In 2015, is there a future for the entrepreneurial artist manager? – 23/03/2015

Introduction

The battle between creativity and commerce is one that every artist will encounter when they start to attract interest from the public. The resulting commodification of that artists work then has to be dealt with professionally and securely. This is the role of the Artist Manager, to plan strategically in order to best exploit and generate interest in their client/s whilst keeping every single aspect of their careers closely monitored (Harrison, 2014, pp.31-61).

The variety of different business deals and problems encountered by managers has changed vastly over time in an ever shifting industry driven by technological change. Artists are now able to create music themselves without the need for label backing, on modest costs, using readily available yet highly sophisticated equipment. Social Media then allows artists to build a fan base for little or no cost and earn a sustainable wage through online distribution (Evans, 2014).

This situation has led to questions being asked of the value of the artist manager in today’s market, and if business savvy artists need someone behind the scenes pulling the strings. This essay hopes to find the way forward for artist managers in the 21st century in an attempt to find their relevance in today’s industry.

A brief history of Artist Management

Throughout the 20th century, artist managers have been centre stage with people like Malcolm McClaren, and Peter Grant grabbing almost as many headlines as the artists they represented. One of the key figures in this period was manager of The Rolling Stones, Andrew Loog Oldham, who details a shift in management style from the mid-sixties; “In the ’70s, a different kind of manager was required — a hard-nosed money collector. Acts had their own vision. In the ’60s, we provided them with that vision.” (Loog Oldham, 2014)

This could certainly be said of the heavy handed approach by Led Zeppelin’s manager Peter Grant. He became famous for his intimidation tactics towards bootleggers, and his fierce negotiations with promoters leading to a 90/10 split in Led Zeppelin’s favour on tours (Allen, 2014 pp. 31-46).

However, the situationism applied by Malcolm McClaren in the making of The Sex Pistols, that impacted on the whole UK punk scene, was closer in approach to that of the vision led managers of the 60s (Simpson, 2010). The “Svengali” managers of the 1960s were exemplified by London star-maker, Larry Parnes. Parnes took working class youths, dressed them up in flamboyant clothing and had them sing interpretations of American rock’n’roll music under exciting pseudonyms such as “Billy Fury” and “Vince Eager”. The “Svengali” approach to management can still be seen today with the successes of Simon Fuller, which could point toward this management style being a way forward in the contemporary market (stratobuddy, 2010).

The Decline of traditional Record Labels in the 21st century

The decline in revenue from recorded music sales has led to a shift in management priorities as managers feel that their influence extends far beyond their now industry standard 20% commission on the contractually stated areas of Recording, Publishing and Live income (Riches, 2012 pp. 24-28). As the industry moves forward, managers are looking at different ways to earn a living from artist’s successes, especially as manager’s work for the artists and could potentially be fired at any time so need to protect their own interests. One of these ways is to enter joint ventures with prospective artists and start businesses together, instead of just signing a traditional management contract. This would involve co-ownership of any available rights with the artist in question. This may work in some circumstances, but artists should be wary of any such deal, especially when major labels also look to take a share of all available income with 360 degree recording deals (Riches, 2012 pp. 15-17).

In the 21st century, the lines between the services offered by labels and managers will potentially become more blurred. The merger between Cooking Vinyl and Music Manager John Black to create Black Gold management is just one example of how labels and managers are forming partnerships. This particular deal will allow the management company to benefit from the A&R (artist & repertoire) and marketing departments of the label at an early stage but leaves the company free to partner artists with other labels/publishers should they see fit (Music Business Worldwide, 2015).

Simon Napier-Bell sees the role of the manager now as a developer and part A&R man. In an interview with music week, Napier-Bell argues that major labels are still the power players in the music industry holding most of the places in the top 20 in both the USA and UK. He also goes on to say that the way the internet has allowed artists to grow and develop without major label backing is a positive thing for the industry as in his opinion “Artistic development was always better in independent hands, rather than corporate, so it’s actually a big step forwards” (Napier-Bell, 2015). If this is to be the way forward, perhaps the re-evaluation of the management role is fair, as they are becoming more crucial in marketing an artist’s output at the earliest stages of their career. If this relationship is to become the norm however, it is of vital importance that the legal principles are correctly observed. Potential production and/or recording contracts offered by management companies must protect artist’s creative work. They cannot allow managers to “double-dip” by taking a percentage of revenue from a single source twice, once as a manager’s cut and then again as the label/publisher (Riches, 2012 pp. 15-17).

Established artists do now have the ability to bypass the major labels/publishers structures completely, and retain the rights in their compositions and recordings by utilising label services groups such as Kobalt, who have financial backing from tech companies the size of Google [Ingham, 2015]. Jazz Summers proves the importance of the alternatives Kobalt offers as he was able to reduce the percentage taken by a record label on one of his artists live income from 20% to 12.5% through the threat of using Kobalt over a traditional label deal [Summers, 2014]. The transparency offered by Kobalt through the use of data that can track royalty payments over 700,000 revenue streams is a tantalising prospect for the 21st century manager and one that could put him centre stage in his artists career, accounting to them like no record label has previously been able to (Collins, 2015). 

The importance of Brand Creation

In the modern music industry, Patrick Wikstrom proposes the idea that the importance of how people interact with the online world lies in the context and not the content of its services. He states that Spotify’s success is down to “the service’s features and structure are superior to those of its competitors” (Wikstrom, 2013 pp. 177) While this may be the case in the online world, the same arguably cannot be said for one of the music industry’s most entrepreneurial projects of recent years. Tyll Hertsen (2011, quoted by Martin, 2011) declared “Beats” headphones by Dr. Dre as “among the worst you can buy” yet the company’s sale to Apple in 2014 was worth a reported $3 billion (Moore, 2014). This is a perfect example of how a fresh idea by an artist that is branded correctly can make waves in the modern music industry. The product identified a gap in the market for fashionable and high quality headphones to be worn as a statement that people latched onto (Martin, 2011). This same model can be seen when looking at Simon Fuller’s success with The Spice Girls and S Club 7 who was quoted in a 2003 guardian article stating “I reflect what’s out there, and if there’s a demand for something I recognise it.” (Fuller, 2003) Fuller’s success went on and spread into the realm of television with the huge brands of Pop Idol and American Idol and all of these point towards the importance of brand power in today’s industry.

Josh Brandon from Insanity Management believes that when it comes to his artists “the music is secondary, it’s the lifestyle or brand that the artist represents is what people buy into” (Brandon, 2015). Perhaps this is one of the key areas for development and could lead to the widespread adoption of artist-specific subscription services. The mass amount of content and slick “context” of an on-line streaming service like Spotify allows consumers to listen to an incredible amount of music at the touch of a button. The potential for this type of service has been identified by Bandcamp, a platform that allows artists to sell their music direct to fans with no middle man. Their next step of development is to provide acts with a self-managed subscription service, where the artists themselves dictate the price-point and availability of content direct to their fans (Williamson, 2014).

One successful brand that has already capitalised on such a service would be Jack White’s subscription service run through his record label, Third Man Records. Platinum membership to the service entitles the consumer to a quarterly package of vinyl records and bonus items, as well as an exclusive on-line members area where video interviews are held with Jack White and other exclusive content can be downloaded (Third Man Records, 2015). This approach, along with marketing stunts such as recording the world’s fastest vinyl record, liquid filled vinyl records and the release of the 2014 album “Lazaretto” on the gimmick filled “Ultra LP” format resulted in Lazaretto being the fastest selling vinyl LP since records began (Caulfield, 2014)

By taking the wisdom of Simon Fuller and identifying what brand value an artist has and developing that, music managers could still retain their worth in the industry today. This would allow artists to concentrate on their musical output, whilst the managers seek to identify ways for fans to buy into artists as lifestyle choices, not just by purchasing their latest record.

21st Century Technological advancements and opportunities

Technology has always been a force that has dictated change in the music industry and led to new ways of generating revenue. One incredibly innovative way that established artists can generate revenue through streaming is through the placement of retroactive advertisements in the YouTube videos. This new technology means that brands can now place ads in music videos that weren’t there in the first place and is a way that they can ensure their message is seen that will benefit the brand visibility and the artist financially (Newman, 2014). 

The app world is another area of potential development in the 21st century for innovative ways of thinking that could open up a whole new world of possibilities for artists and managers. Bjork’s Biophillia application provided an immersive experience that allowed listeners to actively participate in a visual and aural world they could interact with, rather than just listening passively (Beaumont-Thomas 2014). Although this may not be the right approach for more mainstream pop acts, an application that focused on a specific artist rather than album could be developed for this audience. Managers could look into partnering with tech companies to create artist specific apps that are purchased and subscribed to. In return, exclusive premium content would be unlocked and back catalogue works readily available to stream/download, as well as press, video interviews and regularly updated social media channels.

Because of the changing nature of the industry, what is required for an artist’s success is highly based on social media metrics and online “buzz” in order to entice people to get involved with their creative output (Peckham, 2015). It is through applications like Soundcloud and Bandcamp that music can be shared immediately and for free which is becoming key in establishing an artist’s career early on. Music managers need to look further than just the music-focused apps already available though and encourage their artists to adopt and experiment with other platforms. Video streaming service “Meerkat” could provide a key insight for fans into an artist’s life on the road for example. Partnerships could be struck with this service to stream live shows or live chat/interview sessions could be held with competition winners. The services selling point is the here and now and immediate interaction, as the video is not saved after it is streamed, once it’s over, it’s over (Peckham, 2015). It is through the creative use of new platforms like these to showcase artist’s talents, and the insight provided by management teams that will see acts thrive going forward.

The Live music industry and its importance today

The potential revenue from the live music industry is one of the most immediate ways an emerging artist can make their career sustainable through performance fees, live performance publishing income and intuitive merchandise ideas (Allen, pp. 85-98). It is for this reason that the management team of an artist must identify this quickly and capitalise on it appropriately, whilst being careful not to over expose their act. This means they have to act in the best interest of their client and not of themselves, known as their “Fiduciary Duty”. The stresses of earning a living as an artist can be seen when looking at the Martin-Smith VS Williams case when Robbie Williams decided to leave Take That. Martin-Smith sued Robbie Williams for unpaid commission and Williams argued that he did not have to pay because Martin-smith had failed in his Fiduciary duty to him personally. Williams stated that Martin-Smith advised the rest of the band to sack him, but the rest of Take That and Martin-Smith said Williams left of his own accord. The court found that, Martin-Smith had advised Take That’s members individually to the best of his abilities, the interests of the group as a whole were protected and he therefore did not sack Robbie Williams. Martin-Smith was therefore not in breach of his Fiduciary duties and was paid the unpaid commission from Williams (Harrison, 2014, pp.31-61). Disputes like these still arise today and constant media exposure and touring commitments have led to One Direction star Zayn Malik to be signed off with stress from the bands activity. It would be interesting to see if he takes action against Modest Management (Modest Management, 2015), because he feels they failed in their Fiduciary duty to him (Guardian Music 2015).

One example of an entrepreneurial yet controversial approach to the live music industry can be seen when looking at the secondary ticketing market. The demand for entrance to a live show by a highly successful pop/rock act, who’s audience quantity outnumbers the tickets available, opens up a new potential revenue stream on the free market. Some people are able and prepared to pay a significantly higher price than face value to guarantee entry to a live show and this is what the secondary market provides. Promoters have been able to allocate tickets to secondary resellers and take a cut on the profits. Channel 4’s dispatches documentary stated that 1865 tickets allocated for SJM promotions for a Coldplay show sold for £229,230.51 which is around £123 per ticket and almost double the £65 face value and earned 90% of that mark-up (JustMe STKK 2012). Although this is a way to maximise revenue on live shows in a market where the price is dictated by demand, it is seen as unethical and has been met with calls for transparency by managers. Jon Webster, chief executive of the Music Managers Forum, told the BBC: “It reflects badly, at the end of the day, on the artists – probably more so than anyone.” (BBC, 2012).

This has led to legislation put through in the UK to require the face value, seat number and any applicable restrictions to be stated when put on sale though anonymity of the seller has been upheld (Hanley, 2015). The legislation will still allow promoters and artists to reap the benefit of the secondary market if they choose to do so, but the possibility of bad press could result in managers failing their fiduciary duty to their clients by damaging careers in an attempt to maximise revenue.

For artists that already have a following, the secondary market can be avoided through direct to fan sales platforms like Music Glue (Music Glue, 2015). Through a service like this, the artist and manager can set their own price point for their shows and sell direct to their most passionate fans without booking agencies or promoters getting in the way and taking percentages from the earnings. This empowers artists and managers to have their own live schedule and tour when and where they want through using data collection services and is exemplified by acts the size of Mumford & Sons using these new platforms (Reynolds 2012, pp. 312).

Another successful artist in the live area is Skrillex and Jazz Summers puts him forward as an artist that the industry could learn from; “[he] makes these tracks, puts them out, doesn’t worry about whether they’re on a label or not on a label. Then he does 300 gigs a year for £50,000 a night or whatever it is.” (Summers, 2014) Although this is clearly part exaggeration, it gives an example of a key industry figure identifying a trend that is leading to recorded music becoming a marketing tool for artists to earn money through the live sector. This sentiment is echoed by Adele’s Manager, Jonathan Dickins, as far back as 2008 when he said; “when you’re looking at people who are willing to pay more to see an artist live than they are to buy a CD or download an album then that tells you a lot” (Dickins, 2008).

Conclusion

Recorded music is now readily available for free and some industry figures like Jim Griffin, founder of Choruss music believes that “Sound recording’s economy is now a tip jar.” (Griffin, 2009) Griffin’s failed company believed a way forward could be to bundle in the cost of accessing recorded music at ISP (Internet Service Provider) level but the scheme stalled as it could not get licenses for enough content. (Rosenblatt, 2011) The ‘free’ access to music this would have facilitated, along with the significant stature of legal streaming services like Spotify and YouTube, further ads to the belief that the way forward for artists and managers is shifting. It is no longer through selling significant amounts of recorded music, but through finding innovative ways to license it through alternative media platforms that are not specifically music based, like Facebook and even on-line messaging services like Snapchat (Peckham, 2015)

The role of the contemporary music manager is to work with their artists, identify their target audience, and partner up with the relevant brands, tech companies and marketing teams at the time that is right for them. “The music is secondary, it’s the lifestyle or brand that the artist represents is what people buy into” (Brandon, 2015). If music managers can understand this and create worlds that fans want to engage with all year round, not just in the lead up to another album release, then artists can truly flourish. Technology that allows direct to fan engagement could open up a world of possibilities that would allow fans to be immersed in an artist’s activities like never before. The managers that service their acts fan base innovatively, and deliver content that has enriching cross format appeal, have the potential to provide an immersive and interactive experience that would benefit the entire music industry.

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