With over 30 years in management looking after some of the biggest acts in the world, Merck Mercuriadis knows a thing or two about how to achieve a successful partnership with artists.
Over the course of his career, the exec has worked with Elton John, Nile Rodgers, Iron Maiden, Guns N’ Roses, Morrissey and Beyonce.
Ahead of his next venture, Mercuriadis shared his five golden rules for good artist management with the audience at the inaugural London edition of FastForward conference a few months back – and it makes for fascinating reading.
Mercuriadis entered the music business in the ’80s at Richard Branson’s Virgin Records, during the rise of Simple Minds, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and UB40.
While working for a record label, he realised his destiny lay elsewhere.
“I went into the company believing that I worked for the artist, but when I saw the trials and tribulations of artists making records and trying to get everyone on the label to understand what they were trying to do, I realised that I wasn’t working for the artist – I was working for Richard Branson,” Mercuriadis explained.
“Even though there was a certain amount of alignment with the artist, ultimately, Richard wanted to make money.
“Artists want to make money, but the great ones first and foremost want to ensure that they are able to deliver to the world their vision of what a great record, or a great stage show would be.”
“Artists also want to make money, but the great ones first and foremost want to ensure that they are able to deliver to the world their vision of what a great record, or a great stage show would be.”
So Mercuriadis called Iron Maiden managers Rod Smallwood and Andy Taylor, told them he wanted to work with them, and the trio created Sanctuary Records.
After success with a huge roster of high profile artists, including those mentioned above, the firm hit financial trouble in the mid 2000s and was bought by Universal in 2007 for £44.5 million.
Since then, Mercuriadis has been working in LA with songwriters including Diane Warren and The Dream.
He still manages Nile Rodgers, and has four new acts ready to be launched via various major labels soon.
You might have read Mercuriadis’ name in the news recently after announcing plans to float his songwriting fund, Hipgnosis Songs, on the London Stock Exchange.
That’s tied into his belief about the future value of song catalogues, which will rocket thanks to streaming.
The other motivation for floating Hipgnosis Songs is to start a company that will have serious negotiating power to demand better royalty rates for writers as it grows in market value.
For now though, Mercuriadis is talking about his wealth of management experience, covering the thorny issue of remuneration, the true meaning of innovation and how to make good decisions.
We’ll start, however, with a cautionary tale involving a mighty storm, fallen trees and Bryan Ferry.
1. Accept the responsibility, fully
When I was a young manager there was somebody that I really respected who was one of the biggest managers in the world at that time.
He ended up in a scenario where, amongst his illustrious clients, he was managing Bryan Ferry.
I walked up to him one day and said, ‘Listen, how is it going with Bryan?’ He said, ‘I quit.’
It was around October 1987 when a huge storm had hit London and a tree had fallen on Bryan’s house.
The manager said, ‘He called me up at 2am and asked me what I was going to do about it. I have no interest in doing anything at 2am with a tree on Bryan Ferry’s house so I quit.’
I’m the guy who is going to be there doing my best to get that tree off your house.
I can’t play the guitar, I can’t sing the songs, so the only thing that gives me a seat at the table is by being as useful as I can possibly can be.
“You have to be willing to kill for everyone that you work with. You have to be willing to give them the same access, love and care that you would give your children.”
You have to be willing to kill for everyone that you work with.
You have to be willing to give them the same access, love and care that you would give your children.
2. Put the career first
The era of music that I came into was what I call the era of the artist.
Ninety per cent of the artists that you signed wrote their own songs, had a really good idea of who they were and who they might become, what their album cover or stage show should look like and what politics and causes they should be involved with.
It was very much an integrity driven business.
When we sold Sanctuary to Universal, I could see the business changing from the era of the artist to the era of the song.
Ninety per cent of the artists that are being signed today are talented kids that just want to be famous. The fame is more important than the song or the message.
“Ninety per cent of the artists that are being signed today are talented kids that just want to be famous.”
This new era means that there are once again more Svengalis in this business but that is not management, that is just taking advantage of opportunities.
I’m not interested in that, I’m interested in being in business with great artists and that means supporting their vision.
Whenever an opportunity comes across the table, and it doesn’t matter where that comes from, I’m going to consider it.
There are opportunities that might be good for the song or the album, but aren’t good for the career.
There are opportunities that have no affect on the song or the album that can be really enhancing to the career.
So when it comes to making decisions, I look at everything from a career perspective.
Nothing is ever going to be more important than that—you can have a song or an album that doesn’t happen and still have a great career.
3. Fight for a slice of the payment pie
Remuneration wise, I always get 20% of the gross.
I also do something that’s quite unusual which is to insist payment perpetuity on the work or the product that I participate in.
That belief comes from the fact that, for example, if an artist goes into the recording studio and there is one person that they do a one off song with, that person is going to get paid a royalty perpetuity on that one song.
I believe the role that I play should be treated the same.
If I sign artists to a four album deal at a record company, I’m not asking to be paid perpetuity for all four albums under that deal.
But if I made two of those albums, marketed them and everything else that goes along with those albums being successful, I want to get my royalty forever the same way the artist, the producer and the record company does.
It might not be as big a share of the pie, but I should continue to get that.
I don’t care so much about the term if an artist doesn’t like working with me a few years down the line. I want people to be happy and I want artists to have some flexibility, within reason.
“the one thing I’m not flexible about is not getting paid for a product that I worked on and I would encourage all those that want to be managers to take a similar position.”
But the one thing I’m not flexible about is not getting paid for a product that I worked on.
I would encourage all those that want to be managers to take a similar position.
Lawyers don’t like it because there is not enough of a precedent for it.
It’s something that, even with my success and experience, I have to really fight for but it’s possible—nothing ventured, nothing gained
4. Tread your own path
One of the greatest unsung managers of our business is Rod Smallwood.
He was the guy that did whatever was necessary for Iron Maiden to win.
He never once flinched when it came to what the band believed in.
“If you’re going to be a manager you have to ensure that you don’t need your opinion to be validated by somebody else.”
If you’re going to be a manager you have to ensure that you don’t need your opinion to be validated by somebody else.
Have the same strength of belief in artists that Rod had in Iron Maiden, Elliot Roberts had in Neil Young and Jon Landau had with Bruce Springsteen.
It goes against the grain of everything that is going on in this business because you don’t want to be doing what is happening right now, you want to be doing what is next.
That requires tremendous disciple, having the mental free time to be able to seriously consider what opportunities are in front of you and to be able to visualise and believe in what you want to do with that artist.
One of the most important things I do with artists is to spend a tremendous amount of time listening.
Sometimes I’m thinking it would be so easy to jump in right now and say, ‘Stop this nonsense, here is what we need to do’.
But if I did that they wouldn’t feel as if they were being heard, and I wouldn’t be able to react to them with sound advice in a way that was credible and in a way that they would listen to.
Hearing what is important to them is a massive part of the equation.
“Our job as managers isn’t to do what we want to do, it’s to do what the artist wants to do.”
You need to be incredibly communicative with your artist to the point where you’re not relying on what they’re telling you, but you are relying on their conduct.
When you’re talking to people, people are telling you what they think you want to hear, or what they think the record company wants to hear.
Their conduct when they are away from that discussion gives you a real indication of what is important to them or not.
Our job as managers isn’t to do what we want to do, it’s to do what the artist wants to do.
Our job is to facilitate their vision for themselves and to help bring it to fruition.
Merck Mercuriadis pictured at FastForward with Ellie Giles of Various Artists Management, credit: Amanda Rose PhotographyMusic Business Worldwide