Max Willens is the editor of We All Make Music, a website dedicated to helping musicians thrive in a post-label world. His work has appeared in XLR8R, The Village Voice, Electronic Beats, Resident Advisor, FACT, and Philadelphia Weekly. He lives in Brooklyn.
On the first day of Scion’s Music(less) Music Conference, one panel in particular asked a very pointed question: Do you need a manager?
In today’s music climate, when musicians can do more and more by themselves, and when artists are capable of achieving so much on their own, it’s certainly worth investigating.
The panel, which consisted entirely of artist managers and was also moderated by an artist manager, unsurprisingly arrived at the answer of yes, but their answers were qualified.
“If you want to make money,” explained Jason Foster, the founder of label/artist management firm We Are Free, who handles indie favorites Yeasayer and Beach House.
“When they can no longer do it all by themselves,” said Jayson Jackson, a former VP of marketing at major labels ranging from Elektra to Virgin, whose management clients have ranged from everybody from Mos Def to Spank Rock to Lauryn Hill.
But the hour-long conversation was less about defending the panelists’ profession than about how artist management has changed. “A manager’s job is to create opportunities that an artist could never have anticipated,” explained Kevin Kusatsu, an A&R man for Warner Brothers who manages artists like RZA, Diplo and Switch. And in the past five years, those opportunities have both grown and become more abstract.
The all-or-nothing proposition that used to define pop music careers has been replaced by a much vaster middle ground, and figuring out where an artist can reside in that space is difficult. Succeeding as an artist is hard enough, but it’s almost impossible if you don’t have a concrete, personalized, realistic definition to work from.
“You have to work everything out,” Jackson said. “Not only where you’re at – A – but where you’re going – Z.” A manager, who has deep knowledge of how much success is possible in a given niche or scene, can set benchmarks.
Even determining that first letter is sometimes tough for an artist to do alone, which is why the best artist-manager relationships tend to come from a shared vision of your success. “It’s better if a manager finds you than if you’re constantly pitching yourself,” Foster said. That tends to ensure that both sides are invested in the project.
But to make sure the manager that seeks you out isn’t just looking to make a quick buck, it’s important to let a money-free relationship build for a while. “If I was in a band,” Foster continues, “I would expect that manager to work for free for a while.”
In fact, even if you’re committed to finding management yourself, make sure that your relationship isn’t defined by money from the start.
If you want to raise your profile in a particular scene, for example, Jackson suggests the following: “Find the top person in your field, figure out what kind of team they have, and pitch yourself as the next, up and coming type of artist in that world. Then offer to trade services with them. Don’t spend your money.”
That, ultimately, will be the best kind of litmus test for an artist looking for management, or at least thinking about securing some. If you can find someone with talent and expertise who’s willing to invest time and energy in your career, who doesn’t need some of that?