In 1978 Paul McGuinness sat down in Dublin’s Granary pub with the four members of The Hype, who were too young to drink — but not too young, in his view, to be served a cold truth about making music for a living. “It is pathetic to be good at what you do if you are bad at the business of it,” said McGuinness, then an aspiring manager. Over the coming decades, the manager and the band — rechristened U2 — would prove anything but, staying a step ahead of the fast-changing music business as it shifted from albums to downloads and tours became megatours.
Half a world away in Los Angeles, Irving Azoff gives his acts a similarly blunt message. “The first thing I tell a young artist is that they call this the music business,” Azoff once said. “If you don’t pay attention to the business, you won’t get to make any music.”
Where there’s a string of great records, there’s a great artist, the saying goes — and when that artist has a great career, there’s almost always a great manager. That requires both the ability to recognize talent and see where the music business is going, plus the skills of an old-school hustler and the ability to negotiate complicated deals with multinational companies. The pioneering managers listed here not only took on the music business but changed it. They are by no means a diverse group — their homogeneity reflects the business of rock, at a time when it dominated pop music. But they used the power they had to expand opportunities for their artists — and in the process fundamentally altered how the industry worked for artists who came later.
The Showman: Colonel Tom Parker
Elvis Presley’s manager was more carny than colonel — the title was a Kentucky honorific, casually bestowed and hungrily embraced — but he transformed the rock business from a sideshow to the main event. By today’s standards, his deals look primitive, his splits with Presley unconscionable, and his affected pose as a southern-fried midway barker seems premodern. But there wasn’t a playbook yet: Rock & roll was just finding its legs, and it was barely a business in January 1955 when Parker negotiated an enormous-for-the-time $35,000 deal to move Elvis from Sun to RCA. The following year Parker launched Presley’s superstar career in earnest, with television appearances that caused a media frenzy, and then Love Me Tender, the first of 31 feature films. Beecher Smith, the estate and tax counsel for Presley, characterized Parker’s later deals as out of touch with the evolving business. But it’s worth noting that the last record deal Parker made for his client was to sell Presley’s future royalties from his recordings to RCA for the then-astronomical sum of $5.4 million — the kind of late-career cash-out deal that’s very much back in vogue.
The True Believer: Brian Epstein
Missionary of the Mersey Beat, apostle of the Beatles, Brian Epstein had an unshakeable belief in the Fab Four, and he forced the band — and the future it foretold — on an indifferent music business. He was an inspired impresario, but not a sophisticated business operator: EMI’s Parlophone paid each of the Beatles just a farthing (one-fourth of a penny) per single, music publisher Dick James earned the lion’s share on their songs. Plus, Epstein practically gave away merchandise rights — a blunder that may have cost the group $100 million. Contemporaries like Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham saw Epstein as a giant, though, and musician, manager and Beatles confidant Peter Asher credits Epstein with the band’s focus and success — and suggests it lost its cohesion after his 1967 death. “It later dawned on the Beatles that Brian didn’t know much more than they knew, but he was so well-meaning, so honorable,” he told music executive Joe Smith for Smith’s oral history. “Without him, they argued a lot more.”
The Rock Kingmaker: Albert Grossman
The manager of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and The Band, plus the creator of Peter, Paul & Mary, Grossman was the first big music executive to embrace the new counterculture: Woodstock, NY, became a rock mecca because that’s where he lived, and Dylan followed him there. More hustler than hippie, Grossman believed in the vision of his artists and — starting in the early sixties with Peter, Paul & Mary — made sure they, rather than their labels, controlled everything from song selection to cover art. Grossman’s superstar roster also gave him the power to significantly raise the financial ante on recording and publishing deals. “The guy had unbelievable connections,” recalled Electric Flag vocalist Nick Gravenites. “ ‘What record company do you want to be on?’ Jesus, he’d pick up the phone and the president of that company would be there. And it wasn’t a question of whether there was a deal or not. The question immediately was ‘What was the deal?’ ”
The Gunslinger: Allen Klein
A David who became a Goliath, Klein started as an auditor and rose to become the most feared and powerful manager in rock history — with both the Rolling Stones and Beatles as clients. An accountant by training, Klein began his career digging through publishing and label reports, learning their financial ins-and-outs. That led him to contract negotiations and management, most notably on behalf of Sam Cooke. At the height of the British invasion, Klein’s razor-sharp mind and ability to take the bite out of U.K. tax laws made him the go-to advisor for British artists: after negotiating a new contract for the Rolling Stones, Klein became their American manager and a key player in the band’s U.S. success. But the relationship soured over the way the rapacious Klein dealt himself into the structure of their deals, essentially making himself their partner. Suing Klein, who relished a fight like no one else, the Stones spent two frustrating and fruitless decades in court. Klein also dismantled the Beatles’ financially disastrous Apple Corp. but made an enemy of Paul McCartney, who wanted his in-laws, the Eastmans, to manage the group. Though Lennon and the others preferred Klein, McCartney was able to convince a British court to dissolve the Beatles’ partnership and oust him.
The Operators: David Geffen & Elliot Roberts
Through their association with CSNY, Joni Mitchell, the Eagles, Jackson Browne, America and others, Geffen-Roberts went from management upstarts to the pre-eminent firm of the early seventies. Both were agents who switched to management: Geffen with Laura Nyro and Roberts with Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. (Young remined a client until Roberts died in 2019.) They were a formidable pair: Roberts the hip, hands-on talent schmoozer, Geffen the high-octane wheeler-dealer. Indeed, Geffen’s decision to launch Asylum Records ultimately led to the dissolution of the partnership after Warner Communications, Asylum’s distributor, suggested that serving as both a manager and a label — and in some cases a publisher — could cause legal issues. (It ultimately did in the case of the Eagles.) Until then, no one sounded unhappy. “You just naturally do get to love the cat,” David Crosby said of Roberts in Rolling Stone. “Unless you gotta write a contract with him. And if he doesn’t rob you blind, we’ll send Dave Geffen over; he’ll take your whole company.”
The Hammer of the Gods: Peter Grant
At six-foot-two and 300 pounds, former professional wrestler and Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant made a powerful impression — and he was just as good at creating a mystique for his clients, simultaneously the people’s band and aloof rock gods. Famously, Grant refused all television offers so anyone wanting to see Led Zeppelin had to buy a ticket. Learning his trade as a tour manager, Grant worked and butted heads with Don Arden, the thuggish manager and agent (and father of Sharon Osborne). Like Arden, Grant could evince a menacing aspect — and use it to his advantage. Having visited America as tour manager for the Animals and the Yardbirds, Grant came to appreciate the size of the U.S. rock market and launched Led Zeppelin’s career by keeping them on the road in the U.S. for most of their first year. Grant soon got the band 90/10 split of concert proceeds — which was unheard of at the time — and went on to oversee Swan Song Records.
The Black Godfather: Clarence Avant
As recounted in Reginald Hudlin’s documentary, The Black Godfather, Avant played a singular role as consigliere to several generations of Black artists and executives. Starting at Associated Booking in the fifties, Avant served as an agent and manager for R&B stars Little Willie John and Kim Weston, plus jazz musicians Sarah Vaughan, Jimmy Smith and Freddie Hubbard. He started the Sussex and Tabu labels, and played a key role in the careers of Bill Withers and producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Avant — who has said that “it’s all about numbers” — then helped to expand political clout for African Americans and emerged as one of the Hollywood’s top campaign bundlers, raising millions for progressive candidates including Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. “His tools,” Withers has said, “are his ability to manipulate people.”
The Fighter: Irving Azoff
Azoff’s unparalleled grasp of the concert business made him promoters’ worst nightmare: a manager who knew their business as well as they did. Questioning every industry assumption, Azoff moved beyond negotiating for cut of ticket sales into merchandise — and eventually had artists like the Eagles dictating financial terms for stadium shows. “Irving brought boundless ambition to the job,” said Glenn Frey. Azoff’s Frontline Management supplanted Geffen-Roberts as the premier rock company and he has managed dozens of arena headliners including Gwen Stefani, Jimmy Buffett, Stevie Nicks, Steely Dan, Van Halen, Journey, Jon Bon Jovi, and Neil Diamond; his son, Jeffrey Azoff, manages Harry Styles. He also ran MCA Records, Giant Records, Ticketmaster, and Live Nation, and in 2013 started the collecting society Global Music Rights. “I want my legacy,” Azoff says, “to be that no one did more for artists’ rights.”
The Van-To-Jetsetter: Miles Copeland III
“The job is to get noticed,” Miles Copeland once said of launching artists. As the manager of the Police — a band that featured his brother Stewart on drums and was booked by a third brother, Ian — that meant starting the Illegal label to release the group’s first single. Recording the band’s debut album on the cheap, Copeland enticed A&M Records to take a shot by eschewing an advance. “If I’d asked for $100,000 upfront they would have declined,” Copeland has recalled. Then, capitalizing on the 1977 debut of the no-frills transatlantic discount carrier Laker Airways, he sent the trio and one roadie to tour the U.S. by van. Six years later, the Police headlined Shea Stadium. Building on his start-small strategy and leveraging his relationship with A&M for funding and distribution, Copeland started I.R.S. Records, which in turn launched R.E.M., the Go-Go’s, Oingo Boingo and other acts.
The Change Navigator: Paul McGuinness
It’s hard to tell what helped McGuinness more: His knowledge of a fast-moving marketplace or his deep understanding of his big client, U2. His 35-year association with the band started with accompanying them on tours by van and bus and ended in 2013 when he sold his firm and was succeeded by Guy Oseary. The Joshua Tree sold 25 million copies, and U2 was so successful that the band reportedly received equity in its label, Island Records, which later earned them 30 million pounds. When music sales declined, McGuinness helped U2 adjust: The group’s 2009 No Line on the Horizon sold a comparatively modest 5 million copies, but U2 grossed a reported $750 million on the accompanying global tour — a figure McGuinness has suggested may never be broken.
The Grassroots Mogul: Coran Capshaw
A longtime Deadhead, Coran Capshaw took aspects of the way the band connected with its audience and applied it to the careers of the Dave Matthews Band and Phish, then professionalized the Dead’s idea of self-contained merchandise, fan outreach and ticketing. His Red Light Management now has 400 clients and more than 70 managers, plus a label, online commerce, and financial stakes in both festivals and venues. “I think of myself as a manager who leads an entrepreneurial management business,” Capshaw says of his multi-tentacled operation. “But, yeah — I’m still a manager.”