An artist needs tools—instruments and electronic components—to turn their vision into a reality, or even simply to spark new ideas. But gear, the good kind, is not generally affordable. And while a talented artist can take whatever quality equipment they have and make magic, recreating that magic time and again does require dependability. So how does a young musician get what they need to grow and improve if they’re not flush with cash? The answer often comes from gear sponsors—artist-relations specialists at gear companies who either donate or make equipment affordable to the working musician.
Tom Cusimano has been with gear company Korg for more than five years, assisting with the Vox and Black Star lines during that tenure, and is now the senior manager for artist relations. Cusimano has also worked with Yamaha, Universal, and Warner, and was a guitarist and vocalist for rock bands The Riders and The Walcotts. With experience on both the creative and business sides of the industry, Cusimano has a keen understanding of the needs and desires at play, and comes to the task with a helpful perspective.
We caught up with Cusimano to talk about the different ways that a band can get noticed for gear sponsorships and what he looks for in a potential artist relationship.
Spotify for Artists: Is there ever a "hunting season" for finding new artists?
Tom Cusimano: The heaviest time is around festival season. Festivals are usually a great place to meet artists because there's already a little bit of a filter there; if you made it on the bill at CMA fest or Coachella or Stagecoach or Bonnaroo or whatever it is, there's already been someone that has looked at the band. For these festivals, I'll go early to check out the younger bands. If you're on Goldenvoice's radar to the point where they're putting you on at Coachella, I'm interested in seeing what you're using and possibly meeting you.
What sort of artists are you looking for? You’ve signed everything from talented sidemen to principal musicians.
It really runs the spectrum, and I'm in a unique position because not only do I handle keyboards, guitar gear, and all that, but also massive workstations that literally run giant concerts. The musical directors for Beyoncé, JAY Z, or Justin Timberlake—these huge touring entities—they're using the core of Kronos, which is a massive piece of gear. So I work with all sorts of levels and types of people on their gear needs, whether that’s a session guitarist with amazing ability, a musical director, the “guitar player’s guitar player,” or even someone with a distinct musical style. I've got artists that we work with who are incredible lead guitar players whom you probably wouldn't know unless you're a guitar nerd, and I've got artists who are up front in the spotlight.
What are you looking for from an artist in return for using your gear?
Well, it's any number of things. It depends on the level of comfort that the artist has, and I'm always very up front about what we're expecting. I don't put a gun to anyone's head and say, “Look, I need you to do this.” If we're going to work together, I will say that these are the things we would like to see happen, and what are you comfortable with? That will help me define what we can do on our end.
For example, let’s say you’re Herbie Hancock, who's one of our iconic artists. There's no one else like him, and he’s been with the company for 30 years. With Herbie it's a lot of, “Hey, here’s a new product, check this out, this is up your alley.” I don't put everything in front of him because I know what he's interested in at this point. But I might also ask Herbie to do an appearance with us at [the National Association of Music Merchants conference]. It’s really relative and nebulous depending on the artist, their size, and their comfort level. My job is to make sure that our alignment with artists is resonating with people who are going to buy product. So it all depends on the product, the gear, and the circumstances.
If an artist does agree to use your gear, are they beholden to use all forms of gear from that product line?
It depends on the relationship depth and the kind of agreement initially. Without giving names or examples, one artist wanted to run a pair of amps on stage on the left and right side in stereo. The amps that we had given them didn’t make sense for that. One amp does one thing, one does the other—it's a “different arrows in your quiver” sort of thing. There are tools, and I'm not trying to hinder an artist from using the tools that they need on stage. There have also been cases where a band has requested an excessive amount of gear, so I'll say, “Look, you guys have five of our keyboards, I just want to make sure that we're on the same page here.”
On the flip side of that, I do have artists that use specifically only Korg stuff and they love it because we do make the range of everything at this point—multi-voice analog synthesizers, workstations, vocoders, smaller keyboards that can have a great variety of sounds.
So usage and exclusivity is never really a factor. If it comes down to tools of the trade, I'm not trying to conquer and control what artists are using, but obviously I will first and foremost and make the recommendation of, “Oh, you're looking for sound x, why don't you try this first? If that doesn't satisfy your needs, then I understand why you need to use that other thing.”
How can somebody get your attention?
I live and die by referrals, whether it's another artist that I work with, or an artist that I have an eye on, an agent, a manager, a label… it could be any number of things and they all happen. I've had managers reach out and say, “Hey, we've got this young artist and we don't have a ton of budget here, but can you help us out?” I'm all for artist development and getting in on the ground floor and trying to help. As a musician myself, I know what it's like to not have money but need gear—that's a really hard position to be in.
Though my best clients have come through referrals, I read every email that comes to me and I reply to every email, and if you call me, I call you back. I'll do that at least once. I think people deserve the time and I can very easily say, “Hey, thanks for reaching out but there's really nothing I can do for you right now but please update me with what’s going on with you.” I've sent thousands of those emails and some of them have turned into lucrative relationships.