Industry experts’ suggestions on how to improve your chances of success and longevity with some smart planning and decisions.
Considering the time and energy it takes to make your music, play your shows, and develop an audience, it can feel like there’s more than enough on any artist’s plate before dealing with business decisions. Yet whether you’re an act just beginning to generate some heat or you're more seasoned, getting a handle on such matters may be as crucial to your success and longevity in the music industry as creating the right song.
That means treating your band as a business—a notion that may be daunting to creatives more comfortable dealing with setlists and Pro Tools than contracts and spreadsheets. The industry’s rate of change can be scary too, though as artist manager Jessica Lord notes, “Everybody’s learning all the time and that’s true no matter what part of the industry you’re working in.”
Planning and support from a manager
As a member of London’s Red Light Management team who works across a wide span of artists including Interpol and Mysie, Lord deals with the many moving parts that can make up an artist’s career. Her objective is to be a “hand helping steer the wheel.” An artist manager like Lord may also be the first ally in what eventually becomes a larger support team that could include a tour manager, a business manager, assistants, and beyond.
That may seem far down the line for new artists, but it can also happen faster than you’re prepared for. And even those multitasking musicians who secretly have a thing for bookkeeping may run out of the bandwidth to do everything as their career flourishes.
As for when an artist might be ready to take on a manager, Lord says it helps for any new act to have developed some momentum (and identity) on their own. “It’s very hard to know exactly how you can help if you don’t know what it is you’re helping or what those aims are,” she says.
Getting a clear sense of the artist’s goals is hugely important, especially as an artist and manager try to figure out if they’re a good fit and hopefully build the strong communication skills and trust that these relationships thrive on. (FYI, the standard industry rate for a music manager’s commission rate is 15 to 20 percent, though whether that’s based on gross or net income is another decision for both parties to work out.)
As Lord says, “It’s always about asking, ‘Where do you see this going? Where do you want to be in a year’s time? Is it that you want to be touring all over the world? Or getting sponsorship deals?’ I’m just trying to get a grasp of what it is the artist really wants. And as a manager you can immediately tell whether that’s something you can help guide them to.”
An eye on the numbers
A business manager may be another valuable member on an artist’s team. According to Mark Zelasko, a music business manager with Level Group Ltd. in New York, someone like him usually comes into the picture when an artist is considering deals with publishers and labels or otherwise generating a lot of important decisions that require outside guidance.
“The volume can vary depending on the artist,” he says. “But it really does come down to if you’re concerned you’re not handling the taxes appropriately or that you don’t have the legal protections that you might need. That’s where the business manager can help and make sure your setup is ideal for the type of income that you’re making and that you’re protected as a business in order to grow.”
When he’s able to work with artists at the beginning of their careers, Zelasko likes to highlight two areas. Those are, he says, “Making sure you always pay your taxes as you go and always saving money for long-term wealth as you go, whatever that might mean.” He explains, “Whether that’s an artist that can afford to save $1,500 a year or $15 million a year, I want my artist to be saving money for long-term wealth every step of the way. There are no guarantees about how long a career in music might last and I want to make sure that all of my artists are much more in the camp of looking back and being amazed at how much they’ve accumulated over their career at age 50 or 60, than thinking back ruefully about a time in their life when they used to make a lot more money.”
Staying on top of decisions and finding the right fit
Running a successful operation of any kind often comes down to solid teamwork, and that rule applies to any act ready to become more professional. Zelasko notes that when you decide you need a business manager on your side, it’s important to find somebody who matches your values as far as how you want things to be run. “I’m fortunate to work with a lot of artists who have a very high level of integrity in terms of the way that they want to deal with the people who work with them, whether that's somebody on their crew or someone at the record label,” he says.
Speaking from an artist manager’s perspective, Lord emphasizes the need for artists to really be engaged in all aspects of the partnership. “The manager should never be making decisions that you don’t know about," she says. "So if you feel like you’re not getting the information or something’s happened and you weren’t aware or you don’t understand it, I think that’s a problem.
“You don’t need to know every single email that your manager is sending, but you need to be aware of any decision that’s made on your behalf," she continues. "Definitely be savvy because more often than not, those artists that find a real level of success are the ones who are happy with the relationships they formed with their team and who have a good grasp.”
Just like it is with any musical collaborator worth keeping around, artists need to feel like they’re in a partnership. That’s especially true during those lean early times when a manager may essentially be working for free. “As a manager, you may be doing this all on good faith,” says Lord. “That relationship needs to be really key because you are business partners. It’s the most important relationship an artist has with anyone on their team because a manager is the liaison between you and everybody else.” At the same time, she says, “It’s completely understandable that you’re here as an artist, and not as an accountant and not as a manager.”
Indeed, dealing with money and legal matters is not going to be easy for every artist. While Zelasko says he’s worked with artists who are as good at running their business as he is, he jokes that there are others who are as good at business management as he is at playing keyboards: “Luckily, I always try to clarify that I’m not good at what they do so it’s okay if they aren’t good at what I do!”