As an independent artist, it can sound like a dream to have a team of people working on your behalf. And when it’s the right fit - it can be. But getting the right artist managers, booking agents, publishers, publicists, and others in place can be a long process -- often one that has to be tweaked as you go. It's important to keep your expectations in check, to trust your team and empower them to do their jobs. At the same time - only you can set the right expectations for your team - you can't rely on your manager, label, or anyone else to do it for you.
If you’re looking for information on where to start the team-building process, check out my past blog: how (and when) to build your team. But if you’ve got your team in place and you’re feeling like something’s just not quite right, it might be time to re-evaluate. Below are some common issues that might arise when building your team. Along with some guidance on what’s important and what’s not important when evaluating the effectiveness of your team.
Here are some reasons why your team might be holding you back
The biggest and first crack in a relationship with your manager, booking agent or other team member is usually a breakdown in communication. This can come in a variety of ways - but some major red flags are:
- You have trouble getting a hold of them. It takes them days to reply to emails (if at all), they don’t answer when you call or are dodgy about scheduling a meeting.
- You aren’t sure what they’re doing for you. This can be straightforward in that perhaps you’ve hired someone on a retainer with a vague title like “brand manager” and you literally aren’t sure what they do. Or, it can be a relationship with a radio promoter or publisher where they just don’t properly communicate what they’re up to. This doesn’t mean that they’re not working, and I can’t stress enough - you can’t expect (and probably wouldn’t want) to be cc’d on every single email that your reps are sending. But if you feel consistently in the dark, or you hear about major decisions being made involving your career third-hand, it’s time to have a talk.
- You find yourself having to go around them. If you’ve got a publicist on board and you find yourself reaching out directly to media outlets because you find that easier than asking again for your publicist to reach out, it’s probably time to take a closer look at what you’re paying for. This also applies to any branch of your team.
- They’re representing you in a way that you wouldn’t. This one is a little harder to see, but make sure to do your due diligence and check in periodically with the people your manager or agent or publisher are speaking to on your behalf. Don’t be weird about it or make your manager feel like you don’t trust them. But also don’t completely check out only to discover that your representative is being overly demanding, or just being a bully. Having worked in A&R at labels, I can vouch for this being the case more often than you’d think. More than once, I’ve loved an artist personally and professionally, but dealing with their demanding or difficult manager was enough to make me not want to work with them at all.
Overpromising and Under-Delivering
- Lack of follow through. Your rep might be good at getting on the phone, having regular meetings with you and telling you what you want to hear - but do they actually follow through? This is a fine line, since sometimes big things take longer to complete than you think. But this becomes a problem when they consistently tell you they will do something and then it just doesn’t get done. Or it gets done too late, or you have to remind them more than twice before it gets started.
- The work they do is all reactive and not proactive. Unless you’ve got an explicit understanding, like a consulting deal, you should expect your rep to be working regularly on your behalf, proactively. At best, they should be brainstorming new ways to grow their specific area of your career (whether you’re in the room or not) and bringing those opportunities to you. At least, they should not be reliant on a prompt from you or other team members in order for them to perform their baseline functions.
- They repeatedly feign excitement for ideas. When your team hypes you up about an idea, and then never follows up about it and pushes the idea aside later when you try to bring it up again, that might be a sign that you can’t trust their passion for your project.
- You feel trapped waiting for something to happen. This is more specific to labels, but if you’ve signed a deal, the record’s finished and the only thing preventing it from seeing the light of day is your label team getting it together, a chat with a good entertainment lawyer about that record contract might be wise.
Secrecy or lack of trust.
If you have entrusted someone enough to be a part of your team - to represent you out in the world in a small or big way - you need to have a strong mutual trust. This plays out in myriad ways, but we all know it when we feel it. If you feel like you’re not trusted or can’t trust your team member, go with your gut. Here are the major red flags to look out for:
- Withholding information or getting in the way of other relationships. Sometimes, a manager or agent is weird about letting you have direct contact with the people they’re communicating with on your behalf. This could speak to a feeling of mistrust in you to not go around them and cut them out, or just a feeling that they want to remain in complete control. Either one isn’t great.
- You feel uncomfortable relinquishing control. The previous point can go the other way as well: if you feel nervous or have doubts about sharing a contact with your manager, maybe for fear that they would exploit that for personal gain or misrepresent you - ask yourself why you’d let them do business for you in the first place?
Your team is outsized compared to your level.
This one is a little touchy. I don’t mean to offend anyone who is lucky enough to have an investor willing to shell out cash with the intention of giving your artist career a boost. There’s nothing wrong with making an investment in content or marketing or publicity when the time is right. But this can often go sideways. The lure of “buying” your way into success can create stagnation and a lack of responsibility on the artist’s part.
Here are a few ways to know when you’ve invested too heavily in services that can be bought, so much that it might actually be holding you back.
- You have a bunch of highly specialized people. Chances are if you’re an indie musician reading this article, you don’t need a full-time makeup artist, two personal assistants, a stylist and performance coach. If you find yourself with a team full of specialists who are on retainers, you may have beefed up your team prematurely. This is especially true when you haven’t built the foundational block of a full-time manager, which usually can’t be found until you’ve got some amount of experience and work under your belt.
- You don't have a proper team leader. At Venture, we’ve been in the situation more than once where an artist comes to us with a team of paid specialists in place, and without a centralized team leader like a manager or record label, we are left with a broken line of communication. We’re not sure who we should talk to about the project, and without clear leadership, everyone on the team is vying for their spot. This lands a project in a position of having multiple different objectives and priorities from multiple team members, with so much time spent clarifying and setting up conference calls, and a lot less time actually getting to work. And usually very little input from the artist themselves.
There are, of course, other reasons outside of this list - and often less specific reasons that make a working relationship fizzle, like this blog on the artist manager relationship notes. Sometimes, it’s just not the right fit or you’ve outgrown each other.
But - we have one last stop on this journey. Before you make any moves or changes, let’s take a moment of self-reflection and evaluate what you are bringing to the table.
When to hang in there
As you can see from the bulk of this blog, there are plenty of legitimate reasons why you might need to drop someone you’re working with. Like I said, it takes time and some tweaking to get it right. If you read through all of the above and still feel good about your team, chances are they are probably worth sticking with.
But if you still feel like something’s holding you back, it’s important to make sure you’re evaluating what you are bringing to the table. This video, by singer Ariel Bloomer speaking at the 2018 CD Baby DIY Musician conference, is a great watch about accountability and ownership of how you might be holding yourself back as an artist. Sometimes the very thing that makes you an artist - your vulnerability, pain and unique perspective on the world - can be the thing that hurts you.
For a more practical look at this from the business standpoint, this ten part series from New Artist Model on mistakes musicians make also has some great highlights.
But - if you’re still unsure. If you’ve read through all of the above, you did some soul searching, and you are having a hard time hearing your gut through the noise - here are some guidelines on when your team is likely not holding you back.
Your only problem with your team is their status.
If you feel like the only thing holding you back is that your manager isn’t big enough or your booking agent isn’t getting you enough opening slots, you probably need to reset. The biggest managers in the game didn’t start out that way. They found a rising star and came up the ranks with them. Any real, worthwhile connection you will make in your career will ultimately be of your own making. You will make friends with like-minded artists on your path, one of you will catch a break and start selling more tickets, and you’ll bring the others along. As long as your team is reacting when they see these opportunities that you will organically create, they are doing their job. You can’t rely on your team’s status to build yours. Even if it works momentarily, it won’t be lasting and it won’t be as rewarding as building your own community and succeeding together.
They aren’t willing to work for free or deal with unreasonable demands.
Consider this scenario: your agent booked a show and it was poorly attended. You express that due to poor attendance, you don’t want them to take their cut of the guarantee, and they politely invoice you anyway. If your next move is to consider firing them because they didn’t agree to your demands - the problem likely isn’t your agent.
When your team member does their job and respectfully communicates reasonable boundaries for your working relationship, listen to them. Respect them. That is a person who knows what they’re worth and how and when they work best. They will do better work for you because of it. They will represent you with those same values and hold other people accountable on your behalf. If your only concern is having someone on call at all hours to do whatever you’d like them to do - you’re likely distracting them from actually doing productive work on your behalf.
They are dedicated and work hard for you.
If your team members consistently prioritize you, answer when you call, come up with creative ways to grow your career and follow through on what they promise. If they show up to your shows on the other side of the country on their own dime, hire interns to get posters out to every single one of your shows, man the Q&A on a livestream on a Saturday at midnight (even though they’ve been working for you all week). These are the people that will help you succeed. These are the people that will continue to champion you, whether you’re having the best or worst year of your career. Hang on to them.
Building the right team is not rocket science. You’ll know when something’s off, and you should trust your gut. Just be careful to get to the bottom of that feeling before you make any sudden moves. That inclination will serve you for the rest of your career.