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MMF publishes a new report exploring the evolution of management and management deals

By | Published on Friday 1 November 2019


The UK’s Music Managers Forum has published a new report exploring how the role of the artist manager has evolved over the last two decades. It ultimately questions whether the traditional artist/manager 20% commission deal is still fit for purpose given the range of services managers now provide, and the risks they take, especially when working with new talent.

It’s no secret that the work undertaken by an artist manager today is very different to that of the deal-maker manager of the past. There are various reasons for this evolution, but the changing relationship between artists and labels is a key factor.

In the 2000s, when recorded music revenues were in steep decline, labels generally started signing artists a little later in their career. Because the managers of new artists generally fill the gaps where other business partners are yet to be appointed, that meant managers taking a bigger role in artist development and fanbase building in those crucial and most tricky early stages.

That can be a real challenge at a point in the artist’s career when there is little money coming in, with managers having to invest more time and, sometimes, their own money to move things forward to the level where labels get interested.

In the long-term this new approach can benefit the artist too, because with more of the groundwork done before a traditional label deal is signed, that label deal can be properly focused on each artist’s specific requirements. Which will usually enable the artist to get a label deal with more favourable terms.

Plus, with the growth of distributors and label services companies working directly with artists and their management teams, there are now more options than ever when picking a business partner to help develop, distribute and market recordings.

Beyond the changing nature of the label relationship, there are all the new opportunities around the direct-to-fan relationship. Capitalising on that requires a business partner that works with the artist on a constant basis. With labels usually focused on specific release campaigns and promoters on specific tours, the one business partner working with the artist all year round is the manager.

So, the manager’s role has changed a lot, continues to change, and can vary considerably depending on the artist, their fanbase and where they are in their career.

In the words of the MMF’s new ‘Managing Expectations’ report: “The music industry has changed enormously this century and so has the role and purpose of the music manager. Each manager and management company may take a very different approach, but they are all ultimately doing the same thing: building careers and businesses for their artists”.

It goes on: “In a digitally-driven culture, labels expect artists to be ‘developed’ to a certain stage and have genuine momentum behind them before a deal is offered. The duty of the manager, therefore, is to start fostering and – frequently – investing in their client. This is partly out of financial and structural necessity, but with the result that greater autonomy is being placed in the hands of artists and managers before any other players – ie publishers, agents, labels or brands – get involved”.

The report is based on a survey of 183 people working in management in the UK and a series of more in depth interviews, all undertaken for the MMF by MusicAlly. Among other things it talks about the many skills managers and management companies now need to be able to properly support their clients.

A wide-range of skills covering pretty much every aspect of the music business are listed, though many respondents talked in particular about the increased importance of managers having digital marketing skills, something that might traditionally have been outsourced to the label. Artists actually begin the fanbase building process themselves before a manager is even on board, but helping the artist to grow that fanbase is now a key role of the manager, particularly at the early stages, but even once other business partners on board.

Some managers who took part in the research also talked about the increasing importance of data management, being on top of all the different kinds of data coming in and out of the music industry and, crucially, knowing what to do with it.

As managers bring more skills and services to the table, management companies need to expand, while individual managers might need to ally with one of those management firms to be able to offer those extra capabilities. But as managers provide ever more services, does the traditional model for how managers get paid – a 20% commission – still make sense?

The report states: “A UK manager working on 20% commission has been the default setting for the business for so long that it has become ossified as fact: ‘This is the way managers earn money and it will remain so forever’. Yet as the industry changes, as the way acts make money shifts, and as the responsibilities of a manager increase, there is growing discussion within the management community about the viability of the 20% model, with many arguing that it is anachronistic and unfit for purpose”.

The report discusses various alternative approaches that managers have experimented with, including launching joint venture businesses with artists, or have different sides to a management business that can work with artists on different terms.

On this point it concludes that there is “a clear need for further discussions with lawyers and the artist community, including our sister organisations in the Council Of Music Makers – the Featured Artist Coalition, Music Producers Guild, Ivors Academy and Musicians Union – to help shift the dialogue beyond a standard ‘20% commission’ and to develop new types of relevant, sustainable business models”.

With managers offering an ever wider range of services, management companies can sometimes start to look like labels, booking agencies, merch businesses and marketing set-ups all in one. However, the managers in the report stress that they don’t generally wish to replace the artist’s other business partners. The challenge is identifying which business partners are needed when, and on what terms.

The report states: “While it is romantic to assume that all artists have been empowered to ‘break free’ of traditional conventions, many managers are keen to assert that there are limitations to unfettered independence”. It adds: “That means management teams need to understand their strengths and weaknesses, and where they require outside expertise”.

Finally, the report also puts the spotlight on the manager’s role in supporting the health and well-being of their clients, with that one skill being ranked as the most important by the surveyed managers. “A key part of a manager’s role”, the report confirms, “is to safeguard their artists, and many are pushing back against the ‘always-on’ culture of social media and round-the-clock promotion”.

MMF says that it will use the research behind ‘Managing Expectations’ to inform its education and lobbying work, and its Accelerator professional development programme. It also provides a jumping off point to further investigate and discuss management business models, and the deals done between managers and the artists they manage.

You can download the report here.