Gig Economy: Claudia Gonson

The artist and manager on her dual career with the Magnetic Fields.

Gig Economy is a Talkhouse series in which artists tell us about their work histories, from part-time pasts to the present tense, in order to demystify the many different paths that can lead to a career as a working musician. Here, Claudia Gonson discusses managing and playing in the legendary band Magnetic Fields.
—Annie Fell, Associate Editor, Talkhouse

It is hard for me to know if I’m a good band manager, or, in fact, what it really means to be a good manager. I worry I could have done better, worked harder, understood more about the business and its opportunities, had more “reach,” and so on. But I am also happy to have achieved what I have. I’m proud and happy to have helped Stephin build a fulfilling and sustainable career. He truly is a great composer, producer, and lyricist.

I met Stephin Merritt when my sister invited him to our home one afternoon in the early ‘80s; I was 14. I was at the piano, practicing some classical pieces. He came and sat with me on the bench to listen, and perhaps we played something.

After that, we quickly became friends and got involved with various music and filmmaking projects. We loved New Wave and New Romantic music, and groups who pioneered the use of electronics, like Eno, Kraftwerk, and ABBA. During my teens, I was obsessed with ’80s Paisley Underground music and fashion. I had my hair cut to match the album cover of This Is Cher. Stephin had a home studio with a 4-track reel-to-reel recorder. During the months after we met, he created 30 different “bands,” depending on which combination of friends he was recording with.

We met at such a young age that I never actually made the decision to be a band manager. It was more about developing an understanding of what I was good at, which was organizing a band and working to sell it. I was already a musician and enjoyed playing music with Stephin, so what was (and still is) fun about my involvement with the Magnetic Fields was the combination of figuring out how to run the business side, while getting to also creatively take part in the music side.

I have a lot of memories of hanging around at payphones trying to reach the local venues to book a gig for our high school band, The Zinnias — calling back, over and over, with my pockets full of dimes, and being elated when a club booker would actually pick up. When they did, I would breathlessly beg for gigs in the few seconds of air time they would give me to sell the band.

I recall sitting on the floor, painstakingly placing those white stickers onto cassettes, which I would then send out to promoters with handwritten cover sheets. A few years later, one of the promoters at the Middle East (a Boston area venue) gave me an enormous box of those cassettes and asked me if I could help him listen and decide what bands should play there. It was a flattering shift in perspective.

I have a great mid-‘80s memory playing “new band” night at another Cambridge venue, TT the Bears. After only three songs, we were told to stop. So, during our third and final song, our experimentalist tuba/trumpet player pulled the top off his trumpet and blew it as loud as possible into his mic, sending the soundman flying to the soundboard to abruptly shut down the speaker system. We were disinvited from the bigger gig we had booked for later in the week. Effectively, we “failed” new band night. But happily, we got our friend who worked there to beg the promoter to reinstate us on the bill. I will ever be grateful to them for tolerating our weird experimental band.

I’m also grateful that Stephin and I can still work together after so many decades. Overall, we have had a lot of fun. I’m still relatively sane, and I’ve loved my work. Although I am creatively involved with recording and performing, I don’t write the songs. That is all Stephin. This allows me to unashamedly talk about how brilliant the music is without feeling terribly self-conscious — and to help bear the disappointments. One big role of the manager is to help artists navigate all the highs and lows of success and failure that are intrinsic to any career path.

In terms of what I’ve learned, I have my own theories, which may or may not be true. One is, if someone makes you do a ton of work, it’s likely to be a pretty tiny project. The contracts that have taken me months of back and forth generally end up being for underground projects that won’t yield us $10. I’ve wasted endless hours bickering. I wish I had learned that lesson a lot earlier. Whenever we get a seriously great offer, like a high profile sync license, the contracts are neat and sweet and take about 10 minutes to read. So my advice — don’t sweat the small stuff.

It’s hard to self analyze, and I have to push myself to focus on my strengths. Let’s see: Being cheerful, friendly, smart. Being a good communicator, having pretty good idea flow, being open to silliness and weirdness. Creating lasting ties with business colleagues, some of them for over 20 years. Really appreciating and enjoying the work. Being able to loop back and pick up dropped balls, and being able to juggle a ton of balls at once (this is a general management necessity. You can’t manage a band without that ability). Trying to laugh through tension, and maintain some sort of equanimity in the midst of drama. Actually, I am pretty terrible at that.

It’s tough. Frequently I fail. But maybe that’s also a strength. Who knows!

Big important tip for band managers and musicians: If you just stick with this, you’ll eventually get somewhere. I’m a fan of the slow burn, rather than the overnight soar to stardom. We all know what kind of humans that produces. A slower burn may be less glamorous, but it breeds more sanity, and actually translates to a career. I have had a very long career (over 30 years) in music, and I’m happy with the not-super stardom that we have achieved.

(Photo Credit: Marcelo Krasilcic)

Claudia Gonson is the manager for The Magnetic Fields and all of Stephin Merritt‘s projects. Gonson met Merritt in high school in the ’80s, and the pair have been working together ever since. Along with her management work, Claudia records and performs with The Magnetic Fields as their pianist and occasional singer, and sings with another Merritt project, Future Bible Heroes. Previously, Claudia played drums with TMF, also with the bands Tender Trap and Honeybunch. Claudia has collaborated with Shirley Simms, Tanya Donnelly, and authors Rick Moody and Neil Gaiman. Currently, Claudia is studying to be a therapist, while raising her daughter, and continues to manage and work with Stephin Merritt.