From the Desk of Brent Smith: Agent Behind Drake & Frank Ocean on Rap's Arena Touring Power
Though some may think of him as a hip-hop rainmaker, Brent Smith, 51, has one of the most diverse agency rosters in music today. Among his clients is 2016’s biggest star, Drake, whose Views has topped the Billboard 200 for 12 nonconsecutive weeks; R&B game-changer Frank Ocean; the reunited Soundgarden/Pearl Jam supergroup Temple of the Dog; and critically adored electro crooner James Blake alongside rap titans Snoop Dogg -- with whom he has worked for two decades -- Tyler, the Creator, Wiz Khalifa, ASAP Rocky, Big Sean and Cat Stevens.
Smith’s business acumen has been honed during the course of a 22-year career, but it might never have led to a job at William Morris Endeavor in Los Angeles without a very different skill: "foosball -- the only thing I learned in college," cracks Smith. Indeed, his prowess at the table-soccer game one inebriated night inadvertently helped convince the late agent Ian Copeland (brother of both Police drummer Stewart Copeland and manager Miles) to give Smith a shot at his Frontier Booking International.
With a slew of top-tier acts, including Iggy Pop, Nine Inch Nails, The Cure, Morrissey, R.E.M. and most significantly Sting, the future agent -- now a married father of two -- got a "grad school" education with Copeland that led to where he is today.
Billboard: What’s the biggest challenge staging Drake's Summer Sixteen Tour?
Brent Smith: The real answer is not to f— it up. You can look at the Drake tour and say, "Wow, 60 arenas blew out in an hour," but [Drake managers Future the Prince and Oliver El-Khatib] and I worked on that for eight months, debating every nuance about which city, venue, support ... So by the time it rolled out, it looked easy. But the amount of labor the Drake camp put into making it perfect is enormous. Drake had this creative vision for the show and he’s always trying to give the audience something that is one step above.
Why isn't he playing stadiums?
Because he believes the stadium experience is a bad experience for fans. Will there come a time when he thinks that creatively he can make it work? Maybe.
What else are you working on now?
The Snoop and Wiz tour is crushing it right now, and is one of the summer's bigger amphitheater tours. We went on sale last week, with Temple of the Dog and it sold out instantly. We sold out the Garden in fourteen minutes and The Forum was the same—that's fun because it's such a historic project. We announced Cat Stevens yesterday, it's only his second trip to North America since the 1970s and it's the 50th anniversary of his first commercial release. It's an acoustic tour and we're doing underplays, but we'll do a double Beacon and a double Pantages here.
Your roster, while heavy on hip-hop, seems a bit all over the place, are there any threads of continuity?
They're all incredible story tellers, no mater if it's Chris Cornell—"I don't mind stealing bread from the mouth of decadence;" [Cat Stevens] "From the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen;" or [Snoop Dogg] "It ain't no fun if the homies can't have none" -- they are all insane story tellers .
Is it more efficient for an agent to work within one genre?
It can be advantageous to be pigeon holed in a single genre because for whatever reason it begets momentum. I get calls because I represent Snoop or Drake or Frank [Ocean] but that's not anything that interests me. The first time I heard James Blake I'm like I have to sign this guy.
How did that happen?
Somebody brought him up at a meeting and I put it on and was floored. I think he's gifted beyond words and I love being a part of his team. The fortunate thing was we had put him on Drake's OVO, Festival in Toronto and I got to meet Dan [Foat, his manager] and James. They were in this position where they were making a transition and conversations started and that's how it happened. His new album is just insanely fantastic and he's moved up into Radio City Music Hall and doing a double Palladium in Los Angeles.
How did you get into promoting bands?
I started promoting in college in Portland, Maine but it had less to do with the music and more about the fact that we had free alcohol at parities.
How did you get from booking cover bands in Portland to working with Sting?
I went to New York City and interviewed with everybody I could. I actually wanted to intern at William Morris and they turned me down. Let's put that into perspective: they didn't think i was qualified to open mail. Which I love to bring up to the powers that be every now and then. I interviewed with this guy named Ian Copeland and he had the best of all possible traits in this business: He was insanely passionate about music — if he liked a song he would play it 20 times in a row — incredibly intelligent and good to everybody. He never turned into that cliché of an agent. You'd go to a concert and if he was having a party at his house afterward he'd invite everybody--the singer but also the driver, the runner, the roadies...
What did you learn from him?
Work your ass off, but don't ever lose the plot, people aren't dying on an operating table. There's no reason not to do your job with dignity. Be good to people and love music
Who did you work on his roster?
Squeeze, the Buzzcocks, but the big one was Sting, he was Ian's marquee client when he was on fire. He had just released Ten Summoner's Tales and was a big arena artist and that was my grad school. Sting is incredibly hard working and surrounds himself with amazing people who have zero tolerance for anyone who didn't work at their speed. He was managed by Miles and the late Kim Turner and they were brilliant; Billy Francis is still his tour manager; and the "Goon," Michael McGinley, a famous tour accountant and advisor.
What did you learn at the Sting bootcamp?
All the boring shit. I can tell you every aspect of every type of deal on the planet, whether its a promoter profit deal or a net deal, what matters more the facility fees or ticket fees, the difference between net or gross advertising. He also had the best attorney at the time Chris Burley. He was all about splitting contracts on international to save taxes.
What did you do after Copeland quit the agency business?
My first big signing in 1997 was Snoop. I signed him and then took what i was taught and went from there.
Snoop was the first rapper you worked with, did you connect right away with him?
Literally ten minutes into our first conversation it was like, "Oh we need to work together." He also didn't come from money and everything was a struggle which is something I'm very familiar with. He and I always joke that we both grew up on government cheese.
What have you learned from working with him for over two decades?
Snoop is an anomaly. People always wonder how he's been able to do so many different things: he's a gangster rapper who's done car commercials with Lee Iacocca. He'll go to the Super Bowl and do a Budweiser party and the next night do a bar mitzvah-- he crosses all genres. It's because he's authentic, he never pretends to be anybody other than himself. While Sting taught me the foundation, Snoop took it to the next level with heart and authenticity and that's when the whole thing went to the next level.
How did you end up at WME
[The late] Peter Grosslight and John Marx recruited me and I connected with both instantly. I was, looking for a place to continue learning and where I could have freedom. They were both really supportive, but it was like now you've made it to the big leagues go figure it out.
What are some of the tent poles in your career at WME?
The majority of core business that I do is touring but the infrastructure here is unlike any other. It's a real collective and we have experts in each field. The Odd Future Carnival, for example, which we did with Tyler. The very first meeting I asked what excites him, and he goes, "What do you know about carnivals?" And I said, "I don't know anything about Carnivals. And then he went on this 20 minute rampage describing the carnival in crazy detail about the gates and paint colors and rides -- he was focused on the zipper. Then we all confessed that nobody in the room knew anything about carnivals but we would try as a group with Chris Clancy, Kelly Clancy, Tyler, Kevin Shivers, myself and Dave Wirtschafter -- to figure it out. The first year did 2,000 people at Club Nokia with some janky rides out front. Then we went to 8,000 tickets, 14,000 tickets, and last year we sold out 30,000. And now this year we're gonna do 50,000 people .
What do you consider the greatest success of your career?
There's so many but there's one that always comes to mind: the Snoop-Dr.-Dre Coachella which was next level in every capacity. I got a call at 2:00 p.m. the Friday before the Monday that Coachella was announcing its line-up on. It was Paul Tollett from Golden Voice .Black Sabbath had canceled and we had had a conversation several months earlier about Snoop and Dr. Dre. He called and asked if there was any possible chance of resurrecting the bill. I had no idea but I hung up and emailed everybody on their teams including Dre, Snoop, lawyers and Jimmy [Iovine] and said, "Hey this opportunity came up, thoughts?" I had a couple of I don't knows and then Dre emails " This sounds interesting." And from that moment on it was like, "Okay, we have him on the hook." Two days later we all meet at Jimmy Iovine's house with everybody--Snoop, Dre, I bring Paul and we literally sit in Jimmy's house. We agreed on everything as a group and I remember Dr. Dre going, "You know what? Fucking let's do this" and it blew my mind.
What is your business philosophy?
You know that expression “It’s not personal, it’s business”? I never understood that, ever. Everything I do is personal.
An amended version of this article was originally published in the Sept. 3 issue of Billboard.