Alex DePersia didn’t become an artist manager by following a conventional path. But DePersia isn’t a conventional artist manager, either.
She didn’t go through a music business program in college, work in a mailroom or any of the other things commonly found in the bios of rising executives. She did know she wanted to work in the music industry, though she didn’t really know in what capacity.
After graduating from University of Maryland, the Puerto Rican-Italian girl from South New Jersey headed to the Big Apple to pursue a career in music, wherever that led her. In one case, it led to hawking “Guitar Hero” games on NYC street corners to pay the rent. But, ultimately, it led to an executive assistant’s position at ICM Partners, on the desk of the inimitable Marsha Vlasic, now with Artist Group International.
About a year into her journey, DePersia realized she wasn’t cut out to be an agent and accepted an opportunity to join I am OTHER, an umbrella company for the creative endeavors of Pharrell Williams – from music and film to fashion and, more recently, the SOMETHING IN THE WATER festival, which is returning this year to his hometown of Virginia Beach, Virginia, after a COVID respite and temporary relocation to Washington, D.C.
DePersia serves as Executive Event Producer of SOMETHING IN THE WATER, leading a team that helps Pharrell not only execute his musical vision, but his philanthropic one as well.
SITW is about more than music – it’s about giving back; developing community and amplifying unity, supporting local small business and opportunity for residents of Virginia Beach.
In addition to guiding the team behind SOMETHING IN THE WATER, DePersia manages Pharrell, alongside LMG boss Ron Laffitte. She manages an an incredibly talented, emerging young artist and singer/songwriter, Gracie Abrams, who is signed to Interscope and has scored a coveted slot among the openers for Taylor Swift on her “Eras Tour,” along with such artists as Paramore, Haim, Phoebe Bridgers, beabadoobee and Girl In Red.
Abrams recently released an anticipated debut album, Good Riddance, and is currently on her second headlining U.S. tour in addition to introducing herself to the Swifties at U.S. stadiums starting in April.
DePersia, in addition to helping her clients make the most of their opportunities, in 2021 joined Femme It Forward’s Next Gen Femme mentorship program, created to empower and increase opportunities for women of color in the industry.
Her work helping young women find their way in the music industry, whether as executives or artists, brings her full circle from being a video game hawker to festival producer and manager for one of the world’s top multi-hyphenates in Pharrell. And in just a few short years she’s passing her own hard-won knowledge on to a new generation of women.
Pollstar: How did you get your start in this business and how did your job evolve?
Alex DePersia: My first job was at ICM Partners, as executive assistant to Marsha Vlasic. During a few Cassette Kids residences in New York, I met an incredible woman named Caron Veazey. She explained that she was starting a company with Pharrell called I am OTHER and asked if I wanted to come work with them.
She gave me an incredible opportunity and still to this day I refer to her as my mentor.
I am OTHER is essentially Pharrell’s umbrella. He touches all different verticals, music obviously being a huge part. But there’s different companies – he has a skincare company, an auction house and content platform, clothing lines, brand partnerships and much more.
In the beginning, Google/YouTube had started this initiative where they were giving a bunch of creators a budget to start making original content.
It was interesting; it was this episodic series type of shows or content. And we were a group that got one.
At the time, that was a huge focus for the company. We were developing content around a bunch of these artists that we started working with. I started as an executive assistant to Caron and over time became a kind of project manager overseeing the artist projects. There were, at one time, probably five artists that we had signed.
So I was overseeing that for a long time, and I think that that role continued to evolve into a day-to-day kind of a thing.
With Pharrell, the great thing is that everybody wears a lot of hats in the best way.
The team as a whole is lean, especially considering all that he touches. Everybody’s just on it and he pushes you to think differently and approach things differently. He’s a dream big, “let’s do it our way” type of guy.
About five years ago, Ron and I had a conversation that turned to, “You’re a manager, you should come work for the management company.” It was a bit more seamless, from an operations standpoint.
I went from I am OTHER and moved over to Patriot Management, which it was then called. The company has since been renamed, so it’s called Laffitte Management Group.
That that sounds like a really creative way to spend a career and keep it interesting.
Pharrell’s just so creative and so smart. And again, it’s about thinking differently and approaching things in a way that might go against how you’ve been programmed to.
I used to think I was very creative! But then I was around these actually creative people, and I was like, “Oh. It’s not the same.” How can I look at this? How can I keep his ethos constant in my approach? He absolutely keeps it interesting.
Was there a lightbulb moment or event that made you think the music industry was what you wanted to do as a career?
I grew up in a very musical household. My father’s a musician and a singer and, growing up, we all played instruments and sang together. I think as I got older, even in high school, I was trying to approach something that I thought I could be good at and also feel passionate about.
When I went to college, I knew that I already wanted to work in music. I just wasn’t sure exactly where in the industry. I was open-minded about it. As you grow up and, especially in college, you’re kind of dropped into trying to be an adult by yourself. For the first time, I was oblivious and just trying to focus on what I what I was meant to do.
When I graduated college, I told my parents I was moving to New York City. They said, “Well, what are you going to do?” I was like, “I’ll figure it out.”
I applied for a million jobs, looking on Craigslist. At one point there was a job for like a weekend where you had to stand on the corner and try to convince people to buy a “Guitar Hero” video game.
I was just doing what I needed to do at that point to make rent while I was interviewing for people like Marsha Vlasic. But I was interviewing at agencies, at management companies, MTV, anywhere I could, really.
Now I look back and those are such different types of responsibilities and roles. But I was trying to cast as wide of a net as I could, and that ended up with my first job at ICM.
I was there for about a year working for Marsha, which was very tough, but I learned a lot. I think she’s an incredibly strong woman.
What made you transition from the agency world?
After being [at ICM] for about a year, I realized this is not my space and had begun interacting a bit with some other managers.
I thought I am more aligned with the business from the artist’s point of view rather than the other side. And so it was interesting, when Caron Veazey brought up the notion of coming over [to I am OTHER] because I thought, “This will give me an opportunity that’s more suited for me, where I’d have the chance to work with an artist and could really have an impact.”
It’s hard to be an agent and it really wasn’t the right energy for me; it wasn’t the right fit.
But later you transitioned to management but yet continued working with Pharrell?
I’ve known Ron Laffitte for such a long time, since a few months after I started working at I am OTHER. So it was really exciting to go over there to LMG and formally work with him under the same roof.
Ron always told me, “You’re a manager, and here’s why…” He allowed me to think in those terms about my future and how I regarded my career.
That pushed me to focus and think about how I wanted to navigate the industry. It gave me a lot of confidence to know that he believed I belonged there. I mean, it’s Ron Laffitte! His support means a lot to me.
So you have management clients in Pharrell and Gracie Abrams. But SOMETHING IN THE WATER can also be like a client. Tell us about that.
Yes, exactly. Pharrell’s amazingly special festival, SOMETHING IN THE WATER, which we do with Live Nation. It is a ton of work, and there’s a certain level of respect and mindfulness in the planning, because it started in his hometown with his community. Virginia Beach is so special to him and it’s been important to keep that constant in the groundwork. We really try to go above and beyond what we offer the people in the 757 (area code) and how we try to keep the locals engaged across the board.
Volunteer programs, activations with the schools, the HBCUs that are in the area – it’s a big part of what steers us, and separates us, from some other festivals.
The way that [Pharrell’s] leaned in for his hometown has been really remarkable. And it’s rubbed off on a lot of us in how we approach the vibe, design, the layout, the lineup, everything from top to bottom.
And then there was time off because of the pandemic shutdown.
Year one was amazing – we had all come together to try to pull off this nearly impossible task, and it worked. It was successful. We all felt so fired up to go back and make year two even better.
Then, of course, 2020 we had to cancel. It changed everything for everyone. For the entire industry.
How did you navigate the move to D.C. in 2022 and back in terms of operations and logistics?
We had great partners in Redrock Entertainment; they were our partners in producing the festival that year. They produced the event the year that we had to cancel.
And of course, since day one, we’ve had the incredible Lesley Olenik at the helm – her involvement, expertise, guidance is just invaluable.
We were only a couple of weeks out before we had to pull the plug, so we were basically approaching load-in at that point. So that same team was involved when we shifted to D.C.
And planning it in a different city was a lot. We did a bunch of site visits. We went to a bunch of different locations just to explore what our options were and presented them to Pharrell before he joined us on the road.
We had a lot of internal conversations about what he wanted to accomplish, how he wanted to embark on the event, and ultimately he knew D.C., our nation’s captial, was the best place for us to plant the flag. It was a poignant and thoughtful event.
And that’s also when we shifted to Juneteenth weekend. Previously we had focused on the last weekend in April. But we pivoted a bit and were moving very much in real time. Everybody just leaned in. Everyone asked, “What can we do to help out? How can we activate? How can we show up for Pharrell?”
In addition to his core teams, a lot of his brand partners stepped up in an amazing way.
And you know, it was great. It’s kind of like the best running theme with his team – everybody wears a lot of hats.
But this is such a remarkable project. There’s his team that focuses on philanthropy, his team that focuses on new partnerships and development opportunities, his creative team that focuses on aesthetics and his set, his team that builds on the digital side and the socials … literally every vertical that he operates in, all of those people just jumped in and it made it all come together. Everyone really cares about showing up in a way that feels meaningful for P.
Were there institutional and cultural challenges in going from Virginia Beach to Washington, D.C., and did they change the vibe of SITW?
There were a lot of challenges just with the setup that we had to do our best to navigate. A lot of D.C. is so buttoned up and you have to go through approvals – for example, dealing with the National Park Service, the feds, with the City of Washington, D.C.
We learned a lot being there. I think there was a reason for him to be there, and I think that we pulled it off. We delivered a great lineup. The city was really happy with the setup there. We’ll look back on this and continue to feel proud about it.
But I do feel strongly that Virginia Beach is where SOMETHING IN THE WATER is meant to call home. We’ll be back there this year. We’re in the depths of planning now, and we’re hyped, we’re excited. It’s crazy, but we love it.
Virginia Beach is a music-oriented place to be, with musicians and several venues and music-centered businesses as well. I don’t know if that’s a help or a hindrance to what you’re doing.
So many people call Virginia home or have roots there, specifically in the 757 where we do the festival. Virginia is Pharrell and N.E.R.D. and the Neptunes, of course, but it’s also Timbaland and Missy Elliott, Clipse and Pusha T, Chris Brown, D’Angelo, the list goes on and on. There’s a ton of talent that that came from there. There must be something in the water!
Since SITW is artist curated, what does Pharrell look for in an artist to book for his festival?
The music he’s created throughout his career is very eclectic. It’s a beyond diverse offering, and it’s so similar to the way that he apprroaches music for the festival. Sometimes he’ll call me or Lesley and just be like, “I have the best idea.” And then it’s funny because even the most “left” ideas that he presents, they just somehow seem to work, you know?
I think the fact that he’s from there, he’s got such a good understanding of what the locals, the fans there, want to hear and what artists they want to hear from. So that part of it is fun, but it can definitely change from year to year and from day to day. And it depends on what he’s excited about, and what the team is excited about, in the moment.
SOMETHING IN THE WATER is the only festival I’ve ever worked on, and I’m used to how we’ve set up the structure.
I don’t know how other artist-curated festivals run necessarily, but Pharrell’s very involved. From the look of the festival, the layout, the talent, the community offerings, the merch, the food, he’s involved. It’s super important to him.
And that’s how he approaches it, in the same way that he would approach any other project that he’s working on.
He has a ton of ideas and gives us a lot to think about. And then the entire team – Ron, Lesley and myself – sit with the various pieces and do our best to put the pieces together in a way that makes the most sense and just looks like a reflection of him and what we’re all there to accomplish.
You work on SOMETHING IN THE WATER with Live Nation, and with the company’s Lesley Olenik. Tell us about your relationship with Lesley. It’s cool to see two women collaborate on a festival like this.
I adore Lesley. It’s funny to me now because we’ve gotten so close over the last however many years since we started doing this. She is someone that is very much in my most inner circle, especially among women in the industry, but also just my life at this point.
As much time and energy as I know she spends on the festival, she’s working on so many incredible tours, not to mention her beautiful family.
I’m in awe of her. I don’t know how she does it. And I think she is so balanced and lovely and kind and loyal. I truly love working with her and don’t know what I would do without her.
I’m half Puerto Rican and I also love having another Latina in the space that’s doing such incredible, BOSS work. She just crushes it. By the way, these tours that she’s putting together are insane!
You started working with Gracie Abrams a couple years ago. How has that experience been?
Gracie is as equally talented as she is smart and gracious. To be a part of this journey with her and to be able to watch her grow has been such a gift. And I truly believe she is one of the most gifted songwriters, ever. I remember hearing some of the music for the first time and there’s a lyric that says, “if it doesn’t go away by the time I turn 30…” and I immediately googled how old she was. I couldn’t believe how much wisdom and wit was pouring out of this twenty-something year old girl. It’s hard to put into words how I feel about Gracie – I’m just so proud of her.
Speaking of women supporting women, you’re involved with Femme It Forward. Tell us what you do, and why groups like this are important.
[Femme It Forward founder] Heather Lowery is a friend of mine and Femme It Forward is her company. She operates in so many different spaces in the industry, but this space in particular, this mentorship program, I think is incredible. I’ve gotten so so much out of it.
I still keep in touch with my first mentee, Desha, and I’m now working monthly with my second mentee, Sab.
It’s a program for Black and Brown girls that want to get in the industry and want to be able to have an ally or friend, a mentor to listen to and check in with.
And I think it’s interesting because the experience is different every time based on what your mentee wants to get out of it. Desha, was very intrigued and interested in the live part of the business. So I would bring agents on to talk to her.
I would bring tour managers. And she actually is somebody who’s also gotten a lot out of the program and has been able to lean on Live Nation and get more internships.
The way that the program is set up is you’re meant to check in once a month and do a Zoom or an in-person meeting, depending on where you’re situated.
Sab wants to be an artist. So our check-in calls also consist of what her rollout plan is for the project that she’s working on and giving her feedback on that and the different elements that go into that piece.
And I’m also learning a lot because sometimes they’ll ask me questions that I don’t know the answers to! So I’ll go back and find the answer and learn new something myself. It’s really rewarding. They challenge me in the best ways.
I will continue to sign up for it because I believe that it it’s important, and a lot of my friends who have since joined feel the same way. I think a lot of women in this industry want to give back to other women. I’d like to think I’m offering them a place where they can feel very comfortable asking me anything.
Along with Femme It Forward, there’s many new programs geared to getting young people from underrepresented groups into the industry, including into new sectors that have opened up in the last decade.
When you actually break it down, so many of the jobs that are being offered now are in the digital and social space.
It’s opened up a whole other realm of opportunities that didn’t exist when I was entering the workforce. If you don’t go to school for music or maybe take a different path, you could know that there’s an agent, a manager and the label. But, you might not have any idea anything else exists out of that, and how you can make a living from it. That’s what’s so cool about Next Gen Femme – these programs are shining a light on what other opportunities exist in the industry. And that opens it up for people that don’t come from big cities or live in New York or Los Angeles. You can jump in and get a feel for things.
The hope is that, with more women being filling more of these important positions,
it will ultimately even the playing field and, most importantly, improve access for
women. Seeing yourself and feeling at home in what can be a very overwhelming space is key. It’s exciting. I’m super grateful to Heather for including me in this to begin with. It’s been a great, great experience.
Do you feel like the industry ecosphere is improving for underrepresented people?
It’s getting better. I think a lot of women, and people of color, in the industry just aren’t highlighted enough.
I hope that people in positions of power understand that they need to be promoting women, and people of color, who are at their companies, and who get things done and who they rely on.
They need to make sure that we’re sitting at the table so we can all fight for ourselves.
We need these guys to step up to it and do the right thing.