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A Brave New Agency World: Meet the independents

IQ catches up with some of the newly independent agents who used the turmoil of the pandemic to become their own bosses

By Lisa Henderson on 29 Jun 2021

Idles are represented by Mother Artists

Idles are represented by Mother Artists

Last year presented the agency world with a raft of unforeseen hardships, from the shutdown of the concert business to widespread job losses. Faced with the choice to adapt or founder, many agents rose to the challenge of the former, ushering in a new age of entrepreneurship. Some agents banded together in the wake of redundancy and others decided to strike out of their own accord, spurring a wave of brand-new independent agencies across the globe.

The UK gained the likes of Mother Artists, One Fiinix Live, Route One Booking, Marshall Live Agency, Runway Artists and Playbook Artists; the US welcomed Arrival Artists, Mint Talent Group, TBA Agency and Paladin Artists; and the Spanish agency landscape expanded with Rebel Beat Agency – all “born out of the most unlikely of scenarios,” as Arrival puts it.

For the founders of Arrival, the most unlikely scenario was being laid off from Paradigm Talent Agency in the US, along with hundreds of others. But co-founder Ali Hedrick says this turned out to be a blessing in disguise: “I’d hoped that one day I would be my own boss, but I’m not sure if I ever would have done it, so it’s kind of fortuitous that it happened and forced my hand, in a good way.”

Hedrick founded the agency in October 2020 with her former Paradigm colleagues Erik Selz, John Bongiorno, Karl Morse and Ethan Berlin, as well as Matt Yasecko, former COO of Chicago- based agency The Billions Corporation – where she previously worked for nearly 23 years. A

Arrival’s roster includes the likes of Everything Everything, Denai Moore, Sons of Kemet, Wild Pink, Andrew Bird, and LOMA, booking from offices in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Seattle.

After clocking in time at other agencies, both major and independent, Hedrick says that setting up her own shop has given her a new lease of life as an agent. “It’s made me love booking again and being an owner just feels right… all agents are entrepreneurs in their own way.”

Jon Ollier, an ex-CAA agent who used the pandemic as a jumping off point to launch his new UK-based agency One Fiinix Live, echoes that sentiment: “As agents, we’re problem solvers – we make things happen – but the whole live business was being asked to just sit things out [because of Covid restrictions], and I’m not very good at doing that.”

Ollier took the likes of Ed Sheeran, Anne-Marie, JC Stewart, Lauv and 2Cellos to One Fiinix, which he set up following his exit from CAA in October 2020, after nearly six years at the agency.

“No one single factor led me to this decision. If that was the case, I’d probably be foolish – but a major factor is the reaction to Covid-19. I’ve got young kids and I want to be able to look them in the eyes in years to come and tell them I did all I could to make sure we came out of this stronger.”

“I always really just hated the competitiveness among agents and agencies – or even agents within the same agency”

A sense of fortitude is something Amy Davidman, founder and partner at US-based TBA Agency, is striving for too, after the “emotional upheaval” of the pandemic and her own redundancy from Paradigm.

“I chose optimism. I choose to believe in my work and my clients and my partners, and our ability to start a company and be successful and do right by our clients,” she says.

Davidman formed TBA in September 2020, alongside Marshall Betts, Avery McTaggart, Ryan Craven, and Devin Landau, to whom she felt “a natural gravitation.”

The new agency has unveiled a clientele that includes The War on Drugs, Courtney Barnett, Chvrches, Tune-Yards, Cut Copy, Beirut, Guided by Voices, Jungle, Cuco, Purity Ring, José González, Tycho, Caribou, and Alvvays, operating from offices in Los Angeles and New York.

“As a group, the five of us really could cover all the bases of what we needed to launch the Sons of Kemet are one of the acts helping to launch Arrival Artists company. Typically, none of our contracts would have ended at the same time so it would have been very difficult for all of us as partners to come together at the same time and launch a company,” Davidman says, pointing out the fortunate timing.

Timing has been a crucial factor for Route One Booking founder Ben Ward, who says that his redundancy from United Talent Agency (UTA) in London, along with the pandemic, has provided the perfect storm in which to launch his UK-based agency.

“I’d previously thought about going independent and the redundancy just accelerated things. I thought I’m not going to sit around and feel sorry for myself… I’m going to see which clients I can retain. There was nothing I could do but throw myself wholeheartedly into it,” he says.

The veteran rock agent and Orange Goblin frontman launched his new booking agency in November 2020, alongside co-director Jules Chenoweth, during England’s second national lockdown.

“When you want your numbers to be good, you’re thinking in a different way. Going independent has lifted a layer of self-inflicted stress that I didn’t need”

“If touring and festivals were all going ahead at the time, we would have been scrambling around trying to get things sorted in time for the summer,” he says. “But because there was nothing happening, we could reschedule shows and look to 2022 and 2023 and have time to get everything in place and bring everything up to speed.”

The new agency’s roster includes the likes of influential punks Discharge, fuzz-rock legends Fu Manchu, Canadian thrash act Voivod and country artist-producer Shooter Jennings, alongside emerging acts such as King Creature, Video Nasties, Daxx aand Roxane, and Blind River. In addition to bookings, Route One offers clients transport options for touring, backline, and links to digital music distribution company RouteNote, of which Chenoweth is a board member. The company also owns The Yard, a music venue in Cornwall.

Like Hedrick and Davidman, Ward says that going independent has renewed his “enthusiasm and clarity” for the job, which had diminished during his time working at a major agency.

“You can get really down and lose focus on what it’s all about. I had periods of that at UTA,” he explains. “If you want to be really hands-on with your artist, then being a small fish in a big pond isn’t as good as being the big fish in a small pond. A lot of artists fail because they were swept under the carpet at bigger agencies, and I feel that a lot of agents probably felt the same way as well.

“You get your big hitters at every agency who deliver millions of pounds worth of commission each year, and younger agents won’t be regarded in the same light. That’s understandable because every company is in it to make money, but the money comes secondary – it’s the artists’ satisfaction and seeing bands’ careers develop that comes first for me. I think with bigger agencies that satisfaction is lost with the pressure to deliver and keep the big wheels rolling.”

Davidman, who spent three years at Paradigm, agrees that both artists and agents are at risk of “slipping through the cracks” in a major agency. “I saw the benefits at a larger full-service agency, and yet I’ve maybe felt a little bit less in control of those benefits,” she says. “I think major agencies can work for a lot of artists and managers, and then I think others really slip through the cracks. There should really just be space for everybody to be successful and have access to a lot of different opportunities.

“I always really just hated the competitiveness among agents and agencies – or even agents within the same agency. I have hoped that there could be a way that we could all just say, ‘Yeah, you offer that thing, and you offer that thing,’ but if a lot of people are going after the same artists it just naturally becomes competitive.”

Davidman says that being her own boss has alleviated that sense of pressure and competition and has helped reaffirm her unique offering as an agent.

“If you want to be really hands-on with your artist, then being a small fish in a big pond isn’t as good as being the big fish in a small pond”

“After we launched TBA, there were a couple artists that I tried to sign that I didn’t, and I was less broken up about it than I maybe would have been before. I was, like, ‘Yeah, if this doesn’t fit what you’re looking for then cool, go and find the thing that you’re looking for, because this is what I’m doing and I’m really in it.’ Now I don’t have to wake up every day wondering what my value is or how I fit into a larger picture or what my numbers are going to be.”

The pressure to hit targets and go up against peers are two things Hedrick says she won’t miss either. “You have to do projections a couple times a year at a major agency,” she explains. “You’re always looking at your numbers and when you’re not one of the top agents at the company, there is that pressure to be doing well. There’s in-built competition. When you want your numbers to be good, you’re thinking in a different way. Going independent has lifted a layer of self-inflicted stress that I didn’t need.”

One Fiinix Live’s Ollier believes the crisis of 2020 will have highlighted these issues and suggests that a paradigm shift may be on the horizon. “When the times were good, agents were being paid well and looked after by a company that seemed like it cared. But now, that whole concept has been shaken to the core. Agents need to feel a bit more like they’re in control.

“The business models of the big companies are not designed to withstand a pandemic. That’s not a criticism of anyone in particular – everyone has been far too complacent,” he says. The reality is that the major agencies have a huge amount of overheads, huge numbers of staff, and they’re not really able to move quickly in terms of making decisions and engineering their way out of it [the crisis]. There’s a unanimous sense that the shackles are off for these agents, and with a greater sense of autonomy each is revelling in their ability to abandon traditional ways of working and reinvent the wheel.

For Ward, breaking away from an established agency has empowered him to take a more “hands-on approach.” “We have that freedom to sign the acts we want to sign – whether it’s rock and metal bands or we want to get a bit more diverse with our roster. And you know there’s no fear anymore, just opportunities,” he says.

Davidman is also keen to ditch the traditional “strict rules” about who gets to work on which projects, and instead is adopting a more ad-hoc approach to TBA’s services, especially during the pandemic. “We have to be flexible about who we’re talking to and what opportunities we are putting in front of folks,” she says. “Whether that’s being open to an artist who doesn’t have a manager, or a manager who is independent but wants a team to help them with different things, or someone who’s asking for help in a realm outside of touring – those things are not what an agent would traditionally do, but we at least want to be open to these opportunities.”

Ollier has had a similar vision for his agency, revealing plans to be less “departmentalised” and more focused on the people within the company.

“We’re ripping up the old-school contracts and the old-school way of working”

“At the moment, all I’m saying to people is, ‘How can I be supportive? Come and talk to me and let’s generate some ideas,’” he says. “Ultimately, we would like to help some people out. I’ve been helped out over the course of my career, and we all need that – no one is an island. So, what I’m saying to people is: let’s get collaborative, let’s get creative, and let’s build our way out of this, however that manifests, in a mutually beneficial way.”

Hedrick, who has been an agent for over two decades, is looking forward to diversifying Arrival’s workforce and mentoring aspiring agents – something she’s never had the chance to do before. “[Arrival Artists] could easily just hire the people we’ve worked with before – that have done the job and that we know are fantastic – but we’re doing our due diligence to make sure that we include a more diverse set of people. We’ll probably even hire some people who haven’t done the job before that we need to train,” she says.

Hiring is also top of the agenda for Natasha Bent, who left Paradigm in December 2020 to set up UK-based artist management and live agency Mother Artists, along with her brother Mark Bent. “We’re ripping up the old-school contracts and the old-school way of working, and really trying to be diverse in not only who we work with but who comes on board in our team,” she says.

“It’s not only about clients but it’s about us and creating a company that – in my mind, wherever I’ve gone – I always thought should exist. A place where ourselves, our families, and those who decide to join in the future, are really well looked after,” she says.

Another thing that was important to Hedrick was the implementation of a profit share for all the employees at the company. “I want to make sure that we share the profits with all employees so they can buy a home someday and show that not everybody at the company needs to become an agent to make decent money. If the company has a banner year and profits, that will be spread throughout the entire company,” she says.

As for the sense of cut-throat competition that each agent has referred to: that has been replaced with a desire to collaborate – something Hedrick chalks up to the pandemic, “which made us all a little bit softer and nicer to each other because we’re all in this together.”

The Arrival Artists boss says she has calls with new agencies including Mint and TBA on a regular basis, as well as weekly meetings with UK agency ATC Live, with which Arrival has formed a strategic partnership to “facilitate dynamic global representation for shared artists.”

Davidman, meanwhile, hopes that this new spirit of collaboration will not only better the agency world but the industry as a whole. “The agency world should not be so divided, fighting over power,” she says. “We should collaborate and use the collective power to try to figure out the important things, like how to break down systemic racism within the music industry.”

Welcome to a brave new agency world…


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