When Henry Rollins speaks, I listen. So when I got an e-mail recently concerning the forthcoming Black Flag tribute, Rise Above (due in October), I took the extra three minutes to read it.
The press release, written by Rollins, recounted his involvement with the West Memphis Three, a trio of young Arkansas men currently incarcerated for a series of murders that many believe they didn't commit. (For the complete story, rent the documentaries Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations or visit www.wm3.org.) To help subsidize the West Memphis Three's ongoing court battles, Rollins decided to assemble a charity tribute CD.
"We made a wish list of singers to be on the record," explained Rollins' note. Some were easy to recruit, but many proved elusive. Why? Their managers. "Some managers don't want their singers on stuff where there's no money for them. Their clients are too busy, we were told. We told the managers that the songs were only 90 seconds. Too busy. But these [West Memphis Three guys] are fans of the singer, and they've been salting away in prison for nearly a decade. Busy, busy, busy!"
I empathized with Rollins' frustration. As a journalist, I'm accustomed to having easy access to artists . . . so long as they have a record to promote. But I've also discovered that when I want to deal with a musician for other kinds of projects, like benefit concerts, and have to go through their management, it can be hellish.
And yet, rock managers aren't necessarily monsters. Look at the outpouring of good wishes Sharon Osbourne received after undergoing surgery for colon cancer last month. I'd throw myself in front of a moving bus for my pal Scott Booker, who oversees affairs for Elliott Smith and the Flaming Lips. But do "good guy" managers have to act like jerks sometimes, too, even when there's a worthy cause involved?
"I advise the bands I work with to pick just one or two charities to work with on a long-term basis," says Fuzed Music's David Meinert, whose clients include the Catheters, Maktub, and the Master Musicians of Jajouka. "This makes it simple for the band, because every band with any sort of draw gets hit up for benefit projects pretty often." Unless an act has a profile on par with the Beastie Boys, getting involved in too many causes has drawbacks; doing free gigs doesn't pay to fix the tour van. "At the same time, it's important for musicians to be involved in their community in positive ways," says Meinert, "and since they have a stage and a voice, it is their responsibility to use it for good."
One of the more upsetting scenarios is when you later meet the artist, and they claim their manager never mentioned your project. Do managers really do this? Sometimes, admits Meinert. "If a band I represent is asked to do something I know they do not want to, or cannot because of their schedule or their beliefs, I will turn it down without bringing it to the artists' attention. It's just part of the job."
Not all managers take that approach. Peace Bisquit's Bill Coleman, who discovered Deee-Lite and has worked with dance diva Ultra Nat頦or 12 years, says he generally passes everything on to the artist and lets them decide, schedule permitting. After all, doing a tribute record or charity concert has the potential to expose an artist to new audiences. "Without doing everything that is presented, we all believe that one new fan is one potential new record buyer . . . which in this transient and unstable music climate is nothing to shake a stick at." However, Coleman wisely adds, "being selective is always helpful, as it increases the value of your service when you do decide to do something."
Of course, there are sneaky ways around managers. But Meinert warns that circumnavigating management can easily backfire. "The manager is the person who the artist has hired to deal with these sorts of things. The manager often knows more about their artists' schedules than the artists do," he explains. "Also, someone going around management runs the risk of pissing off the band and its manager, hurting their cause by appearing to be seedy or overly aggressive."
"Thankfully, not all the managers were [uncooperative]," Rollins admits at the close of his press release. And those are the ones who are doing their job best, according to Meinert's measure. "The mistake most bands make is going with managers who they think are 'big and important' and can make them lots of money. Getting a manager is like getting a new band member. Make sure it is someone who understands your vision, is honest and hardworking, and understands both the business world and music."
And, if they get a call from Henry Rollins, be sure they the have good sense to listen.