'I Pull Rabbits Out of Hats:' CAA's Rob Light on the Talent Agency's Magic Touch

Courtesy of CAA
Rob Light

On Aug. 15, 1975, 17-year-old Rob Light went to New York’s Greenwich Village to see Bruce Springsteen at the intimate 400-seat Bottom Line nightclub. Watching the rocker captivate the crowd at what is now considered one of Springsteen’s legendary live shows, Light resolved “to find a way to do something in this business.”

And so he did. In January, Light celebrates his 35th anniversary with Creative Artists Agency, where he is a partner and managing director. Last November, he marked 20 years as head of the music division.

His ticket from that 1975 night is framed on the wall of his Century City office in Los Angeles, alongside a note from Springsteen, whom CAA now represents. The bathroom in his office is lined with hundreds of backstage passes going back to the early ’80s. “I have [every] laminate I’ve ever worn around my neck,” he says.

Perhaps even more telling, on a table sits a black top hat with a stuffed hare. “That’s what I do for a living,” says Light. “I pull rabbits out of hats.”

Attending shows five or six nights a week, the 60-year-old Light still arrives in the office at 6:30 every morning -- “I don’t feel like I’m 60 -- I feel like I’m 30,” he says. He oversees 135 agents worldwide -- and emphasizes his team is the reason for CAA’s success. Although he has no shortage of tales from his past, he looks steadily forward. “I’m much more curious about what did you like, what did you see, where did you go, what club should I go to,” he says. “You’ll rarely see people sitting around here telling old war stories.”

You began working at CAA when you were in your mid-20s. What did you learn from CAA founder Mike Ovitz?

Mike was so prepared, so smart, so strategic. Nothing was haphazard. You never went into a meeting that you weren’t prepared for. I was just so impressed with what went into that because rock’n’roll is sort of off the cuff. He was incredibly team-oriented. I would watch in meetings the way he would get people to talk and reveal themselves and their dreams and their desires, and how we worked that into a strategy.

On the current season of Saturday Night Live, CAA booked the musical guests on seven of the first nine episodes. How active are you in that?

We’re very involved. I’m not saying I had anything to do with getting Ella Mai on Saturday Night Live, but I emailed [SNL producer] Lorne Michaels from backstage at the Staples Center after I saw her sing. The manager is right there, and I said [in the email], “This girl is unbelievable. You need to put her on your show.” You don’t use that card unless you really believe it’s someone special. She was booked four weeks later.

Any rules for your team at concerts?

You don’t go to a show if you’re not going to stay till the end. If you walk backstage after a show and all you can do is say, “Hey, man, great show,” you haven’t done your job. You always have to have a point of view. It’s got to be thoughtful. What you’re trying to convey is, “I was present. I cared.”

How has the metric that you use to sign an artist changed in the streaming world?

Let’s put the metrics aside for a second [and ask], “Did you love it? Do you think there is potential there?” What I don’t want is someone to go online and say, “This had a million streams. I think I like it.” Three years ago, a girl walks in my office -- no music out, just signed a record deal. Before she hit the seat -- I hadn’t heard or known her music -- I said, “You’re going to be a star.” She was so charismatic. She played two songs, and I [was] blown away. It was Dua Lipa. But metrics tell me [if an artist is] connecting, so I want to know the metrics [too].

If artists use national promoters, why do they need a booking agent?

When you’re a promoter, you’re making a big bet. Your first job is to cover that bet. You’re somewhat impeded by all the other tours you have to book; all the relationships you have with venues, with Ticketmaster. I have one goal: The only person who pays me is the artist. When I [saw] twenty one pilots, I [wrote] a letter to 50 to 60 festival buyers and said, “I’ve just seen one of the great live bands, and they’re playing a showcase in their hometown, Columbus [Ohio]. I’m going to pay for you to come. That’s how sure I am that they should be on your festival.” They got into every festival that summer. That’s what an agent does. No promoter can do that.

Many of your clients have been with you for a very long time. How hard is it when you lose one?

My first response is, “You’ve always got a home.” Lionel Richie had been a client here for a long time and [was at] a pinnacle in his career. He calls me and says, “I’m leaving CAA ... I want a new, fresh set of eyes.” I said, “Look, I’m going to call you a year from today, and if [the other agency] lived up to all those promises, I’ll never bother you again. But if they don’t, then I want you to come back.” A year to the day, I wrote him a three-page handwritten letter and sent it to his house. He called me that afternoon and said, “Do you know the last time I got a handwritten letter? ... My mother used to write me letters in Tuskegee [Ala.]. Why don’t you come over to the house tonight?” And he re-signed.

You brought over Caroline Yim and Zach Iser from ICM last March. How did that enhance your hip-hop team?

We were on a great road to success with signing A$AP Rocky. We had Kanye West, we had Cardi B, we were doing great. Anytime you [can] bring talented people who buy into the culture, you jump on it. Bringing them over was putting rocket fuel into a ship that was already doing great.

How important is diversity to you?

There has never been a barrier to entry here. I want great individuals. But I also want people who wouldn’t normally get an opportunity in the first place. This agency has done that in both our human resources department and summer intern program. When you aggressively try to do it, you open your eyes to a slightly different thing. We’ve made a real effort to do that. I think [we’re in] a better place for it.

Where do you see areas of growth?

The normal business of festivals, touring, new venues is always going to be there. We’re doing an incredible amount of podcast touring -- it’s doing great. The agency is taking some of our authors and putting them out on tour. We had Joe Biden. Reese Witherspoon. We’re going to get into the exhibitions business. Our Broadway division is through the roof. So we’re looking at all these other diverse areas. The word “live” is much wider than what we think of when we say, “Concerts and music.” Anything that happens live, we should be touching.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 12 issue of Billboard.