Evangeline Elder was tired of seeing women sexualized and sidelined in the music industry, so she charted her own path to becoming a behind-the-scenes mover and shaker. (Aida Teklemariam)
ust a few years ago, the Free Nationals were a humble soul quartet providing entertainment at weddings. Fast forward through several Anderson .Paak tours, music festival appearances and an opening gig for Beyoncé, and the band just celebrated their first Grammy nomination earlier this month with a hi-fi Dolby Atmos version of their album, a huge Times Square billboard and a Twitch concert sponsored by Amazon.
Without live shows, the last year has created numerous obstacles to visibility and income for independent artists. But the Free Nationals were able to ink those deals with the help of Evangeline Elder, who works in brand partnerships at the San Francisco distribution label EMPIRE.
While artists from past generations might have balked at the prospect of “selling out” to advertising, Elder sees it as a way to open up resources once reserved for the big stars to independent artists.
“We’re in a new era where you can tell a brand what you want and build a plan around your goals as an artist,” says Elder in a recent Zoom interview, mentioning collaborations she helped make happen for D Smoke and Puma and Trevor Jackson and Bumble. “And the pandemic actually lit that on fire further. When touring disappeared, brand partnerships for everyone became a new channel of revenue, a new channel of collaboration and relevancy. When you can’t tour, when you can’t have those in-person moments that you display across your socials, you have to look at your career and figure out how you generate energy. How are you generating attention? That’s what the name of the game is these days.”
Also an artist manager and the co-founder of the Oakland festival and conference Women Sound Off, Elder took an unconventional route to becoming a behind-the-scenes mover and shaker in the music industry. In her different roles, she brings an entrepreneurial passion for helping artists get paid for realizing their dreams, all the while championing a “lift all boats” philosophy to get women—especially Black women and other women of color—more recognition in the industry.
“This new generation you’re seeing the past 10 years in the social media era, where women who are making moves behind the scenes now have a public following for their business acumen—that’s a fairly new thing,” says Elder.
Things were very different when she got started in music after graduating from UC Riverside in 2013. She witnessed women getting typecast and sexualized—or simply sidelined if they weren’t deemed appealing enough for the male gaze. “I didn’t want to be [backstage] because I was an object or someone’s girlfriend,” Elder says. “I wanted to be back there and be 5’9” and plus-sized and have a purpose and command your attention.”
lder’s confidence and self-motivated hustle developed early while watching her parents, serial entrepreneurs who were also active in community service through their church. Their bakery, Elder’s Gourmet Bakery and Deli on MacArthur Boulevard and 73rd Avenue, had a cult following in East Oakland for its sweet potato pies and 7 Up cakes in the late ’80s and ’90s, and was featured on Oakland’s pioneering, Black-owned television network Soul Beat TV. (In true Oakland fashion, their wholesome commercial about birthday cakes and sandwiches had a Too $hort beat playing in the background.)
In those days, Elder’s parents also ran a day care and a senior care facility. And even though money was sometimes tight during her childhood, she says they never let her and her siblings know it. “My parents were very sharp people. They weren’t just smart. They understood what pieces needed to be moved in order for an outcome to be had,” Elder remembers. “They always accounted for the things people didn't account for. That’s something that I can say rubbed off on me. ... I wouldn’t be who I am if I was that little girl in the back of the car watching them work and make their rounds.”
Elder’s parents were avid record collectors who enlisted her help for crate digging at garage sales. They had the Jackson 5 and the Temptations on heavy rotation, and also loved albums by gospel star Mahalia Jackson and even Martin Luther King speeches on wax. These trips imbued Elder with a taste for music with soul, rhythm and a social purpose—a fair characterization of the artists she works with today.
In middle school and high school—like most millennials with a passion for music—Elder’s first experiences in curation came in the form of burning mix CDs for her friends. But when she entered college, she couldn’t see a direct line to a creative career.
She majored in public policy but didn’t find herself inspired, and soon her life became consumed with drinking and partying. A rude awakening came in the form of a near-death experience in 2013. During her last year of college, a hit-and-run collision in Los Angeles caused her car to hit a pole and spin three times. By the time she was able to unbuckle herself and climb out of her upside down vehicle, her shoes were on the other side of the freeway. But other than a cut on her foot, she was mostly unscathed.
“I just kind of woke up after that accident mentally, and I realized I was wasting my existence,” she says. “If my life would have ended that night, I wouldn't have done anything that I wanted to. I wouldn't have nourished any creative projects.”
A week later, Elder launched her first venture, Rehab Online Magazine, from her university’s computer lab. In the early 2010s, music blogs, Soundcloud and Tumblr were the flourishing, new spaces for taste-making, and Elder was blogging about the burgeoning, soul- and jazz-influenced, indie rap and R&B scene that artists like Duckwrth, Xavier Omar and Masego were pioneering at the time.
“It was this alternative renaissance,” she says. “Illroots and The Fader were reporting on all these artists that didn’t have marketing plans, reporting on unsigned artists. So I was really enamored with this new sound.”
ith the rise of curated Spotify playlists and social media, the music blog era came to an end, and Elder quietly retired Rehab Online Magazine in 2017. But that same year, she launched an even bigger venture, Women Sound Off, the interdisciplinary arts conference and festival she dreamed up with her close friend Carmena Woodward, a.k.a. DJ Red Corvette.
It started off under the name Women In Music, and featured concerts, panels, wellness workshops, art markets and mixers where local, independent artists and established women in the industry alike were welcome. (I was a panelist in 2017 and ’18.) Each year, she and Woodward worked around the clock booking artists and locations, coordinating volunteers and lining up corporate partners like Pandora. 2019—the same year Elder started her job at EMPIRE—was Women Sound Off’s biggest year: it expanded to include year-round events, and was featured in The Guardian and Forbes, who called it a conference “every creative should attend in 2019.”
Then, of course, came the pandemic. Slated for April 2020, Women Sound Off was one of the first events to get canceled as shelter-in-place orders shut down the arts in the Bay Area. Although it throttled the festival’s plans, the pandemic also allowed Elder to take a much-needed mental health break, especially as non-stop videos of violence and racism dominated news feeds during the George Floyd protests and beyond.
While Women Sound Off had always been engaged with its community on social media and continued to put on online events in the past year, “there was a lot of pressure on digital platforms to become rapid response platforms,” she recalls. “People don’t realize that as a Black person who is running a platform, it can be very, very triggering to report on Black death or on cop killings over and over. That was something that 100% slowed me down, rightfully so. I was not willing to sacrifice my own mental health to satisfy the internet.”
Learning to prioritize self-care has been an important journey for Elder, who has long lived with clinical depression. After a much-needed six-month recharge last year, she was able to dive back into her work in a more purposeful way. Women Sound Off partnered with her sister Candice Elder’s community organizing group, East Oakland Collective, for a massive food drive serving residents of some of the neighborhoods hit hardest by the pandemic.
“That was a full circle moment where you could see the Elder power harnessed for good,” she says.
It also coincided with some of Elder’s most successful brand collaborations at EMPIRE. She helped secure sponsorship from Tequila Herradura for the label’s Voices for Change Vol. 1 compilation, which featured a slate of the EMPIRE’s up-and-coming artists—including Sacramento heavyweight Mozzy, Berkeley’s Rexx Life Raj and Chicago rapper and singer Jean Deaux, whom Elder manages. The project raised money for the ACLU and was part of a voter registration campaign.
All while doing these projects, Elder’s latest endeavor has been mentoring other artist managers. Her goal is to demystify the music business and remove barriers to entry—especially for Black creatives who spur so much of the innovation but don’t always see the profits.
“I account for resources. I account for being a low-income manager or a low-income executive who is not in any famous, rich Hollywood circles,” she says. “I account for independent artists who don’t have more than $200 for their roll-out and want to make noise. I hope that more people start consulting and bringing out a different level of realness in the industry that doesn’t reek of fucking privilege.”