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What do music attorneys, managers, and agents do?

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Adapted from Emily White’s new book, How To Build A Sustainable Music Career And Collect All Revenue Streams, this post dives into building your artist team and digs into the role of music attorneys, managers, and agents.

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Music industry entities that artists often have the least amount of access to — like major labels — are looking for you to have mastered everything covered in my book, How To Build A Sustainable Music Career And Collect All Revenue Streams, before they consider signing you. This includes making great art, but that isn’t enough. If you aren’t putting the work and effort into your career with regard to growing your fanbase, why should anyone else?

That said, there is great value in working with experienced professionals, and most artists want a team. So let’s take a look at the various members of an artist’s traditional team so you have an understanding of their roles.

Music Attorneys

I’m starting here, not necessarily because attorneys are the most important people on your team, but because very often, when I meet new artists, an attorney seems to be the one team member they have on board.

You should work with an attorney any time someone offers you a significant agreement — e.g., contracts regarding a producer, label, publisher, or manager. Most everything else in the modern music industry (covered in the book) is rather standard as far as terms go (CD Baby and Tunecore’s prices, for example).

Many attorneys from the pre-digital era aren’t wrong to let you know that they’ll “shop” your music to labels, but that was more useful when you needed a label to record and distribute. Now this is not your only option for the world to hear your music.

Attorneys generally charge anywhere from $300 to $750 per hour with a retainer up front of, say, $1,500 to $2,500. Some also work on a five percent commission of your earnings, similar to a manager, but at a lower rate than a manager’s commission.

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Pro advice

When the time does come to hire a lawyer, get a music attorney! You might think you’re saving money by having your family’s real estate lawyer review your publishing agreement, but it will hurt you in the long run. It may even cost you more in the short-term, since said real estate attorney will need more time to figure out the nuances of a field they do not work in.

The music industry was set up decades ago to confuse artists, so an attorney who doesn’t work in music is going to be in over their head almost immediately. If possible, get a true music attorney, not just a firm that does “entertainment” and sometimes does music. You’re paying for an expert and therefore deserve real expertise on your agreements.

Artist manager

This is arguably your most crucial team member, though to be fair, I’m biased in saying so as a long-time artist manager. Though, one of the most challenging elements of being a manager is that most artists have a pre-formed idea of what a manager might be like and what they might do for them and their career. These expectations can be super frustrating as managers are human beings, not miracle workers.

My business partner, Melissa Garcia, always asks a brilliant question when we are deciding whether to take a client on or not: Have you had management before us? If the answer is no, it’s most likely a pass for her. This is because we can never live up to the expectations built up in an artist’s mind.

What does a manager look for in an artist?

There are three things that go into my decision to work with an artist.

  1. Do I love their art?
  2. Will I be expected to work harder than they do?
  3. Will I be able to get along with this person? We don’t work with assholes, no matter their talent or earnings.

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That’s just me. I know others who are OK working with jerks or who could care less about the art if they see commercial potential. Others will consider working with an artist only if their live show is incredible and they’re committed to touring. There are plenty of talent managers for producers and songwriters who do not perform live, so if this is the camp you fall into, don’t be discouraged. And know that even if your manager is willing to put up with asshole behavior, many others in the industry will not, and it will hurt your career in the long run.

What exactly is an artist manager?

A manager sets short- and long-term goals with the artist and assembles a team, ensuring that the team is working hard and diligently toward those short- and long-term goals. As the industry has evolved into the post-digital era, the manager’s role has evolved to running a variety of elements that we didn’t handle previously, including music distribution and promotion. More often than not, managers are essentially taking on the role of a label, working on a variety of elements of an artist’s career that used to be handled by teams of people.

Management is interesting because it touches all aspects of an artist’s career. Yet, it is a role in the industry that does not require a degree, license, or any sort of formal training. This results is countless “friend-agers,” “parent-agers,” “fan-agers,” and even sycophants. Many of these folks, excluding the sycophant category, go on to be incredible talent managers.

What does an artist look for in a manager?

You want someone who is passionate about your career and interested in building a career in the music industry and isn’t just obsessed with you. Although having someone who lives and breathes for your existence sounds great, it isn’t good for you or your career. Whether it’s a family member or a fan, if they are so focused on you, they will lack the perspective to understand the bigger picture of your career and the industry at large.

Look for balance in a manager. They’re most likely not going to take you on if they don’t believe in you. And you want someone who works hard. But working hard also requires rest and balance, which does not necessarily mean being available 24/7.

If you come across someone who is passionate about you and your career and wants to build a career in the industry because they love music, do not overlook them. That was me! I began working with The Dresden Dolls in college. It was to both of our benefits that we connected and became a part of each other’s worlds. We essentially grew up professionally together.

When does an artist need a manager?

I feel that an artist “needs” a manager when their career has gotten to a level where they truly can no longer handle the workload — which is different from not wanting to do the work.

Managers generally receive a 15 percent gross commission on all aspects of an artist’s career, though there can be deductions for merchandise costs and other elements that can be negotiated. That said, many managers are OK with half commission on gross merchandise numbers to save time in making the extra deductions and calculations pertaining to cost of goods sold.

Some managers accept a salary in the early days of an artist’s career, but more often than not, they work on commission. Managers can also work on salary at the highest levels of superstar artists.

Generally, managers sign artists for a set amount of years, or a term. However, I do not sign artists to a term length, as I feel that either party should be able to leave at any time. Regardless, managers are traditionally entitled to a diminishing “post-term” commission on works they were involved in, should a split occur.

I set what my attorney calls a “mirrored term,” in which managers at our company receive diminishing post-term commissions for as long as we’ve worked with an artist. If we work with an artist for a year, we’re entitled to a year of post-term commissions. If we work with an artist for five years, then we receive five years of diminishing post-term commissions, and so on.

Agents

Agents handle your live bookings and receive 10 percent of the gross earnings on your live shows’ income for doing so. Like with anything, some agents go above and beyond, but ultimately, an agent’s job is to book and negotiate shows. Because this is their primary role, agents are often able to take on far more artists than managers, since management covers all aspects of an artist’s career.

You and/or your manager want to be a priority for your agent. You can become a priority by delivering your estimated release schedule and plan as far in advance as possible so they can start getting holds for shows together and pitch you for tours.

Some US agencies are starting to branch out and handle other territories, but traditionally, there are a slew of agencies that operate out of the UK that will handle the “rest of the world” for you. That said, you and your manager want to arm these agents with metrics in addition to your release timeline and plan.

You also want your manager to send regular career highlights, such as press, synchs, radio play, and any additional promotional elements that are landed to help your agent(s) do their job most effectively.

As your career grows, you may also have a film/TV/web show agent if you score, act, or appear on screen, a literary agent if you want to write or co-write a book, as well as a speaking agent. Major agencies handle all of these aspects. But if there is an independent agent elsewhere who you feel is a better fit for one of these specific categories, you can always ask to carve it out.

Business managers

Business managers are essentially bookkeepers and accountants who specialize in the music and entertainment industries. This can be helpful, as they have an understanding of where your revenue is coming from. They may also be up to help draft tour, live appearance, and recording budgets, plus advise on insurance related to music and entertainment. They also help pay musicians, touring crews, and team members as your career grows. And if they are a certified public accountant, they will handle your tax returns at the end of the year.

Your business manager can also set you up as a business entity, which is something you should do when you have the funds to do so. This protects you personally from professional liability, so much so that larger artists often set up additional entities specifically for their touring and recording to keep those revenue streams separate from each other and their personal funds. This way, if these artists do ever have a legal dispute, their other income streams are protected.

I feel that an artist needs a business manager when they start to have questions about their taxes and are paying out a variety of touring and recording royalties and payments to team members. Similar to attorneys, business managers often work at an hourly rate or on a five percent gross commission of all earnings.

Adapted from Emily White’s new book, How to Build a Sustainable Music Career And Collect All Revenue Streams. Reprinted with permission. Buy the book on Amazon today!


Emily White is an Amazon #1 best-selling author of How to Build a Sustainable Music Career And Collect All Revenue Streams. She hosts the #1 Music Business podcast globally of the same name, charting on six continents, with listeners in 140+ countries. Season Two is available to replay on Volume, with previous episodes available wherever you get podcasts. White is also the Founder and CEO of #iVoted Festival, where her C-Suite of women built the largest digital concert in history, all to increase voter turnout.

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2 thoughts on “What do music attorneys, managers, and agents do?

  1. This is very informative. I wish they would’ve given a few examples of management and agencies for independent artist. Thank you for the information.

  2. Commission directly by Spotify well I have a song on the move soundtrack it’s been on there for 20 years and I haven’t never got any type of sign on money or anything I had gotten hurt and I was in the hospital whenever they signed the deal and I missed out on everything and my name and my is on the credits and I haven’t been able to find anyone to help me collect or start collecting my royalties from that motion picture I’m in dire need of someone that can help me

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