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The two bosses at ITB are so different the office is jokingly divided into ‘dark’ and ‘light’ sides – but the balance is a winning formula, as 40 years at the top proves
By IQ on 16 Mar 2018
At ITB, they call it “going over to the dark side.”
You walk out of the open-plan space where Barry Dickins is king, and most of the other agents and assistants reside, cross reception and follow the corridor down to the other end. There, you might find Rod MacSween and his team, surrounded by shelves of highbrow books and photos of MacSween arm-around-shoulder with the cream of classic rockers: Ozzy, Page and Plant, Steven and Joe.
“We’ve always liked the idea of the company all being set out over one level, with Rod at one end of the office and me at the other, and everyone else in between,” says Dickins.
The demarcation of ‘dark’ and ‘light’ sides is jokily acknowledged by little Star Wars icons above the key-code entry systems on opposite sides of reception – on MacSween’s, the rock giants, on Dickins’, the classic singer-songwriters.
Office geography aside, Dickins and MacSween remain one of the live business’s most indivisible partnerships, still intact after 40 years that have included a 14-year spell within Live Nation, a latter-day return to independence and long-term relationships with artists including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Paul Simon and ZZ Top (Dickins’ list) and Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, The Who, Pearl Jam, Kiss, Guns N’ Roses and Maroon Five (MacSween’s).
But it’s been some time since the company was solely the sum of the founders’ still-formidable rosters.
“Me and Rod are completely different – mentally, physically and artistically. That’s probably why the business works so well”
In 2018, ITB offers strength in depth, with Dickins’s daughter Lucy famously turning up talent including Adele, Mumford & Sons, Hot Chip and James Blake, and other senior agents such as Mike Dewdney (Kasabian, Blink-182, Eels, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club) and Steve Zapp (Biffy Clyro, Courteeners, Editors, The Cult) holding their own.
But while there’s plenty of work taking place at ITB between the two poles of Dickins and MacSween, it is their chalk-and-cheese relationship that still defines the public face of the business. And the more you look at it, the more you suspect this is the evergreen marriage that remains harmonious largely because they live substantially separate lives.
“Me and Rod are completely different – mentally, physically and artistically,” says Dickins. “That’s probably why the business works so well. If we were similar people then we probably would have killed each other by now.”
MacSween agrees. “We don’t see an awful lot of each other, but we each have much respect for what the other does. We have always remained friends and been there for each other, as partners should be.”
Different they may be, but the two are genuine legends of equal stature in the pantheon of agents – MacSween the tough negotiator, not one for small talk, who lives and breathes the music he represents; Dickins the charmer but certainly no pushover, with encyclopaedias of touring know-how under the silver barnet.
“He is really humble; he is not a chest-beater about how well he has done,” says Lucy Dickins. “But he is a fucking genius in this business – he is so good.”
“[Barry] is a fucking genius in this business – he is so good”
Independently, her father extends exactly the same compliment to his business partner. “Rod is a fucking genius,” says Barry. “If I was a manager then he would be our agent. He is, hands down, the best agent I’ve ever come across. He’s incredible. He gets great deals. I swear that people just give him the best deals to get him off of the phone.”
It is no coincidence that Dickins, “the hands-on, running-the-company guy,” in the words of agent Mike Dewdney, works among the rest of the agents, while MacSween maintains a separate team – three assistants, plus another agent, Ian Sales – that allows him to focus intently, even obsessively, on the needs of his artists.
“I’m a bit anal sometimes,” says MacSween. “I still make numbered lists of things to do each day. If I don’t complete any, I asterisk them and carry them forward to the next day.”
The Arden connection
When they talk to IQ – at different times, of course – Dickins, while still a very active agent, tends to survey the company as a whole, while MacSween’s focus is his faithful dedication to his own family of acts.
For such a long-lived partnership, Dickins and MacSween took a little time to get off the ground. The former, the son of NME founder Percy Dickins, had come up in the 1960s, representing The Who, Jimi Hendrix and The Nice at the Malcolm Rose agency, before honing his trade under agent-promoter Harold Davidson, who later sold to MAM.
“If I was a manager, Rod would be our agent”
“I was in the rock department at MAM in 1975, and Rod was at the Bron Agency and I’d heard good things about him,” says Barry. “I actually offered him a job at MAM but he said he wanted more money than I was on, so that conversation was fairly short.”
MacSween came into the business like many – as social secretary at the University of Exeter in the early-1970s. He spent time at various London agencies before eventually coming into the organisation of notorious manager Don Arden, where he first met Arden’s daughter, Sharon Osbourne – now a longstanding friend. “She was working with her father at the time,” MacSween recalls. “We, and then Ozzy, became great friends. With all their help, ITB was set up in 1976. Barry came and joined as a partner in 1978.”
“Don didn’t have the best reputation but I have to say that he was always good with me,” says Barry. “Anyway, it was a pretty good offer and I was young, so I thought what the hell – what did I have to lose?”
In the early days, Dickins could boast Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, The Kinks, Joni Mitchell and others. MacSween, yet to deck his office walls with most of the rockers that nowadays make up most of his client base, had ELO, Steve Hillage, Kiki Dee, Roy Wood’s Wizzard and Whitesnake.
Together, they built a formidable reputation for smart negotiating, a strong eye for career development and notably tight artist relationships. An in-depth company profile from 25 years ago in Applause magazine describes the business as much admired, big-hitting and fully formed, the characters of its co-managing directors distinctly recognisable as the ones we see now. Even then, Dutch promoter Leon Ramakers marvelled at the co-managing directors’ unlikely union, declaring it an example to all the peoples of the world of how to live in harmony.
Continue reading this feature in the digital edition of IQ 76, or subscribe to the magazine here