Q’s With UMG’s Arron Saxe On Preserving Legacies And Creating Value For Estates

Arron Saxe
– Arron Saxe

Arron Saxe wears a lot of hats. He has a company, Kinfolk Management, that strives to amplify the voices of revolutionary artists. Through his work there, he became Vice President of Estate Management for Universal Music Group in 2019. The position entails more than just managing, marketing and royalties for the estates of artists who have passed on, particularly Black artists. His passion for their work ensures it not only lives on but resonates and, perhaps most importantly, creates value for their heirs that otherwise would be lost to time and the racist proclivities of a music industry, and America in general, that denied Black artists their due. It would be too easy to say he’s a marketer, which he is. He’s also an advocate, and deeply understands the connection between Black music and American culture. Among the estates he has worked with during his career are those of iconic artists such as Otis Redding, Muddy Waters, Rick James, Peter Tosh, Tupac Shakur, and Donny Hathaway. In addition, he and Wu-Tang Clan founder RZA created “RZA: Live From the 36th Chamber,” which fuses the visual of a classic kung-fu film with the experience of a Wu-Tang show. The resulting event has played more than 30 sold-out shows around the world. In his work at UMG, Saxe focuses on the optimization of projects for estate and legacy artists across the entirety of the UMG system, while continuing to service his clients at Kinfolk Management. 

Pollstar: Please tell us what managing legacy artist estates entails?
Arron Saxe: Managing an estate is to protect, first and foremost, the integrity of the art. These songs and artists are really important. But Black artists have been taken advantage of; it’s no different than Black athletes who are taken advantage of, or Black workers or sanitation workers or businessmen. There’s no difference, no matter what your job is, to be Black in America. There’s an uphill climb that you start out from on day one no matter what shape it is.
You have worked with the estate of Otis Redding. His impact goes beyond “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” How does someone like Otis represent what a timeless Black artist is in today’s modern culture? 
There’s these artists that I’m particularly fond of working with who came about at a time of uprising in this country. In terms of worldwide acclaim, he was with us from 1962-67, and then he was gone. But he’s in the middle of it.
Just by being a large, dominant musical force who, as a Black man from the South, always used his powerful voice. Someone like Otis carved a different path for himself and his family, still thriving today, 53 years later.
But he was a businessman; he owned his own publishing, owned his own planes, had his own 300 acres in Georgia, and was investing in real estate and land.
While Otis was not an overly political person, he made his version of “A Change Is Going To Come” just as unique as Sam Cooke’s. 
I don’t know if people realize how important it is to own your own publishing. 
When you’re working with an estate or a living artist the publishing is very critical, not only because it’s the revenue source, but it’s the source of the art.
So for me, besides the publishing being an asset and a revenue generator, it’s the creative inspiration for projects.
The flip side of being an estate manager, which is difficult as you don’t have the artist here, it’s really difficult to say what one would do in these times. You can only see what the history was, what they did when they were here, and try to stay in the ballpark. It’s not easy.
It’s helpful to have heirs and family members who are open, willing, honest and able to humanize these folks. When they pop, even when they’re alive, they’re larger than life. But when they pass, they become ethereal. With our Black artists, we hold this dear. And not only artists, but the art that they produce. 
You consult with Donny’s daughter, Lalah, quite an artist in her own right. Can you give some insight into how she runs her dad’s estate?
I got to know her four or five years ago. She is an incredible artist, first and foremost, the coolest woman on the face of the earth. In my opinion, she’s the best. We met at a time where she was just starting to wrap her mind around focusing some of her energy on her dad and really embracing that, which for an artist – especially one of her caliber and talent level – is sometimes really hard to do. 
We came together, along with her mom, and they took a path that a lot of families are taking in the last number of years, with folks selling their revenue streams. Lalah now works with Primary Wave, which purchased the Hathaway Estate’s interest in terms of publishing and they work together on the marketing of it.
Not everybody knows Donny Hathaway. Not everybody in the music business knows Donny Hathaway. But he had one of, if not the, greatest voices you’ll ever hear. And behind that voice was a virtuoso musician. Howard University educated, music school, all that, and he came out and just forged his path. 
Donny Hathaway is so much more than the music. What story can be told about him that isn’t the typical birth to tragic death path?
Why wouldn’t you tell the part about the love story that this man had with his wife? Or looking at the examination of mental illness in the Black community through the eyes of an artist that was struggling with it in the 1970s?
We don’t go to doctors normally. Who goes to doctors for their heads, especially Black men? And that is a systemic problem. But that’s also part of Donny Hathaway’s story. It doesn’t have to be the focus, but it is certainly a unifying theme, because everyone has a family member that struggles with mental illness. 
And when you humanize him, or anyone, and not make their entire story about their weakness or downfall, but as an appreciation for what they create in their lifetimes, that’s what I want to get to with any artist. 
Some of these artists have been gone 40, 50 years and their biggest hits came during the Civil Rights Era. How do you connect them to younger fans?
“Someday We’ll All Be Free,” that message is forever. “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” is universal. Young people are singing Tupac’s “Changes” in the streets as they protest today. Every aspect of that goes on forever.

Arron Saxe is on the board of the Otis Redding Foundation whose mission is to empower, enrich and motivate young people through programs involving music, writing and instrumentation.