Is It Time for a Band Manager?

By: Maureen Herman

Great Managers & How to Find Them

A rock headliner-turned-artist manager shares her insights into the business side of music.

By Maureen Herman

August 9, 2006

In 1991 I was living in a drafty warehouse on Chicago's South Side, practicing with my band in the basement and playing local clubs -- until I got a call that would change my life.

An old friend phoned with news that the bassist had quit the band and asked if I'd like to join. That band, Babes in Toyland, had just signed to Reprise and was about to record their major label debut. I joined. In two weeks I was on tour, with a recording session scheduled immediately after we got off the road.

In true punk rock fashion, we split all of the work. But things soon became hectic, and it became an overwhelming responsibility to keep on top of our business -- touring, recording, upgrading equipment, something about ASCAP, and needing someone to tell us that A&R didn't stand for Artists & Restaurants. We wanted an ally, someone like us who understood what we were doing, who knew the business and could help us protect our interests and image.

It was time to get a manager.

In all my previous bands, I'd never thought of having a manager or even known what music business people really did. Entrenched in the DIY ethic of Chicago's indie scene, when I pictured a manager, I saw a cheap suit, a cigar, and a snake holding someone else's money.

Fast-forward a few years, and today I'm a music business executive. I dress pretty cheaply sometimes, and I do smoke cigarettes -- but I know now that most managers out there are not thief-like Svengalis. By and large they're hard-working people from all walks of life, with a passion for music and a respect for artists. How do you find one of these managers -- someone who has the drive, if not the experience, to nurture your career?

Glad you asked.

Where do I find a manager and what does it look like?

'Be clear early on about where you could use some help. Look at the people around you -- can any of them offer you that help?'

Calling up a big coastal management firm is not the best first step in finding representation -- especially if you're a "baby band" (which is an unappealing term used by the industry to describe a band that's just starting out or shopping for a deal). The best thing to do is look at the people closest to the band -- people who appreciate what you're doing and can offer constructive support. It may be the friend who's always helping you put up flyers and load out equipment at the end of the night. Or maybe it's the woman who books the club you call home and awards you the primo slots. Those situations can grow naturally and successfully into management/client relationships. Witness Maggie McPherson, formerly booking agent for the Uptown Bar in Minneapolis, now manager of then-local bar band and current Columbia artists the Jayhawks.

Many managers, like me, become involved with no intention of full-time management. Instead, they see a talent, become passionate about its potential, and feel they can contribute something to that artist's drive for success. Steve Hutton of Upper Cut Management was a friend of Kid Rock's back in Detroit and, until recently, his manager. "There was a local band that I really liked," Hutton recalls. "I started working with them. I used that as an excuse to network and teach myself the business."

Like Hutton, Janet Billig at Immortal Entertainment has an eye for indie talent and has learned about how to develop it on the job. One of her first clients in the early '90s was Courtney Love and her band Hole; she now works with Lisa Loeb, Cibo Matto, and Guided by Voices, and partners in a film production company with Love. "At different stages of an artist's career, you need a manager to do different things," Billig says. "Sometimes newer artists think, 'I need someone to help me design flyers.' Well, some managers might be really good for making flyers, but that may not be the best use of their time or abilities. Think of how they can facilitate your goals instead of thinking of them as your personal assistant."

In other words, be clear early on about where you could use some help. Look at the people around you -- can any of them offer you that help? What could you give them in return?

'A manager needs to love and appreciate the music of an artist, but they also need to be able to tell them the truth.' -- Danny Goldberg

Is experience necessary in a good manager?

Let's say you're thinking about asking someone who has a track record with other artists to manage you. The fact that this person has been in the music business gives you grounds for doing some research. Danny Goldberg, currently Chairman & CEO of Artemis Records, founded Gold Mountain Management and counted Nirvana, the Beastie Boys, Bonnie Raitt, and Rickie Lee Jones among his clients. "If someone's dishonest with other people," he warns, "they're going to be that way with you. Bands should also avoid managers who are intimidated by them. A manager needs to love and appreciate the music of an artist and like them, but they also need to be able to tell them the truth, which sometimes includes bad news or advice they don't want to hear."

Sometimes these qualities can compensate for a lack of experience. "Depending on how far along the artist is in their development, the manager should have some skills and expertise in the business," Goldberg continues. "If they don't have direct expertise, they should have a temperament that makes them open-minded and able to learn."

Steve Hutton agrees. "People should not look down on managers who haven't had success yet. Everyone has to start somewhere, and frankly, a lot of times a new manager may be better than an experienced one, because you're probably going to be their only act and their most important work. The experienced manager has other acts and more things on their plate."

Beyond honesty and respect for the artist, what qualities are important for the novice -- and veteran -- manager? "Patience and perseverance are the two most essential qualities," says Hutton. "You cannot be tenacious enough. At the same time, you have to be diplomatic, creative, and intelligent."

That's just the beginning, according to Boche Billions, a.k.a. David Viecelli, of Billions Corporation in Chicago, a booking & management firm whose roster includes Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Southern Culture on the Skids, Wire, Calexico, and the now disbanded Jesus Lizard. "Besides the obvious things, it is about finding someone who understands who the band is, what they want to get out of being a band, and what the realistic expectations for that band are in the marketplace."

'Good managers are worth a great deal to an artist. And bad managers are worth zero." -- Danny Goldberg

What exactly do managers do?

"A lot of work goes into the public hearing the music," states Danny Goldberg. "It's time-sensitive, and it requires finesse and intelligence to avoid disasters. Whether it's something going wrong in a club, the relationship with the media, the record company, the attorney, or the booking agents, I don't know if artists are always aware of how much work it is. It's the kind of profession where anything good that happens is credited to the artist and anything that goes wrong is the fault of the manager.

"It's hard sometimes to measure a manager's real contribution, impact, and value in a tangible way," Goldberg admits. "Therefore, you're hoping that there's an intuitive grasp of it. There's no chance for an It's a Wonderful Life run-through of what your career would be like without the manager. That's the most frustrating thing for both parties. The artist always wonders, 'Am I getting my money's worth?' The manager wonders, 'Do they appreciate what I'm doing or not?' I believe good managers are worth a great deal to an artist. And bad managers are worth zero. So the profession is extremely valuable -- when done correctly."

Good managers are networkers; they understand that the business is all about relationships. Though it may be your song in the movie, the path it followed to get there may be this convoluted: Your manager is backstage at the Foo Fighters show, which he got into because he used to book bands at the club part-time. He runs into his ex-girlfriend's brother, who works for a film company. They talk about a film that's under production there, and it turns out they're looking for a song with a train theme for the soundtrack. The manager remembers that your band has a train song on their demo. Phone numbers are exchanged.

The point, of course, is that it's not always easy to trace or gauge the manager's positive effect. As Billig points out, "There are little accomplishments that seem insignificant to the artist or outside world but are gigantic for the artist's career. It's hard for anyone, even an artist, to see that opportunity the manager gained for him or her."

"I think there's a quote from Andy Gould [manager of Rob Zombie and Monster Magnet] that says, 'A manager's job is to be the thing that gets between the bullet and the artist's foot,'" laughs Hutton. "I think that's true, combined with contributing to the artistic process. That doesn't necessarily mean creating the music, but representing the music in the proper spirit and in a creative way."

Managers essentially work for free until they can create financial opportunity and exposure.

"You want me to pay you what?!"

Commission: Anywhere from 5% to 20%, with the norm being 15%.

This is how the manager is able to afford to work for you and still pay the phone bill and eat out once in a while. In the early days, it can be tough: The client doesn't have income, which is why he or she wants a manager. The manager essentially works for free until he or she can create financial opportunity and exposure.

At this stage, it's important for all parties to be realistic. In the beginning of his career, manager Chris Moon [Josh Rouse] still worked a second job -- and for as long as it took, so did his client. "I've talked to several people who made big money on big deals," he says. "They still have to work on the side because of the initial investment of getting to that point. Unless the artist gets a signing bonus you can commission, all the money from a record deal goes toward making a record. You can only commission what is actually income, not expenses. That's why it's good to get a publishing deal and get some money up front for you and your client. Either way, you have to have someone administer your publishing or you're never going to take all your money in -- that's a given. So you either sell your publishing or you hold onto it and get an administration deal. In the leverage for that money, you give up ownership for 'x' amount of years."

How many years? "That depends," Moon says. "Do you want to wait to earn the money, or do you want somebody to pay up front? Other than that, income comes only from merchandise and live performance -- and that's where your management efforts should be focused after the deals are done."

As Billions points out, "For every one of those deals, there's 30 other tasks that have absolutely no income related directly to them. For me, the reward is in the relationship itself. Of course there's satisfaction in having something become a success from a fiscal standpoint, but there's a lot of little victories, and lots of little to medium frustrations. You miss out on the fun of managing if you don't see the process as worth it."

Sometimes artists forget how they got to be successful. To them, their first manager transforms into something like an old guitar they want to trade for a shiny new red one. In both sides of this scenario, the artist has forgotten how their old association helped them get to where they are, and that history -- especially the trust and communication built into a manager/client relationship -- is priceless.

This is not to say that you should never change management or fire your manager. If you feel your needs are not being met, or that your interests or money are no longer protected, or if you plain don't like each other anymore, you should part ways. But associating humble beginnings with the "small time" can put you in the hands of someone who wasn't there when you were broke, unknown, and losing faith. Even if things are on the upswing with your next manager, the minute things look shaky, you could find yourself deserted by someone whose allegiance to you began after all the toughest work was done.

'I don't have a problem picking up an artist with no deal; I have a problem picking up an artist without experience.' -- Janet Billig

How do I get a manager interested in me?

If you have no record deal or solid interest (a negligible term in the flaky netherworld of A&R), and depending on how far you are in your career, you may not be able to attract a higher-level manager unless you really blow him or her away. Even so, there's a lot you can -- and should -- do to make your band appealing to a good manager, regardless of your label status.

"I tend to not pick up really small artists that haven't accomplished a certain number of goals by themselves," says Janet Billig. "It's really important that an artist go through the process of recording an album, generating press, building a buzz, and booking and promoting shows. I don't have a problem picking up an artist with no deal; I have a problem picking up and working with an artist without experience."

Steve Hutton's approach adds some gut instinct to the mix. "I get in trouble and have problems if I have to convince myself to manage a band and don't feel it immediately. I look for a good rock band with great songs, with relatively attractive people who are of a certain age, have a similar vibe, and look like a part of the same team. You don't want a bass player that looks like he's in Korn and a guitar player that looks like he's in Backstreet Boys -- that won't work. And this cliché will always be true -- it's all about the songs."

'If you can't get your brother-in-law's indie label to get back to you about the three demos CDs you sent them, you just might need someone with contacts.' -- P. W. Long

Do I really need a manager?

My former management client P. W. Long came up with the following definitive checklist that you can use to answer this question for yourself.

Your band is finally getting some label interest. You're wondering if it's time to get help navigating those perilous waters. Most certainly, if you do end up on a major label you'll need someone to protect your integrity from the A&R person who wants your techno-metal-hop outfit to fill a support slot for Ani DiFranco's tour and a radio department clamoring for you to do a Hooter's grand opening. Maybe, on the other hand, you can't even get your brother-in-law's indie label to get back to you about the three demos CDs you sent them. If so, your career just might need a kick-start--someone with contacts.

You Need A Manager If …

1. You have a major label deal. If you somehow swung your record deal without a manager, the label will either recommend or demand that you get one -- now.

2. You have more success with indie-label releases, gig earnings, and merchandise proceeds than you can keep track of efficiently.

3. Your band's income and popularity are stagnating, and you need to get your music into the hands of people who can generate income for your band (record labels, music publishers, film music supervisors, etc.).

Manager Criteria

1. Make sure your manager will be readily accessible and have the necessary time to devote to your project. If your selection pool is limited to friends and acquaintances, realize that your friendship will likely become strained if not entirely jeopardized.

2. Find someone whose reputation and methods will not compromise your band's image. A good manager is aggressive and firm, but also careful not to embitter a lot of people.

3. Make sure he/she is an ardent fan of your music. Your manager's enthusiasm and confidence about your future should be infectious.

What to Know Going In

1. The band and manager should agree on what to expect from each other. Define "manager." Does it include booking gigs, mailing posters, sending press materials, etc.?

2. Sign an agreement that's fair to everyone. This should prevent misunderstandings when -- after a term of failed efforts -- the manager says, "You owe me $5,000.00." You say, "Not according to this contract we don't."

3. Pay the manager the agreed percentage for his or her efforts whenever you can. This keeps everyone interested in staying actively involved.

4. Demand performance from your management. At the same time you must show the same commitment you expect from them: Do what you say you're going to do.

In all cases, use common sense. Trust the instincts of the band-member with the best judgment of character. If you don't have a solid list of management candidates, ask friends in other successful bands for guidance. If those efforts turn up nothing, Pollstar's quarterly "Agencies" issue offers an exhaustive list of management and booking agencies. Good luck.

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