Martin Kierszenbaum on working with Sting, streaming’s impact on A&R, and why he’s a music biz optimist

MBW’s World’s Greatest Managers series profiles the best artist managers in the global business. This time out, we catch up with Martin Kierszenbaum, who via his Cherrytree Music Company manages artists including Sting and Shaggy. 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.

What’s your dream job in the music industry? The producer of a global smash hit album, perhaps? Martin Kierszenbaum’s done that.

What about being a major label exec that discovers and/or develops a multitude of stars? Kierszenbaum’s done that too – from Lady Gaga to LMFAO, t.A.T.u, Feist, and Enrique Iglesias, all of whom he worked with during a 17-year tenure at Interscope Records (initially in international marketing and then later in A&R).

Here’s another doozy of a career path: Launching and growing your own independent music powerhouse. Yep, Kierszenbaum’s done that too: 100% independent, Kierszenbaum’s The Cherrytree Music Company today houses a record label, a music publishing company, and the group’s central lynchpin – a highly successful artist management arm.

Okay, last dream job possibility: Managing a megastar with whom you build a special and trusted rapport over multiple decades? Again, check: Kierszenbaum has managed Sting since 2016 (following the retirement of the artist’s long-time manager Kathy Schenker) but has worked with the legendary singer/songwriter in various capacities for 31 years.

“I’ve seen Sting in all sorts of contexts during our time working together,” says Kierszenbaum, who first began working with the artist as his international publicist at A&M in 1991. “He’s a gracious, generous, hugely talented, and very disciplined individual.”

He’s also highly prolific: In the past 10 years, Sting has released five studio albums including The Last Ship (2013), 57th & 9th (2016), My Songs (2019), and The Bridge (2021), plus the Grammy-winning 44/876 (2018) with Shaggy.

Four of those records were produced or co-produced by Kierszenbaum, connecting the California-born entrepreneur with his very first love: Making music.

In addition to co-writing and/or co-producing a number of classic pop records across the last 30 years (including Lady Gaga’s The Fame album and t.A.T.u’s All The Things She Said), Kierszenbaum studied piano growing up and graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A in music theory. (He also holds a Master’s Degree from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.) Kierszenbaum continues to create music in the studio, recently releasing a collaboration with rapper Piper, How To Walk Like A Man.

These days, however, it’s fair to say Kierszenbaum’s most high-profile role at Cherrytree is that of artist manager, not only to Sting, but also artists such as Shaggy, Mike Einziger from Incubus and tex-mex rock/pop band The Last Bandoleros (who, a few weeks before we sat down for the following interview, performed live on Good Morning America).

Here, MBW asks Kierszenbaum about his approach to A&R, navigating the modern streaming world as a manager, and artists selling their songwriting catalogs, amongst other subjects…

You have a BA in music theory and continue to be a professional musician. Do you think a true understanding of music matters for executives in artist development?

For me, it’s integral to be able to speak both languages: the language of music-making, and the language of music business. It allows you to convey your point of view with the right nomenclature to [an artist]. I can say: ‘I feel there might be an issue with this song,’ without then having to say ‘because it’s too prickly’ or ‘because it’s too blue’ or something like that. I can say, ‘In the pre-chorus, I think we could use a leading tone to the modulation,’ etc.

On the other side, you have to be able to translate an artist’s vision to be understood in a marketing meeting, where [otherwise] some people might be bewildered. That’s all interwoven with our philosophy at Cherrytree – we’re a very musician-led company. That has a lot to do with my background: my sister is a musician, and I learned piano from eight years old. My piano teacher in our neighborhood was fantastic; I’m very grateful to Mrs. Green.

You’ve been involved in the discovery and launch of a number of global superstars. What do you make of the argument that streaming is killing off the opportunity to launch superstars today?

That’s a ‘chicken or egg’ question. Because you could definitely posit the argument you mention. But you could also say that it’s not down to streaming – it’s not
the format. It’s the fact that people [working in music] are relying too much on readily available empirical information
to make decisions about investment into artists.

Sure, you can put together a record on an iPad now and upload it, and it’ll probably sound pretty good. That accessibility of distribution [creates] a lot more competition. But at the same time, if you’re a super-talented person from almost any walk of life, you can get access to equipment, and distribution to allow yourself to be heard.

“I don’t think there’s a scarcity of talent out there.”

I don’t think there’s a scarcity of talent out there. It might be made a little bit more opaque because of the volume that comes out, but I still think the cream rises to the top. That case is supported by the fact that some big, really interesting global superstars have been created in this era: Bad Bunny, Dua Lipa, Billie Eilish, Lil Nas X.
They’re all important, culture-changing artists.

I’m more inclined to suggest that people in gatekeeping positions are maybe leaning on empirical data too often instead of using some instinct.

Are those gatekeepers sufficiently incentivized to take risks in A&R?

Good question: or are they actively disincentivized? If you take a chance without empirical support today, you are hanging your neck out there, man.

In the environments I was lucky enough to work in, there was ample room for instinct. But now I think everybody’s looking for exact empirical information that shows that [a track] is going to be a hit. That’s okay, except it changes the dynamics. There are huge bidding wars, the checks are massive, and that puts tons of pressure on the artists, not to mention the A&R people.

[As a result] maybe artists aren’t allowed to develop their musical instincts as much. I’m not even sure if that [data-led approach to signing] engenders any more success; you could argue it’s generally less successful than hiring people who have an A&R instinct, a compass or a barometer based on experience.

You worked under Jimmy Iovine at Interscope and had a close relationship. Does the record business miss that kind of talisman, or is the next generation keeping up?

Jimmy is extraordinary: that’s what the scoreboard says and that’s what I felt about him. It was a lot of fun to work with him, especially musically; he gave great advice, had great instincts, and supported me on a lot of real curveball initiatives that I brought in. I’m grateful to him for that.

Are there other Jimmys? No, but there weren’t other Jimmys when Jimmy was at Interscope, either. Is there another Berry Gordy? No. Another Herb [Alpert] and Jerry [Moss]? No. But I’m positive there are new people coming through that are extraordinary in their own era. I’m not working with him, but my mind goes to Ron Perry or Tunji [Balogun], who I really admire.

I’m sure there are others. Like Jimmy, these people are so passionate about working in music, they would have been willing to do it for free.

Who gave you the best ever advice about the music biz?

The day I started at Warner Brothers Records in 1989, in Burbank at that beautiful ski lodge building, a gentleman by the name of Lou Dennis came up to me – he was the head of sales. He was one of the people around Mo [Ostin], these Knights of the Round Table at arguably the best record label ever.

Lou walked up to me, and he goes, ‘Welcome to the record business, kid; you missed the heyday.’ It was said in his sarcastic, very wise way, and it was funny. But I still think about it nearly every day, because I’ve since been able to have a long career, support my family, have hits, and I’ve still survived to work with some amazing artists today. My point is: the music business is constantly changing.

So even though some people might tell you ‘it used to be like this or that’, you just have to fight, carve out your own path, and make your own heyday.

Kierszenbaum with Sting and Shaggy in L.A

Looking at the modern music business from a manager’s perspective, are you more excited or more skeptical about the future?

I believe in music, I believe in artists; I am optimistic. That’s something built into my personality that’s allowed me to persevere through some arduous times, and I’m grateful for it.

There are all sorts of innovations to be excited about today. Sting just did a song for a show called Arcane, a show on Netflix [spun out of the League Of Legends video game]; the animation is unbelievable. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a company outside the music community that loves and prioritizes music as much as Riot Games [the maker of Arcane / League Of Legends]. I was super impressed.

Season one was a huge hit and won an Emmy – and Sting sings the finale song. So there’s innovation happening in this business every day, especially when you’re lucky enough to be around an artist like Sting, who’s constantly challenging and curious.

Sting recently SOLD A BUNDLE OF RIGHTS to Universal for a nine-figure sum, continuing a trend that’s dominated music biz headlines for the past couple of years. Is the catalog sale boom a healthy thing for songwriters more generally?

It’s a very personal decision to sell your copyrights. These are things that you invented or even channeled from someplace, depending on how you see it. What might make sense for somebody at a certain juncture in their career may not make sense at all for somebody at a different juncture.

I know it may sound crazy, given the amounts that are flying around and all the stakes, but I really think it comes down to this: How will you feel tomorrow, when you don’t own your copyrights or your royalty streams or whatever it is? If the answer is ‘I’ll feel worse’, it’s a non-starter.

I work to make sure my clients [in that situation] are considering whether the deal they’re considering makes sense for them and their family, and if they’re emotionally ready to do it.

I was recently speaking to a friend of mine, a successful songwriter with some big hits who’s not part of [Cherrytree] and he said: ‘I’m not going to sell. I have a house, my kids are okay, I don’t need to live beyond my means. And to be honest I just love getting a royalty statement every three months; it makes me feel like I’ve done something in my life.’

An impromptu writing session with Sting on the plane

Why pick Universal as the buyer for Sting’s stellar song catalog?

That’s an easy answer: We know Universal very well, they’ve marketed and distributed Sting’s masters for some time, and they treat him with respect. Plus it’s a company whose core business is music.

Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of interested parties. I’m not saying every [price offered] was equal, but, for the most part, they all realized the value of a catalog that is an absolute gem. And what it actually came down to was knowing that music is the No.1 priority for [Universal], and knowing the history of how they’ve treated the artist.

“Jody [Gerson] wrote the most beautiful, eloquent letter to Sting… Genuinely, that [letter] was just as important as any of the other stuff.”

Lucian [Grainge] treated Sting with a lot of respect, as did Jody [Gerson]. Jody wrote the most beautiful, eloquent letter to Sting and me. It discussed the emotional side of having the great honor to work his extraordinary catalog. Genuinely, that [letter] was just as important as any of the other stuff.

If you could change one thing about the music business right here and now, what would it be and why?

I’d want songwriters and artists to get paid more of the pie. That’s it. That has to be the No.1 priority. I wish they were getting a bigger percentage of streaming and digital consumption. It needs to be recalibrated.

Are you indicating that more should be paid out in the first place?

No. I’m saying a bigger percentage of proceeds from the actual consumption should go to the artist than it does today.

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

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