Some 33 years into their partnership, Burnstein and Mensch are the quiet giants of the music business. They don’t do many interviews, they rarely pose for photos, they shy away from the party circuit, they don’t seek headlines or self-publicity. But every year for the past three decades, their management roster -- which currently includes Metallica, the Chili Peppers, Muse, Cage the Elephant, Silversun Pickups, Foals, newcomer Declan McKenna and, via a partnership with John Peets, Eric Church, the Black Keys, Rhiannon Giddens and others -- reliably rakes in millions in touring and recorded music income.
Their low profile belies just how innovative this management firm has been. Burnstein came from the label world, doing promotion and then A&R for Mercury Records in the 1970s, where he signed artists ranging from Rush to formative punk outfit Pere Ubu. And while Mensch has been in management every step of his career -- first with early Aerosmith managers Steve Leber and David Krebs, for whom he began managing AC/DC at the age of 26 -- the two of them know their way around the music business so thoroughly that during the 1990s, their company gradually began taking on the duties of record companies, adding product managers and radio promotion, among other functions, until they became the record company for several of their artists -- not least Metallica, whose Q Prime-negotiated contract with Elektra Records allowed the group to gain control of their masters in 2012. The result is Blackened Records, which regularly moves several hundred thousand units of Metallica’s catalog each year. It’s a model Q Prime has used, on a smaller scale, for artists like Dawes and Baroness.
Given the pair’s press-averse history, it came as a big surprise when, late in 2014 (and again late in 2015), I asked for an interview for Billboard’s Power 100 and was told they’d meet me at their Midtown office on Jan. 5 (and Jan. 6). Both times, we talked for nearly three hours, the boilerplate Power 100 questions leading to anecdotes, lessons, advice and more from their long history. Talking with the two of them is almost like talking with an old married couple that actually likes each other, starting, completing and complementing the other’s sentences. Consequently, this exhaustive interview is filled with digressions and sidebars, but also with profoundly contemporary observations on streaming, record labels, managing both superstars -- Metallica, the Chili Peppers, Muse, former clients like the Rolling Stones, Def Leppard and Rush -- and young artists -- like Dawes and Cage the Elephant -- and even attending spring training baseball games with Columbia Records chairman Rob Stringer. Their perspective is vast and unique, and there's more of it here than we've seen anywhere.
Let’s start off -- again -- with Power 100 questions. What’s at least one industry prediction for 2016?
Cliff Burnstein: I don't think anything will change. Trends in motion tend to stay in motion.
What is the biggest issue facing your sector of the business?
CB: If, in five years, the business is going to be mostly streaming and most of the revenue will come through that, we would feel shitty if our acts were getting 20 percent or less of the streaming money that comes out of Spotify and the other streaming companies. It's just hard for us to accept that. I don't think it's fair.
If you could trade places with one musical artist, who would it be?
CB: I wouldn't. We're good at what we do.
Peter Mensch: And we know enough about how groups work.
Tell me about Spring Fling, this tour you’ve booked with several of your up-and-coming acts. [The tour concluded on April 1.]
CB: It's 15 shows in March with Cage the Elephant, Silversun Pickups, Foals and Bear Hands; all four are our acts, all four get alternative radio play. And it's going into markets that typically you wouldn't go into unless you're a major, major act. The problem in a lot of these markets is you have a ballroom or a club where you could sell out 1,500 tickets, and then the next step up is an arena where you need to sell 10,000 tickets. So we thought, let's aggregate some of these artists, try to get a nice thing going with the radio stations in those towns and see if we could some decent percentage of those 10,000 seats, instead of doing 1,500.
PM: It's an experiment.
CB: We'll know after the fact if it's successful or not.
Only because you mentioned ticket sales, how much trouble do you have with the secondary ticket sales market?
PM: So far, nobody has been able to answer [the problems]. Trust me, I find it to be the most obnoxious thing possible. It offends me mightily. I don't know how people in the first 30 rows get their tickets, but none of my friends seem to be able to do it.
CB: Mine either. So if you want to theoretically limit people to two tickets and if you go ticketless and they have to bring their ID and their credit card and you open the doors three hours before the show starts --
PM: And here's what you'll find -- we've done this once or twice before. You'll get a more accurate representation of what your ticket sales really are -- the numbers are slightly lower because now ticket brokers are out of the mix altogether, right? Think about it, if you have to show up with your ID at six o'clock or five o'clock, you don't have a ticket broker anymore.
CB: But if you make people show up with their IDs and they have to wait in line and get to the show earlier and go through all that, there is a certain amount of people who will inevitably say, “Why did you make it so f---in' hard for me? It really ruined my experience.” People get pissed at you 'cause you're the ones that said this is the way it has to be. Most people are not necessarily aware that the measures you're taking are --
PM: Are in their best interest. And more importantly, they might not even care. [Many] people will pay $150, $250 a ticket to get better seats because it's the only time all year they’re gonna go out and see a concert. It's gotten to the point now if someone came up with an all-auction system, that would be the best way to do it. We once thought about that.
CB: But then you price a lot of the fans right out of it and that's why all of us, every manager with an artist who thinks of him or herself as being current, is not going to charge what the [market] will bear on a hot artist, because they don't want to, quote, "Screw the fans."
PM: Even though...
CB: Even though the fans will get screwed anyway. It's a question of the optics of it: You can't blame us or Twenty One Pilots or whoever for screwing the fans when the price is nice. Screw the f---in' bots!
It’s been said that the only artist who has really been able to beat this is the Rolling Stones, and that's because they charge so much for tickets that the market won't really bear higher prices.
CB: The other thing you can do -- and Peter and I talk about this a lot -- is, in general, successful artists, and this has been true for many years, don't want to see any empty seats. So if you want to price your tickets high enough, like the Stones, you're gonna end up with empty seats or the possibility of empty seats. If you price your tickets lower than the market will bear, you won't have any empty seats. So it really comes from the artist deciding, “I don't mind if I don't sell the last thousand or 2,000 tickets, it's still a great day. Everybody who wants a ticket will get a ticket.”
PM: Some of our artists go for big indoor productions, right? And they sit there with their business manager and they go, “We're spending this many millions on a stage show but we're not even getting half out of that.” And you have to tell them, fine, let's go to $125 a ticket instead of $75 -- and guess what? You'll make more money but you won't, as Cliff says, fill all the seats. So make a decision: Either go out with just a stage and we'll make plenty of money at $60-75, or go out with all this staging and you're gonna have to charge more money.
CB: One of the artists on our roster has a philosophy that he would rather sell 90 percent of the tickets than sell out, because if he sells 90 percent of the tickets he knows he picked the right room. If he sells out, then he should've picked a bigger room.
PM: It's becoming more and more difficult to convince artists that it's worth going for a bigger room and selling 80 percent of it, knowing that if you went for the next-size [smaller] room and sold it out, you would still be playing to a thousand or 2,000 fewer people. I'm down for satisfying the demand, even if it means your house is 75 percent full because there will still be more people there. I'd rather do a cut-down Madison Square Garden, if I thought I could, than Radio City Music Hall -- I'd rather play for 8,500 than 6,000.
CB: Most artists won't.
So it’s purely pride that's making them --
PM: You should try and play to every one of your fans, so therefore you should go for the bigger building and deal with it, because no one sits around going, “Oh this is a really lousy show because it’s half empty.” They're into the band, they bought a ticket, they don't give a shit if 20 rows behind them is empty. They're here.
CB: We do have another artist that for years typically would draw 1,500 or 2,000 playing the club circuit. And then when they became big and could do arenas there'd be the occasional show where they might only do 9,000 out of 15,000. And thinking that might be a problem, because most of the artists’ pride gets in the way, I said, ”Just so you're aware, there's only gonna be 9,000 people at this show -- and 6,000 empty seats.” To which he said, “It's great that 9,000 people would come out to see us.”
PM: I have to admit, there's a change in my end of the management philosophy, having that conversation with all the acts coming up that we manage. They have to understand that. Because the older ones just get, “I can't play if it's not sold out.” Well, that does cut out a bunch of your markets.
When can we expect a new album from the Chili Peppers?
PM: When they get done.
CB: I think early summer.
PM: Hopefully. I mean, lots of dominos have to fall, but they're working on it, yes.
With an inevitable tour to follow?
PM: Inevitable! We're actually booking it. Here's the other trick: When you're playing arenas, which is what most of our acts should do, it's getting more and more difficult to get avails, not necessarily because of other concerts but because of tournaments; basketball, hockey.
CB: If you talk about a change from between now and say 20 years ago, we could book a tour four months out.
PM: Now it's a year and four months.
Because of the demand for the venue?
PM: Yes. For example, let's say you want to play in Paris -- there's only one arena in Paris. We're playing six shows with Muse in Paris in February and early March -- I booked that two years ago. The band hadn't even thought about making their next record -- [Drones], the record that's out now -- but I had to book it if we wanted to do that.
CB: And you have to be so brilliant in your forecasting to know that six shows is the right number to do. You have to know that you're gonna do 100,000 people. What if you can only do 50?
Why is there so much more demand on the rooms? Are there more sports teams?
PM: Here's what's happening. Madison Square Garden, for example, will have shows from Indian artists, Latin artists, Korean artists -- and they'll come up with things like “Dinosaurs Rule the Earth.”
CB: And if you want to do three or four consecutive nights in any of the big buildings -- because you know how much it costs you to load in and load out because of the unions -- then try and work around all these schedules with everybody else coming in.
PM: And during the wintertime with an NBA/NHL building... Staples Center [in Los Angeles] has three professional sports teams.
CB: And another thing is, the older artists that we grew up with haven't let go yet. They're still around to sell out these arenas.
PM: Paul McCartney is still playing. Billy Joel is playing.
CB: And for the most part they're only going to play the 25 or 30 biggest markets -- they are no longer interested in establishing themselves in Boise, for the most part. So you've got an accumulation of artists that could sell out, hypothetically, in the top 25 or so markets --
PM: Playing multiple shows only in the top 25 or 30 markets. If the Eagles [Ed. Note: this interview took place shortly before Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey’s death] are gonna go on the road, they're gonna play six nights at the Garden rather than Albany or Hartford.
CB: And as you get older you like to base in one place. So you're going, “Ya know what?”
PM: “...They can all drive.”
CB: "...From Albany or Syracuse or wherever."
How about Metallica? Album this year?
PM: Probably later in the year or something like that.
We’ve talked about ways big artists can stay interested and not get complacent. Was playing in Antarctica something like that for Metallica?
CB: It's fun. It might be on somebody's bucket list, I don't f---in' know.
PM: But here's another thing: the Chili Peppers have gotten offers for every festival in the last two years because they are the great lost headline act that hasn't played in four or five years. Flea won't go out. Why? Because he doesn't want to play the same old songs.
CB: He wants to play something new.
PM: The only reason we're scheduling stuff now, as Cliff said, for the summertime is because he sees the light at the end of the new album tunnel. He will accept that, knowing the album could come out somewhere during the festival season, but [at least] there'll be a single out. But the last two years we've turned everybody down.
He toured with Atoms For Peace too.
CB: Yeah, he'll play a gig with Patti Smith or Thom Yorke; that's more novel for him. That's a little bit of a challenge. But to just --
PM: Go out just to go out... 'Cause they could have made $25-30 million every summer, promoters beating us up, going, “How much?” Don't even bother. We turned it all down.
Looking at Q Prime as a whole, the business model of it was very forward-thinking. Did you see the changes coming?
PM: Well, because what we started doing years and years ago is replacing record company functions as they stopped functioning, so it only became a natural progression to essentially create these artist labels with the same people. In the old days it was the product managers at the record company. They knew everything about the act -- the artwork, the next single, the tour dates. So now we have day-to-day people here who do the same thing, and we sat there with some of our bands and said, "Okay, name something a record company does. Publicity. We'll hire somebody. Synchs. We can hire somebody. Promotion. We have promotion people." So you start ticking off the boxes and where we are now is just a natural outcome of where we started 20 years ago.
What do you think record companies are going to look like in the next five or 10 years?
CB: I think the big labels will generally have very few new artists, current artists...
PM: Yeah, they'll only have artists they can monetize very quickly, like pop acts, not acts that take three albums to develop.
CB: They'll mainly live off the streaming money from their catalogs, where they'll be paying their old artists under deals so they make tons of money.
One of the things that comes up every year recently, especially when Grammy nominations come around, is what a sad state rock has been in for the last five to 10 years.
PM: I mean, yes and no. I’ve gotta believe people still want to see guitars. Maybe that's just me whistling in the dark.
Are you seeing many promising rock bands coming up?
PM: Not really. But are you seeing many promising artists coming up? Every so often there’s somebody, but not many. But rock bands? Most of them, even alternative bands, a lot of them are here today, gone...
CB: Even six, seven years ago, for me at least, you could say, oh, there’s the Decemberists, the Shins, Arcade Fire, Fleet Foxes, LCD Soundsystem, and kinda on the tail end of that, maybe Tame Impala -- you know, “I'll pay money for that.” But where are the next five bands to go on that list? Or even that might go on that list?
By the same token, what is happening to all the metal bands?
CB: There's nobody new who is inspiring a large group of people. [Fans] can still buy classic metal, but what new artist --
PM: Is saying something different?
CB: And is appealing on any kind of a wide level to a metal fan?
PM: Or even saying the same thing but, as Cliff says, on a wider level? We search for it, trust me.
CB: There is no reason why Metallica should still be, by far, the biggest metal band. That kind of goes against the pop-culture grain, which is that you have a few years of your peak and then somebody else knocks you off. That's the way it ought to be. We've lived through that [syndrome] for many, many years. So for Metallica to have been at the top of this mountain for so long, it’s like, what does that mean?
I used to marvel at the loyalty of metal fans but now I realize it's mostly the same people as 10, 20 years ago.
PM: Yeah, and they all go to Metallica shows. And some of them will go to Avenged Sevenfold shows. And they will be really happy to go to a Metallica show that has Avenged Sevenfold as a support act.
CB: And we have a feeling that if we had Metallica, Avenged Sevenfold and Five Finger Death Punch on the same bill it would draw exactly the same number of people if we just had Metallica.
PM: The better and interesting question is where is the next Guns N’ Roses? Where is the kid from Indiana with something to say, with a bunch of other kids that he picks up in L.A. and makes a band out of?
Do Adele’s huge sales change anything?
CB: It's an outlier. The proportion of physical sales was very, very high, much higher than any other big-selling album of the last few years. So I believe that it was --
PM: Christmas presents.
PM: If she'd come out in March it wouldn't be so big, but it was still going to be the biggest record of the last couple years.
Do you think it creates a realistic model for windowing?
Both: No, not necessarily.
CB: Look, you can't prove a negative. This is what the whole f---in' thing is about. What happened if she had gone up on Spotify the same day? Would it have made much of a difference? Based on the number of physical copies sold, I doubt it.
So the upshot is that recorded music is simply becoming a way to sell other things -- tickets, merch?
CB: You want more people to know about your music and know individual songs, and so you get to them any way you possibly can. I'm not trying to sell anything in particular except to maximize the --
PM: The overall appreciation of our artists.
CB: That's our job as managers.
PM: And to hopefully make them enough money they can survive to make the next record.
Are there any artists you'd like to work with -- established artists, new artists, anybody you've seen you really like?
PM: There would be, but we won't mention any names. To be frank, they're acts that you obviously... They’re acts you think have done great work in the past. Let's say it's established artists who you think you can help continue to do great work in the future, but they may not want to listen to what you have to say. It's hard, if you think about it.
Artists don’t always want to hear advice...
PM: They don't want to hear it! So the answer is that established acts tend not to fire their managers when they're doing well, they tend to change things up when they're not -- and they have to understand that there may be a reason why they’re not. So we get the acts we deserve; Burnstein came up with that line 20 years ago, and it's totally true. We've lost acts because we've said, “Are you prepared for us to tell you that your new songs suck?” “No -- what do you know about music?” “Okay, fine. Call somebody else.”
What are some of other questions you ask when you're looking to manage somebody?
CB: There’s the classic: Would you rather open for U2 or headline 1,000-seaters?
PM: And when they said “1,000-seaters” we said, “You should find somebody else.” We want acts who are ambitious, who want to be the biggest act they can be -- or think they have an upside -- and that are mostly willing to listen to our advice. If they’re not, what's the point? You have to have as much respect for us, and for what we do, as we do for you. It has to be equal. We're not order-takers. So we have an eclectic group of people that listen to us and we'll listen to them. We -- or the producer -- will say, “Your songs are B, we can make them A. Your audience will triple.” Right? “You do three nights at Terminal 5 or whatever -- do you want to try to go for it this time?” That's what happened with the Black Keys and “Tighten Up.” [Producer Danger Mouse] said to [frontman] Dan Auerbach some version of, “If you ever have a song you think could get on the radio -- and by the way, getting songs on the radio will change your life because the audience will expand -- let me know.” [Later,] Auerbach said, “'Tighten Up’ is a song I think I could get on the radio if I could get some help.” Their audience tripled, and now they are an arena act. They can do 10-12,000 thousand people in 35 or 40 markets in North America.
Each one of our bands last year – Foals this year worked with James Ford, who did the Arctic Monkeys; the Chili Peppers left their comfort zone to make a record with Danger Mouse; Cage the Elephant worked with Dan Auerbach; Silversun Pickups went back to Jackknife Lee. We said to all the producers: "Raise their f---in' game -- be the guy in the gym that says you can do five more push-ups." So that was last year’s contribution of management and now this year we get to see the results of it.
Are there any new artists you've picked up recently that you're excited about?
PM: Yes: a 17-year-old kid named Declan McKenna. He's an Ed Sheeran-type one-man band but not a pop act. He signed at Columbia for a couple albums and we're all really excited. Literally, he's in school, so basically he writes a song and then on the weekends he demos it. He's got eight or nine songs now, and he's gonna form a band because he's not like Ed Sheeran in many ways.
CB: There’s another act we’ve signed in the last year: Volbeat. If you're talking about a hard rock band that could please a large group of people, it would be Volbeat -- where the melodies matter and the songs are about something and there is a sense of fun in their presentation. He's on his sixth album or something like that, but he's bigger in Europe, where metal still means something and you can still sell a few hundred thousand hard rock records in Germany.
Did you think about putting out his music yourselves?
PM: We signed him to Columbia because we're not there yet with our infrastructure and our system of having the act own the master and doing deals might be too futuristic to convince everybody yet, but it's coming. Like I said, we think record labels would take more and more short-term views on new acts, so it would have to be a pop thing that can get 30 million YouTube [views] or whatever. An act that has that kind of sensibility is the one thing we have never handled -- straight pop music. And when an act owns their masters, the question is finding people, territory by territory, to put the records out, and we're starting to do that. My dream would be to have enough biggish acts -- I don't even mean gigantic -- that I could literally have a label in each major territory around the world and either have an employee or a label head in those territories.
So you’re really one label operating under different names for each act.
PM: Exactly. The chief operating officer of [Dawes’ label] HUB Records would be the same as the chief operating officer of the Silversun Pickups' label, but the band is the board of directors, you follow?
And how much involvement does the band have?
PM: Tons. Because now they understand: "Okay, you want to record your album at this studio with your best friend Jem Aswad, if he's charging $50,000 we might give you the money, but that's coming out of here and we have to recoup that money first." Now, all of a sudden, they’re in charge of their own fates.