Born a hog-farmer’s daughter in Clarks Hill, Indiana, Sara Newkirk first found refuge from the torpor of her surroundings on the radio dial. “It was a lot of Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Springsteen, REO Speedwagon,” she notes, recalling the times “when you’re riding in a car, and you get that sense of Divine Intervention when you’re feeling a certain way and you change the dial and the song you’ve been waiting for was on.”

She was about six when she first heard Prince. “He was the first one, the first love,” she says, chronicling what became an “obsession”—but also a blueprint for her assessment of an act. It was Prince’s utter control not only of the playing, recording and mixing of his music but every touchpoint, from his look and choreography to the font on his album sleeve, that helped her understand what the cultivation and maintenance of an artist brand really meant. “Consciously or subconsciously, when I’m experiencing an artist for the first time,” she says, “I’m thinking about if they are hitting those notes, really controlling everything. Prince was so ahead of his time. He knew how to market, but it’s not a marketing plan—he wasn’t making his art to sell it. He was marketing his heartfelt art.”

The provincial world she lived in, meanwhile, was suffocating. “I got sent to the bathroom at school and had to turn my Purple Rain T-shirt—one of two I made my mom buy me at Blockbuster—inside out, because it was an R-rated movie,” she recalls. “It was the only way I could stay in school that day.”

She found her way to Walnut Hill School, an arts-centered boarding school in Massachusetts, where she studied musical theater for a little while. By age 16, though, she knew “the whole idea of auditioning and rejection is so not me.” (She has nonetheless been a booster as an alumna; “I really try to be supportive of their endowment and the kids who are entering and leaving the school,” she told Variety in 2010).

But the school did, in a roundabout way, offer her the entrée she truly sought: Thos Niles, who played drums in Boston hardcore band La Gritona and whose sister worked in the admissions office. “The idea that this musician would even talk to some bratty girl at an art school his sister worked at—I’ll never forget that,” she says, adding that her friendship with members of the band continues to this day. Through that contact she made her way to the Middle East club in Beantown, which proved the grungy gateway to her true calling.

“It was magical,” she remembers of the nightspot, a Lebanese restaurant with a downstairs stage that hosted the coolest bands in the burgeoning alternative movement. “It was dirty, it was crazy. These two guys who owned it, Joseph and Nabil [Sater Habib], seemingly didn’t understand any of the music being booked there but they empowered the bookers, and you had people like [Pixies founder/frontman] Frank Black eating hummus downstairs every day, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones residency every Christmas, and J. Geils, Morphine, Buffalo Tom, Letters to Cleo. I just fell in love with all of the music.”

The staff, she said, “took pity on me” and offered her an internship; she drew up the calendar and fetched hummus—and then got her next break, working with the Bosstones on their Hometown Throwdown. She moved to New York after just a year in Boston, and was summoned by the band’s manager, Ami Bennett, to take on day-to-day management duties. With space at the offices of Nasty Little Man, she not only looked after the Bosstones but looked in on NLM’s work with the Beastie Boys, including the Tibetan Freedom Concerts. She describes remotely handling her management duties as “a nightmare,” as the Bosstones played 300 shows per year and she struggled to make ends meet in Manhattan.

“I was waiting tables a good three to four years because it was the only way I could afford to live,” she remembers, noting that in addition to her daily music work she’d work restaurant shifts on Wednesday nights and a double on Saturday. All this to afford “a sixth-floor, rat-infested one-bedroom apartment on 28th between 7th and 8th—you couldn’t shut the bathroom door. I was living the dream.”

The Bosstones sought new management—and Newkirk Simon hooked them up (with Arthur Spivak and Stu Sobol) before starting meetings for herself. “I was introduced to Peter Malkin, who was renting space from Cornerstone; he brought me in there.” She was becoming increasingly enamored of hip-hop, she says, and her first client was Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine. Then came Maxwell, M.I.A., TV on the Radio and Nas. “At Cornerstone I was really able to do so many different jobs,” she says. “I had this management vertical but then I was also working with them on [music and culture mag] The Fader and the brand work they were doing.”

WME came calling in 2006, and what they offered was unconventional. “I got a call from Dave Wirtschafter,” she says, “and I remember saying to him, ‘I don’t want to be an agent!’ He said, ‘Don’t be an agent. Do what you do. Work on the marketing and building these clients out in a multifaceted way.’ At Cornerstone, I was able to do so many different jobs. I had this management vertical, but then I was also working with them on The Fader and the brand work they were doing. I was already doing a version of [what WME suggested] there.”

The time had come, she felt, to make a move.

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