Artists and Managers: Deathtraps and How to Avoid Them

By George Howard
(Follow George on Twitter)

As the music business moves inexorably from a label-centric industry to an artist/manager-centric one, it’s increasingly important to not only understand the current role of the manager, but also to have a firm grasp on the important enduring elements of the artist/manager relationship.

This, and subsequent articles look at issues that artists and managers must confront in order to raise the odds of a mutually successful long-term relationship.

As I’ve written before, the role of the manager has changed. Historically, the manager would attempt to identify an artist they believed had the potential for success, nurture the artist, get them signed, and then act as a liaison between the label and the artist.  For those who engaged (or are currently engaged) in this activity, it’s a tough, tough gig.

Happily, given the technological advances that have allowed artists to de-tether from labels, the role of the manager has changed from managing the artist’s relationship with the label to managing the artist’s relationship with the fan.  More specifically, managers must now engage in business development and attraction/retention of fans for their artists by constantly looking for ways to get the artist in front of an ever-growing number of people whom the manager/artist have identified as good potential customers. It continues with developing strategy to shift the burden of the promotion from the artist/manager to the fans themselves.  That is, at a certain point, the artist’s career will only really grow once the fans of the artist began turning their friends into fans as well; the role of the manager is to foster and accelerate this dynamic.

In order for the above to work, there must be two very specific points of intersection between the artist and manager: 1. Value Alignment; 2. Expectation Alignment.

Value alignment can be a little tricky to understand.  One way to think of it is to view it as what defines your character. Importantly, you must view this through actions not words.  Everyone says that they’re a hard worker, and finish what they start, etc., but we all know that many people are lazy and (at best) finish 80% of a job. The point is that if you as an artist are a Type A type personality, then you certainly don’t want someone who takes a more casual approach to life/business as a partner.  Again, this alignment begins with both the artist and manager determining what their values are individually, and then examining the actions of their potential partner in order to determine if there is alignment.

Expectation Alignment, while easier to explain, is no easier to discern.  Again, in the honeymoon stage just prior to, or at the beginning of, an artist/manager relationship, both parties always say they have the same expectations, but, in truth, it’s never as simple as just saying it.  Let me give you an example. When someone tells me they’re interested in becoming an artist manager, I make them repeat the following phrase: “I will not manage an artist who doesn’t tour.”  While I know these incipient managers will not heed this edict, it’s still worth a shot.  The reality is that if you’re managing an artist who doesn’t tour (and you can define that as you will, but it should involve the artist performing—whether that’s playing in a band, rapping, DJing, etc.—outside of their hometown with some frequency) you, as manager, will quickly hit a wall in terms of what you can do for that artist.  In any case, actions are, as always, more important than words.  All artists will say that they can tour.  Few, however, exhibit the actions that give this statement any credence.  This type of observation—is the band either currently touring, or making active progress to be doing so—is a great signifier of expectation.  It shows that the band wants more than a hobby for their music.  Thus, the manager must want the same.  The artist expects the manager to have the same goals as they do.  It goes deeper, of course.  Many, many artists, notwithstanding the opening paragraph of this article about the shift in the business, still desire to get a record deal.  If the manager, on the other hand, feels strongly that they should focus their efforts on attraction and retention of fans, rather than trying to get a record deal, there is a lack of expectation alignment between the manager and the artist, and the relationship will falter.

Aside from looking to actions rather than words there are some other methods that an artist and manager can employ to see if there is value/expectation alignment.  Before an artist and manager enter into a management contract (which I’ll discuss in more detail in future articles), they should go through some pre-contract conversations.  These should largely be creative in nature, and focus on what each party will be doing to move from their current state to a more desired state.  However, at a certain point, these conversations must confront the “hard stuff.”  These are the things that artists and managers (particularly at the early stages of their careers) do not want to talk about: money and time.

As is the case with most things that are hard to talk about, these topics tend to be wildly revealing with respect to values and expectation.  It’s all unicorns and rainbows when the artist and manager are talking about all the great things they’re going to do together, and how much they love each other.  However, things get “real” when topics like money come up.  This is what you want: reality.  One party must eventually bring up how the money is going to be divided.  As noted, I’ll discuss in more detail specifics of an artist/manager agreement in future articles, but typically, a manager receives a “commission” of 15% of the artist’s revenue.  In reality, this is a vast oversimplification.  For example, what if the artist has released music prior to working with the manager.  Should the manager receive 15% of the income from these works?  What about revenue from publishing?  Is the manager representing the entire band? If so, does the entire band write the songs, and thus stand to share revenue from things like the songs being played on the radio or used in movies?  Or, as is the far-more-frequent case, is there one writer and a bunch of non-writers in the band? If so, does the manager receive 15% of the money the songwriter receives?  Does this mean the manager is representing the songwriter separately from the band?  Tough questions.  That’s what you want.  There may not be easy answers to these questions, but they need to be asked, and they need to be discussed.  Eventually, a lawyer should get involved, but in these pre-contract conversations, it’s essential to use these tough topics as a way to glean information regarding value and expectation alignment.

For instance, in these conversations some discussion of post-term commission (often referred to as a “Sunset Clause”) should be discussed.  In a nutshell, these clauses protect the manager from a band parting ways with the manager, after a period of work, just before a payday, and thereby depriving the manager of compensation.  This happens all the time; we used to call it “fattening frogs for snakes” at the indie label I ran—we’d nurture the artist, and get them to a certain level, only to have a major label swoop in and woo them away from us (wisely, we had elements in our agreements that tended to make this not a bad thing for us when it occurred).  If the artist bristles when confronted with post-term discussions, or payment discussions, generally, that’s a strong indicator that there may not be the necessary value and/or expectation alignment necessary for a long-term successful relationship.

It’s crucial to have these tough conversations between artist and manager prior to entering into an agreement.  Frankly, doing so will not only improve your odds of a successful long-term partnership, but it will also save you legal fees.  More importantly, it shows a level of professionalism and decorum that tends to be consistent with success.  You mustn’t shy away from these types of conversations because you fear the other party will be offended, and not want to work with you.  If that happens, it’s the very thing you want to occur at this point—prior to wasting time and money in a relationship that is doomed—before you get too far down the road, and figure out you lack value and expectation alignment when it’s too late.

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George Howard is the Executive Vice President of Wolfgang’s Vault. Wolfgang’s Vault is the parent company of Concert Vault, Paste Magazine, and Daytrotter. Mr. Howard is an Associate Professor of Management at Berklee College of Music

  • Jpayne

    This part goes the way of deciding what college to go to, emotional and not factual. And if you really do make it, then I hope that the Hotel California doesn’t get you. Great Article!

    • http://twitter.com/gah650 George Howard

      not sure I follow in terms of college, but thanks for the kind words  about the article.

      George

  • Kwesi Hughes

    A healthy dose of realism, in this, the best music biz article that I’ve read for ages, is what we all (secretly) want. Will definitely follow you on Twitter. Thanks.

    • http://twitter.com/gah650 George Howard

      thanks @kwesi. I appreciate the kind words.

      George

  • Adrian Dunn

    GREAT SHIT!! Thanks man!

    • Illanoise585

      Good article! Looking for management I’m a hiphop artist follow me on twitter illanoise585 hit my email for any inquiry illanoise585@gmail.com

  • http://www.facebook.com/halenp Nathan Hale

    George, what do you think is the best way for an indie artist to find a “artist/manager-centric” manager? One that focuses more on the artist/fan relationship, like you described above. Chance encounter at shows? Let them approach you or you approach them?

  • http://DebbyTurnerMusic.com/ Debby

    Excellent, well written article!  We’re considering a co-publishing arrangement.

    Debby Turner Music

  • S4amusic

    Thanx for wise words, looking forward to more!!!

  • Anonymous

    Great article. If you all have relationship issues it’s a great song called “Fight 2 Make Up” on iTunes. I don’t think this guy has a manager, but he’s pretty good. #networking.

  • Michelle

    Straight to the point.. I like it !

  • tushlee

    Really really good article. This has just guided me.