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Confluence Q&A: Chris Tetzeli of 7S Management

Tetzeli and Rateliff backstage at "Conan."

Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats.

Tetzeli (center) with 7S co-founders Alex Brahl (left) and Brian Schwartz (right).

Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats' seemingly overnight breakthrough has been years in the making, as Chris Tetzeli has managed the Denver soul singer onto an international stage. A big player in the music industry for decades, Tetzeli spoke with Confluence about Rateliff's liftoff, the state of show business and our fair city's status as a music town.
When Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats made their television debut in August, performing their soon-to-be-major hit "S.O.B."  on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, the musical world paused to note the arrival of a major new talent -- a "force of nature," as NPR put it. Of course, Rateliff's arrival followed a decade of honed artistry, very hard work and, more recently, a strategic and savvy business plan.

Chris Tetzeli was among the musicians and handlers that hung out backstage at Fallon that night. Indeed, he's the man that got Rateliff there. Tetzeli is the co-founder of 7S Management, Denver's leading music management agency, and for the past four years has shepherded Rateliff's career from a growth stage into a full-blown phenomenon. Rateliff isn't the first artist Tetzeli has helped to make it big: Nearly 25 years ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, his early career tracked with that of the Dave Matthews Band and other big-name clients.

If you're an artist in Colorado right now -- or anywhere, really -- the 7S roster is the one you want to be on: Paper Bird, Big Head Todd and the Monsters and Tennis are among the agency's clients, alongside veteran artists Rodrigo y Garbriela, Mary Chapin Carpenter and others.

Confluence Denver met Tetzeli at the 7S office in Denver's Art District on Santa Fe, a street that quietly houses the region's other music industry powerhouse, AEG Live, to talk about the rise of Rateliff, the nature of talent and why Denver is a great place for artists as well as business.

You were recently in Europe with Nathaniel and the band. How's it going?Tetzeli and Rateliff backstage at "Conan."

We had an incredible summer. It's going well worldwide. He's in a different city every night, London, Glasgow, Paris, all shows have sold out two months in advance. There's a really intense energy around the shows. We hear it everywhere: "We've never seen this place this packed." This is the first tour since the record started to do so well; we've had to move venues in every city. Typically, we would be in a 300- to 400-seater; now we can go to 800 and sometimes up to 1,200. Next time we're in Dublin, in March, there are only 100 tickets left in a 1,200 capacity room. We could sell out another show. So, to go from  300 to 2,600 is pretty incredible.

Why is the response so huge? What is it about Nathaniel and this band?

I've never felt more strongly about a person's music than I do Nathaniel's. He's been unbending in terms of his artistry, and the pure nature of his music. It's highly subjective. It's the way it hits you, hits your soul, some way that you react to it. I also know that I'm not the only person who reacts that way. Nathaniel has a lot of friends around South Broadway who do; there's a guy in the big office in the State Capitol who feels the same way.

One review said, "This band and this album touches a nerve you didn't know you had," which suggests the deep nature of people's reactions to this music. We have a hit single, and it's a real song, it wasn't written for radio. But we also have this amazing album, this incredible live show and this great band in conjunction with it. It's kind of like a two-headed beast, with the single opening a lot of doors. The irony of having a hit single is that the more people like Nathaniel we get on radio the better. It's nice to do it without compromise.

How much is Denver a part of the Nathaniel story?

It's a huge part. We take a lot of pride in it. I love being in Denver, and I love the fact that Nathaniel's from Denver. I love being a part of the Denver music community, from John Denver to Big Head to String Cheese to 303 to the Fray to the Flobots and DeVotchKa, and all these bands coming out. It gives everybody faith in what they're doing.

Nathaniel's been such a part of this community, and he's such a humble and wonderful guy. The whole band, they're all from Denver, they're all threads in the fabric of the musical community here. It's not LA, New York or Nashville, but there's a good industry here, and an amazing music scene. It may be one of the best music cities in terms of fans, venues -- we've got the greatest venue in the world, in Red Rocks. That's all a big part of who this band is. I hope we can be a big part of this community for a long time.

What are the unique challenges of Denver as a music town?

We're on an island, but we couldn't be further from the sea. That does allow for some protection. That's a positive and a negative. It's a hard place to tour from and grow careers, as opposed to being from the Mid-Atlantic, where there are so many markets within reach.

Which is where you came from, the Mid-Atlantic.

My experience goes back to Dave Matthews Band and working with them from the beginning -- growing a touring band that also had mainstream success. Everywhere we went the crowd doubled; it was an exponential growth. After a year, you've gone from 600 people at the club to 6,000 outside on the lawn. You're not afforded the opportunity of that touring strategy here. There's not a lot north or south of Denver, or north or south of Colorado. Going east or west is a long distance.

There are some good conversations going on now about how we can put some things into place to help bands tour and grow out of Denver. On the other side, this community has a heart and soul that is really strong. I think you feel supported as a musician in this community. I would venture to say the Lumineers felt that way after moving from Brooklyn. And then it's cool when you see, The Lumineers at a certain point facing certain opportunities, coming back to Nathaniel to say, "Hey, we've got a bunch of shows this summer; do you want to come open for us?" And then in turn, Nathaniel's first instinct when he was in a similar spot was, "Let's take Paper Bird, Land Lines and The Blue Rider out with us."

That instinct is unique in Denver?

In Denver, most of the positives are matched by a negative. You could argue that, if you were in L.A., there would be four or five relationships like the one The Lumineers have with Nathaniel, four or five bands they could take out on the road and work with. But then again you might not, because everyone is so spread out and spread thin, and the industry is so different; those bands might not have had the chance to see each other's shows and hang out and have a beer and be friends. In Denver, those kinds of things are happening all the time.

Do you see yourself primarily as an advocate for the bands you work with?Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats.

It's never our job to go out there and be a cheerleader for a band, and tell them how great they are. We love every single band we work with, and that makes coming to work really easy. Each band is different. It's like being the general manager, kind of running their company, and they're the company. You first have to define what success is, and it's different with each band. I lean towards bands that write their own music, go tour, play shows and build a real solid fan base behind that. There are so many fronts right now to attack and take care of. Thanks to music being a digital commodity, there's a lot you can get done online, a lot of information you can convey that can really help get a band going. If you're smart and effective about that, you can have a real impact. But at the end of day, nothing compares to what happens for 90 minutes when people are in front of you. Our job to is to put bands in the right place and the right position to present their show.

When you opened 7S in July 2013, you said you were initially drawn to Denver because it was an arts community. What keeps you here?

I came here to raise my family; I had married an amazing girl whose family had been here for three generations. It was the right place for us to be. I already had a relationship with the Front Range, because so many bands I'd worked with had blossomed out here. It felt like a natural fit. I had a great list of friends out here, which made it seem like a soft landing coming in. The vibe here between between musicians and even among industry people is amazing. I don't consider Madison House [the Boulder firm that manages String Cheese Incident among many others] competition; we're all friends, we all work together. That speaks to Colorado and the ethos out here.

But we are, as you said, on an island . . .

Running this business out of Denver is great for a few reasons. We're in a relationship business; there's nothing like a face-to-face meeting, having a dinner. We get a lot of traffic from people around the country. Thanks to Red Rocks, every manager and booking agent comes through. And, just Colorado itself is a draw. People love to ski, so they'll come through, spend a day in Denver. We see a lot of people here. And flying in and out of Denver is a lot easier than flying in and out of other places.

What do you say to young musicians contemplating music as a career?

I tell them: The odds are not great. It's a hard life. Even when it's "a success" -- it's a hard life. It's almost like, if, it's the only thing you can imagine yourself doing, do it. Beyond that, when you're starting out, start with one success. Start with that coffee house. Get it from 20 to 40 to 80. That will catch a manager's attention much more than saying you've played in eight markets. Get it going in your hometown. Create something really special, and don't spread yourself too thin. You have to keep things in balance to lead a happy and healthy life.

What's the impact of someone like Nathaniel on a music community as a whole?

It gives them faith. And strength. When you see someone who is so committed to his art, it build a sense of confidence and excitement that it can happen here. It does happen here. Denver's creative scene is thriving right now. It's thriving on the streets. I don't think it's irrelevant that we have a very supportive mayor and governor; music is very important to them both, and that helps as well. There's just this ripple effect, which is great creatively for musicians.

So, I must ask: How huge was the Fallon show?

Sirius FM had really stepped out in a big way; they started playing "S.O.B." across formats -- rock, country, soul. So that was huge. Fallon booked early; he got turned onto Nathaniel through a friend of mine and his enthusiasm was very genuine from the start. At the show, he flipped. He went ballistic. It was really meaningful to everybody. It was a really wonderful day behind that curtain. To get that validation and to be on that level, that's given everybody a lot of strength. Fallon was incredibly kind; he spent a good 15 to 20 minutes with us which is abnormal. Everyone was great. The Roots. Nathaniel and Ice Cube [a guest on the show that night] are now good friends from that day.

And the impact was immediate.

It was huge across the country, the world, due to the viral nature of it. It was the most reactive TV appearance I've ever experienced. It was the first time the band was on TV, and we started at the top. We weren't playing a morning show in Des Moines. Billboard just did a cover story about Jimmy Fallon and his impact on the music industry. The sidebar was all about Nathaniel and the power of that appearance. A lot has happened since then, but it's still our primary calling card.

The irony is that, at the end of the day, there was nothing abnormal about that performance. Nathaniel has been this for 10 years -- those moves, that sound, that soul. Denver audiences have known this for 10 years. It says a lot that this artist we've known and loved in Denver for long just blew everyone away the first time they got to see him.

Read more articles by Laura Bond.

A former editor and staff writer with Westword, Laura Bond has written for Rolling StoneUSAA and Spin, among others. She is the principal of Laura Bond, Ink., a content and communications strategy firm that serves nonprofits across metro Denver.
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