'Great Things Could Come From This': Lucas Keller on Why Milk & Honey Isn't Slowing Down Amid Pandemic (Guest Column)

Lucas Keller
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.

Keller outlines why he’s optimistic about the second half of 2020, despite the pandemic's harsh economic impact.

It's week No. 5 at my kitchen table with 17 employees working from home and four offices (Los Angeles, New York, Nashville, London) all closed. I own Milk & Honey, a full-service songwriter, producer, mixer and artist management company that moves 100 mph in a normal season. But here I sit today in this "new normal." Mostly, I'm grateful that I am not a concert promoter or an agent for obvious reasons and unlike my friends -- not purely an artist manager.

I've always thought the ultimate panoply in business was to have a diverse collection of interesting types of clients, and that's the business we've built. Can you imagine the amount of commission the major management companies lose today by not being diversified? I mean, nobody was sitting around the boardroom table saying, "What will we do in a global pandemic?"

But you learn who keeps financial reserves around and who doesn't. Today, 20% of our business is touring artists, mainly in the electronic genre. These DJs are also producers, so they have a lot in common with the rest of our roster. The other 80% are songwriters and record producers, and today I'm really happy about having set up Milk & Honey in this way.

Over the course of 10 days (while we were still in the office), I watched residencies, festival season and club shows all fall away while we began to accept the grim reality of the coming months. Still with irreplaceable live touring revenue, I was grateful because we're a business built on songwriters – and what better time to head into the studio. Great things could come from this, only a small silver lining for the larger world issue at hand.

Maybe some 100% songs would be written without co-writers that go on to be summer and fall No. 1 hits. Maybe we would see a sharp streaming hike from all of the people being at home and not in the car listening to FM radio. Maybe livestreaming finally makes the impact it was meant to. Maybe film companies would even take a chance at premiering a big box office film at SVOD [subscription video on demand]. But it's on all of us to figure it out and not sit back.

Our first video staff meeting was a discussion about the way forward, recognizing that half of our clients would push to write remotely over video conference and the other half that perhaps have had more success would send me a folder of 10 hit records and proceed to watch HBO for a few months. "Hey manager guy, go get these records placed and call me when this crisis is over."  Being the information hound that I am, I've spent my days and nights reading about not just the effects on the world, but the economic effects and how it will affect the song business.

I called my friends in A&R, who after a week of being shell-shocked started to get internal mandates from their higher-ups. The word is that the labels would slow on signing new talent and some major releases that have marketing and activation that need to exist in the real world would push. I get it ... so many executives and artists operate from a place of fear. It's not good, but if you are coming off a major album campaign with multiple hit singles, you cannot afford to miss a beat. So you push. But look at the charts over the last several weeks. You have The Weeknd, Lil Uzi Vert, 5 Seconds of Summer, PartyNextDoor, Pearl Jam -- all great artists across genres not afraid to release during this time, and they're all doing great.

Then there was the most exciting part. A label friend told me, "We're ramping up for more releases and we're going for it; we're not slowing down." I called another friend who told me 75% of their releases are still coming out as planned. As a small part of the wheel, I have to accept that if the majors are making content and releasing music, there will still be a need for hit records and great songs.

In the past few weeks, I've seen exactly that. We're making producer deals, publishing deals; catalog sales are continuing to roar with money being cheaper than ever. We have had multiple advertising syncs in the past week with our New York-based venture Milk & Honey Silo, an advertising licensing-focused initiative. I'm not exactly feeling the slow down -- across the board.

One potential negative: I spoke with a friend at one of the prominent performing rights organizations who informed me that we should expect a 20 -25% dip in revenue in Q4 2020 and Q1 2021 from this time. And that not only are people not in their cars, but restaurants and retail closed. There's an even bigger issue at hand which is that the PROs will have issues getting licenses.

We all have to accept that it could be a slower year ahead. I was faced with doing the only thing I know how to do, even if it feels like most things are on cruise control -- double down.  Immediately we went to our employees and 60 clients and started making plans for how we could keep business moving in these times, not knowing how many months it could last.

What we learned was that every producer has a backlog of work he's been meaning to get done.  There's a pretty long runway for many of our guys, but that's not good enough. We needed to create solutions. I was speaking to producer clients of mine like Sir Nolan and Oak Felder this morning, both of whom have multiple productions to finish from prior to the pandemic and multiple productions to finish for forthcoming releases that are new incoming calls -- they are in demand. Oak with a Demi Lovato hit on the chart and Nolan with a Selena Gomez hit on the chart.

I texted various versions of songs with my producer DJ client Oliver Heldens this morning at his studio in the Netherlands stockpiling new records. I called my client David Hodges, who's working on writing his exciting forthcoming book, and I spoke with client Jamie Hartman who was doing remote sessions with breakout U.K. artist Celeste. It felt good, people are active.

From reorganizing songs for pitch, to finishing or repurposing songs, to pitching for synch and strategizing with our writers to have select "every-other-Tuesday" co-writes on Zoom conference sessions -- we're out there. A lot of record labels are calling me about songs that need finishing production work. We represent a handful of producers that get hired to come in and do the last 10% of a production. That's big business and few producers in the business are truly great at doing this.

We've created likely the most robust and current internal list of people that are actively looking to work during this time and do remote sessions – and it's working. Our clients are making more music than they ever have, and our execs are listening to more music than ever. While the world is burning down outside -- it's an amazing little golden era for the creative.

It's dark out there too. I'm talking to friends who are laying off employees, handing down pay cuts and it's going to get worse in the coming weeks. We've made a commitment to our clients that we're here to lead them into battle and to our employees that there will be no cuts or reductions.  More companies need to figure out how to do this. There are too many CEOs who won't stand by their businesses and make a capital contribution.

I would leave it all on the field for our family. Provided the market and economy bounces back, I'm optimistic about the second half of 2020 and predict an excellent next year for the song business. With four client songs in the top 40 right now — whereas we're mindful of the bigger world issues at hand — we're not intending on slowing down.

As founder/president of Milk & Honey, Lucas Keller oversees a clientele of songwriters, producers, EDM artists and DJs that includes David Hodges, Sir Nolan, Oak Felder and DJ Oliver Heldens. The management firm's roster has churned out a diverse range of hits, among them: Alessia Cara's "Here," Khalid's "Better," Demi Lovato's I Love Me," Y2K's "Lalala," Selena Gomez's "Rare" and Chainsmokers/5 Seconds of Summer's "Who Do You Love."

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