The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Patrick Hess Headshot

Managing Management in the Music Industry

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

Ignorance is bliss. Or so it seems.

In the long road of learning the convoluted, yet at times transparently simple music industry, many roles and titles of people I've come across have been difficult to understand.

For example, a producer may be the person funding the project, but also the one pushing buttons and sliding faders on a mixing board. A producer may also be a songwriter or track composer. A songwriter may be a producer or even a sound engineer. A sound engineer may also be a producer. An A&R (Artists and Repertoire) at a label may be like a manager but not in the business sense. An A&R may be a producer and sound engineer at the same time. An A&R may also be a title given to the person who simply seeks out talent and hands them off to several other people who specialize in some aspect of developing that talent further. A road manager is different than a personal manager. A business manager is different than a career manager. A management company is different than a personal or business manager, although some aspects of a staffer in a management company may roll into personal management. In fact, a personal manager often takes on the role of a career manager, but in more of a day to day role than from the 30,000 foot view many managers handle.

In the simplest terms, the titles and roles of people in the music business often are confusing and not easy to define because each artist may be at a different level of development or success and thereby needing different levels of support. The problem with this is that to a newbie just getting their bearings straight about the music industry, it can be very annoying to sift through assumptions and expectations because of traditional definitions about roles and titles in the business.

Many, many people have crossed our path (mine and my son, Spencer Kane) the past three years in this journey. We've come to understand that the earth-shaking transition the music industry has faced the past five years alone has rendered several ex-executives and middle management people at well-established labels, management companies, former bands or artists themselves, distributors, and creative studios, unemployed. They are jobless with skills that seem to only fit their well-defined role just a few years earlier. These people are scrambling to earn a living just like anyone displaced in their job or industry. They're having to be creative to define a new income source from an industry that is full of parasites (sorry to be harsh, but it's true) looking to survive off the lifeblood of the next talent to take center stage. Much like any industry that is mature in its lifecycle, it must either evolve or die. So the veterans, too, must acquire new skills or networks for which they can resuscitate their careers.

The single greatest contributor to the unemployment line seems, to me, to be the label companies. Once held as GOD in this industry, labels have found that artists and creative types don't always need their official sanctioning. While indie artists and labels exist on nearly every corner of the music business map, the power the larger labels once had has been diminished greatly because of the change in how consumers purchase music. Digital streaming and downloadable music has seriously destroyed a chunk of revenue for labels and has greatly removed their need for large staffs of neatly defined roles and titles. The castoffs of these labels spend a huge amount of time trying to rebuild a dream they once had in becoming the top 'dawg' in their area of expertise, or they now cunningly parade themselves as an expert in an area of the business they knew about, but weren't previously qualified to hold a title in. They have become jacks-of-all-trades in order to survive. They know just enough about different pieces of the business to sound intelligent to a naive listener, but receive eyerolls from those who really know.

I can't count how many times I've listened to former executives and producers all bash one another. Some have even managed to craftily insult the other behind their back and in my presence while I just stare in disbelief. The egos at play are unbelievably ginormous, and posturing to inflate one's self worth in the scheme of the industry seems to be the norm. Some downplay titles and choose to, rather, brag about their impressive network of influence or relationships. Sadly, just because you met a successful member of the industry one time 12 years ago doesn't mean you're networked. Many trumpet their accolades like they mean something when even the most prolific artists and long-standing veterans know full well that yesterday's trophy doesn't mean today's revenue. It's a game of reputation-chess that is skillfully played at many levels and woefully lost by many.

From my standpoint, this education is revealing a lot about why this industry is so difficult to navigate. It's just hard to know who to trust and who to believe at any given time. It's hard to maneuver the personalities.

Those immersed in the business for any substantial time have learned the cleverness of what I like to call "sincere lip service." OK. So it's not a real cliche, but it should be. They are professional flatterers who present grandiose dreams to anyone who will listen, especially the inexperienced newbies to the industry. Imagine a James Cagney-like persona staring off into the horizon and shifting his hand back and forth while reciting, "I can see it now, your name in lights on the marquee." On the other hand, they are professional schmoozers who know how to stroke the egos around them to get an opportunity. It may sound disconcerting to some, but it's the way things get done.

Recently, I spoke at length with an industry veteran producer who has been with the best of the best artists and musicians in studios around the world making records that have sold in the tens of millions. I won't mention his name because he has confided a great deal in me to help me understand some things that happen behind closed doors at the highest levels. He has basically pulled away the blinders of how (as he puts it) the hustle in the game really works. He confirmed many of my suspicions but also unearthed some truth that still has my shaking my head. Hearing him repeat, "It's all a hustle, Patrick", is both peaceful and frightening at the same time. It was as if he had camera monitors observing our last three year's of a journey with Spencer's career. It was actually embarrassing when he cited situations I've been sucked into because of the hype or promise of a pot-of-gold result. It's vanity driven at every level and title in the business, including the artist. So, in one sense, it's nothing I hadn't heard or perceived already, but it's everything I hoped I'd never get sucked into because of naiveté.

His main purpose for divulging everything was to enlighten me how to avoid being "hustled" by different people in the business. The more I understand the roles and titles, the better chance I have to avoid getting taken down the wrong road, not just financially, but emotionally.

Spencer had a recent opportunity to accept a legitimate deal that included both music and a reality TV show. Because it is a project still being developed, I can't really disclose the details. The opportunity, however, involved a management company offering him the deal.

This is where my ignorance in understanding roles and titles may have created a rude awakening in our world. For the record, while this experience learning about management companies may not be 100 percent accurate all the time, I have learned that it is more realistic and common than not.

Having a manager in the music industry is absolutely essential for any artist to have a chance at gaining ground. Some artists are their own managers, but it's rare that they can accomplish what is needed in 24 hours if they take it all on themselves. Hence, the need for a manager.

Managers, in my simple definition, are a hired gun to represent the interest of an artist in exchange for a commission of all revenues they help generate for the artist. They are, in a sense, a salesman who gets their income from opportunities they land for an artist. This, to me, means that unless they are "hustling" for the artist, they don't get paid. It seems logical, then, that they work for the artist and should be doing everything they do to earn that paycheck. In the strictest sense, this is accurate from a business standpoint. However, it is not accurate when it comes to managers at a higher level in the music business.

A more accurate picture of that type manager would be like a college athlete that hires a management team or agent to represent them to professional teams. Who that athlete has as a manager can be the difference in millions of dollars in guaranteed income. These heavyweight agents carefully select who they will represent and only sign the best of the best to their roster of clients. It's simple math. It also involves a truckload of ego because these agents must rub elbows with owners and presidents of billion-dollar organizations looking to improve their staff of athletes. The rules of that level of negotiation are well beyond the everyday business man's toolbelt of skills. They involve private dinners at country clubs and meetings in ivory towers. In this sense, the manager is the one who is in charge of that athlete. The athlete essentially does what the manager tells them because that manager holds the keys to the athletes success. The mental role being that the manager is the employer, not the other way around.

The music industry has many types of managers and the top of the top of the food chain of them is what was offering Spencer an opportunity.

Here's the wisdom learned about management that we take forward on this journey and I want to pass along in this blog.

Having a personal manager is just as essential as having a career manager. Both may sound like the same title, but have drastically different roles.

A career manager (or management company) is not concerned with day to day business management of an artist as much as they are cutting big deals that are lucrative. They may offer services that are delegated to other staff to deal with minutia, but that is after the artist proves to be a cash-cow for them. In the meantime, like 99 percent of artists trying to make it in the business, there is a great deal of work a personal manager must handle to keep the artist moving in the right direction. The personal manager takes on the role of a business manager, booking agent, tour manager, and overall cheerleader until the artist is hitched to a big agent manager down the road. Even then, if an artist is offered a chance to get hitched with that big agent, he or she better look long and hard at it because it is the opening to the big leagues that very few ever see.

While Spencer chose to not take the offer he was given by this management company, it wasn't because of the concern of the offer's legitimacy. It was the real deal. It was because we all (as a family) caught a glimpse of what a big-league management company looked like up close and personal. The communication, personalities involved and methods used to influence Spencer to be a new roster member were all very uncomfortable to handle because of our naivete. Frankly, there was shock by that company and a few of Spencer's mentors when he declined. The opportunity itself also had some drastic changes in store for Spencer's artistry and he just wasn't ready or willing to make that big of a shift in his music goals at this point just to have a deal. It was both difficult and easy to decline.

While the music industry dictates a protocol of playing the game that so many have played for so many years to survive, we have relied on peace and prayer to guide us into the right opportunities. I can see now that if you want to be in the big leagues, you have to deal with big league personalities and egos. It's part of the price of making it to the next level. While we certainly don't subscribe to anything that would compromise our morals or ethics, there's a fine-line with accepting the roles and people we must partner with in order to move forward and what we'd prefer to ideally have those roles look like. Understanding the roles of people we must have around us is the most critical part of success in the music business. Being able to sift through the personalities and sales pitches of everyone we meet in order to align ourselves with the ones we need has been difficult and emotionally draining. It's the easiest reason, I believe, people give up on their dream of being an artist in the music industry. They have either been burned by a hustler, or they've simply grown weary of the emotional toll it takes on you to handle the relationships you must have in order to succeed. I've had at least a dozen epiphany's of people I refuse to deal with anymore, only to realize that they may be the only path to the next phase of Spencer's career. Again, I've not compromised a moral or ethical standard, but just being around some of these roles for any length of time has proven difficult to handle. But I realize their necessity.

My favorite expression about the music industry is 'managing expectations.' This is the most powerful tool we've had to stay the course. Within this single statement lies everything we do to move ahead with decisions and relationships. Once we've understood the boundaries of what each relationship entails, we then know how to manage our day. Understanding what a title or role is supposed to be doing is the difference between being hustled and success. I'm just glad that there are a few mentors who have learned this already and are willing to impart their wisdom to us. It's the way we've avoided our bliss keeping us ignorant.