But years on the road took a toll on McDonald. The same tendency to push boundaries and appetite for the extreme that made him a ride-or-die manager led him down a path of cocaine use and alcoholism -- a disease he was genetically predisposed to.
“I was dealing with the excitement and loneliness that comes with touring,” he says. “At a certain point, I was putting this stuff in my body to fill me, to make me feel better. I scared myself.”
On one particularly bad day -- the worst one, he was hungover on the couch, “feeling like shit,” when he happened on a TV broadcast of the prestigious Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. He still vividly remembers watching athletes literally crawl to the finish line after completing a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26-mile run.
“I would just cry thinking, here these people are, with X, Y and Z adversities, and this is what they chose to do -- this is how they channeled that,” he says. “It was just salt in the wound of how badly I was feeling about myself."
Even so, watching the race “planted a seed” in McDonald’s mind, eventually inspiring him to get sober through the Recording Academy’s MusiCares Foundation, which covers a wide range of financial, medical and personal emergencies for people in the music industry, from depression to car accidents. The nonprofit has distributed $60 million to musicians in need since its founding in 1993, including funding 8,850 days of inpatient treatment for substance abuse clients per year.
McDonald now serves as chair emeritus at MusiCares. After turning 50 in August and celebrating 20 years of sobriety this year, he’ll now be racing in the Ironman World Championships on Oct. 12 -- raising more than $250,000 in the process for the foundation he says saved his life.
“It was super powerful, because I wouldn’t have been able to afford [treatment] otherwise,” McDonald says. “You don’t forget things like that.”
Aerosmith’s then-manager Tim Collins, who got sober along with the band, was the one to put McDonald in touch with MusiCares in 1999 (Aerosmith was recently named MusiCares’ 2020 Person of the Year). The foundation set McDonald up with a sponsor and twice-a-week group therapy sessions, all free of charge.
McDonald even completed his first race with his sponsor -- a more than 200-mile bike ride from New York to Boston. “Getting into Boston was the greatest feeling I’d ever had,” he says, so he kept going, eventually graduating to a marathon, then a triathlon, then a half-Ironman. He now trains with an Ironman coach, Thad Beaty, who also happens to be the guitar player for the country band Sugarland.
“I’m waking up at 5:30 in the morning, like, shit, I do not want to go to the gym,” he says. “But I’ve got a lot riding on it. It’s a lot of pressure. But it’s partially necessary to keep me honest. As managers, we have a platform and it’s our responsibility to do something with it.”
McDonald retells all this from his Mick Management office in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood, which is lined with posters for artists on his roster: Leon Bridges, Sharon Van Etten, Lennon Stella and Mahalia, among others. Outside his spacious office, several desk chairs are pulled up to a ping pong table, and an enormous poster above the reception desk asks visitors, “WHAT WOULD NEIL YOUNG DO?”
He says he encourages his artists to prioritize their well-being, and these days, he’s not alone. Pop superstars like Billie Eilish, Halsey and Justin Bieber have bravely opened up about their mental health struggles recently, while others from Tyler, the Creator to Lana Del Rey have refrained from drugs and alcohol completely. And when artists like Mac Miller, Lil Peep and Tom Petty all died by accidental overdose within a three-year span, many viewed the tragedies as a wake-up call for the music industry.
“No one in the ’70s rock boom was saying, ‘You need to take a day for yourself.’ They were saying, ‘Great job, here’s an eight ball and a bottle of bourbon,’” McDonald says. “I think that has changed, and as far as I can tell, music hasn’t suffered.”
Meanwhile, the full circle moments in his life keep coming. While having dinner recently in Nashville, a waiter overheard McDonald talking about MusiCares and chimed in with his own stories as a musician.
“He was like, ‘I got hit by a car and MusiCares totally hooked me up,’” McDonald says with a smile. “It’s amazing.”
When you’re coming up take whatever job in the industry you can get. That job may not be what you wind up doing long-term, but every facet of the business is valuable to know. The experiences of having been a tour manager, having started and run a label, and having been part of a publishing company all make me a better manager. In the same way, working the door at a club or being a promoter runner makes a better label executive or marketing person. Being in and around any part of the business provides an opportunity to meet people and learn valuable lessons.
It’s good to have competent people around you. Case in point: My partner Jonathan Eshak, who is brilliant. I live and die with my team. I never need to be the smartest person in the room. I need people to challenge me to be better than I'd be on my own. Music is judged and appreciated in so many different ways. Who am I to think that I alone know how someone’s art should be presented to the world?
The easiest thing to do is become complacent. It would be easy to roll out singles, albums and tours without much thought, because the mechanics are pretty standard. But every artistic statement deserves a unique moment. No two fan bases are the same, and no two announcements will impact the public the same way. Especially with the current pace of change, just because something worked last time doesn’t mean it’s going to work again. See the above regarding leaning on your young thinkers.
A great idea should not be watered down. If it’s true to the artist, stay bold and original.
I’ve learned to run my own race. How other people operate and handle their business is of no interest to me. A competitive spirit is healthy, and inherent in any entrepreneur. But when winning overshadows what’s in an artist’s best interest, the plot has been lost. Winning for the sake of winning is for the insecure. I like to win for the sake of the artist.
Spotlight is a Billboard.biz series that aims to highlight those in the music business making innovative or creative moves, or who are succeeding in behind-the-scenes or under-the-radar roles. For submissions for the series, please contact email@example.com.