For a forward-thinking company that has managed to survive in the modern music business, reaching the 10-year mark is a big deal. Thirty Tigers — whose tight-knit crew resembles a family, or perhaps a group of high school pals — is celebrating that accomplishment. Launched by industry vets David Macias and Deb Markland, Thirty Tigers has worked with established artists such as Beth Nielsen Chapman, North Mississippi Allstars, Kathy Mattea and Drive-By Truckers. And they've kick-started the careers of The Avett Brothers, Caitlin Rose and Those Darlins. In the process, they've earned a reputation as the go-to resource for independent artists seeking assistance with distribution, marketing, management and publicity.
As longtime client Nielsen Chapman explains, "The artist and songwriter in me just wants someone else to do all that stuff so I can write and perform." Thirty Tigers makes this possible. Macias and Markland, former co-workers at Arista Records, started the company out of the desire to serve Nashville's burgeoning independent music community. In the midst of increasing corporate mergers and purges, they recognized a growing need to assist artists looking to build or sustain a career, sans major label. "There was a gap in knowledge on how to put together marketing plans and demand creation plans, and to be able to articulate the plans to the supply chain," Macias explains. "The best sales pitch you can have is to come up with a plan to sell records through and talk to the accounts — Walmart, Borders, Grimey's — and explain to them why people were going to be walking through their doors. We started as a consultancy to help people craft and articulate those plans to the distribution companies and the accounts."
A strong relationship with Sony's RED Distribution established the young company's status early on. (Through an aggregator deal, a type of distribution agreement, Thirty Tigers served as the middleman for a variety of acts.) For RED, this was an advantageous relationship as it enabled them to work with multiple artists and revenue streams through one channel. The artists, who most likely did not know how to do business with a distribution company, benefited from the leverage and expertise of Thirty Tigers. "We would bring together the artists through one company, so for RED, we're very much like a label," Macias says.
In this arrangement, Thirty Tigers makes their money from the part of the business that requires distribution: moving actual physical copies of music. Thirty Tigers keeps 10 percent of the wholesale value of goods going through RED, and the rest goes directly to the artist. And this puts artists in a good position, too, because they retain ownership of their work, and get to keep 100 percent of their road sales, film and TV licensing profits, and website sales. "It's their business," Macias says. "We just help them run their business."
But as music sales declined sharply across the music industry, Macias and his team recognized the need to diversify, so they began to offer management and publicity services. "This grew out of the recognition that certain artists weren't necessarily going to be the best served by our particular model." Thirty Tigers currently manage and co-manage a stable of about a dozen acts. And while physical distribution is still an essential part of Thirty Tigers' business — Macias states that over half of their revenue still comes from physical goods — digital distribution is a vital and rapidly growing piece of the pie. "A lot of our acts are still selling [physical] goods. As that shifts more to digital, helping acts figure out how to reach their audience is going to be an essential skill." They also offer financial modeling, radio promotion and new-media marketing services.
Thirty Tigers has a pretty good idea which artists are a good fit for their business model, and a lot of their business comes from word-of-mouth testimonials from happy artists. "We're pretty particular about who we'll work with, because none of our relationships are set up," Macias explains. He and his team are active in the music scene; as president of the board for the Americana Music Association and an active member of various industry organizations, he routinely participates in panels and conferences, making an effort to meet managers and attorneys.
The company charges a monthly retainer for certain services, such as publicity, but not for management or distribution. "I believe in our business model," Macias says. "We're earning as the artists earn. I like it that way because it centers us. If we don't perceive of how an act is going to do — if they'll grow into an act that can do 10,000 units — then we probably won't take them on. I think our infrastructure provides a way to be organized and approach the market in a way that will match our track record on sales with just about any label."
They also adhere to a strict belief in freedom for the artist. "We probably tend to get a little Zen about it, but I think people need to be where their career is best served," Macias says. "People can enter into a business relationship with us and have the relative freedom, so if a greener pasture lies beyond, we're not going to hang onto their legs and forbid them from going. I think that allows us to do more business."
The Avett Brothers certainly benefited from the freedom. The North Carolina-based band, which had put out a couple of albums on Ramseur Records, released Mignonette in 2004 with distribution through Thirty Tigers. "Being a small independent label, it's very difficult to get distribution of your records," explains Dolph Ramseur, owner of Ramseur Records. "David offered a solution to being small. Thirty Tigers has essentially become our staff, co-workers and team. I consider them friends. You can't really say that very often, and you can rarely say that in the music business."
For the Avetts, Thirty Tigers fulfilled many of the label functions for the band as they were growing. In 2008, they signed to American Recordings/Sony and have put out two albums with Rick Rubin. "The Avett Brothers had the chance to work with Rick Rubin; they had to go to Sony, and I think it was a sensible thing to do. They had the freedom with our contract, and they didn't have to buy us out," Macias explains. As of 2011, the band is essentially a household name following high-profile appearances at Bonnaroo, ACL Music Festival, and their recent performance on the Grammy stage with Bob Dylan and Mumford & Sons. Thirty Tigers continues to work with the Avetts for their back catalog.
While Thirty Tigers is headquartered in Nashville — industry experts Bob Goldstone and Traci Thomas are among the full-time staff of nine — they have a foothold in New York City and plan to expand domestically and beyond. Several of the artists they work with, including Elizabeth Cook and Amy LaVere, are very successful abroad, and Macias wants to capitalize on this: "That's a five-year goal of mine, for us to have a solid presence in Europe."
Macias notes that he's grateful to the country and Christian music industries for their roles in strengthening the infrastructure of the local music industry, but says he's proud of the diverse, positive perception of Nashville that he increasingly encounters. "Nashville has arguably grown to where people see this as an incredibly broad city in terms of what 'Music City' means. I was talking to one of the top film/TV placement companies in L.A., and three of their four biggest billing acts were from Nashville. A few years prior, I don't think they would have guessed that would be the case."
Throughout the past 10 years, the majority of record labels have shaved budgets and entire departments, yet Thirty Tigers continues to thrive. They've earned a Grammy for Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster — which co-producer Macias proudly displays in his office — and his "very conservative forecast" predicts that business from 2009-2011 will be up more than 50 percent. Regardless of where Thirty Tigers' trajectory takes them, there is little doubt they'll remain friendly industry experts that the independent artist can trust. "Things change so quickly in the music business, and Thirty Tigers is adapting along with it," Nielsen Chapman says. "Because of David Macias and the creative people who work there, they grow with it. That's all we can do — continue to adjust and learn how we can be creative and make a living."