‘AI is exciting and terrifying. It’s something we all should be paying significant attention to, especially managers of deceased icons.’

MBW’s Inspiring Women series profiles female executives who have risen through the ranks of the business, highlighting their career journey – from their professional breakthrough to the senior responsibilities they now fulfill. Inspiring Women is supported by Virgin Music Group.

Ashley Austin, who today heads up her own artist estate management company, Artist Legacy Group, didn’t fall into the music industry accidentally.

The seed was planted early via an obsession with music and the likes of The Beatles, Roxette and Guns N’ Roses. It was later solidified when MTV arrived on the farm “in the middle of nowhere” in Vermont where Austin grew up. 

“I remember specifically in fourth grade, the day that we got MTV, Kurt Loder was interviewing Axl Rose,” she says. “I was like, ‘Los Angeles? What is the Sunset Strip? How do I get there? What is Geffen Records?’ From that day, I was like, ‘I’m going to LA, I’m going to work in music and that’s all there is to it’.”

Picture: Ruven Afanador

That passion has carried Austin through a career that’s encompassed record labels and the live business at CAA, then artist management, before landing in her current field of managing the estates of icons. At ALG, some of those include Ronnie Spector (pictured, right), Sam Cooke (pictured, below), John Belushi and The Blues Brothers and Bootsy Collins.

ALG was born in 2013 after Austin spent time at fellow artist legacy management company Jampol, working with the likes of The Doors, Janis Joplin, punk-funk singer/songwriter Rick James, reggae musician Peter Tosh (who was one of the core members of the Wailers alongside Bob Marley) and Michael Jackson.

A desire to create an alternative to Jampol and fill a gap resulted in the birth of ALG. Austin explains: “I was looking around and seeing that estates couldn’t shop for representation in the way that a living legend could because it’s such a specific niche of the business. At that point, [Jampol founder Jeff Jampol] was kind of the only one doing it, aside from attorneys and family members themselves.”

She continues: “I also saw a gap in legacy management. There are services within estate management that can be applied to living legends, where we don’t step on the toes of current management but we can fill these holes, ask these questions and get the artists and families set up for the inevitability of life. So if you do an estate plan, you could also have a legacy plan and we would help with that.”

An example of the latter is ALG’s work with famed rock music photographer Mick Rock, which started when he was alive and continues today [Rock died in 2021]. Austin says: “I worked with him for nine years when he was alive, then he passed away and now I’m helping to oversee the estate with his wife. It was a helpful transition because I knew him, I knew how he operated, I knew his personality and the things that he liked, what he didn’t like, what he would go for and what he wouldn’t.”

Copyright: ABKCO Music & Records
Austin’s first job wasn’t actually in LA — while on a gap year from college, she started out as an intern in San Diego at indie label Surfdog Records. Wanting “bigger and better” she left to finish college at The New School in New York City and landed an internship at Columbia Records, later joining Virgin.

After being a “professional intern” for a while, Austin secured an interview at CAA via a friend and she started working in the contracts department. Realizing she didn’t want to be an agent (“routing tours was just not that interesting to me”), she moved over to Frontline Management, which looked after acts including Miranda Lambert and The Chicks.

There, Austin met the mentor who would guide her early career, Gayle Boulware, who managed Everclear and TV personality Tila Tequila. “Gayle is the most amazing woman I’ve ever met,” Austin says. “I think she saw a lot of her in me and we became really tight.”

Austin was doing the day-to-day for Everclear until the recession hit and everybody at Frontline got laid off. Thankfully, Boulware saved the day by keeping Austin on and paying her out of her own pocket to continue to manage Everclear and another baby band they were working with. Then, the duo joined Jampol to work with Austin’s dream client: The Doors.

Upcoming projects for ALG include a docuseries and convention for The Blues Brothers, the Ronnie Spector biopic (the lead role for which will be played by Zendaya), various activations and licenced goods for the celebration of the 60th anniversary of Sam Cooke’s seminal song, A Change is Gonna Come, and a documentary and autobiography for Bootsy Collins.

Here, we chat to Austin about lessons learned across her career, how the music business might better capitalize on the work of legacy artists, and much more besides.

Since setting up ALG in 2013, have you seen any changes in the way the music industry deals with estates and legacy artists?

Yes, it used to be primarily focused on anniversary releases and things like that. You’d really lean on the label to produce these new products. Now, it is not the same. The labels have changed and with new technology and social media, there are so many different ways to market an artist. But, it also creates over-saturation. We have to be really proactive with how we communicate with the labels and not just assume we’re on the slate for anniversary releases because we may not be.

Generally speaking, catalog does well on streaming services. Is there anything you would like to see that would make sure catalogs continue to remain relevant and listened to?

I would like to see labels or publishers more actively getting behind the production of theatrical or experiential events or films and biopics. If you’re Michael Jackson, that’s one thing, but there are only so many Michaels, so many Princes and there are other artists who are extremely deserving. Not everyone is Queen, but look at what that amazing film [Bohemian Rhapsody] did for that catalog. It’s not about churning out projects that are not of quality, but if the quality project is there, I would like to see more support from those ends.

What makes a good estate manager? What are the skills and qualities needed for your job?

What I consider to be a great estate manager is someone who knows their artists and the catalogs inside and out. I make it a point to become an expert on all of my artists and learn as much as I can from what’s available to me. If I have the artist at my disposal, I want to learn it directly from them. If not, I want to learn it from the family or whoever is the representative for the estate that has hired me. That gives me the best ammunition to work with.

“If I know what the boundaries are then I can stay within that lane. Instead of telling me what you do want to do, tell me what you don’t want to do and then we can craft everything around that.”

If I know what the boundaries are then I can stay within that lane. Instead of telling me what you do want to do, tell me what you don’t want to do and then we can craft everything around that. The last thing we want to happen is to have an amazing deal come in from a partner that I didn’t know was something this artist was completely against. The deal gets shut down and vetoed and then we look like we’re an estate that’s difficult to work with.

I think a great estate manager is tough and fair and a pleasant experience to work with. Then brands will come back, license partners will come back, the label will be more receptive. That’s the environment I’ve tried to create at ALG.

Gayle Boulware was a key mentor for you. What did you learn from working with her?

Everything, literally. First and foremost, organization, but also, honesty. If you make a mistake, own up to it so I can help you fix it, that’s what she said to me. It’s not about apologizing, it’s about immediately going into action.

Also, proactivity. She was on the phone constantly doing her thing and just watching the way that she engaged with her artists… she really cared, gave thoughtful consideration to everybody and was always so respectful and kind but tough at the same time and well respected. I kind of reflect that now in the way that I handle my business dealings.

What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned across your career generally that have stayed with you today?

The greatest piece of advice I was ever given, aside from that I got from Gayle, was from my other mentor, Jac Holzman, who’s the founder of Elektra Records. He signed The Doors and was the person I went to with my idea to start ALG.

Instead of laughing at me, he was very sincere. I said, ‘Do you have any advice for me?’ He said, ‘Whatever you think your business is at inception, it probably won’t be that 10, 20, 30 years from now. So say yes to any opportunity that feels right in your gut. Don’t be afraid to do something because it doesn’t necessarily fit within the model you’ve created in your brain. You’ll be really surprised to see that some stuff works, some stuff doesn’t, but it’ll all take you to where you want to go.’ That really resonated.

It was the advice that stuck with me when we did our joint venture with Sony Music in 2015. We were there for two and a half years and it seemed like this amazing opportunity on paper but there were too many roadblocks to be as autonomous as I wanted and needed to be to grow the business. We parted ways amicably and it was a really fun experience to be within the major label system and see how the catalog departments work and operate from a managerial perspective.

I had a front row seat to how the label views each of these catalogs and how difficult it is to get yours to the front of the line in terms of attention to marketing.

You’ve been independent ever since parting ways with Sony. Would you consider partnering up again in future?

It’s possible. I’m open to anything and I will hear anyone out. We’ve been approached by publishing companies, rights management companies, banks and VC funds who purchase catalogs and need assistance in working them. Nothing to date has felt like it would be worth putting our independence on the line for. If something marvelous came about, I’d love to hear it.

There’s been what seems like a catalog buying spree over the last five years or so. What do you make of that?

I’m not opposed to it, but I make it very clear to my clients that when you make the sale – regardless of whatever the buyer tells you about how they’ve got a long-term plan for your legacy and that they’re going work with you and everything’s going to be great and wonderful – your songs are now assets that will be traded just like any other commodity at some point.

When the deal is good enough, that catalog will be flipped and someone else will be responsible. If you’re selling name and likeness as well, that can always be part of the deal. I just want them to have a clear understanding that this may not likely be the final home, or the final people, who will be managing these assets going forward.

I’ll speak on behalf of the estates, not necessarily living legends because those motivations might be different for tax purposes, but I think they all have different reasons for doing what they do. I happen to have artists on my roster who are not interested in selling at the moment or they have sold a portion and want to retain the rights that are remaining. They view this as a family business and are very invested in the day to day management of the estate.

What’s the most exciting development happening in the music business right now that might have an impact on what you do?

AI is exciting and terrifying and something we all should be paying significant attention to, especially managers of deceased icons, because it’s getting really good. There was a song on TikTok that was AI and I couldn’t tell the difference. I had to Google it to find out if this artist had actually recorded this cover. It’s something that could be really interesting and beneficial if used correctly. But there are also new laws that have to be created for new protections. It’s the Wild West with technology and we’re all learning as we go.

If you could go back to the beginning of your career and tell yourself one thing, what would it be?

Let go of your imposter syndrome. It is not real and you’re good at what you do. I had that for a while. After having my son, it completely went away. Then you feel like Superwoman, ‘If I can do that, I can do anything’. But early in my career, being at Columbia, I was like, ‘Are the bands I’m picking any good? What are people thinking about it?’ I cared so much about other people’s opinions.

What one thing would you change about the music industry and why?

I would change the way that streaming royalties are paid. I would change the focus on the short term to a focus on the long term and trying to find more career artists.

“I wish the focus on social media would be less because we’re all clamoring for the same 15 seconds of someone’s time and that’s really challenging.”

I wish the focus on social media would be less because we’re all clamoring for the same 15 seconds of someone’s time and that’s really challenging, especially for an artist who’s not releasing new music or touring. But rather than worrying about what I would change, I worry more about how I can adapt to it and get ahead of it for my clients.

How would you like to see streaming royalties change?

The value of streaming per song is too little. What it takes to just make a living… I’m dealing with artists who have millions and tens of millions of streams across all social media platforms so royalties there look good, but for emerging artists, it’s still not the equivalent of selling a $17 CD. It never will be, those days before Napster are long gone and they’re not coming back.

So how do we move forward in a way that is fair for the artist, especially because estates don’t have touring revenue or huge endorsement deals to depend on. We have to be really creative in finding supplemental income or boosting those royalty streams.

What are your future plans and ambitions?

ALG is poised for growth and I had to be emotionally and mentally ready before opening myself up to that. We just did a strategic partnership with a company called Renaissance Licensing to help build out licensed goods for our clients. Two executives that came from BENlabs founded this company and I immediately was like, ‘I would love to do this with you because there’s so much out there, especially outside of the US’. My artists have global reach so I want to make sure I’m maximizing our efforts to try to find opportunities for interesting collaboration or license goods for them.

That’s the first part of the growth plan. Then, ideally, I’d love to take on other managers and be able to take on more artists but we are boutique by design and I take on only what interests me and what I have the capacity to handle. There are also a couple of estates we’ve been talking to that are really amazing and I hope choose us because we could do some incredible stuff for them.

Virgin Music Group is the global independent music division of Universal Music Group, which brings together UMG’s label and artist service businesses including Virgin and Ingrooves.

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