Interview with Artist Manager Steve Phillips – ‘Give yourself time…’
‘Give yourself time…if you’re happy in yourself, you will be a better artist!’
Hello Steve! Thank you for agreeing to this interview, we are delighted to be chatting with you. Would you kick off by telling us a little bit about your background as it isn’t the usual pathway to artist management?
No, not at all usual! I haven’t been to agent school!
I worked in television and radio for most of my twenties but had always sung and wanted to explore the idea of taking it up professionally. So, I trained at the RSAMD (Royal Conservatoire of Scotland as it is now) and sang for various companies afterwards. I think it was a Raymond Gubbay contract when we first met.
Yes, I think we met on Aida.
It was indeed Aida, in 2012. I was in my early thirties and doing extra chorus contracts for Scottish Opera and Garsington too. My husband is a tenor and we did lots of contracts together, but it became clear there might be another way to make a career in opera…without being a singer. Ironically, it was in the dressing room at the Royal Albert Hall, doing that Aida, when I saw the job advertised for Chorus Manager at Opera North. I was offered that job and stayed in post for five years, spending two and a half years on the Senior Management Team and meeting colleagues at the other national companies. I then went on a management training course with Opera Europa in Peralada, Spain, which was a real highlight. I stayed at Opera North for three years afterwards looking after small-scale projects, a foreign tour to Ravenna and, latterly, in the casting department. These roles gave a breadth of experience in how an opera company functions, and I combined this with running Oxenfoord International Summer school and relaunching the Leeds Lieder Young Artists programme. It’s fair to say I came across a lot of singers and started thinking I’d quite like to be an agent. But… I hadn’t been to agent school!
I decided to leave Opera North and went into company management at The Grange Festival, delivering their 2019 season and preparing for 2020. Then, of course, IT happened… and very suddenly the entire industry shut down. During the 15 months of lockdowns, I was fortunate to be asked to look after the Welsh National Opera Chorus and fixing choristers for Opera Rara’s recordings and concerts. Around this time, I revisited the idea of becoming an agent so I could help freelance singers more directly. Covid was awful when it happened, however, had it not happened I might not have decided to go for it. Or perhaps I would. Who knows?!
Fantastic, and I think there are a lot of singers who will be pleased that you have made the jump. Especially as you have the understanding of having gone through the career yourself. With that in mind, you know what it is like to be a singer hungry for opportunities. How best can singers approach agents, without being hassling?
That’s an interesting question and I’d suggest the same principles apply to how singers approach professional contacts more generally.
The first thing to acknowledge is that it’s easy to feel ignored if you haven’t had a reply to an email, though It’s worth remembering that agencies and casting departments are enormously busy, and it could simply be that your email has slipped down the pile. Just think how many singers are contacting companies for N/A’s, auditions, asking for feedback, sending updated materials etc. This is alongside administration to run the department, planning future repertoire, holding auditions, creating rehearsal/performance schedules, facilitating touring periods and seeing singers in performance elsewhere. So, my advice would be not to take things personally. I’m not saying it’s right not to receive a reply, but it’s the sort of unintentional thing that can slip between the cracks unfortunately.
You can help yourself a little, however, and I’d suggest that brevity is key when writing to an agent or company. You might spend time crafting an email with long paragraphs, really taking the reader on a journey; but with up to 130 emails received each day, it’s possible they might think: ‘I can’t read that right away, I’ll leave it until later’. And then your email doesn’t get read at all. Brevity is important and gives the best chance of your email being scanned in the moment. All you need to say is this is me; this is where I’m at, these are my updated materials, and I would love an opportunity to sing for you. That’s it!
Make sure you’ve spent time formatting your CV so that it can be scanned at a glance. For instance, think about using columns, ordering by most recent date, formatting roles in bold etc. There are many choices you can make regarding headings, what you put at the top of the page, how different elements are aligned etc. Just be consistent and give most prominence to what you want the reader to know most about you. Check for spelling and accuracy too, particularly with roles and repertoire in foreign languages.
As agents you handle biographies, therefore do you like to see a biography on a CV?
I like a CV that I can scan, but which also has the necessary breadth of detail if I need to know more. I therefore don’t mind two pages, although some competitions and young artist programmes do ask for a one-page version. I find two-page CVs allow you to make choices about what to give most prominence to on page one (i.e. roles/performing experience) and then what goes on page two for context (i.e. education/masterclasses/languages). You can also space sections out and show a broader range of experience more clearly. Don’t forget to include your photo, contact details, voice type etc at the top of the first page too.
To answer your question, I do like a small biography paragraph just below the photo because it is a rare opportunity for the singer set the narrative. Perhaps you’ve changed voice types or had a career break, or have had children, whatever it is, you can set it up in those couple of sentences. It’s not a biography and should be kept short, maybe three sentences: what you’re most proud of, what you’re doing now, and what’s coming up.
Save your CV as a PDF to ensure that careful formatting remains consistent on any device. You could also embed a direct link to your website or media page where you have videos. If there’s a video that you’re particularly proud of, send a direct link to it in the body of your covering email too. As a casting assistant, I might be listening to twenty or thirty singers before my next casting meeting, so make it as easy for as possible to get to that content. And, if you can, delete any old footage you’re not happy with online; managing your digital exhaust is so important.
What do you look for in videos or sounds files? And do you have any tips?
I would advise having recent video recordings, showing the best of where you’re at vocally now. Single takes replicate the audition experience as closely as possible, but this may not be possible when singing longer arias with extended recitative/cabaletta sections. You should probably refresh your materials every two years, and this might give a reason to reach out to an agent or company (i.e., ‘please find attached some recent recordings’). However, I wouldn’t ask for feedback. It’s a huge time commitment to actively listen and provide meaningful first thoughts. That is something I would do with my artists, but I couldn’t commit to it more generally. Videos are being used more and more to initially scope out singers to hear in audition – so take the time to get this right. It is tax deductible and is worth the investment.
It’s also become so much cheaper to make these recordings now.
Yes, Jan Capiński is good (https://www.capinskirecordings.com). He provides great end results and good value for money with his drop-in service where the equipment, piano, venue, pianist etc are included.
Ah yes. Lovely Jan Capiński. The National Opera Studio also recently offered recording sessions for £125 which is great value.
Yes exactly, and Jan is £130. So, you could essentially record two or three arias for £130, which is brilliant, or you could also do it yourself with a zoom recorder. If you do, just make sure you understand the settings to make the balance as good as it can be for your voice in that acoustic. Make sure your face, eyes and gestures are clear too.
In this instance, would you expect to be offered a ticket or to buy your own?
I would never expect a free ticket. If I knew the company I would likely phone ahead to see if I could get in, but if I really wanted to see the performance then I would pay (probably looking at the cast list first to see who’s singing). However, if it’s a completely cold email and you’re trying to build a relationship with an agent then you should offer to organise a ticket, as that makes it as easy as possible for them to say yes. They would still need to travel each way, which is both time and expenditure, so the offer of a comp goes a long way.
Yes, if all goes well, you will have a long close relationship.
Exactly! You need to be able to pick up the phone to your agent when you’re at your lowest and to have mutual trust to talk things through. For me that personal contact is crucial, and I would advise singers not to accept the first agent's offer received, certainly not straight away. It’s worth meeting up to make sure that that relationship is right for you. If not, perhaps it’s better to not have an agent and to wait until you find someone you do connect with well.
So, what happens after you have met and you decide to work together?
The first thing you need is a contract. That will save all sorts of ambiguity later and it’s important for expectations to be clear on both sides.
I have noticed that some agents will test out a relationship before formalising a contract. They may engineer a couple of auditions for a singer and see how they go before issuing a contract. Is that something you do?
It’s not something I do. Organising auditions is hugely time-consuming in terms of fixing dates and times (often requiring N/A’s around other contracts), sending CV’s and biogs, liaising about audition repertoire/extracts/dialogue and chasing final decisions/feedback. That’s all done in lieu of a prospective fee (as the singer hasn’t got the job yet!). In other sectors, an agent would be paid a retainer for ongoing administration and contact with companies on their client’s behalf. I therefore prefer to spend time seeing a singer perform and then to meet them, building rapport and seeing where our common connections are. That way I feel more informed about our potential working relationship, with mutual respect as the starting point.
Yes, and whilst it may seem some work comes direct without agent involvement, it’s important to consider offers of work can be due to the exposure and reputation given to you by the agent.
There is a school of thought that once you’re on a roster you’ve already been shortlisted, and more opportunities will inevitably come your way. This doesn’t mean you can’t get work if you don’t have an agent, but it can open more doors. That being said, my contracts detail that we both have responsibility for generating work and finding opportunities. It’s a joint effort.
Absolutely. And, when you are out there working you sometimes get little snippets of information, and can work with your agent to use it constructively together.
That can be useful, but the singer’s grapevine can also be inaccurate…sometimes based on rumour and hearsay. So, ensure it is reliable information! Also, a singer may hear that a company is auditioning, but their agent may already know they’ve not been invited to sing. So, it’s worth remembering there may be other context and factors at play.
Yes, certain singers are wonderful in certain niches - eg. character roles. How do you manage situations where the artist desires and auditions for the romantic lead, but still gets offered the character role?
Before auditions, I often ask what the singer is going to perform, and we have a constructive dialogue. The longer you work with someone, the more you get to know their voice and what’s appropriate to offer in different circumstances.
It can be difficult for singers to know what they want from their career. It reminds me of this phrase someone once said to me: would you rather have a definite or a maybe? For instance, knowing everyone is desperate to cast you as a character, but you prefer playing the romantic lead. That could mean a choice. Singing those romantic roles with local companies on smaller stages over travelling all over the world performing character roles on international stages. Both choices are completely valid, and they may or may not end up on the same stages with time, but it’s not just about career level. Work/life balance and personal fulfilment are also important.
That’s what I find interesting about artist management, and not just being an agent. I don’t actually like the term agent; artist management implies a relationship and someone who will help you with your longer-term career trajectory.
So, when a singer is working with you, do you like them to stick to office hours when contacting?
I haven’t been doing this for that long, and my previous work for companies had different expectations about out-of-hours working, so I’m still finding my way with that. It varies according to the artist too, as they all have different ways of communicating; some prefer email, some WhatsApp, some text, and some voice note! I completely appreciate that a singer might be in rehearsals at 21.30 and understand if I receive an email then. That’s probably something I’ll need to manage, but if they’re having problems, I want them to know they can contact me.
I always like to ask this question! What is your top piece of advice for young singers who are starting out?
This might be contrary to what other people say, as many will advise singers to get on with it and get out there. However, I would say give yourself time. Don’t sing the wrong repertoire because you’ve had a job offer and risk ruining your voice. Don’t work with people who make you terribly unhappy. Yes, we all need to work, but you always have a choice. You need to prioritise all sorts of things in your life, and if you’re happy in yourself, you will be a better artist. What can be good about having an agent is that you have someone else to bounce ideas off.
Agreed. People are often encouraged to just say ‘yes’ to everything, but risk running themselves ragged.
This is something that crops up a lot. Any freelancer has gaps in the diary, which is the nature of being freelance, but there seem to be more gaps post-Covid. I would suggest trying to re-frame those gaps as opportunities. Using periods of downtime to work on language, or vocal technique, or repertoire passages you’re having problems with, or a new role, or do something different entirely. There are so many constructive things you could do which will inspire your creativity and reframe those periods more positively.
With singers, do you mind if they have side hustles?
No, not at all, it’s actually quite sensible and realistic in the current climate. Things are definitely gaining momentum but there are still fewer opportunities to audition than there were pre-Covid and companies are still not planning as far ahead as they were (not just because of Covid cancellations/honouring postponed contracts but also uncertainty around funding/audience numbers etc). I just ask that my artists tell me to avoid confusion when diary planning, fixing auditions or organising jump-ins.
A singer shouldn’t say yes to a job offer without discussing it with their agent either. There might be another contract already in the early stages of discussion. Before being drawn into fee discussion, your agent might also be able to negotiate a learning fee if you haven’t sung the role before, or get accommodation/travel added which can make a real difference financially. Communication is key, and there are always ways your agent can help, so keep that dialogue open before agreeing to anything otherwise.
Thank you so much Steve for all your wonderful insight and advice, it has been such a joy to chat and I know our singers will appreciate your words enormously.
Take a look at the Steve Phillips Management roster here - http://stevephillipsmanagement.co.uk/