Rob Prinz, ICM Partners Co-Head of Worldwide Concerts, on Bringing Celine Dion to Vegas and 'Discovering' Madonna

Daniel Hennessey
Autographed plaque from former client Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band. Boxing glove signed by former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson.

Just over a year ago, Rob Prinz sent a ripple through the agency ranks when he and fellow agent/wife Nikki Wheeler bolted from United Talent Agency -- whose music department the two co-founded in 2001 -- to join Steve Levine at ICM Partners, overseeing the company’s growing concerts department. Making the move with them were several longtime acts, including Celine Dion, Bob Seger and Jerry Seinfeld.

Prinz, Mark Siegel and Levine now lead a team of 35 agents in New York and Los Angeles, booking more than 400 clients such as Kendrick Lamar, Mary J. Blige, Nicki Minaj, J. Cole, Barry Gibb, Fifth Harmony, Charlie Wilson, Kamasi Washington and Kristin Chenoweth. The department also oversees the touring business of many top comedians, including Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Ellen Degeneres and Jay Leno, and in the past year has enjoyed double-digit growth in bookings and a 30 percent increase in revenue.

Prinz, 58, lives in Los Angeles with Wheeler, his wife of six years -- the two have worked together for 18 years and been married for six (“The dynamic is actually really good,” he says) -- and their twin 5-year-old sons; he also has a 19-year-old son. Prinz began his career with current Artist Group International chief Dennis Arfa, handling the touring career of Billy Joel, before joining the William Morris Agency in New York. He swapped coasts in 1989 to join Creative Artists Agency in Los Angeles, heading up its international booking unit. At UTA, Prinz represented Dion in her blockbuster residency deal at the purpose-built Colosseum at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas -- a booking that, to date, has totaled $552,823,200 in ticket sales to 976 shows, according to Billboard Boxscore. Along the way, he also has worked with Stevie Wonder, Barbra Streisand and Bon Jovi -- and is credited with championing Madonna in her early years.

Billboard: What prompted your move to ICM after 14 years at UTA?
Rob Prinz: The diversity of the roster and the group of agents and personalities here. This roster had tremendous depth in comedy and urban, but they had a lot of pop and rock, too. The music group really seemed to be at a point where it was starting to blow up, and I was asked to come in and see if I could bring added value and seniority. The diversity was amazing, but I found the team wasn’t taking full advantage of that diversity.

You started at ICM in April 2015. Then, in August, UTA announced it would acquire The Agency Group. Was that in the works before you left?
It was actually a deal that we looked at while I was [at UTA], and the agency at the time didn’t find it attractive. That, perhaps, was part of my reason for looking to make a move. There had been a number of opportunities, both to acquire agents and/or agencies, that I was a proponent of that the company didn’t want to move on. When we left, they maybe felt a need they didn’t have before, and perhaps that’s what led to that move. But that had nothing to do with my decision to leave.

The agency wars have been heating up of late, not just in the music space. Is a jump to another firm always financially motivated?
None of my [moves] have been. For me, it’s always about trying to reach higher; do something new, interesting, different; grow. When [CAA co-founder] Mike Ovitz approached me to leave William Morris and move to L.A., it felt like the right opportunity. For others, it may be mostly financially motivated, but also, every eight to 10 years there’s this sort of seismic shift ... Like all the chess pieces [get] thrown up in the air and reset. And it’s not over.

What’s the process of telling longtime clients that you’re moving to a new agency?
That’s always the trickiest part, because you’re forcing your clients to make a decision. You always hope for the best, but until you have their blessing, you don’t -- at least I would never -- take it for granted. I was fortunate enough to mostly have clients who were loyal and felt positive enough about the relationship to say, “We don’t care where you are, we’ll go with you.”

In the agency business, it does seem that, genre-wise, people tend to work in silos. Why is that important?
We work in a melting pot of a business: A guy that has been known forever as a rock manager suddenly will be managing an urban act or vice versa. There’s so much crossover. The smart executives in this business are attracted to quality artists, regardless of genre.

When you launched the Dion residency at Caesars Palace, did you realize you were changing the business?
I give the majority, if not all, of the credit to Rene Angelil, her husband and manager [who died of throat cancer in January], who was a brilliant strategist. It was his vision that started it, but I don’t think that even he would have envisioned this. Before she started her residency, Las Vegas was a bit of an elephants’ graveyard for artists -- they went there to die. I know the people at AEG and Caesars would tell you a lot of people thought they were crazy to make that deal and build that room. Now everybody wants a residency in Vegas. It’s unbelievable how that artist and that deal transformed the entire marketplace.

If I see a gap in UTA’s roster, it’s probably in country music. Are you seeking opportunities there?
We’re looking for it -- find us an agent that wants to make a move and we’ll open an office tomorrow. We’ve been hit with a couple of options and opportunities, but we haven’t found the right company or person with the right group of clients that makes sense. We’re also looking at the U.K. as a potential market for expansion.

Legend has it that you “discovered” Madonna. What’s the story there?
I stumbled across her in a club on Long Island in New York in 1979. I had just started working in the music business and was out for a drink with a friend -- I had no idea there would be live music -- and this girl started singing. There were maybe 10 people in the room, leaning against the back wall, and she said, “Hey, you assholes! Get your hands off your dicks and get up to the stage!” And everyone obeyed her -- she had total command of the room. So I went backstage and introduced myself, and we started working together. I started to shop her music -- everybody passed. Then she said, “I’m going to take a break and change my sound.” We lost touch and by coincidence I ran into her on the street about two years later. I was working at William Morris, and she said, “I’ve got new music. Can I come up to your office and play it?” -- it was more-dance-oriented stuff -- and the rest of the story is well-known. We started working together again. I was able to help find her Desperately Seeking Susan.

What has changed most in the live industry then to now?
Touring is now the bread and butter. When I started, the live business was the caboose on the train of the music world. Now, the live side is the locomotive of that train, and everything else gets pulled along. If you’re not selling tickets and making money on the road, then you may not have a career to support your lifestyle. 

Are you looking for the next Madonna?
As an agent, you’re always looking for somebody who moves you like that. Recently, I started working with this artist named Yuna -- a very different type of artist, a Malaysian artist signed to Verve. You never stop listening, never stop looking -- because you never know when the next one is coming along.

This article first appeared in the May 14 issue of Billboard.