Originally published in Performing Songwriter Magazine
Issues #13–16, Mar–April 1996.
As performers and songwriters, we occupy a peculiar niche in the business world. Most peoples' work week begins Monday morning and ends Friday afternoon; our work week begins Friday night, just as the "civilian world" is shutting down to relax. Secretaries in our industry get a fraction of their usual pay from other industries, in return for a chance to rub elbows with stars and sometimes get a chance at stardom themselves. Mailroom clerks like David Geffen forge letters of recommendation, then go on to become billionaires, and no one holds it against them. The only rule is that there are no rules; the only certainty is that everything will change.
Oh - there is one other certainty! You cannot make it alone. If you're a performer, you'll eventually build a team of at least half a dozen people around you whom you count on for everything from road management to tax returns. Throughout the course of your career you may retain literally dozens of advisors, but the most intense relationship you'll have is the relationship with your manager. And a good one is very hard to find.
Our business is glutted with reliable agents, lawyers, and guitarists, but there is a conspicuous lack of good wardrobe stylists, visionary accordionists, and competent managers.
For the sake of this article I'll be using the word "manager" to mean a "personal manager". Not a business manager, financial manager, stage or production manager, but a personal manager. The person who takes care of an artist's career, in all its varied aspects. I firmly believe that, under the right circumstance, personal managers are to artists as great songs are to performers - the foundation and underpinning of a long and successful career.
There are legendary management combinations, just as there are legendary songwriting combinations. Elvis & The Colonel (Elvis Presley and his manager Colonel Tom Parker), Brian Epstein & The Beatles - these relationships are the stuff of legends. And they're also the stuff of lawsuits, and eternal wrangling, never-ending horror stories of greed and righteous indignation that cost millions of dollars before they're settled.
There are managers who double as everything from baby sitter to drug smuggler, and managers who close up at 5 p.m. Friday evening and remain unavailable until Monday morning. There are artists who've lost their "big chance" because their manager alienated the promoter/record company/agency so badly that when the ball bounced, it was passed to someone else's court. And there are managers who seem to literally make something out of nothing, taking a talentless lump and shaping it into a multi-platinum act.
We'll be looking at a broad range of options here, and I want to stress that these are my personal opinions only. What is represented here I learned from experience, be it 36 years of contracts that still come back to haunt me (my first single, "Society's Child", was part of a 1965 contract with what is now Universal/Polygram, and I get exactly the same royalty rate I got then - two percent), or gossip I've traded with other performers during the long backstage nights. And while we're dealing in disclaimers, I'll be using the "universal" male pronoun during the course of this article, but only for convenience's sake - my own manager for the first fifteen years of my career was female, so please don't read anything into it other than grammatical necessity.
There are as many types of managers as there are performers, but they all have two things in common. They have egos bigger than yours, and they're out of their minds. After all, what sane person would take complete responsibility for someone else's artistic and financial well-being? Spend their life worrying about your life? Oversee everything from the size of your van to percentage points on a record deal? Protect you and your time, nurture your creative soul, put you before family, friends, vacations, and self, remaining in the background while you shine, all for a nominal fee and the chance to "be a part of" your career?
Who but a madman?
Or a sleaze.
Because only a sleaze would ride to success on someone else's back, using your talent to foster his ambition. Only a snake would take 15-25% of your financial life, whether you succeed or not, and feel free to walk away with that money when you fail. Only scum would put you in situations where you gross $1,000 in one night and end up spending $900 on expenses, then expect you to pay commission. Only a real creep would put himself in a situation where your family's entire financial future is in his hands, make the wrong decision, and then get away scot-free while his decision costs your career.
Which brings us to the first point - blame. When I was a very frightened sixteen-year-old standing backstage at Philadelphia's Main Point coffeehouse, trying to decide whether my refusal to wear a dress was worth the price of my then-manager's good will, Odetta sternly shook a finger in my face. "Always remember..." she intoned, "They work for you. You do not work for them."
If there's one thing you should learn from this article it's that - you are paying your manager, not the other way around. Without you, there is no career! It's all too easy, in the daily terror of being an artist, to lose sight of that fact. And all too easy for an unscrupulous manager to exploit that fear.
Remember, if your manager dies, you will still have your career and talent. If you die, they will have a bunch of paper, and a bit of income for a limited time. In the same respect, if that experimental album you were dying to make flops, you will be blamed, not your management. Of course, if it wins twelve Grammys, you'll also be the one picking them up!
With that optimistic thought, let's cut to the chase. Below are a few simple warning signs to guide you as you wend your way through the jungle we call "Choosing a Manager."
Mr. Las Vegas:
This toad comes wearing an Armani suit, spit-shined shoes, and teeth with caps more expensive than your best guitar. He's always got a suntan, is full of glitz and glitter, throws around names like "Bruce" and "Barbra" as though he knows Springsteen and Streisand personally. Which he may. That doesn't mean they'll return his calls. Usually a transplant from Los Angeles who couldn't make it there, he's picked your hometown as the Next Big Thing In Music. Will executive-produce your record as a personal favor, just to show he cares.
Favorite phrase: "Why bother reading the fine print? You're an artist; go be creative; I'll handle the business end".
Favorite record company: any one that'll give him a free office when you're in town, with a president who'll split the kickbacks.
Goal in life: to show you off once you get big enough, and rub it in the face of everyone who makes him feel small.
Logical question: Who's paying for those suits?
Warning sign: those suits, idiot!
Biggest danger: This one's so slimy that you figure he must have something going for him. Wrong.
Mr. "When I Managed Elvis":
This person used to manage everyone. Really. You name it, he managed it. Elvis, Brando, Rin-Tin-Tin, he's done it all. It's usually pretty easy to check his background, and oddly enough, sometimes he really did manage lots of people until they got their big break, or until they became really famous - or until they got tired of his unbelievable idiocies.. Wears down-on-your-luck clothes (not jeans, though, just slightly frayed business suits and shoes that need new soles), never picks up a check (but always apologizes), and eventually hands you a thirty page management contract. He'll definitely talk to Don Was (probably a former client) about producing you. Always whining about the artists he loved like his own children, who then left him for some fast-talking sharpie.
Favorite phrase: "I never used to use contracts, but after Elvis/Michael Jackson/Prince Charles left me when I'd practically discovered him, I learned to protect myself. And I loved him like my own child, too!"
Favorite record company: Whichever one chooses the best restaurants, and picks up the biggest check.
Goal in life: Apparently, to amass as many artist notches as possible.
Logical question: Why did all those people leave him?
Warning sign: Anyone who continually compares artists to children is probably a child molester.
Biggest danger: You actually believe that just because he once worked with someone, they'll still talk to him or do him a favor.
Second biggest danger: You'll sign with him out of pity and the feeling that "Someone should do the right thing by this guy." Yeah, but why should it be you?
This person just looks ideal. He's done it all: roadie, engineer, producer, A&R, business manager, massage therapist. Commonly has a very likable personality. He can do everything from driving your bus to overseeing your album budget to investing in the stock market for you. He also seems to know how everything works, always tempting to an artist (since most of us refuse to recognize that things work the way they do because they are; it's in our nature to try and make order out of chaos). Wears a Swiss Army knife, knows where to get takeout food at 3 a.m. in a strange town, can draft contracts as well as type them (or e-mail, or download). Oh, and he'll produce your record, too.
Favorite phrase: "Just think of the money I can save you."
Favorite record company: Any one that will give him full artistic freedom.
Goal in life: Very flexible.
Logical question: Why isn't he an artist?
Warning sign: Seven page resume with frontpiece nicer than your last album cover.
Biggest dangers: He'll have his nose in everything and on everyone, which will keep him from effectively delegating anything, and wear him out before you're halfway there. Also, he may lose interest at a critical point. And he'll want to come with you on the road. Now, what good is he on the road, when he could be home making deals for you?
"The Big Deal":
Really has worked wonders with various artists. In fact, he and his company manage about thirty right now, all of them apparently successful. Has a big office with all the trappings - original Picassos in the waiting area (well, copies of his originals - the real things are in a well-insured vault), enormous phone system, dozens of subordinates. Oh, and he has a stable of producers he manages himself, some Pretty Big Names, who could really help you out at radio. He's usually everything you ever dreamed of in a manager, and now he's looking at little old you. A truly Swell Guy who's widely respected and feared.
Favorite phrase: "But of course, you'll be my only priority, now."
Favorite record company: None; hates them all, thinks they're all thieves.
Goal in life: Apparently, your happiness, and a laptop computer that can be directly implanted into his skull.
Logical question: Where's the catch?
Warning sign: All of those other artists were once his only priority, too.
Biggest danger: that he says everything you ever wanted to hear, then delegates it all to his subordinates.
"The Genuine Folkie":
Wears blue jeans and work shirts (T-shirt with suit jacket for formal occasions). Genuinely loves your work. Doesn't have a thieving bone in his body. You like the same music, share the same life philosophy, and easily become each other's best friends. He will always put your interests first and will never, ever, ask you to sell out. Thinks you should produce your own records because after all, you know your work best.
Favorite phrase: "I'm just in it for the music."
Favorite record company: The one you'll be starting together.
Goal in life: To save the world, and meanwhile ensure that you have every opportunity to grow artistically.
Logical question: Yeah, but can he swim with the sharks?
Warning sign: Easily satisfied; you're happy, he's happy.
Biggest danger: How can you sell out if no one's buying? And no one will be - when the stakes get high, this guy's out of his league. The type to turn down a slot with you opening for U2 because he thinks it won't work artistically, and you should be headlining "even if it has to be in smaller venues". Doesn't understand the difference between 300 people a night and 30,000.
"The Real Thing":
Wears whatever's appropriate for the occasion - blue jeans at a folk festival, Armani tux when you perform for the Queen of England. Loves your music, but tells you quite frankly that it's not radio-friendly yet; truly believes that radio (and you) will change with time. Will back your self-producing, but points out the possibilities an outside ear (not his) could bring.
Favorite phrase: "I think this is what will happen if you do that; I could be wrong, but here's my recommendation."
Favorite record company: Any one that will kill for your product, guarantee a serious promotional budget, and hire an outside publicist.
Goal in life: To earn you and the rest of his clients enough that you can all retire young. Secondary goal: Power, pure and simple.
Logical question: Hey, how do I get this guy interested?
Warning sign: Type A personality who has no heart on first meeting.
Danger signs: Overworks to the point where it scares you, even if it is really helping your career. Has a hard time listening when he's excited. Gets so excited that you worry about him. (See "Danger Signs", above. )
All right. Somewhere among all those types, probably a blend of the above, is the perfect manager for you. There are plenty of "Folkie" managers who don't make those mistakes, and enjoy long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with their clients; the late Manny Greenhill's long career with Joan Baez is a case in point. There are a few "Big Deals" who make it work for more than one client: Ken Kragen (at one time Kenny Rogers, Lionel Ritchie, Travis Tritt, Trisha Yearwood) has done it. Nothing I've said is written in stone.
The next questions you should be asking yourself are these: what do managers want? And what do you want? And how on earth are you going to make a reasonable working partnership out of it?
My former manager, Simon Renshaw, had a little speech he made to new clients that went like this. "There are two things in your life that begin with an M - Manager, and Messenger. One takes fifteen percent, and one takes fifteen dollars. Know which one you want."
In other words, don't expect a good manager to run to the record company and tell them exactly what you said, then run back to you to tell you exactly what they said, then run back to them with your response. That's not his job. This doesn't mean you should run to the record company yourself, but if all your manager knows how to do is transmit messages, you're both in big trouble. Managers want to manage, not become glorified delivery boys. And frankly, you can put someone on salary who'll do that, rather than paying out a commission.
Pretty much the same things managers want, except that we want to be on the throne, not behind it.
A true working partnership. The manager/client relationship is as close to a platonic marriage as you can get, and common sense says that most of the requirements are the same.
Honesty. The ability to tell each other truthfully what you feel, where you think it's going right, how you think it's gone wrong. Intelligent honesty works best! No artist should feel suicidal every time a manager explains what's going wrong... and any really good manager will follow their explanation with "But I think we can correct it this way," or explain why it really doesn't matter as much as you think it does.
Mutual faith, in one anothers' ability to deliver and to see whatever it is through. Faith in you as an artist, and in the manager as a business person. Faith is also based on trust, and trust is something you'll need, albeit with certain reservations. (Any manager who says "Trust me" without a snicker should be fired.)
When I was going into the studio to cut my album Revenge, I asked John Jennings to co-produce. My manager was thrilled, because that gave him someone "saleable" when he went to raise funding for the album. Jennings and I proceeded to pick my "dream band" (Steve Gadd/drums, Willie Weeks/bass, Matt Rollings/piano, Ciro Baptista & Jim Brock on percussion, with myself on guitars), which pleased management because the band itself became a good sale point. I made a tape of forty-odd songs I felt I could live with singing live for a decade, out of which we picked fifteen to cut. And we came in well under budget, which every manager loves.
But notice that I picked the producer, the band, and the songs. I consulted with management the way artists usually do ('Here's the band, okay?), but Simon trusted my ability to understand my position in the market, and to keep that in mind when making my choices. If I'd decided to produce the album myself, alone, we probably would have had a serious disagreement, but ultimately he would have supported my decision, because as he was fond of pointing out, "It's your career, it's your album, it's your face on the cover".
(The unspoken catch to that is, of course, "It'll be your failure and my I-Told-You-So if it tanks.")
Good communication. You both have the right to expect good communication, on all levels. The manager is, again, your point person, your liaison with the rest of the business world, and the one person besides yourself who has a complete overview of your career. I believe any decent manager provides his artists with work, home, and mobile telephone numbers, as well as warning them when he's going out of town for more than a few days. And any reasonable artist doesn't just disappear for a week without warning.
I recently met with a business manager, saying I wanted to switch from my current firm, and was interviewing people with an eye to their taking over portions of my financial life; what clinched the deal in my mind was his saying "Why don't I give you my home number so you can call if you have any questions later?" An excellent thing to do, and it went a long way toward answering any questions I might have had about his availibility.
Of course, it goes without saying that you should not abuse this privilege! I always apologize for calling after business hours, no matter how many times I'm told it's all right. And don't interrupt vacations unless it's an emergency. Remember, it's all a two way street.
Good response time. You have the right to expect your calls returned within a reasonable time. I personally think any manager who can't return a client's call within a day has too many clients. Some managers seem to have no idea of how dependent on their input/ advice/updates/sounding board abilities we all are. You don't want one of those. The paranoia of sitting around wondering if he hasn't called because the deal's fallen through just isn't worth it. Likewise, you can't really expect a manager to work his best when you never bother returning his calls.
Presentation counts - for you, only onstage and while doing press; for him, any time he's doing business on your behalf. It shouldn't matter whether he's making the rounds of a record company, or standing backstage watching your show; a manager's job is to sell other people on you. He can't do that if no one takes him seriously. The fashion plate, the person wearing cut-off jeans to a meeting with the heads of your Japanese investment company, should be you, not your manager.
And just as you can conceptualize your art, a manager should be able to conceptualize your overall career. This means developing a plan - not based on six months or a year, but on the next five to ten years. Of course it will change, but it gives everyone something to hang onto when things are rough .
For instance, Simon (my former manager) and I decided we needed to open some territories, both places I had been before, and places I hadn't been to before. We thought I'd probably need to go to them and do press and tour, because my career in those places was either dormant, or nonexistent. Literally, we wanted to open a space for my career in those "new" markets. We came up with a five year plan.
Our whole organization worked very hard on the US all through 1992, doing two tours around the country as well as months of press and publicity. During the summers of 1992-1995, we concentrated on folk festivals and outdoor summer shows, taking a drop in my guarantee for the promise of larger, and newer, audiences. Once we felt we'd "done" the US, we added Japan, Holland, and England in 1993, using my Dutch fan base (with higher guaranteed fees) to subsidize the English tour. 1994 was spent opening Australia, solidifying Holland & Japan, and writing. 1995 was the year to record & release a new record, solidify the U.S. and Australia, open the rest of Europe and Scandinavia, and possibly return to Japan. At the end of 1995, we'd make another five-year-plan.
That was all planned out. Sure, territories changed depending on market fluctuation, but we planned our expansion carefully, and it worked.
Now, this all sounds pretty cut and dried, but it's a plan. It's based on worst-case scenario (no radio play, no hit record, not much audience growth), and a lot of things can change it (with a hit in any one territory, we may spend extra time there; with a big enough hit, we may delay the next album and use more time to write). Most all all, I know I can live with the timing and the pace. Management asked me what I wanted, presented me with my options, and we put it together by mutual agreement. We reviewed it completely every six months, adjusting and tweaking, trying to plan by "Hope for the best, count on the worst."
That's real career planning! No sitting around saying "If this record's a hit we can…" without a fall-back plan. No complaining after the fact that "If the record company had listened", "If the agency hadn't folded", ad infinitum. A large part of a manager's job is to guard against worst-case scenario, and be prepared for it.
Last but perhaps most important, you should be able to dream together, and to update those dreams as time goes on. Dylan once said that his original goal was to succeed like Dave Van Ronk, and be able to play 150-seat clubs five days a week, 50 weeks a year, filling the houses every night. Obviously, once you can do that, you may want to revise your dreams to include Carnegie Hall, or Madison Square Garden. Or perhaps you really do want to stick with clubs. Your manager needs to be aware of your dreams, so he can help you build them. And you need to know your dreams - your true dreams.
Most of us don't know what we really want; we haven't thought it through that far. We want to earn a living doing what we love best - but how good a living do we need to earn before it's enough, and how far are we willing to go to get there? We want to make records - but at what price? Will we be satisfied to sell enough to fund our next record, or do we want the glittering lights of a hit? We want to tour - but to tour constantly, every night, writing and cutting albums between shows?
A manager should help you to sort out what you want in your life, right now, and what you think you'll want five to ten years from now. Don't be afraid to dream of ideal circumstances; you can always change the plan.
The ideal first line for any manager talking with a potential new act is "Tell me what you want, ultimately - in your career and in your life". That question shows all of the abilities outlined above. If your manager isn't interested in what you want, they're not the right manager for you.
Please avoid my mistakes! And believe me, they are legion. You're looking at the person who turned down writing the music for The Graduate, didn't accept an invitation to perform at Woodstock, and passed on recording "You Light Up My Life".
Notice that I blamed myself. At the time I had a lovely manager who perhaps should have known better; one of my agents was David Geffen, who is certainly not a fool, and I was only 16 or 17 years old. The job of management should have been to explain what wasn't obvious to me - that any film involving Mike Nichols would probably be a hit, that Woodstock might turn out to be something extraordinary, and that a number one record is nothing to sneer at (the track for 'You Light Up..." was already finished, and it was obvious even to me that it was going to be a huge hit). Part of my manager's job was to educate me, so my decisions would be informed. Still, ultimately it was me that passed, and me that paid.
I ended a relationship with a good manager once, largely because he didn't feel it was necessary to give me bad news along with the good. For years I would say to him "How can I make an informed decision if you don't give me all the data?" I'd learned that the hard way.
When my song "At Seventeen" went into the top ten nationally, I was recording the follow-up album, Aftertones. It was an unpleasant experience at best; I was recording and writing Monday through Thursday, traveling and doing shows Friday through Sunday. Inbetween, I was trying to finish writing more songs, write the charts, and think about the artwork.
When we began recording, I'd already been touring non-stop for over a year, and felt I didn't have the right songs yet. Both management and the producer, Brooks Arthur, convinced me the songs were fine. They kept telling me the record company loved both the songs and the rough mixes (even though they didn't), and strong-armed me into making sure I finished by the record company's deadline. I knew the material wasn't strong enough, but no one played straight with me, and I was too inexperienced to smell a rat. Besides, I was so tired that I just wasn't thinking straight any more. I figured Brooks knew what he was talking about; he'd been the engineer on "Society's Child" when I was fourteen, and had produced both my Stars and my Between the Lines albums, the latter going platinum thanks to the hit single.
So I went ahead and finished the record, and it became an album I loathed listening to as the years passed. The songs truly were not up to par; the entire thing sounds flung together, to me. Well, dcades later, I discovered from Brooks that my record company had put enormous pressure on my manager because they "had to have the product for this quarters' presentation". In other words, they wanted to be able to tell the stockholders that my follow-up album would be coming out next quarter. Material, future success, long-term career were all irrelevant to them. And my manager, stuck between a rock and a hard place, decided to go with the corporate position. To be scrupulously fair about it, maybe she honestly thought waiting six months more would hurt my career more than help it - the company might lose enthusiasm. I doubt it.
If there was ever a major mistake made in my North American career, a mistake that could never be undone, it was that one. My manager's job was, first and foremost, to protect me and my work, so that I would be happy with the finished product. Next, to protect my future. Instead of following up a monster hit like "At Seventeen" with a faultless record that should have solidified my career, we followed it up with an inferior product that hurt me tremendously, and which I don't like to this day.
Monster hit records don't come along often, and when they do, everyone's head gets turned. People get scared. Management are supposed to keep a clear head and remain brave in the face of pressure.
Don't buy into a manager who's a Good News Charlie. You need to know both sides of what's going on. You need to hear "The show's sold out!", but you also need to hear "We're in trouble with tickets here, and if you won't do a couple of interviews, it'll be a disaster."
Managers should usually be intimately familiar with your business in all its varied aspects, but they should be managers - not accountants, lawyers, or agents. (And I would definitely not involve them in things like investment decisions!) Mixing roles like that can have grave dangers for your future.
I had an interim manager who took over my publishing for a while, on the theory that he had a vested interest, and would therefore perform better. Nonsense. Publishers should be publishers, and managers should be managers. He worked very hard at both jobs, but he left me a legacy of uncopyrighted songs, incorrect registrations, and deals whose termination was based solely on album releases, with no ceiling (e.g., after I'd turned in a certain amount of songs, the deal should have ended, no matter what).
Just imagine - your publishing contract ends when you've released four more albums. What if you can't get an album deal? What if you can't perform anymore, but can still write? The deal theoretically goes on forever!
He was a sweetheart of a guy, honest as the day is long, and I trusted him implicitly, but he wasn't a publisher. So here's another valuable lesson: HONESTY DOES NOT IMPLY COMPETENCE.
I come from a folk background, which means that for me, morality is deeply intertwined with music. Loyalty means a lot, even when it makes no sense.
To that end, I have stayed on with people whose time and usefulness were over, inevitably with disastrous results. The lawyer who'd been with me since I turned twenty was one of the most brilliant people I've ever worked with; when it began taking her two weeks to return a phone call, I should have left. The business manager who stopped sending monthly statements should have been fired on my third request. And the manager who became totally self-destructive once we had a couple of hits should have been replaced with someone else immediately, if only to prevent further damage to my career.
This particular person had literally gone hungry with me, after "Society's Child" was no longer a hit and I was universally regarded as a has-been child prodigy. I couldn't get a recording or publishing deal to save my life, and without either, I also couldn't get much live work. I was doing temp typing and writing lead sheets for a living; we took turns slipping spare cash into one anothers' pocketbooks, whenever there was cash to spare. She'd stuck with me when everyone else left. I owed her.
We went through several years of hard times, debts, and occasional terror together, until "At Seventeen" became a hit. For some reason she began drinking heavily right around that time. I laughed off things which should have been warning signs - someone called saying they were from the Russian Embassy and wanted to offer me a tour; my manager replied "Yeah, and I'm the Queen of England" and hung up. The tour went to someone else. Funny on first hearing, but not on reflection.
The apex was reached during my first sold-out tour of Japan, a country where first impressions count heavily. I was talking with our promoter, Tats Nagashima, about a Zen monastery he went to every year. He explained that for one week he slept in a small monk's cell, ate sparingly of vegetables and rice, worked in the fields and maintained a vow of silence while contemplating his life and the world around him. Just as I was about to ask directions, my manager piped up with "Oh, I just adore primitive people! Can one go watch them?" Speaking of humiliation....
Quite often, when you've struggled long and hard to reach a goal like a hit record, there's a tendency to self-destruct. It's almost as though, once you reach "the top", there's nowhere to look but down. My own reaction to that is to search for a new goal. Hers was to develop fear of falling. She was also convinced that if she made a wrong choice, it would destroy everything, so a lot of the time she made no choice at all - definitely not what you need from a manager.
I remember discovering a couple of years later that I had the number one record in Australia, and asking why we didn't have a tour planned. Her reply was that I'd mentioned wanting some time off, so she'd put Australia on the back burner for a year or two. I would have preferred the choice, because I wanted very badly to go to Australia - and you can earn a whole lot more if you go somewhere while your record's hot than if you wait! Fortunately, we salvaged the tour and had a wonderful month of koalas and Barrier Reef expeditions that I will never forget, as well as creating a career for me on another continent back in 1979 that still stands me in good stead now.
If you feel bad for someone who's "going through changes" - be it a drug problem, drinking, over-extending their business or personal life - and who's making bad decisions for you, go ahead and feel bad for them. Pay for their counseling. But don't leave them in charge of your career. Use the money they helped you earn to get them help instead. It's always a mistake to destroy your own career out of loyalty to someone else's needs. They will go on to other clients; you have only yourself.
Don't be afraid to let your manager take the blame - for any thing, any time. I once had to fire an important business associate who was on retainer (paid a monthly fixed fee rather than a commission, or hourly billing). For tax and cash flow reasons, I had to formally end the relationship before the start of the New Year. It was shortly after Christmas, and this associate hadn't returned my or my advisors' calls for almost a month. I had planned to book an appointment and fly to New York to fire her myself, since we'd worked together so long. I also very much wanted to discuss why I was making a change. However, it's impossible to book appointments when no one will return your call! Eventually, based on management's advice (and, I suspect, his own anger that both our calls were being ignored), I sent this person a fax terminating her services.
She was furious. In fact, I heard later that she posted the fax and used it as the office dart board. Her anger knew no bounds, and justifiably so. I had assumed my manager knew more than I did about how to fire someone. After all, wasn't that his job, to know more about business than me? Had I thought it through and put myself in my associate's place, I'd have realized that by firing her that way, I was allowing all of her employees to read the termination notice before it even got to her desk. I succeeded in making a life-long enemy, who to this day will not speak to me, decades later. And although months of unreturned phone calls is infuriating, one should never humiliate an associate if it's at all avoidable.
I took all the blame at the time, but I should have known better than to do so. Certainly I agreed to send the fax. Still, I've never worked in an office, and though I've supported offices financially, I've never run one myself, dealing with the hierarchy of receptionist to secretary to assistant to associate to boss. I just figured this person would get their own fax directly. Stupid? Yes, absolutely. But the manager who suggested that method of termination ran an office full of people - he certainly should have known better. If I had insisted on doing it that way out of my own anger, the blame would all be mine. But the down side wasn't even mentioned.
The irony of the situation is that by acting on his suggestion, I thoroughly humiliated someone unnecessarily, who blames me completely.
And does the person I fired still do business with the manager who suggested I "fire by fax"? You bet.
Part of a manager's job is to make sure you remain blameless, because the ugly truth is that business people are always getting angry with one another, and then making up. But once an artist does something wrong, that artist wears the stain forever. If you alienate a record company lawyer by negotiating your own contract and calling him stupid, he may end up head of your label one day - and believe me, he'll remember. If your manager alienates the same person in the same circumstance, they'll hold it against management, not you. And who knows - you may have a different manager by the time you meet again. Mind you, this doesn't mean you can or should avoid responsibility for your actions, but know when to utilize management to take the load.
Don't let your management own a share of your publishing if there is any human way to avoid it. Giving them a percentage of gross or net profit is one thing; ownership is another. When I was forced to sell a large portion of my publishing catalogue, my manager from a decade earlier suddenly smelled money. She'd been with me for around fifteen years when I terminated our relationship; the catalogue wasn't worth as much at the time, and I felt bad about firing her, so I didn't insist on a piece of paper unequivocally stating that she had no ownership. Unfortunately, because the wording of the original contract was unclear, she could have taken me to court and argued that she had ownership, rather than participation. And I could not sell the catalogue without her agreement; no one was willing to buy into a possible lawsuit, or take on a partner. I ended up having to buy her out for a sum vastly over what her percentage was worth.
There seem to be two schools of thought regarding management contracts; one maintains you're safer with a signed document, the other says you're safer without. The first theory is that a contract spells everything out - if the relationship sours, courts like paper, and will generally abide by what's written on it. The opposition says there are so many ways to get out of a contract (and the more complicated they are, the more loopholes) that it's not worth the paper it's printed on anyway. I don't know which one is "right", I've done both, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. I will say that if you end up in court, you'll probably be relieved to have a well-drafted contract on your side.
My first manager and I had a signed contract, and over 15 years, it was revised (because it was only for a three year term each time). It worked fine until I fired her. Simon Renshaw, another manager I worked with, and I didn't have a signed contract per se. We did have a short (two paragraphs) deal memo that neither of us signed, and a few emails clarifying questions on both sides, but those were more to protect our heirs if either of us died than out of necessity.
Ultimately my attitude toward most contracts these days is "Negotiate, sign the contract, put it in a bank vault somewhere, and forget it".
Why? Because the manager-artist relationship must be flexible in order to work, and you can't draft flexibility.
For instance, management recommends a tour that will expose you to thousands of people, but lose you a lot of money. You agree with the recommendation but ask management to either waive their commissions completely, or defer the balance, or take a lower commission overall in order to make it work. You're being flexible, offering several choices, all of which are acceptable to you. And management should be flexible too, seeing that they'll earn more money in the long run if you accept the tour. The reasoning on both sides has to be that "we're all in this together", and you can't negotiate that kind of commitment.
In the same light, you may have a huge, unexpected success somewhere sometime, and bonus your management (though please do this only on a case by case basis!).
Part of the reason Simon and I could be flexible was that we'd both been doing this for a long time, so we were used to compromise. Part of it is that we both accepted responsibility for our actions. For instance, I signed a contract with Morgan Creek for the release of my 1992 album Breaking Silence against my instincts and knowing I couldn't live with the terms for long. Simon, felt strongly that it was the right move, insisting "if you have a hit, we'll renegotiate; if it flops, they won't want you". Well, we got a Grammy nomination but the sales sucked, and they still wanted to keep me, even though they were no longer a record company!
I was miserable, and didn't have the money to fight a large corporation. The onus was on Simon, who arranged for a wonderful lawyer friend to take on the case, and this firm got my contract terminated for a fraction of their usual fee. Still, there was a fee, and I felt Simon should share in the financial responsibility for it. After all, I hadn't wanted to sign with them in the first place. I never wasted an opportunity to whine at him about it, until one day he suggested we work something out. We came up with a novel solution: the entire legal cost would be deducted from my next commisionable income, off the top. That way he would end up absorbing his percentage of the costs, and I'd feel like he acknowledged his responsibility and lived up to his word.
I have said before that you must be able to trust your manager, and this is paramount. There are a few things they should encourage you to beware of, even if it comes from them. If they don't want you to observe these rules, something fishy is going on.
A manager who tries to weasel out of any of these items is someone you shouldn't have in your home, much less trust with your career.
That's a tough one, mainly because there are so many variables. For instance, when Simon and I started, I paid him15% on live performance and income from my own records. However, I reasoned that my songwriting career had begun when I was twelve, had been built by myself and other people prior to him, and didn't think he should share in any publishing income. A few years later, as he became more involved in my overall career and negotiations, I decided to commission him on income from my publishing share. At that point it wasn't just being fair, it was creating incentive - if a manager makes money from my writing, they'll work harder to build in writing time for me.
But... I walked into the relationship with an established income base he could immediately profit from. I was a recognized writer and performer, with BMI, ASCAP, and touring income to prove it. If I were a brand-new act, I might be paying 20% across-the-board.
I've have never paid commission on my songwriting income (the 50% I receive as writer, as opposed to the 50% I may or may not receive as publisher). I feel very strongly that songwriting is mine. There's precious little a performing songwriter can call his own in this modern, commodity-infested world. Our lives as performers, writers, and recording artists are ruled by corporations and groups of individuals who share in the profits, often resulting in our being happy if we can even take home 10% of gross. I create a song out of nothingness, with no help from any business people, and I think I need to have some small square of space in all this that no one else shares. That's my reasoning, anyhow. In addition, why should management commission writer's royalties? Isn't that like building your own home from the ground up, then hiring a landscaper and paint company five years later to make the property more valuable - do they get a percentage of the resale? Of course not.
There is an exception I make sometimes, and that's when I don't own any of the song. Again, it's incentive and fairness driven; if my manager finds a film property that wants to use "At Seventeen"(which I no longer own) and negotiates a publisher's fee of $500,000 for that usage - and my writer's share is half of that, let's say - I would commission the manager. Why should he bother, otherwise?
Also, there are several pitfalls to refusing to commission on publishing, particularly for newer artists. When a sync license is issued (for usage of your song in film or television), it's the publisher who's paid, not the songwriter. If you don't own your publishing, or part of it, you get nothing. And sync licenses can be incredibly lucrative; a smaller television show will pay anywhere from $500-$5,000 for each use of your material, even if it's only 20 seconds! In my own contracts with publishers, even when I've sold my publishing to certain songs, I've always insisted that as writer, I get half of any sync fees. But I've never heard of anyone else managing to accomplish this.
So, depending on your circumstance, it might actually be cheaper, or more effective, to let your manager commission across the board.
Of course there are more things you should watch out for. But here's the short list, culled from my own personal experience and that of my friends.
A manager should never take more than 25%, or less than 15%. There are rare exceptions - Louis Armstrong & his manager split the net profit 50/50 for more than fifty years, but we're talking net. I've never met a manager who will do that; they can't afford it. If you're a superstar, you can probably negotiate management down to 10%, but why give it to the IRS when you can give it to the person who's holding your career together?
A manager should never have power of attorney for anything more than one-off live shows (e.g. club or concert engagements), and there should be a time limit on the power-of-attorney and how far in advance they can book you, both of which should be specified in the document before you sign it. I've known artists to leave their management and still be obligated to play shows four years later, commissioning the old management.
Management should never control their own expenses. Some people set monetary limits on a monthly basis, others just keep watch. I knew an artist who lived in a different town than her manager, so they usually took different flights. One day they happened to be on the same flight, unknown to each of them - she walked past her manager sitting in first class, on her way back to her seat in coach! and of course she was paying for both. I review my manager's expenses every single month, knowing that when I'm touring overseas phone bills will be higher and Fedex is sometimes necessary, and questioning other items just enough to keep both of us comfortable (and myself feeling safe).
In the same light, management should never do your bookkeeping! Come on, it's too tempting. Besides, you want them to spend their time managing, not number-crunching.
Your management should not be "encumbered" (in other words, "in bed") with other people in your employ, or with your competition. Ours is a dismayingly small, incestuous business, so learn to be leery. For example, let's say I met my manager through Mr. Snake, a lawyer of mutual acquaintance. Snake's represented me for years, and when I wanted new management he recommended this guy. Mr. Manager currently manages two other people who were recommended to him by Snake. All three of us are at the same record company, whose president also happens to be represented by that same Mr. Snake. Well and good - at first glance, that just gives my manager a lot of clout at the label. But what if I decide Snake's no longer the right lawyer for me? particularly if I'm currently paying him in the tens of thousands?
I'll tell you what usually happens - management convinces me to stay with Snake. Management and Snake continue to kick-back to one another under the table, possibly involving the record company, while I continue getting royally screwed.
True story: band decide they want more money. Manager goes to head of label and says "Give them a big advance, and in return I'll give you one point on their next record." Manager goes to band and says "They weren't going to do it, but I got you the money - we have to let the label head be executive producer, though, and give him a point". Manager commissions band's advance and gets a kickback from label head.
This is not an unusual occurrence. Simon I discussed it during our first meeting, because without a clear understanding, I couldn't go forward. No matter who my manager are doing business with on my behalf, their first allegiance must be to me, and my career - not to the possibility that Mr. Snake will throw a multi-platinum act their way.
I cannot stress this enough. Management must operate from as completely unencumbered a position as possible. They shouldn't represent another act in direct competition with you (two acoustic female folk duos, just starting out, shouldn't be in the same place), nor should they represent or be represented by your own lawyer, business manager, agent, etc.
To continue, managers shouldn't be dope suppliers. If you do drugs, it's on you. But if your manager deals, you're buying - he's busted, you're headlines. Hey, just how stupid are you?
No manager should have any underlying ownership in copyrights, whether songs, records, or other creative endeavors. Again, the conflict of interest is too big. And remember, once someone owns part of something, you can't sell, lease, or even issue a license for it without their consent. Ownership will severely limit your choices. The only exception to this is if you form a record company with your management - and they should be finding the money, and responsible for any bankruptcy proceedings!
Ideally, your manager should only be a manager, not a part-time something-else. I realize it isn't always possible, but you can aim for that.
And they should not be your publisher! If you write a song that's an out of the box hit, and your record company are going to put it out as your first single, and The Backstreet Boys suddenly want to record it, your manager must be able to present both sides for clear consideration. Your manager needs to be able to tell you that on the one hand, you're an unknown whose record company have put a lot of faith and money into making this song your first hit, and you may never get a second chance. They also need to tell you that The Backstreet Boys will definitely go multi-platinum and earn you a fortune, so you may not care about your own lost chances. If your manager is also your publisher, it's impossible for him to see clearly at this point, with millions of guaranteed dollars versus your possible career staring him in the face. Nope - you want a manager who can argue with your publisher, agent, record company when necessary - and then present all sides for you.
Artists should not force management on their spouses! It's very hard for spouses to see clearly; they love you, and that takes precedence over smart business decisions - as it should. But sometimes you need to bite the bullet: tour when you'd rather be home, record when you'd rather play golf. Spouses are too connected. Besides, you need them to stay out of it, so you can whine to them with impunity. And no one can be honest to a manager who's also your spouse.
Artists should not force their spouses on their management! Of course everyone you deal with should be courteous to your spouse, and vice versa. It's stupid not to be. (As my partner reminded someone once, "I'm the last voice she hears at night.") But performers tend to over-involve their spouses in their careers, and it can have disasterous results. lover.
A spouse should be intimately familiar with your affairs, career choices, finances, whatever - how can you get any feedback if they don't know what you're talking about? But I think every artist should be forced to memorize the film Spinal Tap, because the spouse problems in that film are too often the norm. Male or female, straight or gay, it makes no difference - your managerial relationship should have time alone with you. There are appropriate times for a spouse to be at your meetings, but they're few and far between. How would you like it if your manager's spouse was always there?
While we're on spouses, managers should never, ever sleep with clients. Do not do this unless you're ready to give up your career. At the time it may seem like a wonderful idea; for him, your talent alone is seductive, and sex and love are wonderful control mechanisms. For you, it feels like you really are a priority now. But it doesn't work; I could name you twenty people off the top of my head who ruined perfectly good manager/client relationships that way. A manager must retain distance! For a classic example of "Oops, way too close and way out of line", rent Bette Midler's film The Rose sometime.
A manager should not be your agent. I know this is more and more common on the folk end, and understandable when you're not big enough for any agency to take you on - but it should stop right there; it's too conflicted. Managers need to be able to argue with agents, not kowtow to them. And if your agent is also your manager, and there's a conflict, who's going to argue your case? Your agent should be able to argue with your manager, and vice versa.
A manager should present well; a good appearance, coming off as someone people will respect and enjoy working with. That doesn't mean everyone has to love him, but you don't want someone out there angering everyone you work with just for the sake of his own sense of power. Remember - they'll remember your name, not his, and you'll pay for his moods.
Last but not least, as I said before, the key to any managerial relationship is communication. If your manager can't communicate with you, how can you expect him to do it on your behalf with everyone else? A good manager should be able to communicate his opinions about every aspect of your career, whether musical, financial, or whatever, while still making you feel that he's aware of the borders between you - that at the end of the day, it's your face on the album cover, and your career in the making. The manager can always get another client; you cannot go out and find another career.
Again, to quote what Odetta said to me when I was a terrified 15-year-old: "Always remember one thing. They work for you; you do not work for them."
Keep that in front of your eyes and it will make you a good boss and a good client, and hopefully those aspects of your relationship can grow into a true, long-term partnership where choices are based on mutual good, and decisions are made based on decades rather than years.
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