Rob Light from CAA speaks to Billboard's Ray Waddell at the Billboard Country Music Summit Monday. (Photo: Michael Seto)
Possessing a cautious optimism forged by years of experience, Creative Artist Agency partner/managing director Rob Light shared his thoughts on the state of the touring business in the closing session of Billboard's Country Music Summit on Monday. In a conversation with Billboard's Ray Waddell, Light discussed his views on the role of agents, the current touring climate and what the country community does right.
The conversation began with a brief look at CAA's 20-year history in Nashville. Light confessed that he "fought having a presence in Nashville for a long time" because CAA was known for being family and team oriented and he couldn't imagine duplicating that culture with a satellite office in Nashville.
All that changed when they were introduced to the late Ron Baird, who opened the Nashville office and was joined by John Huie and Rod Essig. "We always knew Nashville was important and having a footprint here was important," he says, "but we had to find the right people."
CAA's country roster currently includes Alan Jackson, Brantley Gilbert, Carrie Underwood, Edens Edge and Keith Urban, among others.
When Waddell asked Light why live music didn't adapt to conditions during the economic downturn and what led to the rebound, Light responded, "The downturn was more than just the economy. It was a multitude of factors coming together in one great wave. As record sales dropped dramatically, artists only had one place to make money and that was on the road. So you had a proliferation of artists staying out on the road much more and much longer than they ever had in the past. So you had a soft economy and people staying out when they should have taken time off."
Light says country acts weren't the only ones guilty. "The genre that really oversaturated the tour marketplace was heritage rock," he says. "You had all these bands from the 60s and 70s who were no longer making record royalties or publishing royalties, but still have to pay the mortgage like you and I, so they never go home. That's a great thing for an agency, and it's been great for us, but for a business that only has so much bandwidth and for an audience that's now distracted by a multitude of other inputs, music felt the push and that's why packaging has become so prevalent over the last couple of years."
Light said managers and agents were feeling the pinch as record royalties declined and began raising ticket prices. As prices escalated, Light said it's not unusual for an evening to cost a couple $200 and therefore they could probably only go out a couple times a year. "Country has done better than any genre at being really sensitive to ticket prices and packaging and allowing the consumer to go out three, four, five or six times a year because they are getting value and can afford to go," he says. "Other genres of music just push the envelope way too far."
He also attributed part of the rebound to Live Nation. "Part of the rebound, specifically in the summer, is that Live Nation has bought less," he says. "They've been much more strategic about what they buy and really smart about how they package."
Though the business is looking rosy right now, Light is cautious. "I don't think the rebound -- just like our economy -- is incredibly flush," he says. "I actually think we're gonna have some real dips and curves over the next couple of years."
Light said Europe is having a tough time due to economic conditions and because of the oversaturation of festivals. "There's a great lesson to be learned by what's going on over in Europe," he says. "I also think it's an opportunity for country to expand in Europe. For country to stay healthy, you need to expand beyond the 48 states."
Light cautioned against people becoming cocky and raising prices again. When Waddell asked him if he'd ever advised his acts take less money, he replied, "All the time," and said they are always in discussions with their artists, adding, "To continue to tour without perspective or game plan is a recipe for disaster."
On the subject of festivals, Light isn't convinced they provide artists an opportunity to win. "What is the goal?" he says. "I'm hard pressed to find a band that goes out at noon in 100 degree heat and scores. We'll find out after Bonnaroo."
Though he says he loves festivals and the communal feeling they provide, he encouraged acts to have a plan and ask themselves: "When are we coming back? How do we talk to that audience we just saw? How do we come back and play a bigger stage?"
Light continued to spotlight what the country music community does right by telling the audience that "Country packages better than anybody" and country artists provide great experiences for the fans.
When the discussion turned to country radio, Light says he'd like to see changes, commenting that country radio moves too slow making it hard to break new acts when singles are taking 35 to 30 weeks to climb the charts. He also says the country community has been slower to embrace digital opportunities. "Not because you don't understand, but because radio is such a powerful tool," he says. "When you see Pinterest or any of these things pop up, you need to be on it."
In commenting on the evolving role of an agent, Light says agents need to be an "extension of the manager" and says the opportunities CAA can provide in film, TV, sports and sponsorships are key to their success. "We have reach in places that a lot of people don't," he says.
Asked to peer into a crystal ball and predict the future, Light says, "No one knows what the future will hold, but people will always love music. . . Music will be here. How we will sell it and how we'll consume it, I have no idea."