Working in harmony

Fri, May 1, 2009, 01:00

A new generation of music managers is convinced that the internet need not spell disaster for artists. JOHN COLLINS reports

MUSIC MANAGEMENT has changed beyond recognition since the ’70s and ’80s when Peter Grant, the cocaine-addicted, overweight and fiercely loyal manager of Led Zeppelin was the role model for aspiring managers. While Grant was a shrewd businessman who tore up music industry norms in cutting deals that favoured his charges, U2 manger Paul McGuinness came to symbolise the next generation of manager.

An equal partner with the band members, McGuinness was a more sober businessman who helped U2 make good decisions on everything from ownership of their recordings to investments in property.

In recent years McGuinness has become an occasional but high-profile spokesman for managers but also the traditional record label business model of releasing music. In particular he has been highly critical of illegal downloading and the impact it is having on the music industry.

But managing in the music business is changing rapidly. A new generation of managers face the challenge of not just getting their artists noticed by the MySpace generation but also making a profit in an era when fans seem increasingly reluctant to pay for music online.

More than 100 of these aspiring Svengalis, and artists who are managing their own career, attended a seminar in Dublin this week to launch Music Managers Forum (MMF) Ireland. Co-founded and chaired by Alan Cullivan, a former musician and record company executive who now manages The Thrills, MMF is intended to provide training to young managers and act as an open forum for the exchange of information.

The star attraction at its first public event was Brian Message, a manager who cut his teeth in the industry before the impact of the internet was fully felt but is now at the forefront of a new approach both to management and how the internet can be embraced by artists.

Message is a partner in Courtyard Management, the London company that looks after the interests of platinum-selling Radiohead, the evergreen Supergrass, dance act Faithless and singer songwriter Kate Nash.

Having completed their contract with EMI in 2005 following the release of six albums, Radiohead shook up the music industry in October 2007 with the release of the self-financed In Rainbows. It was initially only available as a digital download, and fans were invited to pay whatever they felt the album was worth.

“We realised that, by using the internet for the delivery of the album, we could reach 173 countries and it would cost us less than three cents a copy for distribution,” says Message.

“Two of my partners in the management company came up with the idea of pay what you like. Both the band and us were really excited about doing something brave and a bit whacky.”

Many chose to pay nothing for In Rainbows and the same day it went on sale it became the most illegally downloaded album on peer-to-peer services. As a result commentators, including McGuinness, have questioned whether it was a success.

“It depends on your criteria,” says Message tactfully. “It was the best thing for that band at that time.”

The tour to support In Rainbowssaw Radiohead perform to 60,000 people in San Francisco. While Message concedes that half of that audience may have downloaded the album for free, they all paid $60 for a ticket to see the band and “we get most of that money” says Message.

“We find ourselves out of step with the rest of the industry on this,” says Message, who chairs the MMF in Britain. “We believe file-sharing by peer to peer should be legalised. The sharing of music where it is not for profit is a great thing for culture and music. Those who are providing that facility as part of their value proposition should be contributing to the artists.”

Although he says he doesn’t like using the word, Message is advocating a tax on internet service providers that would be divided amongst artists whose music is shared online.

“As a free market advocate I never thought I’d say this but we will have to have government intervention to force the internet service providers to adopt a licensing model,” he explains.

Both Message and Jon Webster, a former managing director of Virgin Records and his colleague in the Music Managers Forum UK where he is chief executive, believe the “graduated response” or three-strikes approach to illegal downloading is simply unworkable and undesirable. Currently being implemented by Eircom following an out of court settlement with the big four record labels, it involves cutting off the internet connection of people found downloading illegally. “Three strikes is just not going to work,” says Webster. “Technical solutions don’t work because you will just drive it underground.”

Message feels that going after downloaders is illogical – sharing music “illegally” is a deeply ingrained habit that has been happening for generations, right back to the days when people shared taped copies of vinyl.

Prior to that decision Message says he and two of his partners had actually advised the band to split up. Two years after leaving EMI Radiohead were still no closer to recording an album. The songs were written but the band couldn’t achieve the sound they were looking for in the studio. Courtyard felt maybe it was time to call it a day. Surely professional managers shouldn’t encourage their most profitable act to split up?

“I’ve been lucky to work with some great artists and Radiohead are a once in a generation act,” says Message. “But you have to be honest if it’s not working. You have to have passion about what you do. I’m an accountant but I love music and I’m passionate about the artists I work with.”

The event heard lots of talk about the “artist-centric future” and the need to foster the relationship between fan and artist, with everything else following from that.

Message sees technologies like YouTube and peer-to-peer sharing as platforms to deepen the relationship between musician and fan. It is up to the artist then to make money out of that relationship whether it is through selling merchandise or performing live.

“The artist has to be at the centre of everything and be willing to drive their own business,” says Message. “Getting signed to a label is not enough any more.”

Reflecting this new reality Courtyard established ATC, a music company that has a deeper relationship with artists including Faithless and Kate Nash. Message describes it as “partnering” with artists and the company will get involved in things like financing record releases, something managers would once have relied on record companies for.

“It’s about partnerships now,” says Message. “You are no longer just the artist’s representative at the record company table. This is entrepreneurship at its finest.”