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CAA launched a music dept 35 years ago, and today represents more top 100 worldwide touring artists (from the past three years) than any other agency. What’s its secret?
By James Drury on 22 Mar 2019
“We walked into work on January 3, 1984, just three agents with three clients and a bit of a dream.”
35 years later, Rob Light, now managing director of Creative Artists Agency (CAA) can rightly look back on the growth of the music department and say that dream came true.
With headquarters in Los Angeles, London and Beijing, the agency works across film, television, music, sports, digital media, marketing and much more.
The music department alone is made up of over 100 agents around the globe and generates over US$3 billion in worldwide touring revenue, according to Billboard. It claims to have more women agents than any other agency, more women in power than any other agency, and a more diverse agent breakdown.
Yet, insists Light, it still runs like a boutique business. “We’re a big agency, but we still care. For us it’s not about being cool – if you want to break and have a career this is how we do it. We’re never cookie cutter.”
New kids on the block
CAA was founded in a whirlwind of drama in 1975 when five hungry William Morris Agency staff quit the biggest film and TV agency in Hollywood to start their own business. It was a major shake-up – the story is worthy of a movie in itself, and is described in great detail in James Andrew Miller’s book, Powerhouse.
Nine years later, in 1984, the company created another stir. It launched a music department and poached one of the biggest names in the music agency business at the time to head it: Tom Ross, head of International Creative Management (ICM)’s music division.
“We’re a big agency, but we still care”
Ross’s assistant at the time was Light. He’d started in ICM’s mail-room six years earlier, aged 21, where he lasted for seven days before being spotted by Terry Rhodes (now running his own agency, Patriot Artists).
When CAA co-founder Mike Ovitz approached Ross, Light was invited to join his boss at the fledgling department. At the time, ICM was a powerhouse. And although it had a reputation for its film and TV work, CAA had just 27 agents, so the move was something of a gamble.
“I believed in Tom, plus Mike Ovitz was an incredibly seductive guy,” remembers Light. “So at 26 I thought I’d take a shot.”
The next five years saw explosive growth. Ovitz had assured Ross that CAA’s music and film departments would work together, and came good on his promise. “When I started at CAA all the film agents were excited we were there,” says Light.
Until then, film, TV and music departments at agencies were like separate kingdoms. But there was increasing demand from musicians to fulfil their other creative ambitions, and CAA’s close working relationship across the teams was ready to help realise them. This cross-departmental ethos has been integral to the company’s success ever since.
“It felt like the agency business had never seen that type of approach, attitude, energy or level of teamwork”
One of the first signings the new music department made was in summer 1984. Prince had long held a desire to make the movie Purple Rain and CAA got him on the books by promising to make it a reality. Light went on to work with the artist for the next 13 years, outlasting many managers and lawyers.
It was the teamwork mentality that was so unique. As agent Rob Prinz told James Andrew Miller: “It felt like the agency business had never seen that type of approach, attitude, energy or level of teamwork and co-ordination.”
CAA was the first agency to have a crossover agent, which saw dedicated TV and acting agent Brian Loucks installed in the music department. Loucks was a massive film and TV geek with an encyclopaedic knowledge of avant-garde film as well as the mainstream.
Loucks’ embracing of the cross-departmental approach can be typified in his Living Room Sessions, which started out as an informal gathering and have turned into an industry networking tour-de-force. They see about 200 carefully selected people invited to his home in LA’s Studio City to see performances by artists such as Annie Lennox, Christine and The Queens, Keith Urban, Two Door Cinema Club and Tim McGraw. These carefully selected invitees are A-list Hollywood, music business and brand names, including renowned manager Simon Fuller, Fifty Shades of Grey director Sam Taylor-Johnson and actor Chris Pine.
“What we’re doing is trying to serve the artists’ needs. If they say they want to try acting, we can give them the tools”
“What we’re doing is trying to serve the artists’ needs,” explains Light. “If they say they want to try acting, or like Billie Joe from Green Day, wanting to do a Broadway play [American Idiot]. If they really want to do it, we can give them the tools.
“It’s easy when you have a company that’s built that way. Everybody here wants to work in this way. You have to have somebody in place to help the artist fulfil what they want to do.”
A reputation for innovation
Light’s rise to the top came when CAA co-founder Michael Ovitz left in 1995 for an infamously short-lived stint as Michael Eisner’s deputy at Disney. His departure was a big deal for the company, which was by now one of the biggest agencies in the world.
It meant a shake-up at the top of the company’s administration. Ross stayed a few years longer, but left in 1998, fed up of the way the live industry was going. It was the time of Live Nation precursor SFX, when media mogul Robert Sillerman was buying up promoters around the world. Ross was one of the most vocal opponents of the new behemoth and after three decades at the top, wanted out of the agency business.
What happened next set the roadmap for CAA’s success and confirmed its reputation for innovation.
Continue reading this feature in the digital edition of IQ 81, or subscribe to the magazine here