A Conversation With Manager Eric Podwall

Eric Podwall Photo 2011
Haddad Media

Eric Podwall

From booking boy bands to creating crossover stars, Eric Podwall has built a business on the back of his bromance with the likes of Matthew Morrison, Chace Crawford and Brody Jenner.

Last week, Matthew Morrison, whose self-titled debut album was released on May 10, announced that he would be joining the New Kids on the Block and Backstreet Boys on the road. A prized booking that puts the Glee star in front of nearly 250,000 people over the span of five weeks, the opening slot also alleviates the financial pressure of carrying his own headlining tour (solo dates will be interspersed where the routing allows), production and the weight of performing some 19 songs a night. It had Eric Podwall’s name written all over it.

Morrison’s manager since 2009, and a friend since the actor’s own boy band days, Podwall was a key member of the Backstreet Boys team in their heyday when he worked with David Zedeck at Evolution Talent. His tenure coincided with the teen pop explosion (’NSync, Britney Spears) and launched his career as an agent, but only after making one key decision: not joining Lou Pearlman at the talent shop-turned-pyramid scheme Transcontinental. “Seeing where he is today, it probably turned out for the better,” he deadpans.

The 34-year-old Long Island, New York native transitioned from routing world tours to plotting multi-media domination as a celebrity manager, and over the last five years, his presence on the red carpet is nearly as ubiquitous as some of his clients, which include Chace Crawford, Brody Jenner, JC Chasez, Shawn Pyfrom, Joseph Mazzello and Colton Haynes. It’s all part of a grand plan that centers around full-time membership in Camp Podwall, which sounds like a secret society but is more like a brotherhood. "The best thing about working with Eric is Camp Podwall," says Morrison. "All of his clients are great friends and he really makes that environment." 

Podwall talked about his roster, the state of the concert business and his management philosophy in a recent Q&A with THR…   

The Hollywood Reporter: You worked at Evolution during the height of teen pop mania, how would you describe those days?

Eric Podwall: Insane. I was really young and being on tour with some of the biggest pop groups in the world was a total blast.

THR: Ultimately, you decided to leave the agency world, why?

Podwall: The music business started to change and I started to feel like I needed the next challenge. The agency was about to go through some massive changes as well, with David Zedeck and Jonny Podell splitting up. It was time for me to take control. So I called up people like Randy Phillips, who are veterans in the business and asked for their thoughts and opinions and they all said, “Get your ass to LA and do what you're meant to do.”

THR: What was it about personal management that attracted you?

Podwall: In the beginning, after being a music agent for so many years, I saw that for all the successful groups I had to work with, there were also a lot who were unsuccessful, and not because they didn't have talent. I felt that a lot of them were misguided, so I wanted to be there from the beginning. As a music agent, you’re really narrowly focused on touring and live shows. As a manager, you're involved with ever facet of an artist’s career. For me, it was always the path I wanted to go on and I was still young enough to move back from New York to Los Angeles and give it a go.

THR: After leaving William Morris for Evolution, you brought with you a relationship with the Backstreet Boys. Where did that start?

Podwall: Through going down to Orlando to meet with Lou Pearlman about a possible job. Ultimately, I went to work for William Morris in LA, but I met the Backstreet Boys then and my relationship with them started to develop. This was before their big break, and when I was working at William Morris, I maintained that relationship, even though I wasn't working with them directly…  It’s what brought me to David Zedeck, who wanted me because of my relationship with one of the biggest groups in the world. My stipulation was that I come in as an agent, so there was a mutual benefit to us doing this. I went there and had an incredible run working with Dream, 112, D12, Kelis, 3LW, Phantom Planet and Backstreet Boys.

THR: And you first met Matthew through your boy band ties?

Podwall: Matt was with the group LMNT, which was signed to Atlantic records and Evolution represented them. We became friends even after he left the group to do Hairspray. I went to opening night of Hairspray and closing night of Hairspray. It's a friendship that's now spanned a decade.

THR: When Matt was offered Glee, what was your role?

Podwall: Matt and I always dreamed of making a record together, we've been talking about it for years. And like American Idol is giving people a platform today, because record companies aren't spending money to break artists, so was Glee. Matt got Glee for the pilot, he called me up, we went to lunch the next day. He said, “I booked this pilot, this might be an opportunity for us to make a record. We should do this.” It all started then. I wasn’t managing him at this time, but obviously right after that I was. It was an incredible experience.

THR: Why didn’t Matt sign with Sony, the label group that releases music from Glee?

Podwall: That was a situation where we negotiated between two labels. [Columbia/Epic chairman] Rob Stringer is brilliant and it had nothing to with him or the Glee connection. Ultimately, we felt that Mercury’s David Massey, as an A&R guy, could help us create the type of album that we wanted. It was about who’s going to help find Matt's voice. That’s what lead us to that decision.

THR: How would you quantify success for Matt as a music artist? 

Podwall: I don't know if you can. I think our goal the entire time was to put together a powerful record that was true to Matt -- something that everyone could draw from. I think it's got to be about the product. We're incredibly proud of this album. Beyond the three duets with Sting, Elton John and Gwyneth Paltrow, the collaborations with Kris Allen from American Idol and JC Chasez are great. So success for us would be for the record to find a home in peoples’ iPods and for them to take a moment to really listen to it and find something to connect to.

THR: We’re going into what looks like another weaker than usual summer concert season, why the downturn?

Podwall: There are a few reasons. The concert business has shrunk, though there are plenty of artists doing quite well, like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, I also think the economy has slowed. A family of four that wants to take their kids to a concert, not only do you have to pay for tickets, but a tremendous ticket master fee on top of that, parking, concessions… it becomes very expensive. And when you're making a decision between food on the table and clothing for your kids and a concert, you're going to have to make tough choices.

THR: What is your management philosophy?

Podwall: For me, it’s about personal management. People that I look up -- like the David Geffens and the Randy Phillips’s -- these are incredible managers. There was nothing they didn't do for their clients. They were always there for them and on every level. I think with the consolidation of music, TV and film, some managers are collecting more and more clients which doesn't allow for you to give that type of service. Then it becomes more about numbers and I don't want to do that.

THR: You are known to accompany your clients on red carpets and take them on vacation, is this part of Camp Podwall?

Podwall: I think that dichotomy of my clients is interesting. JC is 34, Matt is 32 -- they’re my contemporaries, but you become a bit of an older brother figure in a way. You sit with them, you have conversations and you make sure that you're there for them regardless of what time of the night it is. You always pick up the phone if you can. But the good part about everyone that I work with is that they really are smart and have an understanding of their careers and the potential they have in their future and don't let the dark side of Hollywood take control. 

And yes, over New Years, all but one of my clients came away on vacation. There were 29 of us, and I remember sitting in the Presidential suite at the Fountainbleu Hotel in Miami with all of my clients in one room, taking a pause and feeling like, this is great. It's 82 degrees and sunny, we're all on vacation together, all celebrating how amazing 2010 was and going into 2011. That was a really great moment for me: seeing Chace and JC hanging out, and Matt and Colton bullshitting…

THR: What do you think is the biggest problem plaguing the music business right now? 

Podwall: As much as the shows like Idol give people an opportunity, there are very few record companies that are creating platforms for artists today that don't have a TV show. If Matt was still on Broadway, doing South Pacific and winning Tonys, would all these record companies really want to sign us? I don't know. But it takes a platform. There are so many incredible bands and artists out there that I think record companies should figure out their business and break artists again the old fashioned way.

THR: You’ve done business with several of the majors, what do you think of the executive shuffle happening right now with Doug Morris headed to Sony and Barry Weiss now at Universal?

Podwall: In a way, it’s a bit humorous. I think they're going to come in and make some structural changes, but there are some incredible people out there. There's this guy Chris Anokute who A&R'd the Katy Perry record – he’s a rising star in the A&R business. Doug Morris is very capable, Barry Weiss is great, I can't wait to see L.A. Reid on X Factor -- these are very capable people, but I'd like to also see people like Chris rise through the ranks.

THR: Working so much with actors, what have you learned about the music businesses from the TV side?

Podwall: That representing a music artist is ten times the amount of work of an actor or actress. With musicians there's rehearsals, putting a band together, touring, merchandising, the record company... For an actor, you have the agent, the publicist, the studio, but it's more concise. You're on location. The only time you’re really traveling around is for a fashion show or press junket. If you have an artist touring 10 months a year, there's a lot of work that's involved with that.

THR: As your business grows, have you thought of moving away from music?

Podwall: I love music. There's nothing better than standing on the side of a stage and watching a performer in front of screaming kids. It's instant gratification. For music artists, being on stage is addicting, and it is for us managers, too.