Artists, Stop Looking for a Manager—the Good Ones Will Find You

If you build it, managers will come.
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If you’re an artist, I’m going to tell you something you probably don’t want to hear: stop looking for a manager.

Take this advice, but don’t stop being creative. Songwriting, recording, producing, performing—all of these pursuits are essential to your career, and none of the other stuff is going to happen without your art. Never stop improving it.

Instead of looking (or hoping) to find a manager, read about music publishing; work on your release plan; update your website; research live performance opportunities. Until you have a manager, invest in yourself. Get educated. Spend time building your business.

But stop looking for a manager.

You probably think that’s terrible advice. It’s not. If you stop looking for a manager and build your business instead, you’ll notice something interesting: managers will start looking for you.

This is a music industry paradox: if a manager is supposed to build your business, why do you have to build it first? It seems counterintuitive, but the sooner you accept its truth the better.

We all love to hear tales of overnight success. They make great stories, and there is no shortage of them in the music business. The problem is that they are just myths. In actuality, success takes a lot of hard work and there are no shortcuts.

These myths make it easy to be fooled into thinking that with that one big break, blowing up will be inevitable. And unfortunately, many think that if they could just find the right manager, they will blow up too. To make matters worse, some managers—the less competent, less trustworthy ones—will let their artists think exactly that, perpetuating an abusive myth in which success as an artist is due solely to the work of a manager.

The reality is different.

Managers look for two things in an artist: talent and commercial viability. Managers expect to make their money by applying their skills to develop the first thing and to exploit the second. However, working with talented artists is not enough; managers want to ensure that talent has an audience as well. Therefore, getting a manager’s attention often has less to do with art than with commerce. This doesn’t mean that a manager isn’t interested in art, but that art is only one of the elements a manager is looking for.

Outstanding talent is essential to a long career in the music business. Without it, an artist won’t be able to build a fan base. But regardless of that talent, the artist still needs to be commercially viable. The ability to find fans and create an audience of paid customers shows that viability. Want to find a manager? Attract a paying audience. If you can do that, managers will be attracted, too.

Good managers always have their feelers out, alert for tips from their network. It’s no surprise that news of a breaking artist can quickly shoot through the entire industry. Managers are plugged into that, and don’t discover artists just by listening to demos; they follow the buzz. You want to attract a manager? Build some buzz.

Good managers are patient. They are willing to work with an artist over a long career, executing their client’s vision with a step-by-step plan. This requires developing intimate relationships with each client, relationships that take time to build. Because of this, a manager is going to take his or her time getting to know the artist, their music, and their business. 

Good managers are willing to take the time to find the right fit, but also expect to sign a contract as soon as they find it. Want to find a good manager? Give them what they need; first to sign you, and then to develop you.

Lastly—like all of us—managers need to make money. Don’t expect that a manager will be interested in working with you unless they see the right combination of potential, preparation, and commitment. Demonstrating all three is vital, and done by building success on one’s own. Do this and managers will find you.

Now, a note about how managers are compensated: managers typically charge a commission of 15 to 20 percent of an artist’s income “from all entertainment sources.” What this means is that a manager will take a commission on everything that their client earns, usually without regard for whether the manager was involved or not. The last part is important to understand. In my experience, artists don’t want to share income that they don’t think their manager had any part in creating. 

However, a good manager will work to develop all potential revenue streams. Some of that work will result in immediate impact; some will take longer to develop. As a result, managers seek to lock in their compensation from "all sources" in an effort to hedge their bet. Being compensated for working on a part of a particular artist’s career that pays immediately will encourage a manager to spend the time to work on a part that may take more time to develop. If an artist is unwilling to share this with their manager, then they should expect that manager to be unwilling to help the artist with that part of their business.

Additionally, because they typically work on commission, managers understand that they may not see any income until they’ve worked with their client for a while. Managers view their time as an investment in a future revenue stream. Therefore, it’s important for the artist to understand that the manager is not working for free, but actually deferring their compensation, waiting to share in the upside they create. 

This is why the long-term nature of the artist-manager relationship is so important: the manager expects the artist to take their advice and is willing to wait for their compensation on the basis that they will build the artist’s career to a level at which they will get paid. The manager expects that their willingness to invest now and be paid later will be met by the artist’s willingness to invest as well, primarily by carrying out the plans that the manager has set forth. The artist-manager relationship is based on trust; without it, neither will profit.

Even in the best of situations, a manager and artist may agree to end their working relationship but still maintain a financial one. Managers take on significant risk when working with their commission-based clients, especially developing artists who have not yet created consistent revenue streams. As a result, it is not uncommon for managers to negotiate what is called a "sunset clause," a provision that guarantees them payment even after the contract has ended. Why might they do this? An artist’s success may take years, sometimes longer than the term of a management agreement, and to protect the investment of their time, managers will seek to share in their client’s future revenue.

If this seems crazy, consider this scenario: an artist and manager sign a contract for a certain length of time, and during that time, the manager works diligently to secure the artist a recording contract. As the end of the management term nears, the recording contract remains unsigned, and so, the manager has not received their commission on whatever advance they worked hard to negotiate. If the term of the management agreement expires before the recording contract gets signed, through no fault of the manager, shouldn’t the manager still receive their commission? A sunset clause protects managers in these situations, ensuring that they receive compensation for work they undertook during the term, even if payment for that work is delayed until after the term is ended.

Lastly, a commission is only one way a manager can be compensated. Some work on a project basis like a consultant, others hourly. Each manager has their own model based on what services they provide, how long they work, and how much the artist stands to gain. Good managers will explain how they are compensated and negotiate deals that make sense not just for them, but also for their clients. 

Good managers understand that their business is based on trust, and are willing to do deals that make sense for all parties. If you encounter somebody claiming to be a manager who isn’t forthright about their compensation, or demands upfront money without an explanation of what they will do, or seeks to own your copyrights, be very careful. A trustworthy manager will take the time to explain their services and compensation, will not force anyone to sign a contract they haven’t read or don’t understand, and will not seek to take ownership of their client’s intellectual property. Managers also don’t finance their client’s careers; artists must understand it is they who must invest in themselves.

All of this said, I know you want to work on your art and develop your craft. I also know you probably don’t want to do the business. That’s okay, most artists don’t. But if you don’t do the business, how will your art get heard? And if it doesn’t get heard, how will you build an audience? And without an audience, what good is all the art you’ve made?

This demonstrates that music business paradox: to build your business you need a manager, but to get a manager, you need to build your business. Managers are going to do their best work when they have something to work with, so get out there and start building it. 

If you build it, managers will come.

Mark Tavern is an artist manager, consultant, educator, administrator, and arts advocate with more than twenty years of music business experience. In addition to running his own management company, he currently teaches music business at LaGuardia Community College and before that at the Institute of Audio Research. Prior to 2012, Tavern worked at major record companies including Universal Music Group, SONY Music Entertainment, and BMG Entertainment. As an A&R Administrator with such labels as Island, Def Jam, RCA, and RCA Victor, he took part in more than 200 recordings, a dozen Broadway cast albums, and numerous reissue projects, including the GRAMMY®-winning 24-CD box set The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition. Visit his website for insider tips about the music business, and subscribe to his newsletter to get a free ebook: Listen Up! A Simple Guide To Getting Heard On Spotify.

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