The Hot ‘Tag Team’ of Rock Management : Rob Kahane’s faith in George Michael and Michael Lippman’s belief in record producers have made them an industry force
It’s easy to isolate one of the secrets behind the success of Michael Lippman and Rob Kahane, one of pop music’s hottest management teams: Faith.
It was faith in a young British singer-songwriter named George Michael that convinced Kahane, a fast-rising Los Angeles talent agent, to resign his position in 1987 at Triad Artists to enter the personal management field.
A major reason Kahane went into partnership with Lippman was because Lippman was one of the few other industry figures who shared Kahane’s faith that the teeny-bop hero Michael possessed enough talent and drive to become a credible artist.
“Nobody thought George had a future when I left Triad,” Kahane recalled. “I remember people walking up to me and saying, ‘You’re going to give up all you’ve achieved here to take a shot with this kid ?’
“I could understand where they were coming from because George had this image in (his old group) Wham! of a teen pop star--and how many teen pop stars have ever been able to make the transition to serious adult artist?
“But I had an advantage on them. I had heard George’s new songs and I knew him . He was extremely articulate and had a tremendous sense of direction for someone his age. You sit down with him and you would see this tremendous confidence. . . . He just blew me away.”
Kahane found an ally in Lippman, a former Arista Records executive and one-time attorney for David Bowie, the Electric Light Orchestra and Patti Smith.
“I wanted to go with someone who had the same belief as I did and Michael was very reassuring,” Kahane added. “He had been in that position before where people doubted something he believed in and he knew to listen to himself.”
So it was sweet indeed for Lippman and Kahane when Michael’s phenomenally successful debut solo album, which has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide, won a Grammy for best album of 1988.
And don’t think for a second that the management team missed the irony surrounding the Grammy win. The album’s title: “Faith.”
“The thing about both Rob and Michael is that they are very passionate, obsessive people,” said Missy Worth, the director of booking at the Universal Amphitheatre. She had a unique chance to observe both Lippman and Kahane because she worked as a secretary for both men--3 1/2 years for Lippman right after he started his management company in the late ‘70s and then 1 1/2 years with Kahane at Triad.
“They don’t take on any clients that they’re not passionate about,” she continued. “I think that’s really important in this business because you see so many managers taking on someone just because it’s a good business move or because the record company or an agent asked them to do it.”
Though George Michael is the firm’s most celebrated client, the company’s other pop performers also carry strong critical and/or commercial endorsements. They range from urban popster Neneh Cherry and underground rock sensations Jane’s Addiction to and speed-metal heroes Megadeth. These recent signings joined a roster that included veteran pop stylist Melissa Manchester.
Explaining the duo’s philosophy, Kahane, 34, said, “There’s a temptation to sign everyone who comes to your door because there is money to be made, but we don’t want to get into the flavor-of-the-mouth rut. We want to focus on artists we feel can be around for the long run.”
Added Lippman, 43, “It’s a very tough business in terms of breaking new artists. People who want to get involved with management often ask what it’s like and I tell them that they’ve got to realize that in most cases that they’re going to invest a lot of emotion, energy and money in someone and there is no return.
“But if you believe in the act, it’s the best feeling in the world when the act does break through. You share in the success, and I’m not just speaking about financially, but emotionally. You’ve got to be willing to fight. That’s why it is important to make sure you really believe in the artist.”
Lippman says the test he and Kahane try to apply to a potential client is a simple one: “You’ve got to look at yourself and say, ‘Would I lie down on the road for this person?’ If not, then walk away.”
Lippman and Kahane’s desks are side by side in a spacious Sunset Strip office where visitors can either take some practice shots on a basketball hoop or listen to music coming from the mounds of stereo equipment.
One of their clients, record producer Davitt Sigerson, calls them an ideal “tag team.”
Kahane is such an “enthusiast that if he thinks something is great, he’ll sometimes fight the quixotic battle,” Sigerson said.
“Michael is also an enthusiast, but his view is extremely pragmatic in terms of what you can accomplish with a given record,” he continued. “It makes for a good balance because sometimes Michael will hold him back, and sometimes Rob’ll spur Michael on to go a step further.”
Some industry figures questioned by The Times think the “tag team” reference is a good one, but not for the same reasons as Sigerson.
“They are both battlers and that can rub some people the wrong way,” said one long-time industry observer who asked not to be identified because he doesn’t want to anger either Lippman or Kahane.
“The fact that there are two of them gives them a chance to play good-cop/bad-cop--and whenever you get involved with people who feel as passionately about what they do as Lippman and Kahane, you are going to have some people shouting ‘bad cop’. “
Whatever the individual dynamics of the team, the success of Lippman Kahane Entertainment is reflected in the rows of gold and platinum albums found throughout the firm’s maze of offices.
While it’s artists such as George Michael and Neneh Cherry that would cause the most commotion if they walked across the street to Tower Records, a study of the names on the award plaques underscores that the foundation of the company was built on an imaginative concept: representing producers and songwriters rather than performers.
During his tenure as West Coast head of Arista Records in the late ‘70s, Lippman, a Rochester, N.Y. native, realized the importance of writers and producers in the making of hit records.
“Having spent so much time with (Arista Records chief) Clive Davis and hearing him say, ‘We’ve got to get this producer or that songwriter’ for whatever project we were working on, I saw how vital these people are,” said Lippman, who lives with his wife and their two pre-teen sons in Beverly Hills.
“I also noticed a lot of writers and producers seemed on their own a lot in terms of business and career decisions.”
From an early producer-writer stable of Bernie Taupin, best known as the lyricist for Elton John, and Ron Nevison, a producer who had worked with such acts as the Babys and Heart, Lippman--and, later, Kahane--built a roster of non-performers that now totals more than 30.
Among them: Mike Clink (whose credits include Guns N’ Roses and Whitesnake), Don Gehman (John Mellencamp and R.E.M.), Giorgio Moroder (Donna Summer, the “Midnight Express” sound track), Keith Olsen (Whitesnake, Fleetwood Mac), Narada Michael Walden (Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin), David Z (Fine Young Cannibals, Jody Watley), Richie Zito (Heart, Bad English).
All together, Lippman Kahane Entertainment clients have been involved in albums that have sold more than an estimated $700 million.
About the Lippman-Kahane partnership, one industry insider who also asked not to be identified, said, “They’ve done a tremendous job with the producers and writers, but the verdict is still out on them as managers of (performers) because their track record is based mainly on George Michael.
“The test is whether they can also be successful with other clients. But they are definitely on the list when someone is thinking about finding a manager.
“Their relationship with all those producers gives them special clout. Record company executives and artists need those producers, so they want to keep on Michael and Rob’s good side.”
When Lippman left Arista in the late ‘70s to start his management company, Kahane, a New York City native, was a student at University of San Diego, helping put together a campus concert series.
Kahane smiled during lunch with Lippman at Le Dome, which is virtually next door to their office, when he recalled the near-riot that resulted during the first show he booked at the school.
“The band was Steppenwolf, but when they arrived we discovered that only three of the members had ever been in Steppenwolf and none was around for any of their hit records,” he said. “About half of the people at the show were bikers and they realized halfway through the show that this wasn’t Steppenwolf.
“Remember now: This is a private, Catholic college that doesn’t allow any liquor on campus, and the bikers brought in as much liquor and drugs as you could imagine. They got real upset and started demanding their money back. Needless to say the concert program was off to a shaky start. I made sure the next booking was a lot safer. It was Bob Hope.”
Attracted to the music business, Kahane got a job after college with superstar agent Tom Ross at ICM, where he eventually worked with such acts as Robert Palmer and Kenny Loggins. Kahane, who lives in Encino with is wife and their 4-year-old daughter, then joined Triad, where he eventually worked with the British pop-rock duo Wham!, which included George Michael.
When Michael went solo after the duo’s 1985 tour, he didn’t have any manager for a while. After a few months, however, he asked Kahane if he’d assume that responsibility. That’s when Kahane joined with Lippman.
Since then, Lippman Kahane Entertainment has started a record company, a publishing company and a new wing to represent concert lighting directors. MIKA, the record company, is moving modestely, having released just two records in its first year--but one, Deon Estus’ “Heaven Help Me,” was a Top 5 pop hit last year.
But elsewhere the company--which employees 14 people in its Sunset Strip office and two more in a London office--is moving rapidly. The coming months will be especially busy. Michael’s follow-up to “Faith” is due in September. Jane’s Addiction’s next album is due in May, while Cherry, Megadeth and Manchester are also expected to have albums later in the year.
The pair’s immediate challenge is the solo debut by Andrew Ridgeley, Michael’s partner in Wham!, which is due on May 1.
If Michael, the star of Wham!, had credibility problems at first, it’s easy to see how Ridgeley, who was dismissed by many as just an “extra” in the group, faces a real image test.
But Lippman appeared confident as he slipped a tape of Ridgeley’s new album into the tape machine in his office.
“One thing we’ll have on our side is curiosity,” Lippman said. “They’ve seen what happened to George and they’ll be wondering if it’s possible that they were wrong about Andrew, too. This album will show that he’s more than just a sideman . . . that he is a very talented writer, producer and performer.”