MBW’s World’s Greatest Managers series profiles the best artist managers in the global business. This time, we speak to Ty Stiklorius, manager of John Legend, Lindsey Stirling and Charlie Puth, amongst others – and the founder of Friends At Work. 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.
“Hi, how are you?”– for so long the 1-2-3-4 of interviews, has now become the hook. The inquiry genuine, the answer important.
Ty Stiklorius is fine. What she actually says is that she’s “hanging in there”, but it turns out she’s doing rather more than that.
She, with star client John Legend, was part of a small group that initiated the #TogetherAtHome online performances in response to the Coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. In turn, they have fed into the One World global TV concert being broadcast this Saturday [April 18] .
Stiklorius’ actions were not, however, entirely sparked by the emergence of COVID-19 – they are simply an extension of her personal values and her company’s practices. They go back, in fact, to childhood.
She was raised a Quaker and as a kid spent a lot of time in the community, helping those who needed it. She says: “I started my practice of altruism early, and I never really stopped.”
Music also always played a big part in her early life: jazz and classic singer-songwriters on the turntable at home topped up by “singing in every choir going” through High School. When she arrived at the University of Pennsylvania, she joined an a-capella group called The Counterparts.
A couple of years later, by which time Stiklorius was President of the group, a 16 year-old called John Stevens (later Legend) auditioned. “He was this shy little kid,” Stiklorius recalls, “so I took him under my wing”.
On leaving college Stiklorius initially worked for companies at the intersection of music and tech (she named her cat Napster in 2000), before getting her MBA at Wharton, where her final thesis was on the future of the music industry.
She assumed that from there she would join a record label, but instead she was drawn back to the tech/media crossroads, first at Real Networks, and then LEK Consulting, where she worked with Kevin Maher (now a key power-player at Disney).
Stiklorius had stayed in touch with Stevens/Legend, who, at Boston Consulting Group, had also ended up too close to the corporate world for comfort (“we both wore suits to work, we both built PowerPoint decks, we both created Excel spreadsheets — and we both kind of wanted out”).
They would soon both get their wish (although Stiklorius would need a brush with death to push her through the door) and then unite in a partnership that has since steered an incredible career (as well as a string of Top 5 albums, Legend is one of only 15 people to have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony (EGOT)).
Five years ago, Stiklorius founded Friends At Work – having previously worked with Gary Gersh at The Artists Organization and Troy Carter at The Atom Factory.
Here, she explains how her experiences at those companies prompted her decision to create a very different kind of working environment, and goes into detail about the bad practices and outright sexism that she has encountered on her journey and which still goes on.
She starts, though, by explaining how she saw the light at 30,000 ft…
How did you break into artist management?
In 2005, when I was working for another media company, and I was not happy with my life. I was on a flight from Seattle to Los Angeles and suddenly there was a giant explosion, which tore a three-foot hole in the plane. The wind was rushing through the cabin, the masks dropped and all I could think was, ‘This is it; this is how it ends.’
I remember being really angry that I hadn’t done more with my life or followed my passion. I started bargaining with God, or whoever I thought would listen, that if I survived, I would never squander another day on something that didn’t fulfil me. The plane made an emergency landing, everybody survived and I went in that week and quit my job.
“I started bargaining with God, or whoever I thought would listen, that if I survived, I would never squander another day on something that didn’t fulfil me.”
At this point, John, now John Legend, who was still one of my closest friends, had just put out his debut album, Get Lifted, and was enjoying his first taste of success. He’d already taken the risk and quit his ‘proper job’ to try and be a musician.
Well before I was bargaining for my life on a severely-damaged plane, I’d said to him, ‘You’re crazy, why would you give up such a great job to try and be a musician? None of us are ever going to make it, you need to be practical!’
Now here I was, traumatized after the plane incident, depressed because I hadn’t followed my own heart, and John said, ‘Why don’t you come to New York? We’ll whiteboard and maybe do something together.’
So, I went to New York for an epic brainstorm and that’s how it all began; John offered me a job and we started a company together called John Legend Ventures in 2006. I was an in-house consultant, a trusted friend and business development person. I think John has always admired my creativity, that side of me.
How did that transition to management happen?
After about a year John decided he wanted to leave his manager at the time [David Sonenberg] and asked me if I would be his manager, but at the same time said I should go and team up with an existing manager, to learn more of the ropes. I interviewed with everyone, from Irving Azoff to Jack Rovner… I mean ‘everyone’ was a handful of guys, right? They all said, ‘Come join us, you’ll be good here,’ but ‘here’ always felt like a shark tank.
“Gary Gersh was probably the kindest and gentlest, the one with the most style and taste, the one I thought I could go do yoga with…”
Gary Gersh was probably the kindest and gentlest, the one with the most style and taste, the one I thought I could go do yoga with, so I teamed up with him and helped run The Artists Organization for a few years. But that really wasn’t working for John or me, so we both left and I joined up with Troy Carter at Atom Factory.
Why didn’t things work out for you at The Artists Organization?
The management world was always very male dominated and, like I said, there was a small group of men who run everything. Coming from a business background where I’d worked with some of the smartest, most strategic and talented leaders, it was a huge change. I was promised the moon and the stars and none of that materialized.
Like every other company in music, TAO was men at the top taking the bulk of the profit and credit. I remember one of the head guys there was always asking me, ‘What is it that you do?’ Back then men would say things to me like, ‘What do you have on John Legend that makes him trust you, and makes him keep you on as his manager?’
“Like every other company in music, TAO was men at the top taking the bulk of the profit and credit.”
I was told I could never be a mother and a top manager [simultaneously] because I’d never be able to travel with my artist as much as they needed me to and that was why there were no women at the top. There was a ton of bullshit, but, thankfully, I had confidence; I was an Ivy League graduate with an MBA from Wharton. Plus, John is by far smarter than pretty much anyone, and he believed in me. Most importantly, I just knew in my soul that I was more creative and business savvy than a lot of these people. And smarter.
I knew I could build something better for John, and I knew these guys were following an old, lazy model built on ego, nepotism, keeping people down and riding on the backs of under-paid, under-appreciated workers. The music business was as bad as it gets for old-fashioned thinking and was — still is — ripe for reinvention.
I had the best client on the planet who was willing to bet on me and so I had enough confidence to move beyond all of that. John has always let me grow and learn and build; every time I left one of these places, he came with me. I never expected him to, or assumed he would, I would just say, ‘I’m outta here’ – and every time he said, ‘I’ll go with you.’
John knows his success isn’t due to one big guy with a brand name pulling all the levers. He knows that it takes a whole team of smart, passionate, engaged, creative people working together day-in, day-out. It’s not about some figurehead who somehow opens up more doors for you.
I think there are a lot of artists who are scared to not be with the traditional, big, name brand guy; certain artists really feel that they need that to succeed.
What are some of the ways Friends At Work is different to what you experienced earlier in your career?
Now that I’m calling my own shots, all the things I saw that I didn’t like, that didn’t work for me, are gone. Now I get the chance to run it my way.
Friends At Work is a full-service agency with a staff of 40. We have an amazing roster of clients that includes artists like John Legend, Charlie Puth, Lindsey Stirling and Raphael Saadiq as well as some really exciting developing artists. Our staff is a collection of the most talented, kind-hearted professionals I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, many of whom I worked with at TAO and Atom Factory.
Our model is more matriarchal and, frankly, it’s just better. We’re building something really, really good based on what we think management is now and where we think it’s heading.
“John and I were like, ‘Okay, what else? Should we crack into wine or into film and TV? Should we crack into social impact?’ Yes. Yes, we should.”
At FAW we think of our artists as our partners, and we help them diversify so that they have very successful, sustainable careers.
It’s no small thing for John Legend to be an EGOT. I think many traditional managers would have told John, ‘No, you shouldn’t go do Jesus Christ Superstar, you shouldn’t try to build a film and TV company and you shouldn’t get involved in all these advocacy and philanthropy projects. You should only focus on the music piece and that’s it.’
To me, once you get the music industry down, staying in one lane is just boring. John and I were like, ‘Okay, what else? Should we crack into wine or into film and TV? Should we crack into social impact?’ Yes. Yes, we should.
And John is always the smartest, the coolest, the most engaged and the most willing to walk the walk, which makes it much easier, really interesting and really, really fun; he makes it all possible.
Was your experience with Troy at Atom Factory better than your experience at The Artists Organization?
It was a little better. Troy gave me a cut of the commissions, which Gary had never done.
I didn’t have the knowledge or ability to negotiate [for a cut] early on in my career. I mean I knew I was John’s manager, I knew I was smart and I knew I would do the bulk of the work, but I just didn’t know if it was appropriate for me to have a sliver of the back end. I thought it was right, but I was told it never happened, and I took that at face value, assuming that if I did a great job and made myself valuable, they would just want to share the rewards with me. Sadly, that’s not the way it works, at least not at the companies I worked for. I was very naïve.
“Unbeknownst to me, Troy was losing Gaga and selling half the company, using a deck that featured all my artists.”
Troy built a beautiful space at Atom Factory and a really cool brand. Everybody believed Atom Factory was this amazing, innovative, tech-driven entity and Troy had enjoyed tremendous success with clients like Lady Gaga.
I had a bigger piece of the back end – not an even amount, and not nearly what I believed I deserved, but better than I had at TAO. Troy gave me a lot of freedom, allowing me to sign acts like Lindsey Sterling and Megan Trainor (pictured inset). And in a very short period of time I was making significant annual revenue for Atom Factory.
Unbeknownst to me, Troy was losing Gaga and selling half the company, using a deck that featured all my artists. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
What was your role at Atom Factory, officially?
I was never an employee; I was a contracted worker with no fiduciary oversight. After Gaga left, Troy made me co-President, and I do think that helped the industry have confidence in my ability; ‘Oh, she’s co-President of Atom Factory, she must mean something.’ If I learned anything from that experience, it’s that smoke and mirrors goes a long way.
But, again, Atom Factory had high staff turnover, no trust, people were always coming and going. If I had been permitted to spend the money on infrastructure, it would have looked very, very different. And I would have taken care of my people.
So, when my contract ended and I had already jumped ship, I knew I was going to launch my own company. I didn’t know if Lindsey and John would come with me and I knew Megan wouldn’t because she had just signed a contract. But I knew the most talented people at that company would come with me. So, five years ago, we left and started Friends At Work.
“You see these managers with seven houses and private jets; it’s not that I’m not against wealth accumulation, but it does make me feel that the music business is really a small group of powerful men who utilize low-cost, eager, high turnover labor, and don’t give staff a cut, training, growth path or any visibility.”
I bump into Troy at Grammys parties, and I always admire him. I think he’s a really creative, unbelievable entrepreneur who reinvents himself over and over again. He’s a survivor, he’s innovative.
One thing that bothers me in general, I have to be honest, is the insane greed. You see these managers with seven houses and private jets; it’s not that I’m not against wealth accumulation, but it does make me feel that the music business is really a small group of powerful men who utilize low-cost, eager, high turnover labor, and don’t give staff a cut, training, growth path or any visibility. They keep all the money to buy their many houses and invest in their inner circle tech deal flow; I have no desire for that. After a while management becomes secondary to their investment portfolios.
If I’m going to make money I want my team to grow with me; I want all of my managers to be making great money, and I want everyone to rise, be productive and successful as our artists thrive.
That’s why it’s called Friends at Work, not the Ty Stiklorius Company. I think that old model is greedy, and I don’t think it aligns well with art. Not that I haven’t made mistakes and taken wrong turns — I’ve totally fucked up and had to learn along the way not to always listen to traditional advice in the music business.
I don’t regret any of them, because they were all learning experiences, but there are certain artists where there were enough red flags to have known that they weren’t the right fit for us.
Any manager worth their salt will tell you that there is a certain kind of artist where life is just too short. Like, you definitely don’t want to be in business with an extreme narcissist. I don’t care how much money is at stake, it’s not worth it.
Manager/artist relationships that are abusive or about servitude are damaging to the psyche and not sustainable. My artist relationships are deeply, deeply respectful and symbiotic.
John has never made me feel like anything less than his partner. And the old model of the manager banging his fist on the table, being the shark, doesn’t work anymore — especially now, where the world is in such turmoil and so many people are suffering. You have to have consideration and integrity and you have to take care of people; it’s not about winner takes all.
“You definitely don’t want to be in business with an extreme narcissist. I don’t care how much money is at stake, it’s not worth it.”
Being an artist is hard: touring all the time, trying to get the next hit; it’s a grind. I really care about the health and wellness of artists, so many of whom are very young and don’t have a lot of structure when they achieve fame.
I want to see them have sustainable, long-term careers. I want to see Charlie Puth follow in John Legend’s footsteps. I want him to feel safe, to have a meditation practice and to be able to tackle the struggles of this business.
Sadly addiction, dysfunction and mental illness are all a big part of the music business. I managed Ryan Adams for a year. That’s a whole other article.
Managers need to establish boundaries and to know what is good for both them and their team. These days we are extremely selective about who we work with.
Apart from his voice, what makes John Legend special – and why do you think he connects with people like he does?
John has just completely filled his goodwill bucket. I mean he is as good as you think he is as a human being – even better. He is very, very kind and thoughtful and consistent. He’s one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met. He is insanely talented and creative and soulful. And he’s really diligent about his writing process and his art.
He’s not the kind of artist who has to suffer, or drink alcohol until they get to the great song at 2am. He is the kind of guy who can go into the studio, write a hit in four hours and then go home and cook dinner for the family.
“John is insanely talented and creative and soulful. And he’s really diligent about his writing process and his art.”
I do believe that Chrissy Teigen has helped John’s personality and sense of humour emerge a little more, because she’s so funny and she’s brought out a more playful side. Ever since the two of them got together he’s gone from star to superstar, and I’ve watched that happen. Plus it all coincided with All Of Me [2014, US No. 1], which was his first really massive cross-genre hit.
Now I think people just trust him. They know that he’s smart. I look to his voice on all kinds of matters. If there’s something going on in the world, he’s the first person I check in with. I text him every day: ‘Did you read this? Did you see this? What do you think about this? You should read this book.’
He’s just so smart, thoughtful and engaged. There’s a joke where we all wish he would run for president.
Is that a joke?
It’s a joke because he says he won’t do it, but we’re all hoping that one day he will.
There’s a quote from you that says, ‘We don’t work with artists who don’t want to use their platform for good. I have no interest in a pop star who just wants another hit’.
Well, it’s not that I don’t have any interest in a pop star who wants the next hit – it’s that I care about a lot more than that.
I’m all about getting John or Charlie Puth a massive next hit. I am interested in artists who are aiming for hits, but who are also seeking to build sustainable careers where they’re engaged, doing their art, pushing the boundaries and giving back.
If you’re the kind of manager with the kind of artist who just wants the hits, the second that something’s not a hit they blame you and they fire you. I’m especially interested in artists who want to follow in the footsteps of artists who have seen it as a responsibility to reflect the times, like Nina Simone, Harry Belafonte, Marvin Gaye, R.E.M., Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Stevie Wonder and Bob Dylan.
John recently announced some plans for new music in his #TogetherAtHome broadcast. Can you give us more details about that, and are they being affected – either being brought forward or pushed back – by current circumstances?
John’s been working on an album for the last couple of years. It’s called Bigger Love, and I think it’s a masterpiece. Raphael Saadiq executive produced it. We’re hoping it comes out in the next few months.
We do have a timeline, but everybody and every label is watching the situation. My perspective is that we should put it out, because we don’t know if some people will be here tomorrow to hear it – literally. So, I want to get it out, and so does John.
Talking of the current crisis, what have your challenges been, as a manager and a company leader?
As a manager, we’ve had to cancel some tours, and we’re likely to have to cancel some more. We’ll be down in revenues by several million dollars, but I am very happy to say that our company will weather the storm.
I’m making a commitment to keep all of our staff and to make sure everybody is healthy and safe. I feel really deeply that we’re all in this together, and it’s an important time for CEOs to hold on to their people and keep their teams strong.
“We’ll be down in revenues by several million dollars, but I am very happy to say that our company will weather the storm.”
Another interesting challenge right now has to do with how you get people to listen to new music at this time, when streaming numbers are down. Honestly, though, that’s secondary to the bigger purpose of how we leverage artists’ influence and power to help the world through this.
When Hugh Evans [from Global Citizen] called and asked if we could do concerts from home, Chris Martin, John, Hugh and I talked it through and that’s how the #TogetherAtHome conversation started.
Now it’s going to be on April 18, on three separate networks and streamed all over the world.
Have you experienced much sexism in the music industry? And is there a particular brand of sexism reserved for women in management? I ask because I think I read somewhere that you’ve previously been assumed to be John’s PA, or publicist, or girlfriend, is that right?
That’s true. For many years people didn’t even notice me in the room, and if they did, they assumed I was John’s assistant. That was tough. It didn’t matter how many times I’d been in the room previously or that I had brought the John Legend business to Gary or Troy, Gary or Troy were always viewed as ‘the manager’. It was endlessly frustrating.
“A number of my interviews at that time began with invitations to dinner and ended with invitations to their hotel rooms.”
There’s definitely sexism. When I was graduating Wharton I was interviewing to try and get a foot in the music business. I thought I couldn’t have been more appropriately experienced and smart, and I’d even been a musician myself.
A number of my interviews at that time began with invitations to dinner and ended with invitations to their hotel rooms. I never took anyone up on their offers and remember being very sad that as a woman in the music business I was always going to contend with sexual harassment. A lot of the old guard are like that, and it’s still happening.
Is it getting better?
It’s changed a little, but I think it’s also because I’m older and more confident.
I still see it happening. I’ve actually seen it from artists in their forties and fifties hitting on the day-to-day manager or assistant in their early twenties. I think they see it as part of the job description.
We haven’t seen a lot of #metoo articles in the music business so far. It’s been really quiet. Too quiet.
Why do you think that is?
It’s such a small business; there are very few people, with an awful lot of power between them, who ascended together, so they protect each other. Who has the independence to speak out against that?
Like when the ten women got together to tell Neil Portnow [former CEO of the Recording Academy] that it was not acceptable to say that women should ‘step up’; I repeat, there were ten of us. And then we asked the men to also support us, to ask Neil to step down… Neil was a friend, but he was not the right leader for this new business and it was time for him to move on.
He was very hurt that I signed that letter, but I told him it wasn’t personal and that I thought we needed new leadership.
I’m extremely disappointed with everything that’s happened around Deb Dugan [Portnow’s replacement, suspended and then fired within seven months of being appointed – pictured]. I think there’s a lot that needs to be worked through, on many, many levels of the music business.
Do you think a wider day of reckoning will come, and the momentum will build in the way that it did in the film industry?
I do think there has been a slight shift but, honestly, I’ve tried many times and I don’t know how it will all shake out.
One of the things that absolutely has to change is that people don’t talk about how often the recording studio is a place for harassment and assault.
There’s not a single woman writer or producer I know who hasn’t been harassed or assaulted in the studio setting, and I want to see the leadership of the music business step up to make studios safer spaces. There needs to be some signage up that says no harassment is allowed, and if it does happen, here’s how to contact a coalition that will offer support. That’s just such a simple fix and we need to make it happen.
“There’s not a single woman writer or producer I know who hasn’t been harassed or assaulted in the studio setting.”
And labels and publishers who are setting up these writing sessions or recording sessions should have everybody sign a contract prohibiting them from engaging in any dangerous or inappropriate behaviour such as assault and harassment. I don’t know why things like that haven’t happened already.
I’m waiting for the day when enough people speak out about their experiences. But women are scared. They see what happened to artists like Kesha and they clam up. It’s too small of a business and they’re worried it will hurt their career.
A young songwriter I know who was severely assaulted in a co-writing session in Nashville, she didn’t want to say anything because she was worried she’d be blacklisted and wouldn’t be invited back to any more writing sessions. She’s one of the better writers out there today, but even she felt like she had no power to do anything. She was in a writing session recently with a bunch of other women who shared similar experiences and they all realized it was the same guy.
Has anything been done to pursue that?
Not yet. The way that these things often get unearthed is something called ‘the whisper network’; women who are afraid it will negatively impact their careers at least have the whisper network amongst themselves, but it’s not nearly enough.
There should be better practices, more clarity, more accountability – actual protocol and protections in place to prevent this from continuing. But it’s a strange business and we need more women at the top, I know that for sure; that’s the only thing that will bring change. Because at the moment it just sort of seems like it’s a toxic part of the industry’s DNA.
There has to be some sort of truth and reconciliation process; we can’t just sit and try to silently work our way out of it.
What’s the one piece of advice you would give to a manager starting out now?
I get a lot of young people asking me, ‘How do I be a manager?’ And my first question to them is always, ‘Well, are you a manager? Are you managing anyone?’
If they’re not – and they’re usually not — I ask them if they go out and see bands and stay to the bitter end to talk to them. I ask if they’ve ever fallen in love with an artist enough to say, ‘Hey, do you need a manager?’ Because that’s how I did it.
To become a manager, you have to feel so moved by an artist that you absolutely need to manage them. The best managers I know found an artist they loved and dedicated themselves to them. It doesn’t often get handed to you, right?
It’s not usual that you go and get a job with a top management firm and they’re like, ‘Oh, you don’t know how to be a manager? No problem, let me put you on Pharrell!’ That doesn’t happen. You’ve got to do it yourself.
“The best managers I know found an artist they loved and dedicated themselves to them. It doesn’t often get handed to you, right?”
And I would also say don’t delay your altruism. Because if you can have a good reputation, and you have a good energy as someone who gives back and who thinks about the world beyond their own selfish needs, chances are you’re going to be one of those managers that people like and want to know and want to work with.
A lot of people say, ‘One day, when I’m Bill Gates, I’ll finally give something back,’ but I try and encourage people not to delay that process because it’s something you need to do, something you need to practice daily.
I’m watching this young woman who’s managing Yola. Her name is Charlie Pierce, she’s UK-based. Charlie left her finance job to become a manager because she just felt in her bones that she had to be a manager. When she saw Yola, who was later nominated for Best New Artist at the Grammys, she just knew she had to manage her.
There’s no one I know who is working harder than Charlie. I met her and Yola at the Grammys and I told them both, ‘You two are exactly what I want to see. I want to see two women working together as a manager and an artist, who are partners, doing whatever that needs to be done to make it happen.’
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