Often a tough and thankless job, behind every great band is a great manager fiercely guarding their interests. Whilst talent and ambition go far, fame and fortune rarely arrive without a professional ensuring smooth running behind the music. “There’s a lot more work involved than you think,” laughs Stee Johno, the man behind Brighton label 2 Right Records. “It’s about delegation – finding someone who is good at something and letting them do it.”
Already working in the music industry, Johno began managing tours for American reggae collective, Easy Star All-Stars. “I got a call from New York, and suddenly I was over there managing them. It was mostly stuff I knew, but I got more into the technical side of it.” From this point, he established a business running infrastructure for live shows; everything from tiny pub gigs to extended arena tours. Taking care of all the logistics of keeping a band on the road, the business began expanding into event production. The following years saw him working with acts as varied as Basement Jaxx, JLS, Tinie Tempah, N-Dubz, Orbital, Alabama 3, Rizzle Kicks and Qemists.
Spin forwards a few years and Johno found he was encountering a wealth of local music talent, all needing someone to represent their interests. An expansion into artist management for him and his contact book seemed logical. Amongst the artists benefiting from his stewardship are Brighton five-piece Paperboy, whose meld of soul, pop and ska is seeing them win fans across the country, and atmospheric love-hop singer-songwriter Amy Lauren. With them is also uplifting, soul-tinged hip-hop outfit Along Came Shifty (pictured). Already establishing a healthy reputation, they support rap legends The Sugarhill Gang, when they visit Brighton this month.
Just like a music fan, Johno is interested in bands that entertain him. It’s a simple equation. If you don’t love the music and the people making it, selling them to the world is near impossible. Moving on from presenting regular showcases, he’s launched an in-house label to promote these bands. So this May saw the 2 Right Records debut release, a remake of 10 Forward’s ‘Glasters’. Released to coincide with the ‘Glastonbury the Movie’ soundtrack CD reissue on which the original Pan song features, it marks the first of what will become a monthly event. The intention isn’t to establish a global record company, but to get its acts used to releasing and promoting a product. It’s certainly not intended to be a Brighton-centric venture. “If we like it, we’ll release it. It doesn’t matter where it’s from.”
The organiser of the legendary Brighton Urban Free Festival, Johno explains the bands themselves now do a significant amount of the marketing work, especially when it comes to social networking. “The kids are more clued up on it than I am, to be honest.” Obviously it helps to have a roster of great bands, but each still needs to connect with their fans in a live environment, and carry this over onto social media. It could sound basic, but so many acts fail to do this, reducing their prospects of a successful career.
So does Johno fit the idea of a manager acting as a mysterious Svengali, loitering in the shadows with an all-encompassing plan? “Unless you pull a few master strokes, like Malcolm McLaren or Peter Grant, a manager can just be a central hub for all the information.” Grant himself began as a tour manager for artists like Bo Diddley, The Everly Brothers, Little Richard and The Animals. A move into artist management saw this legendary figure safeguarding the interests of The Jeff Beck Group, The Yardbirds and ultimately (and most famously) Led Zeppelin. His remorseless approach to protecting the financial interests of his band inarguably changed a dynamic within the music industry, shifting power from agents and promoters to artists and their management.
Refraining from exploiting his talent for easy short-term profit, a great manger almost always puts the act’s interests first. “I say to them, if they ever need anything, to call me and I can work it out,” Johno tells me. No matter how independent an act wants to be, there’s still a need for managers to look at the areas where they need assistance, whether helping with shows or building a team around them.
While certain management styles heavily focus on following trends, Johno allows creative freedom for his artists to explore who they are and the music they want to make. “I haven’t touched on any of them at all. They’ve each developed their own identity.” The importance of a band honing their craft can’t be over-emphasised. Many acts rush to get signed, at the expense of their material. The music industry has shrunk, for various reasons, so the amount of money floating about has declined. Now everyone is cautious about signing and developing emergent acts.
The age of all-powerful record companies is coming to an end. The music industry is going back to basics, with figures like Johno working to make their acts feel valued and see their potential flourish. Not that he has any grand Machiavellian agenda in mind. “I just want to let it roll. But I am ready for anything that happens.”