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Getting the right manager improves your chances 1000%: 30 things to look for when choosing yours


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When I asked George Ezra and James Bay's manager Paul McDonald when was the right time for a young musician to be looking for a manager, he said it is "when they feel as though they want to step into the ring”.

Hold that image of a young boxer in your mind. Watch them shuffling, hood pulled forward, headphones on, eyes distant with concentration, nervously throwing warm up punches as they are guided through a thronging crowd. And then they leap up and explode through the ropes into the ring. The spotlight glares down on them, the hood drops, sweat pours from their forehead, gloves raised above their head, the crowd roars….they are ready for what is to come.

Hopefully you never get punched in the face during your music career, but there is, as Paul suggests, a similarity between a musician going on stage and a fighter entering the ring.

There has been an awful lot of hard work getting that boxer ready for the ring. They have to be physically fit, mentally prepared for the challenge, they need to understand what is coming at them from their opponent and have a game plan to defeat them, they need match fit skills that are so practised they can be relied on in the heat of battle, they needed someone to arrange the fight and put in place contracts so they can be properly rewarded, medical care to help them recover, transport away from the venue and a hotel to wind down after the fight.

There is only one person entering the ring, but there’s a whole team behind the young fighter. A team co-ordinated by a manager.

Paul McDonald likens the young musician to a boxer. Like it or not, the music industry is just as competitive as the fight game. Just like in boxing, there’s a lot you need to work on to be ready before you step into the ring of the music industry. There’s a lot that needs to be in place before you get a proper shot at the big time.

And yes, like the boxer, only you will step onto the stage & only you can win the title, but to give yourself the best chance of success you will need a team around you preparing you. You will not make it on your own. And the most important person in your team could well be your manager,

  • The manager can take the weight off your shoulders and free up time for you to concentrate on getting yourself ready for the big stage.

  • The manager can help steer you towards what you need to work on next.

  • The manager can help you lay a solid commercial foundation to your career so that you are properly rewarded.

So if they are so important what should you be looking for in a manager?

When employers look for a new member of staff they write a job description. Here is a job description I’ve put together for the job of manager which you can use to figure out whether you have found the right manager to get you into the ring for a shot at the title!

So, what is a manager's job?

Paul McDonald splits the job into three sections:

1. Someone who can help you develop creatively as an artist.

“As far as the creative side is concerned, you try and put them in the best creative environment for them to do their thing, you know, to make their art make their music, and ….you introduce them to songwriters, producers, studio situations, you work with them on developing their live performance, all the things that they need to go and sort of face to face to the world in a public way…..and that probably that could take two, three years sometimes” Paul McDonald

2. Someone who can help develop your income generation & protect your assets

“And then the other side is you get involved in the deal making. So trying to get them into record deals. And those take many different shapes these days, from the traditional to the, to the self release to the independent, and so on. Publishing deals, merchandise, all their live activity, any corporate stuff, any branding deals that come in.” Paul McDonald

3. Someone who is firmly on your side and cares about you as a person.

“Personal contact is hugely important. I think trust is a huge part of the relationship and people need to be able to call you and talk about anything really.” Paul McDonald

What type of person should you be looking for?

You want somebody you trust

4. Someone who is straight with you, who respects you, who has got your back, who has integrity. The artist-manager relationship is like a marriage. Trust is the most important thing. (And don’t forget trust is a 2 way thing; for the relationship to work, you have to earn their trust.)

You want somebody who knows what they are doing

5. There is a great rule in business. Always employ people who are smarter than you. And this applies to the music industry as well. You want the smartest people you can find around you at all times. And this is particularly true for your manager.

6. Someone who knows how the game works, ideally someone who has done it before or has the skills (Paul McDonald had worked in both record and publishing companies before switching to management). They definitely need to understand the industry better than you do and are comfortable dealing with contracts and can follow the money.

7. Someone who is plugged into the industry & has a better network than you. All of your opportunities are going to come from people. The more people in the industry you know - and how know about you - the better your chances.

You want someone who adds value

8.Somebody who, if you were to describe your ambition of where you are trying to get to, can explain what they are going to do to help you get there.

9. Somebody who can candidly tell you what you can do to improve, what you can be doing to get closer to fulfilling your ambition.

10. Someone who can help you grow the pie of your income. Remember, when you take on a manager they are entitled to a share of your earnings, so you need confidence that your manager can help you grow the pie so you can both eat well.

You want somebody who gets you and your music

11. Someone who works “in your lane” and knows your style of music.

12. Someone who clearly gets excited by the music you make. The manager is your representative and you need them to really feel and understand and love your music.

13. Someone who sees you as the star you are going to be. They might be a little bit in love with you.

You want someone who is hungry & in a hurry & short term wins

14. In my podcast interview, Paul tells the story of hearing James Morrison’s voice for the first time. Within minutes he was in his car driving to Derby to meet James - who became his first management client.

15. Likewise he’d made his mind up about James Bay before he’d reached the chorus of his first song.

You want somebody who is patient & long term development

16. Someone prepared to invest their time, effort, money in you and is prepared to turn down other opportunities to work with you

“But I think you're looking for real talent, great singers, and then a great attitude and then a great work ethic and some of those things you can work together on because people might not understand what a great work work ethic really means. You can also look for people that have got great ingenuity, you know, that determination to push forward people that are hustlers, people that are just finding their way into situations into little demo studios, or working with other musicians or, you know, putting out music themselves and so on. So there's a number of different things that you look for in an artist. And then you hope that they take to it and and love the process because there is a processPaul McDonald

17. Someone who can take a longer term strategic view of your career

“it's about strategy, it's about campaign, and it's about planning and all those things we we try and bring to our artists. It would just be asking too much to think that you can put something up on your Instagram and the world is going to find it.”

18. Someone who gives you the time you need to develop

“we view the early years of an artist development as very much as an apprenticeship….our most successful artists probably ended up writing 100 songs before they made their first album. And that is the same for most, you know, the same for James Bay, or George Ezra, James Morrison, John Newman, a lot of the people that we've worked with, and we definitely see it as a sort of unwritten apprenticeship. And that includes getting better live learning what to say to an audience not feeling nervous standing on stage. And we work very hard on all those areas with our artists, to help them grow and develop. And of course, there's a confidence that comes with the music getting better and feeling great about that. And that can take a moment. So if you give yourself a sort of two, three year developmental phase, I mean, some people are quicker, you know, some people, some people come to market quickly. And other people just take a minute and need to find out who they are and develop their sound. So you just want to give yourself that space.” Paul McDonald

You want someone who is a professional

19. Someone who has energy and will drive the plan forward whether you are there or not

20. Someone who is Independent (for example, not appointed by a record company) and who insisted you get independent advice before you sign with them

21. Someone who works flat out for you and expects, no demands, that you work flat out for them. “10% inspiration, 90% perspiration” is Paul’s mantra for making it.

22. Someone who can represent you in the best possible way, someone impressive.

23. Someone who is self-confident and works well with others - you and the other members of your team,be they lawyers, accountants, record company, publishers, agents, tour managers.

24. Someone with all their own hair and teeth (....not really; just checking you are still with me)

You want a guide and mentor, not a dictator

25. Someone who will help you make the key decisions in your life.

26. Someone who will explain who will explain what your options are.

27. Someone who will talk through possible implications and help you choose the best path.

Above all, you want somebody who is on your side

29. Someone who will stick up for you

29. Someone who you can talk to and is there when you need them.

30. Someone who knows that when deal up your arse, you may be standing on a peak, but this is just the start and there is another mountain ahead for you to climb together.

So, there you have it. 30 things to look for when you are choosing a manager.

You could do worse than use this checklist whenever you have a conversation with somebody who is interested in managing you.

How many of these characteristics do you feel they have?

How many can you afford for them to be lacking?

This could be the most important relationship in your career, choose wisely.

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