What is a manager?

The business school answer:
It depends.

The Monkey’s answer:
It’s not what everyone makes it out to be, but that’s not such a bad thing…

I read it in a book somewhere…
Donald Passman does a decent job describing the official textbook role in his music biz book called “All You Need To Know About The Music Business.” He suggests a young musician look for someone who’s connected as a Business Manager and someone who’s organized as a Personal Manager. He threw in something about trustworthy, won’t steal from you, and ruthless negotiator for good measure. But even so, the whole thing still confuses the hell out of me, especially with how quickly the business of music has been turned upside down…

I mean, what does it mean to be connected in this day and age anyway?

It’s not what everyone makes it out to be, but that’s not such a bad thing…
The music manager of the future is not the proverbial rainmaker, as “Hit Men” manager lore and music industry magazines will have you think. It’s not a buncha back slapping, hand shaking, and napkin back deal making anymore. Not that I’ve seen, anyway. The managers of tomorrow are professional, tech-savvy, entrepreneurial marketers such as the NJ SEO consultant which specialize in this. They generally know more about music and creativity than they let on. And the network of people they bring to the table is very different from managers of days gone by. The people they need to know are often unexpected.

There used to be unsurmountable barriers between indie musicians and mass marketing channels. Managers were in place to help artist scale those barriers and capitalize on the prizes on the other side of the wall.

It used to be an artist had to…
– sign their soul (and creativity) away to a deep-pocketed label,
– deal and squeaky wheel with a clunky distributor,
– nose their way onto a big booking agency roster,
– insert a catheter for a payola-pushing radio promoter,
– beg and plead for a percentage from their vaguely (i mean vastly) networked publisher,
– play anywhere for anything just to get people to hear the music.

The artist rarely had a say about expenses, but was expected to recoup nevertheless. Reports were generated monthly (sometimes) by the label, distributor or manager. Figures sprayed across dot stipple-printed spreadsheets as if they actually came from real data sources, and yet somehow nobody ever audited the labels or distributors. Only the artists were audited. Cassette tapes grew on trees, but no matter how many albums sold somehow most were still returned to the distributor and/or destroyed.

Return? Destroy?

Young managers and artists think that is some kind of joke. Like, “I used to walk 5 miles to school uphill in the snow…” Really, it happened. Return. Destroy.

What about the future? No more returns. No more stocking fees. No more shelf position. No more wasted inventory. Essentially, no more mass market blanketed PUSH.

“Push” marketing is much easier than “pull” marketing because it’s just basically throwing money and reach/frequency at artist development. New forms of pull marketing – digital and social media, and other of the most measurable forms of direct marketing – they all can get complicated. And that is why managers of the future must be marketers.

I find myself with every new client that comes to Market Monkeys pausing to ask, “What’s my job again?” The answer always comes back in some form of why I got into this business in the first place…

My job is to get songs into ears and artists into lives of people who will love them. Every listener and every listen matters.

In order to understand what a new music industry manager does, it is important to understand what’s changed so much to make new managers necessary. See the new manager in his/her natural habitat, if you will.

Okay, here’s the part where I pontificate on the future of music. So if you’re sick of that stuff, I highly recommend skipping to the manager’s list of survival skills below…

The future of music is a smorgasbord of all things good and evil in the history of our great(ly troubled) industry. Mainstream music’s Managers, Agents, Labels and Publishers will continue opportunistic ventures that stifle a great majority of our nation’s talent, and elevate a small minority of artists/albums in initiatives that stimulate the top (but not the bottom) line. It is important to understand the economics of these ventures.

The music industry has historically been about cash flow, short-term gains, and revenue (top line)… NOT net income/profit (bottom line). The Internet boom in America did more than just rapidly develop a new technology to facilitate digital music distribution. New technology is created every day.

The dotcom boom of the late nineties did much more than just invent digital downloads for musicians, though most people don’t recognize it. The Internet boom rattled personal, public, corporate, and governmental awareness of the importance of bottom line financial results in business. Somehow we had gotten fat and happy for a spell there, and we were dazzled by the big figures at the top of our Income Statements. It created a shiny diversion, keeping us distracted from the part of business that has something to do with profit. The dotcom boom and bust taught venture capitalists a lot about qualified investments and dissemination of capital risk. The growing national deficit and real estate rush that seems to be following in its dotcom sister’s footsteps is fixing to teach us this lesson even more so in the next 3-5 years, so pay attention. It affects many real estate investors now looking for innovative  solutions like IDX for real estate to help them boost sales.

Why is this important?
Because the time has come for the music industry to learn these lessons, too! And what better time than when it’s terribly hip in the business and financial world to do so? Record label execs are nothing if not fashionably dressed, party-going and gift-receiving venture capitalists. They have to start thinking, investing, and behaving like it. You can be sure as the likelihood of an American football stadium name changing in 1998 that the VCs are watching SG&A (Sales General and Administrative expenses) nowadays. Labels should, too. As should artists.

(What did she just say? Artists should look at SG&A?)

Musicians are the CEOs of their entrepreneurial ventures. Some are small, sustainable ventures. Some are large, risky, and ambitious. Some are combinations of these and other elements. Music careers are like snowflakes. Whatever the goals and scope of a musician’s business venture, the path is difficult and MUST have a determined and committed artist CEO at the helm.

Musicians are no longer hired by the labels. They are hiring the labels – letting the labels in on the deal, and partnering with labels to assemble the best possible team to promote their music and their brands. Musicians hold the assets, and if they can manage to leverage themselves enough to take on the bulk of the risk, they will reap the bulk of reward. But to do this, it must be a conscious decision to take on risk. And don’t forget that the words “manage to leverage themselves” includes the word “manage” – while it’s more lucrative than the old way, it takes a lot of work. And for some musicians, this means learning skills they never knew they would need, just to keep owning their songs.

The musician must assemble a team that supports his/her business goals. He/she must have a mission, brand, product, packaging, pricing strategy, event planning, promotion, distribution, marketing, and if possible they must advertise. The team members a musician hires to help their venture soar must be chosen carefully for their relevant intellectual property, experience, relationships, goodwill, and most importantly for their strategic plans and ability to execute.

You heard me right. Musicians are CEOs.

So, just as labels will no longer hire musicians, managers will no longer push musicians and other industry players around. Really. Managers shouldn’t even try. It’s embarrassing…

The music manager can’t get by just being good at wearing black, hanging out with lawyers, A/R people, DJs, and promoters, and throwing weight around anymore. They can’t make a business pulling the wool over people’s eyes with promises of grandeur followed by an intimate walk down an unlit back alley. Managers can’t strongarm, snub, sweettalk, or charm their way to success. They can no longer make a living out of writing contracts that artists sign out of need for the cap feather manager. The artists write the contracts now. And the manager signs. (Well, maybe it’s not that severe. But certainly, the artist and manager define the relationship together and at the end of the day it is in the manager’s best interest to manage the artists’ expectations along the way.)

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying Managers are obsolete or no longer necessary. I am just saying Managers are being held to new standards of performance. Managers, Labels and Musicians still have places in one another’s lives – but as equal business partners with shared goals… To make and evangelize great music.

New managers have to be superheros in strength, stamina, passion, confidence, intuition, and intellect. The modern day manager’s gotta hussle and maintain momentum.

Here are just the first twenty survival skills of new music managers that come to mind…

  1. Representing the artist with pride, professionalism, and integrity at all times.
  2. Understanding what the artist is trying to achieve, and sharing the same goals.
  3. Being open about what they are personally/professionally trying to achieve – and aware of any conflicts of interest – a manager’s interests can impact the recommendations they make to musicians.
  4. Boiling down brand strategy and messaging, so it’s easy for everyone on the team to know what to say about the artist, the album, the tour, the article, the interview, the what-have-you…
  5. Understanding the artist’s target market and fanbase – both in demographics and in common personality traits/behavioral characteristics.
  6. Project management and interpersonal skills to mobilize a full team of people (both hired and volunteer) with diverse expertise to execute a fully integrated marketing program – usually on a small budget, with severe time limits, and with people who are not accustomed to being “briefed” or “managed”
  7. Over-communicating, over-planning, over-analyzing, and over-reporting (meaning reporting often and completely, not to be confused with over-stating figures)
  8. Utilizing ALL forms of communication, having a sense of, sensitivity to, and respect for the forms different people in the business prefer to utilize (i.e. Snail Mail, Phone, Fax, Email, Blackberry, iPhone, IM, Text Messaging, Facebook, etc.)
  9. Constantly innovating – always being willing to try new tactics, trespass unchartered territories with confidence and patience, and encouraging the CEO to do the same.
  10. Dynamically weighing the pros, cons, and priority level of every new initiative and adjusting strategy to remain current.
  11. Not only prioritizing what projects are most important, but also constantly auditing the best use of his/her own time to be sure every effort has anticipated return (in long term fanbase growth, customer lifetime value, or quality of relationship-building, if not in short term gains)
  12. Valuing past learning. Just because the industry has changed does NOT mean that all learning from the “old guard” is obsolete. I can’t imagine anything further from the truth. Afterall, the first vinyl record sales happened similar to the way Hear Music has sold CDs in recent years… Through unique in-store product placement and creative distribution tactics.
  13. Honestly accepting responsibility for mistakes and/or failures – and actively seeking to learn from these events. Sometimes accepting responsibility for the artists’ mistakes and/or failures – but only when it has been clearly and mutually decided that the manager will do so.
  14. Reading people. Understanding their interests/intentions. Knowing when it’s the right time to fight a battle, and how is the most advantageous way of approaching such a situation.
  15. Ability to talk to the artist about anything, bring up subjects others are afraid to approach, and do so with tact and the interest of the music/artist in mind (just as a chief operating officer would with their CEO).
  16. Respecting the expertise of other team members, especially hired experts. (Basically, the manager shouldn’t BS when there’s someone in the room who actually knows what the heck they’re talking about.)
  17. Listening, leading, learning, deligating, motivating, executing, and continuously planning.
  18. Running the artist’s web site like a B2C retail ecommerce sales engine – with prioritized profit channels, sales goals, acquisition cost targets, customer lifetime value knowlege, regular analytics reporting, and ongoing optimization to enhance user experience and conversion rate.
  19. Insisting on measuring anything and everything measurable all the time everywhere, and unabashedly throwing tantrums whenever a musician balks at record-keeping tasks.
  20. … And when necessary, recognizing the human need to stop pushing for a moment, leading the team in a collective deep breath, and reminding the artist why they took this all on in the first place.

Happy Managing,

P.S. An afterthought posted a couple days after the initial publication of this blog entry… I realize that I have usually provided outside reading suggestions in my previous entries. There’s plenty of more reading on the subject of managers, past, present and future. Recently, a column written by Janis Ian for Performing Songwriter was brought to my attention – it’s called “Managers and Messengers” and it’s on her web site ( While the column is 10 years old, it’s still relevant. It is a great study in mutual gains negotiations/relationships between musicians and managers. There are always things to take and leave, as with any article. Let’s hope this trend continues, for the good of us all and the music!

P.P.S.  [Added October 2010]  Another great blog post about music management worth reading… Josh Ritter just did a great little Q&A with his career-long manager Darius Zelkha, that illustrates well the diversity of tasks that happen in a given day in the life of a contemporary music manager – What The Hell A Manager Does >>