Managing The Talent

I am not certain if the above title is misleading as it’s often disputed that you can’t actually manage talent. For approximately 30 years I have been involved in the management of talent, also defined as artist management, in one form or another. I have often been asked, “What do you actually do”? Good question. Ideally the management of talent should be career development planning. This can range from: sourcing new talent, developing material and pitching to record companies, publishers and booking agents. It can be likened to a good coach working with either a sporting team or an athlete. However, in the music business, this career development can often turn into fire fighting and damage limitation. Ex CBS head, Walter Yetnikoff, described the role of artist manager in his 2005 book Howling At The Moon as “A manager is a cross between a Rabbi, Priest, guru, banker, financial adviser, friend, psychotherapist, marriage guidance counsellor, sex counsellor and business partner”. In essence, there is no solid job description with a list of selection criteria for the role of artist manager. It is the number of skills that the manager has at their disposal and can be deployed at various stages of an artist’s career that hopefully, gets the right results and the job done. The hours are long; the work is hard, its underpaid and nobody ever says thank you.

Burning Tree outside the front door of my old company 'Tim Dalton Productions' in Hull, UK.
Burning Tree outside the front door of my old company ‘Tim Dalton Productions’ in Hull, UK.

The music industry is a volatile, dynamic and a rapidly changing area of business, that’s why we work in it right? As such the music business is not exempted from the repercussions of unplanned, uncalculated and unstructured activities. Therefore, as it is with every modern business, each manager needs to know her/his role and what is required to play that role. The role of the talent manager is now more than pitching to labels or simply supervising other elements that contribute to the artists’ success. What it is about is creating visibility and value (building equity and mind share) and developing revenue streams. Artist managers are now evolving into creative business development managers. Not quite the men in beige offices sat behind their spreadsheets, Venn diagrams and BCG quadrant charts but definitely getting there. This is a far cry from the trailblazers like Peter Grant (Led Zeppelin), Andrew Loog Oldham (Rolling Stones), Malcolm McLaren (Sex Pistols) Brian Epstein (The Beatles) or my personal role model Bernie Rhodes of The Clash.

In 1991, I solo managed my first band, Opik, a group of art students back in my hometown of Hull, UK. I met them the first week of starting a documentary film making degree in the university’s refectory when I shot my mouth off to them about my previous 14 years worth of exploits in the music industry. Within weeks we had inked a deal with major record company BMG’s imprint DeConstruction Records and became Kylie Minogue’s label mates. We bought two very cheap rundown Victorian houses and installed a recording studio across the attics with our advance. We lived, worked and breathed music and had our very own alternative bohemian lifestyle for the next few years; it was a total breeze, it didn’t feel like a job. There was a sense of community and collaboration, well we did live together. Due to our creative output and hard work we became one of the few bands on the label’s roster to actually recoup our advance and make a profit. We also made some serious kick ass music too.

On tour with Primus in Europe. We stopped at the top of the San Bernardino Pass enroute to Italy for a snowball fight.
On tour with Primus in Europe. We stopped at the top of the San Bernardino Pass enroute to Italy for a snowball fight.

At the opposite end of the spectrum I managed Finley Quaye, which consisted of some very hard work, lots of upset, sleepless nights, pain, suffering and where every single penny was well and truly earned. The metaphor I often employed at the time when speaking to record company colleagues was that it was like dragging a three legged elephant up Mount Everest in a blizzard with a broken piece of string, with no pants on while juggling.

I have this unproven theory that the greater the talent the more difficult it becomes to manage. Finley proves this theory. A man of immeasurable creative talent, good looks, a songwriter, performer, actor, painter, the list goes on, he was the complete artist. I once had a very serious ‘career development’ meeting with Finley about his disruptive behavior and his ability to completely destroy any pre-made plans. The result was lots of tears (him not me), lots of hugging and promises of behavior modification from that point forward. The next day at Air Studios in London he turned up on time and sober ready for the recording session (a first) and asked if he could leave his backpack under the mixing console for safekeeping. Thirty minutes later everyone in the studio was laughing uncontrollably, feeling very heady and slightly sick. It didn’t take to long to work out why. Finley’s backpack contained a canister of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) which he’d opened and effectively gassed the studio. Session cancelled, at great cost, lots of technicians and musicians with laughing gas hangovers and a very irate angry record company. This behavior was too much for me to handle, time to move to a safer and easier gig. This lack of respect for his own career development has led to Finley being homeless for the past 8 years and in dire health, if you believe the Internet.

Sadly these types of stories are all too common in the modern music industry. Artists start to believe their own publicity, indulging in unprofessional behavior and then blame someone else when the shit hits the fan. Ian Hunter’s 2014 book The Great Ones Are Always The Cracked Ones elucidates the nightmare of managing former Kooks front man and songwriter Max Rafferty. Hunter’s story is a sad one of lies, betrayal and ultimate failure. But this is a two way street, in the past it was always the shylock managers that were the villains; those archetypal managers with the huge cigars and Rolls Royce’s out shilling the rubes. This is an old American term for planting an accomplice in the crowd to drum up enthusiasm for a dodgy product. The etymology of the terms comes from ‘shilling’ meaning conning and ‘rube’ was a name for a country bumpkin and was heavily used by circus folk known as ‘carnies’. A classic example of how not to manage a band would be Bill Collins and Badfinger. Despite being signed to The Beatles’ Apple label and selling millions of records, the band never saw any of the money. Partly as a result of miss-management, Peter Ham and Tom Evans both committed suicide. Artists and creatives in general are vulnerable human beings and require a high level of compassion (a DKHQ key word). In the music business, version 2.0, compassion and duty of care are both important concepts.

Outside Tokyo airport with De La Soul.
Outside Tokyo airport with De La Soul.

Ironically the music business is improving in direct contradiction to the decrease in music sales. The Association of Artist Managers (AAM) has recently published its Code of Conduct for Managing Artists. It’s all common sense stuff, which good managers should be adhering too rigidly. I like to think that at DKHQ we always run ahead of the pack, being at the cutting edge of current thinking. To this end I would like to see all students studying music/entertainment management get free membership to AAM as part of their education. The Code of Conduct is influencing and positively driving improvement in music business. To ensure that this code is understood and adopted in succession planning by the music industry, it has entered the curriculum at various higher education institutions teaching music and entertainment industry management. As a music industry veteran, I regularly speak to early career music industry managers via master classes and guest lectures. I think engagement at this level is very important as it fosters good practice and establishes some of the basic ground rules.

A career in the music industry, and in particular artist and talent management, is never going to be a mainstream career choice. It’s unlikely that you will ever see a national newspaper advert for an artist manager but it’s a great rewarding profession and the jobs are definitely out there for clever creative managers. In the often repeated words of Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley’s manager “I’m Elvis’ manager because he says I am and, because I say I am”.

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