My Music Row Story: Activist Artists Management’s Matt Maher
The “My Music Row Story” weekly column features notable members of the Nashville music industry selected by the MusicRow editorial team. These individuals serve in key roles that help advance and promote the success of our industry. This column spotlights the invaluable people that keep the wheels rolling and the music playing.
As a Founding Partner at Activist, Matt Maher oversees the careers of The Lumineers, Bobby Weir, Young The Giant, Dwight Yoakam, Brittney Spencer, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Empire of the Sun and Felicity, as well as Dead & Company alongside Irving Azoff and Steve Moir. Maher helped The Lumineers grow into a stadium act, and they were the most played artist at Triple A radio in 2022. Among his other achievements are Yoakam earning the BMI President’s Award and induction into the Nashville Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. Prior to Activist, Maher was a partner at Roar Management where he spent a decade overseeing the skyrocketing career of Zac Brown Band.
MusicRow: Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like?
I grew up in Old Tappan, New Jersey—in the far northeast corner of the state, about 15 miles from New York City. It was an amazing place to grow up. Even though we were so close to one of the biggest cities in the world, my town was about two and a half miles wide. It had 4,000 people and no stoplights. There were three farms in the town when I was a kid, and almost everybody walked or rode their bikes to school. It was pretty idyllic—very small town vibe back then.
When did you become interested in music?
I was surrounded by music since I was really young. My father sang all the time, he had a beautiful voice. He would sing and whistle joyfully every morning while he was getting ready for work and listening to the standards on his favorite AM radio station: Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and more. I was also the youngest of 5 kids and had the benefit of my older siblings’ record collections with all different genres like country, rock, etc. I started playing guitar when I was a kid, but not very well. When I was about 12 years old, my best friend and I charged the neighborhood kids a quarter to see us play about two and a half songs in my backyard. I strummed an out-of-tune, cheap classical guitar and he played the trumpet—a great combo!
In college, I started writing songs and playing fraternity parties with a buddy of mine. After college, we moved to Nashville, made and sold our own CDs, and toured the country as an acoustic duo that eventually morphed into an indie rock band along with another friend from college. Leslie Fram—of CMT—was the PD at 99X in Atlanta at the time, and she put one of our songs in heavy rotation. We ended up signing a record deal with Capitol Records in LA and an EMI publishing deal. That was in the mid-to-late ‘90s. We never actually put out an album on Capitol, but we spent a lot of the label’s money and learned a ton.
How did you get into the music business?
When I signed to Capitol, I was also working at Calypso Cafe on Thompson Lane along with a bunch of other Nashville musicians. My girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife, wisely suggested that I take a job working for a young lawyer who had just started an entertainment practice in Nashville. She said I needed a fallback plan. Truly, it was one of the most fortunate things to ever happen to me, as that’s how I started working with my current business partner, Bernie Cahill. It was his law practice and it grew quickly over the next three years. Bernie essentially taught me how to read and mark up contracts, and how to be a paralegal. I learned so much about the actual business of music. Most importantly, I discovered that I really loved helping other creatives with their careers—which was super fulfilling. So, we talked about getting into management. Bernie started a management company with our current partner, Greg Suess, and a couple of other guys in LA, and I was the very first employee. I went from artist to manager overnight, and eventually, I became a partner.
You eventually started managing the Zac Brown Band. Tell me about that.
It was amazing. Great artist, great band. When we started working with Zac and the band, they were playing for door deals in clubs and in a few short years, we helped Zac Brown Band go from clubs to stadiums. What an incredible journey!
What is one of your favorite memories from that time?
Zac and the band were playing a special Veterans Day broadcast for HBO. They were asked to play “Fortunate Son” with Dave Grohl and Bruce Springsteen. I’ll never forget, after the band and Dave had sound-checked, we were all standing on the stage just talking. Then Springsteen, who was and is my hero from growing up in New Jersey, glided up onto the stage with some serious purpose, his guitar strapped on and ready to go. He went straight over to Zac and Dave and wham! He just dug in on his telecaster. No words, just boom—right into the song. The band followed Springsteen’s lead and kicked into gear with Zac, Dave and Bruce standing in a triangle in the center of the stage all jamming on their guitars with big smiles on their faces. [Us managers] quickly tried to step aside because the music was just happening! It was such a moment, feeling the power and joy of these sick artists playing together for the first time.
How did Activist come about?
Prior to starting Activist, we were already managing the Grateful Dead and Michael Franti, who are such amazing activists—it’s just in their DNA. When we felt it was time to make a change from our business at that time, we really wanted to create a culture and a company that incorporated that same purpose of social responsibility, and Activist Artists Management was born. As we all know, music can be such a powerful force for good and a unique catalyst for change. Frankly, just calling ourselves “Activist” has helped to create more opportunities for our clients to give back and I think helped to spark additional ideas or actions for our clients to do good through their art. It has to be the right fit and it’s always up to the client to decide what feels right, but we try to bring them the possibility. For instance, we aim to eliminate more greenhouse gas pollution than we create, and we’ve turned that knowledge into action for hundreds of tour dates for our clients. And, we’re happy to share what we’ve learned in this regard with anyone else in the industry, we’re open source with this information.
What is your favorite part about working with artists at Activist?
There are so many favorite parts. I’m so proud to represent our clients who create amazing art and are true leaders in this world. I’m fortunate to have extraordinary business partners, and incredible partners throughout the industry. As I get older, I really treasure seeing our younger employees grow personally and professionally. I have a lot to be thankful for. I could go on and on, but for instance, I watched The Lumineers sell out Wrigley for the first time this year, Dwight Yoakam gives me musical history lessons on a regular basis, Bobby Weir texts me about guitar pedals, and I’m watching Brittney Spencer quietly and bravely knock down walls day after day. I’m pretty lucky
What is something people might not know about you?
That I was a co-writer on a Top 25 Country song in the ‘90s.
Who have been some of your mentors?
I don’t have one primary mentor. I’ve had a lot of people along the way, including my business partner, Bernie Cahill. He taught me a lot about business, and I taught him about the creative. I consider all of my partners at Activist to be mentors in one way or another. Everyone has their own skills and areas where they excel. Bernie and Greg Suess, who are my Activist co-founders and then our partners, as well as Liz Norris, Kris Tanner and Caitlin Stone—I seek their counsel and learn from each of them all the time. We help each other to be better.
I’d probably say that my father was one of my biggest mentors. I didn’t actually learn this story until after he passed away, but it’s now one of my favorites that speaks to his character. When I was playing little league baseball, my dad was my coach. And every year, there was a draft where all the coaches would get together and select their teams. Apparently, at the draft, my father would declare, “just give me everybody that you guys don’t want.” So my team was filled with all the misfit kids, the kids who were labeled “hyper,” who got into fights, who got into trouble or desperately wanted attention. Looking back, we were definitely the Bad News Bears, but we made the playoffs! Remembering how competitive some of the other parent-coaches were, it still makes me proud to know that my dad quietly made that choice.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Early on in my management career, I asked my brother-in-law for his best piece of business advice. He was the CEO of Ritz Camera at the time. He said to me, “Opportunity is around you every day. Most people just don’t open their eyes—look around.” I was in the car on the way to the office, and after I hung up, I stopped at Starbucks. Starbucks had launched their music compilations, so I looked at the CD at the counter and decided to buy one. At the time, we were managing The Bees, a band that was fronted by Daniel Tashian before he became a producer. I found the name of somebody at Starbucks on the back of the package, tracked them down and got a Bees song added to a Starbucks compilation. Such a great lesson that I still follow to this day.
What does success mean to you?
Success is trust—knowing that I’ve earned the trust of the people in my life. Success is the trust that your family puts in you that you’re going to provide and be there for them. Success is the trust afforded by the incredible artists that give us the opportunity to share in their careers, and the trust that your partners and your team have in you. My partners at Activist are amazing, our team is amazing, and we get to work with A-plus agents, business managers, labels, publishers, publicists and touring crews. If you work hard and earn the trust of the people around you, the business will come. You also have to trust yourself that you are up for the job. That feels like a pretty good way to measure success.
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