MBW’s World’s Greatest Managers series profiles the best artist managers in the global business. This time, we speak to Regan Lethbridge and David Morgan of Lemon Tree Music – the co-managers of Tash Sultana and Tones & I, whose Dance Monkey is dominating worldwide streaming charts. The 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.
Next time you’re in Australia, maybe don’t take an Uber.
Try walking. And keep listening. You never know.
Tones & I, the world’s fastest-rising artist behind what might be the song of the year, Dance Monkey, was discovered (by Jackson Walkden-Brown), in Byron Bay, busking.
She is now co-managed (alongside Walkden-Brown) by Regan Lethbridge and David Morgan of Melbourne-based Lemon Tree Music Management, who first enjoyed global success with Tash Sultana, who was discovered, busking.
The duo’s management career began when they signed alt-folk duo, Pierce Brothers, who had been discovered, busking.
Before that, Lethbridge and Morgan (pictured) had been in a band together, Bonjah. It was the vehicle that took the native New Zealanders across to Oz where they managed to avoid proper jobs by… yeah, definitely cancel that Uber.
A lot of new music is often said to come from the streets. In the case of Lethbridge, Morgan and their most successful artists, they can literally name those streets.
Right now though, they probably spend more time in the air than on the ground, criss-crossing the globe as it surrenders, territory-by-territory to the talent of Tones & I and the insane appeal of Dance Monkey.
So far, the track has topped the charts in 20 countries (and counting), including the UK, where, having racked up eight weeks in a row at the summit, it is now the longest-running No. 1 ever by an Australian artist – and, almost unbelievably, closing in on the 10 week record for a solo female artist established in 1992/93 by Whitney Houston’s gravity defying I Will Always Love You.
In Tones’ homeland of Australia, meanwhile, Dance Monkey recently ticked off a 17th week at the top (the previous best run was 15 in a row by Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You). Globally, on Spotify, it has more than 560m streams, it remains No.1 on the service’s worldwide chart, and it’s consistently doing over 6m streams a day.
The US is the last major territory to fall, and, while it probably can’t be described as hitting the canvas just yet, it’s wobbling, for sure: Dance Monkey this week climbed inside the Top 20 (at No.19) of the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time.
MBW grabbed an hour from Lethbridge and Morgan’s frankly terrifying schedule to discover the roots of Lemon Tree – which launched its own JV label with Sony Music last year – and get the backstory and future plans for the globe-straddling Tones & I…
When and why did you decide to break up your band and focus on management?
Regan: It just ran its natural course, we all grew up a bit – and we’re all still best friends. That was when Dave and I discussed seriously launching Lemon Tree, in 2013.
Our first signing was the Pierce Brothers, who were local Melbourne guys. We just laid out a blueprint and got to work. It helps that buskers have got this mentality where it’s do or die; they’re super focused on honing their craft and playing for people. They just seem to want it that little bit more.
How did you meet, discover and eventually sign Tash Sultana?
Regan: Pat Pierce, one of the Pierce brothers, kept talking about this busker that pulls really great crowds. Tash came in for a meeting, and I started booking live dates in 2014; I’m still the booking agent in Australia, New Zealand and Asia.
And then, after maybe 18 months or so, one of Tash’s videos went viral on Facebook and I said, ‘Would you consider LTM managing you?’ It was a month of back and forth, then we signed on the dotted line and away we went.
We straight off went about going global with Tash and we’re really proud of all the work that we’ve done. Tash is truly incredible and still blows my mind to this day. We sold out Red Rocks recently, with co-manager for America, Jaddan Commerford, and that was just absolutely unbelievable, quite an emotional experience.
You guys went a long way independently with Tash, why was that and how has that situation evolved on the recorded music side?
Regan: Our philosophy with all of our artists, is: own your work, do relatively short-term deals – if you are going to do deals at all. You want to live and die with your masters, you want to own your copyrights.
That started with Tash, really, who is very independently focused and had all the tools. It was just about joining the dots and building a team to really go global, which we set about doing. It took about nine months to do the deals back and forth, and then probably six months or so to build the teams. We are in a licence [deal] with Sony for the world, we’re independent with Mom + Pop in North America, and we’re completely independent in Australia, with Sony distribution.
“You want to live and die with your masters, you want to own your copyrights.”
David: We’re quite happy to keep [our] artists independent for as long as possible, roll it out globally from the start and see where it takes off.
In the digital age, there’s a silly amount of statistics and insights out there available at everyone’s fingertips, so we can see where the opportunities are.
Tash is currently recording a second album, and can play headline shows to up to 10,000 people. As we all know, success can bring pressures of its own. When you manage a young artist like Tash, especially one who has talked about mental health issues and substance issues, how much of a pastoral element is there to the role of manager?
Regan: It’s top of the list. We’ve worked out a really good touring cycle with Tash, so it’s a month away and then a month at home, that seems to work really well. The health and wellbeing of our clients comes before absolutely anything. I think, as a manager, that’s a 24/7 gig now, monitoring how they’re going and how they’re feeling.
“We’re emotionally invested ourselves, it’s not just a business transaction for us. They become like family, you genuinely care.”
The creative mind works so differently, and we’re very respectful and mindful of that. We do all we can to support them emotionally, because we’re emotionally invested ourselves, it’s not just a business transaction for us. They become like family, you genuinely care.
The story of the year, of course, is Tones & I. When did you first come across her and what were your first impressions?
Regan: I was sent a video by Harry Moore, who’s now her booking agent, and Pixie Weyand; it was a video of her busking. Obviously we get sent a lot of stuff, but for whatever reason, I happened to push play – and her voice absolutely stopped me in my tracks; I fell off my chair.
David: Tones’ voice just slapped us all in the face; we were like wow, this is incredible, it’s unique, what is going on? I went to her next live show, which was in September 2018, and started begging to have LTM join her team.
Regan: I rang Harry straight away and said, ‘Who is that? I have to meet her.’ And then he sent me another video and this time my jaw was on the floor; I just couldn’t believe how good her voice was. I went and met with her, had coffee with her, and said, ‘Look, we’d love to find a way to work with you. We think you’re an incredible talent, you’ve got a gift.’
She already had a manager at that point, right?
Regan: She had recently signed with Jackson Walkden-Brown (pictured inset with Tones), maybe a year or so earlier, who is a music lawyer by trade and was, by then, her manager. We were very respectful of that and we found a way to make that work.
So, Lemon Tree Music and Artists Only, which is Jackson’s company, co-manage Tones for the world. It’s been one of the best things we’ve ever done; he’s a brilliant guy. They’ve obviously got a deep connection because he was the one that actually discovered her busking. He was walking past with his wife, put a card in her case, then she gave him a call. So without Jackson, we wouldn’t be here, really.
“We just had an update from China, 50 million streams there last week alone.”
Tones is just from another planet, her songs and her melody, and what she does as an artist is just incredible. It’s an honour to be on the team, and it’s truly global. We just had an update from China, 50 million streams there last week alone. And she’s been No.1 on the global Spotify chart for over a month now, No.1 on Apple, No.1 on Deezer, No.1 on YouTube; multi-platinum, the whole thing is just mind blowing.
She’s an incredible artist that writes incredible songs, and she’s got a great team around her. We haven’t even touched the surface yet, she’s a career artist; we’re all super excited about 2020.
When did you first hear Dance Monkey and what did you think initially?
Regan: I was blown away. She sent me a demo, I think it was back in February, and it’s so similar to the final produced version. It’s an incredible hook, her vocal just stood out, and it’s one of those ear worms you can’t stop humming.
We had a gut feel that it was going to be incredibly successful, but there’s 40,000 tracks a day uploaded to Spotify, so you never know.
David: That initial demo was a video where she just put the phone on a table in her little home studio and played at the piano, but it was amazing. We were all just like, yes, keep sending them! We knew it was going to be really good and get people’s interest. But no – I don’t think anyone would ever have been able to predict what’s happened.
What’s it like to be caught up in a whirlwind like this?
Regan: It’s incredible. She was busking for maybe 18 months before her first single [Johnny Run Away] took off in March this year. So it’s obviously been an absolutely crazy year, but it just feels incredible, I can’t explain it.
We just work as hard as we possibly can. We literally start at 7am and work until midnight. We’re navigating a bunch of time zones and just doing all we can to give everyone we can the tools to take this as far as we can.
We’ve signed with Elektra for the world [outside ANZ], which has been absolutely fantastic. We’ve got Warner Chappell on the publishing side for the world, on an admin deal, who have been incredible. We’ve got Kobalt in Australia and New Zealand for an admin publishing deal, and obviously Sony [Music] distribution here in Australia and New Zealand. And we do all the radio plugging and publicity and everything in-house under Lemon Tree.
But Tones has the vision, she comes up with these brilliant songs, she comes up all the creative ideas. It’s crazy; the whole thing is just a whirlwind. I don’t know, I haven’t even had time to reflect mate, it’s one of those where I’ll look back in five years when it calms down a bit and maybe make sense of it.
“We jump out of bed every day: what’s in the inbox? What’s going to happen next?”
David: It’s true! We jump out of bed every day: What’s in the inbox? What’s going to happen next? It’s extremely humbling to see that this can happen to someone who was literally busking on the streets and living out of her van. Then, only months later, she has the biggest song in the world. We’re privileged to be involved in that, and extremely proud of what’s happened.
We’re a couple of Kiwi fellas that gave it a good go in Australia and now we’re managing this artist that is on top of the world at the moment. It’s a buzz!
We’re just stoked to be involved and to be able to help Tones do what she wants to do. It’s really exciting. It’s also challenging, it’s quite daunting, but we’re loving it, absolutely loving it.
How did you come to sign her to Sony Music in Australia, but Elektra Music Group/Warner for the rest of the world?
Regan: We’ve a got great relationship with an A&R guy here [at Sony Australia] called Paul Harris, we love him to bits. He’s a proper old school music guy and he just gets it. He was very instrumental in helping set up our label JV, actually. I sent the video [of Tones] to him in maybe July or August last year.
He was one of the first people, before we’d even officially signed on, I just said, ‘What do you think of this?’ Marrietta [Ouzas] at Sony was on it super early and reached out and we work closely with her today, she is amazing.
David: We kept it all fully independent from the start and continue to be indie in Australia, partnering with Sony for distribution.
Regan: And then obviously, Kobalt, we’ve got great relationships here, Simon Moor [Kobalt Australia MD] is incredible, the whole team’s amazing. Again, it’s about that ownership of your work, a short-term admin deal, all that sort of stuff, it just made complete sense to keep it everything under Tones’ control.
Then for overseas [on records], we did a week in New York where we met with, I think it was 12 labels, maybe 11 labels, I can’t remember; it was three or four a day: Tones would play three songs, we’d chat, then on to the next.
Why did Elektra stand out amongst those 12 labels?
Regan: We ended up whittling it down to three, and then out of that Tones picked Elektra. Again, from the very start, Gregg Nadel, Mike Easterlin (pictured) and the team there – she went with the people with the most passion and where she had a gut feel for.
She had the world at her feet, she had literally everyone throwing everything at her. But [signing with Elektra] was a gut call at the end of the day, working with people that you trust, that you love and that you know that are going to get the job done – and who will basically let Tones be the creative beast that she is.
“She had the world at her feet, she had literally everyone throwing everything at her. But [signing with Elektra] was a gut call.”
David: We were in an amazing position where we had almost every label out there banging down the door wanting to do a deal. We were able to negotiate deals that we wanted to do, and we were able to pick and choose our international team and take our time to meet with a whole bunch of amazing people at some incredible labels. It was a very tough decision to figure out which team we were going to go with.
We left that in Tones’ hands. We advised her and gave her our opinions, but ultimately it was her decision to choose a label partner for the rest of the world and we knew it would be a gut feel thing and had to come from her.
What else stood out about Elektra and Warner?
David: We met with Max [Lousada], the head of Warner, and he was a very impressive gentleman. He had a lot of enthusiasm and really rallied the team. Full credit to Greg and Mike at Elektra as well, out of America, they were the campaigners right from the very early days. They sent Johnny [Minardi] from their LA office to Australia to see Tones play her first ever headline shows in May. That was really impressive to see early on. And then we were impressed with the whole team.
“There’s so much passion out of Elektra Music Group at the moment.”
There’s so much passion out of that label at the moment. They’re doing a lot of great things. They’re still pretty young, there’s a kind of rebirth of Elektra Records going on and we all really felt their passion and enthusiasm. We love working with all of the team.
The integration between Sony Music Australia, Elektra Records and Warner for the rest of the world [including Parlophone out of the UK], it’s just been amazing. They’re all working together as a team and we’re all moving forward as a team in the same artistic direction, driven by Tones.
Do you think there would have been an expectation within Sony that the deal in Australia gave them pole position for worldwide?
Regan: The main thing is, as I said, it was an open playing field. There were so many labels in the mix, and for whatever reason it just wasn’t meant to be [with Sony], that’s all I can say. We met with everyone from the Universal labels, Sony labels and Warner labels. And at the end of the day it was a gut feel thing and [signing with Warner] was what was right for our client.
Tones made the final call, we supported her 100%, and it was the best thing we ever did. Looking back, it really felt like we’ve been able to carve everything out and utilize the best of the best around the world, for sure.
What’s the reaction been like in the States and what’s the plan there?
Regan: It’s been amazing, and Tones is moving there next year, she’ll be based out of New York for a good six months of next year. It was the last market to really go, because obviously it’s just such a big beast, so that was to be expected. But, yeah, she’s starting to get traction.
It’s been slow but steady and then in the last couple of weeks it’s really starting to spike, and jump up the Billboard Hot 100. And on radio, the adds that are coming in are just incredible, you fall off your chair when they come through.
“It’s been slow but steady and then in the last couple of weeks it’s really starting to spike, and jump up the Billboard Hot 100.”
David: We always knew it was going to take time, although comparative to the journey that artists usually take to get into America, this has been very quick. Like very, very quick. It’s just awesome to see it resonate across the world.
It was actually the Nordics, in Europe, Lithuania, Sweden, Norway and Denmark, where it really resonated and first took off. UK caught up and now we’re all systems go to see how far we can take it in America.
Regan: We’ve got Dance Monkey just starting to happen in North America, and in the UK and the rest of the world, we’re about to go on the third single, which is Never Seen the Rain. People’s reaction has been all about Dance Monkey, obviously, but there’s just so much more in the tank.
How large does the ‘one hit wonder’ fear loom – especially in a streaming culture where fans seem to connect with tracks as much as artists?
Regan: It’s not a fear at all for me, but then I’m biased because I’ve heard the demos. Tones has got 16 or so songs demoed, ready to go, and they’re just world class, flawless songs. When you’ve got a voice like that, and when you’ve got the creative vision that she’s got, and the drive that she’s got… she’s unique.
I’m a humble Kiwi, but I’m just incredibly confident that she has got the goods to back it up and already we’re seeing Never Seen the Rain getting added all over the place to radio and it’s starting to pop up in streaming.
But it’s the songs that are going to come out next year off the next EP or album, whatever Tones decides to do, that we’re so incredibly excited about. Some of them are jaw dropping, so that gives me every confidence. And the way we’re building it live, in terms of, ticking off the cool festivals, not skipping steps, playing the clubs, and doing the massive underplays, that keeps it all real.
She’s a real artist, she’s a career artist and that’s what we’re really trying to build. The one hit wonder thing doesn’t even get a thought process for us.
“She’s a real artist, she’s a career artist and that’s what we’re really trying to build. The one hit wonder thing doesn’t even get a thought process for us.”
David: Tones has a swag of amazing songs. She’s an incredibly prolific songwriter, and the caliber of music that she’s writing at the moment, the demos that we’ve got, it’s just phenomenal. She’s following up this track with amazing music. It’s not something where we’re like, Oh my God, we don’t have an EP, we don’t have an album, we don’t have a single to follow this up with; we’ve got a whole bunch of music to follow this up with.
I’d be lying if I said that [the dreaded ‘one hit wonder tag] wasn’t a thought. There’s no way that you could have a song be this successful and not think, Oh I hope my next one goes as good. You always want your next song to go as good as the one before it or better.
The thing is, we’re just stoked with all the music that we’re going to be rolling out. So that’s what we’re really focused on: rolling out new music and building a career artist with a long-term vision, and live strategy is a big part of that.
You mentioned a possible new EP, or a new album – will there be an album next year? Do you think there needs to be an album?
Regan: Well, this is obviously Tones’ decision. December and January, she’s in the studio, and at the end of those sessions, I think we’re going to have a sit down, and whether she puts out another EP, or whether she rolls into the album, I’ll leave that for Tones to disclose down the line.
David: An album is on the cards, it’s just a matter of getting it recorded, getting it down, and fitting it into the schedule. We don’t like to plan too much in stone.
We’ve almost got too many songs. This is the tricky part, getting Tones to record the songs that she’s demoed up and written, because she’ll go into the studio and write another 12 tracks, six of them will be bangers, and she’ll want to record those and forget about the 12 that she’s gotten already.
That’s our biggest challenge: Tones is writing songs faster than we can release them. And yeah, I know, that’s a high-class problem to have, Champagne problems!
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