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The artist team, today & tomorrow: Takeaways from W&M Summer School 2022

September 9, 2022

As summer creeps to an end in the northern hemisphere, we’d like to take some time to reflect on some summer highlights — aka our Summer School Academy series! 

Initially, in designing this latest iteration of the Academy, we wanted to provide more in-depth educational opportunities for our membership and utilize the brilliant minds within and around our community. For this Summer School cohort, we wanted to explore a lower-touch way to serve more members while providing an opportunity to prioritize their personal topics of interest. 

Additionally, when examining the current music-tech landscape as well as the motivations for our members to join Water & Music, we came to the following realizations: 

  • Several music-tech builders and founders in our community have not had direct  music-industry experience. They may be looking for background education on music-industry economics and market dynamics to be better prepared to speak the language of more traditional stakeholders. 
  • On the flip side, several music-industry folks in our community (both lurkers and active) who like to stay at the forefront of tech trends for themselves and  their artists are sitting on a wealth of valuable knowledge for music-tech founders and developers. Many members with more “traditional” paths have a deep, nuanced understanding of the ins and outs of issues within the music industry. We thought it would be a great opportunity to enlighten those who might be relative newcomers to the industry about these nuances and the best ways to tackle issues moving forward.

Ultimately, we decided to focus on The Artist Team: Today & Tomorrow as the core topic for this speaker series. We chose this topic because team-building has been top-of-mind for our community and the wider music industry in the past few months. As artists weather the current market storm, attempt to navigate a slew of oncoming emerging technologies (across Web3, the metaverse, creative AI, and much more), and seek to understand what it all means for their careers, many are acknowledging the daunting task of managing this work alone.

We sought to highlight established and emerging positions, ultimately settling on seven roles spanning from the most traditional of all (the artist) to newer additions (e.g., world-builders and community managers). We were privileged to have 20 speakers who provided insights about the nature and evolution of their roles, the skill sets that have helped them in their careers, and critical issues currently facing the industry from their vantage points: 

Designing this course as a whole and taking programming notes for our community was also a team effort — co-led by W&M core team staff (marked with an asterisk) and a combination of both newer and long-time members:

  • Course designers — Diana Gremore*, Maarten Walraven, Kat Bassett*, Cherie Hu*
  • Session moderators — Diana Gremore*, Maarten Walraven, Kat Bassett*, Cherie Hu*, Kristin Juel
  • Session notetakers — Kat Bassett*, Charlotte Caleb, Ornella Vallana, Jason Meinzer, Diana Gremore*, Muñeca Diaz

The entire series — including recordings, text chats, notes, and a recap of highlights — is available to Water & Music members today. Still, we’d like to share some overall themes that recurred in our discussions:

SHIFTING RESPONSIBILITIES: PUSHING WORK TO ARTIST TEAMS 

A recurring theme we identified across sessions was the growing burden on artist teams to manage more work that partners traditionally supplemented. Both Daouda and Taren shone a light on this particular issue during our Artist Managers panel. In a few ways, this presents a catch-22 for artists and their teams. To mitigate the impact of this trend, Jess Furman said it’s more important than ever to have strong partners and clear budget outlines agreed upon in advance with everyone involved. Beyond that, Adrian Burger highlighted the rise of emerging technology in assisting with accountability, which can help teams be mindful of spending and ROI. 

  • Daouda Leonard (CreateSafe): “I would say the trend that I watch closely is how the work has been pushed down to artists, their managers, over the last decade. What I mean by that is things like collecting your royalties, publishing, recording, marketing, producing music, all of these things were typically done by record labels, publishers, and a manager’s role was mainly to manage those relationships. And now all of that is pushed down solely onto the artist, right? As an artist, you potentially may need to create traction for a song on TikTok before you might get marketing dollars spent on your music.”
  • Taren Smith (YMU): “Does it hurt the project more to have one person running all these things? Who can only run them each at 25%, versus having somebody who’s at a hundred?”
  • Jess Furman (Rareform):  “I think that comes down to not only artist transparency, but about what everyone wants as far as creative, but also what they need to make the album succeed. I think that’s why it’s super important to have a partner ahead of time that you can have those conversations with, because those will dictate where your budgets are falling. And sometimes certain things have to be cut out or Budgets have to be reconstructed based on those things. those are the conversations that we tried to always have upfront, so we could allocate the best possible or figure out what’s the solution.”
  • Adrian Burger (lafter): “I think one trend that I’m noticing in the context of audience, but I think really in all manners of the music business is to use one word, a bit more accountability on spend … if we’re gonna spend $10,000 in advertising: where is that going? For me, it is really exciting to see all of these new technologies where you can get information on behavior, post-advertising, exposure, and really identifying conversions at the end of the day and not sort of just spending money into the wind that has reached a lot of people, but it’s hard to get a sense of what it has done for your actual end business objective, whether that’s a stream, a concert, or you name it.”

EQUITY & NEW METHODS OF MONETIZATION

Another common theme was the shift of traditional industry compensation structures from primarily commission-based or flat-guarantee agreements to more emerging business models spanning equity-based partnerships and new tools for financially mobilizing and rewarding communities (including but not limited to Web3). 

  • Mikael Moore (Wondaland): “I think from a trend perspective, a lot of the managers that I’m speaking to are setting up LLCs where they’re holding specific projects within those LLCs and having shared ownership. They’re building different business models because I think the days of managers having 30 clients and just being able to kind of pass it off to the label or pass it off to the publicists or whatever those days are gone in part because barriers of entry are lower. And then also the kind of DIY mentality plus technology is creating a new way that people are thinking about releasing their music, which ultimately is creating more work for the artists and more work for the management teams without a clear shift in the compensation structure.”
  • Geoff Sawyer (UTA): “One thing for me that I’ve aspired to do and have tried to do and am always looking for, for our clients [is] the possibility and potential for equity in the projects that they get involved with, which is relatively new. Musicians historically tend to have transactional relationships with almost everybody that pays them … The opportunity for creative deal structure is totally real … It’s just like a paradigm shift, trying to create lasting revenue streams for artists. Building a pipeline that lasts and building equity is something I get pretty stoked about.”
  • Matthew Chaim (Artist): “I think with the tools now available to us, we have the ability to make the distribution mechanics, the way we contextualize and monetize the release of this work, as unique as the work itself.”
  • Taren Smith (YMU): “Before [Web3], I would say all my artists who were all DJs, touring was really king — the only thing that mattered. It’s been really exciting to have this new space to be creative in, but also to make some significant money and it be connected to the thing they like to do the most, which is to make music. Before that it was really making t-shirts and going on the road, which they enjoy as well. But that all goes back to music and now the finances are really connected to it in a way.”
  • Hayley Rosenblum (Patreon): “There’s now a difference between an audience and a community, whereas before there really wasn’t. Now with community, there’s also ways to monetize the community. Not just in selling stuff, but in offering exclusivity, Community VIP area, you can pay to be part of the fan club in ways that you couldn’t do as broadly on the internet 10, 15, 20 years ago.”

TAPPING INTO COMMUNITY: PERSONAL & FAN

Speakers frequently highlighted the importance of the ability and willingness to tap into their professional networks and fan communities as a source of inspiration. Whether carefully developing a professional’s network of trusted sources or knowing exactly how to cultivate a fan community and create environments for those community members to create additional value, such value creation can benefit the artist and, at times, work for the fans in a community as well. 

  • Sean Adams (Drowned In Sound): “I think it would be interesting to see the artists which treat community as a kind of form of enriching what they’re creating, not just a way of charging their fans to interact with each other, like Soho House… There’s something in all the excitement around what community is at the moment. We’ve created public spaces and I think how we invest in making those spaces is valuable.”
  • Anne McKinnon (Ristband): “I think one main thing is like building a world around a theme … [that] builds onto the reward of that fan cycle … [also] leaving room for your ideas to grow because the fan will fill in a lot of those spaces in a way, or you’ll find other solutions.”
  • Daouda Leonard (CreateSafe): “The way I’ve handled it is … almost like looking at my address book, like it is a social network, like it is Instagram or Twitter. Trying to connect with those people that I meet about my actual interests. I think if you, as a manager, are able to share your interests, your ideas with other people, that’s how you build a community: whether it’s artists, producers, songwriters, engineers, all these people that like you end up having to work with. You have to be an active social participant in the industry.”
  • Duncan Byrne (Involved Group/Anjuna): “Everyone’s trying stuff out and it’s moving super, super quickly. The best thing you can do is participate in things like this [Academy], read articles that are written by people on these calls, ask for help from people that are on these calls, because I don’t know what I don’t know. It is all about exposing yourself to as many different sorts of views and tactics as possible. That’s how you get ahead.”
  • Tom Windish (Wasserman Music): “I’ve always heard about artists from friends of mine. I’ve got a lot of friends around the world that also love discovering artists early and helping them, and I’m always kind of chatting with them about stuff I’m finding and ask them what they’re finding. I’ve got a great network of people that love that — all sorts of ages and all sorts of countries and musical genres.”  

BIG IMPACT ON A LOW BUDGET

Our speakers stressed the importance of staying consistent by following a north star and trusting intuition when finding winning projects over chasing scale at all costs, despite the allure of higher budgets, more hands on deck, and significant, attention-grabbing consumption numbers.

  • Seb Mysko (Rising Agency): “For us [world-building has] always been about consistency. What’s the point of loading, launching a radio show and doing one, one month or two months, and then it finishes? What’s the point of launching a game if you’re not gonna be active in it? If any of those things weren’t recurring, then people lose interest.”
  • Pablo Smith (Somewhere Systems): “I think Frank Ocean running a Tumblr is just as much world-building as, you know, uh, Roblox and Lil Nas X. I think a big misconception for artists is that it takes money to get to these places and that’s the blocker. I’m like, no, you gotta do what’s comfortable and doable for you first and then scale from there. This idea that you need $15K or $100K to build an effective world is insane to me. I’m always about like maintaining the lowest-technology profile you can, and the lowest form of consistent communication you can, because that’s really what building a world is, really. So figure out a single touchpoint that you can start with, and then essentially scale it out from there.”

SKILLS FOR SUCCESS

Our guests shared skills for success for both artists and industry personnel. Music is an inherently personal business, emphasizing soft skills throughout the series, with speakers underscoring relationship-building, empathy, and respect as paramount for industry leaders. Beyond soft skills, our speakers also suggested trying on numerous roles or abilities (or genres or release styles for artists) to find what resonates most with you and what you’ll best be able to bring to the table. 

  • TOMI (Artist): “It’s really important to be accessible and to have relationships and build relationships with anyone, whether it’s a blog or a playlist or a music supervisor. The relationship aspect is really important, and continuing to release music and share music, even unreleased stuff — that’s the whole point.”
  • Phil Quist (CAA): “I think a lot of it is also managing expectations and explaining those expectations to the clients …  For us, a part of that is making sure the clients understand the commitments that they have to make to reach certain goals, and providing them with access to resources to get them there.”
  • Tom Vek (Artist): “I kind of like the idea of being able to try out these roles. It’s like maybe you would be really good at posting Facebook ads, and you never realized it — you might have a micro skill or enjoy it.”
  • Kenny Layton (Discord): “A piece of advice that I got a long time ago is never say no to a conversation, because you never know who the next CEO’s gonna be. So I literally talk to everyone I can all the time, I still pick up the phone and call people. I think communication and listening and just asking questions and being inquisitive is the best way to go about it.”
  • Sean Adams (Drowned in Sound): “There was a really great thing a few years ago that I’ve really tried to stick to, and it was called three sentences. You could put in your email signature and you just say the reason this email is three sentences, cuz I care about your time and my time. And if this needed more than three sentences, get on the phone.”
  • Nick Sylvester (Godmode): “The first five or 10 years of your career of making music could just be one long episode of … my mother just going up to one thing, is this what I’m going to be doing … And then I think once you actually have figured something out about yourself or what you’re trying to do, then you really just hammer that in and just see if you can get that a little bit closer while still leaving breadcrumbs for you to go in other directions in the future. I think that you just should put out as much stuff as you can in that exploratory phase until you really feel like you found that kind of intersection point between what you care about and what feels like your truth and lets your soul kind of explode —  oh, people are reacting and I’ve expressed this in a clear way that they’re reacting to this.”
  • Sam Valenti (Ghostly/All Flowers): “I think my take on that is the artists I always respond to, even if I don’t love the music, are the ones that build. World-building is a common term now. Whatever your thing is, the flamboyance of your work, just push it all the way. I think everybody’s skill set is different and you just have to put the light on the thing they’re best at. The thing I was most excited about at the beginning of Ghostly was design and branding and label architecture, So I just push that as far as I can, and still try to do that with collaborations, but it’s not more important than the music — it’s a framework. And I think all artists, all labels, everybody on this call can apply that design thinking to their practice.”
  • Daouda Leonard (CreateSafe): “I would just suggest that you learn and develop hard skills, because if you want to essentially value your own labor and value your ideas, most of the time people wanna see it in a concrete way. If you are not a producer or a songwriter, you have to develop these new sort of hard skills that you maybe didn’t possess going into management. And that could be graphic design, copywriting, creative direction. There are, you know, a lot of different skill sets that managers are sometimes asked to do. There isn’t this cut and dried idea of like, oh, the new way is partnering with your artist. It’s like, you can only partner with your artist, if you are an actual partner in making the work.”

BURNOUT

Lastly, one trend on everyone’s mind — in music and beyond — is managing burnout. Our speakers highlighted the importance of setting & maintaining boundaries, preparation, and going with what you know already works. 

  • TOMI: “I think there is a lot of expectation and that can be really hard to you don’t wanna disappoint people. You want to connect as much as you possibly can, but again, it’s like you have to create boundaries in your day to day life. And then when you also have your career being something that you wanna connect with other people, I think that that can be a recipe for burnout, but I think boundaries, it really helps slow that process down.”
  • Pablo Smith: “There’s an approach to when you’re preparing a release from a management perspective of, you could do playlist pitching plus a whole press rollout, plus a whole marketing campaign, plus this plus that. But I think after a while it could get really overwhelming. It’s more about putting on the blinders and saying, all right: What makes sense for your specific artist career, artist path; where’s your fan base already? Where are they likely to be? Just focus on that. … that idea of focus and really staying to where things are actually happening, and doubling down on strategies that work, is so much more important than necessarily following the hype.” 
  • Mikael Moore: “I think that for us, a lot changed when we started really thinking about our relationships with our management clients as business relationships, and not just as like friends or artists. We started to structure the way that we met the responsibilities, the time that we were committing. And obviously, you know, working with artists, you’re still gonna get the call three in the morning. But I think that trying to set those boundaries is a really important thing … it wasn’t something that I did when I first started. I just thought that I had to be on 24/7. And that’s what all the managers around me did. It’s taken me probably five to seven years to start to structure it.”
  • Daouda Leonard: “It’s how you interface with your artist. Generally it is a 24/7 operation. You are working with another human being who is using emotion to create a product, so what you are dealing with is their emotions that make this product. I do a lot of preparation so when the drama hits I am ready for the drama. One of my personal laws is that peace is a natural state, such that in times of drama you can see the drama, but you can step back and analyze it. If you are in your emotions you can’t assess what is happening.” 

These excerpts only cover a portion of what we discussed. Other themes include whether or not artist teams should really invest in Web3, what specific tools are available at low cost to help build artists’ worlds online, how to deal with the frustrations of eternally shifting KPIs for marketing and business strategies, and more.To access previous recaps and recordings for The Artist Team: Today & Tomorrow to explore this full breadth of themes — and to stay informed about what’s next for our Academy arm — join Water & Music today! You will get access to our member handbook in Notion, which is where all of our previous Academy recaps live. Explore membership options here.

Once again, a huge thank you to our speakers, our moderators, notetakers and to our attendees. Stay tuned for what is next!