Milk & Honey Founder Lucas Keller on Keeping Spotify in Check, Shunning Contracts and Why Indie Is Best

ISSUE 12 2019
Michele Thomas
“With 70,000 songs coming out every week, it’s a problem for the whole business: How do you stand out, break singles, work songs at radio when the label is only reactive to streaming?” says Keller, photographed on April 19, 2019 at Milk & Honey in Los Angeles.

The Midwesterner reaches the promised land with a stable of chart-topping clients and hits

It's a funny name for a gentile from the Midwest," says Lucas Keller with a laugh, referring to his 5-year-old company Milk & Honey Music. Named with a nod to the biblical promised land, Keller's A&R- and marketing-driven management firm has become a serious contender in the music business, but with a rare twist: It has never signed a single contract. "The whole thing is done on a handshake and trust," says Keller. "I always wanted to design the perfect management company."

With 15 employees across offices in Los Angeles, New York and Nashville, and a London offshoot opening later this year, Milk & Honey represents 48 artists, songwriters, producers, DJs and mixers -- including David Hodges, Oak Felder, Sir Nolan, Charlie Handsome and DJ Oliver Heldens -- whose work appears on records that have collectively sold 400 million copies worldwide. The firm's impressive stable of hits ranges from Khalid's "Love Lies" (featuring Normani) and Panic! at the Disco's "High Hopes" to Alessia Cara's "Here" and Justin Bieber, Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi's "Despacito." Milk & Honey's clients scored eight nominations at the Grammy Awards in February.

Born and raised in the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha (also home to guitar pioneer Les Paul), Keller played in punk-rock bands before moving to Chicago and switching to management. A subsequent move to L.A. led to a five-year stint with The Collective, a music/film/TV management firm whose then-roster included Linkin Park, Kanye West and Slash. The youngest of the firm's seven music managers, Keller orchestrated comebacks for legacy artists Jimmy Cliff and late Stone Temple Pilots lead singer Scott Weiland before leaving in 2013.

Sporting forearm tattoos in homage to actor Steve McQueen and fictional icon Holden Caulfield, Keller powers down from his 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. workdays with nightly walks with his two Chihuahuas. The one change he wants to see in management is more transparency. "It's changing, but I don't see enough yet," he says. "I believe you can represent someone their whole career without putting yourself above them."

One of Milk & Honey's tenets is that a management company's greatest asset can be A&R. What inspired that?

I was managing David Hodges [of Evanescence], who had transitioned into songwriting-producing. After signing other writers who did well, like Sir Nolan and Oak Felder, I realized I was good at managing songwriters, so I went all the way into the writer-producer thing. People ask me, "What can you do for clients like that?" Actually, quite a lot -- like figuring out all the details that go into completing a deal, knowing where all the money is and how to collect it internationally. One client I signed last year had $1 million in uncollected money sitting in places he didn't know about. We also make introductions to label executives, managers, people they need to know. It's our job to figure out who controls a project and has the ability to put that songwriter or producer in the room. We're in the conversation when someone starts a record. We're not just pushing paper.

You have said that Milk & Honey operates without contracts.

I've been pretty open about that: We don't have contracts with anyone, employees or clients. The whole thing is done on a handshake and trust. We've had almost zero turnover, which has been awesome. My lawyer hates it (laughs), saying I'm leaving myself exposed. Sometimes we have to do it for the international clients, like the DJs. And there are legal things that relate to the State of New York, since our business is there. But I send a client an email, and if he or she accepts, then we proceed. Our longest-standing client is Hodges, at 10 years now.

Speaking of international, what markets other than London are you keeping an eye on?

We debated between opening our next office there or in Amsterdam, because they're both important to us -- Amsterdam for the dance stuff and because a lot of our DJs are in Europe. But there's still more business for us in London. I'm also paying attention to the great music happening in Africa. Asia as well is going to be really important for us in the dance and song markets. We went to Warner Music Group and put together a duet collaboration ["Just My Luck"] between Kehlani and Tia Ray, a major Chinese singer-songwriter. We actually have a company in Shanghai that represents Milk & Honey for China, and putting more staff on the ground there is definitely in the cards.

You are very vocal about Spotify needing to drop its appeal of the Copyright Royalty Board's rate-setting ruling. Why?

This is controversial for me because our artist managers are like, "Hey, man, you probably shouldn't go HAM on Spotify." The message is not that we hate streaming: We appreciate those companies for the renaissance in the music business. The message is that we need to come correct with songwriters and publishers. It's great that we don't have gatekeepers like we used to, but how do you advocate for songwriters to make sure that when we do have a half-a-billion-streaming record, that there's actually going to be real revenue? Digital replacing radio is a real possibility. My job is to also make sure that writers' catalogs have value in the future.

What music trends do you see on the horizon?

It has been all rap the last three years, but people are starting to talk about seeing a downward trend there. Now R&B has been having its own moments. Charlie Handsome did "Love Lies," one of the biggest examples of commercial R&B in the last year. The mainstream pop/EDM thing hit its ceiling, but I'm still deeply invested in dance music. People look at me funny, but it's such an active space I don't see getting smaller. Country crossing over to pop is another thing. I have two Nashville clients producing rhythmic versions of country hits that are being worked to cross over. Nashville's not just a country town anymore.

How do you go about creating a brand for a songwriter or producer?

A big part of it is helping people find their tribe, find people that they can write with forever, like Sir Nolan finding Julia Michaels or Madison Love. My job is to get these guys currency records, triple-AmEx-point records. We do tons of television and film placements, and we've also launched New York venture Milk & Honey Silo to license our clients' work in TV commercials. Synch fees for TV commercials are outrageous -- anywhere between $200,000 and $700,000 -- so we're putting music into commercials like advertising agencies. My calling is to create respect for songwriters and producers and their songs. And all of that comes down to branding.

What still motivates you after 16 years in management?

What I get most excited about are the wins that we create within these four walls, which are sweeter being an indie. People have to see you as someone that can lead them into battle. If the clients we represent don't go to sleep believing in us, then -- contract or no contract -- it's over. 

This article originally appeared in the May 11 issue of Billboard.


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