MBW’s World’s Greatest Managers series profiles the best artist managers in the global business. This month we talk to Ben Persky (above, right) and Mason Klein, co-founders of Mixed Management, the team behind the winner of the inaugural Songwriter of the Year Grammy, Tobias Jesso Jr. World’s Greatest Managers is supported by Centtrip, a specialist in intelligent treasury, payments and foreign exchange – created with the music industry and its needs in mind.
Ben Persky and Mason Klein, the co-founders of Mixed Management, don’t remember a time they weren’t friends.
This isn’t just a fairly familiar/slightly suspect line about two business partners avoiding any major fall-outs in the course of their working life; it’s because they really have been best friends since they were four years old, pre-coherent-memory.
Organic friendships developing into something significant and successful is a bit of a theme in their still-getting-started story.
Almost exactly 10 years ago, they were living in LA with another friend of theirs, Noah Gersh.
Gersh was most famously in Portugal. The Man, but it was through another project of his, Honey Child, that Persky and Klein would meet someone who would become The Man for them – Tobias Jesso Jr.
Persky recalls: “Tobias was in Honey Child, and Noah played us the one demo that he had back then, a song called Just A Dream, and it was incredible; we were blown away.
“It then turns out, he’s coming to LA, to work on a record [Goon, 2015]. And, because of his connection with Noah, he stayed with us while he made that record. During that time, we fell in love with him, and from there started managing him.”
Famously, Jesso Jr quickly attracted some very high-profile fans – with Adele in particular making her admiration for his craft public.
He went on to work with the British superstar, co-writing tracks on 25 (including the billion-streamer, When We Were Young) and 30.
More recently, Jesso Jr has contributed to two of the biggest albums of the last couple of years – Miley Cyrus’ Endless Summer Vacation and Harry’s House by Harry Styles. (Jesso Jr has form with ex-One Directioners, having co-written Niall Horan’s huge 2017 hit, Slow Hands.)
In February, he was the recipient of the first ever (insert own exclamation marks here) Grammy for Songwriter of the Year. In the same week, it was announced that he had sold his catalog to Merck Mercuriadis’ Hipgnosis.
Persky and Klein haven’t done too badly, either.
Mixed Management now boasts a roster of around a dozen artists, producers and writers, including the very up-and-coming producer Jasper Harris, who, at just 23, has already worked with Kendrick Lamar, Lil Nas X, Jack Harlow, Post Malone and Doja Cat. They also work with NYT best-selling cookbook author Molly Baz, star YouTuber ISHOWSPEED.
It’s a good return on allowing a then-stranger to crash in their spare room a decade ago. But, romantic as that origin story would be, by then Persky and Klein had already scored a No.1 record, already backed their personal taste, and already been behind a track that didn’t just change their lives, it kinda changed the music business…
How did you come to create a management company together when you were still at college?
Mason Klein: One of my friends from middle school, Henry Steinway, started making tracks. It was the Hype Machine/SoundCloud era of electronic music making big waves in the States.
I was in Boston and Ben was in New York, so I called him and told him about my amazingly talented friend and asked if he could help get him some gigs.
Eventually, we wanted to take it a bit further, we got his first record deal, and it became a serious thing [Steinway is now best-known as producer/DJ RL Grime, still a Mixed Management client].
Then we went down to [the Winer Music Conference] in Miami, which is where we met Baauer, who we ended up managing, who we still manage, and who we did Harlem Shake with.
How did Harlem Shake come about and what did that teach you about the industry at that time?
Ben Persky: When that track first came out, in May 2012, on a label called Jeffree’s, which was an imprint Diplo had outside of Mad Decent, it was really cool.
I think it was Best New Track on Pitchfork; Hudson Mohawke and Rusty, these cool UK DJs, were playing in their essential mixes. It was just very cool. It was a new sound at a time when electronic music was really big.
Then after six months, the first meme video dropped and everything changed.
So, one lesson was that the life of a song is unpredictable. And sometimes, when you feel like a song is done, it hasn’t even begun. Never stop working a record if you believe in it – give songs a chance to find their audience.
Secondly, copyright claims were a huge issue at the time, and there were a lot of takedowns on platforms like YouTube etc. But what we said for Harlem Shake, as it started going viral, was let it happen; don’t stop people posting their videos on their channels.
Afterwards, people were like, ‘Oh my God, you guys made a viral hit.’ We didn’t make shit! It just happened – and we just allowed it to happen.
When Tobias Jesso Jr’s Goon came out, it caused some pretty big ripples, right?
BP: Yeah, it was critically celebrated. People loved it. Music journalism was really powerful then, and Tobias was championed by a bunch of publications that were cool.
Even when that happened, Tobias was always saying to us, ‘My voice doesn’t deserve my songs, my voice isn’t good enough for these songs.’ We were always like, ‘Shut the fuck up, your voice is fantastic.’ But he always struggled in some way with being an artist. He didn’t really want to be in the limelight.
I think that record sold 60-70,000 albums, it did pretty well. Then we went on tour and I just think that was miserable for him.
At the same time, Jon Dickins – Adele’s manager – reached out and said, ‘Would Tobias want to work with Adele?’ She’d heard Hollywood, she loved it and was a huge fan – we said yes, of course!
Funnily enough, one of the first things that [Tobias] had said to us when we started working together is, ‘I would love to work with Adele, that would be a dream’. He was a huge fan, still is.
So, they work together, they write some music together and everything changed from there.
What do you think makes TOBIAS special – and so successful – as a songwriter?
BP: I mean there’s so much. One thing is that he didn’t even have a computer. He has one now, but he doesn’t really use it. He really is sitting at a piano or playing guitar in a room.
Also, if you spend time with Tobias, he is just curious. He wants to talk to you, he wants to learn about your life and see where you’re coming from. And I think that leads to really honest songs. Because he’s not telling somebody what they should write, he’s finding things out and joining in where he’s needed.
MK: It’s so impressive, he’s such a natural storyteller. And he can tell a story in one song, or even one line, a line that captures the entirety of a story.
How did you all feel heading into Grammys night?
BP: Really excited, nervous. Obviously it was the first ever Songwriter of the Year award, which is crazy in itself, but that’s a whole other thing.
In the end, we were, like, let’s have fun tonight and try not to be too stressed about it.
MK: I think as managers, the job is to not make it more stressful, to be a bit of a brick wall and make sure that there’s a sense of calm. But at the same time, yeah, of course, all the feelings, all the emotions.
And then when Tobias’s name was read out?…
BP: I think I screamed, ‘Fuck yeah!’, which may not have been the most appropriate thing to do.
No! It’s completely the appropriate thing to do…
BP: I mean it’s just a dream. We met this guy 10 years ago. He was living in our small fourth bedroom, writing his album, saying how much he would love to work with Adele and how he just wants to write songs that people hear. A decade later he’s walking up to collect the first Songwriter of the Year award at The Grammys; it’s surreal.
He’s so deserving of it. He’s such a special songwriter, he cares about the craft of it and he cares about the community, he’s fighting for songwriters’ rights. It was magic.
“We met this guy 10 years ago. He was living in our small fourth bedroom… A decade later he’s walking up to collect the first Songwriter of the Year award at The Grammys. it’s surreal.”
Being an artist of any sort is the bravest and scariest thing: ‘I choose to create things that don’t exist, and by doing so I have to believe that those things are worth people’s time, attention, money, etc.’
And it is struggle, struggle, struggle, just going through all the shit of it. And then to see someone on stage being celebrated for all that, it makes you believe… You know when you see someone on stage going, ‘Just follow your dreams’, and you think, ‘Oh my God, yeah, sure, easy for you to say.’ But then you get those moments and you realize, yes, do it, follow your dreams.
MK: I think Tobias mentioned this after the event, but at almost every level it’s really hard to ‘just’ be a songwriter in this industry. So to be able to have a career is such a privilege and feels so amazing. And then to be celebrated like that, it was something else. I think he felt that it was a win for everybody; just an amazing moment.
The other big piece of news in recent weeks, of course, was you and Tobias selling his catalog (to date) to Merck Mercuriadis at Hipgnsosis. Can you talk us through the thinking behind that move?
BP: A decision like that gives Tobias the freedom to do more and more of what he wants to do, and be less bogged down with the minutiae that maybe he shouldn’t be worried about.
Financial freedom as an artist means you’ve gotten to a place where you can just focus on the things that you want to do, which is writing and creating – songs, books, TV shows or whatever. It gives you the mental headspace to do the things you really love; the decision was really that simple.
What do you think about the general trend for copyright sales and what people like Merck are doing?
BP: I think what Merck and the other funds are saying is that songs have real value, and we believe that. And for writers it creates this really competitive landscape and opportunity in a way that previously… like, writers have historically been pretty much ignored and neglected in music.
You know, songwriters don’t get paid when they go into a session; everyone else does. When a song gets delivered, producers get paid, artists have often been pre-paid, the writer just has to hope the song does well.
“Songwriters don’t get paid when they go into a session; everyone else does.”
As a songwriter, as some who chooses art, for the most part you’re abandoning any chance of financial success. If it happens, great, but most [songwriters] don’t make money.
So I think there being some exit at the end of the pathway, if that provides a little more confidence that there’s some way to live or to have real financial success, then that’s positive.
What do you both think are the main skill sets and personality traits that you need as managers?
MK: I think a big thing is being able to navigate personality. I think especially in music, there’s a ton of characters and situations, and a key thing is being able to sit with anyone and everyone and be able to approach a conversation in an open and honest way, where it doesn’t feel like there’s anything on the table besides getting to the truth or getting some answers in a very straightforward way.
That is at the heart of what we do, and I feel like sometimes that gets lost in the fanfare. It’s our job to really buckle down to the truth and see what we can we do today to better the path of the artists or to make a step forward.
BP: There are all sorts of managers out there. There are lawyers that become managers who are really deal-focused; there are really creative managers who are in the studio, offering direction; there are super-powerful managers that can call the head of major Fortune 500 companies. So I think it’s important to know your skill-set and understand your role.
“we just thought he was incredible and we wanted to help him go as far as possible – which ended up being walking on stage to accept a Grammy.”
Mason and I aren’t the managers building marketing machines and stories around engineered projects, which is total genius in itself. What I think we’ve done well is find people that we are obsessed with, that we think are remarkably talented, and allow them to be them, protect them. And do everything that we can to keep unrolling more road in front of them.
That’s what happened with Tobias, we just thought he was incredible and we wanted to help him go as far as possible – which ended up being walking on stage to accept a Grammy.
Tell us about R&R Records and the JV with Warner Records you announced in 2019.
BP: We were a bit frustrated with record labels. We’ve had some great experiences, but there have been a bunch of other ones where people tell you all these things, and then a lot of them don’t happen.
We started in 2015/2016 and this was when there were a bunch of distributors starting to emerge that were offering really favorable deals which, from a math perspective, historically, were incredible.
Like, instead of shitty royalty deals in the label’s favor, they were 80/20 splits in the artist’s favor for two-year licenses. But in order to make those deals work [as a business], a distributor has to put out so much [meaning their attention was spread amongst lots of artists].
“All the things that you hear are shitty in JVs, we have not experienced.”
On the other side, there are label deals that can also be fantastic, but are based on committing a bunch of resources and [acquiring] a lot of your rights.
There didn’t seem to be any middle ground. So we decided to do 50/50 net profit deals [for R&R Records]. And then some of our artists start having success, they want to stay on your record label, but you can’t afford them.
Aaron Bay-Schuck and Tom Corson had just moved over to Warner and we started chatting with them about exactly that: we have a bunch of great artists, we can’t afford to keep them all, we’d love to do a deal with you guys that allows us to bring them in and work on them with you.
Warner have been amazing partners, we love them. You hope for partners exactly like that, they empower you, they stay out of the way when appropriate and they believe in you. All the things that you hear are shitty in JVs, we have not experienced.
Going back to the management side of things, what are your headline ambitions right now?
BP: In the past few years, we’ve expanded out for music a bit. We’re working with a chef, a YouTuber, a screenwriter.
But the mission is the same: find really talented people, protect them and guide them towards their goals – whatever space they work in.
MK: We also have a vision for doubling down on producers and writers as well, via a JV with another partner of ours, Sam French, which we launched six months ago. We’re really excited to look even more at those spaces.
What would you change about the music industry if you had the power?
BP: This isn’t a positive or negative thing necessarily, more of a personal taste thing, but I think that what’s celebrated in music right now is loudness, and how good you are at marketing yourself, how good you are getting identified. That’s a different skill than making great music.
It’s a great skill, and there is genius and wisdom there in its own right, but it isn’t the same skill. And I think often the two are conflated now, where we’re just focused on who is grabbing our attention best, and not who’s making the best music.
Maybe that’s really hokey and I sound like I’m 70 years old already, but so I often hear people say there’s no great music anymore. And I think that there’s so much great music, but maybe the people who are really focused on making great music aren’t so focused on getting famous.
“I wish there was something in America that just celebrated greatness and has nothing to do with commercial viability or scale.”
I wish there was some mechanism to highlight those people and that music. In the UK, there’s the Mercury Prize, which has almost nothing to do with commercial success. It’s just like: who’s the best?
Somebody like Sampha [who won the Mercury prize in 2017], who’s not going to be making TikToks all the time, but we should all be talking about him.
I wish there was something in America that just celebrated greatness and has nothing to do with commercial viability or scale.
MK: Mine’s in a similar vein. DSPs are often trying to find ways to focus the audience’s attention on one place. And there’s such an opportunity to try to open people’s eyes to new things instead of funnelling everyone down one channel.
There are so many other entertainment fields, like movies for instance, that are really good at highlighting indie projects and these amazing pieces of art. I wish music had more avenues for doing that.
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