On a Saturday night in late September, hip-hop artist Michael Casper was set to play his first show in an inconspicuous house on 36th Street. His managers, sophomore music industry students Sean Lewow and John Van Liere, had carefully crafted the moments leading up to Casper’s performance, even changing the set list so that certain friends could catch Casper’s performance before leaving. But right as Casper was supposed to take the stage, he was nowhere to be seen.
Lewow sprinted down 36th Street searching for Casper, who had gone to the grocery store, while Van Liere tried to stall the lineup and persuaded the audience to wait. At the time, the stress sent them both into a frenzy. But recalling the incident several weeks later, in between bouts of laughter, Lewow and Van Liere saw it as just another part of the job — running their own A&R company, Bottom Feeder Management.
“We were just yelling at each other all night,” Van Liere said. “At the end of the day he played a great set, and we all had a really fun time. We got mad at each other for a second and then five minutes later we’re back at it talking like normal. That’s how it goes.”
Lewow and Van Liere met at a parents’ mixer for music industry majors at the Thornton School of Music and immediately realized that they shared similar goals and visions. In high school, both Van Liere and Lewow put on shows for charity, and Van Liere also admired his partner’s work ethic, which he said set him apart from others in the music industry.
“Everyone always has lofty goals and aspirations, but a lot of people don’t actually do anything about [them],” Van Liere said. “We instantly gravitated toward each other because we were both really doing it.”
Lewow and Van Liere began bouncing business ideas off of each other until they settled on a promising one called the “Thornton Collective.” Initially, they aimed to leverage Thornton’s connections to help student musicians release their work in the real world, but soon found that many talented artists outside of campus who were also looking for representation.
“And then we were like, why are we doing this through the school? We can just do it ourselves,” Van Liere said.
Thus, Bottom Feeder Management was born. The company’s six-person team comprises Lewow, Van Liere, three videographers from Ouros, a creative collective and an audio engineer. Currently, managing two artists — Casper and Joe Avio — is a full-time job. The team worked on Casper’s debut single “Teenage Apathy” and his upcoming music videos, as well as Avio’s debut album release in November.
“We want to create someone that has an aura, a name that people recognize, and can use that status as more of a cultural figure to do good,” Van Liere said. “We’re not creating music — we’re creating worlds.”
Understanding the artists as friends and individuals allows Lewow and Van Liere to tap into the artists’ most authentic, nuanced personas. Their focus on building relationships trumps the goal of creating a hit track, which is why they spent months getting to know Avio and Casper before agreeing to work with them.
“I’d say for us it’s very much a relationship game,” Lewow said. “At the end of the day, they’re our best friends.”
However, that focus on personal relationships can cause tension.
“It gets tough, but only because people are … really passionate about waking up each morning and getting involved in this stuff,” Lewow said.
Despite the stresses of the job, they’re able to work through difficult moments — like the incident at Casper’s first show — by prioritizing their friendship above all else.
“[We’re able to look past these instances] because at the end of the day it’s not important,” Van Liere said. “If [Casper is] five minutes late to his set, we’re freaking out in the moment, but then afterward … why would I let this stupid thing carry on?”
Lewow and Van Liere are in the same fraternity, live in the same house and share the same social circle. Despite this physical proximity, they say their ability to cooperate stems from their complementary personality traits. Van Liere handles internal logistics, working on production and creative direction, while Lewow handles external logistics, such as interfacing with professionals and in-house public relations.
Over the past semester, they’ve had to adapt to the changing music climate brought on by Spotify and other music streaming services, as well as learn to recognize and overcome their own personal flaws.
“We started with a blank piece of paper, and we’re drawing a roadmap for ourselves,” Van Liere said.
As the company evolves, Van Liere and Lewow’s goal is to make Bottom Feeder live up to its name — harvesting talent at the figurative bottom of the barrel and looking for up-and-coming artists whose careers could benefit from professional representation.
“We want to get [Casper] out of … working 9 to 5 every day at a Chinese restaurant,” Lewow said. “He’s the most creative, just beautiful human you’ll ever meet. And Joe, he’s slaving away at school … but at the end of the day, he needs to be a professional musician.”
The phrase “at the end of the day” is one that Lewow and Van Liere use often. Perhaps the defining aspect of their company is their clear, unadulterated understanding of their motivations.
“These artists have become my livelihood,” Lewow said. “At the end of the day, they are our very close friends and that gives us that added attachment to them … these people deserve to succeed, and it is our job to help them get there.”