Who Needs A Manager? – Interview with Tommy Merrill

The music industry is changing, and quick. Artists and musicians take on more and more of the roles and responsibilities traditionally held by record labels and managers. If via various internet platforms, artists can skip the intermediate steps and connect straight with their fans, what’s the point of shelling out money (or a portion of profits) for a manager, booking agent or publicist?

Tommy Merrill spent 7 years as Talent Buyer at Rockwood Music Hall, helping to develop (and vet) artists from the ground up in New York City’s famed showroom on the Lower East Side. More recently, Tommy jumped to The Press House, where as President of Artist Development & Booking, he works directly with artists on the upswing of their careers.

As someone who works with tons of independent artists, Tommy answered some questions about what relevance management and representation has in the DIY music economy and how artists can make the most of those sorts of partnerships.

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In the do-it-yourself music economy, what do managers and booking agents have to offer that artists can’t provide for themselves?

TM: Two things, relationships and assistance in planning strategy.  A good manager and/or booking agent can get you in the door somewhere you haven’t previously been.  Managers are wonderful for coming in and really laying down the short and long term goals and strategies needed to accomplish those.  Whether just starting out or being further along in one’s career, introduction to the right people in the right situations can really help.  

Artists were coming to me regularly expressing their frustration at not being able to get an agent because they hadn’t toured in the past.  They just didn’t have the background to know what venues made the most sense and who to contact. There was a huge gap between developing artists and those that were starting to gain traction with larger agencies. This is one of the primary reasons that Dawn Kamerling and I launched this new division of The Press House to come in and assist. We’ve been able to get artists into outside markets, both around the US and internationally, with a good level of success for the past year because of our relationships. 

What do you look for when taking on new clients at The Press House? Besides “raw talent”, what makes a viable artist?

TM: I look for a couple of things when taking on new artists.  First and foremost, there certainly needs to be that raw talent that you describe, but I also think a very strong work ethic is needed to be successful or to even lay the foundation to be successful.  It’s a pleasure when artists bring more than talent to the table.  I’ve always thought that knowing the ins and outs of one’s industry, no matter which aspect you focus primarily on, makes that person infinitely better at what they do.  

Thirdly, I look for artists that are realistic about their goals.  For instance, it’s not realistic for an artist to move to New York with zero experience and hope to play Bowery Ballroom a month later.  Let’s agree on short and long term goals, attack them in the correct order and build it properly.

When vetting potential managers and agents, how can artists tell a bad situation from a good one? How can artists avoid being taken advantage of?
TM: This is a tough one.  So many artists are keen on having a manager, that they hop on with the first person to take interest.  I would look at the potential manager/agent’s past, who they have worked with, the success they have had, etc…  I would take a couple of meetings with them and really try to dissect what they can do for you.  Do they get your music?  Do they LIKE your music?  Who else do they work with?  How many other artists do they manage?  The last thing an artist wants is to get in a situation with someone where they are lower in priority because the roster is so stacked.  And also, are they interested in what YOUR goals are.  I think it is wildly important that strategies from both sides be brought together to build the proper way forward.
I am also a firm believer that the level of communication is of paramount importance.  My company never takes on more than 10-15 active artists at a time, in terms of booking, because I want to be able to have daily communication with each artist. 

How should artists go about seeking representation?
TM: I would certainly ask around.  First off, become a part of the music community and really analyze everything happening around you.  Identify those artists whose career path is moving along the same trajectory as you would like to see yours move.  Who they are working with and why?  A lot of the time artists do the majority of this kind of work in terms of booking, promotions, marketing, etc…  When things start cooking a bit more and it seems like there is too much on your plate to focus on the songwriting or music, it may be time to find the right person to assist you in moving forward.

What is one thing independent artists need to know that many don’t?
TM: Two pieces of advice that I give everyone.  First, I think it’s quite important to immerse oneself in the music community.  I’ve seen so many opportunities and such good come from artists interacting with and supporting others careers.  

Secondly, I believe artists should focus on every aspect of the business in order to properly set themselves up for success.  We’ve all heard that luck plays such a major part in music careers, but the artist that is best prepared to capitalize on that luck when it presents itself moves forward in a much better way than the one that is not.  I also feel that because we are immersed in such a DIY era, that all of this knowledge is within reach.  Get out there and learn every piece of this crazy business!  It will only assist in moving your career in the direction you want it to go.  

Thoughts or questions on the different roles artists and managers can take on? Add your comments below, along with anything else you’d like to see on this blog. And if you enjoy these posts, don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss one!

Other posts in this series:
Having People Take You (and Your Music) Seriously
Showing people that you respect them
Don’t Get Caught Talking the Talk!
Taking Care of Logistics
Paying People on Time

Justin Goldner is a bassist, guitarist, producer, songwriter, language junkie and lover of culture in all its manifestations. He hurls snarky remarks into the Twitter-void via @JusBass.

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