Ryan Chisholm grew up watching his father, Kevin, manage Carlos Santana, who consistently toured six months out of the year. “My dad was constantly on the phone with their agent routing things and dealing with promoters,” Chisholm recalls. “His job was less about dealing with record labels, marketing and music videos.”
Chisholm followed in his father’s footsteps, entering the music industry as a manager in 2006. He currently works with Mike Posner, known for the club hit “I Took a Pill in Ibiza,” as well as Tai Verdes and Claire Rosinkranz, rising pop acts who leveraged success on TikTok into major-label deals. The difference between his father’s job responsibilities and his own is stark. “Today, we’re asking artists to do all this stuff outside of creating music — we’re asking them to be influencers, content creators, models,” says Chisholm. “Never have we had to ask artists to do so much and be so engaged on a daily basis.”
To help clients meet the demands of today’s fast-paced, social media-dominated landscape, where most artists are never off-cycle and there is constant pressure to generate growth on streaming services, “managers are basically being pushed to become content companies,” Chisholm says.
His experience is hardly unique. Over a dozen of his peers echoed the sentiment that managers are doing more than ever to support their acts. Even as the management role has expanded into new areas like TikTok marketing and the metaverse, however, most managers are still paid according to the traditional commission-based compensation model, which typically grants them a 15% or 20% cut of their artists’ earnings but leaves them with little long-term security.
Managers who spoke to Billboard said there is a pressing need to reevaluate this approach. “It’s not sustainable,” says one manager who requested anonymity to avoid upsetting his clients. “We’re at a real turning point with how present that is.”
Management has always involved a degree of professional peril. “They are the ones that take the most risk in the beginning; they’re often the first team member,” says Elena Awbrey (Kilo Kish, Empress Of). But at the same time, since the profession is “so high touch,” she says the ability of managers to expand their businesses is limited, often requiring them to put all their eggs in a few baskets.
This situation is made more precarious because managers are “the easiest person to fire,” according to Monee Perry, a veteran of Roc Nation and RCA who is hoping to rethink traditional management models with her company 4th Ave Collective. “Management contracts are notoriously easy to get out of,” another manager adds. Typically, managers are entitled to some type of payout if they part ways with their artists, but it takes place over a limited time period, and “even if you have the most aggressive sunset clause on the planet, collecting is not easy,” a second manager says. “We can be building houses with the artist and [they] can say, ‘Get the fuck out of my house.’ “
Labels used to play more of a role in constructing that house, but now, “they’re not looking to do anything from the ground up,” says Kirk Harding, who left a major-label career to found Bad Habit, which manages Burna Boy and Dora Jar, among others. As a result, “you’re doing the bulk of artist development, something labels used to do but no longer do because they don’t have the stomach or the patience,” says Chris Anokute, who helps guide the career of singer-songwriter Muni Long.
Those interviewed agreed that these additional responsibilities warrant a reevaluation of the artist-manager relationship. They envision an alliance similar to a business partnership. “Management should get a piece of the pie,” says Ty Baisden (Brent Faiyaz).
“Everyone knows the manager is so disposable,” adds Brandon Farmer (Latto). Forming some sort of partnership “gives the manager some security, a steadier place in the business overall.” In an ideal situation, several managers envision having some sort of equity in projects they work on with their artists. “Commission is temporary,” says lawyer Karl Fowlkes, who is partners with rising rapper Blxst and manager Vic Burnett in the company EVGLE. “Equity is forever.”
That said, managers are often wary of voicing this sentiment to their acts and challenging an industry standard. “Everyone is so scared of getting canned that they won’t speak up,” says another manager who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Nonmusic ventures can offer opportunities to break out of the commission-based model. Chisholm, for example, is partnering with Posner to develop a TV pilot. “Some of the more progressive artists, if they really want to grow their business, they’re furthering their relationship beyond the traditional commission,” says Max Gousse (Saweetie). “Some artists have partnered with managers on certain revenue streams, investing in clothing lines and liquor companies.” There’s no sunset clause on this type of collaboration.
In addition, “you’re starting to see a lot of businesses on the management side become more vertically integrated” by also offering label and publishing services, adds Baisden, whose company Colture is set up in this way. Similarly, EVGLE spans management, publishing, label services and venture capital investment and owns Blxst’s recording and publishing rights. Even if Burnett’s management arrangement were to end, he would still maintain ownership in the company.
Some managers remain reluctant to scrap the traditional representation model, however. “What I can’t get past is that if we decide to become the label and the management company, you’re robbing the artist of another team,” Harding adds. “Not only can you be accused of making a label decision with your management hat on or vice versa, there is also a bank of ideas from [the label] team that you’re taking away [from an artist].”
But it’s likely that more nontraditional models will emerge. “The commission system is a good basis for a relationship, but with some artists, it’s interesting to try to build a new kind of business together,” says Jorge Ferradas (Camilo, Evaluna). “Just respect that, without the artist, this [effort] is impossible. We are like a train, and the first car in the train is always the artist.”