The Manager’s Playbook: Essential Roles and Realistic Paths For Musicians
As musicians, we all ponder the role of personal managers, those guiding lights who can shape our journey. They navigate us toward our artistic vision while deftly handling the nitty-gritty of the music business. Picture them as our champions, hyping us to the right business contacts, unveiling hidden opportunities, securing sponsorships, and orchestrating epic tours. They’re the backbone that ensures everyone involved is pulling their weight and more.
But here’s the thing: personal managers don’t grow on trees; they’re a hard-earned privilege. Truth is, until we’ve made some headway on our own, those seasoned managers with clout may not bat an eye in our direction. If we sit around waiting to be rescued without making our own strides, well, our musical journey might just veer into the abyss.
That’s why it’s crucial to grasp the diverse management options available to us musicians. From the DIY approach to linking up with established professional management, there’s a path for everyone. But before we dig into those essential routes, let’s quickly walk through the myriad roles a personal music manager can undertake. So, hang tight and read on, fellow musicians, as we embark on this enlightening voyage together.
Excerpted from the book Business Basics for Musicians, 2nd Edition
© 2023 By Bobby Borg
THE ROLE OF A PERSONAL MANAGER IN YOUR CAREER
By strict definition, a personal manager advises and counsels artists in all aspects of the new music business. This may include artist development, project management, touring, contracts and income streams, and so much more.
A. Artist Development
The manager may assist with the development of an artist’s career via the following activities:
•Encouraging You to Get Your Brand Together: Inspiring you to polish up your brand—from your artist name and logo, to what you wear and say in public, to the charities and other organizations and brands with whom you associate.
•Assisting with Your Sound and Songs: Inspiring you to polish up your compositions and musical sound. If needed, the manager may even help set you up with songwriting consultants, cowriters, and producers, and help you find complete songs to record and perform.
•Helping You to Improve Live Performances and Merch: Inspiring you to perfect the quality of your live performances (set list flow, presence, etc.) and merchandising designs (T-shirts, hats, stickers, etc.). And finally . . .
•Helping You Build—and Monitor—Your Fan Base: Encouraging you to strengthen your connections with fans, including improving your social media content strategies on sites like Instagram and TikTok (or other), finding ways to get fans’ assistance with promotion and spreading the word-of-mouth, and ultimately getting fans to engage with you more personally through monetized crowdfunding platforms and Patreon. Additionally, your manager will help you to monitor fans through the use of various analytical tools and artificial intelligence to gain insights and make smarter decisions.
B. Contracts and New Income Streams
Your manager may also help initiate various business deals by doing the following:
•Setting Up Meetings and Seeking Out Future Opportunities: Setting up meetings with potential co-writers, publishers, merchandisers, sponsors, and record companies, and seeking out immersive opportunities in the metaverse, digital asset stores and NFT marketplaces, and—when you’re a huge star—catalog sales via top music investors.
•Researching the Right Deals: Researching which companies and representatives are best suited to your talents and musical style, based not only on a company’s past signings or successes, but also on its financial stability, management capabilities and understanding of your vision.
•Recommending You Find Legal Counsel: Providing recommendations for legal counsel to help shop your music to various companies and review important contract terms that are relevant to the new—and ever-changing—music industry. And finally . . .
•Working Collaboratively with Your Attorney: Communicating with your attorney about important contract deal points, but knowing when to step aside and let the attorney do their job.
C. Project Management
When, and if, you sign a recording agreement, your manager may also assist by doing this:
•Getting Everyone at the Label Excited About Your Career: Lighting the fire under the label’s ass and trying to make sure that you will be a top priority.
•Monitoring Pre-Release and Post-Release Activities: Providing marketing ideas regarding the branding, price, place, promotion and measuring of your records, and fighting tactfully for what is best for your career. And finally . . .
•Meeting with Departments: Meeting with the various departments at the record label, (new media, licensing, press, sales, marketing and radio promotion), and to make sure that everyone is talking and working in concert to further your professional career.
D. Hybrid Services: Merch, Publishing, and More
As if the above tasks were not enough, some management companies operating under newer business models may even assist your career by doing the following:
•Providing Label Services: Handling all matters concerning the funding, recording, manufacturing, distributing, promoting and monitoring of a record, in addition to all other management services. Said another way, the management company is a label, or the label is a management company—however you see it.
•Providing Publishing Services: Seeking creative uses of your songs in film, TV, games, and podcasts, issuing licenses to music users for the use of your songs, and collecting all income generated by these uses. And finally . . .
•Providing Merchandising Services: Helping design and manufacture effective merch that sells, helping the group sell merch on the road and via retail outlets, and seeking sub-licenses to expand the product line. And finally….
•Providing Digital Marketing and Advertising Services: Acting as a digital marketing service in influencer marketing campaigns, advertising campaigns, email marketing brand sponsorships, and general social media management.
E. Live Engagements and Touring
Moving on to another role, a personal manager may also assist with the following:
•Securing a Talent Agent: Helping you to find a licensed talent agent who specifically works on procuring live performances. Your manager will work together with this agent to determine which tours are best for you, to make sure that you’re getting the best offers from concert promoters, and even to help direct your performances from city to city.
•Working with Your Business Manager: Helping you find a business manager who specializes in the music business, and working together with him or her to ensure that your tours are properly budgeted. Hotel accommodations, transportation, stage crews, and other expenses will be closely examined in an effort to minimize expenses and ensure that you turn a profit (or at least cover expenses). And finally . . .
•Hiring a Tour Manager: Hiring a “tour manager” who is responsible for keeping a watchful eye on all business matters from city to city, night after night. This could mean checking you in to hotels, “advancing” the shows (making sure that each venue has the proper accommodations in place for you), “settling” money with promoters at the end of each night, babysitting, and bailing you out of jail—seriously!
F. Physical and Mental Health Issues
Finally, once an artist is successful, a great manager can assist the artist in the following ways:
• Monitoring Physical and Mental Health: Looking out for the artist’s health and well-being, and knowing when to say no to that extra morning radio show, public appearance, podcast interview, or leg of the tour.
•Checking in with the Artist: Checking in with the artist and simply asking him or her, “How are you doing?” Said another way, the manager checks the goose that is hatching the golden eggs, rather than just focusing on the golden eggs. This is important. Artists are known to break down when they’re pushed too hard. Elvis Presley is one classic example. Destiny’s Child, Britney Spears and Justin Bieber are more recent examples.
Turning Bad into Good: POST Malone and IGGY Azalea
Dre London, Post Malone’s manager, highlights another role of personal managers—turning bad into good.
London discovered that Malone’s upcoming album had been leaked online. This could have been a major setback for the album’s release and promotion, potentially affecting its sales and reception.
However, instead of letting the leak derail their plans, London and team decided to turn it into a marketing opportunity. They created a scavenger hunt on Twitter, where they released different snippets of the leaked songs and hid clues for fans to find the full tracks.
This not only generated excitement and engagement among Post Malone’s fanbase, but also helped increase the album’s visibility and anticipation. When the album, Hollywood’s Bleeding: The Director’s Cut, was officially released, it debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart and became one of the best-selling albums of the year. Totally fire!
In another example of turning bad into good, T.I., Iggy Azalea’s manager at the time, helped Azalea avoid a major PR disaster and instead turned it into a positive experience.
Iggy Azalea was set to perform at the Pittsburgh Pride festival, which was a highly anticipated event for the LGBTQ+ community. However, a Twitter user resurfaced old tweets from Azalea containing homophobic and racist remarks, which caused a backlash and calls for her to be removed from the lineup.
T.I. could have suggested Azalea issue an apology and let the situation play out. Instead, he came up with a creative solution. T.I. suggested that Azalea use the opportunity to educate herself on LGBTQ+ issues and work closely with the community to make amends.
Azalea agreed and as a result was eventually welcomed back by the LGBTQ+ community. Make no mistake, folks, turning bad into good is a major role of the manager.•
Now that you understand what a manager does, we can discuss the various management options available to you. The most common choices, depending on how far along you are in your career, are self-management, start-up management, and established professional management.
A. Self-Management (DIY or DIE)
In the early stages of your career, good management must always begin with the artist. Unless one of your relatives happens to be a record label or publishing company president, no one is going to help you until you first help yourself!
As your self-manager, consider the self-assessment checklist below to determine whether or not you are doing all the right things.
• Have you given serious thought to your long-term career vision?
• Have you written a large repertoire of songs or even cowritten with professionals?
• Have you professionally recorded, mixed, mastered, and packaged your music?
• Have you developed a consistent and unique brand (name, logo, look, attitude)?
• Have you learned to properly release your music in streaming and physical formats?
• Have you mastered your marketing game both online and offline, as well?
• Have you developed creative methods of connecting/engaging with your fans?
• Have you amassed respectful analytics (streams, social numbers, reviews)?
• Have you developed a kick-ass live show and amassed a respectful local draw?
• Have you attempted to hit the road playing colleges, festivals, other events?
• Have you created a line of merch (T-shirts, hats, etc.) and generated decent sales?
• Have you aligned with any product sponsors and formed symbiotic relationships?
• Have you pitched your music in synch (film, TV, games) and secured placements?
• Have you attended industry conferences (NAMM, SXSW) and built a network?
• Have you subscribed to the trades/podcasts and got a grip on the new music biz?
• Have you made an effort to keep up with emerging trends (NFTs, Web 3, AI)?
• Have you found methods to pay bills, set goals, and manage your time like a pro?
Musicians often believe that the solution to their problems is finding someone to whisk them up from rehearsal room to superstardom. An experienced manager can make good things happen fast, but he or she is not a solution for your laziness. This is the digital age, where doing it yourself is far easier than ever before. Bottom line: you must generate some action on your own—and prove that you don’t need any help—in order to give managers a valid reason to want to work with you.
B. Start-Up Management
After you’ve reached a point in your career when you’ve done all the things mentioned in the list above, and you just can’t go any further without a helping hand, then perhaps you’re ready for a start-up manager. This might include one of the following:
• A Friend: A close friend who’s willing to make phone calls and help promote shows without getting paid for the first few months or years. In fact, he may not even be called a “manager” at all, working with the understanding that as soon as your career progresses, he will be replaced by an established professional manager and offered some other position with the band.
• A Retired Musician: An experienced musician who wants to “right all the wrongs” she encountered in her professional career, and has got all the passion and drive needed to set you on course.
• A Businessperson: An educated businessperson who’s always dreamed of being in the entertainment business and has the desire to live those dreams through you.
• A Club Owner: A club owner in your hometown who sees hundreds of bands perform each year. This individual has a good idea of what works and what doesn’t and is willing to offer you an objective point of view and career guidance. And finally . . .
• An Intern: An intern or junior assistant of a professional manager by day who’s looking to cut his teeth on managing his own artist on his downtime at night. He’s got the advantage of having his boss’ ear for guidance and observing how a professional office is run all day.
While start-up managers may not be the most experienced folks, don’t underestimate their value. They can be some of the most loyal and hardworking people around, and they’ll stick with you through the tough times. And who knows, they may even grow into being legends. Look at Andrew Oldham. He started out with the Rolling Stones when he was just 17, and he became one of the most successful managers of all time. Johnny Wright started managing New Kids on The Block at just 18, and he also went on to manage Jonas Brothers and Justin Timberlake. Impressive!
C. Established Professional Management
Finally, if you’re able to create serious momentum in your career (get millions of streams, start generating some income, and/or attract labels and publishers), then established professional managers will be more interested in working with you. You might be referred to these folks via your record label, or they might seek you out. Let’s look at mid-level and big-league managers.
Mid-level managers are those who have a great deal of experience in the industry but have not quite broken a band into superstardom. Maybe they have one client on their roster who was able to amass several million Spotify streams and social media followers on Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok (or other), but they still don’t have that bonified superstar artist yet—and that’s what they’re shooting for! They are typically well liked in the industry and have a big enough network to open some doors for you.
However, the problem with mid-level managers is that they are not as powerful as big-league managers, and therefore it may take them longer to get things done.
Big-league managers (like Irving Azoff, Scooter Braun and Coran Capshaw) have been around for years and have lots of Grammy-winning superstars on their rosters. The relationships they’ve formed, the respect they’ve earned, and the favors they can trade give them the power to make things happen with just a few phone calls.
However, the problem is that you could easily get lost in the sauce. This means that you get overshadowed by their more profitable clients. I was with a group that had one of the most successful rock management companies in the word (one that handles Metallica), and we never even did one date with the band or really much of anything at all. We soon left the management.
Qualities of the Manager
There are dozens of experienced, professional, established managers out there, any one of whom is capable of doing the job. The important thing is picking the one who really wants to work with you.
Don’t just pick a manager who has the biggest stars on his or her roster, takes you out to the most expensive restaurant, or makes the biggest promises.
Above all, your manager must possess a genuine enthusiasm for your music, an understanding of your vision, and a commitment to going the long haul. Of course, they must also come highly recommended from people you respect, and they must be trustworthy.
Be sure to read the biographies of some of the most interesting managers of all time and make note of some of the other character traits that you admire. One I’d like to recommend is the story of the Rolling Stones manager titled Stoned: Andrew Loog Oldham. Oldham understood branding and how to create the Stones’ “bad boy” image; he was an innovative thinker and helped the Stones retain ownership in their masters; and he knew how to form the right alliances for the band (he connected them with the Beatles).
Another manager you might want to read up on is Scooter Braun. Scooter was a strong believer in social media (long before it was the industry norm), and had a knack for spotting hidden talent online, notably Justin Bieber. He also knew how to form the right alliances for Bieber by hooking him up with Usher, who was very instrumental in furthering Bieber’s career.
So, what traits are important to you? Be sure to give this some thought. •
BOBBY BORG is a music industry professor at USC, author, and YouTuber at youtube.com/bobbyborg. He is the author of Music Marketing for the DIY Musician, Business Basics For Musicians, and Introduction to Music Publishing. He is the co-author (with Britt Hastey) of Personal Finance for Musicians.