Alex Frankel on Holy Ghost!'s Future, His DFA Days, and Artists Knowing Their Worth

Alex Frankel on Holy Ghost!'s Future, His DFA Days, and Artists Knowing Their Worth

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I've loved Alex Frankel's music as part of Holy Ghost! for quite some time—I even interviewed him and his bandmate Nick Milhiser for Pitchfork back in 2013. Nine years later, we caught up via phone an e-mail and talked about what he's been up to lately, including the management company he's since founded.

Tell me what you’ve been up to the last few years.

I started a management company myself, which I then merged into YMU Group, a larger global talent company where I'm now an executive. Holy Ghost! was my former full-time occupation, but we weren’t touring as much so I started doing more R&D and production work. Through that, I met Chet Faker’s Nick Murphy, and we had a come-to-Jesus thing about our own careers and where the music industry was at. Thankfully, Nick gave me a shot at managing him, and I started a company around that in 2019. Word to the wise, you better have a full arsenal if you’re starting a management company in a pandemic. It was very challenging, but ultimately rewarding for both myself and the other artists.

Tell me more about running a management company during a pandemic.

It’s like working in finance during a recession. It depends on where you sit in the food chain. I can only speak for myself, but I know a lot of friends and musicians who had a really terrible time. It was intense. Holy Ghost! also put out an album in 2019, so I was still one foot in that too. I was very lucky to be working with Nick and with [Holy Ghost! touring member] Chris Maher. It was trying, and complicated, and emotional to get through that period for so many reasons. Shows were canceled, people got COVID, money was down. It was a trying time, but oddly fruitful in terms of forming bonds. But it fucking sucked. [Laughs]

And it continues to suck. Have you gotten COVID yet?

Like, March 3 of 2020, I went out to dinner with a friend at UTA, and we were like, “Lol, the world’s gonna end!” We weren’t making light of it, but it was March 3—no one knew. I got home, and I immediately felt so sick. It was to the point where I FaceTimed my father, which I never do, and I was like, “Look at the sweat on my bed!” He said, “I think you should go to the hospital,” but then it stopped. At the time, I didn’t know it was COVID, but I’m pretty sure it was, because it lasted two weeks and all the symptoms were there. I believe that’s the only time I’ve had it. I’ve never tested positive for it, though.

I had a similar experience. I went to Nashville with my wife a few weeks before shit went down, and I was pretty sick—and I don’t get sick very often. I was going around seeing people and being like, “It’s not COVID,” but thinking back, it was probably COVID.

When was that? Late February?


It’s a very similar story for everyone who was working in restaurants, too—I know that from my brother. Looking back, we didn’t know, but we were all sick. “Oh, it’s not COVID.” We fucked up! I went to CVS, and my hands were turning different colors. I still wear masks on planes and I do my best, but I consider myself very lucky.

You mentioned the restaurant industry, and you and your brother Zach are behind Frankel’s in Greenpoint. When things started opening up for takeout again during the first year of the pandemic, going there to pick food up was a real restorative thing for me.

When Frankel’s first opened, we did a local news interview where I said, “Music and food are very similar. Music’s for the ears, and food is for the mouth.” Zach went, “What the fuck, dude?” [Laughs] Zach and his fiancé are managing people who are counting on their paychecks, and they didn’t back down, they held it together and followed through. I’m very proud of the way they stuck by it. There were many opportunities for them to just fold. That might’ve been the hardest part of the pandemic—watching them deal with that. They care so much about it.

I honestly felt such a relief when Frankel’s reopened.

I think a lot of people did. It feels like it’s been there forever.

What’s different for you now that you’re working more explicitly in management instead of focusing more on making music?

People don’t know that I signed to Capitol Records when I was 16 years old in a band called Automato—that’s how I met James Murphy. That band dissolved when I was 21, and I had no money, no career, just a keyboard to do work on remixes with. James said, “Hey, you and [Holy Ghost! member Nick Milhiser] should keep going,” but I went to work at a record label instead. I worked at !K7 as the Assistant Label Manager.

I left that job not to pursue music, but to work for Moby’s management company for three years as the only U.S. member of the team. I did everything from tour management to deals, anything under the sun. It was only through that where I had the bandwidth to pay the rent enough and, by chance, start Holy Ghost!. Then Holy Ghost! took off and Moby said “Go forth, young man,” so I went back into music. I’ve always been in the music business. I had a W2 from a record label when I was 21. People who know me know that I was always very active on the band’s business side.

Having been through both sides, I’m looking to help out other artists now, and that’s been very rewarding. If you don’t know how to use a mixing board, I don’t think you should be advising on the trajectory of an artist’s career. That’s not how it always has to be—a gallerist doesn’t have to know how to paint in order to sell paintings—but we’re not gallerists.

I’ve never sent an away message in my life. Away messages don’t exist for artists on tour. I refuse to do that. I’m in Greece right now, but I’m also at the studio with my client. I’ve never met a musician who’s taken vacations, I don’t understand how that works. But I’m a fighter on the artist’s side, maybe to a fault—I can be aggressive, and I don’t like leaving people in limbo. Leaving people in limbo is how people tend to interact in the industry, and I try to stay away from that mentality.

Having to be “always on,” how do you manage burnout for yourself?

I don’t know. I probably don’t manage it well enough, I’ll be the first to admit that. I really love gardening, swimming, fixing my car up. Also, moving out of the city was very helpful, as well as not being as social. I haven’t been to a bar in years. I just take care of my property and my relationships.

Tell me about the new U.S. Girls single you worked on.

I’m a big fan of Meg, and her manager actually signed me to Capitol when she was an A&R. I still make music and beats, and I even send things to artists I work with—thank God that’s a relationship I can have with my clients. So I sent something to Meg, she responded, and we worked on it remotely. It was fun to have something to work on.

I really enjoyed the last Holy Ghost! album. What’s the band’s current status?

Most importantly, Nick and I are better friends than we’ve ever been. We’ve been friends since were six years old. Right now, Nick is touring with LCD Soundsystem, and I’m super happy for him. We’re just friends! [Laughs] I would hope that, maybe, down the line, we’ll find a way [to make another album]. But it’s really rare for two people to be friends for this long, and for us to come out of the other end [of the band’s run] really satisfied and still talking to each other. If that never changes, then I’m good with the way it is.

You mentioned James Murphy earlier, obviously there’s been a bit of chatter around the status of DFA over the last year or so.

I wish I could say more. I purposefully avoid having this conversation for a lot of reasons. The only thing I can say about it is that I don’t have a career without James, and those two guys continue to be some sort of archetypal parents. There’s nothing but goodwill there, we’d left before this all happened, it is what it is.

I can say that James did the right thing on our end, and has been nothing but a gentleman, and that’s it. I got nothing but love for what happens in the future, I still wear my DFA T-shirt. If we ever do an album again, it’s gonna come out on DFA. That’s all I can say. I have 100% support for James and everything he’s done. He did the right thing on multiple levels and showed up. That’s the industry, and it’s complicated.

I remember buying DFA’s Compilation #2 at Other Music when it came out.

So did I!

Oh word.

We were fans at the same time as being a part of it. Capitol Records, when we were 19 years old, paid shit-hot producer James Murphy—the Pharrell of disco-punk—to work with us. We were fans, and it continued that way. Even just being invited into the office…we were never in the inner circle. We were just looking up to this guy while making the Automato record in 2002, being a teenager in New York City as the Rapture were coming up. We were huge fans of Unkle too! I didn’t know [James Lavelle] very well, I did with [Tim Goldsworthy] though. We were hip-hop kids.

It was also a really good group of people. I know they’ve gone their separate ways, but looking back, I think everyone was very kind to each other—at least, on my level. It was not gross, and it was kind of punk, and to me that’s what I always remember. Saying “Fuck you” to the establishment while being nice to each other. It was a very cool time. They’d be like, “Hey, here’s the new Hot Chip record!” And they’d play “Over and Over,” and you’d be like, “What the fuck?” When James agreed to put out our record, it was like being hung on a gallery wall—and it could’ve ended there, because we were just hanging around. But James gave us that shot.‎

I read the article you wrote for Music Business Worldwide about artists selling the rights to your music. Talk to me about what led you to write that.

As an artist having done deals of my own, and having continued to help and consult others in this space on multiple transactions, I consider myself what I would call a “unique expert.” On the finance side, I understand the mechanics of deal structure, estate planning, cash value, solid state catalogs, and depreciation—but I also understand the emotional attachment as an artist. I try to bridge the gap between the sectors and find transactional solutions that leave all parties satisfied and set up for future success.

Whether artists chose to sell or lease their rights or not, the moment has forced managers to educate clients and themselves on something that, five years ago, they wouldn’t have been compelled to deeply understand. It's a passion for me to clarify artist rights and financials so they can accurately plan their lives and careers — whether they sell or not. And, by the way, it can be a rough process because so many artists unintentionally gave up their rights when they signed deals with record labels and publishing companies years ago...there's nothing for them to sell or leverage. Which sucks. But better to know than to wonder.

In a world that tells you to just be happy that you got Best New Music or third line on the Coachella poster, it’s really about understanding your rights, contracts and reversions in the long term. It’s a really interesting space between finance and music that I love. Even if you’re not looking to sell anything at the moment, I think it’s a great opportunity for artists to better understand their financial value and I consider it my responsibility to help in that process.

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Jamie Larson