Music Biz 2018: Modern Artist Development

Pictured (L-R): Noah McPike, Austen Adams, Martha Earls, Robert Femia, Jeremy Stover, and Kerry O’Neil.

The Music Biz 2018 conference started in Nashville on Monday morning (May 14), with a panel discussion surrounding new artists’ paths through the artist development process, and legal issues to be aware of.

Moderated by Dickinson Wright’s Austen Adams and Noah McPike, panelists included efg Management owner Martha Earls, who manages Kane Brown; UMG Nashville VP, Business & Legal Affairs Robert Femia; Big Yellow Dog Music co-founder Kerry O’Neil; and Red Creative Group owner/producer/songwriter Jeremy Stover, who is known for his work with Justin Moore.

Defining An Artist’s Goal

Adams advised the audience, which included many independent artists and songwriters, “We want to know, ‘What is your goal?’ Are you a songwriter that sometimes wants to put out music for fun, but you are focusing on creating and writing for others? Or do you really want to be n artist? Do you want to release and tour a little bit, like say a Lori McKenna who makes critically-acclaimed albums. She tours a good bit, but doesn’t really go to radio, or do you want to be a Kane Brown, and go and do the radio tour? There are different levels of artists and when you go into some of these publishing and artist development deals, you need to know what you want to get.”

“Some artists-writers are more songwriter driven in the sense of let’s go sell this as ‘This guy’s had two cuts on Jason Aldean, three cuts on Luke Bryan and three hits as a writer and they can go open shows,” said Stover. “You can upstream that in a sway that isn’t necessarily through the digital platforms. I think combining that with the digital platforms can be very beneficial as you upstream it.”

A Manager’s Role

Earls talked about the art of timing to bringing a manager on board, when a publisher has been acting as a manager up to that point.

“A manager’s role in my opinion is protecting the artist and maximizing their opportunities, said Earls. “If you are, early on, releasing music through a publisher, that manager can come in and help with merch and touring, building the brand and socials, things a publisher doesn’t have time to do because they are focusing on creative. Early in the manager helps maximize what they are doing. Once he ball is rolling it’s never too early to have someone come along and maximize it.”

You can have a lot of contradictory messages with so many players on board, so communication is important. We were talking to an artist the other day who has come into prominence on social media through covers. One advisor, his producers was telling him to pull all his covers down. Then someone else was saying to keep them up. I think you have to have communication collectively amongst the team and a unified message. Otherwise, the artist feels everyone is disagreeing.”

The Importance Of Legal Guidance

The panel discussed the details of publishing and artist development deals, which are often wrapped into one deal. O’Neil discussed that artists give up a percentage in touring and/or merch in artist development deals, similar to how they are giving up a percentage of their copyrights in publishing deals.

“One thing we do in every deal is a separate advance toward an attorney that can explain everything so up front they know everything that is happening, so in advance to have an educated writer artist,” O’Neil said. “We will give them a list of several and they will go and interview. We don’t have anything to do with that process. Sometimes people come to us without an attorney and we will give them a list of three or four different attorneys and they will go an interview. We are not involved in that process. They find someone they are comfortable with and then we will start. You always need to have someone who works just for you in that process, as it also makes the process go easier.

“If we are going to sing a writer-artist, we are going all in,” O’Neil continued. “We are going to be paying for virtually everything, the masters, everything with getting live show ready, most of the time people we sign are writers so you want to have the quality there. For the artist—you have to have a distinctive group of songs. It can’t just be another good singers with good songs. You have to break through a lot of fantastic songs.”

Stover added in relation to publishers getting touring ancillary as part of the artist development contracts. “On more then one occurrence as a publisher and producer of an artist I’ve developed, I’ve put in two or three years before. I’ve put in time on recordings and intros to labels and booking agents. Essentially so many times the publisher plays the role of manager in the first few years. So I think ancillary touring is a fair ask.”

“That’s how I got into management,” commented Earls. “One of our songwriters became an artist signed to Big Machine and that role just naturally happened.”

“When Tenille Townes signed with us we were ready to go in and start recording sides,” O’Neil said. “She had amazing music. People had started to hear about it and we never got to that phase. She signed to Sony and has music coming out. We’ve had another situation with Meghan Trainer where [Big Yellow Dog’s] Carla Wallace had taken ‘All About That Bass,’ which Meghan wrote with Kevin Kadish. Meghan and Kevin had a demo and that demo which was amazing, an executive at Epic said this is amazing and took it to the powers that be and in four months, that song and that demo became the master and went out [to radio]. Sometimes things are out of your control, and often in a good way.

“For us, in almost every case we set aside a development fund as part of the negotiation, so we can expect to do that process and we take as long as it needs in order for everybody to be happy that we got something that is going to create a seat at the table. There is no seat waiting at the table for any artist. You have to have something amazing.”

From Indie Artist To Major Label Agreements

Femia discussed the importance of having proper legal contracts in place well before starting talks with a major label.

“For an artist, when you talk about getting this fanbase built by yourself, when you come into the label world and we are taking the music you’ve put together, when that come into our world, it takes on a whole different light,” said Femia. “You could have this great fanbase, but when we sign you and you don’t have those producer agreements done or the right video agreements done for the content you’ve made, it’s a lot harder to go back and backfill agreements and work out splits. It’s not rare and not just our label, where you take something and it’s like, ‘This is great music, but we are a major label and we are a target and people like to sue us.’ People are going to come out of the woodwork when you put things out there and that slows down momentum.

There’s really no such thing as promotional only anymore. When we get involved everything Is inherently commercial. It’s on YouTube, Vevo, Spotify, it’s being monetized. They may not have cared about that content last year, but they are going to care now when they see your signing photo and you are making money off of it, and all of a sudden they go, ‘I helped him get there too.’ I think it’s a great thing that Kerri does to set them up to go the right path. It used to be, as Kerry joked with me this morning, ‘It used to be when you signed with a label, everything goes dead.’ That’s not the case any more. That online presence is important and you don’t want to [take down an artist’s pre-major label content] because if you do, people might forget about the artist and go on to the next best thing. Once an artist gets signed, you work on transitioning from that early material to the new material with management and publisher and their lawyers.”

“Nashville” Deals Versus “Pop” Deals

Adams also touched on the sometimes vast differences between artist development deals in Nashville and the pop world.

“When I see a pop production deal, it’s typically a production deal, where an artist is not just signing a deal for these masters, it’s a situation where I own you as a recording artist. You cannot record for anyone else without our permission, and you don’t have any say in your record deal. They will negotiate your record deal for you and take 33+ percent.”

Femia also chimed in on the differences in deals. “When I was at Atlantic and Virgin and had a big pop and hip-hop base, where I worked we tended to see regional production companies and they would sign an artist to the production company as if they were a label. We would sign the deal with the production company, not the artist. Sometimes that doesn’t matter, and sometimes it’s all the difference in the world. In New York, sometimes all you could talk to was that production company. You would find out the details of that deal and it was so egregious that as a label lawyer it makes me nervous that after this guy does take off, there’s a chance that he could go back and file a suit against that production company and break out of that contract. If they break out of that production contract, at least for that moment in time, they are possibly out of our agreement, too, depending on what the court rules. We do have protections built in, but at the end of the day, if the court says we don’t care, the artist can be free. For us, that usually invites a lot of competition. Chances are the artist is going to start shopping around. The foundation of your career is really important, having those building blocks in order.”

Earls said legal differences can mean a big difference when a label is considering signing an artist.

“What kind of leverage are you bringing, and not just talent.” She said. “The more baggage you have it takes away your leverage so a lot of what you built can be negated because of the legal knot you are in, when a label is looking at one artist versus another.”


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About the Author

Jessica Nicholson serves as the Managing Editor for MusicRow magazine. Her previous music journalism experience includes work with Country Weekly magazine and Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) magazine. She holds a BBA degree in Music Business and Marketing from Belmont University. She welcomes your feedback at [email protected]

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