The first time I ever spoke with Peter Mensch, he made fun of me. The first time I spoke with Cliff Burnstein, he screamed at me. They’ve warmed up over the years, but I get the feeling I’m not the only person who had that kind of introduction to the formidable founders of Q Prime Management, who have played an incalculable role in the success of Metallica, Def Leppard, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and many more.
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 ’70s, 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.
Part one of two.
Billboard: Okay, let’s start with the standard Power 100 questions. What’s your greatest accomplishment of all time?
Cliff Burnstein: How about 32…
Peter Mensch: …years of partnership. I don’t think there’s anybody else who can even say that.
Where did you guys first meet?
PM: I was at Brandeis University and I was the music director of the radio station. Sometime between the academic year ’73-’74 or ’74-’75 Cliff called me up to promote to my radio station. He crashed on my couch, we became friends, and we’ve been friends ever since. We’re the longest-serving partnership left in the music business.
Was there a song or concert that made you want to be in the music business?
PM: For me, it was discovering that there was a music business. I was on college radio when I realized I could get free records and free tickets from record companies — this is in the ’70s. I thought this could be lots of fun.
CB: I never wanted to be in the music industry until my fellowship was running out in graduate school and suddenly it occurred to me I needed to do something.
PM: And writing his thesis on demography wasn’t gonna be it.
What’s the hardest music business lesson you ever had to learn?
CB: A good one that we learned from watching other people is: Don’t manage one act, because then they manage you. Then you’re just doing their bidding. You have to diversify.
PM: And a small corollary to that is: don’t have too many managers. In other words, Cliff and I manage all the acts. We don’t run a company the way other management companies do where there are managers that have pieces [of the company].
But isn’t that your arrangement with John Peet?
PM: That’s the one exception! But that’s 20 years after we started.
How long did you have just one act? You started with Def Leppard, right?
PM: Yeah, we had Def Leppard in 1982 but at some time —
CB: And we had the Waitresses. But the point was, if you have one really big act, and Def Leppard became really, really huge —
PM: Very quickly.
CB: We could’ve just said, “Hey, we can make it on Def Leppard alone.” But we would have had to be psychic to know that they would take three years to make an album [1987’s Hysteria], that the drummer [Rick Allen] would lose his arm [in 1984] and that eventually one of the key members would die [Steve Clarke, in 1990]. So if you knew all that, then you definitely wouldn’t wanna manage only one act.
PM: Remember, we didn’t start from the bottom. When Def Leppard went on tour with Billy Squier [in 1983], they blew him off the stage every night: It wasn’t like they’d spent seven years [toiling] in the clubs. We got these acts at the right time — and boom. Krebs and Leber were sort of hands-off with Def Leppard, Scorpions, AC/DC and a guy named Michael Schenker — I brought Cliff in and those were the four acts that we had.
But you weren’t able to take any of them but Def Leppard with you, right?
PM: No. We got fired by AC/DC. The Scorpions…
PM: The traitorous Scorpions stayed with Krebs, and I’ll never forgive them for that. Then they fired him and we had another shot at them in the mid-’80s and they chose Doc McGhee. And that’s why they’re even more traitorous. [Laughter]
Why did AC/DC fire you?
PM: Who knows. They never told me.
Why did Def Leppard get big so fast?
CB: When we left Leber Krebs, even though their second album was not as successful as the first, it was starting to blow up in America a year after it came out because Polygram [Records] had just made their deal with MTV — they had been holdouts. And they didn’t have any videos to give MTV — all they had were these live videos that we shot of Def Leppard. We didn’t have MTV in New York [for its first months, the channel wasn’t available in New York City], so we didn’t f—in’ know what was going on [with it in the rest of the country]. And all the sudden the record started selling — apparently with nothing going on. It was because [MTV] were playing “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak.” That was the thing we knew going into our management business.
PM: Well, that and having Mutt Lange produce their next record.
CB: We knew when we heard “Photograph,” even though the record wasn’t gonna come out for another five or six months, we knew we had a smash.
Have you ever been starstruck?
CB: I have a good one. When we worked with the Stones [Q Prime promoted the group’s Steel Wheels tour in 1989], there was a congressman from Texas named Mickey Leland who died in a plane crash in Africa. I knew a [Massachusetts] congressman named Ed Markey and he calls me up and says, “There’s a widow and two children, we’re holding a benefit and I know you’re involved with the Stones. Could you get me a signed guitar from Keith Richards that we could auction off for the benefit of the family?” And I said whoa, that’s a tall order but I’ll do my best. We mainly had been dealing with Jagger, they were on tour, and truthfully it was… it’s not like we didn’t have anything to say to Keith, it’s just that… you know …
PM: How do you say it?
CB: Yeah, you can’t hit it the wrong way. And we all know what Keith’s reputation is. So I’m actually very nervous about this. So I go into Keith’s dressing room and I say, “Keith, I have a favor to ask of you. There was this congressman named Mickey Leland…” And he goes, “Oh, the guy that died in that African plane crash?” He knows the whole story. I talk about the widow, the kids. He says, “Sure, whatever you want.” He’s the greatest guy.
PM: Here’s mine, or at least one of my favorite stories of the last 10 years. The backstory on [the live DVD and album from Led Zeppelin’s 2007 concert] Celebration Day is that it wasn’t coming out on DVD because [the Zeppelin members] were fighting internally. Jimmy [whom Q Prime had previously managed] called me up and asked me to come back to solve the problems. It had been five years since I was last on the case. He needed someone to mix the record. So I brought in Alan Moulder and I’m watching them mix “Kashmir,” and I’m watching Jimmy Page miming “Kashmir” as Moulder is putting the final touches on it. And that for me was like, “F— me.”
What’s your definition of power?
CB: If you have to ask… [Laughter]
Do you have any hobbies?
PM: We like baseball — we’ve gone down to Florida probably 25 times for spring training games. Now part of our hobby is watching [Columbia chairman] Rob Stringer, who goes with us, because he loves doing it. We’d stopped and then he got so enthusiastic he sort of reinvigorated us. He gets all pumped up. It’s cute — an Englishman in New York.
In the ’90s, did you make a concerted effort to diversify musically?
PM: For the first 10 or 12 years of our career we basically managed metal bands. And anybody who wasn’t a metal band didn’t wanna know. It was hard to convince people that we could actually do something else. We got turned down by Gang of Four — they ate all my English muffins.
CB: I had this meeting with Husker Du [in the late ‘80s]. It was kind of late in their career, they were looking for a manager so I just walked over from my apartment to Maxwell’s and took a meeting with them. No, they wanted somebody else. And in [Michael Azzerad’s book This Band Could Be Your Life] Bob Mould actually references that meeting, he says “That was another one of our bad career moves.”
You convinced Screaming Trees, though [which Q Prime managed through the most successful period of its career].
CB: That was the one. That was the breakthrough.
PM: The Screaming Trees were so desperate for a manager they literally took the first two people that walked in the door, and that was us. No one really wanted them because they were kind of, even at their peak, a B-level act. But the Trees made a great record [1992’s Sweet Oblivion].
Q Prime has been quite an innovative management company, in the way it’s taken on so many record-company functions. Do you still have a dozen people doing radio in-house?
PM: Yeah, we’ve had that for years.
Did you ever bring booking in-house?
CB: We thought about it, we almost did it.
PM: Short of hiring a publicist, what we first decided to do was hire product managers, ’cause Cliff and I couldn’t be bothered to do the [album] artwork and all that crap that comes along with the process. Then the tour accountant for Def Leppard who replaced me, we hired him to do our tour stuff. So that’s the way we expanded.
CB: We looked into the booking thing, and there’s too many statutes —
PM: Legal issues about managers who also book.
CB: Yeah. It’s dangerous.
You started taking on those roles even before labels started downsizing. Why?
CB: Because we always felt we could do it better here because we can give it more attention. That’s all. Even in the best days of the record labels —
PM: They had 20 acts, those product managers.
CB: And now they have 40 acts. We needed to give it really personalized attention. [Former Q Prime product manager and second hire] Linda Walker was amazing because she could catch little mistakes that nobody else would see. She was obsessive about that stuff, and that all means a lot to us.
PM: And the flip side of that, because we have all these people, in the last five or six years, a lot of the acts we started managing are on small labels. So the answer is, to give the act the attention that you would want any act to have, you needed a product manager, a sales person, a publicist or a promotion department. It works for both the big label acts and the small label acts.
CB: The brilliant thing about [having their own radio department] is actually not being out of the loop with the secret stuff that goes on with radio stations, [wondering] whether you really are a priority or are they just saying you’re a priority; are they really working the record or are they burying it? You’re always once removed and out of the loop unless you’ve got your own people in there.
Do you have publishing in here?
PM: No, we won’t take an act’s publishing.
CB: That’s something we kind of learned in the negative sense from someplace we used to work. I think one of the keys to the success of this business is, actually, that we’re not greedy. There’s so much money — if you do it right and you’ve got the right bands, you make so much money anyway. Why do you have to own the publishing too, and then be in a fight with your bands about every damn thing? Why do that? Why be so f—in’ greedy?
PM: Like Cliff has said, we’d rather be on the side of the angels. If we have a joint venture with you as an act, because we throw all of our people in for free, the joint venture lasts only as long as you’re with us as a management company. The minute you fire us or whatever, you take your records with you.
CB: And you own your publishing, or you’ll make your publishing deal but we’re not involved.
PM: Although we’ll obviously make the deal for you if you want a publishing deal.
With your acts’ labels, you’re basically funding their recordings?
PM: Yes. Dawes is a joint-venture act, Baroness is a joint-venture act, Silversun Pickups, we’re funding their record as a joint-venture act. We don’t need [another label] involved because we can do it. It doesn’t take more than four phone calls to sell a record nowadays. We have ADA [distribute] some of our stuff, we get directly accounted to from Metallica on iTunes, on Spotify. The checks show up every month.
CB: Remember, since Metallica owns their [recordings], they have their own label and we run it through here. That kinda gets your call answered wherever you’re going. They sold over half a million catalog records [in 2014]. It’s a big deal.
Do you have people dedicated to the label specifically?
CB: Yeah, yeah we do have a couple. Brant Weil, he used to be a product manager for Muse and we met him that way.
CB: We have a dedicated person who does all the digital services, the retail services.
PM: Plus we have digital people on the management side but it’s all mixed together, and if a good deal shows up for digital collection services, ’cause Metallica does it, we’ll say “What about the Chili Peppers?” If it’s a good deal, if it’s a smart company and we wanna be in business with them, a deal’s a deal, it’s easy to do.
Do you still do short-term deals, like you did for the Steel Wheels tour or Madonna’s tour?
PM: I can’t think of who would call us to ask us. Even with Zeppelin and Page, we had a contract.
Are you still representing Jimmy?
PM: No, I fired him. He fired me once.
Well, the Zeppelin reissues came out sounding and looking great.
CB: Exactly, that was the triumph.
PM: Yes, [the live 2007 DVD and album] Celebration Day was all us, and those box sets were mostly [Cliff’s] and my idea. And they’re structured the way I wanted them structured. And [the concert recording] was stuck in limbo for five years until I showed up …
… And got them to stop arguing and get it done?
PM: Yeah, basically.
CB: We’re very proud of what we contributed as Jimmy’s management to the Led Zeppelin legacy.
Peter, just to sidetrack for a second, it must have been fascinating being married to a member of Parliament. (His British-born wife Louise was a Conservative MP from 2010-2012 and is currently an author and columnist.)
PM: Yeah, I was the most interesting plus-one in Westminster for two years. Everybody in England who is worth something has a music business story to tell. They were in a band, like a band …
CB: Knew a band..
PM: [British Prime Minister] David Cameron — big fan of Gillian Welch.
PM: I spent 15 minutes talking to David Cameron about Gillian Welch. He came to her show.
How do you make Metallica and the Chili Peppers, two of the biggest bands in the world — how do you make them bigger? What’s the next step with acts that have already achieved virtually everything they can possibly achieve?
PM: First, you try and make the best record you can make. So for us, we feel that each of our acts, whether it’s true or not, still feels that they still have their best record in them. [The acts will say] “You gotta help me find somebody to push on.” That’s the first thing. Then it’s clever ideas or clever staging. Listen, sometimes it misfires. The last Metallica movie was supposed to be the world’s best concert movie. It got a little bit sidetracked.
CB: It always comes from the artist. Our job is to create the best atmosphere for it, come up with some good ideas and all that. But it’s making sure that they’re engaged in the process all the time and excited that there are prospects ahead of them — that it’s not all behind them.
And you guys are still big believers in terrestrial radio and radio in general?
BOTH: Oh yeah, totally.
CB: It influences everything.
PM: Satellite radio too. Any radio.
CB: It’s so funny because the proof really is this: You can tell by how many tracks something is selling in iTunes which are the most popular. And it never ceases to amaze me — people always say “Anybody can download the whole album or get it on a subscription service, they have access to it all the time, so what life is there after the album actually comes out?” But it’s constantly proven that a year or more after an album comes out, you can start working a single from it to radio and all of a sudden track sales, which were almost zero, start rising just on the airplay of that track. And then it goes from radio to digital to this to that.
PM: And then the album starts moving a little bit.
CB: And there we are with [“Cigarette Daydreams”], the third single on Cage the Elephant‘s [2013 album Melophobia]. We were selling a hundred of that track a week, and now we’re selling 5-6,000 a week and we’re gonna wind up selling a lot more. And it’s always been out there — anybody could have bought it. It was radio that made the difference.
PM: And the album was dead in the water at like 100,000 [units].
CB: Radio makes these f—in’ things happen. So yeah, we’re big believers in it and we obviously put our money where our mouth is with our promotion department, because that means so much.
Speaking of services, what do you think the end game is for streaming? What are we working toward?
PM: We don’t know. Metallica has great success on streaming services because they’ve got a hundred albums out with thousands of tracks. But I can’t speak for Foals on streaming services. It gets better as you get bigger, but the economics are shitty unless you own your own masters, basically.
CB: If you want to know ultimately what would win for the music business? The answer is two words: hard bundling. It means every internet-connected device you pay for, a part of the price is for music. You don’t pay a subscription service, it’s just in the device itself. But we don’t know if that’s gonna happen.
So it becomes part of the data plan?
CB: No, when you buy it — every device is licensed, essentially, so you pay a little more [for the license] when you buy it. There’s 2 billion devices a year being sold now or something like that. If you sell 2 billion devices a year and they were all hard-bundled with music on them, and you paid a fee upfront for that but you never had to pay anything more? In every other country, you buy the [service with the] device. Just think what 2 billion times a certain number would be in terms of replacing the revenue that was lost from [plummeting CD sales].
And then it gets paid out based on the models they’re using now?
CB: No, they’re all terrible, that’s the problem. I’m not saying any of this is fair to the artist, ultimately.
PM: So if it’s ten bucks a device it’s $20 billion, how are they gonna sit there and go “This is Springsteen’s share” or the Stones’ share?
CB: Well, you do it on a democratic basis. The share is easy to figure out: It’s what people actually listen to. Every one of those devices can be monitored. It’s just like how ASCAP or BMI monitors stuff. You can certainly find an easy way to split it. You could replace a lot of revenue, you could build revenue. But getting the record labels to split it equitably with the artist, that’s not easy.
That’s not a solution I’ve heard anyone else propose for the U.S.
CB: Well, that’s because they’re stupid. I’m just saying look at where the numbers are. That’s where the f—ing numbers are.
What changes would you like to see at streaming services?
CB: I wouldn’t put the fault on the streaming services. They’re held hostage, in a sense, by the labels, by the majors. So they are limited in what they can do by what the majors tell them they can do. The majors are the ones that have to change.
Cliff, your first job was in the finance department of Mercury?
CB: Yes. And [Mercury Records cofounder] Irwin Steinberg, who just died, was the guy who gave me the job in 1973.
When you were doing A&R, you signed the Scorpions, Rush and Pere Ubu — who else?
CB: The Faith Band; Roadmaster, out of Indianapolis; the Suicide Commandos, from Minneapolis — they were a big influence on Husker Du. And the last artist I signed before I left Mercury were a band from Atlanta called The Brains. They put out that single “Money Changes Everything” [later a hit when covered by Cyndi Lauper]. The manager said “I want to use [producer] Steve Lillywhite” so I got him Steve Lillywhite and then I left the company, and I thought the version of “Money Changes Everything” is not as good as the garage version they did out of Atlanta. The album didn’t do anything — I liked it but I thought that they didn’t capture that single. And imagine my surprise last year when I was reading a review of Greil Marcus’s book, History of Rock & Roll in Ten Songs, that “Money Changes Everything” was one of those songs.
PM: Cliff did A&R twice. He left once and came back and then left again.
CB: Yeah. I was kind of on my own managing Pere Ubu and helping out [at Mercury], but I didn’t leave the building.
PM: Did they still pay you while you were managing Pere Ubu? But less money?
CB: How could they have paid me less, Peter? [Laughter] And if I had stayed there — they offered me a three-year deal at Mercury to stay instead of going to New York and working with Peter. And if I had stayed, I still would have made peanuts, but that’s not the reason I left Mercury. I left because something of Peter alluded to earlier, which is you want to be on the side of the angels. And when you’re at a label, back then and I think now, you’re torn. You go out and sign a band and you think they are the greatest and you work with them and find them a producer and choose the songs and do the sequencing and get the artwork and all that done. And then the head of marketing says, “We don’t have room to promote that this year.”
PM: Or ever!
CB: Or “we don’t really like it that much” or whatever. All these f—ing stories, they’re all true. So if you’re the guy at the label — like when I was working with Rush and they’re going on Caress of Steel [the unsuccessful follow-up to the hit album Fly by Night], “Ugh, what are we gonna do?” The label isn’t really doing anything with the album, and then I have to go to the band and say, “Ya know, we’re not really doing anything.” And then [Rush] delivers 2112 and the label is going “Oh God, a f—in’ concept album.” Again, nothing — and I have to be the guy inside Mercury who’s going, “Guys, this is f—in’ genius, you need to really get behind this.” And then with the band and the band’s management I have to be the guy saying…
PM: Calming them down.
CB: “Ya know, it’s not gonna happen from the label, you have to do it yourselves.” So that’s a terrible position to be in.
PM: And you’re being paid by the label!
CB: It’s very frustrating. I don’t like that feeling of going home at night knowing that I’m compromised, in the middle between the two. If you think the 2112 is a f—in’ milestone record —
PM: Especially for this particular act. Me, I never had that problem — I went right into management. I’m really bad with authority figures. Cliff is much better. I could always stick pins in my [former Columbia chief] Donnie Ienner doll.
CB: So, to be able to do management was great because you knew which side you were on.
The conversation continues in Part 2 right here.