Marat Berenstein is a trailblazing entrepreneur in the realms of artist management and sync licensing, as well as an accomplished music business educator at NYU's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. Diving headfirst into the entertainment industry, Marat began his career as a personal assistant to fellow Columbia University alum and music icon, Art Garfunkel. He presently owns and operates his one-man enterprise, The Marat Berenstein Company, pitching music for placement and managing the likes of Matt FX Feldman, wunderkind music supervisor of Broad City fame and global DJ, and Synead, Trinidadian songstress and leader of Millions March NYC. In our thoughtful discussion, Marat sheds light on the ever-evolving responsibilities of an artist and their team in the digital world and his profound influence on the next generation of music makers and moguls.
You studied at Columbia University and went on to take a job as a personal assistant and tour manager to the legendary Art Garfunkel. Tell us about your early beginnings. What were your most valuable insights gained during the early phase of your work in the music business?
Funny enough, my studies at Columbia really didn't have much to do with what I’ve ended up doing. Growing up in an immigrant household in the late 90’s, I was really studious. Academics were super important and I did really really well in high school, especially on the math and science front. The high school I went to was called Edward R. Murrow, named after the famous broadcaster. Ironically enough, my high school was known for the arts, particularly broadcasting, television, and performance, but I stayed away from all that. I was sort of stuck in the bubble of pursuing a career in math and science. You know, striving to become a doctor or a lawyer. Those were the pathways that my peers and I were made aware of. Because I excelled in high school, I had the opportunity to pick where I wanted to go to college. I fell in love with Columbia, so I enrolled in their engineering school to major in computer science. I thought I’d end up in tech and had random jobs on the side at small start-ups to support myself. The engineering school was incredibly rigorous and demanded a lot. In order to thrive, it has to be your true passion.
Unfortunately, as soon as I got to campus, I saw what else was available to me in the world and realized the last thing I wanted to do was computer science. I wasn’t in a place where I could shift to liberal arts and figure it out, so I didn’t really manage to jump out of it until later in my collegiate life. I ended up joining a fraternity and a student-run club called Columbia Organization of Rising Entrepreneurs, which really interested me. We put up on events, raised money from alumni that were venture capitalists, held business plan competitions, and recruited great speakers. It was very enjoyable. There was no credit or money involved, it was just a fun student thing to do. In my junior year, I ended up taking over leadership of the club. That same year, I struggled to pass a required artificial intelligence course for my major. I tried to pass it twice but it felt like Mandarin to me. My soul and spirit changed into a completely different direction and I was just getting by. My parents, God bless them, supported me through school and it was a dream of theirs to have their son attend an Ivy League university. I didn’t want to leave and I definitely wanted to graduate on time, so I met with my advisors and ended up switching majors to operations research with a minor in computer science.
Growing up in New York City, I was immersed in hip-hop culture, paid attention to the moguls, and always felt attracted to the common thread of entrepreneurship. You know, Puff Daddy, Jay-Z, Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin. I watched MTV, I read Rolling Stone and Vibe, I followed all the blogs. I was enamored by it and always fantasized about doing it myself. I wanted to participate in the business world but something with the cool factor of music and culture. I started managing my friends who formed a great band during my senior year at Columbia. We got to the point where we booked our very first off-campus show in downtown New York. Like most college bands, they ended up getting into a big blowout and broke up. That was my first little taste of management and I realized that it was very similar to my work with the student club. The word “musicpreneur” was being thrown around a lot. It sparked something in me.
After graduation, I moved back home to live with my parents and conceived the idea of starting a site with my friends, which would function something like LinkedIn for music. We made an attempt at it, but it never really got off the ground. During that time, we were doing a lot of networking and getting our name out there. Long story short, it didn’t work out. This was during the Myspace era. Facebook had just launched, but this was when you still needed an edu e-mail address to sign up. My friends and I registered for an account, but we ended up closing it because connecting with people we knew wasn’t that appealing. It wasn’t what it is today.
A few months later, an admin from the Columbia career center, who I was friends with, sent me an e-mail that read "A famous Columbia alum is looking for a personal assistant. We can't say who, and we can't say what's area of work it's in, but it’s a paid position. If you'd like to apply, click here.” I sent in my resume and a week later, my friend followed up to tell me I was on the short list for the job. I said, "That's great. Can you tell me who?”. I was convinced that this was George Stephanopoulos. I don't know why, but I thought it would be someone in foreign affairs and policy. From my senior year until that point, I applied to some jobs in the music business, but I could not get them because I had zero experience. During my time in college, I did not have the time to intern and get that experience because I was on a completely different path. My friend from the career center goes, "By the way, it's Art Garfunkel." That's when I freaked out because he is the biggest music name to be an alum of Columbia University.
My dad grew up in Soviet Russia, where only certain kinds of things were allowed, but somehow, he was able to get foreign imported records and listened to Simon and Garfunkel. Of course, being in America, I was familiar with the music and to me, he’s a legend and an icon, but I was floored that it was a paid position. What a great way to start in the music business. I ended up writing back a really long stream of consciousness email about how important this opportunity was to me. The following week, the phone rang and it was Art Garfunkel. I was hired right away and for the next year and a half, I embarked on what I would consider to be an intense, mind-blowing learning experience. We toured Europe, we toured the states, and we did one Simon and Garfunkel show, which was actually the Hurricane Katrina relief effort at Madison Square Garden. It was a difficult gig, but I learned a ton. To this day, we’re still friends and we keep in touch once a year. I feel fortunate to have seen that side of the business in that way and I still carry valuable lessons from that time with me.
What made you gravitate towards the career path of an artist manager and sync licensing? Did you know what you were getting yourself into or did one thing lead to another?
Being a personal assistant to Art Garfunkel was 100% the turning point. I believe that every artist manager should start out as a personal assistant to someone of a high caliber, someone of that level of artistry. At the very essence of it, the purpose, goal, and mission of a personal assistant are exactly the same as that of a manager. You are literally there to help the artist. As a manager, you are challenged to do it on a different scale and participate in the reward, both financially and in other ways. However, a personal assistant job gives you a clear idea of what the possibilities are on a lower level and you’re performing many of the same functions. The role of a manager was inherent to me. By being on the road and helping Art, I knew I would succeed as a manager. I knew that I wanted to use music as a platform to see the world.
I also gravitated towards sync licensing, but at the time, I knew nothing about it. I remember coming into work one day and Art was extremely happy. I asked him how he was doing and he replied that he was very excited because that morning, he and Paul Simon found out that "Mrs. Robinson" would be used in the Rob Reiner movie, Rumor Has It. You know, the Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Costner homage to The Graduate. This obviously wasn’t the first time that "Mrs. Robinson" or any of their other timeless hits had been synced, but I remember him turning to me and saying “Can you believe it? We did the work 40 years ago”. That’s the power of a great song. I didn’t really grasp it until later because I was caught up in traveling with the band and performing the functions of producing shows. That is labor, that’s hard work. At the time, it was shocking to me that they didn’t have to get on an airplane, perform a show, or go anywhere. I was so impressed by his excitement about the fact that they created something 40 years ago that would continue to generate value, both financially and socially.
I learned so much during my time working for Art. After we’d finished touring, there wasn’t much left on the calendar and I sensed it was my time to go. I left the job with Art’s blessing and pursued artist management and music licensing with the money I had saved up from the road. These have been my two worlds ever since. I've always been entrepreneurial, I've always hustled. Truthfully, I’ve never actually had a proper job in the business.
Starting out in music licensing, the one thing I didn’t know was that you had to have relationships with music supervisors and I learned the hard way. At first, it didn’t really work out but the more people I met, the easier pitching music became. I eventually ended up pitching music from Decon Records, which is now Mass Appeal Records, and we were doing lots of great sync work. One day, someone from MTV called me up and said, “There's a new show coming, and there's an 18-year-old supervisor attached to it. How would you like to meet him?” That's our pal, Matt FX.
On the management side, I look after Matt FX as well as a stunning artist, that he’s producing, named Synead. She is a star, if I’ve ever met one. Such a talented and amazing person, who is known for her activist work. She co-founded the Millions March NYC. She and Matt met in high school. I look after them both and we’re very excited about the future. We self-release all of the music.
At the end of the day, the artists are the ones that are running the show, if you will. Whether we're personal assistants, managers, or teachers, we're there in a support role. We're there because we're fans of theirs. We’re there because we love their work and we want to see them win.
Were you ever a musician yourself?
I was never a musician. In the third grade, I was attracted to the trombone and played in the school band. That lasted until the 7th grade, but then I didn’t like my music teacher and wasn’t as excited about it, so I dropped it. I never picked up another instrument after that. It was clear to me that there were people who were really good at music and my career has evolved into helping them reach their potential.
You are an adjunct professor at Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. Can you tell us how this opportunity came about?
For the past six years, in addition to managing, I've been a faculty member at the Clive Davis Institute. I run our high school programs there. We have two that we’re very proud of. One is called Future Music Moguls, which is our Saturday based spring high school program. It is our diversity initiative. We look for students that we believe to be unrepresented at both NYU and in the industry. It is a free scholarship program. We select 18 students every year and spend 14 Saturdays with them in the spring. There's another teacher who works with me. Her name is Nicole Otero. She's a DJ and a producer, so she teaches them about everything from digital audio work stations to recording techniques. They use our facilities, I teach them all of the business topics, and then we bring in great guests. A couple years ago, Pharrell came and we named him the 50th anniversary Tisch School of the Arts artist in residence. The Clive Davis Institute is part of the Tisch School of the Arts, which is a part of NYU, so we did a big talk with him. One of our founding faculty members, Jason King, interviewed him at a venue called Town Hall, which holds about 900 people, and we were able to invite the greater NYU community.
The next thing Pharrell did with us was a little bit more intimate at our studio at the Clive Davis Institute. He was paired with Bob Power, who is a legendary engineer in the world of hip-hop and goes back with Pharrell about 25 years. Bob is known for engineering groups like A Tribe Called Quest. We ended up creating a master class, where several of our graduating seniors played Pharrell their music in exchange for his feedback. It just so happened that one of them was a student named Maggie Rogers. She played him an original song called “Alaska”, which no one had heard at the time. He turned to her and said, "I don't have any feedback for you." What's really cool is, a couple of months later, this moment went super viral. She's phenomenal, she's out there, she's really killing it, and we're super proud of her. We have a lot of great students and alumni!
The second high school program is called Summer High School, which is aptly named. It is a four-week pre-college high school camp, which attracts students from around the world. It's tuition-based, they receive college credit, and we have lots of fun. We go on fun field trips, we go see shows, they take numerous free classes with us. A number of candidates from that program end up at the Clive Davis Institute as well as from Future Music Moguls. I'm able to help and work with students from the high school level all the way through when they end up at Clive. As far as college-level courses, I teach one of two electives now, one is management and the other is licensing.
At the end of the day, I’m not creating anything, they are. They're the creators, they're the artists, and it’s my job to guide them. I give them feedback, advice, and help them strategize, and offer my ideas, but at the end of the day, it’s their career, whether it’s academic, professional, or a combination of both. That’s what makes the Clive Davis Institute super unique.
What are the lessons you feel most passionate about sharing with the next generation of music industry professionals? What do you think today's college students need more of in their education to compete and thrive in the new music industry landscape?
Today's college students need to be practitioners. They also need to have teachers and people around them with a little more experience that are also practitioners in the world we live in now. We are moving at such a fast pace, it is not that difficult to fall behind. There’s never been a better time than now to be an independent artist. There's never been a better era than now to be in full control over the creation of your art. You choose how you brand yourself, release, promote, and market yourself as an artist and your music. On top of that, there's never been a better time than now to make money and sustain a living from your art. You can own your rights, own your masters, and own your publishing.
We have Spotify, we have Apple Music, we have Amazon, Tidal, we have TuneCore, CDBaby, DistroKid, Stem, all these things right here. You can make music on your phone or on your laptop. You can release music right now. At the tip of our fingers, we have the most powerful broadcasting media centers that we have full control over. You can make a living and be the artist you want to be without needing much. You just have to make great art. Finding an audience costs nothing. You just have to figure out how to communicate with them.
If you have phenomenal music and fantastic visuals, people will respond. I don’t believe there is a smash hit hidden in the long tail of the internet. What I mean is that we have massive hits on the major streaming sites and then there’s everything else, which we call the long tail. I believe that if there is something out there that moves people, it will be heard. Look at the ways people share and how things have the capacity to become viral through all these apps and services. Hits will not be stuck in the darkness of the long tail of Spotify or YouTube.
There’s not much mystery left on social media because it exposes everything. The artists of today have the opportunity to broadcast their every move. You have to fire on all cylinders. There are multiple dimensions to the internet and they are tools to make art. I know how this is going to sound, but you can post your oatmeal on Instagram, or you can turn your entire Instagram account into a work of art. How you do that is up to you. You can be as creative as you want.
You know, why can't Twitter be your stage? I know emerging artists that do phenomenal things on Twitter. I know emerging artists that communicate directly with their fans. Out of nowhere, they will DM a fan and help to change that fan's life that day. Streaming video through Snapchat or Instagram Live have become new stages for performance. Of course, nothing replaces the feeling of a live show, but these dynamics exist to attract new fans. They’re not going anywhere and only becoming more ingrained in our lives. These new functionalities are presenting opportunities like no other. Once you get to certain point, you can be like Frank Ocean and delete all your accounts, but he still uses Tumblr as a way to communicate with his fans and share his performance art.
In 2014, you launched the Marat Berenstein Company. What was your motivation for starting your own artist management, licensing, and concert photography enterprise? What are the core values of your company and what is your overarching mission for the future?
My motivation for starting my own enterprise is not difficult to explain: I never had a job. My former company was called Hit Me Music and I kind of grew out of that name and wanted to retire it. The acronym is MBC. I want to leave behind a legacy, so that’s why I wanted to name the company after myself. My overarching mission is to help artists and play a role in music education. The company is an extension of me. I had no choice but to be enterprising because that's all I know how to do in my career.
Can you tell us about one of your proudest moments as an artist manager?
In the summer of 2017, Matt FX played at the Colossal Clusterfest, which is the first ever comedy and music festival produced by Comedy Central and Superfly. It was in San Francisco and Broad City has their own stage. Matt was DJing while Abbi and Ilana were performing. To all of our surprise, they called him onstage. He came out from behind the DJ booth and joined them in front of about 10,000 cheering people. It was a super cool experience. Obviously, Ilana and Abbi are the stars of Broad City, so they get recognized all the time, but when a music supervisor for a show gets recognized, that’s really special. Fans were coming up to Matt with vinyl copies of the Broad City soundtrack asking for autographs and wanting to take selfies with him.
What are the most important characteristics you look for in a potential client before entering into a formalized agreement? Are there any main deal breakers?
There are always deal breakers. First of all, I have to be a fan. I have to be a fan of their work, I have to be a fan of their art, and I have to love their brand. When I say these things, I have to also see the potential in where they're going to be years from now. I have to visualize their trajectory in my mind and hope that it lines up with what they want to do. Our visions have to align.
They have to be a good human. They have to want to do good work, help other people, and create art that will make an impact. This goes both ways for the manager and the artist. Historically, the music business has not been populated by good humans, so it’s our responsibility to change that, especially given everything that is going on in the world. Good humans are the kind of people I’m attracted to and want to surround myself with. Even if I knew an artist would make me a millionaire, I would stay as far away from them if I knew they were ethically challenged. Let me put it this way. There are certain artists that I’m such a fan of, but I would never want to meet. I don’t want to take the chance of not liking their art anymore, because to me, these things are not separate.
At what point does an independent artist need a manager?
At the point that they can no longer function as an artist without help. In other words, they are no longer able to make art, they're no longer able to go into the studio, they're no longer able to do the thing that they've been put on this earth to do because they are getting hit up with so many opportunities. At that point, they need a filter, great advice, and real help. They need someone to stand in front of them, to protect them and to be an advocate for them.
When that time comes, it's different for every person. You might go viral and everyone's hitting you up. When all you're doing is answering messages, DMs, and emails, you’re not making art. You need a manager to step in. When you have the leverage and you are the hot thing on the market, you can pick the manager you want to work with.
You don't have to be at that point to have a manager. It could be early on that if you have a friend that you trust that wants to help you and that’s great. If you find yourself in a position where there is low traffic and you’re perfectly capable of dealing with what is coming your way, then my answer is that you are better off managing yourself until things change.
In your opinion, what distinguishes an artist who is destined to succeed in club settings from one that has the potential to fill arenas?
I think that any artist, someone busking on the train, could become an arena act or play in stadiums. As long as the opportunity is there for people to experience that artist, there are no limitations anymore. I don’t think there have ever been more ways to see an artist than in 2018. We all have cell phones, it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen. Listen, when you go to a club and an artist is doing their thing, someone could Instagram Story it and it could become viral. A month later, they could be filling arenas. Of course, it doesn’t happen exactly like that, but it’s happened and it could happen again. It is a function of audience and scale.
What are the biggest obstacles in transitioning someone with potential and raw talent into a fully realized artist with sustainable career prospects?
I think the challenge is life. At the end of the day, all artists, whether they are raw and full of potential, or they're fully realized, or they're superstars, they are fundamentally human. They need to eat, sleep, hydrate, exercise, and be healthy. They need to have time for their families and loved ones. Sometimes, we forget that as fans. Sometimes, artists are tired like the rest of us. The biggest challenge is helping artists understand that they need balance to keep going. When that balance doesn’t exist, it becomes a challenge. How do they maintain a life of being an artist, being a public person, being a brand, being a business, being someone that employs a lot of people, being someone that a lot of people rely on for their living? At the same time, how do they get proper rest, nutrition, and function as a human being? When do they get to live their life and enjoy what the success of a fully realized artist can bring?
It’s really, really hard because expectations are super high. You want to talk to people, especially your fans. You want to answer everything, you want to take selfies with the people that support you, but what if, at that moment of your day, you want to be an introvert? We’re not perfect. We’re never going to be on 10 at all times. It’s not possible. So, striking that balance is the hardest challenge.
Relationships are worth their weight in gold in the music industry. Who have been some of the most prominent figures in your career thus far and how have they been meaningful to your journey?
Someone that I respect and look up to a whole lot, and in some ways, model my career trajectory on, is a guy called Troy Carter. I think he is one of the best talent managers of all time. He’s making a big impact at Spotify now. As you know, Troy managed Lady Gaga and many other acts, building a great business, employing a ton of people, and making a lot of fantastic investments. He also has an awesome family.
The best thing about Troy is that when I was coming up, he took the time to talk to me, answer questions, when he didn’t have to. That's something that I'll never forget, and that's something that I do, in return, for others. I think he's an incredibly smart, bright, and amazing person. He embodies all of the qualities that we've been talking about. The good human thing, the wanting to help first and foremost thing. That's who I'd like to give a big shout-out to.
Have the advents in technology and the rise of social media changed the role of an artist manager? In your opinion, what are the advantages of the advancements in today's world?
Of course. It’s easier in the way that you can reach anyone, find anyone, and keep up with absolutely everyone. It’s difficult because you only have a certain amount of time each day and you have to prioritize. Being on the internet is a full-time job and so is managing and so is being a human. It’s opened the kinds of doors that have never been opened before and created opportunities that have never existed before, which is a positive change. However, the negative change is that your time has to be thought out to balance everything and stay on the pulse. You have to consider what messages you need to answer, what’s important, what’s urgent, what needs to happen. These are all things that take up a lot of time. Decisions have to be made rapidly and more than ever, you feel pressure to do it all.
Are there any unusual tasks or outside of the box skills that you've developed that are not customarily included in the traditional role of a manager?
I think one of the main skills has been documenting what your artist or client is up to and maybe what you’re doing as a manager. In the past year, I’ve taken to photography and I really enjoy it. Being great at social media is an art. I think being a practitioner of technology, social media, and streaming is not something you can opt out of. It’s no longer something that can be pushed off on someone else on your team. You have to understand the internet and be up to speed. Managers never needed to know these things before.
Once you've worked alongside your client to attain a certain level of success, how do you ensure that the hustle does not plateau? What are your tactics to motivate the people you work with and continually lead them to bigger and better opportunities?
I don't believe in motivating the people I work with. I'm lucky that the people I work with do not need motivation from me. They are self-motivated. I think that's super important. If you need to motivate your artist, you should probably look for another artist to work with. There's no shortage of talent. There are so many great artists and potential stars out there. If they're not motivated, then there's no point and it’s time to find someone else.
If you could add any artists alive or dead to your management roster, who would they be and why?
Prince! I don't know how manageable he would be, but I would choose to manage Prince. He's the most genius artist in the history of artistry. He played every instrument, he wrote, produced, and performed everything, he helped make other artists great. He's like 20 to maybe 30 musicians and creators in one human form and he wasn’t even a big guy.
As a manager, it can be very hard to separate your own life from the demands of your clientele. How do you make time for yourself and stay balanced while operating at the highest level professionally?
Yoga. Friends and family. Binging movies and TV shows, I guess. Comedy, in general. Yeah, I don’t know what else belongs on that list. Enjoying entertainment for yourself for the sake of entertainment is hard to do in our business. It's hard to watch a movie or a TV show and not think, "I wonder who did the music? Who cast this film? I think I know that person”. It’s difficult, but I still try to disengage.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Marat Berenstein.