Run The Jewels manager Amaechi Uzoigwe: ‘Build the right spaceship!’


Amaechi Uzoigwe, manager of hip-hop stars Run The Jewels, thinks that artists can make their own luck in the streaming era, despite the challenges of breaking through the noise.

“Streaming is one of the greatest things to happen to music. Streaming media is one of the greatest things to happen to entertainment. And the accessibility of that is critical. Ubiquity, mobility, all of these things are changing our future,” he said.

“But if you want to impact, it really is as simple as this: build the right vehicle for yourself. Build the right spaceship. Find out what works for you, and then put that to work… In the world of streaming it is really easy to get lost, so make a gameplan and stick to it. Execute, make it happen.”

Uzoigwe was speaking at Music Ally and Music Biz’s NY:LON Connect conference in London today, where he kicked off the event with his ‘artist manager keynote’ speech.

“Artists are in a really remarkable place right now where they can do it themselves, absolutely… Find the right vehicle, build the right vehicle, do whatever you can to put yourself in the best position. Whether it’s streaming, touring, selling vinyl, I don’t care,” he said.

“The challenges are serious, but we are in a golden age of music, and to be a part of this is remarkable. How many people get to be in at the birth of a whole new ecosystem?”

Earlier, Uzoigwe had opened his speech by stressing the need for managers to be flexible, but also to have a long-term strategy guiding how their artists operate.

“At the end of the day, the most important thing you can do is find the right scenario for you, for your artists, to compete in this new world,” he said. “Change is the only constant. You have to be adaptable, you have to be fluid, you have to understand the way the market, the way the industry is moving, to put yourself in the best position to succeed.”

That disruption is intense. “It’s one thing to go from vinyl to CDs. Going from CDs to digital is really the birth of an entirely new ecosystem. That said, there are certain fundamental things that are always going to be important,” said Uzoigwe

For managers those things include judging whether an artist needs “a parent or a partner” – he stressed that the former was not a pejorative, but simply relates to artists who need more input.

“It really is about building the right team for yourself. The team, the team, the team,” continued Uzoigwe, before comparing artist management to the sport of curling.

“The artist is the one tossing the stone, the content is the stone, and the guys with the brushes are the managers. You’ve got to know when to brush, and when not to brush,” he said.

Uzoigwe also returned to a point he’s talked about before: strategy versus tactics.

“Strategy is everything. I am a strategy nerd and I live my life by that: planning, planning, planning, and then being able to change if you need to be flexible,” he said.

“In an industry full of tactics, there’s very little strategy, which is surprising… Tactics will not get you where you want to go. And ‘hope’ is not a strategy. It’s work, it’s effort, it’s execution. And it’s great content… You’re playing chess, not checkers.”

Uzoigwe advised managers to know what their artists are about: “You’ve got to know them from A to Z and you’ve got to be able to speak about them really powerfully,” he said, suggesting that “content is king, but context is queen”.

“And know your audience. For each artist, know who their audience is, have an understanding of who their core base is, and where you can grow from that. But know other shit. Again, that goes back to context: the more you know, you can never tell when that piece of information will come in to play… the more you know, the better you’re going to be at your job.”

Uzoigwe also raised the topic of leverage. “You have to know when to use it, and when to hold back: sometimes people get a little ahead of themselves, and think they have more leverage than they do. That generally doesn’t end well.”

Technology and data are key to the modern artist manager’s business, but Uzoigwe said it’s important not to assume that any one particular metric on its own represents success. For example: streaming numbers.

“Not everyone is going to put up huge streaming numbers, or ever will. There are some hugely successful artists that don’t stream well, and there are others that come out of nowhere and post amazing numbers,” he said.

“You can have moderate streaming numbers but be doing things in all sectors that are helping create demand for your music. Maybe they end up at Spotify or Apple, but that’s not where they find you. So how do you get them, and how do you measure that success?”

Uzoigwe also had some views on musical genres, including rock, which is often seen as having a tough time on streaming services.

“People have been banging the death knell of rock’n’roll for the last few years. I’ve been around long enough to know all these things work in cycles. Rock is not dead, it’s going to come back. It’s coming back now,” he said.

“You’ve got to understand these revolutions and how to position yourself… As soon as people started saying rock is dead, I started looking for rock’n’roll acts.”

Eddie Eberle is one example, an Arizona musician (from the band Analog Outlaws) who Uzoigwe chose to develop outside the label system initially.

“The offers they’re getting are pretty terrible, because they have no leverage. So what we decided to do was not take the deal. We started putting out some music, create some leverage, and then go back. These guys will end up on a major label, because that’s the kind of music they make. Big hooks, big sound,” he said.

Uzoigwe also talked about working with talent from other parts of the world. “Africa is the future of rock’n’roll. It’s a bold statement, but I’m working with some guys who can back it up,” he said, citing Songhoy Blues as one example.

“These guys are a great example of an act who is emerging from the other side of the world, who is trying to make an impact. If you think of West Africa, you don’t think of rock’n’roll [but] their guitar player is one of the best young guitar players on the planet. So how do you get that across to an audience?”

Uzoigwe brought things back to the really important people for artists: their fans. He cited the approach of Run The Jewels, from giving away music as free downloads to worrying about whether their merchandise prices are too high.

“Their audience is everything to them. It really is. Their fans are everything to them. If a fan complains on Twitter, some random kid somewhere in the world makes a complaint thats legitimate, you better believe I will know about it,” he said. “These value exchanges are critical: these human algorithms… You need to treat your fans as friends, not customers.”

Uzoigwe’s speech was followed by a panel focused on what modern artist managers think about the evolution of music-streaming. Cameo Carlson, president of mTheory Nashville; Tessy Shulz, who runs her own management and music consultancy; and Stephen O’Reilly, head of marketing at IE Music were joined by Pandora’s head of label licensing Jonathan Barnes.

Is the power shifting away from labels and towards artist managers in the modern music industry? “There’s definitely been a shift. The fact that we exist, we see that,” said Carlson, referring to the range of services that mTheory provides for its artists.

“It wasn’t something that had to exist 10 years ago. Probably one of the most straightforward examples for us is that we are very strategic in our thinking. We do less of the tactical and really more of the strategic, and trying to think through where an artist wants to be in five years, 10 years, two months, and really work back on that from a planning perspective.”

Sometimes those conversations lead an artist towards a traditional label deal, and other times it doesn’t. For example, a discussion with Diplo two years ago about Major Lazer, when he was coming out of a label deal and mulling his next move, focused on his plans to tour the world.

“When we sat down and went through the plan, he felt there was not a major label that was going to support that plan in the way that he needed to, to support his goals… so we stepped up, and we are the label for Major Lazer,” said Carlson.

“To the point that when Lean On came out, it was such a major global success for him, we had to go out and find the resources it would take to go to pop radio for him, all the things we had not done. But because we come at it from the perspective of the manager, always… even though it was daunting, we knew our partner was there and supported it.”

O’Reilly stressed that different artists have different goals, which labels may or may not complement.

“Artists do want to do as much stuff as they can directly. but some artists we manage want to be on a major label, and the concept of doing it direct to fan is ‘no way!’,” he said.

“We try to provide an overview of what is possible: ‘if you do this, here’s what you give away, here’s the pros and the cons, the goos and the bad’… and then we try to bring on the partners that can help us. Some of our artists want to be on Domino Records [for example] – some feel that’s their natural home. Some of them want to do it direct.”

O’Reilly explained that one example, Robbie Williams, has released a series of B-sides albums called ‘Under The Radar’ as direct-to-fan projects, with no traditional PR or radio-plugging involved.

“It’s intentionally like that. It’s very successful: we’re selling a lot of those records direct to fans from Robbie’s website. But on the digital distro side we chose this year to work with FUGA, who’ve been brilliant.” Their role being to work on streaming campaigns, for example playlist-pitching.

Shulz talked about her experiences with artists. “I have artists unsigned where we do everything from scratch on our own, because they want to do this: they see all these opportunities,” she said.

“Some want to definitely sign with a major, this is their dream.” She added that for some artists, that dream has soured, and they now look to managers to help them exit these deals to go it alone again.

Shulz talked about the ability for a manager to build a team of partners, cherry-picking services where necessary, while establishing direct relationships with streaming services. She also raised the topic of direct licensing deals with Spotify and Apple, asking her fellow panelists if they have experience of this yet.

“We’re talking to Spotify about a number of opportunities, and we’re talking to other streaming services as well. But there’s a lot of work to do in the background. It’s not as simple as ‘let’s do a direct deal with Spotify’,” warned O’Reilly.

“You’ve got to have the system to deliver music and claim the money from around the world. It’s a lot of work, it’s complicated. But I do know that it’s working successfully for some folks… We haven’t done it yet, but we’re having a lot of conversations.”

“The fact that we’re even having this conversation shows there’s been a shift. We have so much more access to partners, whether it’s a direct deal or just in being able to build relationships,” said Carlson, who worked on Apple’s iTunes team between 2004 and 2007.

“When iTunes first started, there weren’t a lot of managers that spoke to us. We had to do the outreach, because they didn’t know they could speak directly to us.”

Barnes was asked for a DSP’s perspective. “Where is the opportunity big-picture? It’s being as close to the creator as possible. An artist is always going to need a manager even if they don’t need a label or a tour promoter. But it’s hard to say where it’s going,” he said.

“At the same time, it depends on your objectives. If you want to play the Super Bowl half-time show, you probably need a major label! And [also] if your objective is to get placed on a pop playlist that takes a lot of force… then you tailor your approach based on that.”

O’Reilly said that there is careful diplomacy going on, as managers leave labels to continue their dealings with streaming services, while also building their own contacts “at the highest levels” with the DSPs.

“There’s a lot of diplomacy going on in the background. Making people give a shit: building the story, and making our partners at Spotify and Apple and YouTube and Pandora and whoever else, making them part of the team,” he said.

He also talked about the balance between revenues and awareness for artists on the big digital services.

“I’m not really concerned with looking at the revenues we make on those services in the moment. In the bigger picture, yes. Some of our artists do really really well on Spotify and Apple and YouTube. But some people complain about ‘I wish we could get more off YouTube’,” he admitted.

O’Reilly cited Passenger’s several-billion views on YouTube as an example of awareness that can be converted into revenues if a manager has a strategy.

“My concern as a marketer is how can we make the most of these 2bn views on YouTube. Can we sell merchandise off the back of a listen or a view of the video? So we measure everything really well around awareness, and then how do we bring people down the funnel, with the end of the funnel being some kind of transaction or a deeper relationship.”

“We have to embrace it, and especially all the data. Artists can make good money, they can also make a living out of streaming. But you have to use all the data,” agreed Shulz.

“It’s so helpful and it’s coming so quickly after you release something. Whether you’re planning a tour… it’s a constant struggle and fight, but you get all this data so use it. Remuneration for sure, we’re not happy about some platforms.. but at least you get paid directly.”

Carlson offered another angle, from the point of view of the country artists that mTheory Nashville works with.

“Strategically, we see streaming mainly as an exposure mechanism to sell tickets. For most of our artists the IP is not at a place where the revenue is significant compared to touring,” she said.

“That’s not true if you’re Major Lazer or some of these artists that have huge streaming numbers, but particularly in Nashville, even our biggest streaming country artist will rarely hit a chart for streaming capacity overall… But we love the data. We’re almost always focused on how we use that as a mechanism to sell tickets.”

The conversation turned to whether the streaming era is really better for small-to-medium sized artists, in terms of breaking down the barriers to distribution, but also for building a career.

“I would say yes. At least now they have the chance that people all around the world could discover them. Before, without a label, it was sitting at home making copies to send out,” said Shulz. “It’s not that everyone will succeed, but at least you have the chance to get discovered.”

Barnes offered a nuanced perspective. “Streaming maybe brought a hollowing out of the middle class. It can be feast or famine, depending on your definition of mid-size or independent artists.,” he said.

“The means of production and distribution are certainly very cheap, it’s very easy to put your stuff out there and get noticed… and it can rain down success. But if you’re a journeyman musician, you’re probably looking at your income from sound recording and wondering ‘what happened?’”

[That may be surprising coming from a streaming service, although the context was also Pandora’s creation of tools like its Artist Marketing Platform, to help artists generate complementary income streams – for example by promoting concerts to their listeners.)

The panel finished off with a question about what changes they’d like to see from the streaming services, in terms of the tools and support they offer managers and artists.

“Probably my biggest thing is just to Amaechi’s point earlier that the context matters as much as the content… I do think there is something to be said for context,” said Carlson.

She cited Spotify’s launch of a tool to submit tracks for playlist consideration, which while welcome “also removes the conversation from an actual dialogue with those teams: as a vetting process it makes sense, but you lose some context,” she said. “For me across all the services theres still a need to figure out how we get better at the context.”

O’Reilly, meanwhile, cited the black hole of analytics: knowing whether a fan who clicked on a link (for example, one posted on social media or included in a mailout) went on to play a track or album, follow an artist’s profile or add their music to a playlist.

Currently, they can track the clicks and get data on streams, but can’t connect the two (bar a partnership between Linkfire and Pandora that’s trying to address this).

“As an artist and a management company, our responsibility is to gather as much of that fan data as possible, be it their email address or some way to connect with them, after we send them off into all those digital providers,” he said.

“That’s something I’m very thoughtful of, and it’s giving me some sleepless nights! We’re doing all this, but we don’t own the data.”

He added that ie:music is working with the Music Managers Forum (MMF) on “a new fan-data ownership thing” that could make some positive steps in this direction. O’Reilly said more information will be available on this soon.

Written by: Stuart Dredge