KILLING IS MY BUSINESS: Band Managers Ryan Downey & Mark Vieira
Think of a band manager as the “mom” of a band. While they’re not necessarily involved in the music-making, they oversee many of the behind-the-scenes logistics that make it possible. As you’ll read below, there’s a whole lot of people and decisions swirling around even a young band, so it pays to have someone that knows what he or she is doing helping to steer the ship. Not all managers know what they’re doing; fewer have scruples enough to do it well. Managers Ryan Downey (Superhero Artist Management) and Mark Vieira (Good Fight Entertainment) have massloads of both knowledge AND scruples. Here’s what they had to say when I interrogated them for the Killing Is My Business column in Decibel issue #118 (Godflesh cover).
On a basic level, what services do you offer your management clients?
Mark Vieira: Ultimately a manager should have a pretty good idea of what’s going on with all aspects of the band. At the end of the day, it’s the band’s job to make music, perform, etc. I do whatever is needed to facilitate that and remove as many distractions as needed. I shop bands for record deals, whether they are actual recording contracts or licensing deals. If a band doesn’t have an agent, I help to find the right agent for the band. Once an agent is in place, I work closely with the agent to get the band on support tours, and to get solid support for the band’s tours.
I’ll work with the label when it comes to the set up of the album, and figure out the best marketing, press and radio (where it’s necessary) plans for the particular band. For instance, a really great place to premier a Defeater song may not be the best outlet to debut a 1349 track.
I book studio time for acts in some cases, or help find the best recording/mixing/mastering scenario. Sometimes that’s in conjunction with a label; other times, it’s on our own. Merchandise is another big one; some bands are very hands-on with their merch, and artwork in general; others aren’t. I’ll find artists/graphic designers when needed. I set up and oversee web stores, as well as retail merch deals, be sure there are new designs coming on a regular basis, whether we’re providing, or the merch company is and we’re approving.
From a touring perspective, I’ll work with artists and merch companies on that angle. I’ll help a band find a crew if they need one (some bands, the crew is the first part of the team they end up with). Depending on the band and the type of tour, I’ll arrange transportation, or even find a vehicle for the band to buy.
Is there such thing as a “typical day” in the life of a manager?
Ryan Downey: People who are far outside the music industry will often ask me a series of questions that goes like this: “So, you manage bands. Does that mean you book their shows?” No, that’s the booking agent. “Okay. So you put out their CDs?” No, that’s the record label. “Hmm. So you negotiate their contracts?” Well, I’m pretty involved in that, but technically, that’s the attorney. “Okay, okay, so you go on tour with them and look after things on the road.” No, that’s the tour manager. “Sooooo…you get them interviews?” No, that’s the publicist. “SO WHAT DO YOU DO?!”
What do I do? Everything else. Plus, I make sure all of the above folks are working together and working effectively. The workflow and tasks involved are so varied that the easiest thing to do seems like a case study. Here’s a breakdown of some of the management related tasks I worked on yesterday:
-Finalized a recording schedule for a producer
-Sent notes back and forth on a remix project one of my guys is doing
-Said “thanks but no thanks” to a pitch from a video director
-Worked on logistics for the Kerrang! Awards
-Established a relationship with an A&R guy from PledgeMusic
-Made a band aware of a radio campaign we’ll be starting soon
-Spoke with an attorney about a lawsuit that will soon be filed on behalf of two of my bands
-Registered two artists with a performing rights organization
-Solicited an offer for a South African tour for one of my bands
-Sent back some comments on Soundgarden from one of my guys for a PureVolume article
-Sent back notes on a rough cut of a music video
-Coordinated promo for a band’s performance at Metal Hammer’s Golden Gods
-Worked on social security forms, tax waivers, personnel lists and other logistics for an upcoming European tour
-Said thanks to Sirius for playing the heck out of three of my bands right now
-Took care of some overdue invoices for CD tour stock purchases
-Told an agent that one of my bands isn’t interested in a meet and greet opportunity
-Nudged a publicist to send over some e-mail interviews that are coming for one of my guys
-Dialed in a tour budget
-Thanked an Australian publicist
-Worked on finishing some trademark work for one of my bands
-Got a new song over to a publishing company
-Discussed potential budgets/fees for a sync/licensing opportunity
-Sent an invoice on behalf of one of my producers
-Approved promo rollout for a forthcoming album release
-Discussed and reviewed proposals for a promotion with a major clothing brand
-Worked on logistics for an upcoming Canadian festival appearance
-Worked on logistics and promo for two upcoming CreativeLive classes
…And a few other things I’m forgetting!
Do you work closely with a band’s business manager, attorney, publicist, promoters, tour managers, etc. or are those jobs very much distinct?
Mark: All of those jobs are very distinct. However, a manager’s job is to act as a go-between, middleman, sometimes moderator, between all of those listed and the band. Add in label staff and booking agent, as well. The ideal situation is that all information running to and from a band is going through me. That’s not to say a band is not going to communicate directly with a lot of those people, but as I mentioned above, if a band, or member of a band, is better served not having to worry about other aspects of the business, then I handle it. And if that band/artist does want to be involved, I need to provide as much guidance and advice as possible.
How does your role change when you’re dealing with a producer client vs. a band client?
Ryan: The most obvious difference is that a producer is one person, which means there’s only one person I really need to communicate with and make decisions with. Now with that being said, I believe most bands function better with one or two people calling the shots, or at the very least, one or two people acting as a mouthpiece for the band. Bands who insist on running as a full democracy, or worse, want to have a consensus on something before taking action, have been the least efficient in my opinion. Zeuss, one of the producers I work with, actually coined the term “BandBoss,” which I love. In most band settings, you can ask “Who’s the BandBoss?” and get a pretty quick answer.
Now this doesn’t have to be a Nine Inch Nails or Megadeth type of arrangement. Nobody has to be “over” somebody else necessarily; everyone has different things he is better at than other people in the band. The bass player may be the best at social media promotion; maybe the drummer is mechanically minded and can tune up the van. Then you’ve got a guitar player whose mom is a travel agent; let that person book all the travel, etc.
A lot of the same things apply with producers and bands — finding opportunities, discussing opportunities, negotiating, contracts, invoicing, scheduling. And often with a producer, I’m working with the management, label people and band members who are working on a given project, which is often a job unto itself.
How valuable are industry connections to a manager?
Mark: Invaluable. I realize it sounds cheesy, and probably conjures images of schmoozing on the golf course, but I can’t emphasize enough how important relationships are. A big part of the reason I moved to LA eight years ago was because I was working with a band signed to an LA-based label, who had an agent, etc. out here. I was constantly speaking with people here, so figured I’d get more done in the same city. I’m certainly not saying you need to live here, or in NYC, but you definitely need to be on people’s radars.
If I could go back in time and tell younger me to do one thing differently, I’d say “Go to SXSW. Go to LA and meet with people at least once a year. When you go to NYC for shows, stay in town for another day or two and meet some new people: other managers, agents, label, publishers, press. Go with one of your bands to a European festival and meet the people putting on the festival and the EU contingent.” I feel it’s human nature to want to work more with people you know and are friendly with. As far as making them goes, ask for an introduction from a mutual acquaintance. Hell, even a cold call or e-mail can work. A cup of coffee or a beer can go a long way.
You hear it all the time – “You don’t find a manager, a manager finds you.” How do you discover the bands you go on to manage?
Mark: There have been a couple of occasions when bands have contacted me, and I’ve liked the band, and it’s gone from there. More often than not, though, it’s been through recommendations. A lot of the time, an agent or label will pick up an act before there’s a manager in place, and they’ll contact some people they like working with, or who they feel suits the band. Other times, other managers will say “Hey, so and so just opened for one of my bands, and they’re looking for management. You may be into it.”
I also check out a lot of new music, whether it’s via a label sending out promos, or just seeing a band on a news site. If I like a band, I’ll start following them and keeping tabs. On a few occasions, I’ve started working with bands because I’d seen their name pop up a bunch, and liked what I’d heard and pursued them.
What factors do you look at when you’re deciding whether or not to take on a new client?
Ryan: First and foremost: do I like their work? Can I stand behind it without embarrassment or bashfulness? I’ve said “Yes” to projects where that isn’t the case, and eventually paid the price for it in some fashion. Anyone in this business who says they haven’t made that mistake is probably lying. But the vast majority of bands and producers I’ve worked with, I’ve truly loved their work. It’s even better when I love the folks involved. My management career started with bands who were all friends of mine prior to being a manager: Bleeding Through, Throwdown, Zao, Demon Hunter, Tiger Army. A couple of years ago, I started working with The Dillinger Escape Plan, who my band toured with in 1999.
Those organic relationships are wonderful. Zeuss had produced a couple of records for Throwdown before we worked together in a management capacity. I have, of course, sought out talent who are strangers. The most important questions are: are they smart? Are they dedicated to the band? Have they figured out a bunch on their own and gotten themselves a certain distance? Are they realistic about the landscape, the climate, and where they fit in?
A manager should be a partner, working as hard (if not harder) as the hardest working people in the band. A manager is not someone who comes along and does everything while you just show up and play. I want partners, not parasites.
One lesson I’ve learned: when a band decides to go part time, abandon ship! I’ve had some artists who became more demanding even as they became less active. There are few things less savory in business than having a client who takes up over 50% of your time while contributing about 10% of your overall income, year after year.
Managers, when you get that “part-time,” “hiatus,” etc. phone call, TELL THEM TO CALL YOU BACK WHEN THEY ARE READY TO BE FULL-TIME AGAIN. Get the fuck out, or you may be dragged down with them as they fade from view.
What kind of expectations do you set for a band when you take one on?
Mark: That’s really a case-by-case basis type thing. I want a band to become “successful,” based on what their definition of that is. A ceiling for a modern metalcore type band is going to be different from that of a black metal band. There’s going to be drastically different opportunities available for some types of bands than others, just based on genre. So ultimately, I want to help that particular band reach their particular goal, whatever it may be. I don’t think it’s right to have a “you’re going to gross X dollars, and sell 25,000 records, and average 450 tickets a show this year,” type bar set. If I have one expectation, it’s that the bands make awesome fucking albums.
When Superhero takes on a band that’s been around for a while, which tasks do you take on that the band might have handled itself previously?
Ryan: The Dillinger Escape Plan is probably the only seasoned band I’ve taken on. The other more experienced bands I work with, I’ve been with a long time. Demon Hunter, for example, I’ve been with since album two and they are on album seven. Ben Weinman is the perfect example of a partner in this thing — he’s very DIY, very business savvy, has plenty of his own relationships. I’ve been able to alleviate much of his workload, which in turn frees him up to focus more on the music and less on the business, and to better pursue other projects outside TDEP both professional and personal.
How involved is Superhero in the creative directions that your bands (and producers) take?
Ryan: It depends on the artist. All of them kick ideas around with me; occasionally I’ll suggest something and they will take it and run with it. But for the most part, I’m careful to choose bands that don’t need creative input from a manager. I mean nobody is going to tell Greg Puciato how to sing, nor should they. I’ve been lucky to avoid a lot of career-obsessed bands, bands who waste a bunch of time trying to construct albums and touring cycles that are based to appeal to this or that crowd and get them to (my least favorite, most overused phrase ever) “the next level.”
Make art for the right reasons, then we’ll figure the rest out. That’s my philosophy. Nothing wrong with making a living from music, even a great living, we all want to do that. But that can’t be the priority. It MUST be the art.
Fred Durst was on the top of the world there for a second. HR from Bad Brains was said to be homeless at one point. Which guy has the better legacy, the bigger credibility, and the most lasting impact on other musicians and culture? One guy slept with Britney Spears, made cameos in Ben Stiller movies and destroyed Woodstock. The other one changed the fucking face of rock, while transporting listeners on a spiritual trip. To each his own, but I chose my team a long time ago.
What’s the standard financial deal like with the acts you represent? What revenue streams are you involved in – and which ones do you not touch?
Mark: This is a bit of a sticky topic. Obviously, sources of revenue are changing pretty rapidly in the music business as traditional physical sales fall, and everyone from artists to labels to managers are trying to find new sources and trying to maximize what they can. The “standard” deal is usually 15%, although I do know of managers who take anywhere from 10-20%. My personal philosophy is that with the way things are changing, we can’t have a “gold standard” set of rules. There needs to be some flexibility, on all sides: bands have to be willing to give up some income they maybe wouldn’t have in the past (merch rights to a label for instance), but the labels and managers also have to be aware that, at some point, something is going to have to give, and we’re going to have to work out deals that work for our specific artists.
Ryan: This is definitely a touchy and controversial area. I’m appalled when I hear about managers who take 20% of gross, then charge bands for expenses (travel, etc.) on top of that. I don’t see how that makes any sense, even from a selfish point of view. I believe in leaving money on the table now in order to make more money later. Fleecing a band for all their money, putting yourself in a position where you make significantly more than any one guy? Why would you do that? Invest your time, energy and work into a band and you will be repaid dividends you won’t get ripping them off.
All of my deals vary, but for the most part, they work like this: 15% of gross from guarantees, 15% of net from merchandise, 15% of royalties, etc. When an album advance comes in, I only commission from the amount the band puts in their pockets for living expenses. I will subtract the actual hard costs of recording before calculating my fee. Generally, on international tours, I’ll subtract the cost of airfare from the guarantees before commissioning. There are plenty of times where I’ll tell a band “don’t pay us a merch cut” when a tour is going to help them grow but has low profit margins.
Management commissions cover all of the work I do when a band is between tours. It also pays for overhead like office space, Internet, iPhones, and employees both full-time and part time. That’s one thing some band people fail to take into consideration. I’m not just some dude taking some money from them and buying new clothes with it.
Does the financial deal change if you’re dealing with a better-known band vs. a baby band?
Mark: A financial deal, for me personally, would be more situational per band; it would have less to do with the size of the band and more to do with what make sense between that band and myself. I’m always looking for bands that are going to have careers and are in it for the long haul (or who’ve been in it for the long haul). So there are times with baby bands where you need to think to yourself, “If I commission at our agreed-upon rate, these guys may not be able to tour again this year.” I want to grow with the band, so I’ll probably work out some kind of reduction, in order to keep that baby band working, and growing, so that in eight years, we’re all making money. Let’s do that then.
Are label and/or publishing deals always part of the plan, or do you ever advise your bands to release and publish their music themselves?
Ryan: It’s definitely a case-by-case decision. I’ve got some established acts who are out of their deals or nearing the conclusion of their deals and we are looking at all options, including joint ventures (such as the one TDEP did with Sumerian in North America and BMG worldwide for our Party Smasher Inc. label), artist services/distribution deals…
Mark: I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with publishing deals, although I know a lot of people hate them. I feel if someone is really going to work to place a band’s songs and get a band paid (along with themselves) and garner more exposure, as opposed to sitting on the material, it’s a win-win. That said, there is, not surprisingly, not a HUGE demand for black metal, grind or hardcore songs in films and primetime television series. If there’s a good, fair offer for a band, which makes sense for that particular band, I don’t have an issue with it.
As for labels, there have been two circumstances in the past several years where I’ve suggested artists consider self-releasing albums. In both cases, they were somewhat established bands, with several releases on other labels, so they had some sort of fan base, touring history, etc. That said, I still believe that labels are a very important piece of the puzzle, especially for “baby bands” or developing acts. I definitely do not subscribe to the “We don’t need labels any more!!” philosophy you hear quite a bit. While even a bigger, well-established label may not be able to get a very young band’s music into a national retailer, the marketing they can provide is crucial. Your chances of getting a support slot on a tour are definitely increased if you have a label behind you, who are going to help promote and market the tour, thus creating more awareness for the tour and, hopefully, selling more tickets.
Most bands just don’t have the ability, experience or time to do a really solid self release. So many of the self-release scenarios we’re seeing are really joint venture deals with labels or distributors, or situations where they’ve brought in a label or distributor to perform label services. That’s what I really feel the music business is pushing toward; progressive, non-traditional label deals, as opposed to a straight self release. But again, I’m not opposed to the self-release model, if it makes sense for a particular band and their situation.
Some managers will stipulate that they keep getting paid on record sales released after their relationship with a band has ended, if the record was made while they were still the manager. What’s your philosophy on that kind of clause?
Mark: The reality here is, with sales declining, we’re going to see fewer and fewer copies of a particular title continuing to sell. We’re looking at a lion’s share of sales of a record coming in the first few months of its release. I’ve heard “two to three months,” thrown around as the life cycle of a release. Catalog sales, especially for newer/younger bands, aren’t going to be even comparative to the catalog sales we see from Guns N Roses, Metallica and so on. To answer the actual question: if you’re fortunate enough to be involved with a situation which produces a new Reign in Blood or Appetite for Destruction, which will sell a ton of copies annually for years to come, I don’t see an issue with a manager looking to keep seeing royalties from that. There’s a ton of effort that goes into a record from all parts of a band’s “team.”
You must get unsolicited pitches from all sorts of different people. Can you recount a ridiculous idea someone pitched to one of your bands, and how you dealt with it?
Ryan: During the height of Bleeding Through’s popularity, as they toured two records in a row with close to 300,000 sales between them in North America, I got a lot of ridiculous and downright offensive “ideas” thrown my way for Marta, the band’s keyboard player. She had no problem with getting dolled up for a photo shoot and generally looking attractive; not any more so than guys in bands who work out and give their “smoldering” look to the camera. She’s also very intelligent, motivated, hardworking and discerning. Since she first joined Bleeding Through, I’ve seen a lot more women who’ve come after her in heavy music go for broke by taking on a lot of the type of stuff we always turned down. Aside from that, the worst thing about unsolicited pitches? THE ATTACHMENTS. For the love of God, it’s 2014, please just send me a link where I can download your shit. I don’t want a 55MB attachment from you. EVER.
Can you give an anecdote of a situation you had to defuse as a manager that you never could have expected you’d be a part of?
Mark: There’s the kind of typical/run of the mill intra-band squabbles, where you have to play mediator or referee. I’ve been part of drug interventions. I’ve also learned far more about criminal law than I probably ever suspected I would. I’ve also had to grab gear and load out of venues, quickly, while riots broke out on several occasions. Not something I expected going in.
At what point in a band’s career does it make sense to get a manager?
Mark: There isn’t a smoking gun answer here. Some successful bands have never had managers. It really depends on a band’s specific goal(s). You want to tour, full-time, get a record deal and grow the band into a full time business? Then it’s probably best to have a manager when your duties as musician and your duties as manager/accountant/booking agent/travel agent start to conflict.
I do, however, see a lot of younger bands looking for management very quickly, which I don’t think is a good thing. It’s now much easier to get labels’ attention via internet presence than it was, say, ten years ago when you mailed in a CD demo, and hoped when you opened for “Touring Band X” in your home town, “Touring Band X” would go back to their label and say “The local band in OKC really kicked ass. They said they sent in their demo, you should really check them out!”
Bands are getting signed earlier, with less and less experience touring, recording, self releasing records, or just being a band in general, and don’t have their “sea legs.” As a result, agents and managers are jumping on bands that much quicker. This is creating a “Throw it against the wall and see what sticks” type mentality in a lot of pockets of “underground music;” that’s an attitude that at one time was somewhat reserved for A&R at major labels. There have definitely been circumstances, however, where I’ve heard a band I really liked, who I thought weren’t really ready for management, but I’ve gotten involved with because I didn’t want to see them end up in a bad situation with a label, agent or other manager.
There are also labels out there who are “anti-manager,” which I can understand to some extent; there’s lots of stereotypes about managers, and misconceptions about what it is we do, and those may not be without some justification or reasoning behind it. On one hand, a label may think it’s better to deal directly with the band about their art and avoid a third party with “ulterior (financial) motives.” On the other hand, a label’s motives aren’t necessarily in the best interest of a band at all times, either. I believe in a “checks and balances” type system.
Ryan: Build your band, generate a following, and the managers will come looking for you. Educate yourself about how to do all the things you’d expect a manager to do and do them to the best of your ability until you literally can’t do them anymore. Don’t look at a prospective manager (or agent, or label) based on their roster. Nobody has a magic wand; if Paul McGuinness had the blueprint for U2 in his filing cabinet, we’d have 100 more U2s. Right?
Do you think every band needs a manager? What should a young band keep in mind when they’re considering looking for management?
Ryan: Absolutely not! Unfortunately, there are so many managers, “fanagers,” “bandagers” and “companies” overcrowding the heavy music genre, there aren’t many opportunities for bands to truly develop before someone snatches them up. Often, I’ll hear about a band and then realize they have a social media presence, merch store, manager, booking agent, attorney — but they don’t have any fans yet, let alone any songs that are worth a shit. We’ve sold over 500,000 albums with Demon Hunter, toured around the world, etc. They were already on album two before they had a manager.
For every huge, cool band a manager will take credit for when you meet them, there are several more who never made it. You win some, you lose some. Ask the manager to tell you about two or three of their bands who went nowhere. Ask them to tell you what they think went wrong and what they learned from the experience.
Is this person articulate? Respected? Trustworthy? Of good character? Does she or he understand what you’re trying to do and does this person pay attention and TRULY LISTEN to the things you have to say? Those are the things you should be looking at. The “big” bands come and go for any manager.
Are there situations where hiring your inexperienced but enthusiastic pal who is willing to work hard as your manager can pay off?
Mark: Absolutely. That’s how I started off. A lot of people I know in this line of work started as a “friendager” or a “fanager.” Or, your buddies’ band was touring and you said “Hey, I’ll come along and help carry gear and sell merch.” Next thing you know you’re a tour manager. Lots of managers come from that angle, as well. But, back to the original question, if you’ve got a friend who’s organized, hardworking, believes in the band, and wants to help out, it can certainly pay off.
Do you find there are certain backgrounds or personality types that make for better managers?
Ryan: It depends on the goals, I guess. I mean, there are plenty of Type A, unscrupulous, ladder-climbing sharks who manage bands and are “good” at it from a certain perspective. But if you ask me, the “better” managers are the people who are capable of a vast amount of empathy, who can speak softly but carry a big stick, and who will learn from others, no matter how far they’ve climbed the ladder. If you want respect, GIVE respect. People forget that all the damn time.
********Ryan Downey busts balls for the Dillinger Escape Plan, Demon Hunter, Bleeding Through, The Atlas Moth and more for Superhero Artist Management. When not fighting musical crime, he writes freelance, chats with movie stars and interviews the occasional incarcerated bodybuilding ex-Christian metalcore vocalist. Visit him at superherohq.com or ryanjdowney.com.
Mark Vieira steers the ship for Defeater, 1349, Black Tusk, Ringworm, Early Graves, Silver Snakes and singer-songwriter Joe Fletcher at Good Fight Entertainment. Visit him at work at goodfightentertainment.com.