The small Capitol Hill company behind ‘the top musical act in the U.S.’

The Lumineers play Capitol Hill Block Party in 2012. The band's new album Cleopatra has pushed them back to the top of the charts (Image: Jim Bennett/CHBP with permission to CHS)

The Lumineers play Capitol Hill Block Party in 2012. The band’s new album Cleopatra has pushed them back to the top of the charts (Image: Jim Bennett/CHBP with permission to CHS)

Before The Lumineers’ “Ho Hey” became a multi-platinum hit, the band was making the rounds in Denver. They had posted a video on YouTube of themselves performing an acoustic version of the song in an apartment. In 2011, Capitol Hill management company Onto Entertainment liked what it saw — and heard.

Today, Onto’s roster includes The Lumineers, Seattle-based Hey Marseilles and poet and spoken word artist Andrea Gibson. And that’s probably as big as Onto is going to get for the time being – all three acts are touring in support of new work this year.

“I think we’re in a really good, sweet spot right now in terms of clients,” said Christen Greene, general manager and head of talent for Onto. “Our model is low-overhead, hard work and clients that we love.”

The path to becoming “the top musical act in the U.S.” and a Billboard No. 1 ranking for The Lumineers shows how it works. At the time the band was signed, Onto owner David Meinert also headed had previously organized the Capitol Hill Block Party, so convincing the folk-rock group to play the show was an obvious opportunity. Soon after they were in town, John Richards at KEXP was the first to play the group, followed by airplay on 107.7 KNDD, one of the first commercial stations to play the song, Meinert said. UPDATE: We erroneously reported Meinert was still running CHBP in 2012 — producer and Meinert business partner Jason Lajeunesse took over the festival that year.

After that, it wasn’t too long before the band blew up, and the 11th Ave-based Onto had stars on its roster.

Meinert started Onto a label and management company about eight years ago, though now, they only work on the management end.

“We started with the idea of finding small bands and developing them,” Meinert said.

 

Managing acts is a step removed from most of the individual components that goes into a successful group. Meinert agreed with the suggestion that their role is like that of a general contractor in a construction project. They don’t do the specialized work, but they are able to find the right people who can. He said their responsibility is to help the band find deals with a record label, a booking agent, a touring crew, accountant, publicist and more.

“We oversee all of the business end,” he said.

Onto also fields requests from other businesses that want to use an artist’s work. Meinert said it has been interesting to see the change in attitudes toward artists licensing their songs, as the Lumineers did for a beer commercial.

There had been a time when popular bands resisted commercials for fear of being called sellouts. Now, he said, artists are more willing to consider the option. Besides opening a new revenue stream, it can help with exposure, since someone can let phone apps like Shazam help them identify and purchase the songs.

“The right commercial with the right song can really make the song a hit,” he said.

The right company is key, Greene said. She noted that they are frequently fielding offers from companies looking to use their artists work, and many times, they don’t even bother wasting an artist’s time by telling them an offer has come in.

“We turn down a lot,” she said.

Greene said all the artists they work with are willing to trust them, even if that means pushing them a bit. Gibson, for example, had been making the rounds doing college shows, but Green convinced the artist to consider playing larger venues.

“Andrea wasn’t super-excited about doing clubs,” Greene said.

But after a bit of prodding, Gibson played Seattle’s Town Hall and was able to sell 800 tickets to a show on a Monday night.

Some of that can be chalked up to Seattle being a performance-friendly town. A Capitol Hill home base also helps. Meinert noted that there are three record stores (an endangered species in most cities) near the Onto office.

You can learn more at ontoentertainment.com.

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