MBW’s World’s Greatest Managers series profiles the best artist managers in the global business. In the second of a special two-part edition of MBW’s World’s Greatest Manager series, we speak to Jack Rovner, joint head, along with Ken Levitan, of Vector Management. The World’s Greatest Managers is supported by Centtrip, the currency exchange specialist which helps artists, managers and music businesses obtain an optimum currency exchange deal.
After a brief spell as a live agent, Vector Management co-head Jack Rovner got his first real industry foothold in Major Label Land, working at Columbia, Arista and BMG, before heading up RCA in North America.
He always had a yearning, however, to work more directly with the artist and be more closely involved with the creative process – building careers rather than selling records.
Thankfully, pretty much his last handshake before leaving RCA was on a young rock band called Kings of Leon, managed by his now-Vector partner, Ken Levitan.
Steve Ralbovsky thought the two men might just have the sort of complementary skill sets that could take each other (and a roster of artists) to interesting places.
Turns out he was right, as, in tandem with Levitan, Rovner has carved out a career in management that has seen huge success – and not inconsiderable challenges – with artists ranging from Bon Jovi to Kesha to comedians The Tenderoins (the cast of Impractical Jokers).
Here, Rover (pictured far right, main) tells MBW about his early days sneaking into shows, serving his time in the corporate world, the importance of having a 360-degree knowledge of the business and how to make rain…
Before it became your job, what are your earliest memories of falling in love with music?
One of my first memories is going to shows at a very early age. I think I was just 13 years-old and I snuck into Stony Brook University gym (New York) to see Cat Stevens and Traffic – that would have been about 68/69.
Even before then, I was totally into music. Like millions and millions of others here in the States, when I saw The Beatles on TV, I thought it was the epitome of cool, and I wanted to know everything about it.
I also loved being the first person on my block to buy a record and turn my friends onto it – that goes back to being a kid and buying my records from the Hy-Vee grocery store in Des Moines, Iowa.
When did you start to see music as something that might be more than a hobby and a passion?
It really crystalized for me when I went to college. I went to the University of Iowa and I went to a show there in August of ’72, the Grateful Dead. I’d seen the Dead before, but now I’m seeing this show in a 12,500-seat arena, at a college, and I wanted to know how they got there, who booked it, how did they promote it, I wanted to know everything about it. I became very determined to investigate, find out who was in charge of making it all happen.
Of course, it was the concert committee that was in charge, at which point I started doing everything possible to get on the concert committee. Eventually I did, and then ultimately, I ran the concert committee.
And did it turn out to be as much fun as you thought on the other side of the fence, or did you wish you could be back in the audience?
Oh, there was no going back from that point. It was in my blood and there was nothing else that I wanted to pursue. So, for approximately four years, whilst at college, I had the ultimate internship, very hands on, involved with bookings, budgets, promoting, and marketing. It was the perfect segue to get into the ‘legitimate’ music business.
What was your first post-college play?
After graduating and coming to New York, I thought I wanted to be an agent and I ended up working at an agency called the College Entertainment Associates (CEA). At the time, it had become the graduate school for agents and many top agents had worked there including Barbara Skydell, Mike Piranian, and Eddie Micone. We had a lot of action during that time, but after a few years, I realised I really didn’t want to be an agent; I wanted to be closer to the music, and to the marketing of the music – that feeling of being able to turn people on to new music.
Rob Light [now head of music at CAA, pictured inset], was interviewing for a job at Columbia Records. In those days they really didn’t hire from the outside, but Rob had been interviewing with them for a job in artist development and after a series of interviews he realised he didn’t want that job, but he recommended me – which was fortuitous, for sure.
At the time, Columbia Records was the centre of the musical universe, at least in my mind. And after four months of being interviewed by what seemed like everybody in the organisation, I got the job. And what followed was a wonderful ride for 10 amazing years.
Which year did you join?
I joined in 1981. I eventually became the head of marketing, working with Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones and Wynton Marsalis… It was just an incredible experience.
What was the company culture like during that time?
For me it was extraordinarily nurturing, and I was lucky enough to have mentors both inside and outside the company, people like [Bruce Springsteen manager] Jon Landau, [Pink Floyd manager] Steve O’Rourke and the godfather of the agency world, Frank Barsalona. I was young and ambitious and to be able to have the wisdom of people like that, I was very fortunate.
From Columbia I segued into working for Clive [Davis] at Arista, and then I ran marketing for North America for BMG, and then I got my shot at running RCA in partnership with Bob Jamieson. 20 years in total across four labels.
When you were on the label side of the desk, did you start to form views about what makes a good manager and what the skillets are?
I had a close relationship with the managers during that time, of course, people I’ve mentioned like Steve and Jon. They truly took a holistic view of their artists’ careers: music, business, touring, merchandise, brand partnerships, everything. I realised that they were truly the hub of the wheel; it wasn’t the record company, it was the manager that was the hub. That was definitely part of the draw to management, for me.
Did you think you were a label man for life?
At the back of my mind, no, I don’t think I ever thought that. In 2002, as the world was changing and there was all this consolidation happening everywhere, my boss, Strauss Zelnick, left the company, new management came in and it was a different culture. It wasn’t the nurturing and cheerleading culture that Bob and I experienced when we took over RCA in 95. So, when I left, I pretty much knew that there was no going back to the labels.
And, fortunately for me, through my first meeting with The Kings of Leon, I met Ken Levitan. I heard about Ken Levitan previously, but I really didn’t know him until he came into the office with Caleb and Nathan.
Then after I left RCA, Steve Ralbovsky, who was A&R on The Kings and who is a dear friend of Ken and mine, he really promoted the idea that the two of us should talk, because we shared a similar work ethic, we had similar ambitions and were both interested, above anything else, in developing long-term careers.
We talked for three or four months in the spring of 2002 and by the summer time, we shook hands, put our heads down and became partners.
Ken, of course, already had a successful Nashville management company, and an unbelievable foundation and I was lucky enough to be able to work with him to build on that.
What did you make of Vector and Ken as you got to know him and the company through those discussions in spring 2002?
He’s very smart (an attorney by training), he has an incredible work ethic, and had a creative approach to establishing long-term careers. I was really impressed by the thoroughness of his knowledge of every aspect of the business.
We also quickly realised that we had different Rolodexes – and at that time people were still using actual Rolodexes!
So, it was an exciting prospect, the idea of combining and utilising all of our contacts, relationships, and wherewithal.
We knew that if we had an idea, we could at least get that idea listened to by the right people – then it’s on us to make sure the ideas were solid.
It was also exciting, for me, to step into the unknown. Coming from the record business of 20 years, it was an awakening that every day, my first thought was, how am I gonna make rain today?
When you’re at a record company, you don’t think about that. You think about marketing, how are you going to get more adds, will the record be ready on time, how are sales in this market, do we have enough stock…
As a manager, you must have a handle and vision of every aspect of the artists’ career. Headlights always need to be three miles down the road.
Did you open in New York straight away or start in Nashville with Ken?
As soon as we formed our partnership, we opened the New York office. A few years later, LA, followed by London.
What were the first big projects you took on in your new life?
Well actually, in the beginning we were not only focused on management, but we had formed Vector Recordings as well. Our first signing at Vector Recordings was Damien Rice. And although we weren’t managing Damien, we added a tremendous amount to his overall career development.
Our first release was Damien’s O [debut album, 2002], an exquisite record, from a very credible and gifted artist. We’ve sold close to a million records and it was a great start to Vector Recordings and our partnership.
And then, from there, on the recording side we did a record with Herbie Hancock that was Grammy nominated [Possibilities] which was one of the first Starbucks records.
We then did a record with Queen Latifah. So, we were building a really nice track record with Vector Recordings, at the same time, our management business grew with artists like The B52s and Shawn Colvin – and then that segued into Bon Jovi.
How did that come about?
I had known Jon from my days at RCA. I knew [original Bon Jovi manager] Doc McGhee very well, my wife had actually worked for Doc, and worked on Richie Sambora’s solo project with him.
When I left RCA I got a call: was I interested in managing Jon? At the time, my head was spinning, and I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. It wasn’t right for me to sit down with him then. But, after Ken and I got together, our combined vision of what we wanted to do and build was very clear. I got another call from Jon; some time had passed and he was putting out a new album. At that point, absolutely, I was on board.
And we had a fantastic run together.
When did that start?
It was around the release of Have A Nice Day [2005, worldwide sales 6m+].
And what were your first thoughts and initial goals as you took the reins?
Jon is a great marketer in his own right, and he became like a great tennis partner for me; we had some wonderful rallies. We really connected on that level.
I just wanted to be able to make every release feel important and as felt out there in the marketplace. And we accomplished that.
The vision was worldwide, and the vision was to give it much more depth. It wasn’t just about delivering music to radio, it was about how do you use your power to influence people and do good? Jon has always done that, but we focused it into an arena [homelessness], that he felt really strongly about and where he did great work.
Not just through the music, but also hooked into Habitat For Humanity, which segued into Jon establishing his own foundation, the JBJ Soul Foundation. We had the first number one single for a rock band on the country charts [Who Says You Can’t Go Home], he won his first Grammy.
Did the problems with Richie surface during that time and how did you guys – and you as a manager, deal with that?
Well, y’know, when they went their separate ways, I was not working with the band any longer, so I really can’t comment on that other than to say that the truth is, it’s a family. And within families, within relationships that are as close as that, there is tension at times.
They’ve written and recorded incredible music together. They are Yin and Yang, but the result of that was one of the biggest rock bands in the world for the last 30 years. It’s a classic front man/guitarist relationship.
Jon invited my wife and I to the rock n roll Hall of Fame [Bon Jovi were inducted and Sambora was in attendance] and it was such a joyous time to be there and to know that I’d been part of that story.
When and how did that relationship come to an end and how did you feel about that?
I honestly think the best way to explain it is that it ran it’s course; simple as that. I remain good friends with Jon, we see each other, we talk all the time.
The official management capacity ended, but the relationship has endured.
Which contradicts some reports from the time, which said, or implied, that it was quite a stormy end…
You can’t believe everything you read, right? [laughs].
What else would you pick out as important stepping stones on your road in management?
I think certainly the journey we’ve been on with Kesha has been… well it’s definitely been quite a journey, let’s say that. And, certainly in the last 12 months, it has been extraordinarily gratifying, culminating with her Grammy nominations and Grammy performance, as well as the incredible reviews of her album and live show.
She was off the playing field for almost four years, and those were not easy times at all.
When and how did your paths first cross?
We started managing Kesha about 6-9 months before her first album came out [Animal, 2010]. She had left David Sonenberg and she was interviewing managers.
She’s from Nashville, Ken and I met with Kesha and her mom and we all hit it off.
What were your first impressions?
Well, apart from the fact that you could already hear the hit records, she was also someone who walked into a room and just lit it up. She was creative, energetic, focused and enormously gifted.
When did you first become aware of the trouble that was brewing and that would lead to the legal dispute with Dr Luke, and how did you handle that as it developed?
I don’t want to comment directly on any of that, because the court case continues.
Can you give us a sense of how challenging it was?
The main thing is that it was challenging for Kesha. She’s a gifted artist and she got side-tracked and was out of the game.
But, like I said, the last year has been extraordinarily rewarding and I think she’s in a different place now to where she was five years ago, from all standpoints – as a songwriter, as a performer and as a woman.
Do you think that the industry has changed a lot as far as how it regards and treats female artists and female executives?
I think the world has changed, there’s no question about that. I think there is a heightened sense of awareness and responsibility now and I think that’s a very important and positive thing.
What do you think are the skills and qualities you need most as a manager?
You have to have a good, if not excellent, understanding of all areas of the business. And if you don’t, you need to seek counsel.
You need to have patience.
You need to be able to communicate clearly, not only with your artist, but with your partners.
You need to understand where the ship is going at all times, but also be in tune with the minutiae.
You also have to have the crystal ball and know how to read it, both in terms of your artist’s future and the industry’s future.
At the end of the day, it’s about following a great artist and helping them realise their dreams.
And I guess, having come from the record company world, is one of the differences as a manager is that the balance of your priorities lies more with the career and the next 10 years, rather than with the next record, rather than the other way round at the label?
For sure. 12 or 13 years ago, when we were really starting to build the newer parts of Vector, I said to a record executive, who I had worked for, for a minute, let me give you a tip: you should have every one of your key executives go on the outside for a year.
And if they can make rain and do good work in that period of time, those are the kind of people you need for the future.
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