Whether you are an established act or an upcoming artist, engaging a good manager is probably one of the most important things you need to consider in building your musical career. Certainly, while hiring a manager doesn’t equate success, a great manager knows when to play different roles at different stages of your career, including opening doors, pushing you to level up your game while giving you a reality check.
But what should artists consider before hiring a manager? As Syaheed of Bedsty Artist Management explains, “Make sure they understand you, and make sure they understand what you need to do. It’s a two way street. The manager is only as good as the artist. If the artist sucks, even if the manager has all the contacts in the world, he’s not going to be able to do much. You must have a manager that respects you, but you must also respect the manager, because we partake in the same risks as you. We are not going to get on the train with you if we don’t like where the train is headed. Of course, there are many types of managers, so pick one that understands you, your music and your vision.”
With four unique acts Sheikh Haikel, Wicked Aura, Sezairi, and Kevin Lester (now known as THELIONCITYBOY) under his care, Syaheed is a partner, visionary, mentor, parent and strategist all rolled into one.
This year, some of his biggest achievements include signing a major label record deal for Sezairi on the back of producing RoomToBreathe series on his YouTube; signing a landmark development deal for THELIONCITYBOY with Apl.de.ap’s BMBX; turning Wicked Aura around financially to make possible their next record; and having Sheikh Haikel re-enter the Malaysian market, appearing on Maharaja Lawak Mega – with a weekly viewership of 1.5 million viewers.
He added, “A manager only truly becomes a manager when he has things to manage. At the very early start, the manager is a promoter and talent developer, but a manager also has all these other little functions and roles too. Once the artist becomes slightly more successful and in demand with more clients seeking for him, then the true manager roles starts to come in; because you’re managing the information in and out, delegating where necessary, and finding the partnerships where necessary.
So at the start, you will probably need a person who is more promoter and talent developer more than a manager, but of course unless he’s a friend, you’re probably seen as a commodity with so many other artists out there, and you probably need to pay a bit of money or cut him in. Meanwhile, if you have a best friend-type of guy who has ideas and can help you out, rope him in!”
MBIA interviewed Syaheed to share his thoughts on what makes a great artist manager, his relationship with his artists, his marketing strategies, and in particular, the long and hard efforts put behind THELIONCITYBOY which eventually caught the eyes of Apl.de.ap’s team and offered him a label deal.
How did you get started as an artist manager?
I stumbled into it. I really wanted to get involved with the band SIXX that Kevin Lester had started. Back then, I was producing Hip Hop & R&B music and was pretty successful at it. But handling live production for a band was not my immediate strength. I really wanted to see this band make it because they were so good, so I literally willed myself into their fold by making myself very useful by utilizing the relationships I had already in Malaysia and Singapore to get them seen. I landed them a spot on Sunburst KL Festival. From then on, it evolved.
I then realised I was pretty good at it. I felt I was adding even more value as a manager then I would as a producer. I had learnt a lot hanging around established Malaysian artists and their managers and that was my education, a class I am still attending
Describe what kind of manager you are. Are you a promoter like Simon Fuller? A mentor like Jon Landau (managing Bruce Springsteen)? A partner like Albert Grossman (with Bob Dylan)? Or an autocrat like Tom Parker (like how he visioned and shaped Elvis)?
I’d imagine I’m a hybrid of all four – playing different roles to the needs of my artist. If I had to pick one, I would believe I am a partner in their development, a part of the process. But one thing is consistent is that I always let my artist have their creative freedom, giving my two cents when needed, but they would have control of that. I just lay the facts and manage the expectations.
How do you manage their expectations?
Every artist has this dilemma. They want to do their art, but they also need money to survive and hopefully excel. They expect to make money from doing what they want to do. So managing expectations would be in the form of pointing out the bigger challenges and opportunities on a short and long term basis, and weighing for them the consequences of putting out music that would only serve themselves emotionally but not necessarily connect with the audience.
Do you face this problem with your own artists?
All the time, and it’s fair, because music is such an emotional product, especially to its creator, but there are artists that are slightly more business savvy and pragmatic and know how to balance that. But it gets a bit more dangerous if the artist does a certain type of music and expects to do really well when in truth the music may in fact be very difficult to sell. So that’s when I need to manage expectations, so that they don’t get completely let down. It’s also partly why we are still quite broke (laughs), but we’ve come to a consensus on what they are comfortable with. After all, I’m not managing a K-pop group where we have to stick to a certain formula. I believe my artists are talented. Maybe they would be more respected when they are dead and gone than when they are alive, like Van Gough.
It’s like a parent-child relationship, where you are constantly shifting and adjusting, and getting them out of their comfort zone to try new things and evolve. Some artists are open to adjusting but some are stubborn. But it goes both ways. I’m not always right, because if I was, I would be more successful than what I am now. I learn more from every mistake than from my good fortune.
Are you a road manager? Business manager? Legal advisor? Or all of the above?
Again, a hybrid of all three. I’ve played all three in different stages of my career. I needed to, because I had to learn it – from scratch. You could say I believe in starting by washing the dishes, or in the mailroom, and earning my place and proving my worth. I have to add I am not legally trained – I just read the fine print, and understand it enough to break it down in layman terms.
These days, I have a great friend and partner in Aboo, who is basically our Bedsty Artists’ road manager. He is fantastic at what he does so I know our guys are well taken care of when they’re on the road.
What is your biggest achievement as an artist manager?
For me personally, it’s being sustainable while doing it. We could do with some growth so I can build a bigger team to amplify what we want to do even further, and that’s the goal now. But to be at it year in and year out is pretty dope.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face as an artist manager?
Resources: Time & money. We never have enough of either.
As an artist manager, I’ve focused entirely on the development of Singapore artists, original Singapore music artists. And that also means breaking stereotypes on how dope they truly are. It’s the mindset that “local” is not good enough that is my biggest barrier. So to overcome that, I find every opportunity possible to get my artists outside of Singapore.
On hiring interns
Very often, these interns whom I work with want to be artists and musicians themselves. But I don’t have the heart to tell them that, “no, your talent is here” instead. Every person deserves to sail their own ship, and if they do find that their path is in management, it’s a bonus. Just like me, I started out as a music producer, stumbled into artist management, and only decided later that I wanted to focus my efforts here.
What makes a good artist manager?
I had a discussion with Denis Ladegaillerie, CEO of Believe Digital on this actually. He told me that the role of the artist manager is the most complex role in the entire music ecosystem… you need to have an appreciation for talent, be able to spot it well and help the artist develop, be informed of new opportunities and technology, be a risk taker as you are dependent on the success of your artist, understand legal intricacies that affects the artist and the deals that come, have business acumen and manage resources to make it profitable for your artist and you.. you name it, it goes on. And obviously, I agree.
Any difference between managing a band versus an individual artist?
Definitely. With a band, there are more personalities to deal with. Income wise, there will be more mouths to feed, but fund raising is also slightly easier. If I need ten thousand dollars to be raised, I can ask ten band members to reach out to their network of family and friends for a thousand each, which on the other hand can be much more daunting to a single artist to get that same amount.
The four acts under my care have very different directions, deliberately too, because I don’t want one act to cannibalize another when it comes to opportunities. There’s also egos to manage, because they are all competitive, and they all want to succeed, which is a good thing. But I don’t want them to feel like my capacity has been compromised because I favor one over another, because I don’t. I have a professional relationship with all four of them, and we have a friendship just as much, and we take care of each other’s families.
What do you look out for when signing an act?
My baseline is that they have to be able to do fantastic live shows. If they can’t do great recordings at the moment, never mind, but you really have to be entertaining when you’re on stage. All my acts can achieve that.
Sheikh Haikel educates me on that as he’s a top notch live performer. His presence is second to none. Wicked Aura – a no brainer. It’s such a shame folks haven’t yet come around to experience their full band shows as much. Sezairi – I hope after Music Matters, everybody who came to watch went away just mind blown because he just raised the bar, and he’s only just getting started.
Why I got involved with SIXX was also because they’re an energetic and infectious band. They have to sound and look tight. Now, even as a soloist, when THELIONCITYBOY goes overseas to perform, he would see some of the very best acts there and think, “How do I compete on this level?”
So pushing him out of his comfort zone was part of the process. He is a really hungry guy, and if something went wrong during the show, he gets more upset than anyone else, and he would be the hardest person on himself, and I would be the one instead to ask him to chill. I guess it makes it easier for me as a manager, because he’s extremely self-driven. On the flipside, if I need to give him feedback, he would listen, and it would be up to him to digest that process. But with all the artists to a certain degree, they appreciate what I say or don’t say, and we have a mutual understanding.
Do you wear different hats for different artists?
Yes. With Kevin it has always been partnership role, because when we started on the journey, we were really insignificant, and we evolved and grew together. With Sezairi, it’s more of strategy and positioning him differently. I would like to think I have come to a point that I fully understand his musical sense to know where he would like to go with his journey. With Haikel it’s very interesting because I’ve learnt a lot from him, just as much as he has entrusted in me in shaping things for him these last 4 years. He would share how he would do things, his preference, his set and sequence, and so on, and at the same time he would turn to me and ask, “So what is your take?” He would consult me on his ideas, and for someone as senior as that, he’s mentoring me as much as I’m giving back to him. He has plenty of ideas, and from my end it would be, “Which of these ideas make most business sense?”
With Wicked Aura, creatively they are pretty much set, but it was a matter of reviving them financially. So it was cut, cut, cut, let’s not have this and that, let’s do this instead, and put them back together again, so that they can carry forward and work on the project that they have been planning on for the longest time. And I’ve heard the raw recordings and it is amazing!
How do your artists remain financially sustainable?
Our paychecks come in spikes: there are months when we make money, and there are months that we don’t, but as long as they are continuously producing good music and great performances, we can definitely expect that we can keep growing. When we are in production mode, it’s a challenge to find funding, so we need to work out how we can spread out our resources evenly.
Make no mistake. All four of them – they are the best in what they do, but our economic situation means that even at that level, they all struggle financially. Wicked Aura is healthy, but I cannot get all thirteen members to commit full time to it, so they have other jobs, because there’s simply not enough money for each person to earn a decent salary for them to commit 100% full time. So there’s a dedicated structure and understanding that if we need to activate Wicked Aura, there’s a priority for everyone to come together.
Sheikh Haikel is a different case. He has regular gigs, he’s on Okto, he has started a wonderful school at Balmoral Plaza called School of Music, and we would try to find ways to fund his next album. It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario. We want to commit more time, but hey, where are we going to find the money?
There are government grants that can help. But we look at it as help rather than the first place to go to, because from my point of view, if at anytime they decide to switch that off, and we are only reliant on one source of funding, then we would be in deep trouble.
Wicked Aura already has a model that was generating some cash, but not in a way that I wanted them to, because they were not playing as a full band, but as a percussion troupe. Now we are in the midst of transitioning them into a full band, but they could still make money performing at corporate events. After all, they were the ones to make Batucada performances popular during corporate events, but with so many similar acts coming up – and these are the same acts which they helped to mentor and grow – they are now competing for the same business, and Wicked Aura will need to do something different. And because Wicked Aura is at this level, we will not reduce our price, even if it means accepting fewer shows, so everyone needs to bite the bullet.
I suppose this ties back with how you build them as a brand.
Yes, in the performance space, your value is measured by how much entertainment you can bring. Usually it’s by word of mouth – that you guys are the best – and also pitching them actively to event organizers. I may not have the time to put in as much effort as I want to, but to overcome that, we work with various booking agents to refer them back to us. Every single live show is advertisement for the next gig. In Singapore, it’s all about how entertaining you are. There are times when we turn an event down because we can’t reasonably achieve a good sound from that show, so we had to respectfully decline. If we are going to do a gig that doesn’t sound good, that’s going to do us more disservice than anything. So maintaining that kind of standard would help us get the next gig or show. Very often, our potential clients see us on YouTube or live and then decided to hire us.
When Sezairi first came to me, I told him that unlike with his previous arrangement, there is no safety net. There is no magical funding machine behind me. We had to start from scratch. After considering carefully, he took the leap with me. Sezairi is now on a completely different path. It doesn’t matter that he was a Singapore Idol any more. Sezairi has proven that he has the talent, capacity, charm, stage presence and creativity. If we open the right doors, I truly believe that he will be something legendary. He is not an artist that can be easily copied. He’s not just a musician, he’s not just a singer. He is an artist. He’s got a wonderful voice. His tone and style is unique. He can straddle between the English, Malay and Indonesian markets really well. He has the ability to appeal to the mainstream market, yet he also has an edge that the indie folks should appreciate as well. He’s got it in all these different areas, the challenge now is to take those ingredients and make it seen to his current fans, so that they love him more, and also to a new audience so that they can discover him.
What is your marketing strategy?
Our strategy is to refocus on the fans, using every opportunity to engage them and reach out to new audiences, getting them excited and to support us. For example, for Sezairi, the priority is to change people’s mindsets of him. He had an idea to take his music to really interesting locations and spaces, and we did it with this in mind: refocus on fan engagement and have them subscribe to him on his YouTube channel so that any future material that he’s putting out, people can engage with him. We wondered why is it that although he’s on TV half the time, he’s only had two hundred subscribers when we started his YouTube channel. This means that even if he were to put out any video, there won’t be much impact. So we had to start from scratch, pull his audiences back to his own spaces. It gave him the ability to present himself in his natural environment (as opposed to what people only see him as on TV), and also engage his fans on a closer, more personal level.
We produced our pilot with the help of No Average Joe, the one where he was playing in the living room of his grandmother’s house. We did a total of four episodes last year. In order to encourage people to subscribe to his channel, we did teasers, created a hashtag to engage them, and gave viewers goals to hit, like setting a target of 500 subscribers and promised to release a new video immediately.
That was what we did for THELIONCITYBOY too recently. We started with about 300 subscribers during Music Matters week, and we put a goalpost of 800 for JAMA. Never mind if we don’t hit the target, we would release it on 1st June. But if we do, we will release it earlier and reward those people who have subscribed. After that campaign we shot up to 560 subscribers. Not so bad for one week’s work. For THELIONCITYBOY’s channel, every week since last month, we dropped a new song. Sometimes it comes with a video. It may not be a full length music video, just a teaser or jif image for fun, so that they could be shared.
Currently we are shifting away from Facebook. Instagram is still very strong, but Instagram is quite hard to grow because it’s not an immediate sharing type of platform. What we try to do is to build a central point, which is the artist’s website that will aggregate content from YouTube, Instagram and Tumblr, which are our points of creation that feeds and populates the website. Twitter and Facebook are outpoints for communication and sharing. If folks follow us on YouTube and Instagram, technically they get the best of everything. We are also trying to build our mailing list. That takes a bit more thought, because we want to give more value to the user rather than just sending them updates.
Who manages the social media?
Some of the artists are more hands on in execution, but I think a lot about the strategy usually. The whole point of social media for us is to create and facilitate conversations. You want people to not only converse with us, but also to each other. That’s the ultimate goal – for fans to talk to each other and doing things for us, with us. That’s what they do for the very popular artists. Currently, it’s still heavily driven by us, pushing out content consistently. Sezairi is very good at it, THELIONCITYBOY content keeps getting better, Sheikh Haikel is always on Instagram.
Our current project is for Wicked Aura to synergize everyone. Individually they use these social media points, but they all don’t post to Wicked Aura’s accounts for now. They thought that the Wicked Aura account must only have official Wicked Aura stuff. I said, “No, no. Whatever rubbish and nonsense that you’re doing on your own, throw it into the Wicked Aura account too because it is who you are.”
Do you practice putting a budget to promote your campaigns? How do you decide when to spend and how much to spend?
It depends. I decide by looking at how much impact it can make; if that campaign can potentially reach out to 10,000 more people than we could before. For example, if Sezairi or THELIONCITYBOY is going to be on TV, or Haikel is going to drop something out; if there is attention on the project like if there’s a picture of them with another famous artist, so you can target not only your fans but also the fans of the other artist. It’s not about hijacking, but about creating conversations. Why were they pictured together – get fans to talk about that. Then it makes our artists and our pages more socially relevant in whatever algorithm that exists in the underbelly of these social networks, so you can come up more in search in future. Rather than posting for the sake of getting 1000 likes, which is not the goal, we want to seed the conversation, to share that moment with more people and fans so that he gets more exposed. Even if you were to get a question like “Who’s this guy?” That’s good enough, because he took notice, and hopefully he’s inquisitive enough to find out more.
On maximizing resources
I have this theory which I share with everyone: because we have so little resources, we really have to maximize its impact. If I had $50,000 to buy a billboard ad, I wouldn’t choose to spend it on placing my ad on Ion in Orchard Road. I would choose to spend it on a billboard in the middle of Times Square, New York city where I can gain more eyeballs, and even take a photograph of that and send it back to the media press in Singapore and create a buzz on its own.
Could you share with us Kevin Lester’s journey to being signed to BMBX and what role did you play in this whole journey?
It’s never a single moment that results in outcomes like this. It’s the 6 years we’ve put in together, investing in the music we create, the journeys and tours we broke the bank on to get overseas, to get better that gets you noticed, and respected, and worth other people investment in you, with their time, with their money, with their support.
At each of his live performance, his fans would be there, but about 80% of the crowd has not seen him before. Regardless of that statistic, every time he performs, the crowd just goes bananas and it becomes a party at the end of the day, so there’s always that impact. He may not be part of the current Indie Rock trend, but the indie kids still like him. And they follow him on his socials thereafter.
I already have heard of BMBX previously because when they were working on a charity project for Typhoon Haiyan victims, they worked with JD from Pop Shuvit, whom I knew. Then I got a call a few months ago. They told me that they saw Kevin’s stuff, and have been sharing it with the whole team and everyone loves what they have been seeing. This was just after Overdrive had been released. They said the feedback for Overdrive was very positive.
THELIONCITYBOY has been to the US four to five times already. The first time was April 2012. We managed to get a couple of small shows linked up from a friend, Fiona Bloom, and that was his first couple of performances in New York. Subsequently, he performed at A3C (All 3 Coasts), a top hip hop festival in Atlanta, and moved on to CMJ (College Music Festival) in New York, and things were picking up. In 2013, we went SXSW (South by Southwest, Austin) and CMW (Canadian Music Week, Toronto), took a break, and this year he went back again.
As they say, and especially in the music industry, it’s very important that first, you show up. The more you’re there, the more people take notice. Showing up was half the job, and he was showing up at all these different places. He was doing very good shows, and had this little thing going on. We escalated our efforts with his EP Everything You Love, You Hate, released in April 2013 via Vertusent Music Group/Sony RED. By May, he had his new track called PYCO (Put Your City On), which he wrote and produced out of his love for the football team, the Lions XII, just before they won the Malaysian Cup. He first performed it at Music Matters in 2013. It generated some buzz and later in January, when it was used in the promo video for the football team, it won many people over.
With each solid song created and produced, there would be a strong idea or visual concept behind it, and each song would be released as a single about every 4-6 weeks, shared on YouTube, topping Deezer Singapore charts, shared on Spotify and other channels. The idea was to create so much content consistently that more fans will start to take notice.
I believe, that was also how BMBX got interested. They looked at the content, the music, the videos of him performing live, and they saw the potential he had. They wanted to invest in South East Asian artists, and we were in the right place, in the right time, doing the right things. And now the goal is to take it further, by developing him as a regional force. This includes putting resources behind him, getting interesting producers that we probably not have access to, to work with him, and this will help him expand creatively as an artist.
Ultimately, THELIONCITYBOY was engaged in the deal right from the start, because this is his life. My role was to make sure that we cross all the “t”s and dots all the “i”s when the deal seals. He has to look at it from “Hey this is my life, is this right for me? Do these people have the same vibe as me?” Ultimately it was his decision. Even if I were to convince him night and day to do it, at the end of the day, I would still hand the case over to him to make the final decision. Going back to the first point, and that’s why it’s a partnership between us.
The way I see my artists is that they are the value creators. They are the reason why all of us have jobs, right? And there’s a difference between if you’re an artist versus a musician. If you’re a musician, you’d still have to rely on the artist to make sure that you have a job, because it’s the artist that create the value, the fan following who would pay tickets to come through the doors. That’s why artists need to have that high level of control over their destiny. But the best artists would also know that there are some technical and legal burdensome things they would rather let folks like us handle.
On staying independent
Even after signing the (BMBX) deal, we still hold a mindset that we should never depend solely on one party for support. There must be a way which we are working and giving just as much as we are receiving. It’s in everybody’s interest to make Kevin succeed. If I find funding sources to support this, I would bring it to the table too. It’s a two-way contribution.
Syaheed is a central figure in the entertainment ecosystem in South East Asia. He has produced award-winning music, launched long running event franchises, and grown the careers of artists like Sezairi and THELIONCITYBOY.
Other than his role as Director at Bedsty Artist Management, Syaheed is also Country Manager & Trade Marketing Manager for Believe Digital and Vice President, SGMUSO Council for The Music Society, Singapore.
For more information on Bedsty’s artists, please visit http://bedsty.com/
This interview was conducted by Emily Haw. Reach out to her on Twitter @emilyhaw