How (and When) to Get a Manager Where Organisers and Enthusiasm Meet

Truthfully, everything you need to know about band management — the good, the bad, and the bad-blues-jam ugly — can be divined from a timely viewing of the mockumentary classic This is Spinal Tap. But just in case you don’t have it handy, here is a basic guide to the Do’s and Don’ts of hooking up with a manager.

An artist manager’s job is to act as an interface between art (you) and commerce (the industry). A good manager loves music, especially yours, and shows respect for the creative process and demonstrable knowledge of the business. A manager’s job is to make deals where the integrity of the music is the first context and the commercial aspect is second. A good manager sees her job as scouting, negotiating and administering commercial opportunities for your music, leaving you free to concentrate on being a musician. A good manager wants to grow your career slowly but surely.

That being said, the kinds of people you probably do not want to be represented by are family members and best friends: they may totally get your music, but unless they have legitimate experience in the music business, they are not going to help. Conversely, you also don’t want representation by some MBA shark who has no clue what you’re doing musically: he’s going to advise you to grab the short-term cash without considering the impact on your fan base or long-term potential.

What you do want is an experienced manager who loves your music and whose critical path is to represent you two years from now when you get your Juno, five years from now when you get your Grammy, and 20 years from now when they park your plaque in the Hall of Fame.

This is not a person who needs you to be her only source of income. She’s in it for famine and, hopefully, feast.
As Nettwerk co-founder Terry McBride suggests, the best way to find this magical manager is to let him or her come to you, once you’ve already made some effort to establish yourself in the scene. No manager worth her salt is going to pile all her eggs into your brand-new basket without seeing if you can hack it. No matter how good your songs are, if you can’t get your ass out of bed for a meeting, you’re going to prove a time-waster. Having a career in music takes hard work, and the musicians who are successful in the long run are those who are willing to work hard at the creative side while being ready to learn and actively engage in the commercial aspects of the business.

Once you’ve made contact with a candidate manager, you need to do some research. Who has he worked with in the past, and what kind of success did he have? If the partnership wasn’t successful, why not? (Get this from the artist’s mouth too.) Does he have solid contacts and a good reputation among booking agencies, record labels, distributors, publicists and the media? Does he currently represent other artists? What’s his workload like: will he be able to give you the attention you deserve?

Most importantly, do you like him? This is a person who will be taking your emergency phone calls from the road: it’s important that you can trust him to take care of the business and help heal the mortification you’ve suffered after yet another Thunder Bay no-show. You have to believe that he has your best interests at heart. But like and trust are different animals. You can like someone on first meeting, but trust must be earned.

Once you’ve found your guy or gal — or better yet, they’ve found you — seriously consider formalising the relationship on paper. Green musicians and managers tend to be uncomfortable with putting a contract for managerial services in place, fearing that the paperwork somehow sullies the transaction. But in reality, having even a simple deal memo in place can help avoid confusion, mistrust and hurt feelings down the road.
Your contract for a manager should clearly set out some essential points.

Territories and extent of the manager’s responsibilities. Will she be expected to book local, national or international gigs? Or find a booking agent? Will she be expected to go on the road? Or find a road manager? Will she negotiate record deals, distribution deals, TV and film placements? Make sure you’re clear about consultation: you don’t want your manager agreeing to stuff you don’t know about or agree with!

Payment. Typically, managers take a percentage of an artist’s gross income — usually around 15 to 20 percent, depending on the source. It might seem easiest in the early days to agree to pay your manager 20 percent of everything from everywhere (gig fees, merch sales, royalty advances, downloads). Try to be clear about where you expect the money to come from, and if the manager’s not working for it, you should negotiate whether to keep it in or out. For example, you might already have a record out when you take on a new manager. Should the manager get a cut of those sales? Fairness is the key issue.

How long the contract will last. Try the guy out for a probationary period. Don’t make it so short that there’s no time to get anywhere, but neither so long that you end up wasting time and money. Likewise, provide for the manager’s services to be reviewed regularly, so that both parties stay abreast of the relationship and don’t take each other for granted, and can renew or terminate the contract accordingly.

Provide clear benchmarks for success or failure. If your expectation is to get a record deal within a year or bust, put that in the agreement. But be reasonable about it! If he does score the deal, will he get a motivational bump in percentages? Remember: you’re both in it for the long haul.

Provide clear and fair mechanisms for the manager’s services to be terminated. These could be at the end of a term, based on performance targets that have been clearly set out, or some combination of the two.

Always remember that a manager is an integral member of your team, and, depending on how you work, may end up being more important than some band members. It’s like a marriage, the success of which hinges on love, trust, respect for each other and mutually set boundaries, and above all, open communication.

Frequently Asked Questions

We’d like to hire this guy as our manager, but a person at a label says he’s a putz. Who should we listen to?
Sounds like there’s a back-story that needs to be investigated. Does the manager have a skeleton in the closet, or does the label person have an agenda? Think of this as a great opportunity to put the prospective manager’s listening and negotiating skills to the test: ask him directly whether there’s a history. Then ask a bunch of other people for references too.

We don’t have a manager and we’ve been offered a record deal. Should we get a manager before or after signing it?
First, never sign a record deal until you’ve had independent advice, either from an entertainment lawyer or from an experienced manager type who will consult for a one-time fee. If all you’re trying to do is keep 100 percent of the advance in your pocket by signing the record deal before taking on management, ask yourself whether that’s a smart strategy in the long term. Possibly not. On the other hand, if there are no good managerial candidates before you sign the deal, there may be after, because the deal might bring you some notice.

My sister has been managing us since we started, learning the business as she goes. So far she’s done a great job and now we’re starting to attract attention from serious players. We don’t really want to fire her, but should we?
Have a full and frank discussion with your sister about the situation: if she’s genuinely looking out for your career, she’ll understand the conundrum, she’ll be ready to admit she’s in over her head, and she won’t freak out if you tell her you think it’s best to get third-party advice. If the attention turns into offers, then you can together reconsider her position or find a third way: resources or a mentor to coach her through. And if you keep her on, don’t not sign a contract just because she’s your sister!