Thoughts of a Manager: A Paean for Artists

David Byrne perfoms at Rock Werchter Festival, Belgium, 2018. David Whitehead says Byrne, like fellow former client David Bowie, has an "obsession with excellence". (Credit: Ben Houdijk / Shutterstock)

David Whitehead is a New York-based artist manager and the founder of Maine Road Management, which he’s run for over 20 years. Whitehead’s current artist clients include the likes of Lloyd Cole, Hugh Laurie, Joe Henry and Joe Jackson, while in the past Whitehead (pictured inset) has worked with the likes of David Byrne and David Bowie. In the following open letter, published exclusively on MBW, Whitehead explores the role of the modern artist manager – and passes on an encyclopaedia of knowledge to those now entering his field…


I started Maine Road Management in 1999 and have worked with numerous artists over the years: David Bowie, David Byrne, Natalie Merchant, Luna, Rodney Crowell, and many others.

As challenging as it is right now in the music business it’s far more interesting than the decades-old model I grew up in. Many of the key elements still exist in differing forms – Record Company, Distributor, Publisher, Radio, Retail, Media, etc – but each sector has been forced to change, adapt, and re-think business models.

Some obvious things: Advances have tumbled; contracts are being re-written; term periods have (or should have) been reduced; “perpetuity” is an untenable word; radio no longer has the broad level of influence it once had (though it still factors heavily in to certain genres); and the effect of print media coverage can be almost negligible except perhaps for new artists where benefit of exposure will help.

Independent distribution models are abundant. We live in the age of streaming and the internet, and it’s a wonderment.


All these changes can either liberate artists (especially younger ones), or confuse older acts who may – but not always – struggle to adapt, accept, acknowledge and engage in the difference between then and now.

In light of this, a manager’s role has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. And it continues to expand far beyond what it used to be.

“We live in the age of streaming and the internet, and it’s a wonderment.”

As important as it is for a manager to grasp knowledge across many fields and stay in touch with all the developments, it behooves the artist to not shy away from the business and think they can just focus on the art.

Even a basic understanding of methods and tactics and options will help channel direction and not just leave things open to interpretation.

Here, I’ll examine what an artist manager does today.

There are broadly two parts to that. There’s the philosophical or psychological nature of the work. And then there’s the actual work itself – and the modern role of the artist.


Being a manager

“Manager”. How paradoxical. Managers are hired and fired by clients. We serve the artist; if they are not happy, we cease to serve.

“Representative” is probably a more appropriate title. Or ideally,“Business Partner”. Making a contribution to the art and the livelihood. You cannot lose sight of what’s important; it’s about building relationships, character, decency and respect.

It’s also about gratefulness, and it rejects the least attractive of traits – bitterness. It’s the combination of these elements that defines the true relationship between artist and manager.

Over the course of any career, an artist and manager may change partnerships multiple times. It’s inevitable.

“A decision must be made: whether to confront and try resolve any issues, or lay low and hope things change, which they usually don’t.”

At any stage of our lives we just want or need a different dynamic; the artist/manager relationship may have worked when it began but then atrophied over time or circumstance. Needs change, motivations change, and personalities change. There’s a feeling that a new voice is required. We just get tired of hearing the same message or response.

If blessed with half-decent instincts, its not hard to recognize such changing dynamics. Then a decision must be made: whether to confront and try resolve any issues, or lay low and hope things change, which they usually don’t.

Once you understand all of this then any parting of the ways with an artist becomes less difficult. Sometimes, you have that rarest circumstance: a relationship that feels like it will continue indefinitely, as long as both parties want to spend their days working.


Dynamics

It’s interesting to consider what an artist actually wants from their career, and is looking for in a manager beyond someone that has relevant ideas and can communicate with them.

Do they respond better to a male voice or a female voice? Does that even matter? Do artists care, or care enough, how a manager goes about their business? Do they care if their manager is confrontational – or do they trust them to get what they need by using their own voice and methods, without necessarily resorting to confrontation?

I often wonder whether artists look for someone that is like them or the opposite of them. I’ve seen more examples of the latter instance than the former.

“Does an artist respond better to a male voice or a female voice? Does that even matter?”

These are all decent considerations when talking to someone about a possible relationship.

One other question I consider repeatedly is whether I’m to be a facilitator or a partner. It’s possible to be both – but it’s a very compromised path.

A manager that’s a business partner, who can contribute to strategic thinking, and who can find or build the resources to execute what’s required is surely the basis of a happy medium for both sides. The dynamic of this relationship is as much personal as it is professional.

There’s a need to listen and understand, and decide what’s important then and now. Very early on in a relationship you can get a sense as to how things are working or not and how said relationship may develop.


Context

Context is crucial in understanding relationship dynamics. It can often be very simplified: is the manager and/or client happy in life?

If there’s general unhappiness, it’s going to manifest itself in how well interactions take place – and the responses. Ultimately, if there’s unhappiness it’s likely not going to end well or be an enjoyable experience. Ideas and feedback can be rejected out of hand rather than responded to for what they might be, which is actually an invitation to create a process of exchange.

“The proverbial elephant in the room for any manager is money, and that’s where the great conflict lies in terms of how long an unhappy relationship can be tolerated.”

The proverbial elephant in the room for any manager is money, and that’s where the great conflict lies in terms of how long an unhappy relationship can be tolerated. How long can a client that just does not want to work put up with being bothered by a manager? Or a manager pushing ideas to a client that is non-receptive and shuts down? How long is the obligation to stay together? And what might change all this – apart from one party firing the other?

There’s few things worse in business than the client / manager phone call you don’t want to make (or take), and every artist and manager has had those.


Ambition

We all want to improve in life. To progress, to see progress, to earn status, to earn a living. To enjoy our work.

However, there’s two kinds of ambition…commercial and creative. If the artist’s goal is vertical (simply world domination; bigger, better, more) then that’s a high stress work environment for all. If the primary goal is creative (come what may of any perceived risk and reward) we are talking about a non-linear career, or horizontal business model. That’s exciting.

“Time has more value than money. You can get more money, but you cannot get more time.”

If there’s a pledge to be creatively challenged and to be open and fluid in terms of career choices, that’s a world of opportunity.

The two levels of ambition are not mutually exclusive.

It’s the way in which an artist wants to exist and spend their time creating art that should drive everything. In the words of Jim Rohn : “Time has more value than money. You can get more money, but you cannot get more time.”

That seems like an admirable sentiment for anyone to live and work by.


A Paen for Artists

The simple description of what a manager does has often been “to protect the artist from too many outside voices, make sure you leverage their advantage at all times and make sure everyone is working on their behalf”. And in-between all that, to keep their business afloat.

In basic terms, there’s still a lot to be said for that summary. The fundamental changes in business and the current climate in particular, though, has led to a more fragmented and nuanced democracy, and in many cases the manager now also has to be capable of managing and implementing record release strategies.

“The fundamental changes in business and the current climate in particular, has led to a more fragmented and nuanced democracy.”

If we are considering self-releases, P&D deals, direct-to-fan components etc., the notion of marketing spend (and overall project spend) imbues a very different perspective when it’s the artist’s pocket money, rather than the record company’s, that’s being used.

The other important aspect for a modern manager is to try establish a sense of value and belief both in the artist and their work – and within the artist themselves. Then to take that value and spread it out in the world to as many places as can be receptive.


Choosing Your team, and other things I’ve learned

In considering more what a manager does rather than is, I didn’t initially intend to write this as a list or a suggested ‘code of conduct’.

Above all else I wrote it for my own spirits and purposeful reminder about not losing track of what’s important in these unprecedented, difficult times.

That said, there are a lot of obvious things it might be worth my while to pass on to others ploughing the artist management field. Here goes.

  • Try to build or maintain a team that can be used as your resources, and appreciate the value of that team: Record Company or Distributor, Agent, Publisher or Collection Agency, Business Manager or Accountant, Lawyer. Web developer, social network manager, design creative(s) for merchandise and packaging, touring crew personnel. Do your homework here, read, investigate, do not simply be bound by record business personnel. There’s inspiration and talent in many fields; try find that and use it wherever possible.
  • Know your strengths and your weaknesses, if you have the means, make provision for what you cannot do. If you do not have the means, work with what you have and don’t tire of looking. If you’re paying for some services (e.g. web building, socials management), learn how it’s being done if possible until you and your team can do it internally.
  • Identify your client’s communities or tribes, and learn the best methods of communicating with them. Find out who your friends are. I’ve always believed musicians can often help each other more than gatekeepers or third parties can, whether it’s mutual support on social media, support on live performance, collaborative projects, etc. The real power is with the artist, with the talent. The rest, including the service industries (management and agencies, to name two), can ultimately be bought or found.
  • Learn how to communicate in general terms. Doing email extensively does not necessarily mean working. Do not get bogged down in the habit of being on email all day. Set time aside for daily riffing, write notes, meditate for 10 minutes a day if need be to clear the mind…some of the best ideas for me might come from a coffee break, talking and meeting with people or reading, but not by email which by nature is immediate and limited in scope.
  • Build meaningful and creative service databases. Do not blitz and spam. If any music supervisors, streaming curators, ‘influencers’, photographers, cinematographers, etc do not object to you e mailing them, only tell them what’s important and of worth. Do not bombard them weekly. Some of these people may eventually form part of your tribe.
  • Don’t agonise over how to get on streaming playlists, but do focus on trying to build your audience beyond passive playlists and take advantage of the Spotify tools and the wealth of information and expertise in the marketplace to help you navigate. Don’t obsess over Amazon, Google, and Facebook advertising. Chances are you are spreading the word of niche music and you’ll not tap into your tribe through mass media platforms with exceptionally low conversion rates, assuming you can track them.
  • Consider yourself a student, we can learn all the time. Be engaged in music. It’s not necessary to love everything an artist does, but context and knowledge is both useful and reassuring.
  • Be generous with time and resources, time permitting. Knowledge is not power, it’s fuel for ego. Share what you know wherever reasonably possible. Try to make yourself as dispensable as possible within your office. This is not dereliction. It allows you to ‘fly’ more, and that’s the difference between being engaged in your business and working on your business.
  • Figure out the difference between a P&D deal, licensing deal, 50/50 deals, direct-to-fan mechanics and their respective margins. Work on spreadsheets to support the options, do not rely just on intuition or feeling. These spreadsheets are time consuming but relatively easy for anyone working in Excel or a like kind program.
  • Direct-to-fan may be a relatively low volume business, but it’s high margin and it’s flexibility and profit potential is invaluable and in some cases the potential income here can replace the advances artists used to get. 50/50 deals, long considered the best option for many artists, are very questionable for what I would consider new and old ‘middle class’ artists – i.e. artists that still seek traditional investment and advances, but do not have the sales and streaming levels to compensate for the weight of all the rechargeable costs. No business model should be mutually exclusive. More often than not, the contemporary model for any artist is a mix or hybrid of numerous options.
  • Read record company and publisher royalty statements carefully. If you don’t understand anything then ask someone who does.

Deals

Despite what I say above, opportunity cost and value can exist. While the nature or detail of a deal might not be exactly what you want there may be an opportunity cost or value in doing it.

It may be the ability to make something happen immediately and the collateral benefits of that, or granting an extra few years to a term, for instance, is an acceptable trade-off for global investment or better splits, or if the need exists, higher-advance funding.

The ultimate trade-off anyone can grant is perpetual rights – i.e. no reversions – whether it’s record company deals or publishing deals. ‘360’ degree deals are less common now, but remnants of them still exist. Likewise, why pay a lawyer 10% or even 5% on everything, when their expertise and time is not say in the touring or merchandise field, regardless of what some might claim.

“While the nature or detail of a deal might not be exactly what you want there may be an opportunity cost or value in doing it.”

In some instances the need for immediate cash overrules any concerns about relinquishing rights, and that’s an unfortunate reality. That cash might provide some security or investment that can reap rewards for an artist beyond when the money runs it (and it always does run out).

It might buy a house/apartment or a deposit on one, a stake in a profitable business, it commonly used to buy a studio – which is not the best investment these days for an artist given how easy and inexpensive it’s become (creative limitations notwithstanding) to make music.

Above all else…support the art. Encourage, be a positive voice, be an objective voice.


For Artists

You as CEO and the team around you are the best marketeers any project can have. The marketing starts with you. Build a story behind what you do and who you are, whether it’s a record release, the considered direction of what you post on the socials, your website, your visuals, etc.

The days of “just making a record and putting it out”, sending it to press and radio a few months ahead, trying get interviews etc are long gone. As is thinking that the more someone invests in ‘traditional’ marketing – e.g. press, radio online ads, etc – the greater the return. In fact, there can be little correlation. And when it’s your own money on the line – i.e. a 50/50 or distribution deal – this is a painful lesson.

Focus on craft, quality and a desire to be progressive. Everything that goes out has your name on it, no one else’s. Do not be quick to compromise regardless of consequences. I learned an immense amount from working with David(s) Bowie and Byrne and their commitment, obsession, with excellence. Very little if anything ‘just happened’.

“I learned an immense amount from working with David(s) Bowie and Byrne and their commitment, obsession, with excellence. Very little if anything ‘just happened’.”

Consider the timing of your projects and the expectations. It’s not necessary to follow one big album – tour cycle / album push for instance with another. It can be fine to go sideways, or backwards, if you consider what you have as a career. Believe in your stock. The rhythm is not consistent.

Produce work as often as you can. Always try produce work of some nature, and things will come. Be an artist if possible, not just a songwriter or singer or musician. Don’t obsess over sound quality. Emotional resonance is more important, visceral immediacy is rewarding listening. I say that not in response to how people listen to music these days. The days of making an album every 3 – 4 years, touring, then going silent for 4 more years are really over, or they should be. Opportunities usually will not come to the fore in this case and the window for engagement is narrow.

New / start up artists: don’t be seduced by people asking for money to work something.

Attention can be flattering, but invest when real opportunities are coming to you and there’s traction. Understand the difference between buyers and sellers. Buyers are far more interesting.

Look at Music Business V3 which is where we are, as something to study. Like learning a new language. It behooves the artist to know as much as possible within reason, and without it diffusing the art.


Streaming

This article is informative and confirms a point of view that’s been debated in angst for years: Steaming likely will never scale, so focus on your split. There’s an earnings distance between streaming accounted to as a royalty, accounted on net receipts, or accounted at source. Understand what that all means.

Any chance you have to make a living from streaming income will be determined by how much of the 52% -60% (exc Publishing) the streaming services pay out across your entire body of work. If you’re one of the few lucky ones who can do a deal direct with the streaming services, enjoy that margin.

Trust your instincts, and above all never be ruled by fear.Music Business Worldwide