Independent Force in the Music Industry Establishment

The Grateful Dead sang, “Don’t be a collector of more than you need. Got a lot of things growing, but keep watching your seeds.” The Grateful Dead is Howie Schnee’s favorite band, and this lyric not only reminds him of his first live concert experience, but it is advice he finds useful as an entrepreneur.

By remembering their humble beginnings and maintaining a grassroots philosophy, Schnee and his partner, Mike Maietta, have run a successful entertainment company for 18 years in the notoriously unpredictable music industry.

Creative Entertainment Group (CEG), an NYC-based business, provides artist management, concert and venue promotion in New York and in New Orleans, LA, and marketing for the music industry. Over the years, they’ve managed concert calendars of venues across the city, and in 2007, Schnee became the co-owner of Sullivan Hall.

They provide marketing and promotional services to companies like AEG and Bowery Presents and promote concerts for bands such as Everclear and New Found Glory. CEG’s founders have been able to keep their company independent while working among the music industry establishment.

Grassroots growth 

Schnee is a second-generation entrepreneur; his dad owned Hamilton Luggage, a chain of luggage stores. Schnee realized that he wanted to own his own business—just not the family business. The fall after he graduated from college, he met legendary concert promoter Bill Graham and begged him for a job. While working multiple jobs to make ends meet (Graham paid him little), Schnee looked for the opportunity to branch out independently.

That chance came in 1993 when Schnee, Maietta, and a third founder, Brett Radin, started CEG. Today, their concert and event promotion services account for more revenue than artist management, but managing bands built a great foundation: “We remain very hands-on. Having that management experience has really worked out well for us because we can see through the artist’s eyes,” he said.

The power of partnerships

The hardest part of starting CEG wasn’t attracting the bands or landing venues, but rather, gaining credibility in an industry where one day you’re hot and the next you’re not. “A 22-year-old can call, but they’re calling from [top recording artist manager and executive chairman of Live Nation] Irving Azoff’s office, so you’re going to take that call. But Howie Schnee from Creative Entertainment Group? They’re going to ask, ‘who?’”

In response, CEG has focused on key partnerships. In the last nearly two decades, they’ve partnered with multiple companies to secure exclusive venues to promote their bands. They’ve also worked with similar companies to create concert series in New York and the Big Easy, and provided consulting and marketing services to major labels like Epic, Sony 550, A&M, and Columbia.

Staying light & looking ahead

In 2003, CEG had two big wins: they signed client Antigone Rising to the major label Lava/Atlantic, and they secured a sponsorship contract with Jameson Irish Whiskey to promote concerts in NYC and LA. Schnee says that, while it was a nice influx of cash, they didn’t increase spending. “2003 was by far the best year we had up to that point—but we didn’t spend it like it was,” Schnee says. “We were smart because we knew it could all go away.”

And it did. At the end of the year, Jameson didn’t renew their contract and Antigone Rising went to new management. The business weathered the hit because they remained lean. Because of this staying-lean mentailty, each year has been increasingly better, with 2009 highly successful, and 2010 being the best to date.

The reluctant mangers

“This isn’t a business to go into if you like to sleep. There aren’t really set working hours, it’s an all-day, all-night career,” Schnee says. To help lessen the difficulty of this imbalance of work/life, Schnee and Maietta have had one another. “[Maietta] sees things black-and-white, which I do not. We may not agree with one another, but we often meet in the middle, which seems to be the sweet spot,” he said.

The hands-on founders finally hired their first employee in 2000, but hiring employees proved to be a bigger challenge than managing temperamental rockstars. Wanting to keep a low overhead, Schnee hired “an assistant of sorts” but didn’t provide a formal title. “We don’t really do titles here,” he says. “There was never a point where I’ve said someone works for me. I always refer to my staff as my co-workers.”

Looking ahead, Schnee sees CEG expanding to other markets and creating inventive ways of improving the musical experience. Most importantly, though, CEG is keeping music as its priority.

“We will always have the understanding of the kind of music we’re doing and the sort of philosophy behind it. It all goes back to the Grateful Dead and what was so special about them. It’s the same thing that’s special about us: the idea of improvisation and that anything could happen any given night.”