With their rise to international popularity over the last year, The Strumbellas have written a highly impressive Canadian music success story.
A crucial character in the story is their Toronto-based manager Joanne Setterington. Her music publicity company, Indoor Recess, has long been at the forefront of that sector, but handling The Strumbellas has been her first foray into artist management.
We asked Setterington to reflect on The Strumbellas' rise to the top and analyse some of the reasons for that success.
Earlier this week she returned to Toronto after observing the band win in the Best New Rock/Alternative Rock Artist of the Year category at The iHeartRadio Music Awards in California.
Clearly still buzzing from the Awards night, she noted that “iHeartRadio is a huge supporter of the band. They are also a great company of people that we’ve gotten to know over the last year. Winning in that category was an absolute honour for the band. It brings gravity to the situation of what happened to The Strumbellas last year.
“Watching the performances and being having the band be celebrated amongst them was really awesome. We were stunned to be sitting at a table next door to Miley Cyrus, Chris Martin and Justin Timberlake. It’s still pretty shocking for this band from Lindsay, Ontario.“
To Setterington, the award was “a beautiful ‘hooray!!' to the work The Strumbellas and Glassnote [their US label] have done in the US. This band left home last February and didn’t come back until December 24th. Daniel Glass said to me that a big part of the success was that I/ the band never said no. We said yes to absolutely every opportunity that I thought could help this band break in the US and other markets around the world.
“It was challenging, exhausting, intimidating, exhilarating and now it’s ridiculously rewarding to know that it paid off. There was a lot of faith on the part of the band, they trusted in the plan and honestly worked harder than anyone I’ve ever known. It looks like fun, but I went on the road as their tour manager for the year, and the road is unforgiving - it’s full of terrible sleep, not great food, ridiculous travel times, and they all just put on their backpacks and did it. I’m so proud of what we did in 2016.”
She reminisces about a chat she had with singer Simon Ward back in Sept. 2015, recalling that “we had coffee in a small cafe in the lower east side in NYC, after some meetings. We were wasting time before their show at the Rockwood that night and they had just played to eight people the night before in Boston.
“At one point during the conversation, he got frustrated and said to me ‘you treat us like we’re Mumford and Sons’. I told him that’s my job. It all starts with me. As a manager, you have to feel like you know something special, and you have to keep talking and working and pushing until other people see it and believe it too. I’m a pretty determined person, and I wouldn’t work with music and artists that I didn’t think had the potential to be gigantic.”
Setterington is full of praise for Glassnote head Daniel Glass. “He is passionate, energetic, and enthusiastic. He’s involved in every aspect of the record company and there’s nothing that he’s not willing to discuss and put on his plate. The company is small, I could name you every single person that works there right off the top of my head. There is a Glassnote person at every single show the band plays in the US and pretty much anywhere in the world. They have great partners with Universal and Caroline in Europe and they’ve made the band a priority at all times.
"All any manager can ask is that the label is as dedicated as management is to making things happen. There’s never a doubt in my mind of Glassnote’s commitment to this band. A good relationship between a label and band management should be a thoughtful relationship, and one of respect and that’s what we have with Glassnote.”
The Strumbellas made a mark in Canada before setting sights Stateside, as shown by the group’s 2014 Juno Award for Roots & Traditional Album: Group, forWe Still Move On Dance Floors,
Setterington explains that the band went into the US “with a fresh slate. No one knew the band’s history. They were embraced as an Alt Rock band and then people discovered their earlier music.
“It did become a triumphant part of the story there; hardworking, critically acclaimed band that had been out there making music for seven years that had broken through.
“In Canada, everyone had an idea of who the band was. They were an indie folk band. Canadian radio really embraced [hit single] ‘Spirits’ and supported the band’s evolution. I like that about all of the programmers up here.
“It was really important that the band’s first gold single happened here at home. Six Shooter, Universal and Amanda McCauley here at Indoor Recess PR have been in the trenches with us the whole time, firing on all cylinders. “
Six Shooter Records came on board to license the band’s second album, We Still Move On Dance Floors, and Setterington is thrilled with the relationship. “Shauna de Cartier has been and is a great partner and champion of the band. She’s always enthusiastic, extraordinarily intelligent and open to how the band wants to release their music.
"The band and I really wanted a label partner that understood our vision. Sarah Sleeth is a key person on the Canadian team, at the helm for marketing, working closely with Stacey Kerslake and everyone at Universal. The Strumbellas are very adamant about what they want, and Six Shooter’s response has always been ‘let’s get it done’.”
Stateside, Setterington and the band are closely involved with Glassnote’s work in breaking The Strumbellas.
“I talk with Lauren Resnick, the label’s publicist and Nick Petropoulos, head of radio, every single day,” she says. “Glassnote is an artist driven label and everyone that works there respects how the artist wants to be presented to radio, the press, and to fans.
"The Strumbellas have had absolute say over every decision. My relationship with the band is completely transparent, and that relationship has carried forward to our relationship with the label. “
Setterington notes that “as a publicist, I’ve been sitting on calls with US labels for years. They have been discussing radio, press, marketing and promo and I’ve been soaking it all in. It was ridiculously exciting to be in the middle of it all.
"Daniel Glass and Nick (head of radio) called me on January 5, 2016, and said ‘KROQ added ‘Spirits’ and I didn’t say anything, I just started crying. Daniel laughed and said ‘Nick, she totally gets this’. No regrets or apologies for that emotional outburst, we all knew what that add meant!
"Glassnote’s radio team is the best. Their marketing, publicity and online team are super strong. Their tour and artist relations folks jumped in right away and worked on the strategy to make sure that we were hitting all of the radio hotspots. It’s been phenomenal to have the Glassnote team stand with us.”
The Strumbellas career ascent clearly owes a huge amount to “Spirits,” the breakthrough single from the group’s current album Hope. The track has sold double-platinum in Italy, platinum in Canada, and gold in America and Germany.
“The song was the spark,” agrees Setterington. “’Spirits' just needed to be heard and then people believed in it. The band’s songwriting is dark and raw. They write about things that we all feel but are afraid to say out loud. The response from people around the world with PTSD, depression, facing bullies at school, and other struggles has been overwhelming. People hear it and think ‘dude, you read my mind’.
“The six of them get up on stage and have a great time, everyone in the audience can relate to them because they’re down to earth, honest people. They laugh at themselves, tease each other and make the show a really intimate gathering. I saw them perform 'Spirits' live more than 300 times last year - and they played their best, whether it was a club, a radio session or a stadium. People want to like them because they’re truly a dark horse. “
“Young & Wild,” the third single from Hope, came out recently, and Setterington says “things are heating up with it. The appearance on Conan last week, and the new video are a great support. The album came out 11 months ago and it has had tremendous momentum. We’ll be working this album for the rest of the year.”
That will involve plenty more shows, at home and abroad. Setterington clearly puts strong faith in the band’s Canadian agent, Julien Paquin.
"I’d be lost without him. He’s been the band’s Canadian agent since the summer of 2011. He has been involved with every aspect of the band’s career because he should be.
“Touring is paramount in a band’s career. He was instrumental in working with me on the world strategy once the single started to blow up. Tom Windish, Jackie Nalpant and Marshall Betts are our team at Paradigm for the US. They started working with us last January and the first offer they brought to the table was Lollapalooza. They set the bar high with that one, and have not disappointed!
“I talk to all of them every day. I really needed people on board that could take the spark that the single ignited and turn it into a sustainable touring career. 2017 is full of the cream of the crop US festivals including Bonnaroo, Governor's Ball, and Sasquatch. The band will do a headline tour this fall as well."
Continuing, she offers that "great festivals are on tap for Canada - straight across the country including The Big Festival, Festival d’Ete and Montreal Jazz Festival.
"The band will also go to Europe in July. We work with Kai Lehmann at Listen Collective for Germany, Austria and Switzerland and Paul Buck at Coda for the rest of Europe.
Next up for The Strumbellas is the Juno Awards in Ottawa. Not only are they are up for three major awards (Fan Choice, Single and Group of the Year), they will also perform on the show.
Setterington observes that music is borderless.
"I’ve never looked for acceptance by the Canadian industry specifically. I’ve always looked for supporters of music.
"It’s like anything, recognition from home is important. Wherever The Strumbellas have gone in the world, and someone mentions the Juno that they won in 2014, all of their faces light up. I love that.
“This is a band that doesn’t take anything for granted so we were nervous and hopeful when the nominations were announced this year. They’re such fans of other Canadian bands and feel it’s a real honour to be named alongside them.
"And to be invited to play in the Juno Cup… that was pretty high on the list too! We’re all really excited to go to Ottawa and be a part of the celebration."
The close relationship between Setterington and The Strumbellas goes back seven years, she explains.
"The lead singer, Simon Ward, sent me the silliest and most endearing email in October of 2009. I listened to their MySpace (files) and absolutely fell in love with their song, 'Underneath A Mountain.' I went to see them at the Tranzac Club in Toronto, and told them I’d be happy to do publicity for them when they had a new album.
"I met them a few times and we talked about the music industry and I suggested some managers. And then a couple of months later, I told them that I had zero experience, but I wanted to manage them. We’ve been together ever since. I had a lot of people tell me to not become a manager, to stay focused on being a publicist because I had such a strong business.
"Anyone that’s met me knows how well that went over with me. Being a publicist has strengthened my ability to be a manager, and being a manager has strengthened my skills as a publicist.
"I was approached to be a manager many times over the years, long before I met The Strumbellas. I never liked the idea of being responsible for someone’s career decisions so I declined the offers. The Strumbellas were different. There was something about the songs and the people that made me want to wholeheartedly jump in. I like them. They’re six intelligent, strong minded individuals that believe in me as much as I believe in them.
"Aven Hoffarth joined Indoor Recess last March and has been in the trenches with the band and me through the wonderful chaos. She is the lead manager here for five-piece Toronto band, Long Range Hustle. They’re great and I love working on strategy with Aven for them. There is another band that I just signed on the management side. More on that soon."