AUDITION SECRETS: Couret & Werner Artist Management

I had the pleasure of interviewing artist manager Justin Werner, co-founder of Couret & Werner Artist Management. Having only been in artist management for a few years, I was excited to learn about this young firm’s philosophy and thoughts on the classical singing field today.

I asked Mr. Werner about his background, the start of Couret & Werner, and procuring management. Below is an account of our correspondence:

KD: Tell me about your background – you trained as a performer, which I assume meant that you originally wanted to be a singer, yes?

JW: That is true. I’m very lucky that I went to Boston University which gave me a solid liberal arts education as well as conservatory-style voice training. Even in undergrad I always had other entrepreneurial things in mind. I actually started a small company my senior year of college to give my colleagues performing opportunities that weren’t being fulfilled by the school, so I’ve always had an idea that other things were in place besides being a performer. At that time, however, I was dedicated to being a singer.

KD: So what changed that path for you?

JW: Right after college, I applied for a summer program (Westchester Summer Voice Institute) which I attended and went through a fach change from baritone to tenor. After that, I decided to take some time off to deal with that change, and started an opera company called the New York Opera Exchange to give my friends and colleagues performance opportunities as well as presenting opera as accessible to the larger NYC community. So, while I was studying and transitioning through my fach change, I was also the artistic director of this company. NYOE gradually transitioned into wanting to do more for my colleagues than I did for myself.

I notice when I go to auditions with my singers now, I’m so much more dedicated to and invested in their well-being than I ever was to my own career as a singer. Being a singer was very stressful to me – I lost the fun and passion of it when I was going through the fach change. Because singing became so technical and cerebral that I no longer enjoyed it. As a manager, I look at opera from a much wider perspective; I don’t just look at the tenor line. I enjoy the art form so much more now as a manager than I ever did as a singer and have come to better appreciate the hard work that my colleagues are doing.

All my choices to train as a singer have led my career path to being what it is, and I don’t regret going to school and getting degrees training as a singer. My path just turned out different than the traditional “go to school, go to a YAP, have a career” idea, and that’s what we want to do at Couret & Werner – we want to help singers cultivate those careers so that they can live strictly on their art and reach whatever goals we set out as a team.

KD: How did you get into artist management?

JW: While I was in grad school I noticed that I was more passionate about running my opera company than I was about my own vocal studies. I mentioned this to my teacher and she suggested I speak to someone at IMG about doing an internship for which I’ll always be indebted to her. During this time, I got to work with so many amazing artists and managers which really got me started down the path that I am on now. After I finished my internship, I applied to a full-time position at IMG, which I didn’t get and that was devastating to me at the time.

That being said, I was very interested in artist management, but I was more interested in investing in each artist’s career on the ground floor rather than just a cog of someone’s established career. During my time running NYOE, I learned that I was most passionate about the development of singers’ careers– even more so than the productions themselves. I invested in each singer individually and what each could do to enhance their career from mostly a presentation standpoint which isn’t a skill often taught in schools which concentrate on the technical aspects of singing.

For two years, I applied to every position with companies I could find, not thinking that running my own firm would ever be a possibility. After many interviews and being rejected, either because I was too young, or because I was running NYOE at the time, or any other of many reasons, some of which I’ll never know, I met my business partner Gabriel Couret at a birthday party which neither of us were planning on attending.

Six months later, we sat down and had lunch, and he mentioned he wanted to start a firm of his own and he needed someone with connections in New York. That got the ball rolling and we decided to explore what would happen if we opened our own firm.

KD: So would you say that you are predominantly interested as a firm in emerging talent? Or is that just your personal preference? Tell me more about how the firm works.

JW: Our firm concentrates on career development and individualized attention which ranges from taking singers from young artist programs (and sometimes from school) and taking them to the professional stage and more recently, working with A and B level houses all around the country. Many singers can get YAP and small mainstage auditions on their own, but we take those artists and help them get auditions in houses that don’t post publicly.

Our roster is also one cohesive group – we don’t assign singers to one manager or another. Our whole team has a hand in the career development of each singer and we review what’s going on for them together. We talk about what’s working and what’s not and what the best course of action would be among all four of our staff members, because honestly none of us knows everything. We’re not perfect and we’re rapidly growing as a firm ourselves, so it’s important to us to create a cohesive artist experience. We don’t charge a retainer or any maintenance fees, and we’re not getting paid until the singer gets paid, so it’s in our interest to do our very best for our singers – which is easy because it’s what we’re passionate about. We are constantly reconnecting with our contacts in and out of audition season, submitting members of our roster for last minute engagements and for future seasons, always collaborating with the artist on the roles and level of company that they are most interested in, and more importantly, where they will be the most competitive.

Now, once an artist has been offered an engagement, we take over all negotiations with that company. It’s difficult for an artist to initiate a contract and harder for a singer to negotiate a contract themselves – a lot of singers seem to have the misconception that they will be seen as greedy to ask for more money or things like travel accommodations, but that’s not the case – it’s just trying to make a living in this career, and that’s what we do; that’s why we get paid – we take care of these things so the singer can focus on their music and artistry.

KD: May I ask what you take as a commission?

JW: We take the industry standard; 10% for fully staged opera and 15% for concert work.

KD: Are opera and concert work the two primary genres you submit for?

JW: If it’s musical theatre and the producing organization is an opera company, we will submit for that, but we don’t send singers to musical theatre cattle calls – it’s just not our concentration. However, if a specific opportunity arises we will certainly look at it for those of our singers who are interested in that rep. Regardless, we do ask singers to have a musical theatre piece in their repertoire in addition to their standard audition package. So many companies are producing crossover repertoire like Sweeney Todd and Carousel in this current market so we prepare our artists for that as well.

KD: What do you think makes Couret & Werner unique as an artist agency?

JW: I think we give our artists the personalized attention they need to carve out a successful career. It’s our goal to speak with our singers once a week via email/phone/text and once every few months in person (it always ends up being more than that) to make sure everything is going ok both professionally and personally. We have one of our two managers (myself and Doug Han) present at every one of our singers’ auditions. We are present so we can give real advice to our singers on what works and what needs improving after seeing them multiple times in an audition season. That way it’s not just the singers trying to gauge if it was a good audition when they should be concentrating on their artistry. We’re also able to follow up with companies right away so that our singers are remembered. In this market with so many singers auditioning at a decent level it’s hard to stick out, and we want to make sure our singers stick out from the crowd both artistically and personally.

Everyone at the firm comes from a different background, but we are all musicians, and I think that’s important. It is so important to be building careers like we are at Couret & Werner—not just acting as a booking agent that is never present in the singer’s life. We always have our fingers on the pulse of the industry, as we are always out in the trenches seeing what companies are hearing and seeing in any given season and what our artists are competing against.

KD: Do you think anybody uses the facts that everyone is young and the firm is relatively new as a reason to give you less credence in the business?

JW: Our first audition season (14-15), some companies only heard a few of our singers, but we haven’t felt a lot of pushback because we’re new – I feel we have created much more excitement. With all the connections that our team has established collectively, we haven’t felt a lot of pushback. The industry, especially my fellow managers, have been incredible, and I was surprised at how candid and supportive everyone was. It’s a very small community and I’m so proud to be a part of it. Managers know: the more good managers that are out there, the better. The boutique agencies have shown that we’re doing business the right way and that we’re supporting singers, and I think that’s gained the approval of the operatic community. Our clientele is our best representation, and people tell us every day that the singers on our roster are excited to be with us. I’m managing people I admire – it’s humbling.

I feel like it’s my job and responsibility to do things the right way and to be as honest as I can with my clients and with the community. As cliché as it sounds, I want this field to be around for generations – I want my kids and my grandkids to be able to experience what I can now.

KD: What do you look for in those who wish to audition for your roster?

JW: Our singers must have something unique to say – they have to show us why their version of a particular aria is the one I’d want to hear out of the many versions available to me that day. And obviously, it goes without saying that the level of vocal technique and musicality should be on par with what’s going on in the industry. We also consider what people are like personally: are they nice, do they show up on time, do they know their music, are they a good colleague? – if we send a singer to a company for the first time, that company’s impression of us is judged by that singer’s preparation and behavior. So, that’s very important to us. My golden rule that has served me well is this: if you’re someone I want to grab a drink with after a show or an audition, you’re probably someone who I would consider representing.

KD: So if I think I’m a good candidate for C&W, what is the protocol?

JW: We hold roster auditions once or twice a year, but they typically are not advertised. The best way to inquire is to email the info account on our contact page on the website and send a bio, headshot, resume, recordings, critical acclaim…the more information you can send, the better we can assess whether someone is a good candidate for an audition. It’s so important to be “Googleable” these days and to have a good representation of what you do online. It’s also important to curate that information – sometimes you Google a singer and you see their resume and information but their last recording was from years ago – that doesn’t give me a good representation of what the singer can do right now.

Also – it’s a business email. It should be professional. People shouldn’t talk to any industry member about acquiring management on Facebook or other social media. The quality of materials is also important – if your photo looks like something out of a high school yearbook, you’re taken less seriously. Management is not school – there’s no one to give you structure and there’s not much tolerance for mediocrity. The singer needs to have something that’s ready to manage. And while what that entails is different for every singer, we really want to see and hear potential for growth when we get materials. We are all looking for the next great artist, and that’s what I’m hoping to find when I open an email. I’m looking for a complete package – it doesn’t have to be perfect, but it should be great.

KD: Are you saying it’s ok if someone sends you an unsolicited email asking for an audition?

JW: Absolutely – singers should feel free to reach out and inquire about auditions. It’s not guaranteed that we’ll be able to hear everyone of course, but we’re happy to hear from singers who might be a good potential match for us.

Singers should look at the roster and see who is already singing their rep; while every singer is different, if it’s the same quality of voice in the same rep we most likely won’t take another singer that would be a direct competitor with someone else on our roster.

KD: So let’s say you’ve invited someone to audition for you, and they’ve done their homework and believe they would be a potential match for you. What would you consider to be the do’s and don’ts for someone coming to sing for you?

JW: Number one: show up on time. Present your materials in a professional manner and follow instructions well. Give us an accurate depiction of your best self on that day. We have 60-minute audition slots because we want to ensure the singer is a good match for us as an artist and as a person. We want to make sure we’re the right fit and vice versa: It’s never personal; some people we have felt were not right for us and some people have felt like we were not right for them. And that’s ok; we’re still friends. We want this to be a collaborative process and we want to enjoy the process. We’re a family at C&W and we foster that attitude with everything we do.

KD: What are your thoughts about body size and casting – does this influence who you choose to be on your roster?

JW: We live in an HD world, and every producer and manager is thinking about what someone looks like aesthetically, but the voice should always come first. I think you should embrace what you are. If you’re tall, embrace being tall. If you’re short, embrace being short. I would never not take someone because of size. If someone is healthy and singing well, for me it’s not an issue. It’s being comfortable in your own skin – that always works.

Besides a very small minority of roles that are written for a specific ethnicity, singers shouldn’t limit themselves on what’s possible. Most roles can be done by people of all ages and colors and sizes. Don’t let that be an excuse.

That being said, I know that prejudices exist. I’d say at a third of all the auditions I attended our first year, the panel thought I was the pianist because I’m Asian. I’ve had industry members comment that my English is very good and ask me where I’m from…

We know prejudices are out there – we all need to play to our strengths and take what people say with a grain of salt. Listen to the people you trust. One of my clients describes his teacher, his coaches, his parents and us as his “Board of Directors” which is one of the most important things you can have in this business—build a team and stick with it.

KD: What advice would have for singers who are not necessarily ready for management but they’re not getting in to programs (and it’s not a talent issue)?

JW: I don’t think there’s a “key to success” – a one answer-fits-all solution to why a singer isn’t getting hired. We offer consultations for singers to help answer those questions because the suggestions are individual to each person, and it can be helpful to have an unbiased, outside opinion.

Opera has a very low success rate – that’s just a fact. I wish singers would think about other ways to contribute to the industry. I’ve done every job under the sun. I know there are very good singers and it just doesn’t work out. There are cases where people bloom later in their careers, but there comes a point where people shouldn’t be paying full tuition to go to these schools, they shouldn’t be paying $10,000 to go to Europe to sing a role with piano…it’s taking advantage of people. Talent can be cultivated and people can grow – but there must be a certain amount of natural ability; if you’re not able to stay on pitch and have control of the voice and enjoy what you’re doing, that’s something to consider.

I try to be honest with everyone, even if it’s not what they want to hear. This is a for-profit business, and we want people to be able to make a living. I’m going to give my honest opinion, and it is just my opinion – I could be wrong. But I want to be fair and honest.

Aside from me, I think it’s the responsibility of the singer’s teachers, mentors, coaches, etc. to tell that person their opinion of what that next step should be. Sometimes you’ll need to make sacrifices at first and take those gigs that don’t pay well (or at all) to get experience.

There are so many singers coming out of school, and they’re singing at a decent baseline. There’s a difference though between this and being competitive at the professional level. Many singers are bouncing around between young artist programs and never reach the mainstage level. My one piece of advice is to take control of your artistry (not only the voice but languages/dramatic training, etc. and to be proactive with networking, both with your colleagues and with the artistic staff at opera companies. As far as getting hired, a lot of it is luck of the draw as far as what your voice type is – it’s supply and demand, and obviously, a soprano is going to have a much more difficult time than a bass—that being said, none of us are in a position to turn away talent.

KD: When singers audition for your roster and they are not accepted, do you offer feedback as to why? Can they find out why they might not have been a good match?

JW: Yes. Because we reserve 60 minutes for our auditions, we spend at least 30 minutes giving feedback whether we are interested in managing them or not. Also, I always tell my colleagues, take someone out to coffee or lunch – it’s less than paying for a coaching, and you have the person’s undivided attention! If it’s someone whose opinion you trust, seek out their opinion, even if it takes you a while to get it. I want people to be successful, even if it’s not with us.

KD: What do you wish you had known coming out of school that you didn’t know then?

JW: I wish I’d known how to present my materials to an opera company. Hardly anyone teaches how to lay out a resume, write a bio, make quality recordings…there should be a business acumen class for performers at every university. Because the success rate is so low, there’s got to be something that teaches people skills for life and career in and out of music. Teachers and coaches help to create a product that makes for good singing but not necessarily for creating a sustainable career.

People should get general career knowledge and know how to represent themselves whether it be in an audition or at a donor event. I also wish people were told that there are careers outside of singing within the world of opera. You can have success in many ways, not just singing. I could have been a singer – nothing happened to keep me from that, I wasn’t injured and I didn’t burn out. I was just interested in other things, and I’m much happier doing what I do now. It’s not a failure, it’s a choice. I used to feel like I had to justify that, but I don’t anymore – I’m completely confident in what I’m doing. You don’t have to justify your choice if you decide to do something else besides singing. I know when people have invested all this time and money in being singers that they’re nervous about doing anything else because they feel it’s expected of them. I know more as a manager than I ever did as a singer, and I’m making a larger impact as a manager than I ever could have dreamt as a singer.

I thoroughly enjoyed talking with Mr. Werner. When I’ve spoken to singers on his roster, they have all had high praise for him and the firm, and after getting to know Mr. Werner a bit I can see why. His dedication to his singers and to the business is obvious, and I loved his philosophy of taking interest in people as a whole, not just as a voice. You can read more about Couret & Werner at www.couretwerner.com.

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