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

No. 75


The Space Between Our Ears

At The Barbican recently I attended an extraordinary performance by Simon McBurney of the Complicite theatre company.

The Encounter considers issues of environmentalism, materialism, communication and time. In the play McBurney relates the story of Loren McIntyre, an American photographer who in 1969 was dropped into the Amazon rainforest on an assignment for National Geographic. McIntyre soon locates the nomadic Mayoruna tribe that he had been hoping to shoot, but soon loses the camera he had been hoping to shoot them with. Nonetheless, he follows the Mayoruna deep into the jungle, to the brink of starvation, tripping on their mystical herbs, joining them in their quest to find ‘the beginning.’ McIntyre is convinced that the tribe’s shaman is communicating with him telepathically. ‘Some of us are friends’, he seems, rather cryptically, to be suggesting, over and over again.

McBurney enacts this compelling story without costumes, or set, or other actors. In fact the stage resembles a radio-recording studio as McBurney, surrounded by props, circles a ‘binaural’ microphone that records in a kind of 3D.

We the audience listen through headphones. We hear voices, sounds, noises in the dark; we hear McBurney creating beautiful birdsong, the buzz of mosquitoes, the growl of airplane engines. He blows into the microphone and we feel the heat of his breath on our ears.

We are together in the theatre, but alone in our private soundscapes. We close our eyes and follow McIntyre into the heart of darkness.

Overall it’s a disarming experience. It made me think of the phenomenal power of sound, of storytelling and of the imagination. It took me back to the power cuts of 1974’s Three-Day Week, when we listened with mother in the candle light, to Radio 4 plays and Dr Finlay’s Casebook…

In the communications industry we spend so much time and money these days on location shoots, on CGI and special effects. We seek to recreate the past, to simulate the future, to bring distant lands to our doorsteps. But we leave little room for the imagination. It’s as if we’ve lost our faith in the phenomenal human capacity to dream, invent, envisage.

In his book Hegarty on Advertising Sir John Hegarty urges us to think beyond platforms, technologies, channels and media space. He encourages creatives to concentrate on ideas, and on communication’s ultimate destination, the mind.

‘The only space worth occupying is the space between someone’s ears.’

It’s a healthy reminder. Ideas engage the brain more effectively than any cunning creative device, canny media strategy or quirky technology. Ideas are comfortable unadorned, in the nude so to speak. And the best ideas have a life of their own. They are suggestive, seductive, conspiratorial. They linger.

As I left The Barbican that night, inspired but also confused somewhat by what I had experienced, I could not help hearing a voice whispering quietly at the back of my brain:

‘Some of us are friends.’

(The Encounter is on tour across the UK and the rest of Europe until 25 June)



‘I’ve weathered the storms. I’ve fallen down and I’ve gotten back up.’

The recently released documentary film Mavis! tells the story of Mavis Staples, singer with The Staple Singers throughout the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and even on into the ‘90s. She has now been performing for 60 years and still sings her heart and soul out at the age of 76.

Mavis grew up on the South Side of Chicago, the neighbourhood that spawned soul legends Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler. Her father Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples organised his children into The Staple Singers, combining his own country blues heritage with a vibrant gospel sound. Pops sang with a sweet, thoughtful voice, young Mavis sang with raw, deep emotion.  As Bonnie Raitt observes in the documentary, she was ‘sensual without being salacious.’

Initially The Staple Singers’ material addressed purely gospel themes. Then one day, while on tour in the South, Pops took the family to see Dr Martin Luther King speak at a local church. He was deeply moved by the encounter.

‘I like this man’s message. If he can preach it, we can sing it.’

The group took to singing Freedom Songs in support of the civil rights movement. Songs such as ‘Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)’ and ‘Long Walk to DC’ had conviction, courage, clarity of purpose. They signed to Stax and had huge hits with ‘I’ll Take You There,' ‘Respect Yourself' and many more besides. They created anthems of authority, yearning and pride.

Mavis comes across as a luminous, forthright, humble soul who can laugh in the face of ageing:

‘That’s the best time I’ve had since I got my new knees.’

Her speech is intercut with the rich vocabulary of the church and the civil rights struggle.

‘I’m a living witness….I’ll stop singing when I’ve got nothing left to say.’

It’s this appetite that most impressed me. The appetite to ‘keep on keepin’ on.’ Appetite is an elusive quality. One minute you have it and the next it has completely deserted you. Mavis illustrates very powerfully that the key to sustaining appetite over the long term is a sense of purpose, a sense of mission.

In the marketing community we’ve been talking a good deal about Purpose over recent years. Purpose defines a brand’s broader social responsibility and contribution. It galvanises colleagues, partners and stakeholders around a higher order goal.  But critically Purpose ensures that appetite endures, that it is persistent, permanent; through thick and thin, good times and bad.

‘I’ve come too far to turn back now. I’m determined to go all the way.’
Mavis Staples, Mavis!



Speak Like a Child

‘It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.’
Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso Le Coq

When I was younger I well recall being told that The Jam derived their sound from The Who and The Kinks; that Echo and the Bunnymen owed their sonic style to The Doors; that first generation Dexy’s were channelling Sam & Dave. I cared not a jot. These were our bands. They were our team. No sarcastic snipe or world-weary remark from the older generation could tarnish their integrity.

Now I’m the one that can hear every young band’s influences. I can’t ignore the shadow of a Beatles chord progression, the echo of Marvin’s rhythm section, the replication of Morrissey’s wordplay. And so I struggle to enthuse.

The Curse of Middle Age is familiarity, recognition, experience, discernment. Your palate, once refined, can become jaded; your enthusiasm qualified. You can’t see the originality.

And I suspect this Curse of Middle Age is at play in the workplace too.

One of the keys to sustaining interest and value in professional life, particularly in the creative industry, is to shed this corrosive cynicism; to dismiss the instinct to say ‘I’ve heard it, seen it, done it before’; to refrain from rose-tinted nostalgia; to retain a wide-eyed optimism; to be childlike, not childish; to learn to speak like a child.

‘I really like it when you speak like a child.
The way you hate the homely rank and file
The way you’re so proud to be oh so free and so wild.’

Paul Weller/The Style Council/Speak Like a Child

No. 70

Turn The Arc Lights On The Audience: A Modern Marketing Lesson from The Who

‘Music is not a prayer to god. It’s a prayer to the audience. It’s about you. It’s about you. I don’t write songs about me. I write songs about you. That’s why I’m successful.‘

Pete Townshend, Lambert and Stamp

Lambert and Stamp is a splendid documentary about Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, the managers of The Who that mentored the band from West London mods to global rock superstars.

The Who were a thrilling, combustible, mercurial stage act. They were cheeky, angry, dapper and aggressive. They were ‘meaty, beaty, big and bouncy.’ They were ‘maximum R&B.’ But, more than this, they were a band that gave expression to post-war British teenagers; to the disaffected working class; to stylish urban kids that wanted to get on. The Who spoke for their generation.

‘People try to put us d-down,
Just because we get around.

Things they do look awful c-c-cold.
I hope I die before I get old.
This is my generation,
This is my generation, baby.’

Pete Townshend/The Who, My Generation

In the documentary Chris Stamp relates how, during the band’s American tours, huge arc lights were stationed at the back of the stage. At the finale of each gig they would shine the arc lights’ powerful beams through the group so that the audience were illuminated. The crowd invariably stood up as one and became part of the experience.

This instinct to shine a light on the audience, on their tastes and style, their passions and pain, seems to have been right at the heart of The Who’s success.

Pete Townshend, The Who’s guitarist and lead songwriter, cuts a thoughtful and engaging presence in the film. He repeatedly returns to his conviction that The Who put their fans at the centre of their creative process.

‘Everyone thinks that it’s you that influenced [the audience], not the other way round… You become a mirror to the audience. [Lambert and Stamp] started to develop it as a way of harnessing the energy of the audience, which was to empower them; to make them realise how important they actually were.’

Pete Townshend, Lambert and Stamp

I found Townshend’s argument compelling, not least because I come from a communication tradition that was uncomfortable with the thought of ‘holding a mirror up to consumers.’ We regarded our core task as persuasion and so we always put the brand and its point of view first. We sought to craft ‘emotional selling propositions’ that won consumers’ hearts, in the expectation that their minds (and wallets) would follow.

But Townshend argues that marketing should go further than this. As he succinctly puts it: ‘You don’t market to them; you market them.’

‘When you do marketing you’re always trying to find some way to get round the fact that the audience are a problem; the consumer is a problem. Well, the way that you stop the consumer being a problem is that you don’t give them what they want; you allow them to be. You affirm who they are. You don’t try to change them.’

Pete Townshend, Lambert and Stamp

I’m increasingly of the view that Townshend is right; that in the modern age of consumer empowerment, audiences don’t want to be targeted, tracked and interrupted; they want to be represented, supported and encouraged; they want their views articulated, their hopes expressed, their fears addressed. Audiences want advocacy, not advertising.

We should think of a brand as a community, a neighbourhood, a union; a collective that needs representation. A brand should be a club worth joining, a membership worth paying for.

Of course most marketers know that marketing is all about putting the consumer first. But whilst this is readily articulated, I’m not sure it is fully lived, certainly not in the way Townshend suggests.

We may understand our audiences, but do we truly empathise with them? Do we start every conversation with their tastes and preferences, hopes and aspirations? Do we really see our role as advocacy?

The evidence of rate fixing and rip-off pricing, dodgy diesels and data leaking, mis-selling and horsemeat suggests otherwise. If brands are to re-earn eroded trust they must fundamentally remodel their relationships with consumers: from marketing at them to marketing for them. In short, we need to turn the arc lights on the audience. Because this is a generation that won’t get fooled again.

 ‘I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution,
Take a bow for the new revolution,
Smile and grin at the change all around,
Pick up my guitar and play,
Just like yesterday.
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again.’

Pete Townshend/The Who, Won’t Get Fooled Again

No. 61