CAA's Mark Cheatham on Racism In the Music Biz, Cardi B's Authenticity and Why Agents Are Still Crucial

Mark Cheatham
Erik Umphery

Mark Cheatham photographed on Oct. 8, 2019 at CAA in Los Angeles.

"You still do run into [prejudice]. I try not to let that dictate who I am and what I can do."

Like many executives in the music business, Mark Cheatham started his career in the mailroom. But he took a circuitous route getting there.

During his stint as a Navy hospital corpsman stationed in Long Beach, Calif., the Queens native studied with professors flown in each weekend from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Later, although he was armed with a degree in healthcare services, Cheatham opted to join Merrill Lynch as a stockbroker. While there, a tip from a family friend helped him land a $200-a-week mailroom gig at Associated Booking Corporation, whose clients included B.B. King and Anita Baker and whose founder, Joe Glaser, mentored the music industry's so-called "black godfather," Clarence Avant.

"What engaged me was the pace of the business," reflects Cheatham, who maintains that same momentum driving his 2004 classic Porsche 911. "I liked the transactional nature of it; dealing with people and discovering new music."

That fervent engagement has fueled Cheatham through stints at Norby Walters Associates, the William Morris Agency and an 18-year tenure at International Creative Management (ICM). Along the way, he worked with R&B/hip-hop pioneers ranging from Cash Money and Wu-Tang Clan to Usher, Jodeci and Mary J. Blige.

Since joining Creative Artists Agency in 2008, Cheatham has represented R&B/hip-hop's latest wave of stars, including Kevin Gates, Saweetie, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie and Cardi B, who is set to embark on her first worldwide tour in 2020 and whom Cheatham championed early in her career. Cheatham spoke to Billboard about confronting racism and ageism in the music business, the future of R&B and why agents are still important in the industry.

What was a pivotal turning point in your career?

I was in the Navy with Charlie Murphy, and one day, he told me that his brother was going to be really famous. I happened to be working at ICM when Charlie and I reconnected. And Eddie Murphy was a client of ICM when Charlie invited me to the Nutty Professor premiere. Eddie walks over to Jim Wiatt, who was ICM's president and didn't know me. But Eddie put his hand on Wiatt's shoulder and said, "Mark Cheatham's my man. Are you guys taking care of him?" Eddie's little statement empowered me to be seen in a different light within the building. I got a raise and was able to get into rooms with different people that I never would have otherwise.

How have you overcome race-related barriers in this industry?

Being an African American in an agency or the music business, a lot of times we have to work twice as hard to get recognition — to get people to believe that we can do the job. We represent talent, so sometimes when you can have an artist endorse you, it lends credibility and gives you power within the building and the business. There weren't a whole lot of black agents when I started; you could count on one hand how many there were. Now the music business is looking to hire more diverse staff members that reflect the culture. So that's an improvement — especially in the agency business. But you still do run into [prejudice]. I try not to let that dictate who I am and what I can do.

Does age matter in the music business?

Ageism is definitely an issue. The key is recognizing you don't need to compete with the young guys. You have to step back and let your ego get out of the way. At this stage, my role has changed a bit. I have the knowledge and experience that young people don't have. They need me. So let me approach it from a different direction: to mentor and help develop some of the new young executives. I owe my longevity to listening to young people and keeping an open mind.

Rap rules today's streaming charts. What happened to R&B?

R&B in the '90s was really big; rap was coming up. The demographics have really changed because of the internet, with younger kids focusing more on rap and pop, which can be a quick burn. But to me, R&B artists have more loyal fan bases — I have always kept my hands in R&B and still represent Kem and Anthony Hamilton, and work with Tamar Braxton. As for streaming, the traditional R&B artists don't get streamed as much now. But there's a new wave of R&B that's catering to the younger generation of listeners, and we represent a lot of those acts, including SZA, H.E.R., Ella Mai and Daniel Caesar. It has been exciting to see this new wave begin to grow R&B's streaming numbers.

You were an early believer in Cardi B. How did you know she'd be a star?

Cardi B was unique from the very beginning, even when she was on TV. What separates her from everyone else is that she has an opinion and she stands up for what she means. She's got a strong personality, and people are attracted to that. A lot of agencies passed on Cardi B. But you can just tell when somebody has "it." And when I met her for the first time, I could tell that.

Endeavor recently postponed its initial public offering, which had hoped to raise as much as $600 million. What pressures are you facing as a talent agency?

To me, the biggest issue right now is the Writers Guild, which is trying to redefine the agency's role as it relates to writers in the business. That affects all the departments — film, TV, endorsements, sponsorships and music touring — we service clients across the whole agency. Outside investment is good because it allows agencies to grow and get into different areas like sports. Sports sponsorships, the branding of venues, building venues around the world … We're really involved in a lot of areas in sports.

If an act is going to sell its entire tour to one promoter, why does the act still need an agent?

The internet and social media have made it more difficult for us to operate because of the fact that artists are easily reachable with one click of a button or a phone call. A lot of people can get directly to talent. To stay in the middle as the agent, you have to bring more value to your client and be able to educate them about things they're unaware of. So if an artist goes with a tour promoter, he or she still needs an agency to oversee the deal structure. We know what the takeout should be; we know how to scale the buildings.

We work closely with management and the promoter as a team to benefit the artist in the long run. Artists really need a full team around them in order to maximize their earning potential because we bring value plus endorsement and sponsorship deals — which also can benefit the artist by underwriting the touring course as well. Smaller acts need somebody that's going to get out there and really grind out the dates early on when no one's paying attention to them. In the past, record companies used to have local promotion teams in all the markets. We don't have that anymore. But agents have connections in all the local markets, so we know what's going on. We know what clubs to hire. We know where we can put a client early on to help develop him or her into a touring attraction and music artist.

What major lesson have you heeded throughout your career?

Don't take it personally. In this business, you care about and want to do right by people. But sometimes that's not good enough for whatever reason. We all look for people to say, "Oh, you're doing a good job" … Some kind of assurance that you're on the right path. However, especially in the service business that we're in, you can't always expect people to compliment you on doing a good job. You have just got to know you're doing the best you can for your clients.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 19 issue of Billboard.


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