In 1986, a 22-year-old Jonathan Kessler — fresh from graduating from the business school at the University of Pennsylvania — began working for Depeche Mode as an accountant during the British band's Black Celebration tour. Over the next seven years, as the group went from strength to strength, releasing a string of classic albums along the way, Kessler's responsibilities steadily grew until in 1994 the New York-born executive, still aged under 30, became Depeche Mode's first ever official manager.
It's a position that he continues to hold to this day, having steered the band to over 100 million record sales and cementing Depeche Mode's status as one of the biggest touring acts in the world. This year the group, numbering Dave Gahan, Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher, released its 14th studio album, Spirit, and began its record-breaking Global Spirit Tour. Having sold out stadium and arena dates around the world, including four nights at Los Angeles' Hollywood Bowl, 2018 sees the tour move onto South America.
"This is a band that continues to grow and have huge appeal internationally," the publicity-shy Kessler — who has also worked with Sting, Neil Young, Tracy Chapman, Rod Stewart and The Weeknd — tells Billboard ahead of being honored at the Music Managers Forum and Featured Artist Coalition's sixth annual Artist & Manager Awards, held tonight (Nov. 14) in London.
Billboard: Going back to the start of your association with Depeche Mode, how did you make the leap from tour accountant to band manager?
Jonathan Kessler: I came out of business school and almost fell into the music business. It was not really my driving passion then. I started to work with Depeche purely as a tour accountant and as I started to do more and more with them my role increased. I would ask, 'Who's taking care of this? Or who's taking care of liability insurance?' Often no one was, so I started taking care of it. [Becoming manager] was the obvious evolution really. It was just a question of when could I bring up the M word. Because they were self-managed and they prided themselves on that — but they weren't really. So, it just was a discussion between us to say, 'This is what I'm doing. Let's call it what it is and formalize that relationship.' Obviously, through the years a certain level of trust had grown between us. That doesn't appear right away. I remember when I first started to work them they were a very insular band. They were understandably scared of foreigners and strangers – as is true of many bands in their infancy.
Has your foregrounding in business been an important factor in helping grow them into one of the world's biggest touring acts?
Definitely. 35 years ago, the world of touring was like the Wild West. There were very loose deals in place with promoters, which were settled on the night of the show. A lot of my role then was trying to figure out what was what. Who was taking what and were the promoters that we were doing business with taking advantage? That's changed quite a bit in today's day and age. It's become a lot more corporate. A lot more sanitized and properly run financially, to a certain extent.
What do you regard as being key to Depeche Mode's rise to stardom and lasting popularity?
At the start, it was the creativity of the band. The music that they were creating was forging new ground. One thing as a band that we are very strict at maintaining to this day is being true to ourselves and doing what we want to do. I kept that going and as we progressed together I gave them the space to just focus on the music, while I take care of everything else around them. In a band that stays together that long and keeps developing often differences between members occur. There's many stories of bands not getting along and not being able to settle those differences. And so, like in any dysfunctional family, those things have to be mediated. I think I've played a large role in helping that flow through.
As a manager, how do you help overcome those differences and ensure the group stays together?
When the differences are meaningful and pertain to important things artistically they should be expressed and confronted head on. That friction is what makes a band creative, keeps them on edge and keeps them developing and looking to do new things. Yet, often some of the differences or challenges that occur between them aren't that meaningful and get blown out of proportion. One needs to play those down and allow the ones that are serious to live and be attacked. You can't sweep everything under the rug. Eventually it is going to explode and combust. So that was really a role where I could step in and try and broker to allow things that were meaningful to play out. That continues to be the case.
The band's past problems with drug and alcohol abuse has been well-documented, particularly Dave Gahan's struggles with heroin addiction in the mid-1990s. Did you fear for their future during that time?
Those are just life problems. I refer to them now as the experimental years. I think that's a nice way of putting it. They were their experimental years and thank God that they lived through them and made it… As with any dysfunctional family, it has its moments of difficulties and challenges. But in essence [all three members] have a great relationship. There's a huge amount of respect, love and kinship between them. When you spend that much time together in a high-pressure cooker environment obviously things will get tense and difficult at times. It's inevitable. The challenge is just don't let it overflow, right?
The Global Spirit tour looks set to be the band's biggest ever. How has the band continued to grow its live business when so many of their peers from the 1980s have faded?
The live show itself is just fantastic. Dave is really one of the best frontmen and he and Martin play off each other wonderfully. The fan base is very dedicated. It takes ownership of the band, stays very loyal and therefore comes back. We are now seeing the second generation of fan's children [coming to shows]. There was also a lot of hard work done in our early days of touring in different territories. In the early days, we went to the Eastern European territories a lot and to this day that's one of the biggest markets for us. We played Berlin on the East side when the wall was up. We often played countries often like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia when it was still Yugoslavia. And in those markets, we now have an incredibly fruitful touring business. This is a band that continues to grow and have huge appeal internationally.
You rarely give interviews and have continually remained behind the scenes throughout your management career. Is that through personal choice?
It's definitely a conscious decision. It's not at all a reflection of my character. I'm actually quite flamboyant. But I do think that it really is about the band. I have nothing but admiration for their tenacity, perseverance and above all their creativity and artistic ability. The songs that they write, the music they create and their tenacity to keep going at it is formidable. They deserve the attention as they're the ones on the stage. It's their names on the marquee — and it always should be. Not mine. I'm just there to push it forward and help them facilitate what they want to do.
Spirit has received some of the band's best reviews in years. Were you and the band pleasantly surprised by the critical and commercial success of the record?
The nice thing that has happened along this route is that we have continued to go up at a 45-degree angle. Recently we have taken a leap off that 45 degrees and taken a higher rise up. What's also nice to see is that the band is being recognized for being pioneers in the synthesizer and remix world. Even in the U.K. press, which is perhaps the hardest barometer, they are receiving their deserved credit finally. But it really does stem from staying true to what we do and not trying to appeal to the trends of today.
Do you have a favorite album or period in the band's history?
Personally, no. I just think it's a nice evolution. I recently saw Billboard listed the top 20 hits and I was shocked by how many there were. I guess when you're in it every day and in the mud and the thick of it, you sometimes don't quite realize the big body of work they have created. It's hit after hit after hit.
Given the complexities of the modern music business, do you think that the role of a music manager is more important than ever today?
I think it has become more elevated, yes. You have to be more of a quarterback yourself, as opposed to the record company or the promoter. We have a fantastic partnership with Sony. A fantastic partnership with Live Nation and Sony/ATV Music Publishing. But you still have to develop your own opportunities. It's a busier, louder, noisier world today than it was 30 odd years ago and you have to try to cut through the clutter of everything that's out there. One of the biggest challenges we have is just how do we let people know that we are releasing a new record and are still touring.
Following the success of Spirit, have thoughts already turned to the next album?
Right now, we're just focused on touring and we have a hell of a lot of touring still to do. We have weeks of touring in Europe plus another month of touring in South America, plus more to come. So that's pretty grueling and taxing. The band plays for over two hours every night. It's never a dialed-in performance, so that's where all the energy goes right now.
This year saw Depeche Mode celebrate their 37th year together. Can you envisage them reaching them reaching their 50th anniversary?
I don't see why not. They're in their mid-fifties and young and healthy. We'll see. They never say. 'We're going to go on [till a certain date]'. It's always a question of, 'Let's just see what happens and not plan for the future.' And inevitably Dave or Martin will send the other a piece of music, they get smitten by it and it all starts again.