Veteran Talent Manager Arnold Stiefel on 40 Years in the Business, Repping Rod Stewart and Why Justin Bieber Could Be a Career Artist

Noah Webb
Arnold Stiefel photographed Sept. 29, 2015 at his home office in Beverly Hills.

In his first-ever interview (about himself), Stiefel talks Stewart's evolution, streaming music's impact on legacy acts and working with "complicated" Prince.

Possibly the only thing Arnold Stiefel hasn't done in his multi-faceted career is sit down for an interview about himself. "This is my first one ever," says the veteran talent manager, film/TV producer, label owner and entrepreneur, who always had opted to put the focus on artists, adding that he "thought self-promotion was the wrong thing to do."

The occasion for Stiefel's change of heart? To help heighten awareness of longtime client Rod Stewart's next Capitol project, Another Country. "I thought, 'Now this is a good thing for Rod's album,'" says Stiefel, who declines to reveal his age. Preceded by lead single "Love Is," the Oct. 23 release is the follow-up to 2013's Time and is the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer's 29th studio effort. Time marked Stewart's first rock album in a dozen years and, at No. 7, his highest-charting album of original material since 1978's No. 1 Blondes Have More Fun.

Stewart's isn't the only high-wattage career guided by the savvy Stiefel. On the music side, he's managed Prince, Bette Midler, Toni Braxton, Guns N' Roses and Morrissey. On the film side, he's worked with screenwriter Bo Goldman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Rose), producer/director Jonathan Demme (Melvin and Howard) and actors Natalie Wood and Jeff Goldblum. With former AEG CEO Randy Phillips, he co-founded Gasoline Alley Records (Sublime). A seven-year partnership with concert promoter Andy Hewitt yielded the Sunset Strip power eatery Il Sole.

Born and raised outside Philadelphia, Stiefel says he "grew up in what was then called 'colored' show business." Dad Alex owned and operated Philadelphia's renowned Uptown Theater where Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, Sam Cooke and other R&B icons performed. "But as impactful as those shows were the movies I saw from the theater's balcony," recalls Stiefel.

Thus began a colorful trek from would-be actor at 16 to Los Angeles-based literary agent in his early 20s. The budding entrepreneur next opened the Stiefel Office, later acquired by ICM. Ending a stint with the William Morris Agency in 1983, he established Stiefel Entertainment, which currently counts six employees.

In his 2013 book Autobiography, former client Morrissey characterizes Stiefel as "a man of strong imagination and unmatchable wit -- affectionate but competitive, frivolous yet deadly. An hour spent in his company would never be an hour lost."

Seated in the living room of his Beverly Hills home/office high above the roar of traffic on Sunset Boulevard, Stiefel laughs heartily when asked if he agrees with the characterization. "Those lines kill me," he says. "Isn't that who you'd want for your manager?"

What made you take a chance on managing Stewart 33 years ago?

It really was a gamble because Rod, in his late 30s, wasn't sizzling hot then. Despite the dizzying disco success of "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy," people were thinking, "Where's the street singer behind 'Maggie May' and 'Every Picture Tells a Story'?" And he wasn't in good shape financially either. One very renowned person at that time said, "Rod Stewart is going to be a lounge singer soon in Las Vegas."

Well, he was right. Rod is in Las Vegas but not quite a lounge singer because we're entering the third of a five-year deal at Caesars Colosseum. And the last five years have been the biggest earning years of his life. Every single thing that's happened has just been a matter of being in the right place at the right time -- and having the smarts to understand what it could be.

After a series of cover and theme albums, this is his second consecutive album of original material. Describe the Stewart heard on Another Country.

It's next-step Rod in the belated evolution of his career. He unlocked the part of his brain that writes songs again. And he loves it. It's really personal, and his voice is stronger now than it's been for a long time.

Rod appeared with A$AP Rocky in The Late Late Show host James Corden's "Carpool Karaoke" sketch. Are there more untraditional promotion plans in the works?

That pairing on "Everyday," which A$AP asked Rod to do, got Rod on BBC 1 -- which you can't get on -- and BBC 2. Listen, we don't kid ourselves. You're not going to turn on the radio here and hear our newest single. We don't even fight it. Our whole approach with this new record in the U.S. is less is more. The Corden bit was something to help initiate that strategy. Rod is also doing the Howard Stern Show, NPR and may do some Twitter chats. We've been told that social media is not for Rod. But guess what? We just started on Twitter and have nearly a quarter of a million followers; on Facebook we have 3.9 million. People who are 46, 56 and beyond can push the buttons, too, thank you very much. We're talking about doing some of the big festival circuit -- Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits, Coachella --  Rod wants to put together something with the Faces and Jeff Beck, which would be perfect.

Rod, his wife and I were laughing recently. Tony Bennett had just celebrated his 89th birthday while on his final tour date with Lady Gaga. Rod said, "You're going to be pushing me out onstage in a wheel chair." I said, "I'll push you out on a gurney if you can sing 'Maggie May' lying down." 

How does a legacy artist adapt to the streaming world -- and a potential drop in income?

I can't tell yet. Counting whatever number of streams as one record sold is more hurtful to, dare I say, legacy artists. Rod still sells hard copies of albums. And that's great, particularly in countries where there are more places to buy them than here. 

You used to manage Prince. What are your thoughts on his business and creative moves over the past few years?

Ah Prince, what an experience. He's one of our most innovative and brilliant artists, writers and visionaries  --  a genius. But he's complicated. In my head, it was the dream management team. He was a career artist and into film; I was into film and music. I thought this was going to be the most successful relationship ever and that he understood he needed to have a partnership where I could be his biggest advocate and work tirelessly for him. Everything was going fine. Then he did a [poorly received] film called Graffitti Bridge [in 1990].

How do you feel about companies now that combine management, publishing and also release records? That was once considered a conflict of interest.

I for one am not into that. I don't know how I ever worked for a big company, and I don't understand managers who have lots of clients. For me, management is like the proximity of a close friend. You really have to believe in the person's talent and in your own ability to develop a career with a trajectory. Some might say, "Who needs a manager? Save the money and keep it for yourself." I believe just the opposite. If you have a good manager, it's the best income tax deduction you'll ever create.

Describe your management style.

It's inordinately hands-on, from the old Berry Gordy school of no job too big or too small: Roll up your sleeves and do it. I'm a tough, aggressive, no-holds-barred manager. With every single deal -- whether it's one show, a tour, record or book -- I like to feel that it's equitable and that the people on the other end don't feel taken advantage of. If they do a little, it's okay because they had a good time. I try to do it with a laugh and a smile, which can accomplish just as much. It's only about one thing: winning for the client. And if you have a view of what's coming, you can build towards it. I'm as hungry now as I was 40 years ago.

Does the term career artist still exist in today's music marketplace?

Yes, there's Adele. The Weeknd -- there's every reason to believe he's a self-contained career artist. Sam Smith looks like he's here to stay and also Ed Sheeran. I have to admit, if he keeps on the track he's on now, Justin Bieber can go for a long time. Suddenly he's very likable and looks great. For one of the most successful artists to be an underdog that everybody is rooting for again is pretty good. There's also Ariana Grande, who has a brilliant voice and can sing anything.

Is the word retirement in your vocabulary?

I'm ready to start act three. Who knows what it will be? A couple of clients have been offered to us, which would be a seismic change from what I've been doing. We'll see what happens. It's so tempting.

A version of this article was originally published in the Oct. 31 issue of Billboard.