As spring brings the first filing season fully affected by the 400-plus-page tax overhaul that President Donald Trump signed into law in December 2017, taxes and finances seem top of mind for pop stars.
“Do you know,” Cardi B tweeted in February, “that artists, celebrities, the IRS out of every check that you make, they automatically take 45%?” While Cardi may have shared her tax withholding rate, the rapper Future dropped a video for “Never Stop” featuring a beleaguered accountant.
Sitting at a desk topped with mounds of files while wearily rubbing his forehead, the bookkeeper in Future’s video doesn’t quite match the reality of most financial advisers. Business managers are the crucial behind-the-scenes executives who tackle tax matters for artists, as well as savings, investments, financial planning, philanthropy and more. And they preach fiscal conservatism to stars bent on spending hit-driven income on luxury cars, boats, fancy homes or -- the pet peeve of every adviser -- private jets.
The best business managers work to empower their clients. “My main goal is to make the artists the CEO of their careers,” says Ivan Alarcón, who works with J Balvin.
Their jobs have been made more difficult this year by the new tax legislation. “I don’t think [Congress] really understood some of the laws they were writing,” says W. Eric Fulton, business manager for Hall & Oates. The IRS subsequently has issued guidelines and regulations -- which run 184 pages for one major exemption.
The new law also arrives at a time when the business management field is facing another change -- consolidation, with top firms like NKSFB and Gelfand Rennert & Feldman involved in recent mergers. “There has been a recent period of acquisitions and roll-ups in business management that we’ve not seen in our industry for over a decade,” says Matt Lichtenberg of Level Four Business Management.
But at firms large and small, the essential role -- and challenge -- for business managers has not changed. “We’re advisers” to clients, says Richard Feldstein of NKSFB in Los Angeles. “Sometimes they listen, and sometimes they don’t.”
IVAN ALARCÓN, 40 Founder/owner, Vibras Lab
Alarcón, who counts J Balvin, Piso 21, Karol G and Manuel Medrano as clients, understands the unique needs of non-U.S. residents. “It is very important to understand that Latin artists that have a successful career in the United States might not be U.S. residents for tax purposes,” he says. “My job is to create a custom-made tax structure based on where they tour and where they live.” Alarcón watches the income, expenses and taxes of his clients so they can concentrate on “what should be their main goal, which is to be happy and make music.”
ANGIE BARAJAS, 56 LOUISBARAJAS, 57 Co-owners, Business Management LAB
The husband-and-wife team of Louis and Angie Barajas boast a client list -- ”Despacito” co-songwriter Erika Ender, Nicky Jam, Gerardo Ortiz and others -- that affirms their status as financial experts in the Latin music market. “Being culturally sensitive and knowing the nuances has helped us differentiate” the firm from competitors, says Louis, whose staff has grown to 15 from 11 during the past year. In response to the new tax law, “we went through [the finances of] every single artist and did a complete tax projection to save them literally thousands of dollars,” with total tax savings of nearly $1 million. Angie describes the firm’s experience with a client she can’t name. “We took an iconic artist -- who was completely disorganized, hadn’t filed taxes for at least two years and was [defrauded] by one of his inner circle -- and got him organized and in control within six months.”
DAVID BOLNO, 42 Partner, NKSFB NICHOLAS BROWN* Partner, NKSFB RICHARD FELDSTEIN, 67 Partner, NKSFB BERNIE GUDVI* Partner, NKSFB MICHAEL KARLIN* Founding partner, business management, NKSFB MICHAEL OPPENHEIM, 58 Partner, NKSFB MICKEY SEGAL, 61 Managing partner, NKSFB
“As companies grow and businesses grow, it’s natural to have consolidation,” says Bolno of NKSFB’s mergers with GSO Business Management, David Weise & Associates and Focus Financial Partners. “You’re stronger in numbers,” he says. Adds Segal: “You’re getting firms that are now working together, sharing expertise in the music space [with] hundreds of years of [combined] experience.” Among Bolno’s clients are two of the most streamed artists of 2018, Drake and Post Malone. “The new forms of media make it a tad more challenging to track all the income [and] make sure people are getting paid,” he says. Brown also notes that the new tax rules have his staff “in a whirl.” Like others, NKSFB’s tax experts have needed to evaluate their clients’ business structures, spending and investments, all “to adapt to the changes brought about by the new tax law,” says Brown. With new limits on federal tax deductions for state income tax, Feldstein says clients have a choice: “Move to Nashville, Las Vegas or Dallas; any of those states with no income tax.” Representing Madonna, Dr. Dre, Lenny and Zoë Kravitz, and others, Feldstein estimates that about 20 percent of his music clients are diversifying their investments into areas “including tech and venture capital.” Gudvi, who spent the past year advising the estate of longtime client Tom Petty, cites a key concern of all money managers: digital security. “Each of us has had some limited experience with internet scams,” he says, “but imagine if you’re responsible for millions and millions of dollars in various bank accounts.” Karlin and Oppenheim have been involved in the sale of music publishing catalogs with prices reaching record highs. “That,” says Karlin, “coupled with the favorable federal tax treatment [of capital gains], makes a compelling case to make these sales happen.”
FBMM has taken steps since early 2018 to ensure the continuity of financial guidance for its clients by giving new leadership roles in the Nashville firm to Boos, Boyer, Cheek, Clark, Romano and Trey Dunaway in a succession plan set up by the firm’s founding owners, Chuck Flood, Frank Bumstead and Mary Ann McCready. In January, the Country Music Association named Boos, now chairman of the firm, business manager of the year. Along with her partners, she has guided artists seeking to give back. “One of my biggest cautions is that you don’t have to rush out and form your own foundation. Look to a community foundation or partner that’s already doing what [you’re] trying to accomplish.” Boyer, who has been renegotiating vintage 360 deals that originally called for artists to pay out unsustainable amounts of their revenue to multiple partners, asks, “Do you want 100 percent of nothing or a reasonable percentage of something?” Cheek recently reworked the language of sponsorship deals for two clients and saved them potential payments to the IRS. “How do you weigh when you’ve been successful? In this case, it was avoidance of future tax liability,” he says. Clark, the firm’s COO, has been involved in “alternative revenue streams ... [branding partnerships with] liquor, wardrobe, retail, things that are outside the normal record deal and touring [deals]. I’m fortunate to work with artists that have that brand appeal and are willing to put in the extra work.” Romano oversees the New York office for FBMM and recently worked with a client “in a little financial turmoil.” He turned around his affairs in 18 months. Adds Romano: “That was a big accomplishment.”
Chaudoin says that superstar clients sometimes call her “the dream-crusher” for the curbs she places on their spending. “But I’m really ‘the dream-saver,’” she says. “Of course, we always hope it’s more, but we must act as if we may only get five to 10 great years out of your career to ensure your finances are stable.” For Hagaman, balance is the key to a long, rewarding career. “If you don’t maintain a balance in your life -- meaning both financial and emotional discipline -- it can lead to bad decisions,” he says. While business managers have much expertise to share with their clients, Harris emphasizes another skill. “It starts with listening,” she says. “One particular path does not fit all.” O’Neil, who has worked with artists for over 35 years, guides them into “boring” income-generating investments that don’t put further demands on an artist’s time. “Restaurants, spirits; those can be good, but they’re still an extension of an artist’s brand, not a true diversification,” he says. Much like a personal manager, Williams is there for her clients 24/7. “I don’t ever want them worrying if I’m going to pick up the phone. If it rings, I know something’s going on. There’s no wrong time to call me.”
W. ERIC FULTON, 55 Founder/managing partner, Fulton Management
“Music is becoming more competitive, and fewer people are making really good money, except for the elite artists,” says Fulton, who has shifted his company’s focus in recent years back to clients in film and TV (and a burgeoning sector dubbed “influencers”). Yet Fulton maintains two marquee music acts on his roster: Colbie Caillat and Hall & Oates. The latter inked a new deal last April with Live Nation, a company that is “continuing to gobble up the world of music,” jokes Fulton. Hall & Oates will keep expanding their global reach as a touring act, with dates in the United Kingdom, Germany and Argentina later this year.
Another firm leading the consolidation trend, Gelfand Rennert & Feldman merged with Wasserman Grossman & Sloan and the firm of international tax attorney Lawrence Rudolph in 2018. “Integrating two firms with about 85 people has been the firm’s biggest accomplishment this past year,” says Mozenter. “The key is that we have a similar culture to the firms that we bring in. It really boils down to similar philosophies on how you do business and your ethics and morals.” For one major new client this past year, Mozenter says that his firm tackled one piece of essential -- but often avoided -- part of long-term planning. “We took on a new high-profile client, and the big win was getting their estate plan done and in place.”
SEAN GRANAT, 37 Senior manager, CohnReznick
“Clients are starting to ask questions about our firm’s security procedures, which is good,” says Granat. CohnReznick’s system is state of the art. But, he says, “getting files to people has become a minor administrative headache. So hopefully the next step in digital security is going be in ease of use.” Granat’s knowledge of international tax law has saved a bundle for clients who reside in other countries. He successfully applied to the IRS to have the U.S. business entity of one client treated “consistently with his resident country’s tax regime.” The client’s worldwide savings in the first year totaled some $250,000 “and will increase in the second year to $600,000.”
WAYNE KAMEMOTO* Senior partner, David Weise & Associates BETH SABBAGH, 55 Senior partner, David Weise & Associates DAVID WEISE, 51 Founder/senior partner, David Weise & Associates
For David Weise, this was a milestone year. “David Weise & Associates merged with NKSFB, a partner of Focus Financial Group, to form one of the biggest business management firms around,” says Weise, who personally handles finances for Coldplay, The Weeknd, Marshmello and others. For Kamemoto, a smart insurance decision was one of his best moves in the past year. “I had a client co-headlining a summer tour last year,” he says. “I was adamant that we also insure against a loss where the co-headliner causes a cancellation. Just days before the first date, the other artist had to pull out of the entire tour due to health reasons. The insurance proceeds received were substantial.” Sabbagh, whose clients include Janet Jackson, Duff McKagan and Common, says that while artists are drawn to “sexy investments -- restaurants, bars, cryptocurrency” -- she urges them to take the same investment amount and give it to her to put “in something that’s going to get you a safe return.”
MICHAEL KAPLAN, 48 Partner, Miller Kaplan
The sale of a music library for one client and the leveraging of a library owned by another were highlights of the past year for Kaplan, who adds that both were eight-figure deals. For the sale, he says, satisfaction came from “working as a team with all the professionals to get it done, for a negotiated price, and [having] the transaction go relatively smoothly.” For the second client, the challenge involved “actually getting the value of the music library and [then] getting financing based on [that value].” With that financing, says Kaplan, the owner -- a music label -- “could use that library for continued growth and investment in other artists.” Kaplan echoes others in seeing acts diversifying their investments -- “getting involved in other industries, in technology -- so that they aren’t limited to one stream of income.”
DAVID LEVIN, 60 CEO, DL Business Management
During the past year, Levin has enhanced the brands of married clients John Legend and Chrissy Teigen through business partnerships, culminating in their Super Bowl commercial for Pampers and her second New York Times best-selling cookbook. Levin also negotiated new publishing and TV deals for Jessica Simpson, while expanding worldwide growth for her fashion and lifestyle collection. All of his clients, which also include Hailey Baldwin, alt-rock band Live and Lake Street Dive, get a bit of free advice passed on from Levin’s father: “Your savings account is the first bill you should pay every month.”
MATT LICHTENBERG, 60 Partner, Level Four Business Management
“Challenging” is the word that Lichtenberg uses to describe the financial planning climate of the past 12 to 18 months: “Whether it’s planning when and how to recognize income and expenses, [deciding] if and when to monetize a client’s royalty stream, [looking at the conversion of] ordinary income to capital gains or the ongoing tax planning required to adapt to the recent significant changes in the tax code.” The new tax law allows the owners of certain types of business to deduct 20 percent of their qualified business income. Adds Lichtenberg: “Business managers, attorneys and accountants are still feverishly sorting through it to see which of their clients may qualify.”
STEVES RODRIGUEZ, 48 Partner, Freemark Financial
Rodriguez’s music clients include producers Andrés Torres and Mauricio Rengifo, as well as Latin duo Jesse & Joy. The Beverly Hills, Calif.-based accountant not only advises clients on real-estate investments, he also has helped some buy homes and has guided seven property closings in the past year. “A home purchase is about finding the balance between a smart investment [and] an emotional decision,” says Rodriguez. Yet he also acknowledges that the new federal tax law, which limits deductions for state and local income taxes, will hit homeowners particularly hard in higher-tax states like California. “Pretty much every client is affected by this,” he says.
Smallwood, who represents Justin Bieber and songwriter-producer The-Dream, points to the contract renegotiation between RCA Records and longtime client Chris Brown as a recent highlight of his work. The deal gives the 29-year-old R&B star ownership of his master recordings -- one of the youngest artists to achieve those terms. Smallwood also oversaw the sale of a portion of The-Dream’s catalog. “For him to say, ‘OK, now is a good time to cash in on a portion of that success’ -- I thought that was monumental,” says Smallwood. The ongoing consolidation of the business management industry has proved beneficial for Provident, says Vuylsteke, “since we’re one of the largest independent business management firms.” The new tax has been a particular focus, but he adds that he doesn’t want to say that “saving money for our clients is something special, because we do it every day.”
LOU TAYLOR, 53 CEO, Tri Star Sports and Entertainment Group
“We got dubbed the ‘Queens of Cash’ in Vegas,” says Taylor, whose Tri Star group helped drive the pop-star residency boom in Las Vegas, thanks to clients Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez. (They were not paid in paper currency.) By the time Lopez’s three-year run at Planet Hollywood’s Zappos Theater wrapped last September, it had grossed $102 million, according to Billboard Boxscore. The financial adviser, who has since guided clients including Florida Georgia Line to Vegas for limited bookings, credits Spears, who launched her Planet Hollywood run in 2013, as the trendsetter in the city’s residency renaissance. “Had it been a disaster, we’d have been like, ‘Well, Britney wanted to do it...,’ but because it’s unbelievably successful, we shifted culture in Vegas,” says Taylor. “The risk and reward belongs to Britney, but we were the first ones to take that shot.”
JOSÉ J TORRES, 40 Founder/managing member, Torres LLC/1600 Millas/Jack Entertainment
Torres, an attorney-accountant with offices in New York and San Juan, Puerto Rico, says that revenue for his firm has grown 150 percent in the past year as he disbursed legal, financial and personal advice to a predominately Puerto Rican client base that includes Bad Bunny and Residente. With a rising number of digital music services worldwide, says Torres, “the biggest challenge is being able to track all the revenue streams. A lot of money is left on the table.” He encourages his artists to support causes they care about. “But I always think like a tax attorney and try to get them to at least get a deduction” for their philanthropy.
KRIS WIATR, 47 President, Wiatr & Associates
Nashville-based Wiatr watches over the finances of country stars Chris Stapleton and Maren Morris, and he has also worked with rising artists Nikki Lane, Brent Cobb and Logan Mize. “What I’ve noticed is the ability of independent artists to make really great money in touring and record sales, streaming [and] downloads,” says Wiatr, adding that business managers are increasingly involved in many career aspects “that they might not normally do in order to help this whole process work.” When it comes to the latest changes in tax rules, “my clients, being entertainers, don’t care; they want to know that I’ve got it.” He adds: “It’s so boring that if you brought it up, people would never want to talk to me again.”
VICTOR WLODINGUER, 65 Partner/practice leader, music business management, Citrin Cooperman
“We were part of a team that helped negotiate a multimillion-dollar tour deal with a promoter,” says Wlodinguer, describing the scope -- and impact -- of his work for a headlining act (whom he cannot name). “We advised the clients on insurance, taxes and the pitfalls of the deal. We advised that they need to reduce expenses and tour more intelligently. I won’t get into specifics, but the deal involved eight-figure numbers.” Wlodinguer is the business manager for artist managers Cliff Burnstein and Peter Mensch of Q Prime, as well as for acts The Strokes, Interpol, Ben Folds, Snow Patrol and Gipsy Kings. Satisfaction comes with smaller payoffs, too: When an emerging band from outside the United States faced a standard 30 percent withholding of its gross U.S. tour revenue, Wlodinguer, citing a new regulation, negotiated a central withholding agreement with the IRS that reduced the tax by $10,000. “When you save a small band 10 grand,” he says, “that’s a lot of money.”
RZO AND THE STONES GATHER NO MOSS
The band’s business manager, Bill Zysblat, has built a firm that stands apart.
TOM CYRANA* Partner/managing director, RZO JOHN GULA* Partner/managing director, RZO LIA SWEET* Partner/managing director, RZO BILL ZYSBLAT* Owner, RZO
On April 20, the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami will host the opening night of the latest U.S. tour by The Rolling Stones. “They were my first client out of [an accounting career on] Wall Street -- and they’re still my client,” business manager Zysblat says proudly.
Recruited at age 24 to go on the road with the band, along with his late business partner, Joe Rascoff, Zysblat recalls backstage gatherings “with everybody toasting to the honor of being on the [very] last Stones tour.”
That was 1975.
Like the Stones, RZO rolls on, a business management firm that is distinguished among its peers for its music-artists-only focus -- “no managers, agents, executives, labels, merchandisers or publishers,” says Zysblat -- and the stature of the artists it services. The New York-based firm’s roster includes U2, Lady Gaga, Sting, Steely Dan, David Byrne, Shania Twain, Luis Miguel, Yoko Ono and the estates of John Lennon and David Bowie, among others.
RZO’s partners each have their speciality: business management for Sweet, royalty compliance for Cyrana and tax for Gula. (“I try not to go near tax at all,” jokes Zysblat.)
Such promoters as Live Nation and AEG (its Concerts West division is presenting the Stones) now manage most deals for stadium tours. But for other acts, Zysblat says that “if you’ve got a manager who is purely artistically [focused], then we’re involved with everything -- hiring the lights, sound, trucking, routing, ticket scaling -- everything.”
Asked if touring is still the most important source of revenue for most artists, Zysblat replies: “By a factor of 10.”
Discussing the impact of the new tax law, he notes that “for the most part, the top tax rate went down. So in the abstract, if you’re a [high-earning] entertainer, you actually did better by the change in the law. Sure, we all lost the same deductions” -- with limits on itemizing for state income taxes or property taxes -- “but you lost that whether you were a dentist or an entertainer.”
-- Thom Duffy
*Declined to provide age
Contributors: Cathy Applefeld Olson, Steve Baltin, Dean Budnick, Leila Cobo, Thom Duffy, Melinda Newman, Paula Parisi, Deborah Wilker, Nick Williams