MBW’s World’s Greatest Managers series profiles the best artist managers in the global business. In this feature, we meet Wendy Laister, who has managed Duran Duran for over two decades. 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.
Wendy Laister emerged from her meeting with American Express very happy.
The credit card giant had agreed to welcome her resurgent management clients, Duran Duran, to its Unstaged programme, which pairs superstar artists with stellar directors for unique concert films.
Duran Duran – Simon Le Bon, John Taylor, Nick Rhodes and Roger Taylor – were happy too, and excitedly presented their director wishlist to their manager.
“Their list, in order of preference, was: David Lynch, Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino,” Laister laughs. “I remember getting off the phone thinking, ‘Shit, how am I going to do that, then?’”
But, of course, Laister got on the case and, eventually, the band’s first choice, David Lynch, came on board to make the movie.
Laister’s remarkable powers of persuasion – which also stretched to convincing NASA to let the band fly 300 drones over the Kennedy Space Centre rocket park as part of their moon landing anniversary gig – have been in evidence throughout her relationship with Duran, making her a living, breathing representation of that old workplace slogan: Wendy Laister does the impossible at once, miracles may take a little longer.
Her 21-year alliance with Duran was celebrated at the MMF/FAC Artist & Manager Awards in November, where they won the Artist & Manager Partnership Award and Simon Le Bon praised her “grace, intelligence, tenacity and loyalty”. Incredibly, it was her first industry accolade, despite nearly 40 years in the business – first as a PR, then as a manager – that have seen her work with everyone from Aerosmith to Richard Branson and Guns N’ Roses to Nelson Mandela.
Ironically, though, she never aspired to work in the music industry, despite her father, Peter Laister, being around the biz as chairman of Thorn EMI. Instead, she trained as a clinical psychologist before discovering “there was no real culture of therapy in the UK at that point” and moving into big business instead.
She was a graduate trainee at BP at the start of the 1980s and then joined PA Consulting, making waves at both as a then-rare female executive (“They would say, ‘It would be helpful to have a woman in this team’ – and there weren’t any other choices!”), just as she would later blaze a trail in the male-dominated rock manager world. But in the economic downturn, the consulting work became more about getting rid of people than getting the best out of them, and she left to join Branson’s Virgin Group.
It was the opposite of her previous work environments – her interview took place during someone’s leaving do at Branson’s club, Kensington Roof Gardens, and the boss had a penchant for maverick publicity stunts – but Laister was inspired by the risk-taking culture.
“Structurally, the company was very open and not corporate,” she says. “You could have an idea in the morning and the company was small enough and Richard was brave enough that, if you could convince him it was a good idea, you could be doing it by the afternoon. It moved fast and it was fun.”
Laister wanted to set up an in-house PR agency, but eventually opted to do it independently – although she took Virgin Retail with her as a big-name first client at Laister Dickson, now under new management and known as LD Communications.
She hadn’t intended to do press for musicians, but eventually agreed to take on a friend’s management client. That friend was Jazz Summers, the client was Yazz and the rest is history.
“It just exploded,” Laister laughs. “The record [The Only Way Is Up] went to No.1 and she was beautiful, so she was on the cover of every magazine. We really didn’t have to do very much, it all took care of itself. But the second we launched with that and Virgin Retail, we were on the map.”
Laister Dickson soon became the industry’s go-to agency – especially once Bernard Doherty joined – representing high-end clients such as the Rolling Stones, Janet Jackson, Rod Stewart, Guns N’ Roses and huge events from the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert to two Mandela Concerts (one demanding his release, another celebrating his freedom).
“Getting to meet Mandela and work with him was an incredible experience,” Laister smiles, although not all clients were quite so serene. She toured the world with Guns N’ Roses, including their notorious 1992 South American tour, which culminated with Axl Rose throwing a chair at journalists from a hotel balcony.
“It was very challenging, but I loved working with them,” she says. “It was like joining the circus, which is what I’d always wanted to do!”
Eventually, however, she tired of the PR treadmill and accepted an offer to co-manage Aerosmith with Tim Collins in 1993. Collins fell out with the band in 1996 leaving Laister, in her words, “holding the big baby”.
Despite her lack of management experience, she transformed the band’s fortunes, helping them secure their first-ever No.1 single with I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing from the Armageddon soundtrack and even do a deal for their own Rock ‘n’ Roller Coasters at Disney theme parks.
She split with Aerosmith in 1998 and, after her initial attempts to bounce back faltered – she describes a stint as Carly Simon’s manager simply as “too tricky” – she decided she would only work with music she loved and people she liked from there on in.
Enter Duran Duran, who by 2002 had reformed their original line-up but were struggling to shake off their 1980s pop idols tag. Laister came in and concentrated on reinvigorating their credibility, with an emphasis on their live prowess.
It worked to the extent that, last year, the band was admitted to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame and sold out BST Hyde Park. Their latest album, the Halloween-themed Danse Macabre, went Top 5 in the UK this year, while next summer they will headline Latitude Festival.
“It’s so enjoyable managing Duran Duran,” Laister grins. “Everybody gets on well, so it makes working together really fun.”
They have big plans for next year – a DD scripted TV show, musical and documentary are all in development – while Laister’s Magus Entertainment company also works with Roxy Music, Ray Cooper, Rozzi and will launch Alec Meza next year.
But first, it’s time for her to sit down with MBW in her New York office for an insight into a lifetime spent making the impossible look easy…
What did you learn from working with Richard Branson?
I loved working with Richard. The biggest thing I learned – but have not necessarily always been good at following – was knowing when to walk away.
He would start a lot of things and the business was given a period of time to see if it was going to spark and, if it didn’t, he knew when to pull the plug. Whereas, a lot of times, failure is because the horse is dead on the floor and you’re still trying to pump life back into it.
Laister Dickson had a stellar roster. What was it like working with so many A-list clients at the same time?
When you work for major artists, everybody thinks you should be thrilled to have them on your client list – which of course you are. But if you were doing corporate press, you’d be making £20,000 a month [from each], whereas we were charging £2,500.
“If it goes super-well, everybody thinks it’s because they’re great. If it doesn’t go so well, it’s your fault.”
And the problem with the model is, the busier you get, the more people you have to hire; the more people you hire, the more mouths you have to feed and, suddenly, you’re taking on things you don’t love as much.
It’s also a pretty thankless task: if it goes super-well, everybody thinks it’s because they’re great. If it doesn’t go so well, it’s your fault! I loved it and was very proud of what we built, but I was happy to move out of it at the time I did.
What was it like stepping up to be Aerosmith’s sole manager?
The reality is, if they’d have split up with Tim [Collins] and gone out to the market to look for a manager, I wouldn’t have even been on anybody’s list. I’d never done it before, I was English, female, not really that interested in that kind of music – I appreciated it, but I wasn’t the biggest fan, it wasn’t my cup of tea.
People were very surprised – I just happened to be there and had been doing the work, so my choices were: stay working with Tim, but he didn’t have any other clients, so that wasn’t a good option; be unemployed – also not a good option; or stay working with them, which I was really enjoying. And we had a great run, until we didn’t!
You seemed to help them to new heights.
Yeah, it was great and I will forever be grateful. I learned a huge amount, I made extraordinary contacts and relationships and we were able to do some really good stuff.
We had a New York Times best-selling book, we had No.1 albums and their first-ever No.1 single around the world, which was a song [I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing] they didn’t particularly want to do. Right up to the end, Steven [Tyler, Aerosmith singer] was telling me it wasn’t the right song to do and not the right movie.
There was another space disaster movie coming out at the same time with Morgan Freeman [Deep Impact] and he said, ‘We should be doing that one’. No, your daughter’s in this one!
From a work point of view, it was amazing. From a life point of view, more challenging.
I didn’t see my role as really having much to do with the band’s sobriety. That was something Tim was very involved with, they all got sober together and he was very focused on that. I felt it was important for them to own that for themselves.
Anybody who has worked with the band will tell you that it’s challenging – the dynamic between them.
Sometimes, artists get burned by relationships. [Aerosmith’s] relationship with Tim became very toxic and difficult, their relationships with previous managers ended pretty poorly and with them feeling that they’d been ripped off. So, there’s a lack of trust – it was a very different business then, people signed terrible deals and gave away a lot of money.
Maybe in certain genres that still goes on, but I see how the business and the relationship has changed. I don’t necessarily want to be going on holiday with the clients, but I want to enjoy having dinner with them and feel like there’s trust.
Is that why you stopped working with them when things seemed to be going very successfully?
No, I stopped because – I don’t think it would ever happen now, but this was 25 years ago – I was pregnant. I called Steven to say, ‘I’ve got good news, I’m having a baby, but don’t worry I’m not taking a big maternity leave and blah blah blah’.
My son was born on Christmas Eve. The one thing I wasn’t able to attend was their Boston home shows at New Year, but we had a great team, so everything was fine.
I was back at work by the beginning of the year. I’d been with them at the Oscars with my nanny and my little new-born baby. I came back to New York and the next day they called from the lawyer’s office to say, ‘You’ve probably heard the rumours we’ve been looking for other management’. It was quite funny because everybody had obviously rehearsed what they were going to say and I said, ‘No, I haven’t heard the rumours.’ ‘Well, the rumours are true’. ‘Well, I haven’t heard any!’
And that was the end of that. It was devastating because I didn’t see it coming. I just couldn’t imagine why that would be an issue. They all had children – I had a nanny and I was working, it seemed fine.
How did you deal with that?
The awful part was, I thought that people would think I must have done something terrible, because why else, in that moment, when it was so successful and it had been this incredible run, would that happen? Normally, people part company with their managers when things are not going well. This was quite the opposite.
I was just shocked. I’d never lost a Saturday job, never been sacked from anything. I had a small child, I was the principal breadwinner in the house, I had a big staff. I had to let everybody go, I kept two people and then I took on stuff very quickly, a bit on the rebound to be honest – a couple of things I shouldn’t have done.
“I don’t ever want to just have one client again, because you’re too vulnerable – that’s a scary place to be.”
What I should have done is taken six months off and enjoyed being a mother. But I didn’t, I ran around like a headless chicken thinking, ‘Oh my God, I must immediately get something else’.
I don’t ever want to just have one client again, because you’re too vulnerable – that’s a scary place to be. There are very few relationships that last for a very long time in this business.
Your relationship with Duran Duran has certainly endured. How did you help them back to the top?
The sleeping popularity just needed to be ignited again. As time goes by, people realise what extraordinary songwriters they are – those songs have really stood the test of time.
One of the challenges for them is that they were so popular. With that level of hysteria, their abilities as musicians got obscured by the covers of Smash Hits and whatever else.
“Duran would tell you, in their hearts, they feel much more dark pop than they do teen idols.”
Depeche Mode went on a different path and [got] the credibility and love from the rock press, but Duran would tell you, in their hearts, they feel much more dark pop and Depeche Mode than they do teen idols. It’s taken a really long time for them to get recognised as such a good live band – when they used to play, they couldn’t even hear themselves.
And we said no to a lot of stuff; anything that felt too ‘80s-oriented. You can make a load of money but ‘80s cruises, ‘80s festivals, we avoided anything like that. And, knock on wood, it’s all paid off.
Does having four such distinct personalities in the band make your job harder?
That’s very unusual. With Aerosmith, if you got Steven and Joe [Perry, guitarist] on board you would know, that’s what we’re going to be doing.
With Duran, you’ve got four people who are really very different to one another, as much as they get along. Nick doesn’t drive, while Simon wants to do every dangerous sport on the planet. But the thing I’ve learned is, when things are right, everybody agrees very quickly.
It’s truly a democracy, everybody has to agree on pretty much everything in order to move forward.
How often do you disagree with them?
There are always things you don’t agree on. I’m very passionate about things, but there’s a moment when you have to go, ‘You don’t want to do it, Ok, I get it – I think you should, but ultimately it’s your decision’. It doesn’t happen much.
My father was once at an exhibition with my mother and said to her, ‘This is a beautiful painting, isn’t it?’ And she said, ‘No, I don’t love it.’ And he said, ‘Well then, look again!’ I can be a bit like that.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in your time in the industry?
Artists have to do a lot more things now than they used to – nobody used to have to worry about posting every five minutes and TikTok.
The ability to have a direct relationship with your fans is an extraordinary opportunity but it’s like, not only have I got to make the record, I’ve now got to run a broadcast station! Which is great but God, it’s a lot of work.
“Artists have to do a lot more things now than they used to – nobody used to have to worry about posting every five minutes and TikTok.”
And labels don’t have the resources now to do what they used to do. We spent half a million dollars on one record launch for Aerosmith – it was a party that people still talk about, but you would never do that now.
Have Duran ever thought about selling their catalogue?
They have had some offers and the answer’s, ‘No, we don’t want to’.
It’s fine if you reach a certain point in your career where you really aren’t going to do much and it’s an interesting way to do estate planning. But there are so many things they want to be a part of and believe will be very successful, so why would they sell now?
And when you pay tax, divide it up and pay commission, it’s not life-changing money. When you look at the offers we get now for shows, I’d rather do 10 shows and have that be the money you put in the bank.
And you lose control in most instances. At one point with Duran they had very little control over the publishing or masters of the early material, because of terrible deals that were done back in the day.
There was a moment when there was a yoghurt dancing to Hungry Like The Wolf [on an advert] and everybody was like, ‘What?’ And that’s what can happen – they tell you it won’t, but you can’t blame them.
Would you ever go back to psychology?
I could always do that! Maybe it’ll be a bit undignified to still be doing this when you’re really old, but I still love it. With Duran now, we get access to people at the top of their field and that’s just joyful. Working with good people is always a pleasure.
A specialist in intelligent treasury, payments and foreign exchange, Centtrip works with over 500 global artists helping them and their crew maximise their income and reduce touring costs with its award-winning multi-currency card and market-leading exchange rates. Centtrip also offers record labels, promoters, collection societies and publishers a more cost-effective way to send payments across the globe.
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