Q&A: Sargent House’s Cathy Pellow on redefining the management-label relationship

By Scott Morrow
March 15, 2013

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Named after the historic home where its offices reside, Sargent House isn’t your ordinary music company. It’s a management company but also a record label — and houses a PR company (US/Them Group), a video-production site (Terroreyes TV), and, now, a licensing and music-supervision division (1656 Music).

Situated between Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles, Sargent House is all of these things, and its owner and founder, Cathy Pellow, isn’t your ordinary businessperson either. From her beginnings as a 20-year-old representing fashion photographers in New York, to her role as a film producer and talent-boutique owner, to creating a music-television show and commissioning videos for Island and Atlantic Records, Pellow holds an unusual pedigree for an indie-label head.

Her business acumen has followed to Sargent House, which she began in 2006 as a means to release an album by RX Bandits, a band that she managed and continues to manage. From there, it’s been one ever-expanding family, working with bands such as Hella, Fang Island, and Russian Circles and acting as a parent label for Rodriguez Lopez Productions and Ireland’s Richter Collective.

The house itself has as much personality as those who live, stay, and work there — vinyl, memorabilia, and miniature dogs are scattered throughout the four-story abode, where dozens of bands have crashed for a few nights or spent a stretch “in residence.” Perhaps literally, Sargent House and its many offshoots have absorbed the energy of their founder.

Cathy Pellow of Sargent House

How does your interaction on social media separate Sargent House from other labels?

I think it’s what completely separates us from every label out there. This label is run by people — really passionate and sincere people. We’re not some corporate-sanctioned label, saying, “You’re hired, and here’s the band you work on. You listen to Rihanna, but you’re going to work on Deafheaven.”

I talk about my bands non-stop, because they’re genuinely my favorite bands. But it’s sad that I’m the only label that will re-tweet something from 4AD about XY band because I like that band. Why wouldn’t I want to help spread the word about this great music?

What challenges have you faced as a woman in a male-dominated industry?

It’s funny, because I started my first company when I was 20 years old; I represented fashion photographers and stylists in New York. Everyone’s gay or a woman [in that industry] anyway, so there was no discrimination. Then I became a film producer, and so many of the best producers are women because we’re organized; our brains think in a different way, and we’re super nurturing. I hear a lot of the time [in the music industry], “You should never have a woman manager.” And I’m like, “Why? Because they might actually care about something beyond how much money you’re going to make them?”

It wasn’t until I got into music that I ever experienced the “boys’ club.” I can unequivocally say that I think Sargent House would be included on a lot more things like “the best indie labels of Los Angeles,” which I see a million times, and it’s all labels that don’t even put out records. But I think it’s also because I’m pretty vocal and people are super freaked out. It always sucks when I hear all the time — and it’s always people who have never met me — “I hear she’s insane; she’s a bitch.” And it’s like, “No.” Insane? I’m insane because I’m passionate?

Sargent House

Do your beginnings in video and film give you a different perspective on artist management, album releases, or promotion?

An incredibly different perspective, because I came into it having worked with all these major labels — not just making videos for them, I then started commissioning for them. So I’m in on marketing meetings on the new artist Gnarls Barkley and how we’re going to roll it out.

Major labels — it’s not that they’re evil. I became a label because I managed bands that signed shitty, little indie deals, and I was like, “Really? If all you’re getting is three grand and then they own your master, I’ll give you six.” That’s such bullshit to sell your whole fucking life for. I do know the inner workings of waste and just how stupidly major labels can be run, but I also saw really clever and smart people there and the access they had. It forged great relationships for me. I could get this brand to put some beer in one of my videos and get 20 grand to pay for it. It made me see the different possibilities that they have access to.

Having a production company was a hugely valuable asset. Being able to go make a video in my backyard — that was just as good as the one I charged 100 grand for some other band with the same exact director — was a huge advantage for my bands. We could go shoot a glass-room session in my house, and that would become a great tool.

Cathy Pellow of Sargent House

How is Sargent House’s financial model more beneficial to its bands?

The biggest difference with Sargent House — and I think it’s something really important to make clear — [is that] I don’t just put out records. I manage bands and put those records out. I manage bands first and foremost. Sargent House is a company that chooses artists we believe in and [whose careers] we want to be involved with. That career may involve us putting out your record, and then we will be partners on that record. Or it may be to sign you to a major label, because I just got an amazing deal that is beyond what we could offer for you, and I’ll continue to manage you there or I won’t.

People say, “You have so many bands. How do you manage so many bands?” Because I don’t spend 90% of my time shopping them to get a record deal or arguing with the label to try to get stuff. That is 90% of what takes up time in other managers’ lives.

Sargent House

Sargent House

What do you say to those who view the combined management company / record label as a conflict of interest?

I really don’t get it at all anymore, because we’ve proven ourselves. When lawyers see our deals, they’re like, “Wow. I’ve never seen anything like this.” There are certain things we do in the contract that are so geared toward helping the band, especially touring. Our contracts are [such that] every time you go on tour, you get five free CDs per day. If you go on a 20-day tour, we give you 100 free CDs — we just gave you $1,000.

From a managerial perspective, that’s me going, “Hey, this is the cheapest, most cost-effective way to serve so many purposes.” One, I’m going to financially subsidize and help the band by giving them $1,000 — which didn’t cost me $1,000; it cost me $100 — and I’m going to have 100 more people with that CD in their houses. Whereas bands who are told they have to pay $7.85 for their own record, a lot of times they don’t even take CDs because they can’t afford to buy them from their own label. That’s fucked up and wrong, and that’s everything I stand against.

What else should the music industry take from the Sargent House model?

Sign stuff you believe in. Don’t follow trends. If you look at who’s still standing from 30 years ago, none of it is commercial bullshit. It may be commercial now, but Bob Dylan is still here; Bruce Springsteen is still here; U2 is still here. Yes, they’re massively rich, but they started as legitimate and honest and real rock bands that were unique to everyone else at the time that they started. Quality and uniqueness are the only things that sustain over time.

By Scott Morrow March 15, 2013
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