‘The TikTok era is over. Artists aren’t being signed based on one thing going viral anymore.’

MBW’s Inspiring Women series profiles female executives who have risen through the ranks of the business, highlighting their career journey – from their professional breakthrough to the senior responsibilities they now fulfill. Inspiring Women is supported by Virgin Music Group.

At the beginning of this year, Michele Harrison ventured out alone to launch her own management company, MPH Collective, following a 20-year career that’s seen her work with Alanis Morissette, Vampire Weekend, Raphael Saadiq, and many more besides.

She founded the company after stops at Monotone, Friends At Work and Range Media Partners and realizing a desire to do things her own way.

MPH is founded on values that span “community, family, valuing people, longevity, loyalty, support, love and financial gain for everyone,” Harrison says. Its roster includes R&B star UMI, alt-pop duo Beau, R&B singer Healy, hip-hop producer KaiGoinKrazy and producer/writer Austin Daniel Brown.

Harrison knew she wanted to work in music while growing up in Los Angeles in the 1990s and dating a member of punk rock band Pennywise. She remembers: “I would watch them meeting with their business people and I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do’.”

At the time, a lack of music industry educational programmes meant that Harrison ended up studying law. After graduating and working as a legal assistant, she met Monotone founder, lawyer and manager Ian Montone via the bands she was hanging out with at the time, who gave her the break she needed.

Montone hired her to work at the music law firm he was at, and when he left to move into management, Harrison followed. She spent 15 years at Monotone, working with Vampire Weekend plus Broken Bells, The Shins and Jamie Foxx, before leaving to pursue growth and more autonomy.

Here, we chat to Harrison about lessons learned across her career to date, the qualities needed for management and her view on the most exciting developments happening in today’s music business.

How have you seen the role of a manager evolve across your career?

Being a manager is really just being a problem solver and a support system. Everything’s always changing in the music industry, so you have to be ready to move, pivot, conquer any new thing that comes up and support the artists through that. A lot of people in this industry treat artists less like humans and more like products. I think you need to focus on the wellbeing of the artists first.

Pictured: UMI. Credit: Ryusei Sabi
What are the other qualities that make a good manager?

It’s about giving artists space to be who they really are as a human being and to feel safe. That’s the number one job descriptor. If they feel afraid, if they don’t feel like they can fully express themselves, how are they going to do their art? Because that’s all it is — an expression of themselves.

Going into the business side, being on top of every detail, not letting things fall through the cracks, and taking things to completion, knowing marketing, keeping up with the way the industry is changing constantly. Plus relationships are a huge part of it. And having the right support, having great people around that can help you accomplish goals, and taking care of them as you would the artist.

We talk a lot about success but what are your biggest career-related failures and what have you learned from them?

I would say my biggest career failures have to do with not being true to myself and allowing things to get to a place that don’t feel comfortable. That usually comes down to relationships where the communication isn’t great, and that’s on my part as well, or where you’re not voicing yourself enough or working on things that you’re not necessarily passionate about. You can’t really evangelize for an artist that you’re not in love with as a human being, in my opinion.

What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve been given?

It’s a spiritual message about being in touch with yourself, trusting your instinct, speaking your truth, not being afraid and not talking yourself out of your intuition.

Were there times in the past where you felt like you were falling into the pattern of doing the opposite?

Yes, definitely. There are times when you’re head down, working hard and you’re not aware and awake. For me, that was the case for many years. I didn’t even check in with myself and found myself in the same pattern repeatedly. Then I finally woke up, asked myself why and looked back on moments where I had gut feelings that I ignored, discounted or thought were something other than what they were instead of exploring that feeling and figuring it out.

Pictured: Beau. Credit: Chad Moore
What is the most exciting development happening in today’s music business?

It feels like it’s going back to real art and the TikTok era is over. Artists aren’t being signed based on one thing going viral anymore. I think the industry learned that a lot of those artists aren’t artists. Some are, but you can’t predict which one is which. It’s nice to see that you can’t really manipulate the system anymore.

There are no gatekeepers, streaming has flattened that. People are going to find songs that they love. Even if it’s [by] a huge artist, it’s hard for the machine to make a song a success, it really comes down to fans actually liking it. That’s really exciting.

What do you think is the key to achieving longevity with artists today?

You can’t give up. You have to be authentically who you are and don’t try to chase trends. There’s going to be lots of ups and downs, this is a really hard career, and you just have to keep going.

What one thing would you change about the music industry and why?

I would change the fact that the industry is run by these massive corporations. It feels that there’s not enough healthy competition.

“the big corporations get super huge, layoffs happen and then a bunch of really smart, talented people go out and create new opportunities for themselves.”

I do think that’s changing though — we’ve seen this over time: the big corporations get super huge, layoffs happen and then a bunch of really smart, talented people go out and create new opportunities for themselves. Then you see a rebirth of energy. We’re at that place right now.

Why is the dominance of corporations bad for the business?

I just don’t think it’s healthy for a few people to be making all the decisions, like we’re seeing with Lucian Grainge and the [UMG] dispute with TikTok right now. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong or bad or good, I don’t know enough about it to really comment on it, but it feels like it’s a fight between a couple of people that is affecting the entire music industry. It seems like the power balance is off.

If you could go back to the beginning of your career and tell yourself one thing, what would it be?

Believe in yourself and speak your truth.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in music today, whether that be on the business or artist side?

It’s what I said before, really be who you are. I have this one artist who said they’re really not a morning person but were trying hard to start to wake up early. I’m like, ‘Why? If you’re not a morning person, don’t be a morning person’. You’re not going to get the best out of yourself by forcing yourself to be someone you’re not. Hone in, know yourself, find your authenticity and pursue that.

What are your ultimate ambitions for MPH Collective?

I would love to be one of the biggest management companies in the world, not necessarily with how many staff members I have, but with market share. I would actually like to keep it very boutique, but have world-class artists. This is going to sound so corny, but doing this in a way that’s more loving, less corporate and thinking about putting humans first.

Can you define that human-first approach?

It’s about honoring people and trying not to be judgmental or critical. Encouraging them to be who they are and to get the best out of themselves. It’s about work-life balance, not overdoing it, allowing people to have their moments to go and do whatever it is that makes them happy and have a balanced life.

Virgin Music Group is the global independent music division of Universal Music Group, which brings together UMG’s label and artist service businesses including Virgin and Ingrooves.

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