From Lady Gaga to Trent Reznor: Why Big Stars Are Firing Their Managers

Trent Reznor, Lady Gaga, John Mayer, Melissa Etheridge
Trent Reznor, Lady Gaga, John Mayer, Melissa Etheridge
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A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The music industry has seen a spate of high-profile manager-artist splits during recent weeks. Lady Gaga parted ways with Troy Carter in November mere days before her third album, ARTPOP, was released, followed by John Mayer, who dropped longtime manager Michael McDonald; Trent Reznor, who split from Jim Guerinot of Rebel Waltz to join John Silva's SAM, home to Foo Fighters and Queens of the Stone Age; and Melissa Etheridge, who signed with Primary Wave after 30 years with manager Bill Leopold. Country group Lady Antebellum also fired its longtime manager, Gary Borman, two years after nabbing record and song of the year Grammys for the megahit "Need You Now."

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What's precipitating the sudden breakups? "You have to blame someone when your record doesn't sell," says one recently dismissed manager, citing the recent album flop by Mayer (his Laurel Canyon-esque 2012 release Born and Raised failed to light up the Billboard charts and garnered no Grammy nominations) and the writing on the wall for ARTPOP, which saw sales drop off 82 percent in its second week of release. Reznor, meanwhile, is said to be sore about production hiccups on the latest Nine Inch Nails tour that forced the frontman to cough up extra cash, according to a source.

Another common ailment of long-term relationships: complacency. "Loyalty and relationships only go to serve artists to the extent that managers aren't complacent," offers Primary Wave founder and CEO Larry Mestel, adding that "the music business continues to get harder every year, but the level of service that's expected of a manager or company hasn't changed, and sometimes those expectations don't align." 

Another high-ranking music insider suggests that demanding artists want all of the attention for themselves and frown upon ancillary ventures by their managers (like Carter, who also reps such artists as John Legend and recently inked a joint venture label deal with Capitol Music Group). Then there's the typically narcissistic view that discounts the manager's role entirely. Mayer "thinks all the success was created by him," scoffs the manager. "Never mind the team who delivered an insanely successful career."

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Indeed, it's the group effort that Mestel says sold Etheridge on his company. "Melissa has achieved so much in her career and has so much more that she wants to achieve [that] she was looking for a 50-person team," explains the former label executive, who worked with Etheridge while at Island Records in the late 1980s and 1990s. "We're very different from most management companies. We have seven people who do nothing but brand alliances, there's an in-house press team, an eight-person marketing team … but there's no politics or red tape."

Primary Wave's talent management division is still growing, counting only a handful of artists on its roster, most notably Cee Lo Green, but Mestel contends their unencumbered view on career-making bodes well for a Grammy-winning artist like Etheridge. "We're looking at a 25th anniversary plan that includes a very modern studio record, which we’re hoping to have out by summer, and a documentary which will coincide with a box set," he says. "We're also talking about various residencies and other branding alliances are in the works. It will be a very busy 2014."

Or so his client hopes …

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin

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