On a mid-September evening in 1992, in the lobby bar of the Midland Hotel in Manchester, England, music managers Peter Grant and Ed Bicknell sat trading war stories about guiding the careers of their respective clients, Led Zeppelin and Dire Straits.
Grant and Bicknell were among some 300 artist managers in Manchester to attend a music business conference called In the City. Before the event concluded, the group had turned conversations and concerns into shared action.
“Int’l Managers Forum Unveiled At U.K. Confab,” read a front-page story in the Sept. 26, 1992, issue of Billboard. The assembly of managers had unanimously voted to create a new body to serve as a collective voice for artist representatives: the Music Managers Forum.
The group’s greatest concern -- the fair compensation of artists in the digital age -- proved prescient. The launch of Apple iTunes was still nine years away, and Spotify founder Daniel Ek was not yet 10 years old. Still, managers including Bicknell, the team of Elliot Rashman and Andy Dodd (then working with hitmakers Simply Red) and others had been speaking out against contracts that called for reduced royalties for then-new (and now archaic) digital formats: the digital compact cassette and the MiniDisc.
By early 1993, the Forum was formally incorporated in London, and today it includes member associations in more than 50 countries, connecting more than 3,000 artists and their managers.
This month, the U.S. arm of the organization marks its 25th anniversary.
“On July 20, 1993, some people from the U.K. Managers Forum had a meeting at a hotel uptown” in Manhattan, recalls Barry Bergman, a Brooklyn-born music industry veteran whose career has included working for the music publisher who signed Meat Loaf and his Bat Out of Hell songwriter Jim Steinman. “There were about 350 people there talking about how we need to come together to level the playing field [with record companies]. I raised my hand and said, ‘OK, everyone in this room who wants to get involved, give me a business card, and I’ll call you in three weeks.’ Three weeks later, I called 35 people, and two of them were real [in terms of wanting to get involved].”
Bergman has been president of the Music Managers Forum in the United States (MMF-US) since its inception. The volunteer organization, funded largely by $75 annual member dues, is guided by a board and seeks to provide “a platform to connect, enhance and reinforce the expertise and professionalism of music managers,” according to its mission statement. “It is the goal of the MMF to make sure managers’ voices are heard. As the industry continues to evolve, the MMF-US endeavors to help its members to stay ahead of the curve.”
MMF-US’ 100-plus membership today includes representatives of veteran and rising acts alike, such as Cindy da Silva (The Zombies, New York rock band Hollis Brown), Katherine DePaul (Judy Collins), Steve Garvan (Eric Andersen), Chris Hardin (LIVE), Michael Hausman (Aimee Mann, Suzanne Vega), management partners Jamie Kitman and Pete Smolin (Brooklyn trio Moon Hooch), Justin Seidenberg (Dr. Duke Tumatoe & The Power Trio) and Alan Wolmark (The Accidentals and John the Martyr, the rock/R&B ensemble fronted by 70-year-old former subway busker Bill Hudson).
“I was intrigued by the idea that managers could meet and exchange ideas about many issues we all shared,” says Wolmark, who joined the MMF-US in 1993. “I had had a couple of mentors in my earliest years as a manager, but that was on an irregular basis. I felt I could best serve my artists by having as wide a perspective as possible on the business.
“What many new managers do not realize is that it is quite easy to exist in a vacuum, because the daily demands on management can keep you so focused on the immediate needs of your artists,” he continues. “The MMF-US gives a new manager a great perspective on the overall industry and a way to learn all aspects as the needs arise in your artists’ development.”
MMF-US does not draw managers of superstars, who don’t need the organization’s collective clout. But, as Bergman observes, “This business is not about becoming a superstar but earning a living. Superstardom is reserved for a few. And I always had clients who did music full time and earned a living; none of them were Uber drivers.” He points to clients he has worked with, such as Bob Halligan Jr., who has written songs for Judas Priest; Rob Friedman, who co-wrote Paul Carrack’s 1987 top 10 Billboard Hot 100 hit “Don’t Shed a Tear”; Canadian singer-songwriter Keven Jordan; New Jersey-based performer-producer Marc Ribler; and Midwest-born singer-songwriter Bill Harvey. More recently, Bergman has begun managing Timorris Lane, an actor and multilingual singer who self-released the EP Big City Life in 2016.
In the same way that the Music Managers Forum in the United Kingdom launched by taking on the issue of compensation for digital recording formats, “to make [MMF-US] viable, we needed to deal with monetary issues,” says Bergman. “There were going to be hearings in Washington, D.C. [in June 1995], about a performance right in digital sound recordings. It took me 41 phone calls to get through to someone on the House Judiciary Committee, and I said, ‘I know you want to do the right thing, but you have no one who’s going to testify who represents artists.’ ” Bergman spoke before Congress, and the advocacy of MMF-US helped shape the debate over subsequent adoption of digital performance rights for sound recordings, ensuring that online radio services like Pandora would pay artists directly for the use of their work.
At 25, the MMF-US hopes to expand its membership, and has continued its advocacy with a shared voice for its manager members. Like other music industry groups, its No. 1 priority is the key bill pending in Congress. “We want to see the Music Modernization Act passed,” says Bergman. “None of us are completely happy with it, but you have to start somewhere. The issues are bipartisan issues, which is unusual, and we had a unanimous vote in the House. We’re still after a terrestrial performance right [for sound recordings] -- we have digital but not terrestrial. We’d like to get rid of the California Talent Agency Act, which basically says that managers can’t operate as agents without an agency license.
“I [really] have only one priority,” says Bergman: “Creators.”
Where would he like to see the MMF-US in, say, five years?
“Hopefully, flying high so I can retire and pass it along to others,” says the 73-year-old manager. “I’ve put my whole life into this. And it’s the best decision I ever made.”