Cutting Through the Bullshit of the Representation Question, With Brian Volk-Weiss

brian volk weiss final

Comedy Dynamics President Brian Volk-Weiss Talks About Management and Representation

Does anyone really understand what a manager does?  How a manager is different from an agent?  When do you need one? And how to find a good one?  Even established comics find these questions confusing and yet sooner or later, everyone needs one. Every month I talk with Brian Volk-Weiss about the business of comedy, and this month, I talked with him about some of the questions people ask most often about representation in comedy.

Before becoming one of the most influential comedy publishers and distributors in the country, Brian Volk-Weiss was a manager. For over a decade he learned about the ins and outs of the management business, and now as the President of Comedy Dynamics, he deals with representation every day- managers, agents, and more- from the other side of the desk.  So he’s the perfect person to help untangle all those messy questions about representation in the comedy industry.

Brian never set out to become a manager. He was a giant fan of comedy, but like most people, he had no clue what a manager really was.  Then one day, he just ran out of money and at the same moment, he found out a paying job opened up in a management company. “I had come out to LA, as almost everybody, with a finite amount of money and I had worked for free for about 9 months and I had burnt through it.  I think I came out with about 1500 or 2000 dollars, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but my rent was like $180.”  At the time he was fresh out of college and working as an unpaid intern for a producer. And thanks to a shared copy room, Volk-Weiss met a kid who was leaving his job as an assistant to Barry Katz.  Katz was, and still is one of the most top managers in the comedy business, and Brian grabbed the job. “All I knew was this job was paying and my current job was not and I would be out of money in a couple weeks. I met with Barry, and he told me what the job was, and I said sure.” He worked as Katz’s assistant for about a year before starting to sign his own clients.  “I basically just jumped in,” he said. “And I was very honest with the people I signed, and I said, listen I’ve been a manager for about a month, or six months, or nine months, I sort of know what I’m doing, I have okay contacts but if you have another person who wants to represent you, you should go with them if you like them. But if you don’t, let’s jump into this together. I literally built my business that way.”

Everyone wants rules or lists of what to do and how to act but of course there are no rules. But after spending an hour speaking with Brian about management, I pulled out some simple conclusions from our conversation and put them in as easy reference points.  But the headings are mine, not his.  Also remember, Brian isn’t a legal expert, so as you will see him repeat multiple times- always do your own research.

#1: Managers should fight for their clients every day, making calls, sending emails, sending invites.

“I was able provide a lot of attention. I don’t even like using the word attention because it implies that I’m watering a plant or something and that’s not what it is. Attention is the wrong word. I’m surprised I used it. It really was fighting. What a lot of these people need, especially early on in their careers, is someone who is willing to pick up the phone, and make call after call, email after email, Fedex a CD, Fedex a tape, invite people to shows, get people to come to shows. I had plenty of time. I had no business.”

#2: Clients need to know what their managers are doing.

#3: A manager should be doing things to make their clients’ future better than their present.

If your client has faith in you they will not leave. Yes random terrible things can happen. Your client’s husband can convince them to fire you because they’re going to be the manager. Random things can happen. For the most part, though, if a client has full faith in you, you will not lose them.”  Now that he’s producing, Brian deals with other managers and he sees the same thing.  If a client has faith that their manager has their back, and is working hard, they will not leave for another manager.”

“The truth is, you have to make sure they know what you’re doing. You can’t take it for granted, you have to constantly make sure that your client knows that you are working for them and that they know what you are doing, so that either while they are writing their act, or doing a TV show or whatever, they know that you are in your office making calls and doing things that is going to make their future better than their present.

#4: A manager’s job can change in the blink of an eye when a client makes it big.

“It’s a very interesting thing that I was very lucky to have seen a couple of times in my career,” Brian said. “The thing which I had never heard anyone else talk about and I’ve not read about but I’m sure anyone else who has been through this would agree. At least in my career it went from 0 to 1000 mph over the course of anywhere from a week to a month.”  Brian remembered one particular client, who he didn’t want to name, who became gigantic.  He remembered spending years sending out that client’s CD.  “I would go to dinner with agents, or casting directors or executives or producers and I would always give out the CD. I would always give out the CD, oh here’s the CD. One day I’m on the phone with somebody…an executive at Disney actually and I was going on and on and on about this client, and I was like, ‘oh yeah, I’ll send you his CD.’ And he goes, ‘oh. I already have it. And I was like ‘oh really?’ Barry and I were very good at dividing and conquering so we almost never were knocking on the same door twice because we didn’t want to annoy people- unless we were doing it on purpose- so I was very surprised that he had the CD. So I said ‘oh did Barry send it?’ He said ‘no, I bought it.’ And I remember…and this is like 2005, 2006, ten years ago or more but I remember it like it was yesterday because that was the end…. to quote Churchhill, that was the end of the beginning. Within six months of that conversation, that particular client went from being sort of well-known to being a household name in 95% of the country.”

#5: You don’t know what’s going to work to blow up your client.

Using a skyscraper metaphor to describe how his life changed after that, Brian said that he went from digging a foundation for years, to suddenly needing to talk to people who make glass, to architects, and even people who build the metaphorical helipad that goes on top.  “So it’s all within the same job of building the skyscraper but it’s a completely different skill set, building a foundation, and putting the helipad on the top of a skyscraper. Basically the management version of that analogy, is you sit there and you go from making 1000 calls and trying to get heat and rubbing two sticks together, or two rocks together to get a spark…. to shit, okay, now I’ve got a fire, now I’ve got to make sure that every decision we make helps make tomorrow better than today.” But when you’re still in the foundation stage, he explained, you really don’t know what’s going to work.  “You don’t know if your client is going to blow up from a 5 minute spot on The Tonight Show or if he or she is going to book a small part in a movie. You don’t know what is going to blow up your client.”

#6: A good manager surrounds their clients with quality and makes sure they’re in business with the right people.

You need your client to go to bed on December 31 of every year and look back at the prior 12 months, and see that it was better than the 12 months before that. That’s the key.

Brian had clients blow up by selling over 90,000 copies of an album in one week, or a client who got a small part on a TV show that the head of casting at a network liked, or clients who had a small thing on a Comedy Central roast and then two years later, had two network shows on the air. “You never know what’s going to blow up your client. You have to surround them with quality, and just make sure they’re in business with the right people and the right companies. And then when it takes off, you just have to keep making sure as much as you can– it’s easy for me to sit here and say ‘oh you gotta pick the right scripts and the right projects and everything.’ But even once your client has blown up you don’t have that much control over it. So until you’re representing the tippy tippy top while he or she is at the tippy tippy top, it’s still, you still don’t have a lot of control so you have to be very careful of everything you recommend your client do. And everything you fight for your client to be in, that it will help make tomorrow better than today. And that is the key. You need your client to go to bed on December 31 of every year and look back at the prior 12 months, and see that it was better than the 12 months before that. That’s the key. Not easy to do, but that’s the key.

One of Volk-Weiss’ clients blew up to be one of  the biggest comedians of all time. “People forget that now, but he actually was. So I divided my management career into two parts. There’s the first part, which is from the day I started until that client blew up. And then there was that day until I retired. I would say on the day that client blew up I probably had about 15 – 20 clients. And I would say a year after he blew up I had probably 5 or 6 clients.”

#7: You don’t want to be a manager’s only client.

“No client wants their manager to only represent them,” Brian said.  “The reason why it’s very good to have more than one client is the information that comes in from representing a bunch of people. A lot of what we do is on information. If you know before other managers about a new movie going or a TV show going, that’s a beautiful thing that can help your clients. It’s a very bad thing to have one client and I can’t imagine any client who would not agree with that.”

#8: A comedian should never be looking for a manager.

“You should not be looking for a manager. At all. That is a complete waste of time and borderline self-destructive. One, you’re wasting time that should be used to work on your material. Two it makes you look desperate and pathetic and the key to this business is being confident, appearing confident and getting up on stage and knocking it out of the park.”  Volk-Weiss quoted the book How to Make it in Hollywood, saying ‘there are only two sins in Hollywood. To be dull or desperate.’  It’s a quote Brian uses any time he meets an up-and-coming comedian. “Most comedians don’t have to worry about being dull, so running around trying to get signed is the greatest way not to get signed.”

#9: Comedians should not just automatically sign with the first person who asks. Do your research.

#10: A bad manager is worse than no manager.  A bad manager can do irreparable career damage.

#11:  Call a manager’s other clients and ask them what they think.

“The other thing, is you absolutely positively do not want to sign with the first person who wants to sign you….UNLESS you do your due diligence and you find out they’re good. If you are being approached by a manager, and you have not heard of this manager, or even if you have heard of them, but you don’t know much about them personally, do your due diligence. Find out who they represent. Pick up the phone and call their clients and say ‘hi, so and so is thinking of signing me, can you tell me what your experience has been.’ The amount of damage- and this doesn’t really apply to agents- but the amount of damage that a bad manager can do can last you your entire career. It could destroy your career, it could cost you ten million dollars 30 years later. Do not sign. It’s absolutely not true that it’s better to have a manager than no manager. Now, I didn’t work at 3Arts or Brillstein and I was still able to make a living and help my clients. So it doesn’t mean you should only sign with people at the big awesome management companies. There are plenty of companies that are tiny and small and do phenomenal work.'”

#12: The way a manager approaches you will say a lot about whether they are a good manager.

“Wait to be approached. And you also analyze the approach. Is the manager or agent calling you and saying hey I’d like to represent you and then you don’t hear from them again?  Or are they calling every day, are they coming to your shows, are they already starting to try and work?”

#13: A great manager has relentless energy, and they are extremely organized.

I’m talking about the top of the management business. They take notes. They pull out their phones and write things down. They pull out notebooks and write them down. These are people at the top of their game and their follow through is phenomenal.

There’s two things, and I say this as a former manager, and I say this also as- I pretty much work with every manager out there, who does comedy. Every single thing managers do you can boil down to two key things that you can’t live without and you need these things. And this applies to somebody who has been managing for two years or somebody who has been managing for 40 years. It is a combination of staggering relentless energy… They have to be working all the time. Emails, making calls, fighting fighting fighting. You need that tenacity and high energy human being. And that doesn’t mean they’re jumping around like a fucking lunatic. Some of the best managers I know are very quiet, demure people that you couldn’t pick them out of a line up but they work the phones. And this leads into the other thing you really should be looking for. They are organized. They use lists. They take notes, they have pens and notebooks that they pull out of their pockets.  I’m talking about the top of the management business. They take notes. They pull out their phones and write things down. They pull out notebooks and write them down. These are people at the top of their game and their follow through is phenomenal. And that’s the thing. I’ll work with managers that don’t have many clients or they may have one client doing well and then their follow through is terrible. It’s the managers who have the follow up and the follow through.  ….  It’s attention to detail and a lot of energy.”

#14: If you lose faith in your manager, give them two strikes, not three.

At any point in your career, if you’re a comedian and you lose faith in your manager, you should let them know immediately. The moment you start to have fear in your heart, you need to sit down with them and tell them to their face, ‘I’m worried.’ My recommendation is you should give your manager- or agent- two warnings and if they can’t fix it or improve it you let them go. Do it quickly, do it professionally. All of these people are professionals. We’ve all been fired. It’s a business. You have to handle it like a business. If you have a doctor that keeps forgetting which arm you broke you stop seeing that doctor. If you feel they are not helping you or that they’re hurting you, tell them to their face directly, ‘I’m worried about you and here’s why. ‘Give them two strikes, not three. That’s how serious it can be if they’re not good- and then get out of there. Better to have no agent or manager than to be with one that’s bad and you don’t have faith in.

#15: Yes, it’s worth it to give up 10% of your income.

“I will say this. A lot of people say ‘baaah I don’t want to pay the 10%, agent and manager, that could be 20%. Then I have a lawyer, I’m giving away 20% of my money.’   I’m saying this as a former manager, I’m not a manager anymore but I can tell any comedian that it is worth it to give that money to qualified people. As clichéd as it sounds, it’s better to give 25% of a million dollars away than to be giving away 15% or 10% of 200,000 away. The qualified agents, managers and lawyers are absolutely worth every dime you are giving them. It’s absolutely worth it to pay those commissions.”

#16: Sometimes you need a press rep, and sometimes you don’t.

“Different agents and managers have different opinions. I really…you really don’t want a publicist until there’s something to talk about and something to talk about by the way is not you. If you’re getting a publicist to sit there and say John Doe is the best, Jane Doe is the best, that you don’t need. That will not work. And the only publicists that would agree to work with you are shitty. No good publicist would agree to work with you if that’s what the job is What you need is something to talk about other than yourself. That could be a TV show. You could be the third lead on a series. That could be you have an album coming out or a book coming out or something like that. That is when you should hire someone and you don’t have to hire someone forever. If you have a book coming out, hire them for six months. If you have a CD coming out, hire them for six months. But it is very helpful to have a publicist, especially if you’re the third lead or the fifth lead. If you’re the lead on a show, or the second lead, the network, they’ll do their job. But if you’re the third or fifth lead, it is good to have a publicist.”

#17: Don’t hire a publicist without calling their clients.

#18: Hire a publicist who has other clients who are bigger than you.

Here’s the problem with publicity. You hire a publicist, you really can’t judge their work for at least three months, maybe four or five. So the problem is by the time you’re ready to judge them it might be too late. So if you’re hiring them for six months, and four and half months in you’re like ‘oh shit,’ you’re kind of fucked. This goes back to what I was saying about managers and agents. And it applies to publicists more than anybody. Be in a situation where you are literally calling their clients. And you don’t have to know their clients. You can call them up and say ‘hi, I know we don’t know each other, but I’m John Doe and I’m very curious to know what you think about your publicist, because I’m thinking of signing with him or her.’ If they like their publicist, and this goes for agents and managers too… If people like their agents, and managers or publicists, I don’t care if you’re calling Sandra Bullock. If you’re calling Sandra Bullock and she doesn’t know who you are…if she likes her agent, or manager or publicist, she will be so excited to tell you how great they are, she’ll call you back. And she’ll call you back quickly to tell you. They want to help. Most of my clients when I managed were recommended to me by other clients. That’s usually how agents and managers build their businesses, referrals from their clients. That’s the thing with publicists maybe even more than any other genre. Make those phone calls, get those referrals.”

If you have something to talk about, it’s worth every penny, absolutely every penny. But do your due diligence, talk to their clients. Also you really want to be with a publicist that has a couple of big clients. Because that’s how they can get people on the phone and that’s how they can leverage their bigger clients to help you with your stuff if you’re not that big. There are some really good publicists out there who don’t have big clients. You really want to be at least with a PR firm that has some big clients. That’s pretty important in that world.”

#19: At some point you might need a business manager.

At some point you need a business manager. If two years in a row, you’ve made over 2 million a year, you really should have a business manager. It’s a tricky thing. I have one. It’s very complicated, very scary to do that but if you have a certain amount of money coming in and it’s coming in from all these different sources and you start to have all this money piling up in a bank, you don’t want to have four million sitting in a checking account. That’s stupid. Second if you’re making money in eight or nine different ways meaning touring money and television money and royalties, it’s just so complicated with modern tax law that you really need a business manager. But it’s scary. You should only be with a firm that literally has been in existence for 25 years or more, they have clients as big if not way bigger than you. You do not want to be with a Mercedes or BMW class business manager. You only want to be with Lamborghini or Ferrari. Do not fuck around with that. Pay more to be with the top because it really sucks to have all your money stolen.”

#20: Knowing the difference between an agent and manager.

“My mom- I’ve been telling her for 18 years what the difference is, she still doesn’t get it. I don’t know if my wife gets it. These are the clichéd but mostly true differences. An agent will typically have anywhere between 2 and 4 times as many clients as a manager. The idea being, all they are supposed to be doing, is getting jobs for their clients. They are legally sanctioned by the state. They have a license with a code on it like a driver’s license. Agents are regulated by the state. In theory, they are more focused on booking jobs and shorter term, where as managers have much fewer clients and they are supposed to be looking much more long term. In theory an agent is only looking a year or two in the future. And a manager is looking 5-10 years in the future. I don’t believe that’s true anymore but that’s the theory.”

Other main difference, agents are theoretically not allowed to produce but this is technically not true anymore. SAG regulations that were established in the 50’s ran out six years ago and have not been re-upped. But traditionally speaking agents do not and in theory can not produce for their clients. Whereas managers are allowed to produce for their clients. And managers are not regulated. If I decided to wake up tomorrow morning and be an agent that would not be possible. I would have to go work for an agency or talk to the state and fill out paperwork and become licensed. Anybody can become a manager. You can literally get off this phone call, and say oooh I’m a manager now, and poof you’re a manager.”

Managers are technically prohibited from soliciting and getting work for their clients. And everything is supposed to be procured, and that’s a specific word because that’s what’s in the SAG regulations, agents are supposed to be the only representative entity who can procure work for their clients. And managers are supposed to manage that work and look at all that stuff. But you heard it here first- and that’s a joke- that is complete bullshit. Every manager I have ever known including myself has always tried to get jobs for their clients. The regulations that say managers are not allowed to procure work for their clients, similar to those SAG regulations expiring six years ago- the regs that prevented management from doing it were largely tied to that legislation. Since it was not re-upped, it’s extremely dubious as to whether or not managers are still prohibited.”

“I’m not a lawyer, I’m not a legal expert, everything I’m saying needs to be triple checked, nobody should take what I’m saying and go to the bank with it. But that being said, there has been a tremendous blurring between what managers and agents do. A lot of managers are now former agents, so when my career started, most managers were not former agents.  A lot of that is due to the consolidation of the agency world over the last few years.”

#21: Get a lawyer as soon as you have a deal.

My advice on that topic is, the moment you have your first deal, get a lawyer.  You want a lawyer who has some big clients and has been doing it for a while. In comedy, get a lawyer that represents comedians. There’s a whole religious, subtle code with comedy deals for specials and everything and you don’t want to be your lawyer’s only comedian. There’s probably about ten to twelve lawyers out there who focus on comedians.  You should try very hard to be represented by one of them or at least somebody who is in their firm.

Brian Volk-Weiss is the founder and president of Comedy Dynamics, the nation’s largest independent producer and distributor of comedy specials, albums, and televised comedy.  Comedy Dynamics works with the top comedians in the country and the biggest user platforms- Netflix, Amazon, Hulu- and has been an innovative and defining force in comedy today.

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