WME Co-CEO Patrick Whitesell Talks Strategy, Social, EDM, AEG, More at IEBA Conference
WME Co-CEO Patrick Whitesell Talks Strategy, Social, EDM, AEG, More at IEBA Conference

At the International Entertainment Buyers Assn. (IEBA) convention in Nashville Monday, from left: Greg Oswald, co-head, Nashville office, William Morris Endeavor Entertainment; Patrick Whitesell, co-CEO, WME; Bill Werde, editorial director, Billboard; Rob Beckham, co-head, Nashville office, WME; and Ray Waddell, executive director of content and programming, Touring & Live Entertainment, Billboard.

Patrick Whitesell, co-CEO of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, said that content is king in the digital age, and the value of live content puts not only WME but the entire touring business in a sweet spot. Whitesell was interviewed by Billboard Editorial Director Bill Werde Monday as part of the International Entertainment Buyers Assn. (IEBA) convention in Nashville this week.

"We have been the beneficiaries of technological change and the changes in [content] distribution," Whitesell said. "Those who create content are more important in the conversation, and content-premium content-has more value. So the challenge becomes: How do you stay in front of that and offer more services for the creators of content? In music, that's touring. So then it becomes: How do you take that conversation and turn it into 365 days a year, extend the brand and the experience? That's fun for us as agents to be part of."

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To support the increased importance placed on digital marketing and social media, WME has built up its digital team to 20 people in Los Angeles, Nashville and London. Social media "comes naturally for some [clients], others feel it is an extension of the tabloids, a narration of their life that they're not involved in," Whitesell said. "[Artists] have to be on the social grid somehow. We have to help them get their arms around it, get a plan. [Social] is the best way to talk to fans when you're selling a ticket." By and large, Whitesell said, "music artists in general are much more knowledgeable and willing to embrace changes in technology than are some of our other clients."

Whitesell also spoke about the growth of branding and sponsorships around music, artists and tours. "Brands love it if they can get around an artist or song that hits [people] emotionally," he said. "We're in conversations with brands worldwide for a variety of artists every day.

And while "TV is still the place to grab the most eyeballs," Web trends are creating an environment where acts with no record deals, television exposure, or airplay can sell out at the arena level. "Advertisers are seeing that," Whitesell said. "If brands can find a voice that matches them and the artist embraces it, they can find a way that would serve them that doesn't feel like a sellout to the artists and has dramatic impact for the brand."

Whitesell and Werde discussed the growth of electronic dance music at length. The explosion of EDM into the mainstream "was initially surprising to me," Whitesell admitted. "How I anticipated the trend was from our agents, the people on the streets and in the clubs, who were telling me, 'EDM is going to become pop music.' I was stunned. We leaned into it and made that bet, and it has paid off for us. I do think it's here to stay."

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EDM's underground roots and the fact that it's "a little rebellious" plays into its success, Whitesell believes. "Most people my age don't get it, and obviously the fact that you can't find it on the radio plays into it," he said. "When that changes and a 55 year-old man is listening to Skrillex, we'll see. It has to be this generation's music, something that their parents don't get."

EDM is an international phenomenon, but international exposure is a "big growth area for all types of music," not just EDM and pop, Whitesell pointed out. "We're seeing it with country in parts of Europe. Our people that book tours out of London are spending a lot of time in Nashville finding out what artists would work."

Part of the growth in international touring is due to a mature North American market, as Werde pointed out, but "part of it is people have to tour more to replace income from record [sales]. It used to be an act didn't have to tour for three or four years if they didn't want to, now we have a generation of bands that say, 'We tour.'"

Regarding recent news that sports and entertainment giant Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), and its promoter division AEG Live, are on the block, Werde asked if Whitesell thought the sale of AEG would change the marketplace.

"It depends on who buys it - if it stays together, things wouldn't change that much," Whitesell said, adding that AEG's timing was good insofar as the current health of sports and live entertainment. "For us, AEG being a healthy buyer a good thing. What is interesting is that buyers from different parts of the ecosystem are coming at it."

In the artist-development realm, country music is in many ways leading the way in developing headlining talent, including WME's Nashville office, which has most recently helped elevate artists like Miranda Lambert, Eric Church and Luke Bryan to the top of the ticket. "I give all credit to the agents," Whitesell said, "particularly in music. Ears still matter. We go to the agents, and it's about betting on their judgment."

William Morris and Endeavor merged in 2009, and Werde asked Whitesell if the industry could expect more consolidation on the agency front. "I don't," Whitesell responded. "The primary reason we did it was to was to create more opportunities for our clients."

Whitesell concluded that the primary ongoing strategic objective for WME is centered around, "content, advertising, and distribution, and how we marry all that."