February 15, 2013

Staying Interested: Mick Managementís Michael McDonald
Jack Barton

Michael McDonald

Mick Management founder Michael McDonald began his career as Tour Manager for the fledgling Dave Matthews Band, which led him on a journey into every aspect of the music business, including partnering with Matthews, Coran Capshaw and Chris Tetzeli to form ATO Records, launching the label with David Gray’s platinum album, White Ladder. Today, McDonald focuses all his time on Mick Management, a firm that has grown to boast an impressive roster that includes John Mayer, Ray LaMontagne, Brett Dennen, Erin McCarley, Justin Townes Earle, Fort Lean, Kat Edmonson, Real Estate, The Walkmen, and Walk The Moon. McDonald, who will be interviewed by Norm Winer at the Keynote session of this year’s FMQB Triple A Conference, recently called FMQB to talk about his professional journey, the values he employs guiding his artists’ careers, what has changed about the industry in the last 20 years, and what hasn’t changed all that much.



How does a tour manager segue to co-founding a record label?
It started just because Dave and I wanted to stay in business together after I left the road. When we started talking about starting a record label, Dave, his manager (Coran Capshaw) and Chris Tetzeli were already talking about it, so the four of us joined forces. Initially, Chris understood the distribution side of things better than I did, but having been on the road with Dave, I certainly understood the promotion and marketing side of things. It was a really steep learning curve for me trying to learn how to work inside a large distribution company, starting with the paperwork and learning what “four over four” color was and what an eight-page booklet actually is. But I understood the demands on the artist and what I found productive and most realistic for an artist to do.

You had a hell of a rookie run with your first release from ATO (David Gray’s White Ladder), with an artist who was really very talented, but was marginalized by the industry and radio. How did you end up getting him Top Ten on almost every radio chart, while selling over 1 million units?
Well, I’d just say we did it alone, but we didn’t, even though we took it to #3, working out of my spare bedroom. It was a combination of manpower and experience. Chris and I had the conversation of if we wanted to build an entire label staff around this one release and then have to sign artists just to support the label, or do we not want to re-invent the wheel, go into business with someone we know, and stay lean and mean and be able to be selective. So we partnered with RCA and really just tried to be a bigger ATO. We tried to maintain our culture within that release, so it was great timing and it was a great partnership. It all made sense.

You’d think with this kind of initial success you would be going, “I’m gonna run a record label,” yet a few years later you stepped away from ATO and focused solely on the management company. What led to that decision?
Primarily, as both the label rosters and the management rosters started to grow and staffs started to grow, it just came to a point where I knew I could no longer operate in the way I like to operate with everything, which is very involved and hands-on. So there were a dozen artists on ATO, and I had three artists at management, and a combined staff of probably twenty people. I need to be closer to the action than balancing fourteen artists and running two companies, so I spoke with Coran and Dave, and just said I feel that something’s going to slip through the cracks and I can’t operate at this level anymore. That was one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do professionally; that and leaving tour managing. Everyone understood, everyone was cool, and we’re still all dear friends. I think it all worked out for the best. It allowed ATO to re-evaluate and re-establish itself, and allowed me to grow my management company and still stay very involved and very hands-on with my guys’ careers.

I keep hearing the word “culture” come up when we’re talking about ATO, then when you talk about Mick, making it seem very important to you and very critical to the success you’ve had with your artists. Talk about that culture a little.
The culture of a place is what defines it. It’s a reflection of the people who establish it and it’s very important in order to build a company. It’s a matter of doing things your way, with your own patina on it, and finding artists and staff and co-workers who like that and want to be a part of it. That started very early on with the culture of the Dave Matthews Band and what he and Coran established over the years; you know most of the people who started with the band are still there. I’m one of the few people from the road that has left, and I think that’s something really special. That doesn’t work for everyone. But the idea of trust and loyalty and common goals and everyone pulling at the same time in the same direction is something that really speaks to me.
           At ATO, if there was an artist in town and I had a free bedroom, they’d stay there. I tour managed David Gray’s first couple of tours because it made sense. It’s still the way I’ve carried things on into the management company. There’s a studio and a crash pad at the office, and artists record and sleep there when they’re in town and don’t want to spend money on hotels or don’t have money for hotels. I’ve just always believed in that natural connection and genuine honesty and loyalty and belief in one another. I don’t know how to do it any other way. I didn’t get into this business to live disingenuously.

Talk about the development of Mick Management and how the company has changed and how your philosophies have morphed and grown over the years.
I took a lot of what I know about management from Coran; just his approach, which was all things, all the time, 24/7. That’s how I thought everyone operated so with John Mayer and Ray LaMontagne it was very hands on, and from the ground up. Then, once you’re able to build something from the ground up, you gain a belief that it can happen again. You know some of the path to take, and you’re not completely shooting in the dark.
           You know, when John came to me and asked if I’d manage him, I had just put out a David Gray record, I was working in my bedroom, and I certainly didn’t have plans of starting a new career. But it felt right, and that’s the way I’ve done a lot of things in my career. It wasn’t premeditated, it just felt right. It was interesting working with John and working David Gray simultaneously, there were a lot of parallels, specifically in terms of radio. I think it is important to develop an artist like John at Triple A first. While that easily could have ended up a Pop album, and it wound up having a lot of Pop success, I’ve always made it a point that his roots ultimately lay at Triple A.

It’s never been a secret just how highly you truly do value the relationships with radio and the relationships they form with your artists. But those relationships have changed dramatically as the industry changed. How has the artist/radio relationship changed over the last decade or so?
With all the change in the industry, the digitization of everything and the free-fall of album sales, the biggest driver of sales is still radio. What has happened is the competition for radio has gotten to be more difficult. It’s more competitive because there are fewer outlets that have impact. What I’ve found is that the relationship is a partnership, and there are times where there are going to be situations where I need you more than you need me, at that particular time. The important thing for me has always been honesty and integrity in retaining those relationships. Over 13 years, I don’t make a habit of f**king people over, and I’m proud of that. If I tell someone that I’m going to try to make something happen, then rest assured that I’m going to try to make it happen and they understand that I’m really going to try, because when I’ve been able to do things in the past, I have. But the important thing to understand is that it is a relationship and it’s a very symbiotic relationship. It’s one of the things I try to instill in my artists. It’s not that “X radio” station is lucky enough to have you, you’re as lucky to be sitting there as they are to have you. I think when that’s all in perspective, it makes it a lot easier for them to wake up at what they consider dawn and go do what you have to do to support your music.

Now earlier on you were talking about building artists from the ground up, but recently you’ve stared to bring in some artists under your umbrella that are at different places in their career arc, such as Real Estate and White Denim. What qualities are you looking for when taking on a new artist?
That’s a really good question and the answer has evolved in the last couple of years. The single most important thing now is I want an artist that’s going to participate in their career. That may sound obvious, but right now there are not many artists who can afford to just show up and perform, and go into the studio and make albums. It’s hard to break, so unless there’s an artist who’s willing to work as hard as I do, I’m not interested.
         Brett Dennen we’ve managed from the ground up. He’s now in a position where he’s on Atlantic, and he’s getting a major label shot, which is what I feel he needs. Everything has been like a hybrid getting his music promoted. Now we wanted him on a major label with one staff and a very traditional promotional approach. But I think it’s what he deserves.
          There are other artists, whether its White Denim or Real Estate, where they’ve reached a level of success, but they’ve looked around and said “you know what, in order to reach the next level we need to make a change on the management side of things.” Again, the two questions were if they are going to work as hard as we are and if we can make a difference. I don’t want to go in and work for an artist and maintain where they are to take a check. It’s not interesting to me.

You’ve expanded the Mick Management staff to do more than the traditional liaison with the label and booking agent role. Where can management step up and give its artists more resources?
That’s where having owned a label is an asset, in that I know that times are tough. A label doesn’t have the staff that it used to, to do what it used to do on an artist-by-artist basis. Even if you have one of the biggest artists on a label – as I do – you’re not getting the level of attention you used to. But it’s not their fault; it’s not that they’re lazy. They’re not anything other than over-worked. I have a tour marketing person in-house, because touring is where a lot of our bands make most of their money, so I wanted to put resources towards that. We have a digital media person, and that’s where most of the marketing takes place. The marketing staffs have been trimmed at labels, so I don’t want to be dependent on a label to be able to impact anything. And (radio promotion specialist) Amy (Kaplan)’s there, in part to help me and our other managers quarterback at radio. We’re not out to compete with the label field staffs, she’s just there to support and help keep our plans on track. Most management companies are starting to do similar things, but I just think it’s a function of labels being understaffed and being smart enough to realize that if you want things to happen, you’re going to have to make them happen, in part, by yourself.

What advice would you give a young person trying to break into the business side of music today?
I think there’s a healthy business out there. I tell them just get involved in any way you can, whether that means being a runner for a promoter, working the door at a club, being on the concert committee at your school, or selling T-shirts at your local bar for anyone who comes through town. That’s how you get started. There are some good music business schools out there now, but short of getting into one of those schools, you just have to get in and make it happen. It’s a small world. It’s not that people want to keep you out, it’s just small and as soon as you meet one of those people you can make it work.

[eQB Content By Jack Barton]


Nicki Farag,
SVP of Promotion,
Def Jam Recordings

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