Over 400M Sold: Uncut Gems From A Music Supermanager [INTERVIEW]
In this interview we talk with Lucas Keller, music industry supermanager and purveyor of the music management firm Milk & Honey, about his zero tolerance approach to success in a challenging industry.
Guest post from AWAL
Lucas Keller’s serving world domination with a smile : )
Since his early days, the Wisconsin-bred firebrand has lambasted even the faintest whiff of industry treachery, regularly bulldozing status quoers in more than a few David & Goliath showdowns. Zero tolerance can make enemies in an incestuous business, but 19-hour days, sincerity, cunning, and rare loyalty ultimately left Keller with the resources and connections needed to start his management firm Milk & Honey. The powerhouse boutique looks after many of the best writers, producers, DJs and engineers in music, from LA to London and beyond. Name any superstar artist of the past five years and there’s a 90% chance one of Keller’s clients helped them build, maintain, or amplify their cultural reach. We chatted with the Power 100 / 40 Under 40 alum to hear firsthand what he’s learned along the way.
Management Lessons (TL;DR)
- Love your hometown (but feel okay loving it from afar if duty calls).
- Give credit where credit is due (even if music companies don’t).
- Dine alone less. Eat and meet more.
- Leave financial advice to the pros (and get E&O insurance).
- Relatedly: Work with business managers — they pay for themselves.
- Don’t be cheap with the most talented people in your corner.
- Don’t let hype decide who you do and don’t fuck with. Careers rise and fall and rise again.
- Share information with the people you trust. Make moves accordingly.
- Keep tabs on who’s signing and prioritizing who.
- Use email as a rapidfire tool to stay on the same page. Skip formalities.
- Expect lawyers to prioritize artists over songwriters or producers.
- Remember that hits can come from anywhere.
- Repay artists’ trust with everyday hustle and constant availability.
- Shake on it. You can build a powerhouse company without contracts.
The World According to Keller (Full Interview)
Someone calls Wisconsin a flyover state to your face. Why are they wrong?
We have cheese and we have beer and we have Les Paul and we have the Packers and the Badgers and there’s so many great things. And we have Lake Michigan, the better side of Lake Michigan. I lived in Chicago for four years. My first serious company I worked at was in Chicago, so I spent a lot of time all over Illinois, too. I don’t think I would have left the midwest if I didn’t work in music.
People talk a lot of shit about Wisconsin. But I mean, it’s a lot of interesting people who’ve come from there. This isn’t a good thing, but we do have the highest number of notorious serial killers… Dahmer, Ed Gein, we got a high list of serial killers in Wisconsin. That aside, it’s a great place to be from. All kinds of people have fantasies about being able to move back to more affordable places where they could work in the music business, but I think they’re all wrong. Milwaukeeans wouldn’t like me saying that, but I don’t see it.
Where do you see the lasting battle over credits and liner notes headed?
I talk a lot of shit about the fact that it’s still a GRAMMY category. I don’t get it, man. I mean, best liner notes, best album packaging, or whatever. Surely we have better things to celebrate with the GRAMMYs. It really just shows how dogmatic and stuck in the past the GRAMMYs are. I’ve always been very open and honest about that. What I would like to see, which I am working on is, more people credited on streaming platforms.
We don’t need to return to gatefold artwork, but if one of the services said, “Hey, we’re going to do two more pieces of interactive artwork,” it would matter. Some people at the top are capable of making that decision. I love thinking of Pink Floyd records and reading the notes, seeing famous photos from Storm Thorgerson, but maybe that makes me old school. Either way, people like engineers should be mentioned in the Spotify credits. More people in the value chain deserve that. Add it in and add credit clicks to the algorithm. It’d take an hour.
How cynical does your mind get when you think about the amount of work left to be done, how far behind we are in terms of cleaner attribution, crediting contributors?
I’ve been very publicly outspoken about the streaming services’ treatment of songwriters. That’s no secret. But on a 30,000 foot level, asked about intentions, I don’t think it was actually that malicious. When you’re launching a company, it’s kind of a triage, like, “What do we get to first?” This is ancient history, but Spotify’s deals with the major labels give the majors most of the money, so they’re an accomplice in the lackluster crediting. They have the ability to change those deals during renewals and they don’t. And the major labels own the major publishers, so the major publishers can’t really take shots at their bosses.
In most cases, those companies are all pushing for similar outcomes, trying to get writers into rooms that might yield some Top 40 market share. When you sign a new client, or you refresh the game plan for another, how are you deciding where to focus most of your time? You could spend a million years emailing about, calling for, scouting the wrong opportunities.
If you manage, it’s really hands on. Some stuff doesn’t really change — tracking down the money, knowing the nuances of the deals. But the best part and the hardest part is that everyone is so different — their own emotions, their own goals and benchmarks. Most people might want to be on the charts but they probably don’t want to get there the same way, with the same songs. Some folks wake up and have a bit of a crisis, like, “I wanted to be Max Martin, but now I realize I want to be George Martin. How do I make an Adele record? Something important?” I just try to identify the projects that are open, that interest a client, with information we have that our clients might not.
This is an old example, but when we put up one of our big producers, Sir Nolan (Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber, Kehlani), to work with Nick Jonas, Nick was cold at the time. But we had intel our clients didn’t have. We knew label head David Massey had signed the Jonas Brothers in the beginning, and didn’t have them when they really hit their stride, and had all that success on Hollywood records. There’s nothing like getting back what you lost. So we felt like there was going to be a big push. For our producers, everyone might want big placements, but if there’s a rising artist with a great team around them, our people can really put their paw prints on that project, be known as the person who helped break that artist.
I still believe songs are bigger than artists. It’s not good to be known for just a song — everyone just asks, well, who wrote it? “Say You Won’t Let Go is bigger than James Arthur, to me. That’s why the artist needs to have a presence, draw, a world, whatever that’s bigger than any one song. The flipside is, an incredible song can overpower all of the other stuff. So it’s our job to put talented people in rooms with other talented people, period, and get our writers interested in artists they might not buy into. They might think the artist is wack, or that it’s been too long since they had a hit. If they write the right song, they will have a hit.
It helps to know which artists are attached to music executives we believe in. Then we do all the other stuff everyone wants to work on like Selena Gomez or Ed Sheeran. That just comes from having good relationships with managers, artists, companies all over. When we were building Milk & honey, the goal was to have enough access where people that we call on Monday can’t brush us off because they need to talk to us Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.
And in your experience, as your clients become more renowned with time, how do you see income breakdowns shifting? Splits and fees changing? How are you seeing the compensation norms evolving for producers versus songwriters?
I’m trying to be more progressive about my views on writers getting fees in addition to producers, especially because I represent some writers who don’t produce. I have to admit, it’s difficult, because a lot of producers do not agree with it. Their view is, “Come to my studio and sit with me for three, four days and I’ll give you part of the production, no fee, no master split.” And every writer manager is like, “No, she doesn’t want to do that.” But while the writer is jumping from session to session, writing new songs every day, the producer is tethered, stuck in the studio, finishing song. So in some ways, to me, making the master is an art reserved for the producer.
The other argument, though, is if you include an in-demand songwriter in master splits, you’re being good to them, and as a producer, if you have great writers in your corner, you hold them near and dear to you. If you produce and you can regularly call on three great writers, some of the better writers in the business, you’re golden. So if you’re the one who kicks them $2500 or $5000 and gives them a point on the master, you’ll probably make more money in the long run, versus being cheap and keeping the whole flat fee.
In truth, though, the writer isn’t usually adding to the master. So I’m open to the $2500 conversations, but once it becomes, “Hey, your producer is getting 40 racks, let’s split it 50/50 with my top liner,” I don’t know about all of that. We’re trying to create fairer solutions for everyone, and sometimes interests don’t align, but I think we’re making progress.
Say one of my clients does a song 50/50 with another songwriter, Susie, so they make the same amount of publishing. Yeah, he makes a little more having some master points, he gets a fee, but if you’re writing hits as a writer, you’re getting cuts every year, you’re still making money. It’s really hard for people who aren’t having hits, because they might not get any master ownership along the way. But if you’re someone who can charge even $15,000 for a master, well, do 10 of those a year, less than once a month, and you’re in the upper 1% in America.
Lots of these business relationships start out in the early days as someone seeing a lot of potential in one of their best friends. As the accolades pile up and the money gets bigger, do you ever struggle to balance professional conduct and interpersonal support?
I’m really lucky that at some point in time somebody was willing to give me a shot and I was the friend manager. So thank God for all those artists. One of the worst pieces of advice my first boss gave me was, don’t be friends with these people. My clients are some of my closest friends. I think what my boss meant was, don’t go out and get drunk with your clients because they start to look at you differently. That is a real problem. But I have 55 clients who are like family. It’s super personal. The only thing that isn’t personal is if they want to leave Milk & Honey and move on. But we’ll go on vacations together. Dinners all year. Long hours hanging out in the studio…
You need that mutual love because it’s the glue that holds everything together. Careers are peaks and valleys. I can’t just be a suit to these people. One of our clients, David Hodges, another Kobalt writer and my longest client, we’ve worked together for 10 years, and he’s a very important part of the fabric of our whole company. He says there are two types of people in town: facilitators and creators. My goal has always been to be the most creator-friendly facilitator. I’m still a guy in an office at the end of the day. I’m not writing songs. We’re still a company of handshake deals. We rely on people’s loyalty and it ensures we’re always trying our hardest.
Most of your waking hours go to them. What’s your calendar looking like?
I’m up at 7:00 AM in LA, talking with people in the UK. We just opened our London office this past week. A little bit of Europe, because of our active footprint in the dance space. The New York office is three hours ahead, so there’s obviously that. Then I have a lot of local clients calling between 8:00 AM and 11:55 AM, because they want to chat before their session at noon. For a lot of them, especially ones with family, they’re going to dinner after the session, then hanging with their kids, their partner, so they don’t want to talk to me then [Laughs]. The mornings are packed. LA is the worst time zone in the world.
The nice part, of course, is when I go to dinner, nobody can bother me unless they’re in Australia or Asia. I’m usually in the office from 10:00 AM to 7:00 PM. I do either a breakfast and dinner meeting or a lunch and dinner meeting every day, all year. Always meeting people. There’s a huge social element to what I do and that’s important to me. Lots of new business, the information we have, it just comes from that. Our LA office has 10 people in it now, and we don’t have many layers of management, so I’m involved with everyone. About ¾ of my day is writer-producer stuff, ¼ artist stuff.
Within Milk & Honey, how are you centralizing and sharing the intel you’re picking up?
I really cut my teeth in LA at one of the bigger management companies of the 2000s, The Collective, and I’ve taken some lessons from there and applied them to our situation. We have a couple group email lists, so anyone at the company can share information or an opportunity, which makes it more comfortable to just send anything. We probably have 25 emails an hour just sharing information to the whole company. If someone literally just needs to ask, “Hey, anybody know someone at this company for this client,” they can blast it out.
We also avoid institutional meetings. Report-out meetings. We only do meetings to talk about things that will push the business forward. We don’t just sit around a table and talk about everything happening because I think it’s a waste of time. That’s what email’s for. Companies who do that all the time are pretty wack to me.
One last thing I’ll say about this: At the end of the day, an email goes out with everybody’s schedule, so you see what someone’s doing at 9:00 AM, at noon, at 3:00 PM. People who work for probably think I’m keeping track of them [Laughs]. Really, though, it’s so someone can say, “Hey, you’re going to go see that guy from Billboard for lunch tomorrow, can I come with?” Or, “Hey, you’ve got a call with Insomniac, can you mention our new DJ signing to them?” It keeps us united. We started this thing small, with $5, a rock, a stick, and a box. We don’t want to lose that.
What financial lessons did Milk & Honey’s formation leave you with?
For one, I like nice shit [Laughs]. We spent a little too much money. But we were really successful so it worked. When you’re bootstrapping as a young company, though, it’s best to air on the side of conservative spending. Hope for the best, plan for the worst. At the same time, we went out, we were very public, we were very loud about any successes we had. There was a cost to doing that, throwing events, whatever, and it helped us establish ourselves, but I would’ve done a little less. We took on too much office space when we started.
That said, had I not opened the New York office, had I not spent time in Europe, I wouldn’t know I should go into the DJ business, I would have never met Oliver Heldens or any of the other DJs that followed. You do have to spend money to be out there and take chances. I’m humbled by the fact that it could have gone very, very differently for us.
Do most of your clients have their own business managers when you start working with them?
Since we’re friends with our clients, if someone asks for my opinion on something, I’ll give it to them, but it’s best to stay out of the finances. I never wanted the call that comes two years later, like, “Hey, you signed me into this record deal and it cost me an extra million dollars and we’re going to sue you now.” We have E&O insurance for that reason. I don’t want to give advice that someone later thinks is bad and costs me money, costs me a lawsuit, especially with people we actually like. I’ve seen it happen to other people. The client loved their manager, but the manager made one big mistake, or gave them such bad advice about an investment, that it was fatal to their relationship.
That said, we have to be deeply aware of our clients’ financial situations, because we need to know what someone needs. How much money do we have to bring in for someone between Thanksgiving and March 1? Collecting money from major labels is extremely painful and we have to know all of that stuff, but we’re not making invoices, paying bills, especially because we have handshake deals. We want to make sure everyone we work with has a business manager anyway because I’m not going to chase commissions while I represent you. I’m also not going to let somebody put themselves in a position where they have tax problems. Everyone always says “I don’t need it, I don’t need it, I don’t want to pay the 5% to a business manager,” but 16 years have taught me they pay for themselves.
Lots of people have heard mythological horror stories about collecting money when money is owed. It’s 2020 now — what’s the issue?
I came to have this belief that a certain major music company created this thing called [redacted], which is a login portal to make it difficult for people to get paid. I came to believe that when I send an invoice to an A&R admin person, they delete it the first time and then only when I follow up does it get submitted. It gets to a point where we have to actually withhold files, songs, assets, whatever, like, “We’re not giving you your cheeseburger until you pay us our dollar. Not happening.”
Plus, unfortunately, lawyers make more money with artists. So for the lawyers representing writers and producers, unless you’re with a couple key lawyers who really care, you have to chase them too because your agreement is one in a stack of 100 on their desks, behind all the artists’ work. So something that should take 15 days tops takes 90. The music business functions within its own dysfunction. When finance people come and look at the industry, aside from it being an attractive place to invest right now, they look at it like, “Really?”
Everything’s moving so fast and managers have to run faster still. What separates a good one from a great one to you?
As a manager, my real heroes, it was Jon Landau (Bruce Springsteen). It was Paul McGuinness (U2). It was Miles Copeland (Sting and The Police). Career-long partnerships. Now, you’ve got all of these companies rolled up into bigger companies, these faceless conglomerates with lots of employees, but most don’t have great taste, real opinions, personal investment in the people they work with. For too many people it’s only the bottom line that matters, or growth for growth’s sake. We have clients because they know they can call us. We actually do put them first. I’m a workaholic, and I’m big about how my people have to be available to their people. If you let someone call you at midnight, they probably won’t, but they know they could, and that matters. It’s just about going the extra mile, inspiring confidence in creative talent. Once you can’t do that, you’re a goner.
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