Milk & Honey makes hits.
The LA-born artist-songwriter-producer management company is celebrating its fourth year in style, having recently signed producer/writer Charlie Handsome – who is behind recent US Top 40 No.1 smash, Love Lies by Khalid & Normani.
In 2018 alone, US Top 20 hits connected to Milk + Honey’s client base have included Justin Bieber/DJ Khaled/Quavo/Chance The Rapper’s No Brainer (Sir Nolan), Alessia Cara’s Growing Pains (Oak Felder), Dua Lipa’s IDGAF (Whiskey Water), Bryce Vine’s Drew Barrymore (Sir Nolan), Bebe Rexha’s I’m a Mess (Jussi Karvinen) Backstreet Boy’s Don’t Go Breakin My Heart (Stuart Crichton), Big Boi’s All Night (Lil Aaron), and more.
This run of success has followed Milk + Honey’s expansions into Nashville and New York – with a European office on the horizon – plus the recent hiring of top executive talent including former Scooter Braun Projects creative Chelsea Avery, who joined as Head of A&R in February. (In her previous role, Avery handled A&R for Justin Bieber, Martin Garrix, Tori Kelly, David Guetta, The Knocks and Steve Angelo, amongst others.)
In total, Milk + Honey estimates that its 40-plus clients – who also include hitmakers such as Oak Felder, Sir Nolan, Charlie Handsome, David Hodges and Rich Costey – have amassed over 400m record sales worldwide.
Outside of songwriters and producers, Milk + Honey is fast gaining more of a reputation in the world of electronic/dance. It now represents 13 DJs, counting the likes of Dutch superclub maestro Oliver Heldens, a top 25 DJ, amongst its roster.
One might assume this level of success takes an army of executives, but Milk + Honey is proudly tight-knight, with 13 employees in total. In fact, according to company founder Lucas Keller, preventing the company from sprawling into enormo-agency territory has been a key factor in its success.
Things weren’t always on such a certain footing for Keller and Milk + Honey, however.
Milk + Honey was formed in 2014, not long after Keller left music, TV and film management giant The Collective, where he spent four years managing songwriters like David Hodges and Desmond Child – and even won a Grammy with Jimmy Cliff.
Keller was the youngest manager in a department at The Collective which worked with the likes of Linkin Park, Enrique Iglesias, Kanye West, Peter Gabriel and others.
That experience left him with the inkling that there might be a good business to carve out representing hit-makers – songwriters and producers – while building an artist management business around them. But it certainly wasn’t a sure-fire bet.
Here, MBW chats to Keller about the songwriting business, streaming’s impact, his history in the industry – and where Milk + Honey is headed next…
How did you get your start and how did you come to specialize in managing songwriters and producers as opposed to artists?
I started out playing guitar in punk bands in the early 2000s, and after college I moved to Illinois. I initially worked [as a manager] for a company called Uppercut Management in Chicago for almost four years, which was famous for [looking after] Kid Rock. I was born and raised in the Midwest and moved down to Chicago from Milwaukee. That was a great city and a great place to work.
Then from 2009 to 2013 I was at The Collective [in L.A]. I was the youngest of eight music managers there. I was sandwiched between Linkin Park’s manager and Enrique Iglesias’ manager’s office and I thought, ‘How am I going to build my own business?’
“There was an open lane.”
Somehow, at my prior gig, I’d worked with a couple of songwriters. I thought, ‘I know hit records and I know the record labels. And, looking at the great writer-producer managers out there, it’s a much shorter list than the great artist managers.’ There was an open lane.
I knew I wanted to represent a handful of songwriters and producers and to find success for each of them versus just representing one big artist client. [The latter] idea scared the hell outta me; I’d watched my friends get fired [by artists] and it was like, ‘Now nobody’s taking his call for five years…’
My first client was David Hodges; we’ve now done ten years together and sold a lot of records. David came from the band Evanescence and was already writing hits for other people. When we met he had songs like “Because of You” with Kelly Clarkson and “What About Now” with Daughtry.
I managed a good amount of legacy talent when I started my company – I remember I was running around with Scott Weiland from Stone Temple Pilots after we had settled the lawsuit between the band and Scott; I had all these rock guys that weren’t aging gracefully.
I started to phone my rock friends and say, “You know what? You could really have a career as a [behind the scenes] songwriter.” A lot of my clients came from that idea – that maybe the life of a writer was better than the life of an artist.
What did that pre- Milk + Honey part of your career teach you?
Going back even further, before all of that I was a junior concert promoter. I was doing shows in Wisconsin and Illinois, helping out a couple of friends. Every day since then I’ve realized [that] as long as I don’t have to do that ever again, I’m gonna be okay.
“I learned my initial lesson in 2003, when I was handcuffed in a box office by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony.”
I learned my initial lesson in 2003, when I was handcuffed in a box office by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony.
That’s when I thought, yeah, I want to do something else…
Hang on. What?
I am going to have to phrase this in a way that keeps us both legally secure. My friend and I didn’t get enough Hennessy on the [Bone Thugs] rider, so my friend left [the venue] to go get them some more.
As a result, they thought that we’d skipped the show without paying. So to prove the point, to make sure I wouldn’t run away, they handcuffed me in the box office.
I thought to myself, ‘This is crazy. Like, okay, I’m ready for the next thing.’
The next thing was management, and then the next thing was working at a huge management company. Why do you like keeping Milk + Honey relatively nimble?
Being at a smaller shop has its difficulties and advantages. I’ve worked inside a big company, and with all of the plusses, it’s a little tragic that you’re always left wanting to find more time.
I always think [ahead of signing clients]: ‘Will we really have the time and bandwidth to do the things that we promise we’re gonna do here?’
“We think that many if not most of our clients have limitless possibility and upside to their business, but it takes a real investment of time.”
[The opposite of that] is an epidemic in the business today at any kind of big-company management structure. We want to super-serve people. We think that many if not most of our clients have limitless possibility and upside to their business, but it takes a real investment of time.
Milk + Honey is at 13 people today, probably on our way to 30 people, with 44 clients. It takes a village, your can’t do it on your own. But also, I look at some of the bigger management companies today and… it’s just not interesting to me.
A lot of bodies, not enough players, and definitely not enough time to find the big idea.
So You’re big enough to have a real impact, but you don’t get bogged down in overhead, or risk giving a lack of attention to some clients?
Yes, exactly. I think that a lot of management companies have their margin messed up. They spend a lot of money and they make a lot of money… but boy do they spend a lot of money. That’s not a good business.
I’ve really handpicked our team of 13 people. You often find that, in the writer-producer management world, it’s mainly solo [endeavors] – one, maybe two people, looking after a small roster of clients. So in terms of doing it on a somewhat institutional basis, I think we’re the most efficient, but with real reach in the business.
“I think that a lot of management companies have their margin messed up.”
We strategically wanted to represent enough producers and writers so that we had real access and leverage to most records. No other new company of the past five years in the writer/producer management space is growing as quickly as us.
The best management companies today are mid-size operations, 30 or fewer [employees]. That’s a good place to be.
What was your biggest take-away from your time at The Collective?
I learned a tremendous amount being around Michael Green [previously the co-founder of The Firm] who started The Collective. He was a film and TV manager who managed the Backstreet Boys at their height. The two other owners, Jeff Golenberg and Reza Izad, were also a huge influence on me.
I learned a lot about how to inspire faith in talent and how to get people to sign with you. Also, the delicate balance of the Hollywood side of the music business, and the artful way of selling it, and making it work in your favor. I had so many other great music and TV/film managers around me at that company, it was great to see all the different sides of showbiz and to see what was once a smaller company explode into a major management company in a short period of time.
The company was really ahead of its time in its view of disintermediation and distribution, and it was really an inspirational time for me.
Why do you think you wanted to go fully out on your own? After having those experiences of dealing with other people, what made you think, ‘Okay. I’m ready to be a fully-fledged entrepreneur.’
I don’t think I knew that I wanted to leave any of my jobs. It just felt like, I don’t want to answer to anyone anymore.
I had always been obsessed with getting the inside baseball on who’s really behind the record. How do you take guys who get album cuts – which isn’t really a business anymore – and turn them into guys that get singles? That was the initial strategy.
“Nobody I knew ever saw the songwriter/producer management thing working on a big scale.”
Nobody I knew, that I worked with previously, ever saw the songwriter/producer management thing working on a big scale. I just knew it could be lucrative and successful, but it was going to take a little while to become a real business. Publishing is slow!
After we opened the business, we got [big cuts] with Christina Perri’s A Thousand Years, then Nick Jonas’ Jealous, then Selena Gomez and A$AP Rocky’s Good For You. We were off to the races. And I was thinking, ‘Who says you can’t make money off managing songwriters and producers?’
As we entered the second and third year, a power UK run came shortly after with #1s like James Arthur’s Say You Won’t Let Go (Steven Solomon/Neil Ormandy) and Rag N Bone Man’s Human (Jamie Hartman), and then Alessia Cara’s Scars To Your Beautiful and Demi Lovato’s Sorry Not Sorry (Oak Felder), and it kept going. I was glad that lots of people told me it wasn’t a real business – that helped drive me on to prove it.
Does it depress you at all that the album cuts business is sort of finished for songwriters and producers as we stand today?
Yeah. I think it’s pretty much over. Streaming will help, but it’s not what it was. There are certain artists you need an album from, from an artistic perspective. Like I think we’d be upset if the War On Drugs just put out a single every 18 months, right?
So there’s still real value to the album depending on the act. But I meet these idealistic young songwriters that show up [here] and I have to tell them, “I sit at a dashboard where I pile through ASCAP / BMI [databases], and publishing statements showing the publishing revenue across the board on all of my clients, and I have a really good idea what track nine isn’t worth.”
“I think it’s pretty much over.”
When I came up in the industry, the guys I really admired represented record producers that made whole albums. There was a business in getting $300,000 to $500,000 in fees [as a producer] for an album. But now it’s become much harder.
Today, you’ve gotta find guys who can zero in and make the hits.
If I could give you a magic wand and you could change one thing about the music business today, what would be top of your list?
The value of being human. I know that’s kind of a cop-out answer, but my career started immediately after Napster and the early 2000s downfall of the music business.
That was a time when everybody had to pull together – an awkward 15 years for sure. I see people getting worse in this business every day; I see the worst versions of opportunists and short-sighted folks. It’s that version of the music business that makes you sick to your stomach. I’m out to put some integrity back to the music business, if I can.
“I see the worst versions of opportunists and short-sighted folks.”
I was never part of the glory days of the 1980s / 1990s music business. So I just want to see, in this next phase of the business, people be good to each other. I like to call another company to let them know if one of their clients wants to come to us, and I like to do the same if one of their employees wants to come to us.
I just don’t think many people value that stuff anymore, but I still think it’s really, really important – because I’m not scorching and salting the earth for any one client. It’s not worth it to me. I’ve invested in enough long term relationships that have given back ten-fold.
Do you occasionally worry about the way songwriters and artists are treated by elements of the business?
I’m really passionate about that subject. One of my callings as a songwriter/producer manager, and not as much as an artist manager, is to fight for and create respect for songwriters. I’ve always thought that you know you’ve got the right manager if you truly believe they could lead you into battle.
We have an office in Nashville and I’m probably there four times a year. When I spend time there I realize, these guys throw award shows monthly to celebrate songwriters. And, by the way, at those award shows, unlike Los Angeles – all the big artists show up.
“I try to take a page out of Nashville and bring that back to New York and LA.”
There’s a big difference between the performing rights organizations’ pop songwriters awards in Los Angeles and the country songwriters awards in Nashville – the community really cares down there.
I try to take a page out of Nashville and bring that back to New York and LA and other places I do business. Because I find the A&R community, who we work incredibly closely with and have good relationships with, sometimes treat songwriters as if they’re very disposable – and I have to build careers for these guys.
We stick with people, for the long haul. When I have a guy I’ve previously had success with, whose two years removed from a giant hit, I owe that guy the loyalty he’s shown me to find him the next one.
I have to always fight for respect for producers, their deals, songwriters, and I think that’s where a great publisher and manager is crucial – but it really is exhausting.
Let’s talk about the dance scene and how you’re making moves in that world.
It’s been about two years now since we started getting into that space, after we opened an office in Brooklyn. I never wanted an office in New York but I met Alex Harrow [head of electronic music for Milk + Honey] who was managing [DJ] BT at the time, and he saw the value of us setting up out east. I knew that going forward a lot of these guys were going to say: “I know I’m playing festivals and my residency deal is great – but I want US chart success and I want to be on the radio.”
There are huge DJs that have residencies in Las Vegas and tour all over America but [making records] is a part-time pursuit compared to their [live shows] so their focus hadn’t been getting on US radio.
It’s been seven or eight years since the height of that very American term for a genre, EDM. I was looking at it and thought, ‘We can leverage our relationships with all of the songwriters and producers to bring great songs to this world.’
I loved the electronic genre since the ’80s and ’90s but I thought [DJs] would start to look at, say, the success of David Guetta, Calvin Harris, Zedd and a few others and want the same.
When I see Oliver Heldens and Oak [Felder] working together on Oliver’s forthcoming single Fire In My Soul, I realize that’s [being created] within our four walls. I’m trying to be a matchmaker of great hitmakers and their songs with electronic talent, because it’s such a vibrant and exciting genre.
We’re really bullish about the genre and are making significant moves going into 2019 to expand further into electronic music with both our New York and Los Angeles outfits.
Are managers doing more in terms of A&R with artists now?
Yeah. There’s a certain element of being careful what you wish for. The manager definitely has more control in the past three to five years – they’re more respected.
A lot of managers really care about A&R. I was able to do one better. I said, “We could hire an in house A&R. We know an amazing one.” And that was Chelsea Avery.
I think the “manager as A&R” relationship with the artist is a more constructive one. As managers, we have to find solutions. When I talk to guys at record labels, I get a lot of complaints: “Man. It’s so tough.”
I’m like, what do you mean it’s so tough? “The deals are so expensive because every artist walks in here and says, I have a manager and we’re just gonna do it on our own unless you write a big enough check.”
It’s as if smart managers have determined there are other alternatives to major labels, and so they’re not so eager to make a deal unless it’s right. I consider major record companies like a tech accelerator who pick up a company which has finally hit $5m in annual revenues. They can accelerate, but they cannot create.
what makes a great publisher… and what makes a not great publisher?
The people that are effective in this business – I think this is what it comes down to – are doers.
There’s kind of an ‘inner cabinet’ of all these different people who do different things in the music business that are protected by their work ethic and the fact that they’re doers.
Hard work and great taste – powerful combination. I think that’s what makes a really good publisher. It’s about just pressing forward every day.
“Hard work, and great taste – powerful combination.”
In publisher culture, the thing that frustrates writers sometimes is that logic which goes: ‘I did something for you this month. I introduced you to one guy. See you next month!’
I feel like managers understand that breaking a career is like paying your mortgage at the dollar blackjack table: it takes 6,000 small wins to do it.
It’s a challenge because every publisher in the business has more clients than I do, and more employees. Every single one. So there’s a level of bandwidth that becomes challenging.
How can you be in all those writers lives? That’s why I like being a manager.
Certain companies are very keen to buy up, or roll up, management firms into their wider network. Have you felt that interest and, if so, why have you resisted?
I have this great sign on my wall. It’s like one of those for sale signs on your lawn and it says, ‘Not for sale’.
If you have a great business, especially a commission-based business, it’s making a lot of money. Then at some point, you have to ask: what’s the difference between a lot of money and a lot of money? I’m 34 – if I was 54, my answer might be different.
The thing that matters the most to me is the independence. I revel in not having a boss. I’ve had a couple of big management companies come to me and say [Milk + Honey] could be a really interesting arrow in their quiver – that having this whole kind of A&R writer and producer side would be hugely valuable. We could probably get over-paid for it, but it’s not worth it to me. Freedom and independence is paramount.
I’ve also been sold on a lot of things that I just don’t believe, because I understand how things actually work. People say, “Well, we represent this artist, so we could get your writers and producers with that artist.” But my response is always “Yeah, that’s not really how it works in the song world. [A&Rs] go look at the chart and they call the hitmakers. So if you want Max [Martin] or you want Stargate, that’s who you’re gonna call. You’re not just going to call the manager down the hall to get his producer.”
It’s too early [to sell the company] anyway, because we’re going to build a huge artist management department. We’re about to be in the urban space, and obviously we’re going aggressively towards more dance stuff – there is so much ahead.
So will you be more of an artist management or songwriter management company in future?
We’re going to continue to put songwriters first. Songwriters, and their hits, will always be at the core of Milk & Honey’s business.
We want to represent more great songwriters and really super-serve our label relationships. That’s gonna be a core focus, but we’re going to really get into the artist management space further. That’s next.
I don’t think we’ll do any legacy talent for a while and I don’t think we’ll do any more bands; dance and urban are the current focus, and we’ll see where it goes from there.
There are London and Amsterdam offices on the cards that we’re excited about; we’ll just slowly continue to selectively expand.
Your clients recently had seven tracks in the US Top 40 at the same time. Is that a high point for Milk + Honey?
Yes, definitely. But I’m like every other ambitious person in the arts – driven by crippling amounts of insecurity [laughs].
Seven will never be enough. I want 40 out of 40!Music Business Worldwide