MBW’s World’s Greatest Managers series profiles the best artist managers in the global business. This time, we speak to Ian Montone, founder of Monotone Inc in Los Angeles, and manager to the likes of Vampire Weekend, Jack White, Margo Price and Danger Mouse. The World’s Greatest Managers is supported by Centtrip Music, a specialist in intelligent treasury, payments and foreign exchange – created with the music industry and its needs in mind.
Ian Montone doesn’t court publicity.
Try to research Monotone Inc, his super-successful management company, online for proof: you’ll find barely any artist information and scant contact details. That’s deliberate on his part. It goes without saying that this interview took some persuading.
It also goes without saying, therefore, that Ian Montone does not have an Instagram account.
Yet a couple of months ago, we noticed his face pop up on the social site in a chummy embrace with a pair of fellow power players – Justin/Ariana manager Scooter Braun and Marshmello maven Moe Shalizi. What does Montone make of this new generation of managers, who sometimes count millions of their own followers online?
“Those two are my friends, and they’re excellent managers and entrepreneurs – their success speaks for itself,” he says. “I talk to Scooter all the time, trading ideas. In essence, our job is the same – find great artists or ideas, be a bulldozer for them, and build businesses around them. But these days, everyone is also constantly brand building.
“It’s kind of amazing and I respect it, but that’s not me. I’m into a totally different type of brand building, I guess.”
He’s right. Montone’s music industry ‘brand’ is a little less loud, and a little more classic: he’s a behind-the-scenes operator, and a proud straight shooter, who gets results away from the camera’s lens.
When we ask him what the brightest moment of his career is so far, he replies: “Running an independent company, curating the roster we have, and working with some of the most creative and visionary artists in the music industry.”
Bearing in mind Montone’s enmity to the limelight, it’s probably wise we remind you of his world-beating roster. Monotone Inc, with two offices in Los Angeles, plus another in New York and a rep in London, looks after the careers of Jack White, Vampire Weekend, The Dixie Chicks, LCD Soundsystem, The Raconteurs, Margo Price, The Shins, Ratatat, Foster The People, Broken Bells, Pete Yorn, Cold War Kids, and Danger Mouse, among others. Its emerging artist roster, meanwhile, includes the likes of Amber Mark, Love Manseuy, Priests, Wallows, Lillie Mae, Empress Of, and fully independent artist, Still Woozy.
MBW sits down with Montone – who grew up in Portland, Oregon and was a partner at the music law firm Davis, Shapiro, Lewit, et al before focusing on management – over a drink at Soho House Malibu.
We ask about his life, his career, and the state of the modern business…
How is streaming treating your roster?
Streaming is great for the music business, there’s no doubt about that.
The money in streaming is growing by the week, and the hope is that funnels back to the artists. Also, the entrance barriers with respect to distribution are so much lower now – anyone can release music and get it to your computer or phone.
That’s fantastic as it evens the playing field and challenges the traditional paradigm.
Is the current model good for music in general?
Frankly, my opinion changes weekly. On one hand, of course it’s [good], as there’s more exposure; anyone with the right guidance can find anything, and catalogs now live forever.
On the other hand, I feel we – as a business – have given so much power to a handful of companies and their respective algorithms.
“I feel we – as a business – have given so much power to a handful of companies and their respective algorithms.”
Songwriters need to be treated fairly. Streaming is becoming the new and sole metric of ‘success’ amongst certain partners, which I disagree with. There’s more information that everyone is trying to collate, study and understand, almost in real time.
What does it all mean? I’m not sure. It may all be noise. I think the notion of whether something is great, culturally important, or simply moves you, is being discounted.
What will the future look like?
I look at the Netflixes, Amazons and HBOs as relates to TV and film, a world I also live in [Montone co-manages Jamie Foxx and Jonah Hill – as well as the Dixie Chicks and Pete Yorn – via his partnership with Rick Yorn at LBI Entertainment], and I expect to see the [music] streaming services continue to push for their own original content, supplanting the ‘majors’ and the role they’ve traditionally played.
Conversely, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the majors take their music down from those streaming services at some point, and create their own services, where they can really focus and market their own roster and catalog, as well as distribute revenues differently to their artists.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see the majors take their music down from those streaming services at some point, and create their own services.”
Look at what Disney is about to do with Netflix – it’s a similar approach. I currently subscribe to Netflix, Amazon, HBO, Apple TV, etc. I think people would do the same with music. Sure, that will cost the consumer more, but in the long run it will give the music fan a different and better, less monoculture experience.
Regarding streaming as it stands, I question: should all music be available for $9.99 a month? That’s a great deal. Is it sustainable in the long run? Probably not. Does it devalue music insofar as how we educate consumers about streaming – this ‘one price gets all’ buffet consumption concept? Probably so.
Have we blindly embraced the concept that ownership is irrelevant simply out of fear of piracy? Probably yes.
The most important question: is streaming causing all music consumption to grow exponentially – benefiting everyone in the long run? Likely yes – I believe so. But there are lots of tweaks to be made as these paradigms shift.
Would you like to see the services more actively support alternative rock?
It’s interesting. The answer is obviously yes, but to my earlier point, the services will support and promote what streams best, and certain genres – at least at this point in time – stream more than others. So it’s not necessarily a ‘support’ issue.
Without getting into existential questions regarding genres, a debate I’m bored with, with certain artists – be it in alternative, hip-hop or elsewhere – you have to commit to the entire body of work; the second song might make you understand the third song, which might make you understand the fourth song.
“I like it when people [at labels] react by rolling up their sleeves up, digging in, and remembering why we’re all here in the first place.”
One thing I find frustrating is that streaming services, as well as much of the music business, rely so much on algorithms to tell us what to consume. The focus sometimes seems to be finding ‘music for algorithms’ versus great songs and great artists.
The reality is, that’s not why I got in this business. I’ve been in label meetings when they’ve literally said, ‘Sorry, the song’s not working.’ The song’s been out literally a day – what are you talking about? ‘Nope, we’ve read the numbers – we’re going to move on.’
I like it when people react to that situation by rolling up their sleeves up, digging in, and remembering why we’re all here in the first place.
You’re talking about people becoming artist advocates, changing opinions.
Yes, let’s go make people believe! That’s exciting to me, and I’ve seen it a hundred times. I remember with the White Stripes, with the song Seven Nation Army, one of our label partners didn’t think that was a single, certainly not the first single.
Same held true for MIA’s Paper Planes, when we looked after her. Now, when those tipping points did happen, our partners were amazing. Those two songs became worldwide hits, and neither was supported by traditional data.
“Ezra has an incredible creative vision and he’s extremely intelligent.”
One of our main jobs is making others believe in what our artists believe – no matter how long it may take. That’s the task for us currently with Vampire Weekend. Ezra has an incredible creative vision and he’s extremely intelligent. He’s also very thoughtful with his music and how he wants it presented.
He just delivered a masterpiece with Father Of The Bride. The album is very deep lyrically and musically, it’s eclectic, but at the same time – to me – very conceptual, with an overarching theme and narrative.
Point is, it’s not a cookie-cutter body of work and doesn’t fit into any one space. Our job is to make people understand why this music is important and is something they should pay attention to.
What’s the value of a record label in 2019? You’ve got an independent artist in Still Woozy doing very well.
Labels are certainly valuable. I’m all for working with great partners, be that a traditional record label or what have you. When you have a whole team of passionate people – who love music and understand your artist – pointed in one direction, that critical mass with the metaphorical ‘boots on the ground’, it’s incredibly powerful and you can get a lot done.
“All of that [independent] structure doesn’t supplant the importance of people who are passionate about your artist.”
Can you do it without that? Sure, but it takes work, a structure, financing and, perhaps most of all, time. We’ve deliberately built a company with that structure, with our own radio and DSP teams, touring, licensing, production, etc. – and it’s a lot to take on.
But all of that structure doesn’t supplant the importance of people who are passionate about your artist. And to that extent, labels can be great partners.
There’s a theory that independent labels are getting squeezed in this new world: companies like yours can invest in artists – often working alongside the likes of AWAL or EMPIRE etc. – and then at the other end of the market there’s the big global majors.
Certainly, the business is always changing and evolving. But I could make the argument that independent labels are now more important than ever. The indie labels will always be important when it comes to finding great artists and having a point of view.
Especially in this day and age where everything is accessible and everything is available, we really need the tastemakers, the curators – people who can make others believe in what you believe in.
“I feel a real kinship with independent labels – we all come from the same place.”
Caius [Pawson] at Young Turks is great at that, Richard Russell obviously, everything Third Man Records stands for, certainly Top Dawg on a different scale, Sub Pop, Mass Appeal – I could go on and on. They are all very artist-centric companies. I feel the best ‘majors’ have taken a similar approach, be that Columbia, Interscope or elsewhere.
Obviously, I feel a real kinship with independent labels – we all come from the same place. But the barriers to entry in the market are so low now that management companies with resources are releasing records. And you’re seeing independent labels managing artists as well. I think you will see more and more of that.
The last No.1 single in America that was written solely by the artist performing it was Pharrell Williams’ Happy – five years ago. Do you have a view on co-writing?
So many of my clients singularly write – often my challenge is the opposite, actually. It’s me saying: ‘Hey, have you thought about working with this person?’ So I often come from a different perspective, where the idea of teaming the right writers feels interesting and creatively exciting.
“Generally speaking, I agree with something Jack White said early on: Great music usually isn’t a democracy.”
That said, I do find the extremes of this – the pop factories and writer camps – to be a bit boring and formulaic. However, that process works for some so I can’t be too critical. I just know what I like musically.
Generally speaking, I agree with something Jack White said early on: Great music usually isn’t a democracy.
How did you get your start in music?
I studied philosophy at Occidental College and environmental law at Vermont Law School and then worked in Washington DC, at a large consulting firm company specializing in foreign aid and international development. My younger brother Paul worked at a record label called Tim/Kerr Records, in Portland, Oregon, where I grew up.
They had the Dandy Warhols, Everclear, Poison Idea and released interesting collaborations with Kurt Cobain, Gus Van Sant and William Burroughs. It was very indie, very cool and very genuine. Because I was a lawyer, my brother or his colleagues would occasionally send me contracts marked up by opposing lawyers, asking questions: ‘We want to sign this band, their lawyer made these comments – can you tell me what cross-collateralization means?’ I had no clue.
“Coming up, I was lucky to have good mentors and/or people willing to be patient with me.”
I’d go to the Georgetown Law Library, dust off whatever music or copyright books I could find, look things up and then call them back. Long story short, eventually, a light went on in my head, like, ‘Wait – you can be a lawyer in the music business?’ At that point in my life, I was completely broke with student loans looming over my head. But the notion that I had nothing to lose really was liberating.
It’s very clichéd, but I decided to simply follow a dream: I moved to Los Angeles two weeks later, looked for any job I could in the music business and started my own music law practice, which was incredibly unsuccessful. I worked at Rick Rubin’s American Recordings as an assistant to Marc Geiger’s [now head of music at WME] assistant, as well as in their mail room.
One day, I was auditing a class at UCLA about music business contracts and Marc Geiger was the guest lecturer. He saw me and said, ‘Don’t you work in the mail room?’ And I said, ‘I’m actually an attorney.’ He invited me to come sit in his office, study the deals they were making, and was a great mentor.
Thereafter, I met Fred Davis, who was building a law firm. I became a partner [at what is now Davis, Shapiro, Lewit, et al] during the mid-’90s, and the firm became one of the largest in the world, focusing primarily on music law and entertainment. Fred gave me a lot of guidance as well as freedom; he ran a tight business and was a very good problem solver.
Coming up, I was lucky to have good mentors and/or people willing to be patient with me – too many to name. Now, I try to do the same in return. I make it a point to lecture at the same UCLA class I once took.
From there, how did you end up as the White Stripes manager?
I met Jack and Meg in 2001. I had gotten a phone call from Craig Aaronson, who has since sadly passed, because [Jack] had been signed to a record label and they weren’t being paid royalties.
Craig gave my number to Jack, I met with him and we had a lot in common: we both grew up in Catholic families, we had both been altar boys, and I became their attorney.
“Genius is an overused word these days; in Jack’s case, it’s wholly and completely accurate.”
Musically they were spellbinding; live, they were in a class of their own. What they were doing was so different. Jack has such a strong vision, and although genius is an overused word these days, in Jack’s case, it’s wholly and completely accurate.
About six months into the relationship, I knew I wanted to do more than just practice law and wanted to switch to management. I decided to ask Jack and Meg if I could be their manager.
How did that conversation go?
It’s funny, I was moving house a while ago and I found this notebook in which I had written out all of the reasons it made sense for me to manage Jack and Meg – it had diagrams, arrows, numbers and everything explained.
I sat with them in New York – I think they were playing the Mercury Lounge – and I was a bit nervous and said, ‘So, I want to propose something. I’d like to be your manager.’
I was prepared to give a whole speech, and they simply said, ‘Okay, sounds good.’ And that was it. I think we ordered food and talked about something else. They became my first client.
Why, when you were a successful lawyer, did you want to become a manager?
I loved my time lawyering and have huge respect for those who do it. It’s great training for the music business, understanding all the moving parts, because you get to see everything – when things work and when things don’t.
“Lawyering is about risk aversion, so you’re always searching for that one thing out of a hundred that could go wrong.”
That said, lawyering is also about risk aversion, so you’re always searching for that one thing out of a hundred that could go wrong. I felt that process was starting to dull my entrepreneurial brain.
Artist management, to me, is about finding that one thing out of a hundred that could work, and figuring out how you’re going to give it the best possible chance.
Where did your personal passion for music come from?
My mom knew a guy named Frank Zappa growing up in Chicago. This wasn’t the Frank Zappa, but because of that coincidence, her sister was at a record shop in the ‘70s and saw the Mothers of Invention album, We’re Only In It For The Money. She sent it to my mom.
So we had this album in the house that had a really interesting album cover, experimental compositions about politics and satire that I couldn’t really grasp as a nine-year-old. We’d listen to it over and over, along with the Beatles, and various jazz albums.
From then on, I always liked imaginative ‘outsider’ music that was different to the music listened to by my classmates. My brothers and I lived and breathed music. I remember bringing a Carlos Santana and Buddy Miles live album to Show & Tell when I was in fifth grade. It really confused the nuns at St. Pius X grade school.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Make time to not work. Be in the present. Unplug when you can. All easier said than done but, by the same token, it gives you valuable and important perspective.
I was looking back at an old photo the other day: I’m with the White Stripes in Brazil, in a canoe in the middle of the Amazon – and I’m sat with my head down, looking at my old school Blackberry. It’s frankly a depressing image.
Also, don’t be afraid to delegate; I have a great team of people around me. Other things I’ve learned: relationships last longer than any deal, be true to your word, protect your reputation.
Have you ever felt professionally betrayed by the music business?
Betrayal is strong word. This is a funny business and full of characters. What’s that alleged Hunter S. Thompson quote? “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench…”
“If you do this for any spell, you run into your opportunists and those challenged by the truth, but you keep a mental record of those people.”
If you do this for any spell, you run into your opportunists and those challenged by the truth, but you keep a mental record of those people and work around them. I certainly do.
If you could change anything about the music business, what would it be?
That music has value and intrinsic worth. I’m concerned many tech companies simply see music as adjacent ‘content’, a thing that helps sell something else – be it advertising, or what have you.
Music is fundamentally important to culture, to people, how we communicate and understand each other. It’s not disposable – nor are the artists who create it.
Why are you so averse to self-publicity and social media?
I’m not totally adverse or we wouldn’t be sitting here! I appreciate social media’s value – I have teams of staff focused on it. It’s flattened publicity, advertising and promotion in this business, without a doubt. But as it relates to me personally, no – it’s not my thing.
With the immediacy and accessibility of all information these days, mystique is becoming a bit of a precious commodity. I push that concept on my clients so – at least as far as it relates to me being in the public eye – I attempt to live it as well. Plus you have to keep feeding that [social media] beast; it’s insatiable.
I’d rather spend time with my family, friends, and dog. Every one of them is way more interesting than me anyway.
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