Music has been one of our greatest escapes in a world gone mad, but underneath the beats, the melodies, and the rhythms, there is a team of talented producers, mixers, and songwriters. Behind those names you'll find Lucas Keller.
It's impossible to overstate the influence Keller has had on the music industry in the past decade. A 17-year veteran music manager, the gay multihyphenate mogul with a heart of gold represents some of the most successful artists, songwriters, and DJs in the world, with over 400 million records sold worldwide.
Keller's company, Milk & Honey, represents the writing talent behind megahits for Justin Bieber, Doja Cat, Drake, Selena Gomez, Post Malone, Nick Jonas, Dua Lipa, Charlie Puth, Carrie Underwood, Chance the Rapper, Fifth Harmony, Kelly Clarkson, Calvin Harris, Rita Ora, and the list goes on.
This year the company launched a sports division with an initial roster of 15 NFL players and a new Dallas office. It also recently opened offices in London, where Keller signed singer-songwriter Andrew Jackson (Dua Lipa, Eminem, Kygo, Alicia Keys, and more), one of the most respected topline songwriters in London right now. Needless to say, Keller has been busy.
The son of an architect and interior designer, Keller was immersed in creativity from the start. His love for music began in the 1990s when he was drawn to the era's anti-establishment grunge music. As his devotion for bands like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, and Soundgarden flourished, so did his obsession with the business and music moguls like David Geffen and Clive Davis.
"I was the kid on the school bus talking about, not the artists, but the people that produced the records," Keller says. "My friends, who were eating pizza and playing Nintendo, were looking at me like, What is this guy going on about?"
After finding success as a concert promoter and band manager in Chicago, Keller made the move to Los Angeles where he spent five years at the Beverly Hills music-TV-film powerhouse The Collective, one of the biggest management companies of its kind over the last 20 years with talent like Linkin Park, Kanye West, Peter Gabriel, and Enrique Iglesias.
Still, Keller knew there was something missing in the market. As the youngest of seven managers, he carved his niche by choosing to manage well-seasoned songwriters and producers rather than the artists themselves.
"At that time, there weren't many people in the business that were doing that," explains Keller, who founded Milk & Honey seven years ago. "You have that crippling insecurity of, Oh, my god, I need my first hit record to keep the lights on. For me, that was Christina Perri's 'A Thousand Years' off the Twilight soundtrack. Then I had Nick Jonas's 'Jealous.' Those were my first two hits where I was like, OK, now we can turn this into a business."
Keller's background gives him a particular strength for managing creative minds, a task that doesn't exactly come with a rule book.
Photography by Luke Fontana
"When I started, there weren't a lot of people advocating for [producers and writers]," he explains. "If you're managing a DJ or a rock band, your job is to put the music out and market it and work with the record company and put the tour dates up, and market the tour dates for the people buying tickets, and do the social media and digital strategy. The manager is the quarterback, kind of running everything. With writers and producers, it's a little different. Someone would sign with my company because they want their business organized and they want strategy, and they want to make sure they're getting paid the royalties and everything. But, you know, the real reason they come to us is because they want a Selena Gomez record, or they want a Drake record. So a lot of our work is pitching the songs. It's setting up songwriting sessions. It's lobbying with managers for the record companies to get the talent in the room. We have a better track record when the artist has their paws on the song and really has an attachment. It is a little bit of a different skill set because it's really just about song."
The song is key, especially in today's trends that rely heavily on streaming, which in turn creates opportunities for unknowns to forge a path. As Keller says, "radio follows streaming leads," making the need for great writing more crucial.
"It's amazing now that hit songs are made in bedrooms," he explains. "The barrier of entry to record a song now isn't what it used to be: where you had to go pay for recording studio time and home recording wasn't a thing. If you look at the growth curve of music from 1994 to 2020, there are just exponentially more artists because the technological barrier of entry to make the art became cheaper and easier."
Success is not just found in streaming platforms like Spotify, but also social media platforms like TikTok. "I would say 95 percent of what the labels are signing is off of a technology platform, which is kind of crazy," he says. "Milk & Honey had one of the biggest breakout TikTok records of last year ('Lalala' from Y2k and bbno$). I gotta tell you, it's a song I can't say I would have predicted would be a hit. But the kids thought it was, so that's what matters."
Looking ahead, Keller, a proud gay man who's witnessed the industry's progress toward LGBTQ+ inclusion, is excited to see queer artists carve their own path in music. But he also senses a shift in the way listeners are connecting to artists in general.
"I think we're seeing the death of the artist. Songs are fully alive," he explains. "I think we're hitting a point in time where it's going to be more and more difficult to have follow-up hits for an artist. I see it happening. There's so much music. There are so many songs. People listen to playlists and just because they fall in love with the song doesn't mean [they fall in love with the artist]. Now, I do think there are [exceptions] where it's like, if you're a fan of The 1975, you're a fan of The 1975. If you're a fan of Shawn Mendes, you're a fan of anything Shawn puts out. But I think there are a lot of artists where, you know, I have this huge global hit with James Arthur's 'Say You Won't Let Go.' It's the 11th most streamed song of all time. Now, I don't know if there's going to be another James Arthur hit. But for my business, there doesn't need to be."
"I think where we're going with music is it's going to be increasingly difficult to be an artist, where fans are apathetic to who the artist is. They just love a song that was on a playlist," he says. "That's a problem I'm worried about because from a career perspective, it's going to be difficult to be an artist. You know, I grew up on these great artists that had multidecade-long careers and multiple hits."
He continues, "Great songwriters are perennial. I have a guy who's in his 40s writing a lot of the new Ed Sheeran record right now. He doesn't need to be 25. You can be a great writer throughout the ages and write for all kinds of different people. They're brilliant. They keep coming back."
A version of this story first appeared in Out's 2021 Hollywood Issue. Jake Borelli is featured on the cover alongside Ryan O'Connell and Alexandra Grey. It is the first print issue under the editorial direction of editor-in-chief David Artavia. The issue is out on newsstands on March 3, 2021. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe -- or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News +.