The Songwriters’ Manager: A Q&A with Lucas Keller of Milk & Honey

At some point balancing your creative side with the business side of your music can become too much. As a songwriter, does it make sense for you to have a manager? And what does that entail? Can a manager advance a songwriter’s career?

Lucas Keller is the owner of Milk & Honey, a unique company that specifically manages and serves the needs of songwriters, artists and producers. In just six years, the company has become the go-to stop for pop artists looking for the best songs, songwriters and producers, with over 400 million records sold. Songwriters like Oak Felder, Sir Nolan and Charlie Handsome may not be household names, but without their creative touch it’s safe to say many of the catchy earworms you hear on your favorite listening device might not be as hummable.  Hits like Nick Jonas’ “Jealous,” Justin Bieber, Daddy Yankee and Louis Fonsi’s “Despacito,” Alessia Cara’s “Here,” “Scars To Your Beautiful,” and “Growing Pains,” and Demi Lovato’s “Sorry Not Sorry” are all represented by Keller and the team at Milk & Honey. The company’s rapid growth has led them to staff lean and mean offices in Los Angeles, New York and most recently, Nashville and London.

Keller grew up playing guitar in rock bands in Wisconsin before moving to Chicago to work in music management for Kid Rock’s manager. In 2008 he joined The Collective, a management company in Los Angeles with a roster that included Linkin Park, Peter Gabriel and Scott Weiland. One of the other artists there was David Hodges of the band Evanescence, a co-writer of several of the band’s first hits, including the Grammy-winning “Bring Me To Life.” The two hit it off and in 2014 Milk & Honey was born, with a focusing exclusively on managing songwriters and producers, which Keller felt was an essential, but underserved, part of the creative process.

Keller opened up to American Songwriter, offering insight into the differences between an artist manager and songwriter manager, publishing splits, streaming and what his office does on a daily basis.

When does a songwriter need a manager?

I think the legitimate entry for a writer to look for a manager is that you’ve had at least one hit, or something that warrants a manager like us getting involved. Songwriters first think about needing a publishing deal. Then if that happens, they naturally think ‘well maybe now I need a manager.’

Do artists need a manager because they aren’t good at business?

That’s part of it. Creative people are sometimes not great at business. It’s also that there’s not as much of a flag up for managers as there is for a publishing company. Publishing companies are owned by bigger corporations. People know that’s what you need to get first.

And the big thing is that managers cost money and publishing companies give you money (laughs). Well they cost money of course. Managers don’t give advances but publishing companies do.

You also manage producers, correct?

Producers needing a manager is something that’s come along in the last 10 years. We’re actually investigating putting our own studios around town here in LA to nurture new talent. There are a lot of young kids we might want to represent who just don’t have studios. Nashville is different. They have writer’s rooms and people work from iPhone memos and work tapes. But I think it’s needed here in Los Angeles.

What is the role of an artist manager versus a songwriter manager?

The artist manager’s job is to guide their career. Someone who can have the hard conversations. A great manager is one who can lead you into battle and win. They deal with record labels to coordinate releases, marketing and publicity, radio promotion, agents to figure out tours, setting up an 18-24 month plan, social media, digital, brand opportunities, sync licenses. So much more has gone into a management company now because artists are not relying on record companies to do it as much anymore. Lots of people who used to work at labels are now working for management companies because those job responsibilities have been added into what they can provide.

At our company one person may manage one or two artists and another can handle eight or ten writer/producers.  The writer/producer manager is setting up sessions, maintaining calendars. They’re also guiding the career as an artist manager would. They pitch songs for sync licenses and to A&R. Our office does that all day, pitching for Demi Lovato, Justin Bieber or other pop artists. That’s a big part of what we do.

It’s a very creative job, similar to what a publisher would do. You’ll hear a song and think ‘oh that’s a strong hook. Maybe we should send that to a certain DJ’s manager.’ If the production doesn’t sound like that DJ, though, we’ll cut a piano and vocal track, so they’re not distracted by the original production. Or maybe we’re managing a producer who knows their production style. We might cut him in with 10% of the publishing and have him deliver us the track in a few days.

How often are you and your team involved with your writers?

Super involved, from pitching and setting up sessions to licensing and more. I feel like the bigger we get, the busier I get. We have 55 clients and I’m involved in every publishing deal. With that many clients it’s a new deal every few weeks. I still try to stay granular but there’s a lot where I can’t be involved.

With producers it’s more involved too. You have to make deals on their songs- points, royalties, etc. It’s an extra layer than managing a songwriter.

What’s the ratio of producers to songwriters at Milk and Honey?

Well, all the producers are writers except one. I would guess ¾ are producers/writers and ¼ are just writers.

What makes you want to sign someone to your roster, beyond just having at least one hit?

It’s just something you feel. I’ve signed guys just because I liked them in the meeting. I believe in their work ethic. Sometimes I sign them because I want them. Oak Felder is a good example. I wanted to meet him and my friend (songwriter) Julia Michaels introduced us. I was like ‘this guy’s awesome!’ And he already had a career. We were lucky to get the meeting. Then there’s guys like Sir Nolan who I met him early in his career but didn’t know his work. As I got to know him, I realized how talented he was.

A good example is I helped one of the producers I manage, Jonas Jeberg. His stepson creates beats and writes songs, one of which is “Money in the Grave” by Drake and Rick Ross, which became a #1 hit. He wanted help with his producer deal. So now we manage him. You never know.

As a writer it’s about building a valuable catalog. It’s the collection of all the parts over the years. We have some clients where I can’t point to any one song but the value of the aggregate of their whole catalog is there.

First and foremost, the modus of this company has always been to be a friend to songwriters. That was always important to us.

Is there a specific genre where you company strength lies?

Pop. Definitely pop. People come to us because they want a Selena Gomez single. That’s what we do best. We’re pretty good at Urban and R&B and our NY office is really good at electronic. My background, though, is rock and I feel like I still know every alternative band out there. And when I go to the U.K. I know all the bands that are coming and they’re very exciting. I still have rock producers on our roster because I wanted the diversity. I like it all. We’re deep into country. I grew up on country music growing up in Wisconsin.

Milk & Honey recently opened a Nashville office. Tell us about that decision and your plans.

I’m excited about it. We have David Hodges, who is represented by us, in town for the last three years, and we’re partners in a music publishing company. The thing is, there’s a huge overlap between what the publisher and the writer/producer manager each do. In Nashville, the publishers have less writers- they’ll have four or five, for example, and they can take care of everything. The production fees per song aren’t as high in country versus pop, by a long shot. Our big pop producers will make $30-40K per song while a country producer will make $5-$6K, plus musician fees and other fees. It’s different in pop because you don’t have to pay all the players like you do in country.

So there’s not a lot of room for managers in country because the revenue isn’t there when you’re taking a 15% fee off $5K. And then on the writer’s side it’s all done by publishers. But in Los Angeles and in pop music it makes sense. You’ll have a thousand songwriters and the publishers can’t always properly service them.

We’re finding our place in Nashville. Producers and writers in Nashville listen to all the same music as people in Los Angeles. A lot of topline ideas for country artists are taken from rap, pop and urban. A lot of the younger artists are listening to everything. I’m meeting a lot of younger people who want to and can do both pop and country. And they can do it anywhere, not just in Nashville or Los Angeles or London. That’s where the future lies for our company- to find the best of those in each genre.

How many writers do you have in Nashville at the moment?

Not that many. But we’re sending people down there to work and it’s been successful. Part of the Nashville office idea was to introduce our writers and producers to the people in town. We have Charlie Handsome, a big hip-hop producer who produced Post Malone and “Love Lies” from Khalid. He’s going down and working with Sam Hunt and Florida Georgia Line.

How important is staying on top of trends?

Super important. You can study trends and be a trendsetter but you can’t let it go to your head. I do think there are trends in production but not so much in songwriting. There are trends in songwriting that have passed- like a key change in the bridge. That’s not popular right now.

But for the most part a great song is a great song. We still have songs from six or eight years ago that get cut today and get re-produced. We joke about how long they’ve sitting around.

You mean they weren’t released back then?

Yeah. We had the last Jason Mraz song and it was about seven years old. He had a new A&R guy who was listening to Jason’s files of music and liked it. It’s nice to dust off old songs and find a place for them.

What is the age range of your roster?

I manage everyone ranging from a 19-year old kid to 60-year old guys and everything in between. One of my older clients likes me because I don’t talk to him like he’s a 23-year old who signed his first publishing deal. If you’re going to be a manager, it’s important that you are able to talk to adults. I have some employees here that I can’t put in rooms with certain clients. And the other thing is with kids I have to know how much to not bore them with too much history because they don’t care. They just want to talk about beats or hip-hop things. It’s almost like a language barrier. I have to adapt.

I love the young ones that do dig into history. Oak Felder is a good one, even though he’s in his mid-thirties. He goes back and samples old records, like Alessia Cara’s “Here.” It’s a great example of history repeating and forming the future.

Let’s talk about sampling and how that works from a business perspective.

The publishing companies want that because it creates more value for their catalog. I had access to all the Stax and Philly groove stems and told my producers ‘have at it. Sample these.’

What is a standard fee for clearing stems?

It varies. It’s usually an upfront cash advance and then a publishing ask percentage.  They can range from 20-60%. Michael Jackson, I believe, is 100% of the publishing. Once a sample hits 100% it’s considered a cover.

That means they get 100% of the publishing?

Yes. It does depend on the artist and how much they like music or an artist. Sting has notoriously taken a hard stance with his catalog. With Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams” and (Puff Daddy’s) “I’ll Be Missing You” back in the ‘90s I think he has 85% of the songs.

So licensing is a big part of a writer’s potential income.

When my partner David Hodges wrote “A Thousand Years” for Christina Perri, it was written for the Twilight: Breaking Dawn movie soundtrack. And then they did the sequel and wanted to license it again. You don’t have to do anything different. They wanted it again. That’s the beauty of publishing for a writer. It becomes free money.

This office probably clears 30 licenses a day, just on old songs for movies, TV, video game or commercials. That’s why publishing is more valuable than the master recording. People are focused on masters because streaming pays out more on the master than the publishing. But when you zoom out and look at it, the publishing is more valuable. Songs get covered and sampled all the time. With the master there is only one version.

What are the positive benefits from streaming for a songwriter?

Streaming continues to scale. Asia and India have opened up in the last couple years. (Investment firm) Goldman Sachs issued a report recently called “Music in the Air” which analyzed trends over the years and their outlook is positive. The concept before was that you bought, say, the Beatles’ White Album and took it home. It can never be monetized again. At the height of physical record sales that was around $20. Now, the White Album is on streaming services and the effect of it going on playlists becomes exponential.

The technologists knew the streaming idea was better. But early on, the technology companies did not do a good job of educating the artist community. They went to the major labels and made deals and the artists and managers were stuck with the decisions that weren’t in their best interest. They came in and fixed it from a consumer perspective. It’s amazing. Ten dollars a month and you get all this music. But for people who own the masters and the publishing rights, we didn’t realize there was a disproportionate payout between the master and the publishing- it’s something like 5 to 1. Every million streams in gross revenue between the publishing and records is about $4700. When you get these billion stream big hits it’s big money.

For songwriters, as long as you have credit on songs that are meaningful and that get cut and become hits, there’s real money there. The hard part is the in-between before you have the first hit or right after your first hit to the next one. You’re not going to make a lot on mechanical royalties from streaming. But you will make it on sync and broadcast with your ASCAP/BMI check.

The Music Modernization Act (MMA) is going to roll out soon with higher royalty statements in the coming months so we’ll see that in future statements. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m assured that it’s happening. There are good people advocating for writers. Songwriters are so in the background but the work they do is a real thing that deserves compensation.

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With interview assistance from Nick Ryan Piescor.

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