By Hans Ebert
In the music world, where nothing today is what it seems, and those who artists once depended on and signed pacts with to make things happen, ignore what one would think are basic and legally binding requests for information, what’s needed most- management or a no-nonsense lawyer? Perhaps both, but most who work today as “management” are hopelessly out of touch with reality. They have not been students of music. They wouldn’t know Chris Blackwell from Mr Blackwell. They wouldn’t know how to press “Play”. They’re busy being busy.
There’s a great deal of huffing and puffing in an industry where the more one travels, the less one knows. It’s as stupid as streaming versus downloads and thinking there are millions to be made out of music. It’s the economy, stupid. And timing. And learning from past mistakes. We all screw up at one time or another. It’s not a crime. It’s part of a learning curve. It’s part of becoming smarter.
When someone like Simon Fuller, who’s carefully selected as to who he and Management company wish to represent- Brand Beckham, Carrie Underwood, Adam Lambert, Andy Murray and Annie Lennox- advises you about all the downsides of management- managing expectations, egos and the baggage that comes with it all- one takes it on board. You learn the hard way way that it’s not worth the time and effort when you can barely manage your own life. You cut all ties as no one’s more important than yourself and achieving your own ambitions. Screw the rest if they bring nothing to the table except a poisoned chalice. Talk softly and carry a big stick in the form of a damn good lawyer- a damn good criminal lawyer.
Over the years, hugely talented artists’ careers have been short-circuited through dumb management making dumb deals. Even once highly successful artists have lost their way through management refusing to understand that consumer trends are constantly changing, that the door swings both ways and how arrogance and ignorance make strange bedfellows.
There’s the story of Belgian singer-songwriter Selah Sue, who remains one of my favourite artists. An amazingly original talent.
The door was open for this artist to break into the American market around 4-5 years ago. Whether it was her or her Belgian manager, their meeting in the States with one of the biggest talent agencies in the world ended in a stalemate. No one blinked first, there was no progress made, and Selah Sue, still only 27, is back in Belgium and touring Europe where she has an extremely strong and loyal fan base. Why give it up to start all over again as an unknown in America?
This was management doing the right thing though some didn’t think so at the time. At that time it was all about making it in America. To some, it still is. But times change and a paradigm shift occurs. Those days of signing with talent agencies, music companies and publishing houses have finally been exposed as being useless business partnerships, especially where artists who are still to make it are concerned. They’re fighting ageism and trying desperately to make up for lost time without having to end up eating humble pie on some version of the The Voice, usually the final stop for singers who’ve run out of opportunities. The Voice has nothing to do with music. It’s a television reality show and all about ratings. Before signing on as a contestant have a lawyer read the fine print. The contracts are ball busters. Plus, has anyone from all these seasons gone on to achieving “chart success”, something else that’s lost its relevance? No. The judges are the stars. The recording deals for the winners with Sony Music are a booby trap. Who in a music company wants the thankless task of trying to break some unknown from a television karaoke competition? And so, the prize of a recording contract is useless. Without the television show, it’s back to being an unknown.
This is where a no-nonsense lawyer can cut through the crap. Can ask the tough questions. Won’t back down. Unless a Peter Grant, whose thuggery as a manager got Led Zeppelin to where they were going almost overnight, what passes off as “management” today are often amateurs with well-meaning ideas mixed with bullshit, and often putty in the hands of old school shysters. Then again, managers like Grant, Brian Epstein, Andrew Loog Oldham, Chris Stamp, the great Chris Blackwell, Malcolm McClaren etc were from another time and when pop music was trying to find its feet, or else, relevant.
Like how every Kardashian falls to their knees in front of a black basketball player, too many in “management” are not only bamboozled when in the company of high profile industry executives, they practically roll over and become fawning groupies. It happens at every useless music conference and it’s not a pretty sight.
It reminds me of someone who saw himself as a manager of some very good acts in Denmark a few years ago. Enthusiasm is one thing, being a bore is another, and here was someone who was on constant Repeat about meeting all the top executives at Sony Music in the States- no, not LA Reid, Simon Cowell or Martin Bandier- but “the others”, and their interest in one particular artist of his. The result? Nothing. The management company broke up and went to find real jobs while their artists realised after a few years of entering the DIY world that this, too, wasn’t what many thought it would be. You DIY and often end up DOA.
What more and more are starting to realise is that unless that handful of name artists- Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Adele, Beyoncé, Drake, OneDirection, Ed Sheeran, and, perhaps, Justin Bieber, Gaga, Kanye, Meghan Trainor (Why?) and Weeknd, there’s not much of a market out there for anyone else. It’s Them versus the Others. If Kendall Jenner made a record it would be huge- even if crap. Music doesn’t matter. It’s all about style. Say what you will about her, but Momager Kris Jenner is no fool. And neither are the army of lawyers who protect the Kardashian brand.
As told recently- and also three years ago- by a music executive, “If an artist is over 23, we’re not interested. If any good, they should have made it by now. For the market that wants more ‘mature’ artists, we have our back catalogue. We just don’t have time nor money to waste on building careers for unknowns”. Harsh, sad, but true.
True. because music doesn’t matter anymore. #Blacklivesmatter #Alllivesmatter #Bluelivesmatter along with every other trending hashtag. For oldsters, there are the tours by Springsteen, Coldplay, the Stones, the big money Vegas residencies by Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, Celine Dion and Mariah Carey plus all those last gasp Nostalgia tours hastily put together by bands to pay off back taxes.
For those who still believe in the healing power of music and the beauty in a song, there’s YouTube and the sharing that goes on if fortunate enough to meet like-minded people on social media. It’s oneupmanship in the nicest possible way. It’s about memories and keeping the dream alive. It’s remembering what was and asking why this can’t be again. It’s about the SONGS!
How does any of this help artists- new or unknown artists? It doesn’t, not really. It’s something that’s shared- and shared for free. And here we come back to lawyers. Until there is a legion of “indie” lawyers willing to fight for the rights of the “small people” in music for a percentage of what they believe can be won, those companies with the very deep pockets will hire armies of legal teams to keep the peasants from even trying to storm the Bastille and take what’s rightfully theirs. It’s all about power. And power corrupts. And what we have today is a corporate funded picture of what passes itself off as the music industry when it’s actually all about the bass and brainwashing the uninitiated. It’s using manipulation to make those on the fringe believe in smoke and mirrors.
Selah Sue and whoever was and is managing her were wise. Very wise. Trying to “make it” in America is a boulevard of broken dreams where shysters abound in an overrated market that is very much a closed shop.