“Either of you have a lighter?” I ask.
“Pass that to the left. I want that funk,” Alex says.
“A proper chunk and a small piece of some of that funky stuff,” Jesse flows. It’s like this and like that and like this and uh. It’s like this and like that and like this and —
“Found one!” I wave the lighter and start burning the palo santo.
I am sitting with Alex and Jesse Kirshbaum, brothers and founders of Nue Agency, a creative music agency based out of The Assemblage NoMad. The brothers are more than tastemakers or music brand strategists; they’re visionary artists with a track record that includes developing talent from Wale to Action Bronson, strategizing beats for brands like Virgin Mega, Mondelez, GE and Spotify, and amplifying events from Art Basel to SXSW.
The Kirshbaums’ life soundtrack has been a bumping, loud one. So I decide to sit with them in The Assemblage NoMad gong room to get a live recording of them.
Genevieve Kim: Who are the Kirshbaum brothers?
Jesse Kirshbaum: He’s the bulldog, and I’m the labradoodle.
Alex Kirshbaum: He’s the beauty, I’m the brains.
JK: He’s the hustle and I’m the muscle.
JK: We started our lives in a little place called Park Slope where we grew up and then moved out to Westchester County — Hastings-On-Hudson to be exact — in our early teens. We fell in love with putting together events and gatherings, curating the music and showing people a good time. And we started noticing that what makes every party better is music.
Music is the universal language; music is the ultimate connector. Through that we realized that our purpose is to connect people through music. That’s our chance to make the world a little bit of a better place everyday through our work. So we utilize and help brands, platforms, artists to all connect through music. It’s a career that really fits with our personalities and energies and is also our passion point.
GK: How did you initially start out?
JK: We started by finding and developing talent. That was the best place to learn. I started signing talent while working off of a friend’s couch in his office in Harlem. The first act I signed was The Clipse, aka Pusha T, when I was very young. And then when I started Nue Agency, the first act we worked with was named Mims. He had a record called This Is Why I’m Hot. It ended up going to number one on the pop charts, and allowing a lot of doors to swing open. We started doing brand deals for Mims — a Microsoft deal and other partnerships started coming together. From there, more artists quickly started coming into our orbit.
At the time, my brother, Alex, was working in real estate. We met for a winter music conference in Miami, and he was ready to join the business, so we packed up his Prius with everything we could, drove all the way up the coast, back to New York, and then things started to get hot.
GK: How did you know how to pick the right talent?
JK: I think there’s something to setting an intention. We were tending at the time to find the next hot artist. Being talent agents was our business. So if you set that intention into the world then that ‘next big artist’ ends up showing itself over and over again in a pattern.
JK: If we heard the name [of someone] over and over again in a week…
AK: Three times usually — if we heard from three different sources that are not connected to one another —
JK: We’d drop what we were doing, and we did everything we could to get that artist’s manager on the phone so we could represent the act. But we don’t represent artists anymore. At this current stage, we’ve changed our business motto. We’ve evolved. We’ve went to where we think the music business is going, and learned a new skill set that we’re mastering.
GK: And what is this new stage?
JK: Tupac used to say, ‘I might not be the one to change the world, but I want to inspire the person that will.’
AK: The next person.
JK: Artists have huge reach, huge community, huge fan bases, and my experience with artists and musicians showed me that they are the early cultural adopters on everything from art to fashion to tech. And their boldness and penchant for trying something new, combined with the tribe-mentality of their fans, is the reason why they can shift culture. They come to us when they want to figure out where they can take their career to the next level and we love helping them.
And brands with huge reaches — I mean big, big, big spawning reaches — come to us to figure out how they can authentically embed themselves in culture and influence these brands on how to get to this culture.
AK: And brands in this day and age have the muscle and the mega funds. They have the bigger budget, the money that helps drive marketing, and they have the distribution mechanisms that artists need.
JK: They need to borrow from each other in order to stay relevant. For example, festivals are cultures in their own, and music is such a driving force. Brands should be thinking a lot about how they can incorporate music and how music can help take them to a deeper connection to their consumers.
AK: So it’s no longer like it used be to when very rarely an artist partners with a brand. Now it’s the life blood of the music business, and if artists do it the wrong way, the collaboration comes off very contrived and corny. There’s a thin line between being award-winning and selling out.
AK: That’s our whole ethos, that’s what goes back to what Jesse was saying about what we said: music is the universal language. It’s the common denominator, it’s one of the lowest barriers of entry into shifting culture. If you shift culture in an impactful way, all those deliverables that you’re looking for will follow in suit.
JK: In order to avoid being corny, brands need to embed themselves in culture, and artists are the sherpas. Artists are the cultural liaisons.
AK: Artists are one of the best sources for keeping your finger on the pulse of anything that’s cool in culture.
JK: Music is culture. If you want to know where culture is going, listen to the music.
AK: It’s not always pretty.
JK: But it tells you.
GK: What has ultimately helped you make the decisions to where you are today?
AK: We’ve seen a lot of what works and doesn’t work. We’re willing to continue to push the envelope, and we’re willing to continue to try things that may not see the light of day, or be early on things. But at least we still learn a lot through trends.
GK: Speaking of trends, how does data come into play?
AK: The data is starting to play. It’s accessible, and it’s an easier way to help people justify decisions, validate things. But we never think it’s taste versus data. It’s taste plus data.
GK: And what’s taste?
JK: (Gestures: hand moves from mouth to stomach) Taste is here, all the way down to here, right? This is the centerpiece (pointing to the heart).
JK: Trust your gut. But data … if you don’t use data when it’s out there —
AK: — you’re kind of a fool.
JK: There’s so much accessible data that’s just not being utilized properly. So I don’t think it’s just data. And I advise our clients to be thinking along those same [lines].
AK: We’re more like ‘dinner over decks.’ We love taste.
JK: Being in places like The Assemblage where you’re being fed healthy, organic food, and you’re just surrounded by other conscious individuals who are out there hustling and making their businesses happen has allowed us to really open up in different ways. To really go back to like having a good clean system allows you to make much clearer decisions.
AK: It can heighten your senses.
GK: The music industry has undergone massive disruption over the last few decades and many have left. What has kept you two going?
JK: We realized on this quest that we’re in love with music and that music is such an emotional, transformational place that transcends all boundaries. It’s our trojan horse into every conversation and there is nothing we can‘t add value to by harnessing our understanding of music.
AK: We’re not solving world problems or doing brain surgery. What we are doing is putting smiles on people’s faces through music, and that small task is one that’s worthy. In tough times — recession, depression, whatever — that is release. And that’s a big part of how we look at the landscape of what we do. Music is a soundtrack to everyone’s life.
So just chill ’til the next episode.