When Lucas Keller moved to L.A in 2009, having cut his music industry teeth in Chicago, he had dreams of making it big.
In the end, he did just that: Keller’s Milk & Honey is today one of the world’s pre-eminent songwriter, producer and DJ management companies, repping talent that’s created/co-created global hits for everyone from BTS to Lewis Capaldi, Ed Sheeran, Doja Cat, Selena Gomez and Dua Lipa.
Milk & Honey’s songwriter/producer roster includes talent including Jenna Andrews, Oak Felder, Jamie Hartman, J.White Did It, Stuart Price, Sir Nolan, David Hodges and many more. In addition, Milk & Honey also represents Triple-A sporting stars, and it hasn’t been left out of the music catalog acquisition goldrush, either: Keller recently told the Los Angeles Business Journal that his clients have sold over $100 million in publishing assets over the past two years.
But 12 years ago at LAX, fresh off that plane from Illinois, none of this was exactly mapped out. Keller began a four-year stint working at The Collective, a large-scale L.A talent business that brought together swathes of entrepreneurial young managers under one roof.
There, Keller was sandwiched between the offices of Linkin Park’s manager and Enrique Iglesias’s manager. Despite looking after talent as majestic as Jimmy Cliff and other legacy artists, Keller struggled to find professional fulfilment being a cog in someone else’s machine.
Yet, crucially, he says he wouldn’t have been able to build Milk & Honey and its impressive roster of writers/producers without putting his time in at The Collective.
“You learn so much of what to do, and also what not to do by working for other people along the way,” he says. This fact informs the first of Keller’s five points on his Manifesto for change in the music industry.
Each of these points is a rallying cry for the business to shake up prehistoric practices and to quash injustices that threaten the future prosperity of artists and songwriters. Keller founded Milk & Honey in 2014, operating initially from a desk in his then small apartment in Hollywood.
Today the company employs 28 people globally, across offices in L.A, New York, Nashville, Dallas, London, Amsterdam, and Sydney. Wisconsin-raised Keller’s perspective on the industry is a unique one. And, as his five-point Manifesto is about to prove, the man doesn’t hold his tongue. Over to Lucas…
1) A lack of executive mentorship – causing a culture of Gmail entrepreneurs
There are a lot of people with real businesses running around the industry today who’ve made it big with one client, a laptop and a Gmail account. But when I talk to these young executives, none of them seem to have any heroes on the business side of things.
They all have music heroes, but nobody has really studied the history of the music industry. Do these guys know who Ahmet Ertegun is, or David Geffen, Jon Landau, Clarence Avant, Miles Copeland? Do they look up to them?
Maybe some of them know who Irving Azoff is because he’s still working. But I believe to truly love and respect the fabric of this business, you have to learn the history of this business. Maybe I’m an oldster before my time [Keller is 37].
“There are a lot of people with real businesses running around the industry today who’ve made it big with one client, a laptop and a Gmail account. But when I talk to these young executives, none of them seem to have any heroes on the business side of things.”
But it just feels like there’s this culture of managers, especially in L.A, that started breaking one act, they don’t really have any training, and it can get tedious. I can’t tell you the amount of meetings I’ve sat in with ‘meaningful’ managers or executives and I’m sorry, but they’re just not that impressive in a room. Maybe that’s because they were never actually taught how to sell anything. Someone once said to me, ‘Keller, I think you just wish you were alive in the ‘70s and ‘80s music business,’ and maybe they’re right.
But what I know for sure is that with the stories and the history of those bygone days… there were much more impressive meetings and executives! Perhaps to be a brilliant manager today you only really have to understand digital and not worry so much about ‘performing’. But I tell you this: that makes you lackluster to be around.
I don’t blame these guys for that; what’s at fault is the complete lack of mentoring for new music business guys coming through. Some of my best mentors were people I was one office over from or guys that let me sit on their couch, just listening to their phone calls. And I definitely learned what not to do from some of the people I’ve worked with down the years.
That’s mentorship too; if you’ve worked with people who are bullies, or even colleagues or clients who were complicated to deal with, you can learn a huge amount from those experiences on how to carry yourself when you set up your own shop. We need to have executives willing to send the elevator back down. I remember the first time Linkin Park’s then-manager [Rob McDermott] – who I used to work for – sat down with me and said, ‘No Lucas, you’ve got it all wrong.
You’re going to call every single festival [booker] 90 days after their festivals close, and you’re going to work in reverse on a 24 month plan.’ As soon as I sat down and wrote that out, it really helped me create plans for the bands and artists I was managing, and I still use it as a system today. Any client at my company has a 24 month plan.
Too many managers are reactive instead of being proactive. I think we’re in a bit more of a selfish business now; people are just focused on their own shit. So for someone to sit down and say, ‘Okay, I’m going to help this younger executive…’, it’s much more of a rare thing.
2) Putting it all in the middle of the table
You have this disproportionate situation where the artists and labels are taking much more than the publishers and songwriters from streaming. That’s totally out of whack, and it’s something where I really appreciate the campaigning that Merck [Mercuriadis] is doing for songwriters being at the table when their own deals are made.
The big thing for me is that we also need to get all people to the table, and figure out, ‘Okay, how can we all share in this?’ Because it’s not just songwriters who are frustrated. In the US, a record label will be the first to tell you, ‘Wait, we spent all this money on radio promo, but we don’t get any share of your ASCAP and BMI checks?’
[In the States, radio plays result in a payment for songwriters via their PROs, but – unlike in Europe – artists get no performance royalties from such a broadcast.] So it’s like, well, okay, let’s have a conversation about it. Those [songwriter] checks are not small – BMI and ASCAP pay out over a billion dollars every year. But if we’re going to talk about sharing that with the labels, then let’s also have a conversation about what revenues are coming in their side that my clients deserve a cut of.
“There’s got to be a better way for everybody to share, where the labels don’t feel ripped off and neither do we.”
There’s these imperfect systems that have been going on for years, and it’s like: Why does this [model] need to continue to exist? I have one client who believes that if we don’t get songwriters at the table with the labels, and we don’t start to share our royalties with them [and vice-versa] in the next few years, then a rebalancing of the economics of this business will never happen.
I think that’s accurate. There’s got to be a better way for everybody to share, where the labels don’t feel ripped off and neither do we. While I’m on the subject of ‘imperfect systems’, by the way, the live business is on another level.
If you look at some of these old rules, these granular details of, say, how you settle a concert, the back-end promoter profit and expenses, just the nuanced way that world works, you think: These rules probably go back to vaudeville or something, or the very early days of touring. And you’re like, Who created this shit?
The ‘age old’ agents gouge the promoters, and then promoters lie on the settlement sheets; this stuff needs fixing. The music industry needs to start being less selfish and work as a team, and really share, with transparency.
3) ‘No conflict, no interest.’
For a while there, it seemed like nearly every senior label person I dealt with in the US had a side publishing company, or some other side hustle. And I was always amazed, because I was like: how is the business allowing this to happen? It’s mainly labels, but not just labels: I remember sitting down with one senior guy at a large publishing company, and realizing that all of the publishing executives reporting to him were also managing writers and producers on the side.
We’ve all gotten used to that kind of thing, but it’s a real slippery slope, and rarely ends up in favor of the writers and artists. The executives get motivated to think like: ‘Hmm, how do I get my people on this record?’ which becomes bad for the [writer] community. Also, somehow these execs seem to have this ability to skirt every exclusive employment agreement in California! But the real thing to touch on here, which nobody ever wants to touch on – and I’m not afraid to mention – is the three major music publishing CEOs. They have great salaries, nice titles, but each of them also wears a pair of golden handcuffs.
“I don’t know how they’re advocating for us our songwriters when the major publishers are owned by the companies who benefit from [the recorded side of the music industry] getting the majority of the money.”
I don’t know how they’re advocating for us our songwriters when the major publishers are owned by the companies who benefit from [the recorded side of the music industry] getting the majority of the money. The three heads of the biggest publishers should be the loudest people in the business fighting for songwriters to be paid more, and they’re not because everybody wants to keep their job.
There’s other specific things that get frustrating in that dynamic: I’ve had songwriters make records with a major publisher, and the artist [performing on the record] is also signed to that same publisher.
Then there’s some split dispute, and the publisher calls me or my team to try and muscle us because the other writer they have – the artist – is a bigger client for them than we are. And I’m like: ‘Huh? Are you our publisher? Or are you someone else’s publisher?’ In so many ways, so many times, people in this industry are conflicted. As a rule, at Milk & Honey we try to stay as unconflicted as a management company as possible.
That’s tough as you grow, but we believe there’s an ethical obligation there. We’ve created publishing ventures with a few of our bigger songwriters and producers, and that allows us as a company to own [shares of] publishing assets. We sold one of those publishing assets earlier this year, and were both a manager and a publisher in that case – which is a conflict if ever I heard one! So we didn’t take commission as a manager, and try to keep things as pure as possible.
4) Too much music… and 45 flavors of label services companies
One day, when I was bored, I wrote down all the distribution and artist/label services companies I could think of and I got to about 45. That could be everything from the simple turnkey, ‘we upload your songs’ guys, all the way to companies who say they offer all the services of a major record label. You know what I think of these companies? Booooring!
This whole sensationalist: ‘You’ve been getting robbed by the majors, we’re going to give you 85%! We’re going to let you keep your copyrights! We do 50/50 net deals!’ Wow, these guys do everything! Except that one thing: actually breaking artists. I love the model, I really do – we’re just not breaking stars in these systems. Let me be clear: I think it’s great that a very under-celebrated part of our industry – the successful artists who don’t belong on frontline major record labels – have options in the marketplace and partners to work with. I remember getting a call from Jeff Price the month he started TuneCore; it was an amazing concept.
This idea that distribution can become a fairly-priced commodity for no commission is very exciting. What I’m not excited about is label services companies hiring a lot of great staff, then signing way too many things and becoming companies that are all about aggregate, where there isn’t any service.
“There’s always an artist that wants the big advance, and there’s always a manager that wants their commission. And as we all know, major labels would much sooner give you extra money than really bend on the royalty rate.”
It’s become a bloated and uninteresting business. It’s a fantastic business for the owner, and it can be good if you’re a very proactive management company willing to do so much of the work. But the fact is, these services companies often aren’t great for the artist or the manager; because when [the services company] is taking such a slim slice of the revenues, they have to scale, so they sign hundreds of artists, in some cases thousands of artists, and that model – ‘we have 300 lackluster clients stuck in the middle of the business!’ – is very rarely where you want to find yourself.
The company that might win in that space, and there are more of them being born every day, is the one that says: ‘We’re going to have 10 or 20 artists, not 300; we’re going to stay boutique, we’re going to focus and spend properly on the artists we do sign, and we’re going to break stars.’ One great thing the [services] companies have done is to put continued pressure on the majors to do more competitive deals. But there’s a bit of a myth going on there too.
Yes, Taylor Swift has a sweetheart deal with Universal Music Group, but [young artists] are still going into those major companies and signing 16 or 17 point royalty deals today.
There’s more leverage in those negotiations than there used to be, definitely, and I’m thankful for it. But with every one of the very few independent artists that does break today, you watch them like: ‘They’re gonna stay independent! They’re gonna stay independent! Oh wait… they signed to a major.’ Because at some point, it’s always about the money.
I don’t see a whole lot of change in that paradigm coming. There’s always an artist that wants the big advance, and there’s always a manager that wants their commission. And as we all know, major labels would much sooner give you extra money than really bend on the royalty rate.
5) Songwriters are crying out for a leader
The lack of organization and leadership in the songwriter community today keeps causing all these fragmented groups, these fragmented movements, who are all advocating for their specific demands rather than really banding together. And then those fragments individually go up against the majors.
The majors can’t take these groups seriously if they’re not united. It’s a huge undertaking, but I’m passionate about the fact that all of us – songwriters, songwriter representatives – need to come together as one, and only then go in and have those difficult conversations with the major music companies.
Simply stated, songwriters need to get paid more, and should not be viewed so far down the value chain. There are [legal] issues around songwriters unionizing in California specifically, but there are still ways we could come together.
“There are some great people in the US songwriting community who are really collaborative, and then there are others who I think are really lazy, and/or just focused on their day job.”
But it needs to include everybody; I’ve heard too many conversations that go, ‘I tried to bring everyone together but these 20 people didn’t show up…’ We’ve had it as a company; we represent a lot of songwriters and a lot of producers, and there have been times when I haven’t gotten the call about a certain songwriter issue because people have tagged me as a ‘producer manager’ and go, ‘You can’t advocate for the songwriters if you’re also advocating for producers.’ Bullshit. I’m advocating for fairness.
There are some great people in the US songwriting community who are really collaborative, and then there are others who I think are really lazy, and/or just focused on their day job. We need the community as a whole to take this seriously before it’s too late. This is the beauty of the Hollywood [film & TV] Writers’ Guild.
In L.A last year, just on a random Tuesday, you read: ‘Writers all fire their agents.’ And you’re like, wow, this is really powerful! And then everyone came back to the table and made a better deal for Hollywood’s writers. In music, nobody in this space, singularly, is powerful enough to go up against the majors. But together? If the majors find out their hits are going to run dry? No more big songs? That’s a different conversation. It’s a levy that will soon break, I do believeMusic Business Worldwide