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a music manager on their phone

Little is written about Leopold Mozart. As a musician working in Salzburg he had a successful but undistinguished career.  It wasn’t until 1776, when he became a pioneering music manager, that he made his mark on history.

Leopold quickly recognised the talent of his son, Wolfgang Amadeus. He nurtured Wolfgang’s prodigious talent, booking him on several successful European tours before finally landing him a deal with the Court of Prince Colloredo.

When young Wolfgang complained about his first financial contract (150 florins per year), it was Leopold’s canny negotiation skills that secured Wolfgang a triple salary increase, the equivalent of $4,500 per year! Perhaps, without the help of his manager, young Wolfgang’s career could have stalled before his first symphony?

My (tongue-in-cheek) point is, the history of the music manager is almost as old as music itself. An artist’s ability to create great music does not necessarily make them a great business person. A manager represents an artist’s best interests and helps guide their career.

Furthermore, a music manager’s role behind the scenes is often an important part of an artist’s story. Colonel Tom Parker’s influence (both good and bad) over Elvis shaped ‘The King’s’ career. It was Brian Epstein who gave the Beatles their trademark ‘boy-next-door’ look that helped break them on TV. Peter Grant fought the 1970’s live industry and won, giving Led Zeppelin independence and complete artistic freedom. And Scooter Braun continues to exert influence over the artists he manages, or, in some swift cases, has managed. 

“There’s no sex and drugs for Ian, David. Do you know what I do? I find lost luggage. I locate mandolin strings in the middle of Austin!”

  • Ian Faith, manager of Spinal Tap

The Music Manager – Their Historic Role

Jon Lee, manager of artists including Jeff Darko, Davide Squillace, Henri Bergmann, and Anew told me, “A music management company used to be very tight knit. You’d have the manager, an accountant and a lawyer. They did a deal with a label, a publisher and a booking agent then managed those B2B relationships”.

Karl Niellson, manager of Goldie and William Orbit, gives another reason why some people became a manager. “When I started out as an artist, my first manager was a guy who just happened to own a van, which meant he could drive us to gigs. That was good enough to get the job!” 

Over the last 20 years, the changes forced upon the industry by technology have radically altered and shaped the music business. As a result, music managers, alongside their artists, have found themselves in the middle of the maelstrom. 

Change = Opportunity

Innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity, not a threat

Steve Jobs

Clearly, given the tumultuous changes taking place, both within music and society at large, this is a golden time for entrepreneurial music managers?

Lee agrees. “The number of ways an artist can make money and how they behave creatively is vast. It can be running a fashion line or being a blogger, they can be an influencer, a club owner, a record label owner or all of the above”. 

Darren Hemmings, founder of digital agency, Motive Unknown, works directly with management on campaigns including Robbie Williams and Spice Girls. He is equally enthusiastic about the new opportunities available to artists. “Managers are realizing they can sell a lot more merch than just t-shirts and hoodies. We recently worked with Run the Jewels and helped them launch their own cannabis strain”. 

Music managers are adapting their services to reflect the changes within the industry. They can be broadly categorised into 3 areas:

  1. The emergence of new fee structures
  2. The expansion of management roles to offer new services
  3. The adoption of machine learning to maximise artist revenue

The Emergence of New Fee Structures

Historically, the financial agreement between an artist and their manager was based on a percentage of an artist’s revenue. The standard rate is 20%. Recently, the industry has seen the emergence of artist management services who charge monthly retainers for their services.

Music Gateway, a music industry community & sync platform, offers a remote music management service charging artists a monthly retainer starting at £150 ($180) per month. In return the artist gets access to an experienced manager who provides advice or can secure certain deals. 

“It’s becoming much more common, especially on the ‘entry level’ side of the music industry.’ agrees Will Carpenter, who’s band, Ship Has Sailed, were a previous client of Music Gateway. “I’ve paid managers with a varying amount of success. But ultimately when you’re an independent artist, everything is a cost, right?”

Having paid for the services of a music manager, Carpenter decided to revert back to self-managing his band prior to launching a Patreon channel. “If you add a monthly retainer fee for a manager on top of everything else, then you have to make choices about where you’re going to spend your budget. And while there definitely was a value-add having a manager on the team, at our level, it just didn’t really seem to offset the costs”. 

Artists Without A Manager?

Lee acknowledges there is an opportunity for fee-based management services, especially for new acts. “It’s the same idea as AWAL (Artists Without A Label) – call it, ‘Artists Without A Manager’. There’s a lot of really functional roles within management. If you haven’t found a manager or you’re not big enough to attract a manager then why not use a service that can give you some core functionality?”

Sumit Bothra is Managing Director of ATC Europe, a music management business who’s artist roster includes PJ Harvey, Nick Cave and Johnny Marr. He too thinks certain aspects of artist management could be provided by technology, although doesn’t think a music manager will be replaced by robots just yet. 

“There are probably limits on a human to human basis”, he says. “Sometimes, artists just need someone to call and ask, ‘Hey, can you have a listen to the song and tell me what you think? Can you have a listen to these lyrics? What do you think, should I wear the red jacket or the blue jacket?’ ”.

Hemmings is more cautious about the fixed-fee model. “Getting a new band off the ground takes blood, sweat, and tears. And perhaps £150 a month isn’t enough to give a manager enough compulsion to put in the work required”.

However, Carpenter is pragmatic. “They still have a very strong incentive to get you the best possible opportunities. Number one, if they build you up to a point where there is “more to manage” they can then shift to a percentage based model. And additionally, if they’re not doing their best work for you, then they’re not going to get their retainer renewed, right?”

The Expansion of Management Roles

Lee formed his management team 3 years ago. Before that, his previous roles included heading up global marketing at Traktor and Mixradio.

“When we set up we wrote down all the traditional skills required by management,” he says. “Then we identified all the additional skills we’d need. People like an editor, a creative, a social media specialist, Google and Facebook advertising experts, a strategist and more. A lot of artist management companies don’t have those skill sets in-house yet.” 

Bothra, who started working at Sony Music in 1999, elaborates on the rapid expansion in the range of services a manager must offer.

“It’s moved from simply being the sale of either cassettes, vinyl, CDs, videos and live touring into a world that encompasses social media brands, streaming platforms, virtual concerts as well as physical concerts, new technology, fan management and fan engagement, campaign management and instant global music distribution at virtually zero cost.” 

“The music manager role is light years from what it was”, says Niellson, who got his first record deal aged 17. “A manager has to consider themselves as a CEO. And they must have oversight of absolutely everything! Finance, logistics, HR, technology, global marketing, e-commerce, merchandising, film rights, publishing, syncs, master rights, radio streaming….. I could go on”, he laughs. 

The two-decade decline in revenues suffered by record labels has been matched by the emergence of digital distribution companies such as The Orchard, AWAL and Believe. Several of these larger companies offer a ‘Label Services’ option, providing additional resources such as marketing, sync licensing and publishing administration. 

They may offer advances to those they consider ‘premium’ artists & labels, but in return they expect the artist to have a multifaceted management team to support them.

The Expanding Role of a Music Manager

Bothra provides a reason for this. “The sheer volume of information and people that a manager needs to interface with on a day to day basis has risen exponentially. It’s gone from talking to 10 people – your record label, publisher and agent, say – to talking to 500 people. Plus you need to be able to hold a professional dialogue with the people you’re talking to, whether in the tech space or retail sector or about virtual gigs”. 

Lee, with previous career experience of working with global brands, provides an additional perspective. “Take an artist like Calvin Harris. He’s got tens of millions of fans subscribed to his various channels. He’s got a bigger reach than most media companies. Look at the traditional content businesses that sit in these spaces, such as magazines, radio, newspapers, the TV business. Then ask, what are the core skill sets that you need to drive any of those? A music manager is, in effect, running a very modern media business.”

Hemmings’ agency, Motive Unknown, recently launched a new service, “Positive Subversion”, to provide managers with ‘plug n play’ project management. “Artist releases tend to be cyclical, so you only need a few of them to be not doing anything and suddenly you’ve got a lot of overhead in your organization that is surplus to requirement. We offer a range of services so managers can just say, ‘Well, I need a bit of this and I need some of that. But I’ve got a person doing this other job already’. The aim is to offer something modular” 

The Effect of Social Media On Music Management

The ability of social media to push people very quickly into the media spotlight has led to an increasingly important role for contemporary manager’s – the duty of care to their artists. 

Bothra says helping artists cope with sudden fame, both the good and bad aspects, is gaining far more prominence. “It’s the sheer scale when something blows up now”, he says. “We’re talking about billions of streams, millions of fans. This sort of scale has an impact. Managers must be attentive to the mental wellbeing of their artists. Often you see young, talented people who’ve become hugely successful getting verbally or physically abused by complete strangers around the world”

Niellson puts it in even more stark terms. “Artists are very sensitive souls. And in their songs, they’re giving everything. They’re giving their soul, they’re giving their heart, they’re showing you their most sensitive side. And it’s a very vulnerable place to be because of all the emotion that goes into a song. And then on social media someone just posts, “Nah, it’s rubbish”.  I’ve had to learn a LOT about mental health and how to help artists cope with comments like that”.

Machine Learning to Maximise Revenue

“Data is now driving the business”, Lee says.. “I’ve sat in label meetings where people didn’t talk about music. It was all about data”.

Most people reading this are aware of the power in understanding data. The algorithms working behind the scenes at Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, Apple, YouTube etc are changing not just the music industry but possibly society itself..

Put simply, it works something like this: The social networks make money from advertising. To sell more advertising they need their users – that’s you and me – to visit the site more often and to stay on it for longer. One way they do this is by showing you content they think you will like based on your profile. However, they prefer not to take chances. If they detect a new song or video is scoring positively and getting a lot of views or shares, then it’s much more likely to be promoted.

“Spotify and YouTube are subject to algorithms where having a hefty spike of people aware your record is out and streaming it, sends a message to the effect of, ‘This track’s performing well, play it more’.”, says Hemmings. “The smart music companies now understand they have to work with this data and be pragmatic about it. You’re seeing more companies realizing the old methods just aren’t gonna work and power is shifting”.

A Data Driven Approach For Managers

Lee agrees. “Look at the results a data-lead approach achieves when it’s bolted on to everything else. The difference in performance between companies that have this understanding and ability to track and build and grow data and audiences, and those who don’t is incredible”.

Bothra describes the trajectory of data within the industry. “At first you had a few pieces of data and they were called ‘insights’. Things like, ‘Hey, you’ve got a bunch of fans in Thailand and China and Japan!’. Then, as we received more data, it got more functional. ‘Great, let’s use it to plan tours – where should we go and how much time, money and effort am I going to spend in each of the markets around the world’. But we’re now at the point where people are asking, how can this data and information be used for the purpose of making the art itself?”

Depending on your point of view, this is either the holy grail of business or an apocalypse for creativity. Using data and algorithms, will a future music manager be able to “guarantee” the success of their artist by assuring a label they can create perfect global hits, time after time?

“We’re already using machine learning with Google and Facebook ads”, says Lee. “Spotify is machine learning in terms of distribution and which playlist your artist is in. Look at the difference between now and five years ago. Count the number of artists that can go from zero, literally, to global superstar within 9 months. That’s never happened before. It used to take a couple of albums. And why is that? Machine learning. And a lot of people aren’t even aware it’s happening”.

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