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The UK-based agency's founders look back on 20 years of operations in the wake of becoming part of Wasserman Music
By Gordon Masson on 01 Jan 2023
Ahead of the return of our daily IQ Index newsletter on Tuesday, 3 January, we are revisiting some of our most popular interviews from the last 12 months. On our final flashback, here, Coda agency’s founders look back on 20 years of operations in the wake of becoming part of Wasserman Music…
When Coda was established as a talent agency in 2002, there were just 15 members of staff. Twenty years later, the numbers have multiplied significantly and, having emerged from the difficult pandemic years, a takeover by Wasserman Music is being heralded as a step toward an even brighter future. Gordon Masson reports.
As the London-based Paradigm staff celebrated the company’s 20th birthday at ILMC, the ink was barely dry on the deal that saw the company become part of Wasserman Music, effectively reuniting agents in the UK with their former Paradigm colleagues in North America, a number of whom made their way across the Atlantic for the 26 April party.
Central to that deal was company owner Casey Wasserman, who had made no secret of his desire to add a significant music division to Wasserman Media Group. Indeed, during his ILMC keynote interview, he told delegates, “I was having a quasi-affair with [Paradigm chairman] Sam Gores, as I had a coffee with him once a week, essentially, for multiple years, to try to persuade him to sell his business. Our goal, frankly, was if we bought the whole of Paradigm, how could we separate the music business from the entertainment business and either sell off or merge that into something else that we would not be part of, so we could just concentrate on the music business.”
Revealing how the deal finally happened, Wasserman reported, “In February , Paradigm stepped on at least one, but maybe multiple, land mines and kind of blew themselves up. At that point, I said to our team that we should move on to other things. But to their credit, Sam and his brother, Tom Gores, called a couple of months later to say they had some struggles and needed to solve the situation, so would we be interested in buying just the music business, which is what we wanted, anyway. So we began that process April 4 of 2020, and end of May 2021, we closed.”
The reunification of the two halves of Paradigm may have taken a further year to complete, but the principals in the London office could not be happier, with director Alex Hardee noting that the initial deal with Paradigm back in 2014 fulfilled a long-held ambition for the business to be part of a global enterprise, “but it took us a long time to find partners in America that had a similar business culture,” says Hardee.
In 2019, the companies officially started trading under the same Paradigm brand, ending the use of the Coda name in the UK. However, for many working in the London operation, the “Coda culture” is still very much alive and kicking, even though the business has now under-gone a couple of ownership changes.
“I threatened to leave MPI, which was sort of true, but I hadn’t actually found another agency to go to”
The formation of Coda Agency back in 2002 brought together two successful boutique businesses and established an operation that few could dispute has changed the booking agency landscape.
What’s often overlooked is Hardee’s pivotal role in the formation of Coda. When fellow MPI agent Cris Hearn departed the company for a position at Primary Talent, Hardee saw an opportunity.
“I threatened to leave MPI, which was sort of true, but I hadn’t actually found another agency to go to,” he admits. “But I ended up buying Miles Copeland’s shares in MPI, and then I suggested we should talk to other companies about a merger. Primary Talent was really successful at the time, but I thought if we went in with them, they’d just end up taking the credit, so it was better to look for another agency of about the same size for a merger.”
Instead, Hardee identified Concert Clinic as a potential partner. “We talked to [owners] Clive Underhill-Smith and Rob Challice, and Clive came up with the name Coda for the new company,” Hardee recalls. “So Coda started out in 2002 with me, Clive, Rob, and Phil Banfield as directors. I have no idea how or why Clive came up with the name Coda, but I just realised after the Oscars this year that it actually stands for Child of Deaf Adult, which isn’t the greatest name for a music agency, really…”
“We actually get approached by agents working elsewhere a lot, but from a recruitment point of view it’s all about trying to find people that can complement us”
Development & Growth
As Coda grew, adding agents and boosting its roster year on year, the need for bigger premises became a recurring theme for its leadership.
The merged MPI and Concert Clinic entity saw the partners initially setting up shop for Coda in rented offices in Rivington Street in London, to cater for a founding workforce of about 15 people. But with the company enjoying exponential growth, the need for space facilitated a move to a new location in Shoreditch High Street to accommodate 40 staff, before the directors chose to purchase their next premises in Clerkenwell where the head count doubled again.
“From there, we bought our current office in Wenlock Road, and we grew in size again to about 125 people. And then Covid hit, meaning that we could have probably moved back to Rivington Street,” says Hardee.
With staffing levels in May 2022 nudging above the 80 mark again, the company hierarchy is steadily hiring new people. “To be honest, we’ve always found it quite easy to hire, until now,” says director Tom Schroeder. “We actually get approached by agents working elsewhere a lot, but from a recruitment point of view it’s all about trying to find people that can complement us… There have been some big figures over the years that we’ve said ‘no’ to because we thought it would have changed the tone… we have never been those shouty aggressive people. We simply don’t think it’s the way to do good business.”
Looking back over the past two decades, Schroeder tells IQ, “Every agent that’s come here has gone on to have the most successful years of their career – their biggest financial years, the right upward trends, signing new stuff. We like to challenge people, to try and get them out of their comfort zone in the best, positive, possible way, and I think that’s worked in our favour.”
“We’ve now been together as a board of four – Alex, me, James and Dave Hallybone – for 15-plus years, and that’s a massive strength”
Schroeder was one of the original employees of Coda, having started his career 22 years ago at MPI. “I was up in Nottingham at university, but I wanted to come back home to London, so I randomly emailed a couple of companies one day, asking if they had any jobs for a keen kid. And at that moment, MPI had literally finished a meeting where they agreed to employ a keen kid.”
Taking that chance certainly paid off for both the company and Schroeder, who a few years into his career was invited to become one of Coda’s partners. “I was starting to have some success, and I think Alex had seen that I was quite shrewd.” He notes, “Alex and I realised that we are really different to each other but that we work really well together.
“The partners at the time were Rob Challice, Clive Underhill-Smith, Alex, and Phil Banfield, and I remember promising myself that in the first partners’ meeting I would sit there and not say anything; just absorb it and then leave. But within about 90 seconds, I stood up and said, ‘What are you all doing? This is ridiculous.’ And I really enjoyed that part of it. It comes quite naturally to me.
“We’ve now been together as a board of four – Alex, me, James [Whitting] and [financial director] Dave Hallybone – for 15-plus years, and that’s a massive strength.”
“One of the first calls I ever made was to Anton Lockwood at DHP, and he asked me if the band I was pitching would bring in their own backline, and I had to hand over the phone and ask a colleague what a ‘backline’ was”
For his part, Whitting tells IQ that he joined Coda in April 2003, having been an A&R exec at Polydor and then Chris Blackwell’s Palm record label. “It was my introduction to the music industry, but I found out quite early on that A&R wasn’t for me: you’d sign an act and spend ages developing them, but often you didn’t even get to release a record,” he laments.
As a result, when Clive Underhill-Smith presented him with an opportunity to join Coda, Whitting didn’t hesitate. “I jumped at it,” he says. “I loved the immediacy of the job – working with an artist, booking the show, and the show happens. There’s a beginning, middle and end to it, whereas A&R often lacked a middle and an end.”
However, he recalls that his start date at Coda – 1st April – was apt, as he had limited knowledge of the agency environment. “I was given a load of phone numbers and some CDs and [was] told to book some shows, but I didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” Whitting admits. “One of the first phone calls I ever made was to Anton Lockwood at DHP, and he asked me if the band I was pitching would bring in their own backline, and I had to put my hand over the phone and ask a colleague what ‘backline’ was.”
Despite being so green, Whitting quickly found his feet. “The first significant act I took on was Mylo, pretty early on in 2003. I really just focussed on that, and when he broke through in 2004, I quickly learned what it actually took to be an agent and what was expected of you. After that, I knew how to implement that experience into other artist careers.” And as Whitting’s success caught the eye of rival agency bosses, Hardee offered him partnership at Coda.
“I don’t believe you can be a significant agency signing global stars if you don’t have a global footprint as a company”
The ambition of Coda’s partners and staff to be able to deliver global services for clients became something of a burning topic, and quietly, senior management started looking for suitable partners with whom they could form an alliance in North America.
Says Schroeder, “I don’t believe you can be a significant agency signing global stars if you don’t have a global footprint as a company. And we made that decision a long time ago. It was then about who would those partners be. We had options, but Paradigm was about Marty Diamond and Lee Anderson and Sam Hunt and Tom Windish. That’s who we had our synergy with. And the build worked great because we both saw ourselves as the alternative agency, and to be honest, I never want that to change.”
In fact, Hardee reveals that it was Marty Diamond who first tabled the idea of an alliance.
Diamond tells IQ, “We always wanted to have an international partner, and Coda was a very natural fit because we already had shared clients and we had a shared spirit – both companies were very entrepreneurial and disruptive.”
Noting that he knew the Coda principals individually through working on various shared clients, Diamond says, “Tom, James and Alex complement each other incredibly well, with each coming at it from a different place. As an outsider looking in, it was very clear how their personalities support one another, and that is true to this day – they are thoughtful, methodical, and they balance each other. And, bottom line, they’re just really good partners. Through what has been a very trying time for our industry as a whole, they showed creative finesse and they showed dedication to the people that they work with.”
“Wasserman has the same sort of culture, certain principles that we like”
Schroeder couldn’t be happier with the choice of partners in North America. “The merger was super successful, and our growth was exponential. We were doing global signings in a different way to everyone else, and everyone was really happy.”
Hardee says, “Paradigm was very good because it was a big company in America, but they allowed us to govern ourselves, maybe with a lot more freedom than you would have with the traditional big American agencies.
“Wasserman, I think, will be a slightly different kettle of fish. They’re much bigger than Paradigm, and they will want more control of the company, and we realise that. They have 120 people working in their office in London already on the sports side, so it’s going to be a different dynamic. But as far as the agents go, the people who are at Wasserman are the same who were at Paradigm.”
He continues, “Wasserman has the same sort of culture, certain principles that we like. The difference with Casey Wasserman is that he is up there on the level of a [Michael] Rapino or an [Irving] Azoff – he’s a player in Hollywood, and we never really had anyone before who can get you into any room, which is great for the Americans and great for us when we go to LA. But it will undoubtedly be a slightly different dynamic.”
With a full year under Wasserman ownership, Diamond says the new working environment is “truly amazing.” He states, “Not only is [Wasserman] a well run, well managed company, Casey is incredibly dynamic, incredibly engaged, supportive and excited about being in the music business. Obviously, they’ve been in the music business on the brands and property side of things, but not on the talent representation side of things.”
And he reveals that the support for getting the agency business back up to speed has been unlimited. “I can’t remember the number of people that came along with us in what was a very long and convoluted journey to get to Wasserman, but we’ve hired in excess of 50 people already in the first year,” he says.
“Ultimately, it’s Alex who is the glue. We’ve worked with him for 20 years, so he must be doing something right”
The “Coda Culture”
Despite the Paradigm merger and subsequent Wasserman acquisition, many of the London office staff still refer to the “Coda culture” that they believe sets the agency apart from its peers.
“It probably originated in the early days of everyone at the company going out together and partying together, but then growing up and still having that same team spirit and non-shouty atmosphere,” opines Hardee.
“We’ve engendered a culture where anyone can ask questions, and we’ve always had open-plan offices to help with that. We’re not brain surgeons, so we want to make sure nobody gets too self-important. Sure, we have a sense of humour, but we also do a serious job. For instance, people see me as the funny guy, but I’m actually quite good at processes and putting CRMs together – I invented a thing called Task Systems that everyone uses in this company. So James is the nice friendly one that everyone loves; Tom is very much the emotive one; I’m more robotic; and Dave does all the hard work and takes none of the credit for it.”
While Coda was ahead of the game in terms of actively recruiting and developing female agents, Hardee admits it took movements like Black Lives Matter for the company to put its diversity efforts under the microscope. “It drew our attention to who we actually have at the company, but also who we do not have, and we’ve identified that situation as one of our weaknesses. So we’ve set targets and, I believe, having cut down staff numbers because of Covid and now going through a recruitment programme, we’re addressing that issue, and we’re aiming to be better.”
Agreeing that the Coda culture is very much alive and kicking, Whitting notes, “There’s a few people that have been here for over a decade, and that’s helped shape the company culture, which is forever changing. Ultimately, it’s Alex who is the glue. We’ve worked with him for 20 years, so he must be doing something right.”
“People enjoy working here; people like coming to work. That’s part of the culture that we created, and it’s something we are very proud of”
Another building block of the Coda culture is the openness encouraged by senior management, enforced by their company meetings every Tuesday, when all staff members, from accountants to reception, agents and assistants, gather to discuss every single on-sale and all final ticket sales from the previous week, as well as any other concerns.
Schroeder explains, “I believe in making a flat pyramid structure for the company, where rather than it being very difficult for staff to access the people at the top, everyone gets the chance to talk and be heard. That’s become more and more important because it’s young people who are really defining culture – their A&R is better, they understand what young people want, and those people need access to the top of the tree.”
Indeed, testament to the Coda culture is the fact that the vast majority of agents who join the company stay there.
“A couple of people have left over the years, and it’s always sad to see people go,” says Whitting. “But if they’re not happy and excited, then we wish them well to do what they want to do. People enjoy working here; people like coming to work. That’s part of the culture that we created, and it’s something we are very proud of.”
“Agents instinctively, because of ego or defence or whatever, have a tendency to blame everyone except themselves when they lose an act”
Another unique element of the Coda mindset was a piece of silverware, initially awarded to individuals for losing an act on their roster but latterly given to anyone who made any notable faux pas.
“The Shame-Up Trophy is just a really good way of getting rid of that nonsense that people have when they make a mistake,” explains Whitting. “Owning up to everything is the only way you’re going to learn and grow. It’s good when you make a mistake that people are actually there to support you rather than get on your back.” And he admits, “Ultimately, the people who have won the Shame-Up Trophy most are probably myself, Tom, and Alex.”
Schroeder agrees. “Agents instinctively, because of ego or defence or whatever, have a tendency to blame everyone except themselves when they lose an act. But there have been points in our company’s growth where we’ve lost key acts, and instead of sulking or being angry, we want everyone to learn from it because then you can start to really tackle your weaknesses and acknowledge them.”
“Me and Alex took a kicking at times – our Covid nicknames were Zoom and Doom!”
Like the entire live entertainment sector re- acting to Covid, Paradigm’s UK offices quickly shut-up shop in early 2020, sending staff home, with a number unfortunately having to be made redundant as lockdowns and restrictions ended live events globally for an unprecedented period.
But while the situation in London was bad, at the Paradigm operation in North America, where the music division was the smaller part of the Hollywood-centric entertainment empire, the pandemic was catastrophic, with hundreds of staff losing their jobs and the very future of the indie powerhouse being called into question. That situation, however, was resolved when Casey Wasserman finally agreed a deal with Paradigm owners Sam and Tom Gores, in a move that Sam Gores described as “a win for all parties.”
Looking back over recent events, Whitting says, “Losing staff was the hardest thing that we had to deal with in our 20-year history. But we’re coming out of it strongly, and while the whole market is very choppy, we’re still here, and that’s something to be very proud of.”
Schroeder says, “Me and Alex took a kicking at times – our Covid nicknames were Zoom and Doom! But I quickly knew that this wasn’t going to be a four-, six-week, three-month thing. That was the toughest bit. I was just spending the whole time as a partner going, ‘If I could just see 12 month’s time, I could plan my business,’ but we never could.”
“Even now, this market is volatile”
Nevertheless, Schroeder believes the company’s weekly meetings took on even greater significance during- and post-Covid.
“Working out how and when to go on sale; whether you’ve been forced to reschedule and when you should announce that; what levels to do upgrades, multiples etc. We want to do that as a company, and when you have either a good tour or a bad tour, or something in the middle, the key is to talk about what you’re going to do next. It’s a massively important part of what we do as a company, so our weekly meetings are invaluable.
“Even now, this market is volatile. And you can either just talk positives and discuss the excitement of the resurgence of live, or you can acknowledge the fact that there’s an awful lot of casual ticket buyers who need to be enticed back into the market.”
“There’s not a better team in the business, globally, in terms of identifying talent early and growing it”
While the live music industry was devastated by Covid, the pandemic presented Casey Wasserman with the catalyst to realise his ambition to get into the agency business.
Having completed the Paradigm US deal in May 2021, the transaction for the UK division became the worst kept secret in the live music industry. Frustratingly, the reunification of both divisions of Paradigm under the ownership of Wasserman Media Group was necessarily prolonged by the pandemic. However, the April 2022 confirmation that the London-based operation and its staff had become part of Team Wass was cause for much celebration on both sides of the Atlantic.
Looking ahead at the prospects for the reunited music division, Diamond predicts, “Continued growth and continued diversification.” He adds, “There’s not a better team in the business, globally, in terms of identifying talent early and growing it. Obviously, if you put on paper the superstar talent we collectively represent, it’s pretty impressive.
“The one thing we have found in our conversations is that there’s a hunger and desire to challenge the business, disrupt the business, grow the business. And that’s done by signing great talent – whether that’s sports talent, branding clients, or music clients – and nurturing those relationships to build superstars.”
“Casey is young; unbelievably ambitious; very, very successful; and he has an understanding of where the economics go, much beyond the music industry. So he’s going to be a massive asset”
Cheerleading the closure of the transaction, Schroeder states, “One of the very obvious weaknesses we felt we had, as Paradigm, is we didn’t have a figurehead… [Marc] Geiger at William Morris, Rob Light at CAA, these people are front and centre, whereas we lacked that. But what Wasserman does, to a level that we never imagined, is we have a figurehead in Casey Wasserman whose reach is enormous. His experience is unbelievable, the people he has access to, the doors he can open.
“Casey is young; unbelievably ambitious; very, very successful; and he has an understanding of where the economics go, much beyond the music industry. So he’s going to be a massive asset, and I feel incredibly excited having someone of that significance at the top of the tree.”
Hardee is equally enthused. “Our contemporaries are UTA, William Morris and CAA, but I still think we present our case differently. We definitely think in a more independent way, but that’s just a little point of difference that most people will see in the culture here. And that’s the same, as far as I’ve seen, at Wasserman.”
Hardee notes Wasserman’s hiring of Brent Smith as an example of the calibre of talent the company can attract. “He’s one of America’s biggest agents, representing Drake and Kendrick and Frank Ocean and having one of the biggest rosters in the world. So, there will be targets over here, too,” he states.
“In the UK, we actually took on Nick Cave and Chris Smyth, but we didn’t want to shout about it because we’d made 40 people unemployed through the pandemic, and it didn’t seem right to announce new people because it could upset the office. The bottom line is that agents like coming here, so we will be looking for new agents – no matter if they are young or old, we’re always open to conversations.”
“We’ve got some great agents coming through… You can definitely see future management material there”
Nonetheless, Hardee contends that one of Coda’s strengths was developing agents in-house, and it’s a strategy he aims to continue despite the expanded Wasserman armoury now at his disposal. “Growing people internally is the most rewarding part of the job and can produce the best agents because they carry no baggage from other places. Tom Schroeder came through the ranks, as did James Whitting, and Nick Matthews is another. We’ve also got great talent who have joined us – Cris Hearn went on holiday to Primary [Talent] and came back, Sol Parker came in, as did Geoff Meall and Clementine Bunel. But we like the education process at the company, which is only possible because we don’t sit in little silos.”
As Paradigm UK becomes the latest addition to the Team Wass family, Whitting is looking forward to the years ahead with a renewed lust for life. “We’re very excited to see what Wasserman can bring to the table,” he says. “It’s going to be interesting because of the various different areas that they’re in – their marketing with their sports and branding expertise: they align really well with what we do. And because they did not have a music department, that’s good for us, as we’re not going into a pre-existing culture. We’re kind of creating that side of the culture for Wasserman. And we’re good at culture creation.
“We’ve got some great agents coming through and people who over the pandemic have put themselves front and centre in really trying to keep things moving forward and keep things positive. You can definitely see future management material there, which is good because we don’t want to carry on doing it forever.”
“I’m completely convinced that we will have this wonderful creative bounce off the back of [Covid], and it will look like nothing we’ve seen before”
Likewise, Schroeder’s fervour for the deal is palpable. “I am buzzing,” he says. “I’ve got a young roster and the fan base is a young one – it’s like the new punk. I’m completely convinced that we will have this wonderful creative bounce off the back of [Covid], and it will look like nothing we’ve seen before. These kids don’t see colour, they don’t see gender, they don’t see sexuality, they don’t see ethnicity. They’re slightly hedonistic for the moment but with real seriousness about cultural significance and owning artists and being part of it. It’s wonderful to see.”
And he believes that the Wasserman acquisition will help fast-track some of the London office’s rising stars to levels where Coda or Paradigm may have found unattainable. “We’ve spent a lot of 2021 and 2022 talking about the need to take some risks and put some young people in really significant positions. Now we’re moving a lot of people who have put the time in and have that sort of spark and specialness about them: if they’ve got that, then why not do it now?”
For his part, Casey Wasserman says, “What’s so exciting about the acquisition here [in the UK] is their history with our US music team. The relationship I’ve built with Alex and Tom and Dave and James and the whole leadership team over the last few years is really extraordinary. I’m incredibly confident that this will be a successful business because of the trust and respect and the commonality we share, [as well as] the history they shared prior to us getting involved.”
As the company’s owner, Wasserman has some strong views on how his talent agencies should operate. “We learned early on that you cannot buy client lists,” he says. “Our job is to build a great culture and attract and retain great people. If you do those two things then the clients will come. If you sacrifice either of those two things for a client, it’s not a sustainable business.”
“I don’t believe in one-size-fits-all… If you are that talented, you should have the best people represent you, and not just because they all work in the same place”
Addressing the idea of representing clients for non-music-related activities, Wasserman pulls no punches. “If you are a musician and you want the best music agent, you are going to want to hire someone at Wasserman to manage that part of your career. If you can also act, or something else, then you should hire the best person to do that for you. I don’t believe in one-size-fits-all: everyone sells that, but it’s total [bullshit]. If you are that talented, you should have the best people represent you, and not just because they all work in the same place.”
“We want to make ourselves the best place for an agent to pursue their career for themselves and for their clients”
Joining in the celebrations for Coda’s 20th anniversary, Wasserman underlines his determination to complete the acquisition that saw the company become part of his media group.
“Coda, and the team that had built Coda for 20 years as an incredibly successful business, had unfortunately just flipped to being Paradigm shortly before the start of Covid, so the timing was brutal,” he observes. “But just like the US [Paradigm] business, they worked through an incredibly difficult situation and did that incredibly well.”
And hinting that there could be further agency acquisitions, Wasserman states, “It was always our plan to buy both [Paradigm] businesses. Because of the different shareholdings, we separated those transactions to give them both the appropriate attention and focus. But these two are the first two steps, not the last two steps, as we continue to build a global music business.
“We are competitive, so we want to represent the best clients, help them drive their careers and be incredibly relevant and influential in the music business. We are going to continue being aggressive, so as the world is coming back, the plan is to put ourselves in the best position to succeed. If we think it adds value to our business and our clients, we are going to go after it.”
Wasserman concludes, “We want to make ourselves the best place for an agent to pursue their career for themselves and for their clients. I really believe we have done that on the sports side, unequivocally, and I have no doubt we are also going to do that on the music side.”
This article originally appeared in Issue 111 of IQ Magazine.
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