Creative Artists Agency's Music Department: 35 Years of Igniting Stars
During the week of Dec. 9, Stevie Wonder headlined his annual House Full of Toys benefit concert at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, while on the opposite coast, Bruce Springsteen began the final week of his acclaimed run on Broadway, just days ahead of the release of a Netflix special adapted from his one-man show.
Across the Atlantic, Def Leppard rocked a homecoming show in Sheffield, England, on the U.K. leg of a tour that, earlier that year, had packed North American amphitheaters on a joint bill with Journey. In India, Beyoncé played a private wedding and Instagrammed herself in a red-and-gold dress and gold headpiece. Back across the Pacific Ocean, the Eagles had packed Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, ahead of a 2019 tour of New Zealand and Australia.
The sun never sets on the clients of Creative Artists Agency.
CAA’s music division marks its 35th anniversary in January -- a milestone that comes in the wake of its recognition as agency of the year at the Billboard Live Music Awards last November. The honor reflects the agency’s representation of over 190 music-division clients who rank as headliners at theaters, arenas, amphitheaters or stadiums, including, outside of North America, Ed Sheeran, Billboard’s No. 1 touring artist of 2018. (Paradigm Talent Agency books Sheeran within North America.)
Rob Light, who has worked for CAA since 1984 and led its music division for 20 years, attributes the agency’s success to a culture of collaboration, among not only its music agents but agents in all departments who work together instead of in silos. The goal is to serve its clients in any artistic endeavor, whether it be soundtracks, theater, film, TV, books, endorsements or even video games. “There’s no CAA without all these people who are hungry and inspired,” says Light. “I’ve just been blessed to sit in this chair.”
In 2018, artists represented by CAA generated nearly $5 billion in revenue, according to the agency. CAA’s roster includes a stable of veteran road warriors who have been with the agency for years (if not decades), such as Bon Jovi, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, Jackson Browne and James Taylor. Its roster of current pop stars includes Ariana Grande, Cardi B, twenty one pilots, Future, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, The Chainsmokers, Leon Bridges, Dua Lipa and SZA.
19 BRAINS ARE BETTER THAN ONE
Light’s leadership team includes Darryl Eaton, Mitch Rose and Rick Roskin, co-heads of contemporary music for North America. Each of the four has been at the agency nearly three decades or longer, and many of their colleagues also have spent their entire careers at CAA -- a level of longevity and stability atypical of the music industry.
Rose emphasizes that the talent among CAA’s agents goes far deeper than senior staff. “If you’re a baseball fan, the 1927 Yankees were the greatest team of all time. From the leadoff hitter to the ninth, everybody was a superstar,” he says. “I often compare us to the ’27 Yankees.”
Says Eaton: “The bit that two brains are better than one is absolutely true, [and] we’ve got 19 brains on any project. Yes, you will have a point person that’s quarterbacking the team. But we bring the group mentality to really push the client’s game [forward].”
Adds Roskin: “Our culture separates us from our competition. We practice what we preach, we share information, we share intelligence. And ultimately, we’re passionate, we’re tenacious, and we bring all this energy to work on behalf of the artists that we represent.”
When Mike Ovitz, Ron Meyer, Bill Haber, Michael Rosenfeld and Rowland Perkins founded CAA in 1975, the agency focused solely on the film and TV industries. Eight years later, near the end of 1983, it poached veteran Tom Ross from rival ICM to start a music division.
Ovitz “taught me more than I had known and thought of in 20 years [at ICM],” recalls Ross, who learned CAA’s strategy of consulting with the entire team surrounding a star, so everyone involved was already sold when it came to presenting ideas to the artist.
“The model of how CAA would ‘gang-tackle’ clients and overwhelm them [with ideas and support] was pretty fascinating,” he says.
In CAA’s buttoned-down culture, however, the sartorially flamboyant Ross stood out. “Mike hated the fact that my corporate look was wearing a Hawaiian shirt,” recalls Ross, who agreed -- temporarily, as it turned out -- to adopt more formal business attire.
Light had been working under Ross in ICM’s New York office and had just moved to Los Angeles when Ross took the CAA job. Still technically under contract to ICM, Ross was prohibited from contacting any of the agents at his former place of employment, so Ovitz reached out directly to Light to lure him to CAA as well. Although Ovitz was well on his way to becoming one of the most powerful people in Hollywood, Light says he had no idea who the CAA partner was when he saw the pink message slip on his desk requesting a callback. “I literally walk in the hallway and go, ‘Anybody ever heard of a Mike Ovitz?’” Light recalls asking. He and ICM’s Hal Lazareff soon joined Ross to launch CAA’s music division.
“Tom said to me, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to change the world,’” says Light. “I remember saying, ‘In suits and ties?’ ‘Yeah, in suits and ties.’ And off I went.”
The business wear didn’t last long once CAA’s music department officially opened in 1984.
“Martha Davis from The Motels comes in [for] a pitch meeting,” remembers Light. “After about 15 minutes, she says, ‘You guys look so uncomfortable. I can’t be with a guy who wears suits and ties. You’re in the rock business.’ Tom grabs her hand and walks her down the hallway to Mike Ovitz. She says, ‘I can’t sign with anybody in a suit and tie. These guys are rock agents, they need to look like rock agents.’ [That was the] last time we ever wore a suit and tie.”
Within six weeks of launch, Ross and his team were already working with Rick Springfield, the band America and other acts that had followed the former ICM agents to CAA. Ross brought Prince to the agency ahead of the release of his film Purple Rain, and CAA’s work on the singer’s movie, soundtrack and tour proved to be calling cards for other musicians with broad ambitions beyond playing concerts.
The agency’s divisional integration remains key to CAA’s success today. “Part of the agent’s role is dream weaver,” says Ross, who voluntarily left CAA in 1998 and stepped away from the agency business. “If you hear [an artist saying], ‘I want to do something like this,’ you better find a way because someone else will.”
The agency, which has represented Kelly Clarkson since she won the first season of American Idol in 2002, helped her move into TV with an NBC deal that includes judging on The Voice and into publishing with children’s books inspired by her daughter, River Rose. CAA connected rapper Logic with director J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot production company, which is developing the film Everything Must Go from a script that the rapper co-wrote. Harry Styles was cast in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk with CAA’s help, and Gaga achieved the most acclaimed music-to-movie crossover of 2018 with A Star Is Born. One reason that project happened, says Light, was “because my CAA partner Bryan Lourd [put] Bradley Cooper and [Gaga] in a room together and said, ‘You need to meet each other.’ That’s what an agent does.”
THE ’80s AND ’90s: WINS AND A STAGGERING LOSS
Throughout the 1980s, CAA’s music division fine-tuned and built upon the model for national concert tours that Premier Talent founder Frank Barsalona -- who represented The Who, The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Springsteen -- established in the ’60s and ’70s. The department continued to grow and expanded further into rock with such acts as AC/DC and brought on more agents, including Carole Kinzel, the late Mike Piranian and the late Bobby Brooks. Brooks died in a 1990 helicopter crash with Stevie Ray Vaughan following a concert in Wisconsin by Vaughan and Brooks’ client, Clapton. “We were beside ourselves. He was our brother. He was the backbone,” says Ross.
In 1991, CAA opened its Nashville office. Although the agency already represented Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam and Dolly Parton, many country artists were still booked by Nashville-based boutique agencies devoted solely to the genre. Bill Ham, manager of CAA rock client ZZ Top, was also managing then-rising country superstar Clint Black and convinced CAA of the need to be in Nashville. The agency hired Ron Baird and John Huie -- and they ran CAA’s Nashville operation out of Baird’s spare bedroom for the first eight months until Ross could convince Ovitz of the necessity for a Nashville office. Rod Essig joined CAA shortly afterward, and he and Huie continue to guide the Nashville operation to this day, in partnership with Marc Dennis, Brian Manning and Darin Murphy, co-heads of CAA Nashville.
CAA Nashville has since grown to represent many of the top names in country, including Carrie Underwood, Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, Shania Twain, Luke Combs and Maren Morris, and as Music City has evolved to reflect a more diverse musical scene, the division has added such acts as Styles, twenty one pilots, Bridges, Niall Horan, Meghan Trainor, 5 Seconds of Summer, GRiZ and Cheat Codes. Its 2018 bookings reflected a 10 percent increase over the previous year.
To oversee bookings abroad, Chris Dalston launched the international department of CAA in 1995. Dalston and fellow agent (and spouse) Marlene Tsuchii still direct CAA’s bookings outside North America from the office in Los Angeles in collaboration with the London-based team under Mike Greek and Emma Banks. Their work with agent Jon Ollier on behalf of Sheeran helped the singer lead Billboard’s 2018 Top Tours chart with performances from Australia to Japan and Europe to South Africa, where in December he co-headlined Global Citizen’s Mandela 100 festival with Beyoncé and Jay-Z.
MARKETING, SPONSORSHIPS AND PRIVATE EVENTS
In November 1998, one week after Ross marked his 30th anniversary as an agent, he decided to leave CAA and the agency business. “Tom was a visionary,” says Light, who took over as division head. “He built this department. The culture that we have and the way we operate was [from] him. We’re obviously much bigger today. But it’s because I had an incredible foundation.”
Light wasted no time in expanding operations in several areas. As record companies cut artist-development budgets, he saw an opportunity to offer marketing services to clients. In 1999, he hired Alli McGregor to work with managers, labels and promoters on advertising plans and other initiatives. The marketing department has since grown to 11 people.
The same year, Light launched a private-events and corporate-bookings department. “I had gotten a request for a client to do a date for a bank,” recalls Light, who, after determining that the artist was already booked, told the caller, “He’s not available, sorry.” Shortly after hanging up, Light says he realized, “Why didn’t I try to transition that to another artist?” At the time, CAA’s music division was generating $6 million a year in private events. He hired Robert Norman to oversee the department and told him, “Your job is to seduce and court every private-event buyer in the country so we’re their first call and they don’t leave without an artist.” In 2018, CAA did $182 million in private events and corporate bookings.
As opportunities for artists to work with consumer brands increased, CAA’s music division in 2002 launched a sponsorships department (now called music brand partnerships). Under Tom Worcester, the department closed over 260 deals in 2018, generating more than $56 million in additional revenue for clients.
CAA recognized the rising importance of Latin music in 2013 when it hired Bruno del Granado, who had previously helped manage Ricky Martin, to grow the agency’s Hispanic bookings in the United States and Latin America. The agency opened its permanent Miami office three years later.
ARTIST DEVELOPMENT AND A DEEP BENCH
While CAA boasts an enviable roster of superstars, Light points out that the agency has signed over 90 acts before their first record came out. Many of those have gone on to become superstars themselves, including Maroon 5, Lorde, Katy Perry, One Direction, Radiohead, Urban, Underwood and Grande.
CAA booked Maggie Rogers for the fourth episode of Saturday Night Live in 2018 -- one of seven SNL shows featuring CAA clients as musical guests in the first nine weeks of its current season. Rogers’ appearance came before the release of her first full-length album, Heard It in a Past Life, on Jan. 18.
Yet, as much pride as Light takes in the artist roster, he gives equal praise to his agent roster and CAA’s legacy of nurturing talent from within, including his co-leaders Eaton, Rose and Roskin -- each of whom started at CAA working in the mailroom.
“I don’t think you can duplicate this anywhere else,” says Light. “It’s cultural. It’s not bricks and mortar. I believe -- and it’s not false modesty -- that if I left tomorrow and Darryl Eaton were sitting here or Mitch Rose or Rick Roskin or Emma Banks” -- or any of the experienced members on CAA’s deep bench -- “this place would keep humming. Because we built it in a way that that’s what it’s supposed to be. It’s a very special place.”
-- MELINDA NEWMAN
“Those guys who wear the white hats”
Shania Twain, who ranked among the top touring artists of 2018, according to Billboard Boxscore, was only one of the recent success stories of CAA’s Nashville office, which also helped attain achievements in the past year for country, rock, pop, EDM and R&B clients including Kelsea Ballerini, Leon Bridges, Luke Combs, Dan + Shay, Brett Eldredge, Midland, twenty one pilots and the Zac Brown Band.
“Our most notable accomplishment, however, is the number of young agents and trainees who have been promoted and are thriving in our system,” says Marc Dennis, co-head of CAA Nashville with Brian Manning and Darin Murphy. Logan Handelsman was promoted to agent in March 2017, Bennett Beckner and Madison Lee in December 2017 and Katie Germano in April 2018, while Kara Enos and Emily Van Allsburg are both agent trainees.
John Huie, who holds the title of founder of CAA Nashville along with Rod Essig, recalls that a music company president once described CAA as “those guys [who] wear the white hats,” he says. “I’ll take that. [We’re] doing great work with integrity and passion.”
“There really are no barriers”
Ed Sheeran, whom CAA represents outside North America, didn’t just claim the No. 1 spot on Billboard Boxscore’s ranking of 2018’s top tours. His four-night stand in June at Wembley Stadium in London also ranked as the top Boxscore gross of the year, with $28.9 million.
“The best comment I’ve heard about [us] is, ‘If you want to break a superstar globally, CAA is always the first call,’” says Mike Greek, who runs the agency’s London office with Emma Banks, coordinating bookings with their fellow co-heads of international, Chris Dalston and Marlene Tsuchii, who are based in Los Angeles.
“What started as a service area [in 1995] allows clients to extend their careers by [playing] multiple territories beyond the United States and Europe and is now a key contributor to the music department’s overall success,” says Dalston. “Our international roster spans all genres, from rock to pop to country, urban and comedy -- we book them all internationally. There really are no barriers anymore. Everything translates.”
WOMEN AT CAA
“Gender equality is a priority”
“CAA is gender-blind,” says Carole Kinzel, the first female agent in the firm’s music department. “There [once] were so few women in the industry doing this job. Now, a significant number of our senior agents and executives are women [35 percent, according to CAA]. I have never once felt that being a woman has held me back.”
The agency has both informal (mentorship) and formal ways of advancing the status of women. An employee committee called FORWARD is “dedicated to engaging, inspiring and developing women at the agency and helping to empower and connect women across the industry,” says Kinzel.
Jenna Adler, who started at CAA in 1990, describes herself as its first “home-grown” female agent. “Gender equality is a priority,” she says. “CAA has committed to 50/50 [gender] leadership by 2020, which is a big leap forward. There’s a strong focus on developing the next generation of female agents, from our internship program to our agent trainee program and beyond.” (CAA says that its operations group has already achieved the equal gender balance.)
RECRUITS TO CAA
“The team is motivated”
While many agents at CAA have spent their entire careers at the agency, Nat Farnham and Scott Morris are among those lured to the firm by its competitive advantages.
“The whole concept of inviting new agents into the lives and careers of established, superstar clients is uniquely CAA,” says Farnham, who previously worked at Evolution Talent Agency. “Trust me, this does not happen at the other shops.” Farnham arrived at CAA in 2004 with a relatively small roster of artists but has since worked with KISS, Journey, Steely Dan, John Mellencamp and others. “The whole notion of collaborative team-agenting is singular to CAA,” he says.
Morris, who came to CAA from ICM in 2012, says that he loves “working at a place where the team truly is motivated, curious and smart.” At one CAA retreat, he recalls, “The Bruce Springsteen song ‘We Take Care of Our Own’ was played, and that has always resonated with me because the sentiment rings true with this company. Our priority to our clients is to protect them. You feel that same protection as an agent within the CAA community.”
CAA'S NEXT GEN
“It’s all about empowerment”
Joe Hadley was three months into his job at CAA in Los Angeles when music division head Rob Light invited him to join a meeting with Beyoncé’s manager, Steve Pamon.
“From that meeting, a relationship was built, and I was eventually brought onto Beyoncé’s team [at the agency]. The culture of CAA is all about empowerment.”
Other young agents at CAA have taken on leadership roles within the music department and reflect the strength and diversity of the agency’s bench. They share similar tales. “The collaborative culture is not just a tagline,” says Nashville music agent Meredith Jones. “One of my mailroom ‘classmates,’ Cat Carson, now a television agent [based in Los Angeles], routinely closes major deals for our Nashville-based [music] clients and managers.”
“Egos are out the door, and people genuinely want to help,” says fellow Nashville agent Jeff Krones, citing several senior staff. “I’ve spent a lot of time asking questions and learning from some of the best mentors and agents around ... whether it has been about figuring out the next steps for an artist or on a personal level.”
Los Angeles-based agent Kasey McKee echoes that view. “Some people are lucky to have one good mentor they can point to in their careers,” she says. “I have a solid five.”
THE CAA POWER PLAYERS
Billboard has recognized the following agents and executives during the past year.
Billboard Power 100
Darryl Eaton, Mitch Rose, Rick Roskin; co-heads of contemporary music for North America
First concert: (Rose) “Don Ho, with The Young Rascals, [in Honolulu] with my grandmother and brother.”
Women In Music
Emma Banks, Marlene Tsuchii; co-heads of international
Carole Kinzel, Caroline Yim; agents
First concert: (Banks) “Dire Straits at the Birmingham [England] N.E.C. in 1985.”
Branding Power Players
David Aussenberg; music brand partnerships agent
First concert: “Billy Ray Cyrus at the Houston Astrodome in 1992.”
Country Power Players
Rod Essig, John Huie; founders, CAA Nashville
Marc Dennis, Darin Murphy; Co-heads, CAA Nashville
First concert: (Huie) “The Beatles, Atlanta Stadium, Aug. 18, 1965.”
Dance Power Players
Macquarie Clark, Hunter Williams
First concert: (Clark) “[It should have been] Miles Davis at Jones Beach [in Wantagh, N.Y., in 1991] with my mother. We arrived to find it had been canceled. Sadly, Miles passed away shortly thereafter. So my first concert was Aerosmith, that same year, also at Jones Beach.”
Digital Power Players
Shannon Fitzgerald, tour marketing executive
First concert: “Paul McCartney at the United Center in Chicago. It was the beginning of my obsession with live shows that carries on to this day.”
40 Under 40
Aaron Tannenbaum, music agent
First concert: “Bob Dylan, the Roanoke [Va.] Civic Center, 1994.”
-- THOM DUFFY