline and we started Team Clermont with the same staff, and that included my business partner now Bill Benson. We decided we wanted to start a PR firm in 1993, and I had a few local Athens bands, different members from the group Groove Trolls and Kilkenny Cats and people like that, she said, “Great, I want to move to Athens and start up this company. I found a band out of Columbia, SC with this strange name called Hootie and the Blowfish. They came to us and gave us $800 and said, “Just tell us what to do.” They already had 5 songs on a CD, Kootchypop, one of them being “Hold My Hand.” We helped them with radio promotion, publicity and at the time, we were doing some distribution and they sold probably 35,000 maybe 40,000 copies of those very first five songs. They thought of it as sort of a demo, but they wanted to sell it, and it sold like crazy and 6 months later, Coran CapshawDave Matthews Band Manager at Red Light Management called and said, “We want to know what you did for Hootie, and we want to do the same thing with our independent.” And so, there it went.

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Nelson Wells, photo by Jason Thrasher

AU: You call yourself a “boutique agency,” obviously there are very few that do exactly what you do.

NW: What separates us is, I think, in addition to traditional and new media and public relations, we do radio promotion and we still deal with around 400 stations in the US and Canada. Those are public, college, and NPR (National Public Radio) stations; and most PR firms don’t deal with radio. Another thing that separates us is remaining as small as we are and really working hands-on with the artist. And it doesn’t matter if they’re a signed artist or major labels or completely unsigned, it all comes down to the music for us.

AU: What do you do for groups who are already established and yet want more PR or promotion?

NW: In those cases of larger, more established artists, like the most recent release by Prince, a pop legend and idol of mine. Mostly what we do is radio promotion. So rather than coming from a publicity and PR standpoint, we worked directly with their companies for college, public and NPR radio. And that’s where the labels were hiring, not necessarily the artists. Obviously, we did lots of different work for David Byrne and his label. We’d deal with his label manager on multiple projects whether it was his or other artists. Being in New York so much over the years, you do see all these famous people all the time, artists, and whatever, but the only time I ran into David Byrne, he was on his bicycle. (laughs)

AU: He did a book on traveling around on his bike called Bycicle Diaries.

NW: And I loved that. He was riding his bike and I was walking across the street and we basically ran into each other, and he was very kind and apologetic, and didn’t need to be.

AU: What about working with R.E.M.?

NW:  Same thing. Originally, before we became Team Clermont with the other company, my business partner put together a compilation CD that was gearing up for I guess the Olympics when they came to Athens in ’96. And there was a compilation not for sale, but to just put music out up from Athens and she approached the R.E.M. office. And so that was our first contact with them. They did contribute a song to that compilation with was called Bucky’s Finest, a promo CD compiled by my old business partner Caroline Fry. Just this morning I was working out with Kevin O’Neil, and said “Hey, let’s talk shop when we’re not at the gym, and he said “We can talk shop right now.” “And I said, alright let’s talk radio promotion for Michael Stipe’s new song, Your Capricious Soul, and he said, “Yeah, absolutely. There is no label, there is no coordination, it is Michael saying, Here’s what we’ve got. And telling me what he needs posted on the website. He has a publicist in New York, but I’m gonna put you in touch with this publicist and you guys can discuss radio, and anything like that, and he’d prefer to do it underground, no machine,” and I said, “Well, we’re happy to act like non-machine. Who’s putting it out?” and he said, “Just him and Andy LeMaster,” and I said, “I have been begging Andy LeMaster to just do something with Michael for 20 years. Record an album and the two of you just do it and don’t listen to anybody else. And here it is 20 years later. They’ve always been a great team and Andy could pull things out of him, I think, as a producer that not a lot of other people have been able to do.”

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Team Clermont, l to r: Adam Tercyak-Morgan, Nelson Wells, Bill Benson, Frederique Van Saeftinghe Hodges, photo by Jason Thrasher

AU:  You’ve seen music go through obviously many transformations from digital back to vinyl, cassette releases, the DIY thing where you can record an album with just a computer or an iPhone. Where do you see it going?

NW: Well, I’ll say it is an interesting time, and that is a loaded question because you’re asking formats of releases versus where is the industry. But Bill and I fortunately have seen it go through so many iterations from, ya know vinyl, cassettes as demos, and vinyl as releases to CDs as releases and MP3s. We’ve seen the ups and downs, but right now we’re in this position where Spotify is still a big key player, and we don’t know 5 years from now if it’ll even exist. But it’s such a key component that’s in peoples’ minds as a way to hear and consume and to discover. And Bill’s a lot bigger user of Spotify than I am. I still really don’t use it that much. I think the industry doesn’t use it much because we have to work with music before its released and everything with Spotify is after release, so we prefer SoundCloud if someone is going to send us a link. I don’t have an easy answer but to me it is nice to see vinyl resurgence, and if people still have cassette players in their cars, great, ya know, bring back cassettes as far as people need them, if there’s a demand. But what I miss and what I still see happening for years and years is people focusing on a song other than an album, or a few songs rather than an album. I grew up with albums, and opening up the big fold, and enjoying every part to the lyrics to the credits to the art-work and so I still purchase plenty of single songs, but my hope is that I will end up buying the album every time. And it doesn’t always work out that way. There are certain artists where I’ll only buy the album. I don’t want to hear just one or two. Bon Iver or The National puts out a single I’m going to buy it immediately and pre-order the full thing. So, I will still do it digitally, and sometimes like behind you, you see The Glands full vinyl boxed set.

AU:  What’s your take on the difference in the sound experience of the various formats?

NW:  That’s a concern for me, too.

AU:  Are you a true audiophile?

NW:  Well, let’s put it this way, I didn’t join TIDAL, which I should if I want full hifi sound on digital. So I’m a believer in high fidelity digital but have not invested in TIDAL. But to answer your question, yes; I like high fidelity sound whether digital or vinyl. Long ago I invested in decent stereo equipment to listen to music on whether I sent the songs from my computer or not. To me high fidelity equipment and quality sound is important.

AU: What happened to Neil Young‘s Pono? He really tried to push the fidelity of the music.

NW:  It’s gone away, I think. But that was the idea and for me. I can’t listen on computer speakers, they’re terrible. I’m realizing streaming is destroying fidelity, and the next generations, they’re mostly not going to know what music sounds like on a big, warm, you know, a stereo. And there will be the few audiophiles who grow up and realize, Oh there’s more to this sound out there.

AU: Were you surprised by Kindercore shifting from a label to processing vinyl?

NW: I’m excited for them to be here and to be filling this space. I love that they lept off the cliff and said let’s go full on vinyl and now they’re a manufacturer instead of a record company. But they’re filling a niche. They’re not releasing albums as far as I know. They’re just pressing vinyl and their timing was great. They came to me and Bill and they talked to us about helping to find investors, and we did that and we’re supporters.

AU: The resurgence to vinyl is definitely significant.

NW: I think it will stick around because it is a niche thing for an artist. You can make money selling vinyl.

AU: All of the re-issues being done.

NW:  You know when we are speaking about music delivery formats or artist’s rights there’s one facet of this that I almost didn’t think of, but is always in the back of my mind. When you think about the future, and I can’t obviously predict the formats music will be delivered in, but Blockchain, and the fact that Blockchain is becoming something that is gonna get bigger and bigger. But it’s going to be a way for the artists to protect their rights and protect their song files as well as make a better living releasing their music. Everything In Its Right Place, a recent book by George Howard, helps educate one for the future.

AU: Can you go into it further?

NW: There is encryption involved. Distributed ledger technology is DLT and what was developed around the very first Blockchain was the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. Since then many Blockchains have come along and just the fact that they’re distributed ledger technology allows that database, the ledger, to live online and on many thousands of computers worldwide so it’s transparent, and it’s immutable, and it will always be there. What some really sharp musicians and technicians are getting together and creating is an outlet and ways for artists to have their actual song files protected and to be able to control how they distribute those. These technologies are based on this platform of a ledger or a database and there are what’s called smart contracts that can work on a Blockchain. What those technologies allow artists to do is literally set up a database file around an album, not only the song files, but all the credits, every piece of information that we would call meta-data on a CD or a song file. Each piece of data connected with the music has it’s own line of code sitting within the “chain” of data, and the artist can even say, each of these songs is worth 99 cents or whatever they feel like and then anytime anyone fulfills a smart contract by clicking, you know to send a monetary amount, whether it’s dollars or bitcoin or some other digital currency that fulfills the smart contract, will release that song to the “buyer” and they have the rights to what they’ve paid for. Not only that, the Blockchain shows the history of everyone who has the right to that song. It could be the right to listen and play the song or it could be the right to use the music in a sync license for play in a film, ad or show depending on how the buyer fulfilled the smart contract. There’s the potential to really cut down on pirating music, and there’s this full-on control and also protecting their airplay rights as well so the artist can issue it to the people they want to issue that song file to. That to me is something we’ll look back on in 15-20 years and go “Wow, remember when that all started?”

AU: How does that relate to putting something on, say, Bandcamp?

NW: It will all eventually start in a Blockchain file. It’s all a digital file side of Blockchain and Bandcamp and all of the streaming companies like SoundCloud and similar will be issued the license to carry your music through x, y and z and your own smart contracts. So then it’s always controlled by the creator and not necessarily a publishing company, otherwise once the digital file is out, with the potential for everyone to be copying it, right? So maybe we share a digital file, but we can always see where that file originated from and who’s owned it through that ledger. That, to me, is part of technology that we can see as the future actually happening before our eyes and feeling fairly certain we’ll look back on it as the time when this commonplace technology took over old standards. For me, Blockchain really makes this an exciting time in technology and in music.

AU: Is it the right decision for every artist to fully copyright every song with the Library of Congress?

NW:  I think it’s smart, as well as registering with one of the PROs, the Performance Rights Organizations like BMI, ASCAP, or SESAC.

AU: You say that music changes the world, or seems to be a kind of rally call. Why is music so important to you and how has it changed your own life and your own thinking about business?

NW: There’s a big question. And I do say that music can change the world simply because I think it’s a language, and it breaks down language barriers because all of us who can hear and all of us who want to hear can sit with music and hear something that someone around the world is listening to at the same time, and they may hear the same thing or they may hear something completely different. But I think music has always spoken to me even before I was a musician and I don’t consider myself a musician now, but I played instruments in middle school and High School bands. So for me it’s that simple. It’s a language that breaks down language barriers. It can also help to create memories or feelings or emotions which, I believe, we as humans react to or are moved by. A song can take me to a place where I wasn’t just 30 seconds ago; it can take me to a memory where I haven’t been in 10, 20, 30 years. That’s why it still feels very important to me in my soul and it’s a big reason that I do what I do obviously.

AU: Where are some of your newest artists and genres are you working on right now?

NW: Everything has to have a label, right? A genre. I’ll start with descriptions and genres, but the majority of what I am into, and what we are as a company are working on, is what we consider college pop or indie pop, and that is a starting place and that means different things to different people and for the most part for us, it’s meant independent labels release these artists and they have a certain aesthetic about them, not necessarily a certain style, but doing things their own way and not subscribing to larger social norms, or corporate norms, right? And that mentality for us still plays a big role in what music we seek to work and who we seek to represent. That being said, we obviously work with many, many different artists including major artists with major label contracts, and then it just comes back to the question: “Are they doing something for us that is creative, that we want to support and put our name on? Do we want to put the Team Clermont brand and name on something and stand behind it?” And that’s key for us. We work with singer/songwriters, Americana, indie rock acts or indie pop acts, and a wide variety of what we call college pop. You know we haven’t done much in the world of Hip Hop or Heavy Metal. But for years we worked with Danger Mouse (Gorillaz, Broken Bells), who is a creative producer, artist, and songwriter. We’ve worked with him since he was a college kid. He came to us with his own recordings and also re-mixes and tapes he used to make. So our style covers the gambit in that spectrum but when it comes down to it, we do either college pop, avant-garde, or Americana singer/songwriters or somewhere in that realm and we’ll occasionally touch on Country music and Modern Americana country. Some of the other recognizable artists we’ve worked with are Norah Jones, Sigur Ros, Half Japanese, Shovels And RopeWilco, Daniel Johnston, R.E.M., and established indie labels such as Dreamy Life Records, Cornelius Chapel Records, Half Japanese and Palo Santo, as well as self-released artists like Sufjan Stevens and The Gift. Another great new group we work with is Ancient Whales

AU:  Sadly Daniel Johnston recently passed away. Did you meet him?

NW: Daniel, as you can tell from his music, is a really unique character, and part of me doing what do is because I can appreciate what creative people like Daniel are doing and I can remain behind the scenes. I’ve never really wanted to step out on the stage. I wanted to let them shine. So very seldom have I ever sought to make sure that I met the artist and spoke with the artist. And Daniel was one of those who I’ve seen many times on stage in a quaint, small venue where he was just 8 feet from me playing. I appreciated and loved what he did and who he was for so long that I didn’t want to breach that fan/artist line and so I never did. But I do feel very lucky that I was able to see him perform many times and in his own town and you know, not just Athens, but Texas, New York and other places. But Daniel, what timing, it hurts that we just lost him.

AU: Any thoughts on the new Amphitheatre being constructed in town?

NW: I really have very little comment on that, I just don’t know. All I can think is they’re gonna draw from the Contemporary Christian music scene, the Hip Hop music scene, and the country music scene as well as the mainstream rock world because, yeah, what else is gonna fill those seats right here between Columbia and Atlanta. It’s an ambitious endeavor

AU: Do you give support to groups on tour?

NW: Tour support in the way of tour press we do, yes.

AU: How much lead time before you begin your promotional efforts?

NW: It’s fairly straight forward. If we’re doing national press on a release, we base that on the release date and usually the 3 months building up to that release date is very typical for press. For someone going on tour we typically like 5 to 6 weeks in advance to start working on those dates. And that’s just to coordinate with the writers and people interested. And those are more weeklies and dailies newspapers and online sites. The majority of what we do is national press and it’s always been a 3 month lead time, but these days with so much being digital and online it can be 2 to 3 months. With radio promotion our team can set up a campaign to NPR, College and Public radio stations just 4-6 weeks in advance and carry out the promotion campaign just before or just after release date. The impact date at radio is called an “add date,” the date we ask stations to add an album into their rotation at their station. We also offer a few other services like digital distribution. Unlike Distrokid or TuneCore we do not take a payment up front to distribute artist’s music to digital stores and retail outlets; we take a flat rate percentage of sales as most distributors do though our partnership with The Orchard. which makes us a digital distributor. Another service we have created partnerships to provide is “playlist promotion,” which most people refer to as Spotify playlist promotion that I mentioned earlier. We’ve got partners now in a number of different countries and around the states who promote songs directly to playlist creators and curators to get the most plays and listeners for those songs and artists on the right playlists. The results are mostly on Spotify because Spotify spins and plays what most clients want, but we don’t forget about important music streaming services like SoundCloud and Bandcamp which are also powerful tools for songwriters and unsigned bands.

AU: You support a number of charitable causes. What’s you’re feeling on helping others as you do?

NW: I am sure you’ve probably seen the list of charitable organizations I contribute to around Athens and beyond. In general I think I’ve just always naturally supported the underdog, even as a kid I have done that. Maybe that comes from being the smallest kid in the class. I always had bigger friends take up for me, whenever I was picked on or bullied. But I think later on for me, I just supported the underdog and so any chance I can contribute to those who have needs I will. And when I find that case, my desire is to try and look at what I have and give someone what they don’t have if I can do that and so it covers so much, you know, from the homeless to the abused, to gay rights groups and  anybody who’s ever been put down and downtrodden.

AU: Who are a couple of your favorite new artists? Who’s happening right now that you’re excited about working with?

NW: One favorite who keeps coming back year after year with great, great releases is Kazyak. I just compiled my year-end list and they are on it. My tastes are all over, but I like my eclectic mix. Here’s my Top 10 List of Best Albums of 2019:

Bon Iver – i,i,

Kazyak – Odyssey

The National – I am Easy to Find

Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow

Tummyache – Humpday

Aldous Harding – Designer

Red Hearse – Red Hearse

Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising

Faye Webster – Atlanta Millionares Club

Laura Stevenson – The Big Freeze

Post Malone – Hollywood’s Bleeding (honorable mention)

 

Kazyak is a mid-western band who is doing something that I would call Experimental Pop, and they to me are sort of filling the void that was left by bands like Granddaddy and The Flaming Lips when those guys started producing less and less albums. That’s a big one for me who we’ve been working with. Another act that I just adore is a Nashville artist who goes by the name Good Service and again it’s one of these bands who is for all intents and purposes a one-person band. He’s an artist who has different sounds, works hard, and is terrific. I think he is a Noah Gunderson-type or Gregory Alan Isokov-sounding artist and all these really creative singer/songwriters I think are just coming out with beautiful material these days. Those are 2 great artists who I don’t work with but I admire. Right now I’m working with Jon Patrick Walker. Again, talented singer/songwriter doing his own thing. He reminds me of almost a male Aimee Mann. He’s got really different styles and sounds, and is an actor by trade but I think a musician by passion.

 

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