MBW’s World’s Greatest Managers series profiles the best artist managers in the global business. Here, we speak to Matt Colon, manager of superstar producer and DJ Steve Aoki, and Global President of Music of talent management firm YM&U. Colon’s music career started in the late ‘90s as an intern for Def Jam, before he worked at seminal L.A electronic label Moonshine Music. He has managed superstar DJ Steve Aoki since 2005, and in 2017, sold the management company he co-founded, Deckstar, to YM&U in a deal worth north of $20 million. Now, as the newly-promoted Global President of Music at YM&U Group, Colon is leading the growth strategy for the organization. World’s Greatest Managers is supported by Centtrip, a specialist in intelligent treasury, payments and foreign exchange – created with the music industry and its needs in mind.
It’s hardly a surprise that Collins Dictionary has named ‘NFT’ as its 2021 word of the year.
There were other contenders, of course, with words like ‘metaverse’ and ‘crypto’ making the long list, highlighting a shift to mainstream awareness of virtual concepts first popularized on the fringes of the internet.
In music, NFTs have grown from a buzzy novelty to a serious multi-million-dollar business in the space of 12 months – and talent management firm YM&U is at the centre of this explosion.
“Right now, we are easily the biggest management company in the NFT space,” says YM&U’s Matt Colon, who until recently was the firm’s Managing Director of US Music.
Now, having been promoted to Global President of Music, Colon is tasked with leading YM&U’s global strategy and collaboration between its UK and US Music divisions, whose combined rosters include stars like Common, Steve Aoki, blink-182, Travis Barker, 3LAU, Gary Barlow, Years & Years and Jesy Nelson.
Colon joined YM&U Group in 2017, when his management firm Deckstar – which he created in 2007 along with Steve Aoki, Lawrence Vavra, Paul Rosenberg, and the late DJ AM – was acquired by UK-born talent management firm James Grant Group, which subsequently rebranded as YM&U after selling a majority stake in its business to private equity firm Trilantic.
In spite of having generated “north of $30 million in NFTs” this year across the company’s clients, YM&U’s global music boss refuses to take credit for this meteoric achievement.
“Is [the success] because we’re geniuses, and because we’re so tech forward, and we saw this trend coming? Absolutely not,” he tells us.
“It’s because we had a couple of artists obsessed with crypto that may not have been our highest earners, but we showed them all the same attention that we showed to those [high] earners. We supported them in their journey. They discovered NFTs, and we supported them.”
That support has led to YM&U artist and NFT pioneer 3LAU (Justin Blau) making over $20 million in primary sales from his own NFT releases this year. Plus, 3LAU’s blockchain-based music investment start-up Royal, which offers fractional music ownership of music through its own version of NFTs, has just raised $55 million in Series A funding.
“You can only be an expert in so many things. We’re knowledge pooling and resource pooling. That’s where we’re going to find success.”
Colon’s long-term superstar client, producer, DJ and Dim Mak label founder Steve Aoki, has also been a leading advocate for the possibilities of the NFT space. Back in March, Aoki’s Dream Catcher NFT art collection sale made over $4 million, with $888,888.88 paid for a single NFT by former T-Mobile boss John Legere.
Aoki has also launched his own NFT platform, OddKey, in partnership with comic book creator Todd McFarlane. Colon theorizes that NFTs have the potential to be a single system that ties together all the “disparate activities in an artist’s life” in today’s music ecosystem, from fanbase building across social platforms to community management and monetization.
“They are smart contracts, which can also be social contracts, and you can give access to a fan through an NFT,” he explains. “It doesn’t have to be your logo spinning in 3D space for $1,000. You’re going to see a lot of changes in the NFT space in the near future. You’re going to see some big projects that will turn music on its head.”
Looking to the future – and commenting on his new remit in our wide ranging interview below – Colon tells us that, at the core of YM&U’s strategy going forward, is to have a global footprint.
He’s betting that his firm’s triumphs will come from “having more expertise in house, by being more geographically diverse, more ethnically diverse, and more genre-diverse”.
“It’s just so difficult as an individual manager these days,” he adds.
“You can only be an expert in so many things. We’re knowledge pooling and resource pooling. That’s where we’re going to find success. The world has become too big and too interconnected for any one person to keep track of it all. It is a Herculean task, managing an artist in 2021.”
You’re now Global President of Music at YM&U. What will that new title entail?
It’s really two-fold. It’s about expansion and syncing up our offices. We have an L.A, a London and a New York office [across] our US and our UK divisions. There was a desire to work together, but there wasn’t necessarily a vision on how to do it. Most management companies went through a pretty tough time as COVID progressed.
Most of those companies are not built to withstand that kind of financial pressure. Most made it through, thanks to government support, and we’re not excluded from that. But what we also had was a diversified business outside of strictly music, including entertainment, sports, social, business management and accountancy.
Those businesses didn’t suffer in the same way music did, so we had the benefit of a ‘high tides raise all ships’ mentality. Everyone chipped in to make sure everyone was afloat, knowing that if we made it to the other side, we’d be in a stronger position. Right now, everyone is trying to put their companies back together and get their artists back on the road.
We’ve hit the ground running. 2021 may be one of our most profitable years ever on the music side, between NFTs and a diversified roster that’s already touring, between private gigs [and] new sources of income through virtual performances. With the wind on our backs we saw it as an opportunity to grow the business into the vision that we put forth at the beginning.
COVID has also allowed us to grow without having to worry about geographic limitations. Previously you had to live in L.A or London, or maybe New York. We’ve been able to hire the best that are out there regardless of where they live, regardless of what time zone they’re in. The goal is to grow geographically and to grow in terms of diversity of sounds and staff.
What do you look for in new managers to hire and how much of a track record should they have had before you consider taking them on?
We don’t sign managers for their roster, we sign managers for who they are. We have hired more managers who had lacklustre rosters, but were impressive professionally, impressive strategically and well-liked in the industry. It’s not difficult to find someone who has a big client base and write them a big check. There’s no art to that.
We take maybe more of a Moneyball approach to it. Every one of our managers has learned the hard way that you can lose a client in a heartbeat. [Artists] might just wake up on the wrong side of the bed. The great managers will always find the next big thing. Our goal is to bet on those managers, and trust that they will find the artists.
We look at it from a human perspective. Next, we look at it academically. What is their knowledge base? What is their network? Do they have experience that we lack? Lastly, we look at their roster and we look at their income stream. We’ve passed on managers who would have added 25-50% of our own profit, just because there wasn’t a desire to work with them. If we’re not working together, what are we here for?
YM&U’s music roster holds a broad spectrum of genres, from Rancid, to Greg Graffin to superstar DJs and producers like Steve Aoki. What do you look for in an artist to work with?
What are the connecting traits? Obviously, success begets success. You have success with somebody like Steve Aoki and you get more clients in the dance music space. Also, success gives experience, but at the end of day, you’re looking for great artists. The vast majority of the managers [at YM&U] are between their 20s and 40s, so we all grew up in the post-CD generation, listening to our iTunes on shuffle.
A great example is Kevin [Wolff] – the person that manages Rancid also manages Common. He’s a great manager and he loves both genres. Music is music. To manage a great musician, you just need to know their audience. If you can identify who that audience is, how to reach them authentically, the genre doesn’t matter.
The tools are the same. What’s different is how to speak authentically to that artist’s fan base. If you can do that, at the end of the day, all we’re doing is empowering artists. We’re amplifying their voices. We feel fully capable that we can manage a country artist, a Latin artist, a jazz artist, a bluegrass artist, with the same team. It’s just about time, dedication and authenticity.
How has your view on management evolved from when you guys first started Deckstar back in 2006?
For one, the tools have evolved. There’s always some indicators, whether it’s Shazam, or more lately TikTok. In the past it was Facebook. There was a day when it was MySpace. There are places where people discover new music and traditionally we’ve loved to look at those indicators and try and find things early. But more often than not, you just hear something and you’re moved by it. Then you meet the artist and it goes back to what I was saying about our manager philosophy: It comes down to the person.
Life is too short to deal with somebody that you don’t enjoy [working with]. It is very easy to sign an [artist] client, it is very difficult to drop them. People rarely talk about that. Once you’re working with a client, you know where all the bodies are buried. You know the highs, the lows, you know whether or not they can pay their rent, if they have child support. I’ve toiled for months, sometimes years, over how to drop a client, because you get emotionally attached. It’s the closest relationship they have.
And for us it is never a contractual one. It’s not like an attorney or an agent who can just say, “Sorry, our contract’s up.” We’re the ones who talk to the agent, the attorney, the publicists. What I’m saying is, it really comes down to the person. It’s nice to like the music, but what’s more important is you believe in the artist. What’s really paramount is, does the artist believe in themselves?
Do they want it? Do they want to put in the time and effort? We don’t sign clients because they make a ton of money, because they will just fire you the next day anyways if you’re not doing a good job. You sign artists because of the person they are. The manager can’t want the artist to be a star more than the artist does.
How do you strike a balance between being friends with clients and also having a professional relationship, especially when it comes to making difficult decisions?
Sometimes it’s easier than other times. There are certain clients who you grow very close to, that you hold on to for years and years just because you become friends and you just want to support them in their careers, come rain or shine. It’s important to be self-aware. More often than not, I like to say we are often saving the artists from themselves. I’ve said many times [to artists], “As your friend, this is what I would do. As your manager, this is what you should do”.
Artists… anybody, appreciates a multi-multifaceted approach. They want to hear the pros and the cons. Should an artist pay their entire tour crew their wages when a tour is cancelled because of COVID? Probably not. You don’t know when [touring will] come back. There’s no upside to this. But on the human level, is that the right thing to do?
Some [artists] are very wealthy, but still, a million-dollar check is a million-dollar check. And some of them [live] hand to mouth as well and still make that decision, like “I want to support my crew because: (a) I’m going to want to work with them again; and (b) on a human level, I want to do the right thing.” And as a manager, that’s where you can say, “You can pay this much, or you can pay that much, but as a friend, if it were me, this is what I would do”.
YM&U entered the NFT sector early on this year particularly with 3LAU and Steve Aoki – with lucrative results. How big do you think the music NFT space can get?
The music portion of NFTs is extremely underdeveloped. There are a handful of people, 3LAU included, that are really pushing the boundaries of what a music NFT is and what it means.
The vast majority see it as a cash grab, like selling ringtones; just another way to make money off music. It doesn’t take much thought or energy. Make a cool graphic, sell it with your name. They see it like they’re selling merch. I see the opportunity as much bigger than that. I see it as tokenizing community and access.
“The music portion of NFTs is extremely underdeveloped. The vast majority see it as a cash grab, like selling ringtones; just another way to make money off music.”
Things are being developed so quickly that if I were a musician, honestly, I probably wouldn’t do NFTs just yet. But in the next two to four months, so many things are coming online.
You’ve seen bands like The Grateful Dead or Fish create these hyper-engaged communities. But you have to get so big to do that. We’re coming to a place [with NFTs] where you can create a micro-community. You see it on places like Patreon, where you can have 5,000 fans, they’ll pay a monthly service fee, and you can actually sustain a business that way. Patreon [is] a really cool model, but NFTs can open that up even wider.
Steve Aoki launched an NFT platform and we’re seeing other artists invest in NFT platforms too. What are the benefits for an artist of owning a platform?
There was a moment in March, April where a bunch of artists and musicians made a ton of money selling NFTs. Then most of them left the space. They made the money and left because ultimately those NFTs didn’t hold value. There was no thought behind it. There’s no utility to those NFTs. They might as well have been enamel pins.
A handful of artists, Steve included, stuck with the space and kept developing, kept iterating. What most people have figured out is music NFTs are thoroughly underdeveloped, so the better bet for a musician is to bet on a platform and empower yourself and other musicians to keep experimenting. It’s better to bet on the community than to bet on yourself.
You mentioned Patreon. What do you think about the potential that Twitch has for community building and monetization in today’s music business?
The jury is still out, if I’m being really honest. There is a community on Twitch, but there’s not a robust music community on Twitch.
The average music listener isn’t there. It isn’t some place that you generally go to because you want to hear music. It’s generally a gaming platform. There are tons of people that are into eSports in gaming, that also love music.
And there are also musicians that specialize in music for that audience and that do quite well. And [on that score], we are huge Twitch supporters.
Steve’s an enormous gamer. He owns an eSports company, and we’ve done plenty of live performances, as has his label on Twitch. I don’t think the model has been fully worked out yet. There’s something around it that goes back to the Patreon idea; that subscription model and creating micro-communities.
With the rise of the DIY artist sector in mind, how does the role of a manager or a management company fit into today’s music industry?
That’s a great question. It makes management so much more important. There’s definitely a world where you can say, ‘I don’t need a manager. My record label does everything and my agent books my shows.’ But even the biggest artists are now taking more control of their careers. It’s all becoming DIY. How do you manage all that stuff?
“Artists are called artists for a reason; they’re creating art. Artists should not have the time to manage a business on top of creating art. If they do, typically the art suffers.”
Artists are called artists for a reason; they’re creating art. Artists should not have the time to manage a business on top of creating art. If they do, typically the art suffers. The role of a manager has become exponentially more important because now we’re running entire businesses. We’re not just telling a label when to put something out, or when to tour.
We’re launching Kickstarters every day. I mean that figuratively. We’re creating new IP, new ideas, making new partnerships. We’re trying to turn over every rock to find new sources of income.
There’s so much more opportunity and so many more ways to break an artist than there used to be, but it’s also exhausting and time-intensive. It is next to impossible for any one person to try and do it all, much less a team and certainly not an artist on their own.
Following on from that, from a manager’s point of view, what is the role of the record label in today’s music business?
It’s changing, rapidly. It depends on the artist. If you want to be a Top 40 Pop artist, the role of the record label is crucial. One thing the labels have better than everybody else is access to the streaming services.
They also have, oftentimes, financing that you don’t otherwise have access to. Obviously a lot of these platforms we’re talking about are essentially alternative forms of financing. But not every artist is built to be on Patreon, or has a community to help finance them.
“Labels can take punts and spend money on things. The great labels still have good A&R. They still bring ideas to the table.”
Labels can take punts and spend money on things. The great labels still have good A&R. They still bring ideas to the table. The labels that I enjoy working with the most, it has nothing to do with the money.
It has to do with, ‘Do they actually contribute to the process, or am I just going to them for approval of our ideas?’ If that’s the case, unless there is a ginormous check involved, you’re just creating a new level of approval. You’re just creating a speed bump in the process. There are plenty of artists that do not need labels. There are other sources of income. There are other ways to build community.
There are other ways to finance art. That doesn’t mean that labels don’t have a place, but the label’s place in music is changing.
UnitedMasters recently announced that they’ll start paying artists in cryptocurrency and EMPIRE recently paid an artist a $1 million advance in Bitcoin. How do you foresee the use of crypto shaping the business?
There’s a nice story to be told about the adoption of cryptocurrency. Our artist RAC was the first artist to sell his album on the blockchain, in 2017 or 2018, We sold his album for Ethereum. It took months and months to explain to his label at the time what it was and why we’re doing it. All to sell 100 albums! It was equivalent to like $2,000 at the time.
Now, granted that $2,000 is probably $40,000 or $50,000 [today], but it was a small step. The examples you’re giving are just more and more endorsement. More importantly, the question will be, ‘How does the blockchain empower music?
How does it solve some of the problems with opaqueness in accounting, lack of transparency with royalty payments and royalty tracking?’ All of these things are solvable on the blockchain. It’s just how quickly are the powers that be going to engage? Not much will happen without the major labels participating.
What would you change about today’s music business and why?
I wish that there was a better way for communities or fans to dictate popularity. It’s largely based on algorithms telling us what we should be listening to, or what other people are listening to.
“I wish that there was a better way for communities or fans to dictate popularity.”
We still rely on radio, we still rely on playlisting, we still rely on largely major labels, putting up the funds and giving access.
I wish there was an easier way for the public to discover music, to finance music, and for that music to be successful without all these intermediaries taking a cut and inserting themselves, for better or worse.
What’s the best advice that you’ve ever been given in this business, and what advice would you give to somebody coming up in the artist management world?
The best advice I’ve been given was when a friend of mine said that his mother always told him, ‘Find something you love so much, that you do it for free, and then find someone to pay you for doing it.’ I was making great money coming out of college and working at a dot com. I decided to quit that job so I could live, barely paycheck to paycheck, as an entry level music intern.
“If you want to be a manager, find artists out there. There’s no school for it. Most of us in the music industry did not come out of college and get a job at a record label. Almost everyone I know did something for free in the music industry for years before someone paid them to do it.”
But I loved music, I didn’t care how much I made. I didn’t care that I could only afford to eat bags of popcorn for dinner; I was working in music. A lot of people come to the music industry for the status, the celebrity and the social flex. I just love music, and if that’s your guiding light, then success will find you. For somebody who wants to get into the industry. Number one, don’t say ‘No’.
The answer is always, ‘Yes’, even if it’s something you don’t want to do. You never know what it will lead to. And then beyond that, just start doing it. You don’t need to wait for someone to give you a job. If you want to be a manager, find artists out there. There’s no school for it. Most of us in the music industry did not come out of college and get a job at a record label. Almost everyone I know did something for free in the music industry for years before someone paid them to do it. My advice is, just do it. Work for anyone who will take you.
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