As a performer, always hustling, it's always a pleasure to receive a message expressing interest in your career and inviting you to get in touch to discuss opportunities. If you're a young singer, or someone who's been working at developing your career for a very long time without reaching the level of success to which you aspire, it's also intensely exciting. It might even be so exciting that you don't think to pull back the curtain a little and find out who is making this amazing offer. It's easy to forget that things that seem too good to be true usually are.
Sorry to go all Debbie Downer on you. I recently received just such an email. The writer claimed to represent a "leading artist management" (I'd never heard of them), to have visited my website and to wish to discuss a variety of opportunities with me. He hardly could have missed my management's logo directly above the contact submission, but this did not deter him from offering his services (unethical and, well, just plain rude). Then I Googled and discovered --- surprise, surprise! --- that, in addition to a pretty slick website, there are loads of complaints from unhappy artists who had been persuaded to avail themselves of his services.
The experience sparked a discussion and that discussion reminded me something I wrote for one of the singer's forums. It started out as a post and turned into an article, but it's never been published on my blog. I hauled it out, cleaned it up and rearranged the furniture a bit, so to speak, and here is it. Don't forget to hit reply and leave me your thoughts in the comments!
HOW TO RESEARCH MANAGEMENT
For most aspiring artists, signing with management is the Holy Grail of moving their singing career into high gear. Not only is it easier to get more, higher quality auditions, but there’s also a certain caché to having management. You have an important team member, one who can guide and open doors for you, whose whole job it is to advocate for you and promote you. What’s the catch?
The catch, of course, is that there are far fewer managers than singers, so positions on a roster are highly competitive and sought after. Singers are so anxious to attract a manager and excited when one pays attention that they may not do due diligence in research; and also, most singers get very little training in the business and may not know how management works or how to identify a quality management. Here are some guidelines to help research management and find one that’s right for you.
1. Research their online presence
It seems pretty basic in this day and age, but there needs to be a website, and it needs to be fairly modern (preferably responsive --- i.e., viewable on mobile devices as well as on a laptop). Even the old-school , well-established managements which have been in business since people were using ditto machines have websites. You know who doesn’t have a website? Start-ups with no money (who may or may not have any connections) and managements that are hopelessly out of touch with modern technology.
When producers are looking for singers, they want to be able to find them quickly and easily, and in the event they don’t already have someone in mind or the someone in mind isn’t available, one of the things they’re going to do is to check out the websites of managers they like to see if there’s another singer on the roster who would be acceptable. (Actually, what they’re going to do first is call people whose judgment they trust --- hopefully your manager is one of them --- and ask for recommendations … but they will supplement that with checking out singers’ sites, especially if you have sound/video clips).
Is the site professionally designed or is it a do-it-yourself template? Are there a lot of errors in punctuation, grammar, and spelling? Do the links all work? Is it well-written? Do the singers’ headshots look good and professional? How do the bios and resumes read --- are they well-written? Do they look sharp? Remember, these people are potentially going to be representing you. Their brand becomes part of YOUR brand. If their own publicity materials are poorly designed or executed or outdated, what do you think YOURS will look like?
Do they list their roster, with easy access to photos, sound clips, bios, resumes, and links to singers' personal sites? The only reason a management company would NOT have this on their site is if they are a startup and don't have any singers to list. Everybody has to start somewhere, and a start-up management might be a good fit for a start-up singer, but if they are brand new and have no singers, you need to check out their credentials and their connections extra carefully.
What is the content of the site? Ask yourself who they are trying to sell to --- singers or General Directors? Managers need singers to manage, but a successful management attracts upwardly mobile singers and any selling to singers is usually done privately, not wholesale on the website. Your manager’s job is to sell you to producers. Compare the site with those of the well-established managements. Note the simplicity of the major managements' sites. Most of it is dedicated to promoting its artists --- not the management company to singers.
Are they vague or specific about their claims? If they say they have connections (which should be a given in the management business --- why would you have to state that? It's the name of the game!) they better list them specifically. They should be shouting from the rooftops about where their singers are performing, and should be able to back it up with links to the opera companies' websites. You shouldn't have to track down this information.
While you're checking out their online presence, check out the rest of their online presence, too. Do they have active Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds? Are they promoting their artists? The lack of social media doesn't mean they're bad agents and isn't necessarily a death knell; it may just mean that they're not very current or don't have the staff to cover it. But it also means they're missing out on a big, free, popular promotional opportunity for their artists.
Finally, keep in mind that a slick website and cool social media are not sole indicators of quality. Look past the fancy exterior for real substance.
2. Research the manager and the singers.
Simply Googling the manager's name can turn up a wealth of information. A manager with a lot of working singers will have a lot of links, because those singer's bios are being listed everywhere they work.
Google each singer on the roster, if you haven't heard of them. Find out where they are working, where they fit into the singer food chain. Obviously if you are consistently singing in bigger places than these folks are, or if most of the singers are working in places where you know you can get an audition without management, you have to ask yourself what advantage having this particular manager will bring you. If everybody on the roster is four rungs higher on the ladder than you are presently, it may be a lofty aspiration for you. By discovering where the manager’s artists are working, you’re also finding out what relationships he or she has with companies. Which companies hire this manager’s artists again and again?
Does the manager represent a member of his or her own family? I’d be leery, especially if that person shared my Fach.
Do they charge a retainer or other fees, and if so, how much and what are the terms? Do all singers on the roster pay and if not, why not? Paying a fee of some kind is not necessarily a red flag --- most managers ask for singers to contribute for things like their share of an ad in Musical America or publicity materials, and some ask for a small retainer until singers are making enough money to prove a good investment. But a large retainer due monthly, multiplied by a large roster of singers, would make me wonder about that manager’s incentive to find me work.
3. What kind of representation are you looking for?
That may seem like a silly question, because the answer is "The best I can get!" But if you’re in a relatively early stage of your career, or have never had management before, you might not realize the differences between companies. Give some thought to what you most need in your career. Are you yourself just starting out? Have you been singing professionally for a while and are you looking to move that next step up the ladder or get into a different type of role? Is it time to make the jump to the big time?
Obviously, the most coveted managements are going to be the biggies like CAMI and IMG --- if you sign with an experienced manager who understands your “brand”. Even at a big name agency, there will be managers who are just starting out and may not have the insider connections to place you at the Met or La Scala. So don’t be dazzled --- you still have to do your homework.
There are many well-established midsize or small managements who handle a variety of artists at a variety of levels, and they can be a great choice for a promising young singer or an established artist looking for a career boost. These companies often have a number of artists who work primarily – but steadily – in regional companies; as well as others who work regularly in the A houses and/or internationally; and perhaps a star or two. This means the agency has a wide variety of connections and a good understanding of how to market particular artists.
If you don't live on the East Coast and have no immediate plans to move there you might consider a regional management. These are typically smaller companies with many local resources, though some of them can and do get their people work outside the region. Again, look at where the singers are mostly working. There's nothing wrong with starting out with a regional manager if they can get you work you couldn't get on your own.
The same is true of a start-up. As previously stated, everybody has to start somewhere. Like a singer's career, a manager can have an upward --- or a downward --- trajectory. Don't just skim over credentials --- it's worth doing some research into the person who's going to be, professionally speaking, your new best friend.
Many agents open shop after working for other management companies. Find out what their background is. Who did they work for and for how long? What did they do there? Did they assist with clients or even represent artists directly? Did they attend auditions? Talk to producers? Work on contracts? Did they have an opportunity to build relationships with producers? When they started their own company, did some artists move over with them? What's their reputation in the business?
Many managers are former (and sometimes current) performers. It makes perfect sense --- who better to understand artists than another artist? But it still bears some inspection. If a manager claims their own performance experience as evidence of their abilities as a manager, what kind of experience was it? Did they work at a level that allowed them to establish relationships that will now help them make connections for you and promote your career? If their experience was mostly in school, low-level companies, or self-created companies, how will that translate into getting you the kind of work you want? Do they have any special training or experience in business or arts administration?
And if they are currently still performing themselves, you also need to ask: what kind of performing are they doing? Keep in mind that it's not unusual or suspicious for managers to continue performing themselves --- many of them got their start as artists and performing feeds their souls. Hurrah for a manager with a well-fed, enriched, happy soul! But from a business standpoint, I want to know that their own performing will not interfere with their ability to represent me. It's a fair question. Is there a conflict of interest? If they are singing professionally, will they be able to adequately represent me if they are also busy representing themselves in the same field? Will they be able to be responsive and prompt when I need them?
4. What should you look for?
This business is ALL about the connections, understanding what the particular companies are looking for, and establishing and maintaining good relationships. Obviously, the better deal for you as a singer is to sign with an established, successful management. But we all know competition for those managements is stiff, and maybe as a starter singer you need a starter management. So what do you look for?
Look for a start-up with a roster of young major competition winners who are in, or just completing, significant YAPS; maybe with a more established star or two who may be winding down the career but still looking to do a few projects while being well cared for. Look for singers whose resumes may show a lot of lower-budget companies but who are also starting to get some bigger, better roles with bigger, better companies. Look for progress. Look for connections that are better than the ones you yourself currently have. These things indicate a manager with some knowledge and experience, and a good set of ears.
5. Use your own connections to gather information.
Absolutely ask around. Talk to your singer friends. Talk to coaches, directors, GDs, anybody in the business who will let you bend their ear. If you are singing somewhere, ask the artistic admin which managements they particularly like or don't like. You can learn a great deal this way. Every company has their favorites and their Do Not Call list.
Also, check out Musical America. The management should have an ad.
6. Know what you should be paying and what the red flags look like.
When it comes time to negotiate the contract, it’s pretty simple.
The standard commission for opera is 10%; the standard for concert work is 15 – 20%. Other types of work may be negotiable but should be in the same ballpark (for example, a standing appointment as an artist-in-residence might garner your manager 15-20%).
Some perfectly ethical managers ask for a retainer. This should be no more than $100-150/month and once you are bringing in regular money, it should no longer be required. The terms should be outlined in your contract.
It is perfectly standard for your manager to ask you to pay a share of things like ads in Musical America or a newsletter that goes out to all the companies; however, this should be a reasonable and negotiated amount of money.
Ethical managers do NOT ask for money up front. They do not ask for deposits; they do not ask for you to help pay their travel expenses for auditions or to see you perform. They do not take a percentage of your per diem. They do not ask for thousands of dollars up front to “promote” you, an unknown --- if you are in a position to need that kind of promotion, you will already have a manager. Unless you have arranged it with them ahead of time, they do not have the opera company deliver your check to them personally instead of to you (and if they do, they give it to you promptly).
7. Accept the fact that it's better to have no management at all than a bad one.
If your manager has a bad reputation, if people don't want to do business with him, if he makes promises that sound too good to be true (especially if he can't point to other singers he's achieved for), if he's not forthcoming with information, if the auditions he's getting for people are mainly for E- and D- size local companies you can get on your own ... you might be better off going it alone for a while longer.
Got a thought or two to share? Leave me a comment! :)