Manager Kristen Mulderig: "I always wanted to show that I can do exactly what you can do – and I bet I can do it better"

Kristen Mulderig has spent two decades managing some of the biggest names in metal. Here she discusses her intro to the industry, the challenges of music being 'free' and shares advice for young women looking to get started…

Manager Kristen Mulderig: "I always wanted to show that I can do exactly what you can do – and I bet I can do it better"
Phil Alexander

Kristen Mulderig is used to dealing with the unexpected. As a manager of a slew of major league rock bands, she has to be. And yet there are moments when even she can be caught off guard.

“Sometimes a package arrives at my house and it has an old Metallica shirt in it or something like that, and I’m like, ‘What is this?!’ Then I’ll get a text from Tobias saying, ‘Oh, I meant to tell you I ordered a load of shirts and I got them sent to you!’” she laughs.

The Tobias in question is Tobias Forge, the Ghost supremo, and one of Kristen’s managerial charges. “He’s is really into vintage shirts. Quite often companies in the States don’t send stuff to Sweden, so Tobias gets stuff sent here and I ship it out to him,” she continues, discussing one of the more mundane elements of her job.

And yet Kristen has played a key part in the development of Ghost as a band, signing them to the LA-based Rick Sales Entertainment Group, the company she has worked for 21 years, and transforming them into a genuine international force to be reckoned with.

“We’re a boutique management company,” Kristen says of RSE, the organisation set up by long-standing Slayer manager Rick Sales. “And we work hard for our artists.”

As well as Slayer and Ghost, RSE’s roster includes Mastodon, Gojira, Twin Temple, Sebastian Bach, and Dallon Weekes and his iDKHOW project. As president of the company, Kristen stresses that the roster is kept to a manageable size in order for her and Rick to guide the careers of their artists in an effective and objective way.

“If you’re looking for a yes man or a yes woman, that’s not me,” she says bluntly. “I have ideas that I like to contribute. They might be different from yours, but let’s hear each other out. If you want me to tell you what you want to hear, I don’t want that kind of relationship but there are plenty of other people who do.”

Such straight-talking is born out of a lifetime of experience and an understanding of artists’ needs. As the final subject of our We Run The Scene series of short films celebrating International Women’s Day, Kristen has a lot to say. Her story starts back in her college days in the mid-’90s, when her obsession with music and her outgoing personality allowed her to embark on what has become an illustrious career…

How did you start out working in music?
“I always knew I wanted to do something because music has always been part of my life. There are songs that I’ll hear on the radio to this day that will remind me of the smell of a summer of ’89. It’s such a beautiful thing and very powerful.

“Like a lot of people I went to college first because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I thought maybe I’d become a fashion buyer or work in fashion in some way. I went to the Fashion Institute Of Technology in Manhattan, the state university, but I was just so frigging bored. I was taking a bunch of Liberal Arts classes, but all the music classes were so much fun that it just reiterated to me that maybe I needed to do something in music.

“I would go to shows and I’m very friendly so I would just talk to people, and I met a whole lot of people that worked at different companies, like record companies and management companies. I just said to them, ‘I’ll come and intern for you and work for you for free.'

“So I was going to college, working bar tending to pay the bills, and interning two or three days a week too. The last internship and that I really enjoyed was working for Cheryl Valentine at Epic Records. This was around ’95/’96 so they had Korn, Oasis, Incubus, Far, Rage Against The Machine – their second album.

“I got so involved in the radio promotion side, calling college radio stations and stuff like that, and [Cheryl] really took me under her wing. I really loved [being] in the Sony building in New York because you’d run into people the whole time, and so much stuff happened that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been in that building. I graduated in June of ’96 and I said, ‘I’d still like to intern for you two days a week’ – so I did.”

So when did you start working in management?
Prong were also at the label at the time, around the Rude Awakening album, and Cheryl would talk to their manager, Walter O’Brien, all the time. One day he told her he was looking for an assistant and she said, ‘I have the perfect person… my intern.’ Honestly, at that time, I still didn’t know what wanted to do. I thought I’d work at a label, but I went to work for Walter and I loved it.

“I felt that working in management you were in the middle of it all and you were the closest to the artist, too. You had to look at all the facets of their career and make it all work. I was at Concrete Management for three-and-a-half years working with Pantera, Anthrax, Ministry and a little New York hardcore with Vision Of Disorder. I learned a lot there. I was a sponge, I literally loved answering the phone because I got know people. You start relationships and I felt that was really the key for me.”

How did you end up working for Rick Sales on the West Coast?
"I always wanted to live in California, and I got to a point at Concrete where I wasn’t sure that there was anywhere for me to move up to. So I put my feelers out to see what was going on. No sooner had I done that when I got a call from Dan Devita at Rick’s office who said, ‘We’re looking for a day-to-day junior manager’ and I was like, ‘Okay. When?’ and he said, ‘As soon as possible.' It was March of 2000 and I said to Dan I was going to SXSW, and so was Rick so I met him there. I had a three-and-a-half hour meeting with Rick and by the end of that he’d hired me. The rest is history. I went home, got all my affairs in order, packed and by May 14 I’d moved to LA. I started work on May 15 and I didn’t even have a car yet! I was just like, ‘I’ll cab it to work’ (laughs)."

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a manager?
“There’s been a lot. COVID has been a challenge – you have to move quickly and you have to work out other revenue streams; I have a handful of bands who are sitting at home and who are worried about what they’re going to do next. But I think we ended up doing a pretty good job last year and we need to get through this now.

“The biggest challenge – that’s an ongoing challenge – is the fact that the consumer thinks that music should be free. I think we can go back and trace [that it came from] the days of Napster, and the music industry just failed to adapt to technology. They were fighting it so much instead of finding a way to make things work. So the biggest challenge we face as managers is [finding] a way of adding value to the music itself, so that the consumer feels that they’re getting something of value because, unfortunately, I’m still not sure they value music enough to pay for it.

“It’s something I got nervous about during COVID again when everyone started doing free streams. I was like, ‘Wait a second! Are we going to do something like this where the audience thinks that live music is free?’ I’m glad that there was a shift that went from free to charging.

“I’m the type of person who does like to get in the trenches and read comments, and I am very aware of the mentality that’s out there. I can see that there are large elements of the audience who really think that a lot of artists are just millionaires. I can tell you that most definitely isn’t the case.

"So that’s the challenge: making sure that people value music. And we need to keep on working on that and thinking about it in different ways.”

You’re dealing with creative people so, when it comes down to it, how do you actually manage them?
“It’s funny that you ask that because my family would always ask me, ‘What is it exactly that you do?’ I’d always say that basically you’re there to guide an artist’s career and to use your experience to help them make the right decisions.

“Having been in the trenches during the launch of a new album while I was working at the record label gave me a perspective, so has touring and being involved with all those aspects of production, so it’s about using all those elements of experience to help artists. I feel that I have a lot to offer in terms of giving advice and helping steer a career.”

The needs of individual artists are very different, aren’t they?
“Absolutely. None of our bands are cookie-cutter bands. You can’t take one thing you did with one band and just do it with another band because their circumstances are very different. You also have to understand them as individuals. The way I talk to Kerry King is not the same way I talk to Tobias [Forge] or to Brann [Dailor]. They have different needs and different ways that they like to things. Some care about different aspects of their career compared to others and you have to understand that.

“I always remember being told in the early days, ‘Remember, the artist is not your friend.' To be completely honest, I disagree with that. I think they are your friends because I’ll get texts from all my different artists that have nothing to do with work. When you work that closely with someone, it’s hard for them not to be your friends. People always talk about their work husband or work wife, well I have work husbands, wives, kids, the whole nine!"

And some ghouls…
“Yep! And some ghouls (laughs). With all my artists, I genuinely do care about them and I think they care about me. When you work that closely it’s very important to make it clear that there is a time for business and a time for pleasure. I need to get the job done first, and then we can go out and have fun. But I go to bed every night and I feel good because I know that I’ve done everything single thing I needed to do for my bands. That makes me feel good and love being a manager.”

Do you have any role models as such?
“I don’t think I have one specific role model, other than my dad! I can tell you who I idolised when I was younger. Olivia Newton John! Because of her part in Grease but also Xanadu!

“I come across women in all aspects of life doing amazing things. I love it when I see that there are women in a genuine leadership role. I work with women all the time at different companies – other management companies or record labels – that I love talking to and learning from. But I can’t think of one single role model. I want different bits of pieces of everyone to inspire me, I guess.”

In your 25 year-long career have you ever had to overcome blatant sexism? And if so, how did you do that?
“Yes, I have, and unfortunately I think I’ll continue to. I’ll give you a simple, everyday scenario: I’d be in a production office, or I’d be at a venue, or on the band bus or even having lunch with one of my artists, whatever it is. Countless times someone, a friend, would come wherever I was with one of my artists, or in a room of all men talking production, and until I was introduced after the fact as, ‘This is Kristen who manages us’ they would say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you were so-and-so’s girlfriend.’ That happens all of the time. And it’s a bit like, ‘What made you think that?’ I understand that sometimes it’s not meant like that and I really can’t get mad at that, they don’t know any better, but at the same time it’s a perception that’s there and it is sexism. That’s the problem.

“To give you another quick example of something that happened recently that hit me a little hard, because it was right there in front of my face, when I got promoted to President last year it was a big moment for me and a proud moment. I put [the news] up on my socials – which I would never normally do because we work behind the scenes and I don’t need the pat on the back, but it’s nice to be rewarded for your work, and there was this sea of positive comments from people, some of whom I haven’t talked to in years, some of whom I don’t know. However, in that sea of positivity there were three comments from three men – and I have no idea who they were – asking what I had to do to get to where I was. I don’t need to tell you exactly what they said, you can figure it out. But I just looked at that and I thought, ‘Wow! You don’t even know me but you’re in that place where I couldn’t have done anything on my own?’ So, yes, that’s a problem that’s still there.

“So what can you do about it? We always get asked that all the time. Honestly, I think it needs to start in the home; I think it has to start at a very young age. I grew up in a family where I have an older brother, but we were always equal. I feel that I was nurtured that way and brought up that way, so when I went out into the world I knew that there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do if I put my mind to it. I never even [thought] that being a woman getting into the music industry would be an issue. But there’s a lot of people that don’t have that and it’s obvious.

“I think in the world of social media it’s even worse; you can sit behind a computer and say whatever you want to say and you see everyone’s ignorance. It has to start with the upbringing. You need to be taught that you’re equal. Just because you’re a boy or just because you’re a girl, it doesn’t matter.”

What advice would you give to young women trying to get into the music industry?
“Honestly, I think it’s all about being confident and being who you are. I think we need to prove ourselves more. I feel that I’ve needed to continually prove my passion for music and what I feel that I can do, especially in the genre of music that I work in – it is traditionally male-dominated. I do get looks when I’m at shows – dudes are like, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ if it’s a black metal show or something like that. It’s like, 'I have every right to be here! I can like it.'

“I would say never look as being a woman as being an obstacle. Use it as a motivator. It’s only motivated me to work harder. Listen more. Learn more. Stay late. Read more. Meet more people. Ask questions. Be around. Be a sponge, because I always wanted to show that I can do exactly what you can do, and I bet I can do it better! Well, you know, we’ll see.

“I would say don’t be discouraged, but I do think you need to have a thick skin. There’s things that I just don’t let bother me. Then there’s things that do bother me and I deal with it on my own and I let it go. I think, in the end, my work and the work of my company and my team speaks for itself. We’re doing something right (laughs)! I have more women working for me than men at this time, but I don’t see gender, really. It’s about the job that you do and how creative you can be. I would say don’t fall victim to it. Just keep going.”

The fact that you feel the need to work harder to prove yourself suggests that equality is still a real issue, so what needs to change?
“Besides what I said about things starting at home, I think there has to be more acceptance of people who are in more of a leadership position to put infrastructure in place to support women. I don’t think it’s an easy fix. It’s going to take time, and it’s going to take a lot more women demanding respect and demanding to be heard. I think that’s kinda what I did. I didn’t give up and I was lucky where I ended up.

“Both Walter and Rick wouldn’t have hired me just because I was a woman. There’s a reason I’ve been at the company with Rick for 21 years. We’re almost like family, you know. He always lifted me up and he always gave me a platform to be a leader. We need more people like Rick, we need more people like Walter, more men who own companies or people who work in companies, who don’t see gender but who see ideas. We need more of that.”

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