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What Would Elliot Do? Lessons from a Legend

Piers Henwood
11 min read

Neil Young called his longtime manager, Elliot Roberts, “the greatest manager of all time” after his sudden passing in June 2019.

From the late 60s onwards, Elliot had steered the fabled careers of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, while also co-managing the likes of Tom Petty and The Eagles in later decades. He was among the legendary old guard of managers who defined the emerging music industry and shaped the direction of popular culture. From the lineage of Colonel Tom Parker (Elvis), to Brian Epstein (The Beatles), to Albert Grossman (Bob Dylan), to Elliot Roberts, the talent manager became the central foundation of an artist’s team.

So you can imagine my nerves as a fledgling manager walking into Elliot’s Los Angeles office for the first time in July 2002. What lessons could I learn from this industry giant? Would he even give me the time of day?

Elliot and his partner Frank Gironda had signed our clients Tegan and Sara to their indie record label, Vapor Records, which had been co-founded with Neil Young himself. Elliot didn’t manage Tegan and Sara – my partner Nick Blasko and I had recently started in that role – and he was understandably dubious about two upstarts coming into his office to give his label directions on releasing their next album.

As we sat on the couch and took in the magnitude of our surroundings – from framed photos of Elliot and Neil backstage, to an original portrait of Elliot painted by Joni – we nervously fidgeted through our carefully prepared meeting notes, beginning to doubt their wisdom (or lack thereof). We were in our 20s with no professional management experience, about to talk shop with someone who had literally seen it all. But before we could stumble into our agenda, Elliot stood up and exclaimed in a frustrated voice,

“I thought I signed two Joni Mitchells, and instead you’ve given me Cyndi Lauper!”

We sat uncomfortably on the couch like two teenagers in detention. We knew Elliot wasn't happy with the musical direction Tegan and Sara had taken on their soon-to-be released 2002 album, If It Was You. We just didn’t know the issue would overshadow introductions and pleasantries.

Although famously artist friendly, Elliot believed the twin sisters might be making a mistake by abandoning their folk roots and experimenting with a pop-leaning sound influenced by 80s new wave. His comment wasn’t actually a critique of Cyndi Lauper, he was simply worried Tegan and Sara would lose their authentic voice by pursuing the pop mainstream too early in their career. This had always been one of his guiding principles for longevity – don’t chase radio or the fickle mainstream, let them come to you when you’re already three to four albums into building a loyal fanbase. That way your career is insured against the vagaries of mainstream consumption.

But Nick and I loved the album and the songs, and we had marching orders from Tegan and Sara to advocate for their creative vision and not be intimidated by the weight of Elliot and Frank’s legacy. We had flown down to LA from Canada specifically for the meeting, and this was a first test of our mettle as newly-minted managers. In our view If It Was You wouldn’t set Tegan and Sara down the wrong path, it was evidence they had the gumption to be career creators, by following their own expanding creative vision rather than getting boxed into one genre. They were creatively fearless, open to reinvention, and the melodies were expertly crafted and timeless no matter the production surrounding them.

Exactly the same playbook Neil Young himself had always relied on, we cautiously pointed out.

As the meeting lurched forward, it became clear that our 10-page document containing questions on Vapor’s album release strategy wasn’t going to be taken seriously – let alone acknowledged. We were in a very different type of meeting, listening respectfully to five decades of experience while also gently sparring for their respect. It was the beginning of what would become a multi-year mentorship, slowly earning Elliot and Frank's confidence.

Over the next few months Vapor Records did indeed release If It Was You, and it set a solid foundation for what would become Tegan and Sara’s breakthrough album two years later, So Jealous. In the intervening years we continued to learn from Elliot and Frank, as well as from their longtime colleague Bonnie Levetin, taking every moment we could to observe their thought process about decisions in the music industry. When Bonnie would call our office saying, "Hi Piers, I have Elliot Roberts for you, please hold while I connect,” I’d quickly grab a notepad knowing that whenever Elliot got on the line there would be a flow of wisdom and laughter.

While Elliot never had to grapple with TikTok or NFTs, I believe a distillation of his philosophy can be very helpful for any manager or artist during any era. As we mark the 3-year anniversary of his passing today, below are some of Elliot’s core principles that we observed during our working relationship with him, further illustrated by quotes from Elliot’s last expansive interview in 2018.*

Protect and follow the artist's vision at all costs.

In Elliot’s world the artist always had the final say on any decision, from creative to business. He told us he would give Neil his strong opinion on all matters, but the final decision was always up to Neil because, in Elliot’s philosophy, a great artist is inherently smarter than any manager.

Part of Elliot’s style lay in his disarming ability to be humorously self-deprecating, and he loved to downplay his smarts. Elliot advised, “Follow the vision of the artist because that’s who has the vision. If you’re true to the artist’s vision you will get it right. If you start screwing around with it because you think you’re smarter than your artist, which is never the case, you’ll fuck it up.”

Once the artist’s vision was clear for a given project, it was Elliot’s job to protect and champion it to all members of an artist’s surrounding infrastructure. He would fiercely carry the torch that dictated how partners such as record labels and agents should fulfill their roles in support of the artist.

Be willing to say “no."

Elliot and Neil were famous for saying “no" – no to press, no to radio interviews, no to TV, and no to certain show offers. Elliot believed that much of the legendary mystique around Neil had been cultivated by purposefully making him so difficult to access over the years. And he explained that the more they said no, paradoxically the more Neil’s earning power rose.

It’s hard to imagine this philosophy in the age of social media. The modern artist faces constant pressure to make themselves available to their fans. The artist may also be expected to say yes to almost every opportunity that a publicist or record label presents nowadays, since the pickings are slim in the today’s fractured media environment.

In light of this landscape it’s especially worth noting that “no" can be a powerful tool when used properly. It can cause show offers to go up in money. It can cause mythology to expand. And it can also be essential for protecting an artist's mental health and longevity by avoiding burnout.

Build a career, not a moment.

It’s self-evident that all artists probably want a career, but it’s easy to get distracted by chasing shortcuts that inhibit longevity. In Elliot’s philosophy the artist shouldn’t expect to think about mainstream breakthroughs until their third or fourth album, when a loyal fanbase has already been built through real work. In his era this real work was primarily the process of writing and recording great songs and then touring that music, in order to win over real fans who would stick around.

In today’s era there are more potential shortcuts to fame via social media platforms, but there is truly no shortcut to longevity. We live in a time where chasing shiny objects such as passive stream counts and social media followers doesn’t always lead to authentic fanbases that can be ported from a tech platform to the stage. So a long term career is still most reliably built by patiently creating real fans, one step at a time, through an authentic connection to the music.

Take creative risks, create consistently, and accept that no longterm career goes up constantly.

Elliot loved to point out that Neil had many albums that did virtually no business – at one moment he was on top of the mainstream industry, at another he might be in a ditch searching for a new creative palette. But it was always a ditch of their own making. By definition a long career vision means that it won’t be a straight line up, so the only goal is to keep putting music out and embracing the risk of new directions.

Elliot remarked, “There’s never been an artist in history who has gone straight up, whether it’s Miles Davis or Michael Jackson, Sinatra or Dylan. The trajectory doesn’t always go up. There will be failure and there are artists who can handle that failure and move forward...You can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again and think you’re going to have a long career. You won’t. You have to be willing to take risks.”

Elliot also believed that fans who see an artist taking risks and failing will in fact be more loyal rather than less – as long as the risks are authentic to the artist’s vision and not premeditated purely for commercial gain or fame. He explained, “In the long career arc, over the course of time, you have to be willing to fail. You don’t make your music for your fans; you make your music for you. And if you’re earnest in it and sincere in it, your fans will come along. If they see you don’t mind losing once in a while they’ll come along, because we all lose every once in a while."

Write songs that people can cherish in their most personal moments, and don’t be afraid to play acoustically.

This credo was representative of Elliot’s foundational heritage in the singer-songwriter movement. Although it can't apply to every artist and style of music in 2022, it merits ongoing attention especially in the age of streaming, where introspective and quiet songs can become niche streaming hits regardless of lack of radio play.

Elliot preached that songwriters should write music to provide solace during life’s most impactful moments, both good and bad. From break ups and heartache to marriage and celebration, he saw that great songs could be constant companions throughout life’s turbulence. Less interested in bombastic pop, Elliot naturally championed songs that people might listen to alone on headphones, needing the companion of a familiar voice and melody.

Spearheaded annually by Elliot and Neil, the legendary Bridge School Benefit concert in the Bay Area put this philosophy into practise by requiring all artists to play acoustically. With a focus on craft rather than bombast, the Bridge School concerts created uniquely emotional moments of performance. Elliot always believed that one person on an acoustic guitar could create just as much impact as a fully electrified band.

Soft skills matter.

Managing human relationships in creative environments is especially complex. Elliot was a master at making people like him, not to mention making people laugh. He understood the artist’s mindset because he spent a lot of time hanging out with artists – sounds obvious, but it’s easy to get bogged down in the office trenches and not spend enough time near artists. He was famous for being side stage as much as possible rather than stationary at his desk. He was focused on business, but he was also focused on the social environment that made the music possible.

"Keeping a band together is the most important part of what a manager does. Yes you want to elevate them each time…but that happens organically if they’re together, if they can still hang, if they’re not pissed at each other. Then the music grows and gets bigger and better.”

No job too big, no job too small.

The manager must move fluidly from grand vision to garbage collector, a skillset that requires quick changes in mindset. Imagination and actualization, followed by steering boring details. The manager must also be willing to take some knocks in this balance.

As Elliot explained in 2018, “There’s an analogy I always tell about what an artist does. An artist calls you and tells you ‘There’s a mountain in my way. I can’t write, I can’t record, until this mountain is removed.’ You hang the phone up and then you spend time removing that mountain. You call the artist back and you say ‘I’ve removed the mountain, you’re now free to creatively do what you want to do.’ The artist will hang the phone up and 10 minutes later that artist will call back and will say ‘My friend just called me, his tickets weren’t together at the show and he didn’t have his backstage pass, what the fuck do you people do?!’ And that’s what a manager is. There’s a high and a low every day.”

Trust is built by work.

There’s no roadmap for being a manager or an artist, so trust and collaboration is essential for the relationship. But trust only comes from being in the trenches day in and day out alongside the artist. Elliot said, "Trust is not something you do from Monday to Wednesday, trust is something that through adversity is built. And when you start a band there’s adversity everywhere you look. And it has to be overcome. If you’re leading the charge of that overcoming, you gain trust. And again trust is built up over a period of time by doing the work."

The music industry requires entrepreneurialism and a bias for action.

There were no schools for the early generation of managers and industry-builders. Elliot famously approached Joni Mitchell in 1967 at the Cafe Au Go Go in New York without any real management experience. He later recounted, “I went over to (Joni) after the show and said ‘I’m a manager. I don’t manage anybody, but I’m a manager and I’d love to manage you.’ Joni was alone at the time; she would make her own travel arrangements and her own club dates. It was just Joni and she would carry her own guitar. She said ‘You know I’m leaving tomorrow for Detroit, I’m starting a four week tour. If you wanna come with me and pay your own expenses you can carry my guitar.’ And I did.”

You don’t necessarily need a management contract.

Elliot was known for handshake agreements with all his clients, including managing Neil for 50 years without ever having a contract in place. While this informal arrangement can’t apply to all areas of the music business (for example, record deals must be contracted since they involve copyright and a specific grant of rights), handshake deals can remain tenable in the management field where the business transaction is simple – the manager works to grow the artist’s career and commissions a percentage of the artist’s income.

In Elliot's words, “I’ve never had a contract with any of my artists. I’ve managed a lot of people from Tracy Chapman to The Eagles, Tom (Petty), Bob (Dylan), Neil (Young), Joni (Mitchell)…and I’ve never had a contract because I’ve always believed if it’s working it’s working, if it’s not working it’s not working.”

"What would Bob do?” Even the greats need career reference points.

I was talking to Elliot backstage in San Francisco years ago and he interrupted me to take a call. I could see his animated gestures and when he returned he said, “Sorry, that was Bob.” Still to this day that’s the closest I’ve come to Bob Dylan.

Elliot went on to explain that he and Neil used to ask themselves in the 60s what they believed Dylan would hypothetically do in certain situations where they were struggling to decide a path. Dylan was their north star, a career guidepost. I remember remarking to myself that even Neil and Elliot, the consummate individualists, needed a reference point sometimes. "What would Bob do?” always stuck with me.

I’m incredibly grateful for the time we spent with Elliot between 2002 and 2019. Although he was such a big personality, he was most comfortable behind the scenes and rarely agreed to interviews. That made each meeting all the more special.

Some of Elliot’s other philosophies may be less applicable today – for example he was part of the generation who saw advertising and music as a dangerous combination, whereas in today's business the fear of “selling out” isn’t as central a concern. Still, the constant seismic changes to our industry make it more important than ever to remember enduring philosophies from the giants on whose shoulders we stand. If you’re an artist or manger facing a difficult decision, there’s a simple question you might think to ask yourself:

“What would Elliot do?”

________________

*Quotes taken from the Sync Up panel in New Orleans in 2018, presented by the Grammy Museum.

Special thanks to Tegan and Sara for making our relationship with Elliot possible. Special thanks to Frank Gironda and Bonnie Levetin for all their wisdom and contributions to our career, alongside Elliot. Special thanks to our longtime officemates Kim Persley, Chris Hibbins, and Colin McTaggart for working beside us as we learned the ropes of artist management together.

RIP Elliot Roberts, February 25, 1943 – June 21, 2019.