One of the youngest artist managers in the business, IMG's Charlotte Lee's is making a name for herself while building the careers classical soloists. Her roster includes 15-year-old piano prodigy Ji-Yong, Britain's hottest teenage violinist, 19-year-old Nicola Benedetti, and celebrated classical guitarist Christopher Parkening.
When I considered interviewing an agent for this column, I realized that Charlotte would be the perfect choice. She has attained a high level of professional success before the age of 30. And perhaps even more interesting to the readers of this board, in addition to her business skills, she is a highly trained violinist.
I first met Charlotte last February when I interviewed her for the NPR show From The Top. We met at IMG's Manhattan offices on the fifth floor of Carnegie Hall Tower. She was immediately warm and friendly, and very enthusiastic about the project, even though to accommodate us she had to stay late at work on a Friday night, when the biggest snowstorm of the season was threatening to hit New York.
The focus of my first interview was her work managing the career of young prodigies, Ji-Yong (who goes by his first name, like Madonna.) On that weekend's show, he was going to play 'Fifths to Thirds' by John Corigliano. At the interview, which was pre-recorded, Charlotte and I talked about what it's like to work with artists who are so young, and to be responsible for their development. As we spoke I felt immediately at ease with Charlotte. I could see how teenagers would relate to her and want her to help them make important career decisions.
This time I decided to ask why, exactly, she was so involved with the careers of younger players.
"Because I'm a younger manager, I naturally started off working with young artists since there was less of an age difference," said Charlotte, who is 29. "For example, I represent the 19-year-old violinist Nicola Benedetti. She's the most sought-after violinist on the scene in the United Kingdom, and we recently signed her to our North American roster. The pressure to build her career here on the same level as it is in Europe is immense, but I believe in her talent and am enjoying every minute of promoting her career. For an artist of such huge caliber, she is one of the most down-to-earth people I know – and very thoughtful too. She has a firm grasp of who she is and what she wants to be known for, and I admire her for that.
"As I gained experience, I took over managing the legendary guitarist Christopher Parkening, who is the only adult artist I currently represent. Having performed with many of the top orchestras and venues of the world, from Lincoln Center to Royal Albert Hall, he is at a point in his career where he has accomplished it all and there is less pressure, for both him and me. Chris has a great perspective on everything and, while he is eager to continue performing, he does not stress or feel rushed as a young artist would.
I asked Charlotte what the differences were between working with very young artists and those whose careers were more established.
"Shaping a young artist’s career takes a lot of patience, perseverance and perspective," she said. "Together with the artist and parents, we determine what kind of concert schedule to aim for – how many or few concerts, what types of programs, which level of orchestras, venues and artists to collaborate with; how to promote their careers – whether they are ready for record contracts and what kind of publicity and photos to have; and lastly how they can be at their best – which often means protecting their time and letting them focus on what they need to do, which is to study, grow and enjoy childhood.
"Many so-called prodigies,” said Charlotte, "do not make it beyond their teenage years for various reasons, ranging from exhaustion from too many concerts, emotional stress and pressure from parents or a bad manager, to not enough time to study or, more importantly, experience a normal childhood. Or simply because they advanced so much in their early years that they peaked before they grew up. These potential pitfalls remind me that one has to take much care when working with young performers."
And then there are The Parents.
"Yes, some parents can be pushy. Those are the ones we call 'stage parents'. All managers dread working with them. It is always a pleasure to encounter parents who take a backseat in their child’s career development and focus primarily on providing emotional support and encouragement to foster a well-rounded childhood."
And the talent-scouting.
"As a manager," says Charlotte, "one part of my job is seeking out new talent. I keep my ear close to the ground for leads on prospective new clients. When I hear about a new artist, I attend their concerts and listen to recordings, in order to determine whether or not we are interested in representing them.
"I guide the careers of my artists through vision, promotion, and advice. This involves discerning what an artist is ready for and when the timing is right to make various career moves. I try to be innovative, suggesting new program ideas. I need good relationships with concert promoters who hire my artists. And I need to maintain a strong belief in the artist’s talent and their potential for a great career. It can be so rewarding to see an artist get standing ovations and rave reviews for a stunning performance. For me, in the end, their successes make it worth all the work."
So what, I wondered, made Charlotte decide to go into the management business?
"From my late high-school years up until my senior year in college, I constantly struggled with the decision of whether or not to pursue a performance career," she said. "My teachers all told me I could make it into one of the world’s top orchestras and ought not to waste my God-given talent, but – although I loved music – I abhorred the idea of staying in a practice room for 6 hours a day to compete against five hundred other violinists for one seat in an orchestra. That kind of life did not appeal to me, nor did the idea of not being able to use the other side of my brain and all my other skills! My point of clarity came during a summer away before my senior year of college, when a teacher I was playing for said to me,
"If you are going to be miserable in life without performing, then be a performer. But if not, do something else.”
"I had been toying with the idea of being a lawyer, so with my parents’ prodding, I applied to law school, figuring that I could stay somewhat close to the arts if I practiced entertainment law. Several months before college graduation, however, with one law-school acceptance already in hand, I realized that I was stalling for time. U-T’s Director of Music, Ronald Crutcher, encouraged me to apply for an internship with the Joni Abbott Music Foundation, which provided internship opportunities in the music industry with companies in New York and Los Angeles. They awarded me an all-expense paid opportunity to live and work for a summer in New York for, not one, but two companies: Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (VLA) and PolyGram Classics and Jazz (now Universal Classics and Jazz). At VLA, I quickly learned that practicing law was 99% drafting and reading over memos and cases and 1% interaction with clients. It took me only two days to figure out that being a lawyer was not for me!
"At PolyGram, I worked in the marketing department for the Classical Crossover Division, promoting albums such as the new releases of Andrea Bocelli, who was making his exciting debut U.S. tour that summer. I was loving it – staying close to music, while at the same applying my communication, business, and networking skills, all to promote artists and their music. What fun! This introduction to the music industry was love at first sight for me, and I quickly knew what I wanted to do from then on. Yet rather than continuing to promote records, I wanted to be on the frontline and work directly with artists on promoting their careers. Then I learned about the artist management side of the business, and Mr. Crutcher promptly introduced me to Charles Hamlen, co-founder and former director of IMG Artists, one of the leading arts management agencies in the world. Charlie then called Edna Landau, the head of IMG Artists, and one thing led to another; at the age of 21, I was hired by IMG to do what I finally realized was perfect for me – being an agent to classical musicians!
Charlotte grew up in New Jersey and started playing Suzuki violin when she was four. During high school she was one of those high-power violinists—concertmaster of the New Jersey Youth Symphony and the New Jersey Central Regional Orchestra, Assistant Concertmaster of the MENC All-Eastern Honors Orchestra and the New Jersey All-State Orchestra. In the summers she went to Tanglewood and Eastern Music Festival, and she won her share of competitions, including the Piano Teachers Society of America’s
Piano Teachers Society of America’sMulti-Talent Competition, which came with the prize of two performances each on both violin and piano at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall.
It was no surprise to anyone that Charlotte went off to the prestigious University of Texas at Austin she became a violin performance major. As a member of the Symphony Orchestra, she got to perform with renowned artists as Itzhak Perlman and Lynn Harrell.
"Little did I know," says Charlotte, "I'd soon be working for the very management agency that represented them both!"* Much of her time was spent focusing on solo repertoire and preparing for her junior and senior recitals. But Charlotte also enjoyed academics, did plenty of literature, philosophy and economics through the university's interdisciplinary Liberal Arts Honors Program. In 1998, she graduated with two Bachelor degrees.
My friend, Austin violinist June Rhee, attended the University of Texas at Austin a few years behind Charlotte and knew her (along with actress Felicia Day, another accomplished violinist). "Charlotte is a really fine musician, but she is also down-to-earth, fun, and driven. She makes everyone around her feel comfortable. She was sort of the poster child of the College of Fine Arts Career Center because she became so successful in the business side of music. But despite her achievements, she's always been very generous with her time, giving me sage advice about the music business." And it pays to have friends in high places. "Once she gave me comps to hear Hilary Hahn with the Austin Symphony!"
When asked if she still plays the violin, Charlotte has a characteristically witty answer. "When people ask me whether I am a musician, I tell them I am a non-practicing violinist! Although I would love to play regularly, my busy schedule prevents me from doing so. I am hoping soon to join my church orchestra so I can get into playing again."
But all those years of extensive training and practiced have paid off in a way that Charlotte never foresaw. "Now that I work in the business and no longer perform, I practically consider myself a professional listener. I attend concerts all the time – perhaps 80 a year. I never would have thought I’d have a job where I get to enjoy going to concerts for free, as much as I want!
"I wished they told us in high school that there were professions in music other than being a teacher or performer. Be that as it may, my high-school and college years as a performer and listener were the most formative in giving me the foundation I need as an artist manager. No other education, including a degree in performing-arts management, could have given me what is most necessary for this profession: a keen ear, strong knowledge of repertoire, and an understanding for what life is like for a musician."