With the just-closed acquisition of a Nashville mainstay, the new chief talks about taking country global and competing with the behemoths.
How an Ireland-born, London-based music industry newbie made waves in Nashville by acquiring the respected 30-year-old Bobby Roberts Company has been a hot topic in Music City since the Aug. 4 contract was signed. Bobby Roberts, a successful indie booking agent based in Nashville for 30 years and representing country stars such as Merle Haggard, John Anderson and Marty Stuart, made the deal with 47-year-old Gavin O’Reilly, worldwide CEO of The Agency Group not necessarily because he was looking to sell, but because TAG’s philosophy jibed with his own. “They run their business like a large boutique operation,” says Roberts. “They have all these offices and divisions, but it doesn’t feel corporate.”
Credit TAG founder Neil Warnock, Pink Floyd’s former agent who currently represents Dolly Parton (he opted a year ago to return to his roots and focus on representing talent), and his successor O’Reilly, who took the reins in May 2013. On only his second trip to Nashville, O’Reilly managed to sew up a deal to acquire one of the last remaining independent booking agencies in the city, immediately changing the landscape in the robust country music marketplace.
O’Reilly arrived armed with TAG’s 35-year history, during which the privately held agency grew to include a staff of more than 200 in seven offices, booking some 50,000 shows annually. Clients include The Black Keys, Deep Purple, Guns N’ Roses, Muse, Paramore, Nickelback, Wiz Khalifa, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Rush and others. But while Warnock is a well-known figure in the music business, O’Reilly remains an enigma to most in the live music arena. The son of Irish media magnate Tom O’Reilly, the junior O’Reilly, a married father of four children, most recently served as CEO/COO of Independent News & Media, a multimedia company valued at $1.8 billion.
At TAG, O’Reilly is setting his sights on expansion (“we’re looking at agencies and agents across the United States,” he says), diversification (“EDM and all of its variants are certainly core to us”), brand building (TAG hired the CEO of Dyrdek Enterprises, the urban skateboarding phenomenon) and, he tells Billboard, giving country more global exposure.
You come from a storied media background. What is something you are bringing from your experience in that world to this new-to-you -industry?
Listening. Both businesses require that you use the gifts that God gave you -- two ears and one mouth -- in the proper proportion. Both are creative industries. Both are built on the talent you have. Both respond to what the customers ultimately want -- and neither is short on opinions! And I love that, because that ultimately yields the best outcomes.
What is an aspect that has given you pause? Has there been a learning curve?
Frankly, just getting to know our roster in all of its fabulous diversity. Nearly 2,000 artists from urban and hip-hop to classical to country to the legends of rock, and all genre variations in between.
So why Nashville and why now?
Our Nashville office just marked its second anniversary and has grown quite nicely under [senior vp] Nick Meinema, and a big part of that is running [TAG’s] fairs and festivals [department]. Nick particularly wanted to become more ingrained in the local music scene than we were, so we spent a long time looking at potential candidates, and individual agents, as well. In Bobby, here’s a guy with a great reputation, who has quietly -- and proudly -- built up a great agency. We think it gives Bobby’s clients greater exposure internationally, which is one of our strengths: provide a truly global platform.
Sounds like TAG is looking to make more acquisitions in terms of agencies moving forward.
I’m trying to expand our musical genres. For example, we just opened an office in Miami by acquiring an agent [Jeremy Norkin] who had his own [Norkin Talent Agency] there, chiefly because we do a lot out of America into Central and South America and we wanted to give our roster better representation in those markets. But also, there is a huge Latino market and, in my analysis, it didn’t look like it was getting the proper care and attention it deserves, because there is enormous potential there.
Neil Warnock’s model was based on volume, with a heavy emphasis on artist development and having an international footprint. How have you revamped the strategy?
If anything, we’re accelerating the pace of development. The way The Agency Group has been built up is … the bulk of our business in the United States is not based on territories, rather, we base it on responsible agents. We think our artists deserve that, and our artists are happy with it. We’re continuing the philosophy and the legacy that Neil has imbued in the organization, and, of course, Neil is still very actively involved in the business. He’s our highest-grossing agent.
In terms of roster size, TAG is comparable to an agency like Paradigm. But how do you compete with the Creative Artist Agencys and William Morris Endeavors of the world?
We have associations with some of the other major talent agencies in TV and film. These are areas that we’re looking to expand, but we want to make sure we do it in the right way at the right time. Our immediate focus is concentrating on the music side for our artists, and then giving them the other revenue opportunities in branding and endorsements.
So what do you think this all means for agencies?
Things are cyclical. I’m sure in 10 years’ time you’ll see a whole bunch of boutiques sprouting up focusing just on music. It’s a bit like the financial services market -- when it was deregulated all those years ago, the Morgan Stanleys and Merrill Lynches had to be across everything. Now people are coming back to boutiques. The dynamics of the live music industry are so positive at this stage because it’s very difficult for artists to earn from the old, traditional publishing and record deals. Live music is ultimately what Joe Public wants, but it’s also what the bands want, and we’re in a position to deliver what’s best for our artists.