Let’s unpack the most common 5 Artist Management Myths that keep musicians playing small in their careers. As a veteran music career coach, I’ve found far too many musicians are misinformed about what artist management is, how it works, and whether or not they’re ready for it.
So to help, I put together this short guide to clarify the confusion and to explain why asking “How can I get artist management?” is almost always the wrong question (and what to ask instead).
Let’s bust the big 5 artist management myths and get to the truth about what you actually need to succeed in music.
Myth #1: Music career success happens like this:
if you’re talented and practice hard, you’ll win a big competition and get a manager and be all set.
Winning a competition doesn’t guarantee a career. Planning your future around winning a competition is like basing your financial stability on winning the lottery. Not a good idea.
Myth #2: With an artist manager, you’ll have enough concerts that you won’t need a day job.
There’s a small segment of ‘celebrity’ musicians who only tour, but most artists with management have—and need to have—additional income streams.
Many artists with management have teaching positions, residencies, and also perform with various ensembles. The vast majority of professional musicians have multiple income streams. There’s no shame in this, so unless you have a trust fund, set your aspirations accordingly.
Myth #3: With an artist manager taking care of everything, you’re free to practice and perform . . .
A manager will handle all the business aspects of your career, the details of publicity, contracts, and finances, leaving you free to focus on your artistry.
It’s a nice fantasy: that an artist manager is a magic bullet. But the truth is even with a whole management team working for you, you still need to be the one in charge.
You need to understand how the business works, what you’re signing and why. And you need to manage your finances so you can direct and advance your own projects. That’s part of what it means to be a pro.
Myth #4: Finding a manager is a straightforward process.
You simply send your publicity materials in with a letter requesting management, and eventually someone signs you on, and bingo, you become a success.
Musicians often prepare elaborate promotional kits and send them to all the artist management companies listed in the Musical America directory. DO NOT DO THIS!
Every week these management companies receive hundreds of email inquiries and stacks of unsolicited promo kits from musicians requesting representation.
The artist managers DO NOT read or listen to this material. Why? They don’t have time. The management companies have their hands more than full trying to book the artists already on their rosters.
So, without a personal contact to an artist manager, or the specific knowledge that the artist manager is looking for, let’s say an up-and-coming solo harpist (if that’s what you are), you’re simply wasting time and money sending material that will only be discarded.
The Bottom Line
Managers sign artist to their rosters only when they a) love your performances, b) feel that they’ll have a good working relationship with you, and c) have room on their roster for you. Beyond these qualifications, managers only sign artists who can also earn them a profit.
No matter how much an artist manager loves music and loves working with musicians (and they DO!), they are still in business. And in order to stay in business they must be able to earn an income.
How the money works
Classical managers take a standard commission rate of 20%. So, for every concert you play, they get 20% of the fee you earn. For jazz and other genres, the commission is 10-15%.
In addition, you are billed for your share of the necessary expenses, which include the management company’s advertising, brochures, phone charges, and postage. Plus the manager’s travel expenses to booking conferences and all of the artist’s promotional materials.
The artist’s bill, which can be sizable, is invoiced on a monthly or quarterly basis. And typically, managers have their artists sign initial contracts of 2-3 years, with a yearly renewal, as long as both parties want to continue.
Keep in mind, with a manager there’s no guarantee that you’ll get a certain number of bookings or that you’ll make a certain amount of money. So, artists need to think carefully about what they can actually afford when it comes to management. Consider your expectations and adjust them as needed.
Take the Quiz: Are you ready for Artist Management?
Answer these 3 quick questions:
1. How many paid performances did you give last season?
2. What’s the total revenue you earned on the performances? Note: stick to the types of performances that a manager would book. So, no regular orchestral, choral, or church gigs.
3. Multiply that total by .20 to calculate what 20% of your performance revenue is. Then ask yourself, would a reputable manager be interested in signing you to earn that much for the year? In other words, have you generated enough work to be of interest to a legitimate artist manager?
Truth Bomb: Having NO manager is far better than having the WRONG manager.
For the record, the field of artist managers is full of terrific professionals and great people. But like any profession, there are some bad apples.
Beware: If you receive an email from an artist management firm expressing interest in representing you, and if they have never heard you perform live, nor have they met you, then I would be VERY skeptical about the offer.
Legitimate artist managers do NOT offer places on their rosters to musicians they haven’t met in person and haven’t heard perform live.
Unfortunately, there are people out there who prey on the hopes and dreams of wide-eyed musicians, and these people charge substantial monthly fees, deliver little, and cycle through a new batch of musicians each year in a kind of Ponzi-scheme business model.
So I recommend, before signing with ANY artist management, that you talk with current and former artists on their roster and get input on the company from a range of industry professionals who have direct experience working with them.
One of the reasons musicians are eager to sign with ANY agency is that they still believe in . . .
Myth #5: In order to get bookings and have a successful career, you need to have a manager.
Here is the good news: you do NOT need to win a major competition to have a successful career. And you do NOT need a manager to get concert bookings.
The DIY Solution: Self-Management
The truth is nobody is going to be a stronger advocate for your music than you. No one will get as excited about it or have as much at stake in it as you.
So, instead of hoping to win the right competition or wait for someone else to give you opportunities, why not take charge of your own career now? Yes, you CAN manage your own career.
Mozart—as well as Phillip Glass and many others—wrote and performed their own works, rented halls, organized their own ensembles, and produced their own concerts. As a DIY musician, you join a long history of artist entrepreneurs.
Self-management is not rocket science, but it does take skills and organization, time and effort. In coaching musicians on how to successfully manage their careers, I’ve found that breaking things down into bite-size pieces works best.
In the same way you’d analyze and practice any piece you plan to perform, we break self-management down into concrete actions and habits, taking one step at a time. This requires using some of the critical thinking and organizational skills you already have and putting them into action on the business side of your career.
Alternatives to traditional Artist Management
The goal for self-managed musicians is to first build a solid track record of excellent local and regional performances. Once you’ve done this, you’re in a good position either to attract professional management, or to hire an administrative assistant / representative to handle portions of work.
Like soloists, ensembles also start with self-management and continue until they reach a threshold where they need—and are able—to hire their own administrative assistant or artist representative. Often, musicians find they need to train these assistants who may be paid on a per project basis, on a monthly retainer, or on an hourly or weekly basis.
The ensembles a Far Cry, Asteria, and De Coda, as well as Synergy brass quintet, and the Cypress and Cavani String Quartets are just a few examples of groups that have gone this route.
Early on, the Kronos Quartet brought on board Janet Cowperthwaite as their artist representative and the “5th member” of the quartet: an integrated member sharing equally in the financial risk and rewards of the group. Today, Janet is managing director, with a staff of 5 administrators and 8 associates, all working for The Kronos Quartet/Kronos Performing Arts Association. The team handles all of Kronos’ booking, travel, promotion, production, and fundraising.
The moral of the story here is: there are far more musicians than there are managers to help them. So until you can attract a manager, the best thing you can do is book your own concerts, build a fan base, and hire help when you are able to.
Case in point: Bang on a Can
Consider the example of the contemporary music group Bang on a Can. It was started by three young composers, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, and David Lang who were fresh out of Yale.
They were interested in music “from between the cracks,” between minimalism and rock, between written and improvised music, between music and noise, between live performance and electronica. And they needed to find their own audience, since their music didn’t fit with the new music scenes in New York at the time.
The three wanted to reach audiences who weren’t coming to traditional classical new music concerts. They figured their more likely target demographic would be people interested in experimental film, dance, and visual art.
So, they programmed a music marathon of experimental works at a SoHo art gallery and bought mailing lists from modern dance companies and used these to help promote their initial concert. Their hunch about audience interest paid off. That first marathon concert was a hit.
But there was hard work ahead
For the first five years, the three composers did it all, from licking envelopes, to raising all the funds, and doing the programming, promoting, and grant writing themselves. Eventually, they were able to hire staff and assemble a board of directors.
Over the next 30 years, Bang on a Can created an impressive series of projects and initiatives to expand their mission. They established a touring ensemble, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, as well as their own record label, Cantaloupe Music. They also established the People’s Commissioning Fund, and their summer institute for new music at MASS MOCA in the Berkshires, plus two international projects to work with young composers.
All this came from three musicians with an idea. They didn’t wait for a competition or a manager to appear and make something happen. This is the entrepreneurial approach: you can create your own performance opportunities and attract your own audiences.
The Right Questions to Ask
Instead of asking “How can I get artist management?” the better questions to ask are . . .
“How can I advance my own projects and my own career?” (Hint: Don’t wait to be “picked.” As Seth Godin says, “pick yourself.”)
And . . .
“How can I improve how I organize my time and energy so that I can book more of the work I really want?”
As a music career coach, I help my clients work through these kinds of questions so they can take charge of their own careers and finally become the artists they are meant to be.
I hope you’ll use the information here to make good choices about how to move forward in your own career.
If you’re curious to learn how coaching can help you upgrade your promo materials and fine-tune your self-management skills so you can boost your bookings, your confidence, and your reputation, get the details on my work HERE.
Dream Big, Plan Smart, Live Well