The WiMN’s Front and Center is a weekly column that showcases accomplished women who work in the music and audio industries. We spotlight successful female performers, manufacturers, retailers, educators, managers, publicists, and everyone else in between. Want to be featured? Learn how here.
Front and Center: Founder of InFocus Artist Management and Merch Cat, Vanessa Ferrer
By Gabriella Steffenberg
An alumna of N.Y.U. and Berklee College of Music, Vanessa Ferrer has been a successful businesswoman for over 15 years in the financial and artist management fields. Armed with the heart of an artist, the belief that she could make a difference, and the drive to make it happen, Ferrer founded InFocus Artist Management in 2009.
After managing several touring clients and consulting with high-profile industry professionals, she realized a market need for DIY artists and their business teams, and used her multi-faceted background to develop a means for artists to maximize merchandise revenue streams.
In 2015, Ferrer officially launched Merch Cat, a musician friendly one-stop tool for artists to sell and manage merch at live shows. The app also features a website reporting component for tracking and analyzing inventory and venue sales. Ferrer is a member of NARAS, A2IM, the Music Business Association, and Women In Music.
WiMN: Did your journey into the music industry start at Berklee College of Music, or did you know beforehand that you wanted to work in music?
VF: I had been working in another career and I met a guy in a band who had been signed to an indie label. When the band’s record was released, the label wasn’t doing what they said they would, and the band also had decentralized management. I started filling in the gaps to help them out and I loved it.
Music had always been a “thing” for me, and I felt a deep connection to it, but I never knew what to do with that. This was when the light bulb really went off for me that here was how I could combine my love of music and my business experience and help artists. I saw how the band missed opportunities and eventually imploded because there was no one person or team looking out for their best interest. A lot of it came pretty naturally to me, but I wanted to solidify and re-enforce what I thought I knew, which was when I found Berklee and enrolled in their on-line classes.
WiMN: Who has been your biggest mentor within the field and what have you learned from him/her?
VF: I’ve had a few, but I’d have to say that Jan Smith, also known as “Mama Jan” has been my biggest mentor. She is a kick-ass woman and great role model who organically grew her business into a small empire. She’s a force with an amazing work ethic and love for what she does, and I found her to be really inspiring. I was fortunate enough to meet her through my music community in Atlanta, and I spent some time working with her on a business opportunity she was exploring when I was at a crossroads with where I was heading next.
She encouraged me to trust my intelligence and have faith in my journey. It was somewhat of a spiritual mentoring for me, and having someone with her success believe in me and my abilities at a time when I was feeling somewhat defeated, inspired me to stay on course.
WiMN: Tell us about Merch Cat. What prompted you to launch it in 2015?
VF: I had the idea for Merch Cat in 2013 after the singer/songwriter I was managing had a big show and I couldn’t find something cohesive to run the merch table. I had been using PayPal, Excel, physical counting, and Word docs that my artist would send after a show. I just thought in this day and age there has to be a better way, and if I was looking for it, chances were that other managers and artists were looking for it too.
I had the vision for an app that artists would embrace using, something intuitive to use with a cool vibe, while also being informative enough to help whoever was making business decisions do so. I also wanted it to be affordable for DIYers. I wrote my idea down, did a little research on creating an app and then put it on the back burner.
In 2014, the company that had been my primary place of employment for the past fourteen years decided to outsource my department. Around the same time, a stock I had invested in years ago returned some cash, and I had met my soon to be tech developers through working with Jan Smith. The stars were aligning and it felt like the right time to make a change, so I decided to take a leap of faith and take a chance on myself. My gut said go. The app took a little over a year to develop, it launched in December 2015, and here we are.
WiMN: What’s an important lesson that you’ve learned from starting both InFocus Artist Management and Merch Cat?
VF: Patience, persistence and perseverance. Nothing happens over night and there will be times when you can’t clearly see the road ahead, but if you have a dream and a vision, keep going. Pay attention to the signs in the universe and listen to your instincts – they can lead you to amazing places. They will also tell you when to cut your losses. Knowing when to walk away or go in another direction is as important as staying the course.
WiMN: What has been your greatest accomplishment in your career thus far?
VF: Creating and launching this app has by far been my greatest accomplishment. I’ve had a previous career that most would consider successful, but I’ve never felt like I was doing what I was meant to do in life. I’ve long had the desire to be in the music industry full-time and be impactful, and while management is my heart, creating this app has provided a way to help artists and their teams on a greater level.
WiMN: Who are some of your favorite musicians/bands and why?
VF: My musical taste is all over the place. Dave Grohl is just the coolest. I love his attitude and no B.S. approach, as well as the musicality of the Foos. Lenny Kravitz has been a longtime favorite of mine with his multi-instrumental talent and his fashion sense. Pearl Jam. Ambrosia (who?!?) from the late 70s and 80s are on the list – I love their vocal harmonies and song arrangements. And of course I love the classics – Heart, Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles, The Stones, etc. for obvious reasons.
Among the newer artists I’m digging lately are Band of Horses, Civil Twilight, City and Colour, Ray Lamontagne, Grace Potter, Florence and the Machine, Ingrid Michaelson and the list goes on…I have too many “favorites!”
WiMN: What kind of adversity have you faced for being a woman in a male-dominated industry?
VF: The industry I spent most of my prior career in (Commercial Real Estate) was totally male-dominated, and I experienced some disparate treatment during that time, so it prepared me well for being in another male-dominated industry. When I was managing my former artist, I would get comments like, “oh so you’re in love with him,” or when explaining my desire to do management, “oh so you’re a groupie.” Those comments were mostly from people outside of the industry, so I didn’t take it too much to heart because those people didn’t get it.
Inside the industry, I’ve found that when I’m exhibiting Merch Cat at conferences, people tend to think I’m just the chick manning the booth, and I get a kick out of it when they discover that it’s my company. And then you get the men who pretend they’re interested in your product and are really just interested in a date. It’s a fine line, but I think you have to treat every opportunity as potential and then adjust accordingly.
I’m aware of the stigmas and stereotypes, but I try not to let it intimidate me or allow myself to feel insubordinate. I put myself forth as an equal and I think that resonates with people. I believe it’s a really exciting time for women in music and women in tech, as there are a lot of initiatives currently out there to support us. We need to use those and our “womanhood” to our best advantage.
WiMN: If you could give a piece of advice to women pursing a career in the music industry, what would you say?
VF: Work hard and be present. Network your butt off. Build relationships (relationships, not just contacts). Respect boundaries and other people’s relationships – they’ve worked hard to build them and so should you. Know your strengths and lead with those, but don’t be afraid to ask others for advice to get what you need to go where you want to go. Express gratitude to those who help and support you. Your likability can be one of your biggest assets in this industry. Surround yourself with positive people who share your vision and point of view.
The industry is full of jaded people who may cause you to second-guess yourself. Take them with a grain of salt and keep moving forward – this is your journey and no one else’s. Dream big, but set realistic goals and take a step back every once in awhile to re-assess. If the path you’re on isn’t working for you, try another. Listen to your instincts, and follow your heart.
WiMN: Where do you see your businesses five years from now?
VF: There are some really cool things in the development pipeline for Merch Cat, so I hope to get funding to execute them and still be running strong in five years. I can’t share details, but I will say the plan involves a fan side-app, so everyone could potentially be a Merch Cat user. If I had to sum it up, I’d say I see Merch Cat being a premiere servicer and artist-to-fan facilitator in the merch space.
Right now, InFocus is pretty much just functioning as the parent company for Merch Cat, but I’d really like to return to management someday if the timing is right and opportunity presents itself. For now, that’s on hold until Merch Cat stabilizes as a profitable music tech company. Five years is a long time. If you asked me five years ago what I’d be doing now, never in a million years did I think I’d be the sole founder of a bootstrapped music tech company. Anything can happen!