Bruno Mars didn’t feel the need to dress up when he stopped at Madison Square Garden last year on his 24K Magic Tour. Instead, he wore sneakers, shorts, and a pastel baseball jersey with the word “HOOLIGANS” written backward on the front. Periodically, pyrotechnics as loud as artillery shells hit the ears of the sold-out crowd, and people within 200 feet could feel flames that were almost close enough to singe an eyebrow. When I last talked to Mars, he told me, “Man, you have to be fearless.”
The singer of “Uptown Funk” can do whatever he wants these days. He ended his set in New York with the song, which has over 3 billion YouTube views and is in the top ten of all time. Mars is not only one of the biggest names in music, but he is also one of only a few big names who no longer have a traditional artist manager. Instead, he has been running his own career for the past two years.
The move paid off for Mars, who is 32 years old. He has had more than 1 billion streams of his music in the past year, won six Grammys, and made a career-high $100 million before taxes. Since the start of his tour in 2017, it has made more than $300 million, putting him at No. 11 on Forbes’ Celebrity 100 list and making him America’s highest-paid musician. The best part is that Mars doesn’t have to give a manager as much as 20%. Instead, he hires people on a salary, which is thought to cost in the low six figures. This should save him at least $10 million just this year.
Of course, not all musicians hate the idea of giving up some of their money. Many of the industry’s highest-paid acts, like U2 (who are managed by Guy Oseary and made $118 million last year), Katy Perry (Martin Kirkup, Bradford Cobb, and Steve Jensen, $83 million), and Calvin Harris (Mark Gillespie, $48 million), still depend on powerful managers. Given these numbers, some say that a guide with good connections can be a good deal.
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It depends on how you look at it,” says Gillespie. “You can see it as giving up 10–20% or as bringing in someone who will add more than 20% to the value of your business.” “If you run a big business, you want people to be motivated to grow and build it, and you want them to be on the same page as you. I think it’s because it brings that alignment that it’s worked for us for a long time in the past.”
Still, some other Celebrity 100 musicians have chosen not to have managers. For Beyoncé, it was a way to get away from her controlling father. For Taylor Swift, it may have been because she liked the people she already knew. For Jay-Z, Diddy, and Dr. Dre, the three richest musicians in America, running their own careers seems to be a big part of who they are as self-made moguls.
In an interview for my book 3 Kings, Diddy’s lawyer, Kenny Meiselas, said, “There have been managers, but really only for Puff Daddy the artist, and not in the traditional sense of a manager as someone who tells an artist what to do.” “More like a right-hand man who would help him carry out his plans as an artist.”
For Bruno Mars, who has never tried to act like a businessman, it was something very different. It was all part of a fascinating story that is a bit of an open secret in Hollywood—in fact, many of the people I talked to for this story asked not to be named—but is being told in full for the first time here.
When I met Mars’ manager Brandon Creed in 2011, he told me that he and Mars planned to take their time building a fan base by playing smaller venues on a tour with singer Janelle Monáe instead of going on a bigger solo tour or opening for a bigger name in arenas. In the meantime, Mars wrote songs like “Billionaire,” in which he fantasized about being so rich that Forbes would put him on the cover.
Mars said that one of his goals was to not have to say things like, “I can’t afford breakfast, so I’ll wait until lunchtime to eat.” “None of that would matter to me if I had a billion dollars. I’d eat diamond-shaped cereal.
Creed helped Mars get closer to that goal, and their long-term plan paid off: The singer’s Moonshine Jungle Tour, which started in 2013, made more than $150 million. After making an estimated $8 million in 2011, Mars made the Celebrity 100 list for the first time in 2014 with earnings of $60 million, then again in 2015 with earnings of $40 million.
Mars’ rise to fame happened during a big change in how music is made money. A few decades ago, acts often lost money when they went on tour to promote their albums. Managers and artists, however, were able to make up for this by selling a lot of recorded music. But as piracy and then streaming cut into that income, and as new places like Australia, South America, and Eastern Europe built modern arenas with 15,000 to 20,000 seats, the equation changed. All of a sudden, top stars were willing to lose money on their music to sell out huge venues and make millions of dollars.
This was also a big change for the people in charge. In the past, albums were kind of like an annuity. Even if an artist fired them, they would still get a cut of steady sales. Tours aren’t like that. Once they’re over, they’re over, and so is the money they bring in. In addition to radio and CDs, there are now a lot of streaming services and video outlets where music can be found.
Gillespie says, “It means there are more places where the artists’ music can be heard.” “It also means that you have to deal with a lot more people. A manager has always been a job title, but the job itself has changed a lot.
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