Brandon Kessler '96: Entrepreneur Works the Business Side of the
By Shira J. Boss
ago, Brandon Kessler '96 was tipping friends to his favorite new
band. With his characteristic calm enthusiasm he was telling them:
"I have three words for you: Dave. Matthews. Band." Nobody had
heard of them then, but a year later Dave Matthews Band hit the top
of the charts with "What Would You Say," "Satellite" and "Ants
Seth Unger '97
(left) and founder Brandon Kessler '96 of Messenger
was partly responsible for boosting them into the New York
spotlight. In his freshman year he spotted the band performing
before a tiny audience at the Wetlands club one weeknight and
"flipped out," as he tells it. Dave Matthews Band's only problem,
in Kessler's view, was that nobody was hearing them. So he took it
upon himself to remedy that.
"I got in
touch with their manager and said, 'I want to help you,'" he says.
He started doing promotions for their shows, especially on college
campuses. More people came, and more became fans. The band put out
an independent album, with Kessler handling New York state radio
promotion. RCA Records came to them with a contract and the band
asked Kessler to stay on, but he had other things to do.
his own record label.
Brandon Kessler apart from throngs of music-loving, concert-going
youths is a love of the business side of the industry, a Columbia
education with a dose of B-school courses, and the temerity to put
it all together to power his own label, Messenger
a tiny indie label that Kessler started in his Ruggles dorm room
and now runs out of an only slightly larger Chelsea studio. It puts
out two or three albums a year by rock bands that get good press,
in part thanks to Kessler's tireless networking and
extremely aggressive marketer who really understands music. That's
rare in the industry," says Andrew Rasiej, founder and former owner
of New York's Irving Plaza nightclub, where Kessler worked
promoting concerts while he was in school.
quickly earning a reputation in the music world for its grassroots
efforts that produce big-label results, and was featured on a
segment of MTV's Indie World called "indie labels run by one." One
of the most unique aspects of his label is an innovative Internet-
and fan-based promotions program, which got him featured on CBS's
Wild Wild Web show. And Billboard and MTV.com both picked up on Messenger's
pioneering two-month tour of college campuses last fall called "No
One Gives a Damn About Your Band."
A creative fan found a place for Kessler's tour sticker.
the tour at Columbia in October, Messenger hit the road not to
promote any one of its bands but to promote independent music
itself at 40 campuses across the nation. "It's all about
celebrating the local music scene," says Kessler, who held radio
forums with local music industry professionals to talk about
promoting music and organized concerts of local bands where they
set up an information table.
"It was neat
because there was this rock concert going on in the background and
these bands are sitting around our table asking us questions, like
should they get distribution for their band, do they need a
manager, questions about the Internet," says Seth Unger '97, who
works with Kessler at the label. "We were psyched to help these
bands out. We've been there and we know how tough it
Messenger got out of the tour was promoting their label name and
newly released compilation, Wouldn't It Be Beautiful? They
added people to their mailing list and networked with local press
and retailers. At first, people thought the label was scouting for
bands to sign, but then they realized that Kessler and Unger wanted
to share a message about smartly promoting independent
been in bands and we know how hard it is just to get the music
sounding right," Unger says. "But we don't want people to fall into
the trap of thinking that great music is a magnet and people will
then come to your shows and buy your CDs - it doesn't work like
that. If you're an artist or singer/songwriter, there are two jobs
you have to do: only one is being an artist, the other is being a
As a result
of the tour, they realized the need that unsigned bands have for
advice and promotional resources, which Messenger is going to offer
through the tour's website, noonegives.com.
which will become an annual event, was funded by several sponsors,
including the on-line student retailer edu.com and Internet
Underground Music Archive. "Brandon and Seth represent a fresh
approach-very genuine and un-slick, if you know what I mean," says
Rob Levinson, director of marketing and communications for edu.com.
promotional stickers as the "No One Gives A Damn About Your Band"
tour visits New Orleans.
studied piano in childhood and played guitar in amateur bands, came
to Columbia from San Diego specifically to be near the music
industry in which he was determined to work. During his freshman
year he called and sent letters to all of the record companies,
landing an internship with Columbia Records's artists & rep
department. In his sophomore and junior years he worked for Sony
Music Studios full-time while taking classes. At Sony, he got to
mingle with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Mariah
Carey in the course of delivering donuts and setting up
In a profile
of Kessler in The San Diego Union-Tribune, the former intern
described how he became disillusioned with waste at the major
labels: "Michael Jackson had reserved two studios simultaneously,
Sony and the Hit Factory, which is across the street. Jackson had
engineers and producers on call, 20 hours a day, to do nothing but
wait for him to appear. Occasionally he'd show up, sing a few
lines, eat a few grapes, then split, leaving everyone there doing
Kessler says, Carey "had to sing a few lines for her Christmas
album. So at 2 a.m. on a June night, I had to run around the studio
searching for Christmas decorations and a fake tree, which she
wanted for inspiration. After I set up and decorated the tree, she
sang two words-'Bless you'-and left."
of how he would run a label and the kinds of artists he would want
to work with, Kessler took several more internships and part-time
jobs, two or three at a time, working in marketing, publicity,
copyright/publishing, booking and scouting. "I wanted to learn all
facets of the industry," he says. "I tried to meet key people,
learn as much as I could and move on without hurting anyone's
feelings." He was college marketing representative for Atlantic and
Virgin Records, then started his own concert promotions company
specializing in college campuses. In his senior year he took
business classes, where he jokes that what he learned was, "Keep
your receipts and give them to your accountant."
at Sony he met Bobby Sichran, a former Columbia student and a Long
Island singer who has been credited with starting the folk/hip hop
fusion. "He'd had a Columbia Records release that got a lot of
critical acclaim but was ignored by the record label. It wasn't
promoted," Kessler says. They decided to release a single together,
and so, with money he had saved from his jobs, Kessler launched
Messenger Records during his senior year.
single-handedly promoted Sichran's seven-inch vinyl album, All the
Psychotics in my Building. "I got a list of publicists and sent the
album to all the editors, then spent all day between classes
calling these people until they would answer their phones. It got
me on the map a little bit," he says.
And it paid
off. The album got good reviews from Spin and other music
publications, and all the copies sold. In February, 1997, Interview
ran a full page on Sichran featuring him among stars like Sharon
Stone and Marlon Brando as one of "The 30 Most Wanted People Right
Cover art of Messenger Records artist Johnny Society's album,
graduation, Kessler turned down job offers from major labels to
devote himself to Messenger. The label's general mission is to look
for artists who are innovative and also have commercial appeal,
according to Kessler. "We're partly anti-establishment without
being rebellious," he says. He signed The Hand and Johnny Society,
winning over the latter from former Kinks star Ray Davies, who
tried to lure the band to his own label. "Ray was very interested
in signing us," Kenny Siegal, the leader of Johnny Society, said
after joining Messenger. "But I'm a young unknown guy, and Brandon
convinced me he had the same fire I do. We're the same, it's just
that my fire is for art and Brandon's is for business."
works from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m., helped part-time by Unger and two or
three interns at a time. Headquarters remains at his
multi-personality studio that doubles as his living quarters (his
bed is tucked away in a tiny loft, accessible by ladder), office,
conference room, communications center with the bands and hundreds
of fans, company storage space and extensive music library. Filed
in there somewhere are the contemporary novels he likes to read in
the few minutes before turning in at night, and a small selection
of cookbooks to guide his newfound hobby.
It's a good
time to be an independent label. With the merger of Polygram with
Universal in 1998, the six major labels became five and 300 bands
lost their contracts. Hundreds of bands are taking refuge at
smaller labels that will stick by them and nurture their
"It costs $1
million to $2 million to release an album" on a major label,
Kessler explains. "If you're not making money by the second album,
chances are you'll be dropped. It's like throwing darts at a wall
and hoping they stick. The artists are the darts. I've seen a lot
of bands crash. Artists are realizing their careers are fragile,
and they want to be on a label that's passionate and will seek out
their audience and use innovative marketing techniques."
"With a big
record company, it's simply a fact that some people are going to be
working on your record just because it's their job," says blues
singer Chris Whitley, whom Kessler signed after Whitley left Sony.
"With Brandon, it has been pure enthusiasm. He isn't a rebel; he's
just incredibly unjaded. To him, it's always, 'Who says I can't do
The album cover for Dirt Floor doubled as the tour
first album on Messenger, Dirt Floor, is a "stripped down
acoustic affair that would be ignored by a lot of big labels,"
Kessler says. It was recorded for $1,500 in one day, with one
microphone, at Whitley's father's farm in Vermont.
the recording was a unique marketing blitz engineered by Kessler.
He used an e-zine (e-mail newsletter) distributed to Whitley's fan
base of around 10,000 to tell them about the new album and ask them
to help promote it and Whitley's concerts. He reached new fans via
the label's website (www.messengerrecords.com),
where visitors can listen to sound bites, see videos, read press
and tour schedules, and use a list of local radio station phone
numbers to call up and make requests. Messenger has also held
cybercasts of concerts on the website.
As it turned
out, Whitley's fans only had to be asked before they eagerly went
to work calling radio stations, contacting record stores, putting
up posters advertising the albums and shows, and spreading the news
among friends. Messenger started an incentive program for Dirt
Floor where fans print out coupons from the website and get a
point when a CD is bought. If they accumulate four points they get
a signed poster; eight gets them a t-shirt. Whoever gathers the
most points receives a notebook of Whitley's hand-written poems and
They get the
prizes, we get the record sales, and the artist grows in
popularity," Kessler says.
nurtures the label by contacting stores himself. "Major labels call
stores, too, but not as much as they should," he says. "Most of the
time they rely on a distributor, who will call a store and say 'Do
you want this?' and the store will either say 'Yes' or 'Never heard
of it.' I spend a lot of time on the phone with record stores,
explaining, 'This is a kind of magical, mystical album that's been
dinky Messenger Records release has been reviewed by everyone from
Rolling Stone to Entertainment Weekly. All raves,"
David Bowman wrote in Salon, an on-line literary magazine.
"Whitley also [had] a spread in Esquire. One wonders how
many publicists (and Christmas trees) Sony hires to get the same
results for Carey."
One reason blues
singer Chris Whitley chose Messenger Records was that he was
impressed with Kessler's enthusiam.
250 volunteer representatives worldwide were going into their local
stores requesting Dirt Floor even before it came out. A
system of local representatives is common for labels, but Kessler
says his crew is different. "Local reps usually work like 20 albums
a month," he says. "We wanted the people who spend hours on the
chat site arguing over which guitar string Chris uses in a certain
song. Those are our reps."
sends these reps stickers, posters, postcards, fliers, and copies
of CDs to distribute for play in record stores, coffee shops, bars
and on college campuses. The original sales target for Dirt
Floor was 10,000 CDs, and already 45,000 have been sold
recently opened a tour for pop star Alanis Morissette. "She
hand-picked him," Kessler says. "Her personal assistant heard the
buzz on the album, went to a sold-out show in L.A. and gave her the
album the next day. The day after that we got a call. That
Messenger, Whitley got the first royalty check of his career and
spent 14 months on the road in Europe, Australia and the States.
His most recent tour ended with a sold-out show at New York's
now bringing in enough money so that Kessler can support himself
and begin looking for funding to expand the label, starting with
getting it out of his apartment and into an office. "Labels are two
things, banks and promoters," says Rasiej of Irving Plaza. "Brandon
might not have access to a lot of money right now, but he's got the
marketing and promotion side down, and it's only a matter of time
before he's well-funded."
Author: Shira J. Boss '93 is a contributing writer for CCT
who profiled Andrew Carroll '93 in the November