Do Producer Managers Help Your Career? An In-Depth Report

July 15, 2012 by  

Producer manager Joe D'Ambrosio takes a three-pronged perspective on his job.

Scratch below the surface of almost any producer, and they’ll tell you they’d love to find The One that can propel their artistry and careers to new heights.

No, they’re not talking about songwriters, vocalists, or A&R VP’s. The human resource many producers, mixers, and engineers crave the most is a manager. And as elusive as this goal may be for many hard-working studio pros, for others having a producer manager is a reality.

Peruse a partial list of audio achievers who have managers, and you’ll see a common thread of great creativity and platinum sales. Here’s just a few: Ron Anielo, Howard Benson, Steve Booker, Michael Brauer, James Brown, Chris Carmouche, Bob Clearmountain, Chris Coady, The Dust Brothers, Stephen Hague, Nic Hard, John Hill, John Holbrook, Trevor Horn, David Kahne, Kevin Killen, Holly Knight, Ryan Leslie, Chris Lord-Alge, Tom Lord-Alge, Lawrence Manchester, Paul Northfield, Paul Oakenfold, William Orbit, Hugh Padgham, GGGarth Richardson, Andros Rodriguez, Dan Romer, Jesse Rogg, Geoff Sanoff, Elliot Scheiner, Matt Shane, Chris Shaw, Trina ShoemakerSly and Robbie, Randy Staub, Tony Visconti, Andy Wallace, Josh Wilbur, Alex Wong, Brad Wood, and Emily Wright.

While having a manager is no guarantee of a multi-platinum career for a producer, mixer or engineer, there’s an undeniable connection between hits and the people in the above list, all of whom employ a manager. But can a producer manager actually get more – and better-paying – projects for their clients? And how does an emerging audio pro snag one of these desirable wingmen for themselves?

Career Boosters

The most common expectation that audio pros have for hiring a manager is that their workload will increase significantly. Most managers see that as a primary function, but also point out that their job description has many diverse aspects which go far beyond that benefit.

New York-based music industry veteran Joe D’Ambrosio started his full-service management company 10 years ago, and has grown a roster that includes Tony Visconti, Hugh Padgham, Kevin Killen, Elliot Scheiner, Joe Zook, Larry Gold, Rob Mounsey, Jay Newland, Lawrence Manchester and many more producers, mixers, arrangers, songwriters and engineers.

“A manager really does three things,” D’Ambrosio says. “33% marketing you, 33% getting you work, and 33% getting you paid. That last one is quite important: You’d be surprised how many people, big and small, don’t get paid — or get paid in an untimely fashion.”

By removing his clients from discussing finances, D’Ambrosio explains, it allows them to focus solely on their craft. “The first thing I attempt to impress on the clients I represent is, ‘If you’re going to allow me the pleasure of representing you, you cannot talk about money. If people ask you how much to mix, tell them three words: Talk to Joe. He’s there to handle the business.’”

On the “gets-you-work” tip that D’Ambrosio lists, tuned-in producer managers can be a major asset in the current climate, where the plentiful major label projects that once kept everyone busy have slowed to a relative trickle. “The whole industry is smaller and more compact,” says Alia Fahlborg, Executive VP of Nettwerk Producer Management. “It used to be that if you were a producer, you didn’t have to worry about not getting the big pop or rock record, because there was plenty to go around. The challenge now is you have far more producers and mixers competing for less work, with smaller budgets than ever before.

Sandy Roberton of World's End

“I’m always on my soap box saying that the producer is the next-most important person in the industry, besides the artist themselves,” continues Fahlborg, who counts Howard Benson, Bob Clearmountain, Chris Lord-Alge, Tom Lord-Alge, Mike Shipley, and Victor Van Vugt among her 21-client roster. “The rest of us are expendable, but the producers, mixers and engineers are the ones actually making the product that everyone else is selling. So their part in this whole thing is invaluable.”

But supply is at an all-time high in proportion to projects, as noted by Sandy Roberton, who is widely regarded as a pioneering force in producer management. Currently, Roberton’s L.A.-based firm World’s End represents a long list of audio pros including Nick Launay, CJ Eiriksson, Matthew Wilder, Atticus Ross, and Peter Katis.

“At any one time, there are only a handful of producers or mixers who are in demand at that moment,” he observes. “Bearing in mind that a good producer or mixer doesn’t suddenly become a bad producer or mixer, they are simply in and out of fashion. A good manager is constantly in touch with labels, A&R, artists, and managers to keep their clients’ name in their thoughts.”

As producer managers go about their task of marketing their clients to artists, managers, and labels, they strive to articulate an audio pro’s value to an upcoming project, while making their connection to successful past projects crystal clear. In the process, managers maintain a link between their clients and the outside world.

“Hopefully they’re in the studio all the time, so while producers are trying to be creative and focus on their current project, they need someone out there promoting them,” Fahlborg says. “It may take a year for a record to get made, and it can be really difficult for them to come out of the cave and say, ‘I’m here!’ So it’s really helpful for the manager to be out there, interacting with the industry, and keeping them in the loop.”

Debbi Gibbs, who heads up Manhattan-based Just Managing, and along with Dan Backhaus represents a nine-client producer/mixer/engineer roster including James Brown, Chris Coady, Geoff Sanoff, and Matt Shane, agrees that providing a conduit to the outside world is a key function. “What a manager does,” she says, “is to make sure that everyone can find them, that the artists who work with them are kept informed and responded to in a timely manner, and that the best projects that come in are scheduled and organized in the most effective way. So producers can do more of what they want to do.”

Of course, audio pros don’t just want a nonstop stream of projects. They want projects that fit their skillset and creative outlook, and a good producer manager will keep on top of their clients’ personal evolution. “You think about the combination of projects that they’ll be doing, how those projects will use their skills, and what will be the most effective musically,” notes Gibbs. “But a record producer often sees himself going in one direction, while the artist who’s interested in them likes something they did a year or two ago. Part of my job is finding projects that are halfway between where a producer’s been and where they’re going – rather than something that’s strictly about what they did in the past.”

When Working with a Producer Manager Makes Sense

So how does a producer, mixer, or engineer know when they’re ready to take that next step, and legitimately vie for a spot on a manager’s roster?

Debbi Gibbs of Just Managing (photo credit: Fraser Harding)

“Essentially, if a producer has gotten to the point where they are so focused on the artists they’re working with that other projects are getting away from them, they need a manager,” Gibbs says. “There’s a lot to be said for producers taking care of themselves, so they know the logistics of the business. But once that gets in the way of them doing the best job in the studio, they’re ready for a manger — if the business is taking up their time or distracting their headspace, they should start looking.”

In addition to getting them the kind of work they know and love, producers and their brethren may look to a manager for help in diversification. Ollie Hammett is an NYC-based producer manager for Sir Elton John’s Rocket Music. “I think we’re in a unique position to help develop the careers of producers,” he says, “in both traditional ways i.e. producing records for artists as well as new ways, too, through opportunities in digital, interactive, film, television and theater. It’s an exciting time for music producers and there are many opportunities to rewrite the rule book.

“Anyone capable of providing music production, engineering or mixing services to the highest level (needs a manager),” Hammett continues. “You could be an up-and-coming producer who needs development but shows great potential, or someone who is self-managed and at the point where you need help. You could also be someone who is unhappy with an existing or previous management relationship and looking for a fresh start.”

Chris Lord-Alge, the world-class mixer whose massive platinum discography includes everyone from James Brown, Tina Turner, Stevie Nicks and Green Day, to My Chemical Romance, Snow Patrol, Shinedown and Daughtry, is represented by Alia Fahlborg. “Getting a proper manager is something you build up to,” he says. “I recommend it as a way to keep yourself in the talent pool – and not just the ‘worker’ pool. When you do make a decision as to who will represent you, it’s got to be someone you trust.

“But the other point to consider is, are you willing to give up a percentage to have someone work with you? If not, then a talented manager won’t work with you. A manager is worth the cut they take, but you also need someone you can call 24 hours a days. If a good manager will take a cut of your income, then they should pick up the phone when you need them.”

Winning a Place on a Producer Manager’s Roster

Once an audio pro has targeted a manager, the next step is to make it onto their roster. With fewer projects available, managers can be expected to be even more discerning than ever in their client selection process.

In D’Ambrosio’s case, the formula is a mix of “excellence, skills, communicative ability, accomplishments and earnings.”

Similarly, Gibbs of Just Managing looks at intangibles just as closely as the balance sheet. “I have a lot of really good producers come to us, but I don’t always get a handle on what we can do to help them,” she says. “Picking the right clients is an ongoing challenge. We think we’ll take another two clients at some point this year, and choosing who that will be is always a big decision for us. It’s very crucial that we understand our clients musically, but I can’t take on a client just by looking at their discography.

“If it’s someone who’s skilled technically, but doesn’t feel strongly about the music they make, I probably wouldn’t know what to do with them,” Gibbs continues. “Producers have so many different techniques, and their studio experience is what allows a band to produce the best performance possible. You need to know your client’s m.o. in order to put them together with the right people.”

Ollie Hammett of Rocket Music

“I would say you need undeniable talent and an incredible work ethic,” advises Hammett. “Rocket’s core business is artist management and the producer roster is still small, but I think the common thread and what we look for in general is exceptional, unique clients whose work speaks for itself. We’re actively looking for new clients as part of our expansion. Personally I’m very proactive at making contact with producers/engineers or mixers that I’m excited about, and building relationships with them. We do get quite a few people reaching out, enquiring about representation too.”

Of course, the age-old chicken-or-the-egg quandary can come up for young producers, mixers or engineers who know they have the skills, but haven’t had the breakout hit yet to prove it. “There’s a Catch-22 sometimes for producers and mixers,” Fahlborg acknowledges. “They feel they could benefit from having a manager, but the manager has to have something to run with – chart success or something that’s really buzzing. There needs to be something I can grab onto, or else I can’t be effective.

“A new client also has to be the right fit,” continues Fahlborg. “You want to have a roster that complements one another, and doesn’t compete to each client’s detriment. Ultimately, if I think I can help a prospective client long term, I want to work with them. If I can’t, I won’t want to be involved.”

Falhborg receives several emails a week from audio pros hoping to get onto her roster. “I think that’s fine — they need to hustle and get along in their careers,” she says. “I try to look at them all, and if someone catches my eye, I’ll get back to them. Or I might say, ‘There’s no room on our roster right now, but keep me posted.’ Email is the best, most effective way to pitch yourself to me, and we do look at everyone who gets in touch.”

What to Expect from a Producer Manager

For those who make the grade and sign on with a producer manager, they’ll find that outside of the core offerings, each firm may exhibit different specialties and strengths.

“Broadly speaking, we offer full service career management which covers pretty much everything,” says Hammett. “For example, marketing your skills and services, managing your schedule, helping to find new projects, negotiating deals, building strategic partnerships, and handling all communication on projects between managers, labels and lawyers. Rocket also offers in-house legal and finance functions. If something very specific is needed that’s outside the scope of management, such as tax accounting, we’ll help find someone who can effectively handle that for our client.”

At Nettwerk, Fahlborg takes considerable pride in her firm’s in-house project coordinators, as well as their commitment to air-tight royalty tracking. “Our coordinators do the day-to-day of planning budgets, booking studios, booking musicians, and invoicing. And they chase the money, which is an increasingly difficult time expenditure.

“We interact with the attorneys on contracts, and once I’ve negotiated a deal I make sure that the deal I’ve made is reflected in the contract. Then there’s royalties. We often need to track down the statements, and make sure the correct advance is in there. I have one person who does all royalty tracking and analyzing of statements — that’s almost invaluable, because there are a lot of checks that never show up unless you chase them down fervently.”

Chris Lord-Alge depends on his manager to keep him squarely in the talent pool.

For Lord-Alge, the biggest benefit of having management comes back to the concept of staying outside of financial discussions. “The biggest problem you have as an engineer, mixer or produce is that you can’t talk business with an artist,” he confirms. “Having proper management representing you is what gets you past being a salaried, paid person to an entity. That way you never have to get involved in negotiating money or time. Then you never have to know anything but one word: ‘yes.’

“That’s important, because as soon as you’re talking money, you’re not the talent any more. You’re really only supposed to have to talk with your clients about the creation of music, and what will make it better. When people ask you your price and you can say, ‘I don’t know – ask my manager,’ that’s one thing. But if you have to say, ‘It’ll cost $2,000 for me do to this,’ then you may as well be behind the cash register. You’re selling yourself. But you want an artist or label to work with you because you have talent – not because you provide a service.”

The Financial Commitment

So what’s it going to cost you? Although there are always exceptions, the typical arrangement is a 15% commission to the manager, on all projects negotiated. If the client is a writer/producer, some managers will receive a cut of the publishing as well, while others choose to keep it simple and stay out of the back end.

Whether or not that 15% will be worth it depends on many different factors. According to one multi-platinum mixer, management became nonessential as major label work grew increasingly scarce.

“A good manager will help you get work, and my previous manager did that to a certain extent, but not a lot,” says the mixer, who asked to remain anonymous. “But I don’t think that it’s a reasonable expectation that the manager will get you work. Remember — the client is looking for you, not the manager. My manager’s value came in for handling the backend and negotiating deals. When I was busy, I needed someone to handle day-to-day business, billing and that kind of stuff, which is a big pain.

“But it wasn’t worth 15% for me. In the past, managers would make really good deals that made it worth it, but with the changes in the business, that just didn’t happen anymore. If you’re a producer/writer who’s guaranteed a backend, then I believe a manager is necessary. But for a mixer, I don’t think so.”

For this mixer, the diminished workload made self-sufficiency the only real option. “With the economics of the music business today,” he says, “there isn’t much of a deal that a manager could make for you, that you couldn’t make for yourself. In order to make getting a manager make sense, you’d have to see way over a 15% increase in income, and its that much more work to offset that. I just don’t see that happening.”

Producer managers who are in the thick of a fast-changing market will be the first to confirm that the act of matching production talent to artist has undergone a major transformation. “When I managed bands, they didn’t have direct access to producers or their discography – artists had to rely on the record company to tell them what Steve Lillywhite was doing, and how to get ahold of him,” Debbi Gibbs states. “But now bands don’t rely on the record companies for that: They rely on the Internet.

“So the vast majority of the decision-making around producers comes from bands directly. They like knowing you’re professional, and knowing that a producer who has a manager will make things move smoothly, and deliver on budget.”

“The most important thing to know about the relationship is that it’s a partnership,” adds Fahlborg. “People think a manager will come in, and all this magic stuff will happen. But it’s hard work, not magic, and the client has to be doing their part as much as the manager. It’s so important for the manager and the client to be in communication, and be working the different situations together.”

Rewarding Workflow

The payoff for the team is when a producer, mixer, or engineer keeps moving forward as the two work in tandem.

Alia Fahlborg of Nettwerk

“The biggest challenge remains managing your client’s expectations,” says Joe D’Ambrosio. “You do that through constant communication, expressing honesty and heartfelt wisdom throughout. The best reward is when a producer, manager or artist calls me and says, ‘Your client did a job for us. I can’t tell you how happy we are, thank you.’ I say, ‘No, thank YOU!”

Debbi Gibbs offers up a picture of the producer manager who can grow their practice in the current industry. “If you like the idea of a low-profile position in the music business that allows you to have amazing people as clients, you could be well positioned as a producer manager.”

In that sense, Alia Fahlborg is very much living the dream. “Like a lot of my clients, I get up in the morning and I’m excited for something that I’ve done for many years,” she says. When you work with so many great producers, mixers and engineers, you get to see what they do on a deep level. You see the demos, their involvement in the studio process, and you see how much better the music can be with a top producer or mixer involved. To be a part of what they’re doing, and making their careers better in some way, is a privilege.”

– David Weiss