As founder of Prodigy International, artist manager and talent coach Robbie Danzie works with independent musicians, actors, and models to take their entertainment careers to the next level. Her passion for what she does is fueled by her own unique path in the business: first, as lead singer of the successful female R&B group, Krystol; second, as a dinner theater performer and seminar leader in Japan. (You can hear the interview in its entirety on BlogTalkRadio.)
What were your starting blocks to becoming a manager?
First of all, turning off Robbie Danzie, the artist, and trying to turn on Robbie Danzie, the manager. Not letting the two mix so much. Because what happens with me, being an artist, is I tend to look at things from the artist’s point of view. That’s good, but I needed to start thinking in terms of, “How do I handle the business of a particular song? How can I market it, how can I promote it?” I had to start thinking with the other side of my brain: business, business, business! And just starting to handle the paperwork, documentation, and contracts — all these things that these artists need. Starting to handle that for someone else was fun, but also something that was new.
My client K.D. Brosia was like my guinea pig. I had first gone to Japan in 1991; but it wasn’t until 2004, when I met him and we became friends, that I got into management. He asked me to manage him. After some deliberation, I agreed. For a time, I was actually touring with him both as an artist and his manager.
Was making business connections initially a hard thing to do, or was a lot of it in place already with your background in performing?
You would think it would be in place; but a lot of people I wanted to reach out to, I didn’t — because I wanted to make sure that I had everything organized, and a good product. I understood from being in the industry that you cannot knock on the same door twice, having had nothing truly to present the first time. They don’t give you many chances to come back. So, I waited a bit and made new contacts. And I was already in that circle, so when I would meet people I would announce, “My name’s Robbie Danzie; this is my artist K.D. Brosia, who I represent.” I was establishing myself as a manager, not as an artist.
You mentioned that K.D. Brosia approached you to manage him. Was he just starting out, or was he an established act in Japan?
He was semi-established. He had a Japanese manager at one point, and recorded a CD there. He had been doing things on a local level at some of the clubs and performing at weddings. I took it from there, and got him into the Cotton Club in Tokyo. He was the premier foreign performer at that venue; he actually helped open it up.
When I was able to get that for him, it made me feel like, “Oh, maybe this is something I can do!” Then I got him a couple of tours with Japanese artists Anri and Ai. As a manager, you want to be able to take your clients a level up, and not make them stagnant. Once I felt I could do that, I suggested to K.D. that we get out of Japan and get to America. So, we moved here in 2007 to prepare to launch his CD.
Has the stateside experience been very different than the Japanese one?
Yes. Life is different; but the money is not. We haven’t really made any money. I hate to announce that, but people need to know the reality of it. In Los Angeles, which is a very difficult place to launch a singing career, there’s a lot of competition. People are fickle all over. Musicians are hard to get and keep together. You’ve gotta have cash. K.D. is an artist who requires a band; he’s not self-contained. So, that part is a challenge.
With the venues here, it’s pay-to-play. Any time I want to expose my artist to an audience, I have to pay the venue. I have to sell a set amount of tickets at a certain price. Sometimes, I have to make a deposit in order to get him in the venue, so that they can make money off of him. For example, I might have to pay them $300, then take the 30 tickets which are $10 apiece, and bring in that many people.
There may be one club out of a thousand that doesn’t ask that. This really frustrated me, so much that. not too long ago, I established a show called “Ambrosia Be-bop,” which we did in Little Tokyo. We had a monthly concert spotlighting artists that we felt truly represented the music industry well, in performance and vocal technique. We didn’t charge them anything to do it. They just would come in, and I was handling the business side. Because of the cost to myself, I wasn’t able to keep it going longer than six months. But I hope to start it again at some point in the fall.
How would you describe your management style? What makes Prodigy International and Robbie Danzie different from other managers out there?
What makes Prodigy different is that I am an artist that was fairly well in the mix — maybe not established, but fairly deep into the mix. I got a chance to experience quite a bit of the industry as an artist: not only as a singer, but also as an actress. I met quite a lot of people, and benefited from their wisdom. I like to make that a part of my management — and I do tell people that want me to manage them that with me comes that side. I can’t separate the fact that I was an artist. So, if I hear a bad note, I’m going to mention it. If I see you stay too long in center stage, and you’re doing theater, and I think you should have thought more about that, I’m gonna say something.
This can be good; it can be bad. It can be frustrating for artists whom I represent, but they need to know that up front. So, I would like to believe that I will forever only represent artists that I feel are truly gifted: don’t need gimmicks, tricks and games, diversions and distractions. I have felt strongly about the artists that I have had the opportunity to manage — K.D. Brosia, Ron Clements — and I’m actually going to take on another artist very soon. She’s an awesome singer and dancer.
I don’t care how old a person is; I don’t care about their religious background or ethnicity, it doesn’t matter to me. I just want to represent people that are truly gifted, are focused, are willing to sacrifice to make their degree of success happen. Whatever success is to them, I want to be able to make that happen.
You mentioned bringing your own artistic experience to the table. Let’s talk about your professional beginnings with the group Krystol. How did you come to join them?
When I was at Drake University in Iowa, I met their previous manager, Kevin Thomas, who started managing me. He said, “Robbie, if you ever go to L.A., I want you to look these girls up, call this number, and let them know who you are.” So, after I graduated from Drake, I went to St. Louis and spent some time with bands there for a year. Then, I got antsy and went to Los Angeles. I immediately contacted Krystol’s manager, Myrna Williams. She informed me that the lead singer, Karon Floyd, was about to go on maternity leave, while they were completing their second album, Talk of the Town. They needed a replacement lead vocalist to do some of the promotion work. I said I’d love to audition.
The next day, we had an appointment. I went to her home, and she auditioned me, and liked me. That same day, she took me to Ndugu Chancellor’s house, and I auditioned for him right there at his piano, which was awesome. He liked me, so she got even more excited and said, “Let’s go to [producer] Leon Sylvers’ house right now.” The girls happened to be there in the studio, and so then I had to audition for them, and… by the end of the day, I had this gig. I had the job to sub for Karon. In the course of recording this album, unfortunately, one of the members, D’Marie Warren, died. She was leaving Leon Sylvers’ house in Laurel Canyon, and her car went over a cliff.
Tina Scott, Roberta Stiger and me represented Krystol on the promotional tour. During this very sad period of time, Karon Floyd opted not to return. So, they asked me to stay on permanently. All of this happened for me when I came into L.A. within a week. At the same time, I also I joined a theatre group and was part of a pretty big play, so I was picked up as an actress and a singer literally within days after I got there.
Those are some good breaks.
It was very overwhelming, though, for a St. Louis girl! By the time I completed the play, Krystol had finished rehearsals, and we were on the road. It was really an amazing situation that I think I took somewhat for granted, because it happened so quickly. It was so very easy for me: I never did a demo, a resume, or anything.
Did you have any expectations going into the group and being signed to a major label? Was the reality similar, or different?
At the time when I joined, I was overwhelmed. But all I knew was that all my life I’d wanted this. I wanted stardom, in the sense that I wanted to be able to do my music and share it with the world. And here was this opportunity. So it was really a learning experience for me. And I do feel that at that point in my life, that particular goal was fulfilled, because we truly got a chance to travel the world in promoting the album.
So, it was all happening really quickly. Then, you actually became the group’s sole lead vocalist for the next two albums. Can you comment on that scenario, and how it affected the group?
This had to be the grace of God. What would happen is, the group would be presented with demos for possible placement on the albums; and we’d make our choices with our executive producers. We would go to these producers and they would have a sing-around at the piano with, for example, Randy “La King” Jackson.
Is that Randy Jackson from “American Idol” whom you’re speaking of?
Yeah,”The Dude”! And it just kind of happened. It was never stated, ‘Robbie you’re the lead singer’; but it was the producers’ decision. It was overwhelming, once again, because the pressure on a lead singer, I learned, is more extensive. You’re doing the leads, but you also have to do the background parts.You can’t not do the background [laughs]! I had a great time; but there really was no pay.
What exactly was the lack of money about??
Well, unfortunately and fortunately, we were with one of the top labels at that time: CBS/Epic — now Sony. We were labelmates to Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen; so we were kind of lost in the shuffle. I tend to believe that we were sort of a tax write-off. From what I experienced, there was not much put into us. We never were fully paid, because there wasn’t much promotion done on our behalf via the company. We were performing all over the world; we were wearing sequined dresses and custom-made leather outfits that we ourselves designed; we were riding in limos and going to these parties with Luther Vandross and everybody! We were having a great time. But the reality of it was, I was living in a very small studio apartment and cooking on one eye. I wasn’t living well at all, but I was “living the life” at the same time. It was really a very interesting period for me.
That’s very interesting, considering that Krystol actually obtained its biggest success with the Passion from a Woman album. The group had two top-20 R&B hits and a music video out. Yet, just as that success happened for you; it seemed like the group’s activity started to lessen.
I don’t believe that we were meant to do as well as we did. It was our management team who were our financial support. They were our encouragement. They supplied us with the video for “Precious, Precious” and flew us to Jamaica. We did that video on location with their money. It was a very low-budget video; we did our own makeup and hair. We also performed on “Soul Train.” All of that was through our management. In my life, I’ve had fantastic management. They were supportive, believed in us, and gave their all. And it was just too much to have to give to make us what they thought we should be; so, unfortunately, that had to be relinquished at some point.
What was your next professional step after Krystol dissolved?
Once we were actually dropped from Epic’s roster, a few companies wanted to talk with us about signing. At that point, I wasn’t interested. I chose to go back to theatre, and did some plays with some pretty well-known directors here in Los Angeles. I did The Gospel Truth with Mickey Stephenson, who was once with Motown; and I got a chance to work with Chris Rockmore. Once those plays folded, I opted to answer an ad in a paper. It was a cattle call for dancer-singers. I had been a dancer before, so I answered the ad. After about five or six callbacks, they chose me to go to Japan. It was for a dinner theatre show, and they posted that they were looking for ”a black girl, a brunette girl and a blonde girl.” It’s probably one of the hugest things that’s ever happened to me. There were literally thousands of people auditioning. From that, I was somehow able to get into the music really heavily and was propositioned to record several solo albums.
What was it like performing dinner theater in Japan?
That was alarming because, unlike in America, where audiences yell and shout, the audiences in Japan seemed almost stoic. They’d just stare at you. I was like, “What’s going on?” It was like some strange scene out of a movie, and I didn’t understand it at first; but after you finish, they applaud. They’re just very polite. We were all feeling unsure, because we were an ensemble, doing all these different styles of music. We had a jazz segment, a ’60s segment, an ’80s segment. I was doing a lot of Mariah Carey. I thought maybe I just wasn’t performing the songs properly. After the show, we would always get these rave reviews. But we didn’t get that during the course of our performances, and I was so used to feeding off of the energy of the audience that it took me awhile to really be able to generate a great performance from complete silence!
How experienced were the performers in the ensemble?
All of us had been just kind of swooped up from L.A. and flown over there. We were treated like kings and queens, though—we lived very, very well. The money was phenomenal. I have to say, the money that I was making over there truly changed my life. I realized, “Wow, there’s money to be made in this business!” I could actually make a living and tell my parents that I’m doing okay now.
How did you end up developing into a solo artist over there?
Again, a new process. I was approached by someone who heard me sing at one of the dinner shows, and they said I should go and talk with a couple of producers. They set me up with meetings, liked me; and I ended up doing a couple of CD’s under my own name and with The Masters of Funk.
I believe one of those albums was released in the U.K., as well.
Yes, (Love) Undeniable was very successful there.
You mentioned that authenticity is an important part of what you do as an artist and manager. It seems like representing artists without gimmicks can be a hard way to go in such a fast, trend-of-the-moment culture. What is the tradeoff that makes it worthwhile for you?
Well, I’ve obviously chosen some difficult goals, given the fact that my artist, K.D. Brosia, happens to be neo-soul. First of all, that genre is very difficult to push, because hip-hop reigns right now. Then, the fact that he’s a purist in his writing, and we’re not electing to speak about sex, or have him gyrate onstage. He’s a true vocalist, very soulful, and it makes things a lot more challenging than if we just did something that was gimmicky, and used auto- tune and all that stuff right off the bat.
I will not relinquish integrity. If he’s satisfied with what level he’s achieved now; I’m satisfied with it. We don’t want to turn the tables around, so to speak, and then start offering sex. He doesn’t need to do that. So he’ll forever have his pride, at least, and his dignity, if not a gold or platinum record.
Another client of yours, Ron Clements, is a model and also an actor?
Yes, he’s a model and actor. I have actually just relinquished management of Ron. He was offered a very nice deal with a film, and I felt — and this is what I tell my artists all the time — that he’s now at a level at which he should secure management that is far more knowledgeable in that industry than I am at this point. He’s definitely about to do some fantastic things, and it feels good to me, because I know that I was instrumental in helping to get him to that place. And if ever I get a chance to manage him again; if I should acquire more knowledge, which I pray I do, I would love to. He’s a fantastic person. And representing an actor was very different from representing a singer.
What were some of the chief ways that it was different?
Well, the main challenge for Ron and I was that he’s in Texas, and I’m in California. That was really difficult, but it can work. Primarily, I was promoting him; doing resumes, bios; talking to people; sending out his pictures. But one of the main challenges of being a manager for an actor, as opposed to a singer, is that there is a different circle of people. Also, as a model, he had to have his reel done. I would have to go to one agency that promotes singers and then another agency that promotes models and learn that craft. I needed to learn the terminology that best represents what he does. It was challenging: a great learning experience.
What makes a truly gifted model?
I think that you have to have a certain degree of confidence, regardless of your look: whether you’re tall and statuesque, or you’re short and pleasingly plump—it doesn’t matter, as long as you are confident. That is what the designers need you to exemplify when you’re wearing their things. As with anything, when you’re entertaining, you must be confident. Not only must you be confident in what you look like; you must be confident in how you walk; how you carry yourself; the different expressions on your face. That’s why I think Ron is good at acting, because he has had to do that on the runway trillions of times. And in his picture-taking, he’s had to do different moods just through facial expressions. So it makes him a very strong actor, as well.
I’ve heard that you do coaching, as well. Can you tell me about that?
Justin, you are good!
[Laughs] Well, thanks! I try to cover all the bases!
Well, I do vocal seminars. I used to do them in Japan, mainly. I would go around to the musicians’ institutions in Japan, where there are about twenty of them. I would do three- or four-hour seminars teaching music students about writing: the importance of lyrics and story content; and maintenance of the vocal chords. I did PowerPoint presentations. 95% of the students were Japanese, but I did 99% of each presentation in English.
I’ve always been curious how it is for an American artist or professional going over to Japan, when you’re speaking English primarily. In a classroom setting, they may really want to learn what you have to say and share with them. But in everyday life, is it more challenging?
It is challenging. It’s profitable, because the work is good — though their economy has not been its greatest at this point either. You learn what you need to learn for getting around town. If I wanted to take a taxi, I needed to be able to give directions. If I’m in a restaurant, I want to be able to order food without just having to point. To try to speak some of the language and just be respectful is important. I’m in their country and I want to be able to relate to them in the way I should; dress the way I should; study the culture to some degree. So, that’s what I did.
Here in the U.S., you’ve recently put together several industry networking and mixer events. What is the concept behind those, and who is involved?
Yes, I just did my first mixer, which was inspired by a gentleman named Mike Ashley from the U.K., and Terry Bello out of Atlanta. Terry does a pretty huge mixer called the International Soul Music Summit. It’s actually happening August19th. They inspired me to do this on the West Coast, because there’s not been — up until the one I did — a mixer, conference, or summit like that, that’s totally geared toward enlightening vocalists and musicians. My purpose was to give back. I call it the Independent Music Mixer, an invitation to all independent artists in L.A. or outside to be presented to people that could enlighten them on their preliminary steps into the industry.
On the panel, we had an entertainment attorney, Igbo Obioha. He represented the legalities of contracts and collaborations. Then we had Eric Nuri with New Heights Entertainment. I know him from my CBS days with Krystol. His company is responsible for the launch of Lady Gaga’s career; and they have recently signed Siedah Garrett. I also had the CEO and manager of Sting Ray Entertainment, Ramone Edwards; as well as a representative from Warner Brothers, Camille Wyatt.
We didn’t have as great a turnout as I’d hoped. But I have to believe that those were the people that were supposed to be there. And had I been able to do greater promotion of the event, maybe more people would have understood the importance of something like this, that’s given for free.
These people don’t do this for free! This is their livelihood. So to have all four of them there, giving of their information and wisdom freely like that… you would have thought everybody would have been there!
You mentioned Eric Nuri’s New Heights as being a launching pad for Lady Gaga’s career. Did his company present her to Interscope?
I don’t know specifically, but I know that they take the artist and help to develop their writing skills –which puts a better light on the artist as you’re presenting them for possible signing with a label.
For aspiring managers, would you say that networking is the most important skill for breaking into the field?
First, I would encourage people that want to be managers to be willing to be — and I don’t say this negatively — sort of a glorified babysitter. You’re not going to get paid. It’s not something you go into to earn cash, necessarily, because the majority of the time, you don’t. I’ve not been paid one cent, really, since managing K.D. And a lot of money has been sunk into the projects, so I had to be willing—and it was because of my belief in the music. So, I would encourage managers to take on artists that they truly believe in; because the market is hugely challenging. So, in order to get out and to promote or market your artist, you need to believe in them. I would advise having a bit of cash, because you’re going to need some money even though it’s not your responsibility to finance anything. There are things that come up: if you want your artist to look nice on a performance, maybe you need to do his or her hair, or provide the clothing.
You also need to be willing to give up your time. I have to be on call 24/7. Anything that K.D. needs; I need to be there. Anything that Ron needed; I needed to be there. You make grand sacrifices. You’re in the light, so to speak, and you’re getting some popularity. But mainly you’re there to support that artist, to make sure the artist is taken care of.
Do you have to make ends meet by working another job
Well, that takes us back across the Pacific! I still go on tour with artists in Japan. I go back for that definite dollar, and I work very hard for a few months. Then, I come back and put that money into projects; events to further promote the artists that I represent. That worked for me fine up until last year, when I decided I didn’t want to leave my business that long.
So, yes, you need a job. I was just hired by a company called Hori Productions Entertainment. It’s out of Japan, but they have an L.A. office. I’ll be teaching students to sing — little kids. I have a background in teaching, so it was a break for me to have that opportunity to get back into the classroom –and to teach something I really, really love: music!
You studied journalism and psychology, right?
Yes, my undergraduate study was journalism and psychology; I did do a little bit of grad work in clinical psychology. I love school. I did some bio work at Howard University. I also taught for a while — never having had a certificate for teaching — at Green Belt Middle School in Maryland. I was working on my certification. Then, I taught for one year in L.A. in special education.
Did your studies in journalism and psychology help shape how you pursue being a manager, or even being an entertainer, in recent years?
Yes, journalism for sure. I studied radio broadcasting. It has helped me to be able to speak to people somewhat confidently. I don’t like talking in public; I’m sort of shy. It’s also helped me in terms of being as articulate as possible, and even in my writing skills.
Looking to the future, are there any other areas you’d like to explore?
Well, I figure that Prodigy International encompasses so much, wherever that takes me is my focus. If that takes me to places where I can enlighten people about the industry of music or theatre, then that’s where it takes me. If it takes me as an artist into another country to perform, because it would represent me, then that’s good. Once I have staff, of course, I can then be free to do some of the other things I like to do as an artist. Success for me is just reaching out and connecting with people, and encouraging and inspiring people to do and be the best that they can be.