Photo Credit: Sam Moqadam.
Many independent musicians are used to handling the business aspects of their career all on their own. It is a decision that makes sense for a long part of a musician’s career, but one of the keys to having a breakout career is to build a powerful team around you.
Over the course of your career, your “team” will include a rotating cast of members, such as bandmates, songwriters, producers, audio engineers, photographers, videographers, graphic designers, road managers, radio promoters, makeup artists, and who knows who else. If you sign to a distributor, record label, or music publisher, you’ll also end up interfacing with their teams.
However, there are a few members of your team that are fundamental. You may not have all of them onboard on Day One of your career, but you should work to add these members of your team as your career grows to require them:
- a personal manager
- an accountant or business manager
- an entertainment attorney
- a talent agent
- a publicist
A personal manager
A personal manager will typically handle the business aspects of your music career. They will help you develop and execute the plan for who you want to become a few years from now. Typically the personal manager handles the interactions with the rest of your team.
Plenty of artists start out with their friend or relative as a manager. Kris Jenner popularized and trademarked the term “momager” after having managed her children into international fame. Being managed by a friend or family member who is new to the music industry may not be a bad choice at the beginning of your career, but both of you should recognize that you will need a professional manager with music industry connections should your career take off.
So when should you start looking for that professional manager? The artist manager Mark Tavern is famous for telling early-career artists to not proactively look for an artist manager. Instead, he argues that artists should grow their own careers until they are receiving inbound interest from high-quality managers.
An artist manager typically is paid fifteen percent of what an artist grosses, although this can vary. Often the contract between an artist and a manager will include a sunset clause, where the manager is paid a steadily-decreasing fraction of their commission after the manager and agent part ways. These clauses are designed to protect the manager from losing money by being fired right before a financially-significant event like an album release. A manager’s work can benefit (or harm) an artist for years--even after they part ways,
An accountant or a business manager
Your personal manager is responsible for growing your career, but often you’ll need an additional person to help you manage your finances. If you have multiple sources of income and many expenses to deduct against them, you might want the help of an accountant to file your taxes. You might pay them per the hour or keep them on a monthly retainer.
Musicians commonly have many sources of income and many expenses to deduct against them. You may even want to organize your business into an LLC, especially if you are putting together a band with multiple members. An accountant can advise you on these topics and help you file your taxes.
Most accountants charge by the hour, or per service--like filing your taxes. As your financial life becomes more complicated, you might have a business manager instead of (or in addition to) an accountant. Unlike a personal manager, a business manager usually has a background in accounting, finance, or business. They typically charge a retainer or a 5% commission.
An entertainment attorney
If you are negotiating legal contracts with others in the music business, you should work with an attorney that specializes in entertainment law. Your brother who is a divorce attorney might be willing to help you, but if he isn’t familiar with the music business, you should find an attorney who is.
You should also make sure that your attorney is free of conflicts of interest. For example, if you are negotiating a deal with a record label, you should not use any attorney recommended or employed by them. In the past, artists have ended up with unfair record deals because they used an attorney that was covertly acting in the record label’s best interest. This practice has been recognized as unethical for decades, but it continues to happen.
Your attorney should also be free of conflicts with other members of your team, such as your artist manager. If you are part of a band, you might retain a shared entertainment attorney to represent your whole band in negotiations with other businesses, but that attorney cannot represent both sides of a legal dispute between you and other bandmates.
Some entertainment attorneys offer “shopping services” where they try to help you land a record or publishing deal. Many labels prefer receiving referrals from attorneys and other service providers as opposed to cold submissions from artists. However, if your attorney is well-connected and offers to shop you around, you still may not be likely to receive a record deal. Nowadays, landing a record deal is more about your music’s commercial success than how well-connected your entertainment attorney is.
Some entertainment attorneys may be able to package clients--like a singer, songwriter, and producer--in the same way that talent agents package together talent for a movie. For the clients, this might be a career opportunity to make a lot of money. However, this may become the beginning of a conflict of interest if the attorney continues to represent multiple clients within the package. In such cases, your attorney may ask you to waive concerns over the conflict of interest, and it will be up to you to decide whether the benefits outweigh the risks.
Some artists seek out attorneys with connections to record labels, in the hopes that these attorneys will be successful at shopping them around--even if those connections represent a potential conflict of interest. Once again, you should keep aware of such potential conflicts and judge whether the benefits outweigh the risks.
A talent agent
An agent is somebody who helps you land live gigs and other types of “work” as defined in labor law. Note that many types of deals, like record deals and brand deals, are not considered as “work” in labor law. An agent will typically take ten percent of the gross earnings from the work they procure for you.
In many jurisdictions, such as California and New York, talent agents are required to be licensed and are strictly regulated by the government. In these jurisdictions, other members of your team--such as your manager--cannot procure work for you unless they have a talent agency license and a signed talent agent contract with you. In California, the Talent Agencies Act is very strict about who can procure for talent. Many artist managers’ clients ended up having to pay back their management fees to their clients because the managers were seen as illegally acting as talent agents without a license.
Agents are often known as “ten percenters” in reference to the typical commission they charge. However, the top four talent agencies in Hollywood--Creative Artists Agency (CAA), William Morris Endeavor, United Talent Agency (UTA), and ICM Partners--make most of their money from packaging, where they combine scripts, writers, directors, and actors into packages for movie and TV studios to purchase. In exchange, the agencies earn fees based on the entire package. However, as a recording artist, you are unlikely to encounter packaging unless you are also building a career in television or movies.
The Writers Guild Association has expressed concern that packaging fees create a conflict of interest between the talent agencies and their clients. However, as a performing musician, you are unlikely to directly encounter packaging unless your career grows to include appearances in television or movies. Nevertheless, you should always be on the lookout for potential conflicts of interest.
Getting the press to pay attention to you is not easy. A publicist helps by pitching you and your work to media outlets. A good publicist may charge thousands of dollars per month on a multi-month retainer, but no matter how successful they have been at getting coverage for other artists, they may not succeed at getting coverage for you.
At the beginning of your career, it might be cheaper and more effective to build relationships with journalists and work to gain coverage on your own. Whether you hire a publicist or not, you should make sure that you are building a story that is compelling enough for media outlets to cover. They should be able to recognize you as the hero or villain in a larger story for them to tell. You should also align your pushes into publications to align with major career events like an album release or a big tour. That alignment gives media organizations a reason to write about you now as opposed to later, and it also helps put any coverage you get to good use.
When you are ready to switch from directly working with media organizations to using a publicist, make sure to give them a list of the media organizations that you’ve worked with. You will not want your publicist to cold email anybody that you have a warm relationship with.
Finally, while there is nothing wrong with paying a publicist, you should make sure that you and your publicist never try to directly pay media organizations for coverage. No reputable outlet will ever accept payment, and you will lose credibility with them for even asking. Any outlet that does take your money is likely not reputable, and you don’t want coverage from them anyway.