Lucas Keller describes his younger self as myopic.
He wanted desperately to be in the music business and manage bands — not an easy dream for a guy from Greenfield.
After four years at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Keller was a handful of credits away from a degree and was already managing a few bands. But he started another semester and realized his heart just wasn’t in it.
Keller needed to make a move — out of college, and out of Wisconsin.
“I just knew I wouldn’t be able to stay,” Keller said.
He dropped out, moved to Chicago in 2006 and joined a talent management company. A few years later, in 2009, he headed to Los Angeles.
Today, at age 33, Keller heads his own talent management agency, Milk & Honey, which is responsible for some of music’s biggest hits, including a song topping the Billboard charts right now, “Sorry Not Sorry” by Demi Lovato. And the No. 2 guy in his company is a fellow Wisconsinite.
The journey to this point took a few unexpected turns.
Keller always thought he would manage musicians. But after he sat in a courtroom with his childhood-favorite band, Stone Temple Pilots, negotiating the group’s split in 2013, Keller wanted to take a break from bands.
Frankly, they were a pain.
He worked for a large management company, The Collective, that had clients in television, film, music and comedy. Keller had been representing mostly rock acts.
He began to work more with songwriters and producers.
“I saw rock waning,” he said. “And pop was bigger than ever. I thought everything was going to become pop. I decided to leave and start Milk & Honey.”
Milk & Honey started out as just Keller working from his house. The idea was to run a small, focused music company. He pulled away from rock music and began rebuilding his client list.
Grammy Award-winning musician David Hodges was an early client — one of a handful that followed Keller from The Collective.
Hodges said his working relationship with Keller was like nothing he had before in a manager.
“Every other manager before that said: ‘This is your lane. This is what you do. This is how we make money,'” said Hodges, who had been in the band Evanescence. He felt pigeonholed to keep writing piano ballads.
Keller was willing to try other things out.
When it came time to hire his first employee, Keller picked another Wisconsinite, Nic Warner. Keller said he hired Warner because he simply couldn’t think of anyone better.
Keller and Warner had met years earlier in a “Smallwaukee” way, he said. The drummer in Warner’s band was dating a girl whose older brother used to drum with Keller.
Keller was already in Los Angeles. Warner was in Milwaukee, playing guitar in a band and wanting to break into the music industry.
“You’re like a young Keller,” the drummer told Warner.
And he was.
Warner, now 28, spent most of his childhood in Burlington and then went to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for a year before dropping out. Warner played guitar and bass in a few pop-punk bands before realizing that’s not what he wanted to do.
He noticed he always seemed to take on a management role in his groups. Maybe that would be a good niche, Warner thought.
The two connected, and Keller persuaded Warner to move out west five years ago. After Milk & Honey was born, they joined forces.
String of hits
Today, the 3-year-old company has more than 40 clients in pop, electronic and country music.
The payday from the company’s first big hit — “A Thousand Years,” written and recorded by Christina Perri — got Milk & Honey out of Keller’s house and into its first office.
Now, it has offices in Los Angeles and New York City with 10 employees. A third office in Nashville will open by the end of the year.
The company represents artists, songwriters and producers. It’s goal: to get the right song with the right artist and then help promote it. The firm also works with its clients on building out their base. Keller and Hodges, for example, have partnered on a music publishing company, Third & Verse.
Keller prides Milk & Honey on finding songwriters early.
“If I find something early on Spotify, we’re going for it,” he said. “It doesn’t need to be overly established. We’re betting on our taste.”
One of their clients, Warner “Oak” Felder, wrote Lovato’s chart-topper “Sorry Not Sorry.” Many of their clients are behind top hits, including:
To date, their roster has sold more than 400 million records.
For the two guys from Wisconsin, it’s all pretty surreal.
“We chased our dreams and are now in L.A.,” Warner said about the success of Milk & Honey. “Our drummers just knew each other. It’s funny how small everything is.”
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