It’s not new for musical artists to leverage their careers for successful entrepreneurial ventures, from Kanye West to Gene Simmons. But now the behind-the-scenes creators have finally gotten the memo.
Six years ago, Lucas Keller started the mega-successful songwriter/producer management company, Milk & Honey. His goal was to not only represent the biggest hitmakers in the industry — like Oak Felder, Sir Nolan and David Hodges — but to partner with them to build new companies from scratch.
Oak Felder made hits like Demi Lovato’s “Sorry Not Sorry” and Alessia Cara’s “Here.” His publishing company, The Orphanage, is responsible for singles by John Legend, 5 Seconds of Summer and Kehlani. You’ve heard tracks by Nolan Lambroza (or Sir Nolan) like Nick Jonas’s “Jealous” and Selena Gomez’s “Good for You.” He started the label White Rabbit Records as well as Deep Cuts Publishing, working with Khalid and Bryce Vine. David Hodges was a member of the rock band Evanescence and penned hits like Kelly Clarkson’s “Because of You” and Carrie Underwood’s “See You Again.” His publishing company, Third And Verse, is behind James Arthur’s hit “Say You Won’t Let Go.”
Somehow all four of these power players made themselves available over Zoom in a wide-ranging chat. Here’s our conversation:
Danny Ross: First, how has the quarantine affected your creativity and workflow?
Oak Felder: I hate it. Trying to write a song over Zoom is like watching Chopped instead of actually cooking. It looks great and appetizing, but when it gets presented to the judges, you can’t taste it. The intimacy and physical proximity of working with someone is part of the chemistry.
David Hodges: And we’re always interrupting each other while we’re writing. “Can we change this? Can we do that?” But you can’t talk over each other in this setting and that kills the momentum.
Ross: How did you make your way to music production?
Nolan Lambroza: At first I wanted to be a guitar player for Bon Jovi. But I went to Berklee College of Music and found myself wanting to be behind the scenes in the songwriting process. I came to L.A., interned for companies, and weaseled my way in like everyone else. I got my first publishing deal because I tweeted a song out to a bunch of songwriters and one got back to me.
Lucas Keller: I love the famous story where David Geffen forged his college transcript to get in the William Morris mailroom. A lot of people have stories of faking it until you make it. I started in Milwaukee as a concert promoter and played in punk rock bands until I started managing artists. I ended up at The Collective in 2009, where I met David and we continued this great relationship when I started Milk & Honey. They say the reward for good work is more work, and now we’ve built this great company of over 65 clients — all because of a handshake with a songwriter.
Hodges: I started a band in Little Rock, Arkansas called Evanescence. We moved out to L.A., and because of the success of our record, an opportunity came up with Kelly Clarkson. Watching her artistry come out in writing “Because Of You” really made me excited. Now I’m in Nashville and I’m able to sit in the room with a country artist and be a country artist for that day, or sit with a rock band and be a rock band for that day.
Felder: I spent a lot of time in my uncle’s studio back home in Turkey. I moved to the US to finish my college education, but since I knew my way around a studio, I had a side-hustle recording people for extra cash. One of those artists got signed by L.A. Reid to Def Jam, and that started my career. Eventually I produced “Your Love” by Nicki Minaj, which was my first Top 10 record. And fingers crossed, that success hasn’t stopped yet.
Ross: What’s the difference between an artist manager and a songwriter/producer manager?
Keller: As a songwriter/producer manager, so much of your work is pitching songs, setting up sessions, and finding information on how to get songs to people. Sometimes it’s reverse engineering opportunities — if you can’t get to the big artists, figuring out how to eventually get there.
An artist manager is talking to the record label and marketing, setting up releases, talking to the booking agent and putting up tour dates. Going out on the road is really the core of revenues for artists and their managers. But in the writer/producer world, it’s about one song.
Ross: And how do writer/producers make money?
Keller: The biggest streams are music publishing and production fees for each track. A producer also gets a few royalty points on that song, which can add up to a lot of money. Music in TV, film and gaming is also huge revenue — we clear about 25-30 synchs per day.
Ross: David, how did your publishing company Third And Verse come about?
Hodges: Once I learned how to really produce, write a song, interact with an artist in the room, talk to A&R people and work through deadlines, I wanted to pass on all that experience. Something it took me 100 hours to learn, I can transfer that to someone else in an hour or less and then they can pass it down. The multiplication of that is a life worth living.
I loved making music together with Steve Solomon and I started calling up publishers but no one was interested in signing him. Lucas and I thought that maybe we should start a publishing company. Soon we signed more writers, and Steve had a big hit with James Arthur. Being able to walk on stage at the BMI Awards as a publisher was a profoundly important moment.
Teaching all the technical aspects of songwriting and production is very important, but maybe the best thing is seeing me continue to fail. The perception on the outside is that every song we write is going to be a hit, but it’s never easy for a writer or producer. The whole point is that making great art is hard. That’s an invaluable lesson.
Keller: Starting a publishing company is like starting a fire with wet wood: it’s hard to get your first hit. For all the things that managers do, what’s better than putting someone in a room with one of these guys to develop their career? In so many ways, Steve got to jump the line in his experience and relationships. No major publisher can put a young writer on a faster track than any of these guys. The vouch of another successful writer/producer means a lot.
Ross: And Oak, why did you start The Orphanage?
Felder: My uncle once said to me, “If you sign a bad deal in America, it’s your fault.” It puts the onus on the one person who doesn’t have experience in the situation. I was blindsided over and over in my career. Now that I have the opportunity to develop my own group of people, I get to be the guy who is both experienced and does right by the person walking through the door.
I signed these 2 amazing producers to The Orphanage, Zaire Koalo and Downtown Trevor Brown. I remind them every day that it’s a privilege to make music and we could be bagging groceries tomorrow. Luckily, they listen to me and they’re doing really well.
Up until meeting Lucas, I kept getting advice on how to screw people. But the first time Lucas and I ever met, he asked if I was in a position to sign those young people and do right by them. So we partnered up and haven’t looked back.
Keller: There has to be a moral compass because it’s a multi-year commitment. So much of the value proposition is the mentorship, not just the access. Something we talk about a lot is just doing fair deals. Being good to these writers means sharing a production fee with them and giving them good pieces of publishing. It’s designed so they have loyalty to come back and re-sign.
Lambroza: A lot of people in music are looking for quick cash or signing a hot record. But the long-game is always the most important thing with any company because you don’t make your first dollar until years in. Plus, the three of us have to face our people. We have to look into their eyes and see them be heartbroken or happy. Their struggle is our struggle. In the beginning, I lose a bunch of revenue sharing my records with them but it’s worth it in the end because they start to have hit records on their own. I was with Bryce Vine for at least five years before things started to happen.
Ross: And why are these ventures smart business moves?
Keller: Because assets are how you build a really big company. While management is commission-based, assets are tangibles that you can sell. Publishing catalogs sell between 10-18 times multiple. We’ll always be a great management company first, but along the way we want to build things that we own with our clients. So Milk & Honey is the center of the wheel and these businesses are the spokes.
Ross: How does running a business affect your musicality?
Felder: I try to find things I’m genuinely interested in like teaching or tech. But if I’m not the best at the original thing — production — the rest doesn’t matter. Without the trunk, the whole tree falls over. I still have to kill it in the studio. We still have beat battles so my guys understand who the king of the hill is. It makes me appreciate my initial talent even more. Because if my TED Talk is still around in 10 years, but my music isn’t, then it’s like, “Who is this guy?” First and foremost I’m a husband, father and a record producer.
Lambroza: I have a hard time deciding on whether to focus on business or writing or producing songs every day. There’s no right or wrong. Sometimes I just want to do one thing and sometimes I don’t want to do anything. But I think anyone making a lot of money is wearing different hats. You just can’t intellectualize the musical process or put a dollar figure on the session. No one wants to make music with a businessman. So it’s a balance. And it doesn’t get any easier, it just stays as difficult as it was.
Keller: When you water Chinese Bamboo for five years, nothing happens — but then it grows 90 feet in five weeks. It’s a great example of the music business and having blind faith. Everyone remembers their first ASCAP check for $3.75. Then it’s $8.70, Then it’s suddenly $870,000. It takes time.
Ross: And lastly, what advice do you have for up-and-coming creatives in music?
Hodges: You have to love the process. The day a song succeeds is probably three years after you made it. That means you’ve probably written 300 songs since then. If you only want success, it will never come because you have to aim for what’s in front of you at the moment.
Lambroza: And your early instincts are probably wrong most of the time so try not to take things personally. You’re trying to put art out in the world so you have to take criticism. Listen with an open mind. Resilience is the key. There are always peaks and valleys. I’ve taken months off at a time but that’s my process. I get discouraged and I come back.
Felder: Fall in love with being on the ground, because you’re going to get knocked down a lot. You have to be okay with that moment of doubt and you can’t allow it to stop you. Because the only difference between success and failure is whether or not you stop.
Keller: In every career, there are short bursts of euphoria and then everything else in between. Sometimes people get addicted to success but it’s not normal life. I spend most of my time managing clients in those long stretches in between successes. Nobody hears about your failures. But through quantity of trying things, you find quality. It’s about accepting that you really have to pay your dues, and the in-between times don’t have to be depressing. You’re making great art and that matters.