Amy Thomson had just returned to London from her annual trip to India, only to find Heathrow Airport nearly empty as all nonessential travel in England was shutting down due to the coronavirus. "I had no idea what was going on until I got home and was just like, 'Oh, my God,'" says Thomson, 45, the founder and, until February, CEO of management firm ATM Artists. "I'm watching all these people panic-buy toilet rolls, and you’re just like, 'My God, do I have enough toilet rolls? Do I feed my dog before I feed me?'"
As reality sank in, Thomson realized she needed to do something to help her peers whose livelihoods would be besieged by the pandemic. In just five days, the former manager and marketer adapted the curriculum of a music business class she had taught in London in 2018 into a book called Artist Management & Marketing: A Beginners Guide, which she published for free online today (March 26) in order to help aspiring managers during this period of isolation.
Thomson has plenty of experience to draw upon. During her 20-plus-year career, she has worked with DJ Snake, Kanye West and, most famously, Swedish House Mafia, whom she shepherded to global success and headlining slots at Madison Square Garden, Coachella and Ultra Music Festival. Thomson will also reboot her original class as a free online seminar for interested youth looking to learn from one of the most successful managers in the business.
Teaching is just part of Thomson's next act. In September, she plans to launch a new company to develop software that will help artists organize their catalogs as a clear portfolio with asset values and royalty information in one place, at a time when streaming’s ubiquity has led to people earning royalties from the streams of old songs. "To me, management now is 50% artists and 50% artists' portfolios," she says. "Streaming changed music from 'Is my CD still in Tower Records, so I might be owed two bucks?' to ‘I now have a retirement plan that I'm going to leave to my kids.' And who is going to look after those assets for them?"
How did you learn to become a manager when you started out?
At first, I was a promoter — I used to run raves in the middle of England — and by the time I was 21, Ministry of Sound asked me to run their DJ management company. I had literally no idea what I was doing. Then I started my own company. How you teach yourself to be a manager is, honestly, half instinct and half learning from others around you and from your mistakes. Because you also can’t do something new unless you’re ready to make the mistake that comes with being the first to do something. In the case of Swedish House Mafia playing Madison Square Garden the first time around, we were in a record deal that was giving us tour support, and they actually said, "If you do this, then Amy, you personally have to underwrite the financial cost because we think you're absolutely insane." We sold it out in four minutes. We crashed Ticketmaster. But did I understand fully how the show costs and finances of Madison Square Garden worked? No, I did not. [Laughs] So you make some mistakes there, and then the next time you play Madison Square Garden, you get that bit right.
How is management evolving?
The older you get, the management side is really crafted by having good lawyers, having good business managers. In the future, there will be two kinds of record contracts: a license deal and a relicense deal. And record companies are going to have to offer a whole new service to get you to keep your back catalog with them, which is a huge portion of their revenue. There will have to be promises of how they’ll keep servicing the records, transparent accounting, better royalty rates. And for me, that whole sector of how to service that is not just the catalog sales that you’re seeing now, but the hundreds of thousands of artists that will have a pension.
If you think of the average car, it’s $20,000. Well, a song is five cars over the period of 100 years. And that’s a small song. If you’re looking at a song like [DJ Snake’s] “Taki Taki,” you’re talking about houses. So people are gathering asset pools of cars and houses, but they don’t have the paperwork for them. And when they pass away, do they think their families are going to have the first clue?
Over the next five years, you’ll see a huge shift of people coming forward to ... organize their catalogs and have a real sense of, “Everything I’m owed, I get paid.” And not going to bed at night wondering, “What’s neighboring rights?” And I think that great management now is about changing the rates of pay because of the sheer volumes of money involved, because of what Spotify did to the music business.
How do the skills that managers have apply to dealing with these issues?
In the last three years or so, I inherited a catalog to work on — 200 songs, with some really big ones. And when I started to work on it — and as a new manager, you don’t take a commission on the songs you didn’t work on — I could see there were some problems with it. We found that 50% of the songs were not registered correctly; 29 were missing featured artist agreements, which meant that once the repertoire comes back to the artist, he may well have real issues owning that catalog and re-uploading with a distributor. We found so many issues — we won a huge lawsuit against a major company, which we signed an NDA about, so I can’t say who it was — and we won the catalog back.
I think that gap in the market is going to be the organizing of an artist’s asset portfolio. I can’t say too much about it now, but me and the three biggest investors that I have are going to launch what we think is the solution to that in September. And when we do, it will be something that managers [will utilize].
Why did you close ATM Artists?
It just got to a point where I turned 45, my daughter finished school and one day I just woke up and was like, “I’m done.” It took two years to actually be able to do it because you don’t want to leave people high and dry. It was a hard decision, because it’s scary. It’s scary to change what you’ve done for 25 years. But I want to be in a place where I can help multiple artists and managers. Management is a very 24/7, emotional commitment. This section of my life should be about taking the education that I have been given by various people, the understanding I have and applying it. Because otherwise I’m just gonna go on tour for the next 20 years, and... No. [Laughs]
What advice would you give managers and artists to survive this pandemic?
I think how you behave as an employer right now will be remembered for several years to come. If you can’t afford to pay people, then that’s down to how you communicate that to people. But then don’t just tell them and not support them after; people are going to be devastated. If you’ve got the budget to keep people on, then keep them on in some other way. You’ve got photographers who’ve been on the road with you and earn a daily rate; when was the last time they archived all your pictures? Should the videographer be putting together a miniseries or documentary? There’s a million ways to be creative.
And for artists, [engage in] just as much positive fan communication, making sure that the fans are being safe and following the rules and showing empathy. If you’ve got a set of stems from a song and you’re OK with letting them have it, let the kids remix you, upload it on SoundCloud, do a competition where you’re going to FaceTime them if they win, or they’re going to get a big package when deliveries are allowed next. This is the time to invest in yourself while staying at home and being responsible to everybody else.