Ruta Sepetys Interview – 1998

This article was originally published by INK19 in December 1998.

by Ed Furniture

Ruta Sepetys. Ahhhhh… At age 13 she painted her room a dark shade of brown, and would sit there for hours with the shades drawn. For years she experimented with manipulating her voice in many different ways. Eventually, that led to her current occupation: full-time Manager of “dark-sunglasses-wearing-and-different-frame-of-mind-follower” guitar-guy Steve Vai. Errr… She knows how to speak French, too, cuz she lived in France. But she’s Lithuanian? No wait, she’s from Michigan. Tattooine? A couch in L.A.? College? Reads books… Hello? I get a bad case of Left-Legged-Francis Syndrome when I think about this stuff too much.

Q: How long have you been working in management, and how did you get started?

A: I’ve been working in artist management for nine years. In my last year of college, my brother John moved to California and enrolled in GIT. The plan was that John would get an internship in the music industry after graduating from GIT, and I would move to Los Angeles once I graduated from college. John landed a fantastic internship with songwriter/producer Desmond Child. I moved out to LA and slept on the couch in my brother’s Hollywood apartment for the first month.

Desmond’s management company was looking for an assistant for their West Coast associate Stacey Dutton, and my brother recommended me. Thanks to John, I got the job, and although I was only making $150 per week, I was working with the best in the business. Stacey was a fantastic manager and a wonderful person. After only three months, however, Stacey and her husband Michael Beinhorn decided that they wanted to leave LA and return to New York. My position was to be eliminated.

Hell-bent on keeping my job, I made a proposal to Desmond Child and Winston Simone to keep me on a trial basis for a month. Looking back on it, I realize what big hearts they had. I had no experience, and essentially they had no need for me. During my trial month, I worked 14 hours per day, including weekends. They decided to keep me on as a Management Assistant. Less than a year later, I was promoted and was handling all West Coast affairs for Desmond Child and the other clients. Desmond and Winston believed in me, and taught me almost everything I know. They are incredible businessmen and wonderful human beings.

In 1994, Desmond moved from Los Angeles to Miami, and I decided to stay in LA and start my own management firm. Desmond and Winston actually gave me seed money to start my company. I was so fortunate.

Q: Did you attend college?

A: Yes, I went to Hillsdale College in Michigan and received a BS in International Finance and French. In order to earn the degree, I spent 14 months studying in Europe, where I received a French Masters in International Management from ICN in Nancy, France and a Diploma from Centre d’Etudes Europenes in Toulon, France. I also had to serve an internship in Paris. I worked for Air France as a VIP Relations Representative at Orly Airport. I coordinated Concorde flights and secure transfers for VIP passengers, which often meant starting work at 4 AM.

Q: How do you feel about image vs. musical ability?

A: Image is nothing more than popular conception, and normally cycles with trends. Although some image driven artists may achieve success, they aren’t able to easily evolve and adapt to changing times. This limits their ability to sustain a career in the music industry. At the root of all, career artists are great songs and strong musicianship. The fans become dedicated to the music and artistry, not to an image, and therefore allow the artist room to grow. These career artists are then easily able to keep a contemporary image and develop their own unique sense of style and creativity as the years go by.

Q: How many artists/acts do you work with? Who are they?

A: I currently manage six artists: Steve Vai — a guitar player on Epic Records; Danny Peck — a singer/songwriter; Hair of the Dog — a rock band from Los Angeles; Lit — an alternative band from Anaheim; Roy Ashen — a solo artist from LA; Niels Bye Nielsen — a young film composer from Denmark.

Q: How many people work at SEG, and what do they do?

A: At the moment SEG consists of myself, my assistant, and an intern. Essentially, I devote my time to creating and implementing artist development plans for my artists. I negotiate their record and publishing deals and interface with their labels, attorneys, publicists, and agents. I write marketing plans, organize world tours, and search for ways to diversify my clients’ activities and profits. I also own and operate SEG Records, an independent label. I oversee all aspects of the label’s operations including sales, marketing, promotion, and publicity. My assistant handles merchandise and fan club management, travel coordination for all the clients and tours, correspondence and general office duties. Our intern handles incoming and outgoing mail, assembling press kits, tape and CD duplication, and organizing promotional mailings to retail and radio.

Q: What are some of the things that most interest you in working with an artist?

A: Creative vision, a strong work ethic, and a positive attitude.

Q: Who are your favorite musicians, composers, styles of music, etc.?

A: If you looked at my CD collection, you might think I was schizophrenic. I really enjoy all kinds of music, especially opera. Some of my favorite artists/performers are Joe Jackson, KISS, Jacques Brel, Danny Elfman, Nat King Cole, Crowded House, Franz Liszt, Clawfinger, Chris Isaak, Nirvana, Kathleen Battle, Dizzy Mizz Lizzy, Chet Baker, and Inessa Galante.

Q: How many demo submissions do you receive per week?

A: On average I receive ten to fifteen demos a week, at least fifty per month. Most are guitar players seeking management.

Q: Which Star Wars character do you identify with the most, and why?

A: Darth Vader. I’m always the bad guy. I’ve been called the Queen of Mean and the Witch of the West, you know.

Q: What does an Agent do?

A: An agent is responsible for procuring talent for musicians or actors. In the music industry, an agent books shows and tours for the artists. They also contract the shows, collect the deposits, and route the schedule.

Q: Why do libraries close early on Fridays?

A: I think all the librarians moonlight on the weekends as dancers at the Classy Lady.

Q: Are you religious?

A: I wouldn’t use the term religious, exactly. I’d say spiritual.

Q: How many copies did Sex & Religion (by Steve Vai) sell?

A: Sex and Religion sold over 600,000 copies worldwide.

Q: Are you a musician? What instrument do you play?

A: When I was 4 years old, I discovered that I could manipulate my voice in many different ways. My brother and sister were fascinated by this, and used to sit in my bedroom and make me imitate different voices. I did a fantastic Elvis and a bang-up Barry White and a scary voice that my family still calls “the devil voice.” One day at a family gathering, my siblings convinced me to run out in to the living room and start singing “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog,” in the voice of Little Richard. I accepted the dare and starting belting at the top of my lungs.

I guess my parents thought my display indicated I had some sort of mutated talent, because they enrolled me in every sort of class imaginable in order to develop or justify my odd behavior. At five, I was taking tap and ballet and theatre. I started taking piano lessons when I was eight years old, and began studying with an opera coach when I was 13. Although I didn’t continue very long with the piano, I studied opera for over nine years. The college I attended gave me a small opera scholarship… they were a little bent when I decided to major in Finance.

I no longer compete in vocal competitions or perform in musicals, I’m just too busy. But I still go completely crazy with my brother and sister, and I still scare people with my devil voice. I threw out a great Sean Connery the other day, too.

Q: What’s your office like?

A: My office consists of a very large open space and one glass office for myself. It’s all very light and spacious. I like a lot of natural light and high ceilings. When I was thirteen years old I felt very misunderstood, and painted my bedroom a very dark shade of brown. I would sit for hours in my brown room with the shades drawn. Once I went to college I evolved a bit, and now I can’t stand a dark living environment. Since I’m in my office 15 hours a day, I wanted to make sure it was a pleasant atmosphere.

Q: What was it like the first time you met Steve Vai?

A: As a fan, I discovered Steve Vai in 1984. A few years later, I broke my piggy bank so my friend could buy good tickets from a scalper for the Eat ‘Em and Smile tour, which was coming to Detroit. I counted the days, waiting to see Steve Vai, who I thought was the world’s most incredible musician and performer. As it turns out, my friend got ripped off by the scalper, and we ended up sitting in nose bleed seats. I was devastated, and had to beg the guy sitting next to me to borrow his binoculars. My friend actually told me, “Don’t worry, you’re gonna work with Steve Vai someday.”

Several years later, when I was living in LA and working with Desmond Child, I convinced Desmond that he should contact Steve Vai and inquire if he was accepting outside songs or co-writes for the Bad4Good project he was working on. Desmond wrote with Steve, and Steve taught Desmond how to ride a Harley. At one point, Desmond and Steve were thinking about buying a recording studio together. I was brought in to assess the financial feasibility of the venture. We all met at the studio. My brother, who was Desmond’s production assistant at the time, was with me. We were walking through the studio when I spotted a wicked-looking black Harley Davidson out the window. At that moment, the six-foot-plus, leather-clad Vai breezed through the door and walked to the back of the studio. My hands went completely cold. My brother and I were definitely star-struck. When I was finally introduced to Steve, I thought he was the warmest, most gentle, intelligent person I had ever met. He also had the most interesting hands I had ever seen. We got along very well, and the rest is history, I guess. My friend’s prediction was correct. Just for the record, I still think that he’s the world’s most incredible musician and performer.

Q: What the hell is LA like?

A: I love Los Angeles. It’s a great city and you’ve got the water, the mountains, and the desert all within two hours.

Q: Do you have any last words before I cast you into the pit of Carcoon, where you will, in his belly, find a new definition of pain and suffering as you are slowly digested for over a thousand years… thus ending the interview?

A: Larry Rucker carves birds.