MBW’s World’s Greatest Managers series profiles the best artist managers in the global business. This time out we talk to Lucas Keller, whose L.A-headquartered Milk & Honey is celebrating its 10th year in business. 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.
To most of the 10 million-plus people who’ve played it, the 30-year-old video game Doom is nothing more than a bit of pixelated fun.
A cartoonishly violent early ‘90s FPS complete with chainsaws, rocket launchers, and a dash of demonic imagery, it’s essentially the Alice Cooper of interactive entertainment.
But for Lucas Keller, founder of Milk & Honey Management, Doom represents something else: his first semi-serious step into entrepreneurialism.
“I was the richest kid in school!” Keller laughs, explaining that, aged just 11, he began coding ‘modded’ levels for Doom in MS-DOS. He would then send these levels into Doom creator iD Software, via a 5-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disk; the company would pay Keller for his creations, and include them in semi-official Doom ‘expansion packs’.
“I was a nerd in school, loved RPGs and video games, and cranked those levels out,” Keller explains. “They paid me a bunch for ‘em.”
Keller has been successfully converting his passion for art and entertainment into thriving ventures ever since. And in music – especially in the world of songwriter and producer management – he’s done so on an exceptional scale.
Wisconsin-raised Keller’s Milk & Honey, founded in 2013, is currently celebrating its tenth anniversary. Its enviable client list, anchored in the world of songwriters and producers, has contributed to some of the streaming age’s biggest global smashes – including Dua Lipa’s Levitating, BTS’s Butter, Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee & Justin Bieber’s Despacito, and James Arthur’s Say You Won’t Let Go.
In its tenth year in business, the company has already been involved with hits from artists like Travis Scott, Doja Cat, Charli XCX, Morgan Wallen, Doechii, and more.
With an HQ in Los Angeles and offices in London, New York, Nashville, Sydney, and Dallas, Milk & Honey’s 125-strong client list today includes songwriter/producers like David Hodges, Oak Felder, Andres Torres, Mauricio Rengifo, Y2K, Noah Goldstein, Jenna Andrews, J White Did It, Jamie Hartman, and Stuart Price.
M&H also runs a thriving DJ/artist business, repping hit-making global DJs like Oliver Heldens and Benny Benassi, plus a more underground roster featuring Chris Avantgarde, Giolì & Assia, HI-LO and Massano.
In 2021 it launched a new division, Milk & Honey Sports, that now reps over 20 athletes in the NFL, plus over 15 players in the MLB.
Keller is still only 39, but he’s chalked up a rare level of experience in the blockbuster music industry.
A few years after designing those Doom levels, Keller turned his coding expertise to the entertainment biz: In college, he designed software that enabled talent agencies to manage their itineraries and deal sheets – before licensing it to a number of prominent companies in the US live business.
From there, he moved into talent management by working with Steve Hutton, best known as Kid Rock’s first manager, in Illinois.
Keller moved to L.A in 2009 and joined The Collective, which at the time managed megastars such as Kanye West and Linkin Park. Keller’s roster at The Collective included Evanescence’s David Hodges – a staple songwriter client at Milk & Honey today – plus the late Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots, reggae legend Jimmy Cliff, and others
In addition to this industry pedigree and a thriving 10-year-old management shop, Lucas Keller has one other big thing going for him as a World’s Greatest Managers interviewee: T-rex-sized opinions.
Below, you can enjoy a number of said opinions tumbling out into our Q&A – including Keller’s thoughts on why the major music companies “really run this town”, why “Gmail managers” are clogging up the music business, and why he thinks it’s high time for the industry to end the “work-from-home bullshit…”
I know you have lots of strong opinions to share on the wider business, but first I want to ask you about Milk & Honey itself, and the way you ensure your US and UK offices – and other international offices – collaborate in developing your writers and artists.
When you study how A&R works in the big music companies – whether that’s a publisher, a record company, or a talent agent – you learn that, structurally, those executives don’t share the money with one another. Especially if they work in different territories.
I’ve met a number of big songwriters or producers in the UK now who are like, ‘I came to LA for a few years but it didn’t really work out for me.’ And it’s like, oh, let me guess, that’s because you’re signed in the UK, so the L.A. person at your publisher set you up with a few D-list sessions because they weren’t incentivized to help you. That to me suggests these companies haven’t figured out how to share the wealth properly.
When people bring opportunities to your company, you have to give your individual people upside if they push those opportunities to [clients/signings] in the building who aren’t their own and have success. Otherwise [individual managers/A&Rs] are just going to push their own signings towards those opportunities.
“We’re at 35 people now, we’ll be at 50 by the end of the next year, and those people all work incredibly closely together.”
If there’s an opportunity that’s perfect for a red client, and you personally only represent blue and green – but the guy or girl down the hall represents red – it’s ridiculous to ruin that opportunity for the red client because it doesn’t work for you personally.
At Milk & Honey, we don’t work that way. We don’t cap what our people can earn when they bring in a song opportunity or a big placement for a client who’s looked after by someone down the hall – or looked after by someone over the Atlantic, for that matter.
When there is a win, we’re going to look after the person who brought in the opportunity, and not just the manager of record. We’ve built a culture where people work in teams, and really want to help each other – in the old cliché, it takes a village.
That’s had a profound impact on the quality of opportunities we’ve secured for our clients in multiple territories, both in and outside of the US. We’re at 35 people now, we’ll be at 50 by the end of the next year, and those people all work incredibly closely together. We will not keep execs around who don’t buy into our culture, no matter how big their clients are.
Let’s talk about some industry issues, starting with the number of songwriters I’m seeing on pop tracks in the charts. Does that have an economic impact on your business and your clients?
It helps me none to drag the A&R community through the mud – there are some great A&R executives out there. But when there’s an issue, I don’t mind speaking out about it.
Without mentioning names, there is now a culture in the US pop music business of A&R people that, for whatever reason, take a song and pass it around like a blunt. So you end up with 10 writers, 12 writers, on a song that was already really [complete] a while ago.
If you’re a major publisher, and your [writers combined] are getting 40% of that [12-writer pie] then maybe you can live with it. But an individual writer getting 5%? That isn’t a business. Our clients can’t work for free.
“There has become a culture in the US pop music business of A&R people that, for whatever reason, take a song and pass it around like a blunt.”
Where it gets worse is when the person who puts the record out [as a record company A&R] also has a publishing company on the side. You’re then not just dealing with two producers and a handful of writers; that [record company exec] is also going to bring in three more writers who are signed to their [‘side’ pubco] and it’s going to get out of hand.
By the end of it, any real money anyone could have made is so diluted. Songwriters have enough issues against them today – we shouldn’t be hurting them more as a business with this bullshit.
Then you look at, say, a stunning Adele song, an evergreen, and you see it’s got two writers on it. And then you hear some milquetoast, copycat pop song that has 14 writers on it. And it’s like: something is very wrong here.
You think that ‘side-hustle’ scenario of a record company A&R with their own publishing company is a cause of that situation?
It doesn’t help!
Man, if I ran these big companies, I’d tell those guys: ‘So, as a reminder, seeing as we pay you hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, you have an exclusive employment agreement. So knock it off with managing that guy on the side, or having a side publishing company.’
If you’re getting paid a second time [for a record release] via your publishing company, you’re just siphoning money off the company that employs you to do a job.
One thing you’ve talked to MBW about before is your view that the ambition might have gone out of talent management – and that there’s not enough reverence for the industry’s ‘golden gods’ who built vast empires in music. Do you still feel that way?
Yes. It’ll make me sound like an oldster, even though I’m 39. But when I talk to younger managers, south of 28 or whatever, there’s a lack of regard for any history, or those that came before – Azoff, Geffen, Landau, you name it.
My GM and business partner, Nic [Warner], says it to me all the time: ‘Lucas, it’s great you care about [the history of legends in the business] but it’s important for you to know that the next generation doesn’t care half as much.’ And I get it.
But at the same time, I’m better because I paid attention to mentors – I heard what they were saying on the phone, saw how they dealt with clients – and I was also receptive to the stories about people who did amazing pioneering things in this business.
“Between that and this modern work-from-home bullshit, it makes me worry about the future – a generation of under-guided, unambitious, unexciting managers. Because that’s bad for everyone, especially artists.”
I guess ultimately I’m concerned we’re going to have a mentoring gap. Especially when it comes to these ‘Gmail managers’ with one client, who become what they think is independently wealthy, but who then see their star client dump them and leave them in the wilderness. And then they come to a company like ours looking for a job with no client to offer, and no experience of not working on their own.
Between that and this modern work-from-home bullshit, it makes me worry about the future – a generation of under-guided, unambitious, unexciting managers. Because that’s bad for everyone, especially artists.
Sorry: Work-from-home bullshit?
Listen, Covid happened. We closed. We got vaccinated. I believe the science.
Since then, in a lot of ways, we’ve seen a seismic change in the way we all work, and I can appreciate the benefits of Zoom and all of it.
“I’m a pro-office guy, and I don’t mind who knows it.”
But there were some things that worked just fine before the pandemic, and office space was one of them. We’re just about to sign another 10-year lease on our LA office next month. We’re not going anywhere.
I’m a pro-office guy, and I don’t mind who knows it. There are 22 people in our LA office right now, it’s a really good vibe; people can just walk into somebody else’s office and get something done in five minutes that otherwise would have been lost on an email chain somewhere.
There’s been a lot of talk in the music business recently about streaming fraud and AI-made music. What’s your take?
We’re not far away from the day we have a million songs a day uploaded to streaming services, most of which are generated by AI. And I can get the argument that [this flood of AI music] doesn’t matter, because ‘ultimately people are going to gravitate towards the Ed Sheeran song’.
But over time, we’re going to become so inundated with that music, it’s inevitable that it’s going to take away from the higher-quality, premium contemporary music business. We need to fix that now before the roof falls in.
“We need to fix it now before the roof falls in.”
As for the streaming fraud side of it, my view is really that the major DSPs, when it comes down to it, have very little control over anything in music. The three guys who run the major music companies really run this whole town. That’s true as of today, anyway.
We’re all looking to them to agree on a strategy for fraudulent streaming, figure out where it’s coming from, and shut it down.
If you ran a major record company tomorrow, what problem would you focus on fixing and why?
Here’s a statistic that I put together before this call: 75% of Milk & Honey releases – tracks on which we have a writer – do not have approved writer and publishing splits agreed and approved before they are released.
How about that? It’s pretty out of control.
What’s causing that problem?
One of the biggest culprits is disorganization, and inexperienced managers don’t help.
Another big culprit, obviously, is record companies delivering things [to streamers] without having everything finished. That’s why you get incomplete credits on Spotify – it’s not all Spotify’s fault!
And then some of it is deliberate and devious: Artists and their managers waiting till the bitter end for leverage to try and get as big [a songwriting share for the performer] as possible.
They think the writers will always cave when they ask for some egregious amount of publishing – once the horse has bolted – for their artists who wrote nothing on the track.
“some of it is deliberate and devious: Artists and their managers waiting till the bitter end for leverage to try and get as big [a songwriting share for the performer] as possible.”
It’s terrible. That leverage, [testing the idea] that no songwriter wants to upset the artist relationship, is a real thing.
It’s in those situations we as a company don’t make any friends, because the labels know that if it comes to it we’re willing to refuse the mechanical license and get the song taken down.
It’s like, ‘Really, guys? You’re gonna take Big Artist X’s song down?’ And we’re like, ‘Yes, absolutely. We’re going to take that song off the DSP and you can start again at zero streams, unless our writer gets what they’ve worked for.’
You’ve told me before that Milk & Honey makes/recovers a multi-seven-figure amount each year just from auditing.
I’m glad you mentioned this: it’s boring stuff, but it’s important stuff. And what’s really important is all the people out there not doing it who should be.
I had never done an audit until 12 years ago, when I did one for a client with the business manager Gary Haber, who was loved by all and sadly passed away.
Every single audit I’ve ever done since – and every time we finish one, we start another – we’ve recovered money for clients. They’re painful, and they take a long time. But some of the sums we’ve recovered have been hugely significant.
“I’m not going to say any of the actions that [cause due money to go missing] are intentional on the part of the audited party. Let’s just say, to keep the peace, that mistakes happen.”
I’m not going to say any of the actions that [cause due money to go missing] are intentional on the part of the audited party. Let’s just say, to keep the peace, that mistakes happen.
This is where having a proper management company with a bunch of experts who’ve been around the block, who know how money gets skimmed, and who know where that money can be located, comes in helpful – as opposed to relying on the ‘Gmail manager’ fixing the plane as they fly it.
I can’t interview someone so prominent in the world of songwriting and publishing without asking about what’s going on at BMI. They’ve gone FOR-PROFIT, they’re in discussions – WE HEAR – with a New York private equity company for a potential sale, and they’re under fire from songwriter groups, who ARE ASKING, in essence, whether BMI’s future profits shouldn’t be going to songwriters. What’s your take?
Judging by the typical reaction out there I guess I’m supposed to jump down BMI’s throat, but that’s not what I’m going to do.
It’s no secret that Milk & Honey has put a lot of stuff with BMI over the years, just as we have all the PROs. So I want to make something clear: I answer to the songwriters – I don’t answer to private equity, or to any corporation. I don’t answer to BMI, just like I don’t answer to Sony or Universal.
I’ve had a lot of conversations with Michael [O’Neill] down the years, and recently as well. I’ve talked to great minds in our section of the business like [David Israelite] and Bart Herbison on this topic. And my conclusion is, it’s just too early to know.
“What do we know about private equity deals? As soon as you’ve done them, those guys are typically in your building trying to cut margin. But Mike O’Neill also knows that if the first thing he does [post-potential-sale] is to try and take from the songwriters, everybody will leave anyway. So I can’t believe that’s his strategy.”
I was supportive of BMI’s move to become a for-profit company last year. There’s a lot we still don’t know about the motivations to sell. But I think it would be tacky for anyone to rush in and make accusations.
We’ll have questions for them, for sure, and we’ll scrutinize. But I’ve told [clients] who’ve already asked me about leaving BMI: If you want to leave, it’s easy to leave. These are one-to-two-year agreements, and ASCAP will be happy to have you.
What do we know about private equity deals? As soon as you’ve done them, those guys are typically in your building trying to cut margin. But Mike O’Neill also knows that if the first thing he does [post-potential-sale] is to try and take from the songwriters, everybody will leave anyway. So I can’t believe that’s his strategy.
What is his strategy?
Right now, who knows? But if you look at Mike O’Neill’s track record, that guy has crushed it for songwriters year after year, more and more.
I’ll keep learning and watching, but we’re not running out of the building in a panic. BMI has done too much good work for our clients for me to assume they’re suddenly going to become a not-good-place for songwriters. If they do, we’ll have that conversation then – not before.
Also, and this isn’t said enough, being not-for-profit can confine you. It’s all very well saying ‘we’re the last guys who do business this way – we’re sticking to our old-school values!’. But you can go out of business with that attitude.
“It’s all very well saying ‘we’re the last guys who do business this way – we’re sticking to our old-school values!’. But you can go out of business with that attitude.”
I suspect BMI had to make this change to be more nimble and so they could actually survive long-term. If down the line they’re stronger as a for-profit, but songwriters are getting paid more than they are today, then great.
The PROs, as you know, face a huge number of issues in the years ahead of us, not least if the publishers manage to go direct on their licensing to digital services. That one law change in the [US] Consent Decrees could change everything.
I suspect BMI is looking at how some of this might play out and they’re thinking, ‘Okay, we can’t stay in that old model – because then we risk going extinct.’
You built Milk & Honey on songwriters and producers. You then moved into working with DJ/artists. And more recently you’ve expanded into representing sports stars. Why weren’t songs enough?
Because it’s more exciting to be a multi-platform entertainment company than just do one thing.
Songs will always be the backbone of our business, and we still operate around the songwriting business for most of our day.
We’ve also invested in expanding into other areas like the song rights brokerage business [Milk & Honey says it was at the center of over $150 million-worth of song rights sales during the pandemic].
“It’s not a bad thing to look up to Roc Nation, or to look up to CAA, and the amazing businesses these great people have built.”
I’d hate for people to say, ‘Oh Milk & Honey just used the song business to get to that next place.’ That’s not what we’re doing at all; it’s more like a layer cake. It’s adding things to a foundation that we will never abandon.
Our writer/producer business is actually cranking up right now, and we’re committing more and more resources to it – it would be crazy to turn our back on it. But we’re ambitious, and we’re hiring tons of people to increase resources in all of these areas.
It’s not a bad thing to look up to Roc Nation, or to look up to CAA, and the amazing businesses these great people have built.
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.Music Business Worldwide