“The role of a music manager today is evolving into really helping artists craft stories. As we stream and sample music it’s becoming more and more difficult to get an audience to really engage. We can taste things but we don’t really absorb them. Becoming storytellers is one way we can help the audience give a shit about the band…”
As chief strategy officer and executive vice president of Red Light Management, Bruce Flohr is one of the highest-profile managers in the music industry. In his past at label RCA, he signed Foo Fighters and the Dave Mathews Band, while Red Light’s roster includes the likes of Alabama Shakes, Luke Bryan, Tiësto and My Morning Jacket among many others.
Flohr was one of the highlights of the Music Summit strand at this week’s Web Summit conference, talking about the changing role of the manager in the digital era.
“There’s still the old-school mentality that you have to have a big first week [of sales] and it’s like opening up a movie, but it’s changing. More and more, the artists I’m having success with are the ones that never go away. They never disappear: they stay in front of their audience and stay relevant,” he said.
While Flohr doesn’t manage Foo Fighters, he remains close to the band, and cited their recent Sonic Highways documentary miniseries on HBO as a good example.
“I had a conversation with Dave Grohl recently, and he said ‘I don’t want to just make a record any more – it’s not enough’. Sonic Highways is his way of storytelling, and the show was bigger than the record itself,” said Flohr. “The record itself was almost secondary, but what it did for the band was elevate their career and profile. If that’s even possible, because they are the world’s biggest rock band.”
Flohr said he wasn’t sure about the oft-repeated maxim that bands need to become their own brands, suggesting that this approach doesn’t work for every artist. But he said he saw where the slogan had come from, in the age of social media.
“I do believe an artist has to grow and have a voice on these different platforms. We all see content: ‘Great, we need content and we spray and pray and put it everywhere’. I would rather be focused and find a few social partners that are going to give my artists more access to the people we want to reach,” he said.
“It’s one thing to be the Foo Fighters, but another thing to be a band like the Alabama Shakes starting out, and there’s no content budget but you need somebody on the road with them filming all the time. It’s very difficult to feed the beast.”
Flohr said the area he’s simultaneously excited and frustrated about is the data that can now be gleaned from social networks and streaming services on the fanbases for Red Light’s artists: that there’s a mountain of data, but it’s not always easy to access or act on.
“The music business was run on gut and instinct, but it’s maturing now… There is technology starting to happen where you can identify the people who are streaming the music the most, and turn around and send things to them – basically find your whales and make offerings to those folks,” he said. “But the music industry still hasn’t caught up to what’s available to us.”
Flohr admitted that there can be awkward moments dealing with social media and artists, but said his experience managing Miley Cyrus in her Bangerz phase taught him to value an artist doing it their own way, rather than not engaging at all.
“A band has to have a vision: they have to want to tell a story. A lot just want to turn over their social media to someone in the office, and candidly, you can tell. You can tell when it’s not authentic,” he said.
Flohr said crisis management comes with the territory of being a music manager, and that’s no different with social media. “There’s been thousands of examples: Ariana Grande licks a donut in a store, and for the next 24 hours we all want to go out and burn our Ariana Grande t-shirts. But then she’s headlining arenas,” he said.
When a social storm whips up, is there a position where the manager and artist end up at loggerheads over what to do? Who wins? “I definitely lost managing Miley. She wins! Miley does what Miley wants, and to her credit, there’s a lot of people that like it,” he said.
Flohr was asked about artists like Adele, who are relatively quiet on social media. Is that a problem for a manager trying to keep the online buzz going? “Adele’s a phenomenon. I wish I had that problem! I think it adds to the mystique,” he said.
“One of the problems with social media is we almost know too much: sometimes the artist being too accessible loses the mystique. There’s a reason why the stage is elevated, right? We put our rock stars up on stages, and when they come down and mingle with us normal people, it’s kinda ‘Oh, they’re just one of us’.”
Working with heritage acts like the Dave Matthews Band and Lionel Richie present other opportunities creatively. Flohr said that finding new audiences for those artists is more about the art itself than any digital wizardry.
“You constantly challenge them from a creative standpoint. The minute an artist stops moving forward, they’re going backwards. You really have to focus on the art itself to keep them inspired,” he said.
“The jet’s paid for, the tongue’s paid for [referring to the giant tongue on Cyrus’ Bangerz tour], whatever it is. Lionel Richie: reinventing him is about putting him in places you wouldn’t have seen him before. The man has a catalogue of hits and he’s still a great performer. Instead of sending him to Vegas and putting him on at Caesar’s Palace, they’re putting him out there.”
Hence Richie’s Glastonbury appearance earlier this year, which drew one of the biggest Pyramid Stage crowds the festival had ever seen. And this approach tied in with Flohr’s approach to finding new fans for his artists generally, whatever their size.
“Most bands are afraid to take chances because they’re afraid to offend, piss people off or hurt their core. In the new world order, your core is constantly your new fan, as opposed to the one that’s been around a long time,” he said.
Finally, Flohr said that as a manager, he enjoys getting early to new technologies and apps, from Snapchat to Periscope, and figuring out how they can benefit the artists he works with.
“What I like to try to do with the new technologies is get to them early and figure out how my bands can be early adopters, and therefore get the best service possible as opposed to being just one of many. I would rather be a big fish in a little pond as opposed to just having my Snapchat dangling out there,” he said.
“I sometimes feel I could help move the needle of that company. As opposed to ‘here’s one band’, it’s more… ’Hey, let’s do a partnership across the board, and maybe get a brand involved and get it funded’. Then it becomes a real conversation as opposed to ‘Here’s the single’. That to me is antiquated and boring.”