Managing bluegrass

This has turned into a lengthy series on bluegrass band self-management, which is fitting because we live in a do-it-yourself era, from self-service gas pumps to self-checkout at grocery stores. I’ve even recently learned to eat meals without professional assistance. My staff of servants is now down to a skeleton crew.

In the world of bluegrass, we’ve always been able to take care of our own business. 99% of bluegrass acts don’t carry guitar techs, roadies, masseuses or astrologers. We have to handle these important jobs ourselves.

A majority of bluegrass bands don’t rely on a professional manager. In many cases there just isn’t the need for one. As Jim Rooney once explained to me: you have to have something to manage. It’s really only when dealing with media appearances and image, managing fan interaction (getting stalker protection), handling record label business, and negotiating movie deals (and don’t we all get sick of that?) gets to be too much for an artist to take care of, that outside professional help is needed. Management is also sometimes important when you need someone to coordinate the different branches of your business, like booking agents, publicists, etc.

But, as I brought up in the first installment of this series, what if you just like saying that you have a manager because you feel it gives you credibility or that it sounds cool? Or maybe you just love using the phrase “my manager,” as in, “My manager feels we need to be playing more weddings” (no manager ever says this, by the way, unless you’re in a wedding band). In this case, just use the phrase anyway. It’s really not necessary to give up a percentage of your income just for that.

If you’re concerned about the honesty of throwing the “my manager” phrase around when there is in fact no manager, then simply acquire your own figurehead manager. You can call on a friend, family member, or family doctor with a good sense of humor to take on the job, explaining that they actually will have no meaningful role (similar to many U.S. vice presidents). If they attempt at any point to actually manage you, then you may have to find another manager with less (that is to say zero) zeal.

If, however, you really feel that you do have enough to manage to require the hiring of a real-life manager, I’d like to offer a few words of advice, having observed a few disastrous managers first-hand (thankfully, from a safe distance). Some of them are still in the chokey, wearing brightly-colored jumpsuits for their “management” deeds.

One that stands out in my mind was the manager whose resume included having recently been fired by a top country act for stealing their merchandise money. But, because he had learned to sprinkle words like “anointed” and “blessed” in his speech as often as teenagers use the word “like,” he was trusted implicitly.

Don’t let this happen to you. Below is a list of manager types to be avoided at all costs. Note that any of these types can be male or female. I assigned gender to them to better help you visualize them, creating more vivid nightmares.

Manager A: “Slimy.” He talks a very good game, promises major label record deals, TV appearances and big bucks. He’s dressed in a very trendy way (if it was 1986), has his hair dyed a disturbing shade of black, and he refers to everyone, male or female, as “babe”. He uses the word “marketing” a lot.The good news is that unless you’re paying him money up front, the relationship won’t last long anyway, because once he fails to deliver on the above promises, there won’t really be anything to steal.

Manager B: “Wannabe.” She just never got good enough on the mandolin to go pro, and she couldn’t get any major artist to record her song, Your Love is Like Seaweed, so she made the decision to go into management about 6 months ago. Virtually every sentence she utters is filled with a liberal dose of name-dropping, including names of people you’ve never heard of, but you’ve learned to act impressed. Her first and only client was an international band with very limited command of English. They broke up a few months later for unexplained reasons.

Manager C: “The Passive-unaggressive.” A nice enough guy to be sure, when you ask about his past management experience, he mutters something about “spending some time on the road with Dave and Sugar.”  He works out of his home, where it turns out he’s also homeschooling 3 of his kids and one of his neighbors’ kids. Three months later, you realize that aside from making recommendations about the layout of your web site and your bass player’s clothing choices, he hasn’t done anything at all.

Manager D: “Too important for you.” This is a heavyweight manager with an impressive track record. Her other clients (there are 16 of them) include J-Lo, Jay-Z, and other people who are famous enough to have goofy stage names beginning with “J.” You’re very excited to have landed this deal, it made for some good press releases, but you quickly discover that you’re pretty low in the company pecking order, and that very little is being done for you (the fact that they wouldn’t let you in the building, even with ID, was your first clue). It turns out you were signed because of an omitted decimal point making it appear as if your band gross income was $1,650,000, instead of $16,500.

I’m not meaning to paint too negative picture of managers; these are just the ones to avoid. There are many good ones out there (so they tell me), and I would have described those too, but they aren’t as funny.

Next week: the rising cost of bluegrass astrologers; and a leading bluegrass nutritionist answers the question: “Is tobacco a carb?”