A Word From The Management: Five Lessons for Creative Businesses from the World of Music Management

Brian Epstein by David Bailey

Brian Epstein by David Bailey

Inevitably creative businesses spend a good deal of time celebrating creative talent and achievements. And rightly so.  But how often do we acknowledge the people that put the ‘commercial’ into commercial creativity? Do we properly recognise the negotiation, relationship and executional skills that are the lifeblood of any creative enterprise? Perhaps we should pause occasionally and give a little appreciation to The Management.

I recently watched a compelling BBC documentary about management in the music business (Music Moguls: Masters of Pop, The Money Makers). The programme featured interviews with some of the titans of pop and rock management over the past fifty years.  They suggested a number of lessons that I’m sure apply to the broader creative industry.

‘To me what management is about is:  you take the art, if that’s what it is, and you turn it into commerce.’

Ed Bicknell, Manager, Dire Straits

1. Embrace the tension between creativity and commerce

Of course, creativity and commerce are not natural bedfellows. But they can be complimentary, rather than contradictory, disciplines. It takes a special kind of person to be equally comfortable with rock musicians and accountants.

‘My belief is that, when god gives you something special – a talent – he takes a little bit away from somewhere else. If you look at any artist, they’ve all got something missing. And I’m the guy that replaces it.’
Bill Curbishley, Manager, The Who

Creatives should cherish account management precisely because they ‘love the jobs you hate.’  We should embrace the inherent dissonance between commerce and creativity as a healthy tension in a business that thrives on diversity.

2. Believe in the value of creativity

It’s clear that the best music industry managers believe passionately in the value of creativity. And they are robust negotiators who do everything in their power to realise that value.

‘We were determined from the outset that, if we were going to be good at the music, we were going to be good at the business. And not get taken.’
Paul McGuinness, Manager, U2

In the broader creative sector we should do more to demonstrate our own belief in creativity: that it has a value; that that value is worth protecting; that without proper commercial advocacy that value will be diluted, commoditised, exploited.

3. Recognise the special talent of empathy

Scooter Braun is one of a new generation of talent management. He took Justin Bieber from YouTube star to global brand. He suggests that management can bring to the table a common touch; an understanding of how popular tastes are changing and how the public will respond to new ideas.

‘I think the way I hear music is the way most people hear music. If I have a reaction, why shouldn’t they? I’m not special. So what my talent is is literally not being special. I deal with special people. I manage special people. And the way I help them most is translating to them how not special people might react to them.’
Scooter Braun, Manager, Justin Bieber

The best managers, whilst not creating work themselves, are brilliantly empathetic: they recognise ideas that will resonate with ordinary people and they can therefore gently steer a concept towards its most effective execution.

4. Celebrate the commercial skills that realise creative value

Inevitably the music industry supplies numerous stories of commercial heroism.

When CBS offered Elvis Presley an unprecedented $50,000 to appear on the Ed Sullivan TV Show, his manager Colonel Tom Parker replied:

‘Well that sounds pretty good to me. But what about my boy?’

Led Zeppelin’s manager Peter Grant took on the all-powerful US promoters and negotiated an unparalleled increase in gate money, from 70% to 90%.

Paul McGuinness helped U2 gain copyright on their own material; renegotiate contracts; pioneer the stadium rock market; win higher royalties; develop U2-branded iPods.

Clearly a creative business should celebrate commercial as well as creative success. It should lionise the people that arbitrate on its behalf; that pioneer new sources of revenue; that realise creative value.

5. Seize the opportunity inherent in change

The best commercial brains see opportunity rather than threat in changing market conditions. Even amidst the turmoil that is the modern music industry.

‘We’re in the wild, wild west. There are no rules. That’s really exciting for an entrepreneur and it’s really exciting for a musician. Because there are no lines. You can write the rules every single day you get up.’
Scooter Braun, Manager, Justin Bieber

One of the curiosities of creative businesses is that they are often quite conservative. They get set in their ways, wedded to the processes and practices that delivered success in the past. We need more commercial optimists addressing the opportunities inherent in change; more business minds focused on re-engineering the model; re-inventing the fundamentals of how we work.

Of course, one wouldn’t want to embrace every aspect of rock and pop management. Sometimes in the music industry, commerce got the better of creativity. Larry Parnes managed many of the first British rock acts in the ‘50s and early ‘60s.  Notoriously controlling, he was nicknamed ‘Mr Parnes Shillings and Pence.’ Don Arden, who looked after the Small Faces, ELO and Black Sabbath, had a negotiation style that could extend to the edge violence.

‘If I’ve ever exploited anybody, it’s only because they wanted to be exploited.’
Don Arden, Manager, Small Faces, ELO, Black Sabbath

But, for the most part, the colourful stories serve to illustrate the extraordinary demands of working across commerce and creativity.

You’ll sometimes hear people in creative businesses diminish the contribution of ‘the suits.’ Colleagues make cheap jibes about these smooth operators, their suspicious spreadsheets and silver tongues. But in my experience the creatives who belittled account management were often the ones who were themselves not very creative at all. 

I was a strategist at a creative communications agency and I was fortunate to work with some of the best account management and finance people in the industry. I grew properly to appreciate their talents. I valued their fortitude, vigour and dynamism; their relationship skills and commercial nous.  I appreciated them all the more because these were precisely the areas in which I was weak. Above all I valued the fact that they got things done.

And that’s why I will always respect The Management.


A version of this piece was published by the Guardian Media and Tech on 21 March 2016

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