Billboard Touring Conference: Why Managers Now Have to Be Jacks of All Trades

Michael Seto
Adam Alpert (CEO, Disruptor Records & Management, Selector Songs Publishing) and Jonathan Azu (EVP & GM, Red Light Management) on stage for “The Drummer Just Did What” panel at the Billboard Touring and Conference Awards, in New York on Nov. 19, 2015.

With a panel titled "The Drummer Just Did What? Contemporary Artist Management and the Art of the 3 a.m. Call," one could expect to hear all sorts of horror stories from the men and women who control the careers of musicians. But, unlike Wednesday's event featuring road managers at the Billboard Touring Conference, this talk revolved around how the nature of management has changed thanks to the decline of the traditional label system.

Mainly, the job of manager requires being in control of all facets of an artist's career -- promotion and marketing, digital strategy, tour planning, brand and sponsorship deals, and so on and so on.

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"I can't blame or be upset with the way things have turned out at the labels," said Mick Management founder Michael McDonald, who represents clients like Leon Bridges and Walk the Moon. "There are fewer people doing more work. I can either stand there and scream at the wall, or I can take responsibility, because ultimately I need to do what serves my client best. The label's not going to get fired if the artist isn't happy. We built up that infrastructure internally."

It's the new reality for managers of acts in all genres. Clarence Spalding and Shawn Gee of Maverick Records represent acts in country and R&B respectively, and both make sure their clients are taken care of in all facets of their careers. "I have a team out there looking under rocks to keep these kids alive until they have a hit," Spalding said of balancing his smaller acts while also managing the likes of Jason Aldean.

Gee, who noted that his clients Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne don't have domestic agents, said it's a matter of recognizing which people -- whether they're from the label, the artist's camp or from another company -- are making the most of the job. "We're all in the same car and the management is driving," he said. "Depending on the value you bring to that team, you might not be in the car for the full ride." For him, that includes employing a digital team to analyze data for up-and-coming acts, looking for hotbeds of fans to target concerts and social media messaging in those areas.

It's a different hustle for someone like Street Execs Management partner David Leeks, who represents 2 Chainz and other Atlanta-based hip-hop and R&B acts. When he finds an artist he believes in, he starts by getting their music out to clubs and DJs, building up local buzz and then expanding it to other cities and, eventually, suburban audiences. "We focus on building an artist from scratch and investing in them. We know our niche," he said. "A lot of times it takes the artist to invest in themselves to really show the label that their next record is worth putting out."

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If anyone knows about adjusting to the current state of the industry, it's Red Light Management evp Jonathan Azu, who works with R. Kelly. After meticulously planning the street date and lead single for Kelly's 2013 album Black Panties, he learned just how quickly all that work can be diminished when another act doesn't follow the traditional release methods.

"There are no rules anymore," he said. "I remember going into that release night and wondering at 12:30 why Beyoncé was trending. And oops, she dropped an album."

Overall, Adam Alpert, CEO of Disruptor Records and Management, summed up the panel's message best: "The landscape changes, but it all comes back to the music and you have to help everywhere you can."


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