At SongTools, we’re lucky to have a diverse and experienced team working together to reach the common goal of helping artists use technology to launch and grow their music in the most accessible ways possible.
Gonzalo Mahou, our co-founder and Head of Business Development, has been doing this, old-school, for over +20 years as an artist manager. He has worked with artists from the earliest stage – i.e.busking on the street – to global acts signed to Universal and Glassnote; scoring hundreds of millions of streams and gold records in the process.
This week, Gonzalo has shared some key learnings for our community of artists, labels, and managers to further help guide their journeys. A few take-aways that stuck with us were:
- The shift of promotion from physical to digital has changed so many things– but being creative to get your music heard is still just as important.
- Artist managers in 2023 need to be expert consumers and processors of music content AND be digital marketing savvy.
- The importance of being independent, putting deep thought into visuals, while carefully managing budgets.
Below, you can read the full interview with Gonzalo, where he expands on these topics:
Tell us a bit about your journey in the music industry.
“My journey in music started at Bertelsmann AG, a German media giant that owned BMG. I did Corporate Strategy there and got to see a real bird‘s eye view of the industry, looking at M&A transactions, rights management and even technology. I then moved into BMG Spain, where I was International Label Manager and A&R. There I learned the ropes of artist campaigns and marketing especially, although this was 2003; a lot has changed in the interim. I soon decided to start my own label in London, and this soon turned into a management company, Manta Ray Music. We were one of the earliest management companies back then, and one of the very few focused on artist development.
We worked with rock bands, singer/songwriters, pop artists, rappers, producers and alternative/electronic artists and theye arned multiple accolades. The best part of it for me was watching these projects grow and become meaningful to many people. It was an incredible journey and a great learning experience.”
How has music promotion changed in the last 20 years? Any examples you can draw from in your own experience?
I would say playlists have probably been the biggest change, along with DSPs. Advertising also changed, and went fully digital. This eventually killed print media and specialist music magazines, which used to be central in terms of promotion. Today, everything‘s online, and your focus needs to be how to control that online space.
As an example, our first artist ever was a rock band coming out of Germany, aiming for the UK market. We had a top producer (who had just done some great work for Placebo), and Colin Murray placed our first single release in his list for Radio1 of the top 20 radio records of 2006. We were riding a bit of a wave, had just picked up an agent, and starting to play some good local shows in London. Then a review came out in the NME (which we worked super hard to get), that completely put down the band and their album. There was no going back, that one review caused opportunities to dry up, and the band had to eventually relocate to Berlin to run the project. Such gatekeepers, especially with such power, are not really a thing today. There are numerous ways to get noticed, and you don’t have to romance the gatekeepers at radio and press the way you used to.
We worked with another UK rock band that went the other direction, and signed with Universal Germany in Berlin. These guys had a single that was number 1 three times on Germany’s biggest radio station, and eventually became a proper hit in Germany. Here Radio was a clear pillar of our campaign, in a way that is almost unrecognizable today. Once again your whole success story depended on pleasing gatekeepers in the media, and not as much on audience-building online.
A little later in 2010-2011, as Youtube became more popular, I managed an artist that became a viral sensation in Germany and Austria, who was selling out shows just from the beats and videos he dropped on Youtube. We built a veritable live music machine, headlining major festivals in our home markets and opening up European territories. The secret ingredient there was running Youtube and social media though original, purely enjoyable, episodic content. The artist charted number 1 (album) in his home market and signed to a major.
Another artist that followed shortly came as the transition from Soundcloud to Spotify was happening. We had a very successful remix on Soundcloud (which was the all time biggest track on Mr Suicide Sheep’s Soundcloud, for example), and we managed to turn this into a broader single collaboration, which we worked for almost a year in total, and which ended up going number 1 in the US billboard Dance charts and the artist made it to be top 150 artists in the world on Spotify. We worked very closely with Spotify at the time, in a way which I think would be impossible today, given the massive volume of music out there, and the fact that back then the company seemed to take bigger bets on new artists. We supported everything with touring, and despite reaching over half a billion total streams on Spotify, the artist is still in the middle of his music career and evolution, I would say, as the fan acquisition and building organically didn’t manage to line up with the streaming success at the time.
Another example could be an artist I was breaking into the UK Rap scene. When we started working together the artist had a solid underground rep but was nowhere on Spotify, live, or socials really. We went abroad, did a COLORS session, got ourselves an agent (the artist was really great live) and played great showcases and international festivals in Europe and the US. By going wide, the UK audience reacted positively, and we were able to build up his campaigns little by little on Spotify. Even though the artist was playing big festivals like Glastonbury, we were still fighting the good fight in streaming, and it wasn’t easy. There was no playlisting scene at the time so not a lot of options for new artists. We leaned heavily on music press and opted for short form Youtube videos to spread his authentic message. It eventually worked. We had a spell where we signed to Universal for an EP but honestly that didn’t really help. We ended up releasing on a great boutique independent, and his debut album was nominated for Best Album (presented by Spotify) at the AIM Awards in the UK.
Finally I’ve recently been developing a brand new artist again that sings in Spanish, but has a very modern, Weeknd-type approach to pop. Super hard to break a new artist like this, but this time we had the help of our online tools at Playlister Club and Songtools. We launched almost every song with these tools as support, and put our money where our mouth is. We successfully signed his debut EP to a major, toured all of last year including a big support tour, and he just finished his first ever headline tour in Spain and Germany last month. Keeping an eye on growing our audiences (through our campaigns) for these two territories has been critical to the artist’s build up and eventual tour.
How has the role of an artist manager changed? i.e. what should emerging artists look for when choosing a manager?
Managers today have to be a lot more plugged in to what‘s going on in terms of songwriting and tracks. The output of music has increased so enormously in the last decade that it’s become almost essential to work through collaborations, both features and songwriting. This means a manager today has to be more tuned in to what’s happening around them than ever before. To serve as some kind of contrast, it used to be the case that some managers would basically create a silo around their client, and work towards the precise opposite effect to ensure the artist‘s creative freedom and exclusivity. It’s a different approach. But today I feel the music industry lives online, and your success as an artist pretty much depends on how you navigate and set up your world and push your music online.
In terms of emerging artists looking for something in a manager, look for people who get things done, and who believe in you. You should be able to rely on your manager until you have a fully backed set up (label, publisher, etc), so your manager should ideally know how to setup and manage your music campaign. Some marketing knowledge or prior labelwork may also be helpful, as you‘ll hopefully be launching music in short order if you aren’t already.
What are the biggest challenges for independent artists starting out? What about established artists?
The biggest challenge for emerging artists is being noticed. The downside of democratizing music - which is great - is that your song will be lost in a virtual tsunami of releases each week (I think the number of songs released is 100K a day!). The second biggest challenge is finding hours in the day to learn to play your instrument, write music, get inspired, build a working image, become a salesperson on the road and online, learn how to distribute and market your music effectively (including the ins and out of every DSP and social platform), and make some money somehow.
For established artists, I would say the biggest challenge is enjoying the fruits of your labor while working hard to stay "on top", or relevant to a wider audience. The nature of entertainment is that it‘s fickle and often short-lasting, and the ride up and down that rollercoaster can be quite jarring for some people. As new music is released, it‘s difficult to give new life to old works,and some inevitably get buried.
How are artists and labels successfully circumventing these challenges today?
Honestly, for emerging artists it’s not easy. Getting on playlists on release, and promoting your song to achieve some level of lift is a very hard challenge. Playing live is a big bonus, especially if you have the chance to support a tour, or build up mass impressions in media or socials. It’s all the samegame, you just have less chips to play at first. I would say labels are giving their releases the maximum chance of getting noticed, and pushing all angles, from playlists to social media, but many independent labels lack the big media relationships that keep giving majors an edge in blowing up fast.
What are some tactical tips or tricks that you can provide for an artist who is trying to go out today?
Learn how to do everything yourself. Down the line, you’ll be passing on responsibilities to a team or to partners, but you need to know what everything does. Also, stay in control of your money. You need it for everything; for playing shows, buying gear, and especially pushing your music. Don’t let anything go to waste or you might need it later! Another tip would be to think visually as well as sonically. Using visual assets, and figuring out an interesting way to express yourselfvisually, goes a very long way.