Backstage Wizard 

Rock 'n' roll image guru Miles Hurwitz helps turn young local bands into something that sells.

The young people lined up outside Slim's in San Francisco don't know they're under scrutiny. It's around 7 p.m. on an unseasonably warm Friday in mid-March, and the kids, to the average person, all appear to wear the same uniform of disaffected youth: black hooded sweatshirts, dyed black hair, strategically smudged eyeliner. This is, after all, a tour sponsored by megamall-punk emporium Hot Topic featuring bands on the SoCal indie label Epitaph.

But 53-year-old Miles Hurwitz isn't the average person. He's the manager of the Matches, the Oakland band headlining this sold-out show. His mission of the moment is to gauge how many fans are there to see his band versus the others. He determines this based on each band's style: Escape the Fate resembles 1980s glam rockers Motley Crüe, I Am Ghost leans goth, and the Higher plays R&B-flavored rock. "In some ways it's good," Hurwitz says of the genre mix. "We're not preaching to the converted."

A trim six foot four, with graying, close-cropped hair and a receding hairline, Hurwitz draws stares as he walks swiftly past the dozens of kids, some with adult chaperones, lined up down the block. As he reaches the line's end, he concludes that 80 percent are Matches fans.

Hurwitz, himself dressed in black Levi's and a gray flannel button-down shirt, two small silver hoops protruding from a single ear piercing, is highly conscious of a band's image, namely the interplay among an artist's persona, sound, and audience. Actually, when it comes to packaging and marketing bands, Hurwitz thinks about a lot of things.

For years the Rockridge resident, whose background combines music journalism and ad sales, has been coaching fledgling Bay Area musicians. Though few would recognize his name, Hurwitz has advised or managed some of the East Bay's most successful up-and-coming rock acts — including the Matches, Street to Nowhere, Audrye Sessions, and Maldroid — bands who've gained mainstream attention, attracted major labels and big management firms, garnered radio spins, toured nationally, and won contests. The first three of these bands were picked to play Live 105's BFD concert on June 9.

His methods are not common. While most managers seek bands that have already proved their commercial potential, Hurwitz works almost exclusively with young, relatively unknown acts. And whereas most managers deal primarily with the business end of things, Hurwitz requires creative involvement. He helps his bands write songs and lyrics. He coproduces their CDs and videos. He proffers advice on how to rehearse, perform, dress, create logos — in essence, how to create a complete, marketable package.

Such tactics are most often affiliated with manufactured pop bands like the Backstreet Boys; in today's rock 'n' roll, where street cred is compulsory, they carry the whiff of taboo. Regardless of what fans may think, Hurwitz manages to conjure both the ire and admiration of his peers. In interviews with more than a dozen musicians, former colleagues, and industry professionals, he was described as a "fucking idiot," "brilliant," "man-child," "fifth Beatle," "passionate," "cocky," "overbearing," "totally crazy," and "smarty-pants."

"He's definitely a unique breed among the level of band managers I work with," says Aaron Axelsen, music director and assistant program director at Live 105. "He understands the process so delicately. He'll build a story, he'll develop the band. ... He has a lot of integrity, a lot of passion. He's not like that used-car salesman type."

Actually, Hurwitz has played the salesman role, pulling stints as an ad rep for such publications as Mondo 2000 and The Nose, and as a consultant for Might magazine. He was a partner in the company that launched the regional computer mag MicroTimes, and collected a windfall when the magazine was sold in the late '90s. Until fairly recently, he acted as a consultant for struggling businesses. But his main gig now is nurturing bands with musicians half his age.

His motivations aren't entirely clear. Hurwitz claims he hasn't yet pocketed a dime for what is, essentially, a full-time job. One explanation is that he's genuinely passionate about creating and perfecting pop music. He's also a big kid, gleaning vicarious pleasure from his dashing young musicians. Most of all, he's a clever businessman who analyzes his landscape down to a level of detail that's dizzying, even headache-inducing.

Some local musicians say his grooming has vastly improved their songwriting and helped bring them mainstream attention. They also say his meticulous calculations and strong creative opinions can be unnerving. As for the fans, they're seeking that intangible quality, that certain something that makes a band truly special. And that's where Miles Hurwitz works his magic.

On a Tuesday night in April, Hurwitz is holed up in Oakland's Skyline Studios with local singer-songwriters Brad Wolfe and Megan Slankard, plus two of Wolfe's band members, guitarist Gawain Matthews and percussionist James Greenfield.

Wolfe, an earnest-looking young man, sits on a black leather sofa, while Slankard sits nearby. The two songwriters, both armed with acoustic guitars, recently decided to collaborate. Wolfe had met Hurwitz at a recent film festival and, duly impressed, asked if he could give them some feedback.

Hurwitz starts with an ice-breaker. "When you get advice from anybody in the music business, there are two things to keep in mind," he says. "The first is: The person you're talking to is just one more asshole in the music business. And that's me. I am just another asshole in the music business." He goes on to explain that, compared with other managers, he is more interested in the creative process.

Wolfe and Slankard play him a new song called "America." It's a heartfelt number, with the message of "Don't try to save the world, be yourself," Slankard explains. The chorus goes It's America, you're just a girl/It's America, can't save the world/It's America, it's bigger than you and me.

Wolfe sings with his eyes closed and taps his foot. His voice shivers. Hurwitz sits back in his chair. "Cool, very good," he says as the song comes to an end.

"I love that song. It's sooo good," guitarist Matthews chimes in, smiling.

Hurwitz proceeds to quiz the songwriters about their musical tastes, favorite songs, and career goals. He gives a quick lecture on the importance of a bridge in a song, and encourages them to write outside of their comfort zone. "Lyric hooks," he says: "There's three kinds in the Miles world."

Hurwitz pauses, realizing his mistake. "Boy, I hate having said that! Let me retract that," he says.

"That's in there, baby! The Miles world," Wolfe says, to everyone's laughter.

"Oh God!" Hurwitz says, turning to me. "Actually, for another reason, I might ask you to not write about this."


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