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A Conversation with Artist Managers Nancy Tunick & Joelle May

Tom Murray

October 14, 2021

It’s a question every band needs to answer once they get out of the garage and into the spotlight.


Do you really need a manager? 

Is there a reason why someone outside of the group needs to be included in decisions that affect you? If so, how do you find someone who can help? According to Joelle May of the Sakamoto Agency you might want to put a halt to the search while you figure out exactly what you’re doing.

“You probably don’t really need to work with someone until things really start picking up for you,” says May, who not only works in promotions & logistics for the Alberta-based booking and talent agency, but also manages veteran West Coast rockers Econoline Crush. “It’s important that artists do the self-management thing to get an idea of what needs to be done before handing it off to someone else.”


Get clear on what a manager does

Learning to self-manage is an important skill in an industry where musicians often don’t want to know about the “other” side of the industry. Not only because it can help you find someone who knows the ins-and-outs of their position, but also so you can work with your potential future manager towards a common goal. If you have no idea how the industry works, you’re at the mercy of someone who isn’t necessarily going to direct you in the way that you want.

According to May, who has also worked for years in the industry as, among other positions, an in-demand publicist, bands should also be clear about what it is exactly that they’re looking for.  

“There’s the difference between a business manager and a ‘manager’ manager, someone who is going to go out and get opportunities for you,” she notes. “Sometimes smaller bands will have someone they call a manager in that sense of finding ways to get the band out there. They’re more just doing the administrative work that needs to be done for the group.”


What are your artist goals?

But let’s just back up a bit here and talk about the reason why you started a band. For many people it’s a social situation, a chance to hang out, practice, and play a few shows. That’s a completely reasonable motivation to plug in that guitar or bass you’ve long claimed you would master, and start writing and performing. Other musicians have more professional instincts from the get-go. 

For these players short and long term goals are mapped out, with a laundry list of industry helpers ticked off as each one is attained. That doesn’t mean that they’ll achieve the success they’re aiming for, however, just as the garage band who only wanted to play at their local watering hole might suddenly be tapped for more. It’s a coin toss, and if the stars align then either band might find themselves wondering… 


What comes next? 

Where does the fantasy of making a living at playing music collide with the reality? What does that look like?

“I think a misconception about management would be that managers are able to take your career quickly anywhere,” points out Nashville-based Nancy Tunick, owner of FanTheJam and co-owner and co-founder of GrassRoots Promotion, a music promotion, marketing and management company. Tunick has also had a great deal of experience in the industry, serving both as Vice-President of Promotion at Warner Bros. Records Nashville and National Promotion Director at Asylum Records. “Artists need to realize that the career paths are marathons and not sprints, so it’s definitely a process.”

As Tunick points out, the relationship between a band and a manager is more of a partnership, and emerging musicians wishing to play in the system need to think of themselves as entrepreneurs. That’s not a popular view in a world where musicians still posit themselves as bohemians attempting to not soil themselves in the world of commerce, but it’s true. You are, in essence, starting your own business. 

“That means you have to devote time to the business outside of artistic aspirations, and you have to have goals and plans,” Tunick continues. “What I do with anyone I’m interested in working with is have an expectation meeting. We typically look at timelines and say ‘what is your expectation for a year from now. What is a reasonable expectation that would make you happy.’ Then we try to make the reality of it match. Not from a dream-killing perspective, just to base it in reality. I always say to people, things happen in ways that you can’t predict in this industry. There’s some element of it that can’t be quantified.”


Your band, your business

“You know, we act as the CEO, basically, of the artist’s company,” Tunick continues. ”But it’s clearly a partnership, and so it has to be dynamic. This is a relationship where everybody is contributing in the way that makes sense. I also always say to artists that labels, managers, booking agents, everybody’s investing in this.” 

That means that your dream of lounging poolside while “the suits” do the accounting is just that, a dream. Tunick points out that the system is very different from the days when the money flowed more freely. Budgets have tightened, artists are far more closely scrutinized. The freewheeling days are long gone for both labels and bands.

“The pitching process to labels is more like Shark Tank, like ‘here are my gate figures, here are my streaming numbers.’ Of course, they want the content to be great as well. They want to invest in the going concern, and that’s true at every level including for managers.”

Pragmatic and intimidating stuff, when you’re allowing someone to guide you and take a portion of your earnings.


How do you pick the right manager?

If you’re putting your faith in someone to steer you, how can you know if they’ve got the goods? It’s a reasonable fear, and one that May thinks needs to be addressed.

“Absolutely there are people out there that think they’re just going to go and start out as a manager in the industry,” she notes. “The ones who are not doing the administrative work and just making big promises that they can’t follow through on. They do exist.”

Keep in mind that this is a part of the industry that you can choose to participate in or not. Many bands opt out entirely, staying low to the underground, saving their energy for the stage or the recording studio. It’s perfectly reasonable to keep it at a hobby level. But if you see a chance to do more and you want to grab it, then take a look around and see who you might want to help you with it.

“If you’re playing casually and performing on the weekends, and you have a band that wants to just tour your region, I think there’s a great model to develop [from within],” Tunick says. “If your passion raises its hand in a way that says ‘hey, I actually want to take this in a national or international direction,’ then there’s an opportunity to start exploring partnerships.’’


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