How We Met Our Manager
Mastodon, The Flaming Lips, and nothing,nowhere. talk about an artist's most important relationship.
What do artists' managers actually do? How can they help you? And how do you find the right one? The vast majority of musicians are without managers, so misconceptions about their roles run rampant. Sorry, but the guy carrying around a cricket bat and misinterpreting the dimensions of Stonehenge stage sets in This Is Spinal Tap is not a reliable archetype.
That's why we got in touch with three very different kinds of artists and asked them to share the straight dope on their relationships with their management. Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne; rising rapper nothing,nowhere. (aka Joe Mulherin); and Brann Dailor, drummer and singer for metal band Mastodon told us how they found the perfect manager, and how those relationships have helped shape their musical careers.
Scott Booker, the only real manager the Lips have ever had, was a friend first. "He worked at the local record store in town, called Rainbow Records, that [bassist] Michael [Ivins] and myself would go in," says Coyne. The band were already four albums into their career when a major-label deal began to take shape and Booker's presence became a boon.
Booker’s first qualification was simply having a phone. "I think he officially became our manager after we signed with Warner Bros. in maybe 1990," Coyne remembers. "When we started our negotiations with Warner Bros., none of us in the group really had a place we lived where we had a telephone. So I would be talking to people at Warner Bros. and I'd say, 'The number I'm gonna give you is our friend Scott Booker.' We started to have him talk with people at Warner Bros. He was kind of a stable person. And I think it was our A&R woman that was signing us that suggested, 'Why don't you have him as your manager? He really loves you guys and he's really smart, and he really understands you and Warner Bros.'"
Massachusetts rapper Joe Mulherin had been working under the name nothing,nowhere. for about a year, sans manager, when he suddenly went viral in 2016. "My music got put on the front page of Reddit, and the next day I started getting hit up by booking agents and managers;” he recounts, “every day there seemed to be someone calling."
The wary Mulherin kept his own counsel. "I grew up in the hardcore scene, where it's all DIY," he explains, "and my idea of a manager was, 'Oh, they're just out to exploit you.' I was really hesitant." But before long he got a message from Evange Livanos of Alternate Side management that rapidly disarmed him. "She had a lot of really nice things to say about my music," he remembers, "kind of a no-pressure thing. 'If you want to call me, you can.'"
After noticing that Alternate Side's roster included bands he admired, Mulherin responded. "Evange was just really straight up," he says. "She's this hardworking, tough woman from Scranton, Pennsylvania, and she just had this no-bullshit attitude. Something about her just felt different… it didn't feel like talking to a suit. She was like, 'I'll cut the shit, I really want to work with you.' And I was like, 'Let's do it.'"
For Mastodon, the big management crossroads came after their second album, 2004's Leviathan. Their label, Relapse, gave them a list of potential managers to call. "I didn't hit it off with any of them," says Dailor. "I just got a lot of, 'I broke this band, and I broke that band.’ A lot of people I talked to had no idea what we were really about."
Soon after, Relapse's booking agent was in contact with Slayer's manager, Nick John. "He said, 'This guy named Nick John—if you ever have any questions about what you're supposed to be looking for when you're looking for a manager, feel free to call him and he would talk to you," Dailor says. "I guess I figured, well, he manages Slayer so he has no interest in our band. But I talked to him like six or seven times on the phone and we really hit it off as friends. I finally popped the question, 'Do you want to be our manager?' So he said yes, and from there it was sort of off to the races."
Key to growth
Looking back, Coyne sees Booker as absolutely essential to the band’s ability to grow and succeed. "It’s hard to imagine that it would have actually worked without him. Scott is a very organized person, and I'm not. Saving receipts, keeping up income taxes... all these things you want someone to help you with,” Coyne says. “I don't think we would have been able to enjoy it enough to have kept going if we didn't have someone like Scott to help us get through."
The assistance of a manager really kicked nothing,nowhere. into high gear, according to Mulherin. "Things started moving so much faster than they ever were before," he remembers. "It all happened so fast and it was pretty much all because of Evange, honestly."
He credits his management with facilitating the deal with Fueled By Ramen Records. "I was on the last bit of money I had saved up from my last job," he says. "I had nothing going on, and once I started working with her, she'd call me every day with some new thing I just couldn't believe. She'd tell me, 'Okay, I got you a show to play in front of labels in New York City,' and the next day she'd call and be like, 'Okay, I need you to come out and we're gonna meet with Fueled By Ramen,' and it just kept happening, and it was a very surreal experience."
After Mastodon partnered with Nick John, things started happening quickly, and they made the leap to Reprise Records for their next album, 2006's Blood Mountain. "We immediately were on a Slayer/Slipknot tour in Europe," says Dailor, "and it was the biggest crowds we'd ever played to. From there we did a Slayer/Killswitch Engage tour in the states; we did Ozzfest; we did a whole bunch of festivals with Iron Maiden. It put us in front of a lot of people very fast. But more than that, John was a person that I considered one of my best and closest friends; I really loved the guy. We just really trusted him."
Ties that bind
The Lips' relationship with Booker has deepened and evolved in unexpected ways. For the past decade, he's been CEO of The University of Central Oklahoma's Academy of Contemporary Music. "Some of the guys in the group work at his school as well," says Coyne. "They're drum teachers and musicians who work at the school. It's all very connected, a big kind of family thing."
Mulherin's personal bond with Evange Livanos is also tight. "She's hilarious," he says, "She's completely outspoken and completely honest. I consider her one of my best friends, and like a role model. It's crazy the relationship you can have with your manager; I never would have thought it would be something like this."
The years of success and camaraderie between Mastodon and Nick John came to a premature and tragic conclusion when he died of cancer in September 2018. When Mastodon won their first Grammy earlier that year and John wasn't there to cheer them on, Dailor knew his manager's still-unspecified illness must have been cancer. "That was the only thing that was gonna keep this guy away from us," he says. "Right after the win, we got an email confirming that."
To honor John's memory, Mastodon played "Stairway to Heaven" at his funeral. "He was a big Zeppelin-head," says Dailor. "We figured that was the best choice. We had to do it for him." On April 18—aka Record Store Day 2019—the band released the performance as a single with John's face on the cover. "His face was in every independent record store in the country on his favorite holiday," says Dailor, "and all the proceeds will go to pancreatic cancer research."
As The Flaming Lips push forward, Booker must have his hands full. The band's next project, King's Mouth, is an ambitious multi-platform affair that’ll include a concept album with narration by The Clash's Mick Jones, an interactive art installation, and a book. "There's always a lot of chaos that you can't control as you go," says Coyne, "and that's why you want to have smart people with a lot of experience. I think that's what managing is. The manager doesn't say, 'I have a plan, let's go do it.' Someone like Scott would say, 'I like these ideas, let's figure out how we can do them.'"
Cultivating a connection
It’s not a no-brainer to find the kind of managers who made such a difference to Mastodon, nothing,nowhere., and The Flaming Lips; it takes patience and self-assurance, and an ability to assess people and relationships accurately.
"I'd say don't settle," advises Dailor. “If you get on the phone with those first 10 people and they don't float your boat… if you're really gonna do this with your band, you're gonna need somebody that loves your band, loves everything about it and really wants to work with you to make it to the next level. It needs to be someone you like, and that you can be friends with."
Coyne, the head in the clouds dreamer in one of the world's trippiest bands, sees a great manager as someone that will take the ideas and creativity that you’ve germinated, and help shape them as they grow.
"A band is like: You’re a gardener in this garden at your house," Coyne says. "In the beginning you're planting this garden and you're mowing your own grass. You know what it is, and you know what you want in it; you know what you're trying to take care of. And maybe as you get a bigger house you get a gardener, and you get someone to mow the lawn for the weekend. As it would grow, you would start to say, 'This garden is too much for one person,' if you want to keep it going. So your music and your creative life are the same way."