United Talent Agency's Pre-Pandemic Investment Pays Dividends in 2021

Samantha Kirby Yoh & David Zedeck
Wesley Mann

Samantha Kirby Yoh & David Zedeck

The past year and a half has been brutal for the concert biz. But UTA has been hiring and signing acts -- it even scored Post Malone a Pokémon gig. Here’s how the agency grew as their competitors shrank.

"Looking forward, it’s going to be different" says Samantha Kirby Yoh, United Talent Agency’s co-head of music, of the concert business’s slow return. "But it’s exciting that it’s back.”

That ability to look forward helped power UTA through the pandemic, when it innovated and grew amid the chaos that enveloped many of its competitors. While all of the major agencies downsized, UTA expanded, hiring new agents, signing new clients (including Bad Bunny, Demi Lovato and Chance the Rapper, and expanding its branding and crossover businesses. Soon, the concert industry will emerge from its long, pandemic winter to find a music agency landscape dominated by three major players – UTA, as well as CAA and WME -- that are each an order of magnitude larger than the other companies in the business.

The idea of a three-way race isn’t nearly as surprising as which companies ended up in it. Paradigm was once expected to take a place atop the business, but then the global touring shutdown created a liquidity crisis at the highly leveraged agency. That, along with the challenge of operating a talent agency in a pandemic, changed the game for the agency business.

Perhaps their role is just changing. UTA had already invested heavily in its branding business before the pandemic, and its stable financial foundation allowed it to continue that – and make strategic acquisitions (including Echo Location Talent Agency) during the touring shutdown. Those purchases, along with the 2018 acquisition of Circle Talent Agency, brought to UTA big-genre headliners like EDM superstars Illenium, Excision and Kaskade; Latin acts Bad Bunny and Ozuna; and rappers Lil Wayne, Offset and Post Malone (who the agency booked to perform a virtual concert at a February event to mark the 25th anniversary of Pokémon).

New hires like Kirby-Yoh -- who left WME last September after 16 years to run the music department alongside David Zedeck – brought in Florence + The Machine, Rosalía, LCD Soundsystem and James Blake. And while all types of music companies were forced to institute layoffs, UTA parted ways with only a few dozen out of its more than a thousand employees and grew its staff overall, hiring Jeffrey Hasson and Matt Meyer from Paradigm, Robbie Brown from WME, and Brett Saliba from CAA, among others. UTA also bought the U.K. agency Echo Talent, which added Obi Asika to its UK leadership team of Neil Warnock and senior agent Belinda Law.

With its new hires in place, UTA began tweaking its agent coverage system. Instead of a traditional territory-based or direct agent system, UTA moved to a team-based model with overlapping support for clients. That means headliners could rely on a team of a senior agent, an agent, and a younger agent, instead of a responsible agent and his or her assistant.

"Those are the people who are speaking to each of the managers and bands," says Kirby Yoh, who has been in her job for a year, adding that the approach helps with "decreasing that distance with the artist."

When it came to strategy, the agency took the opposite approach, replacing small meetings with larger ones. Some of them generated breakthroughs when UTA took "the time to make sure our employees were handling the stress of the pandemic," Zedeck says, As the pandemic dragged on, discussion shifted to finding new opportunities for clients from the music brand partnership team, the music crossover group, and the music innovation division, which handles livestream deals.

With touring shut down, UTA music branding executives Toni Wallace and Alisann Blood dug in and began matching artists with companies – an Adidas endorsement for Bad Bunny, a Verizon deal for Chance the Rapper and brand deals with Jack in the Box,  AT&T, College Football Playoffs and ESPN for Jason Derulo. Working with music brand partnerships, UTA’s endorsements & voiceover department have also executed TikTok partnership deals for Derulo with Hotwire, Bounty, Walmart, Mint and many more. In total, the agency has closed more than 500 deals and its business is up 200% year-to-date.

The company’s music crossover division also got to work, matching artists with film and television productions, often for their first roles, including acting credits for Bebe Rexha in Queenpins; Ally Brooke in High Expectations; Bad Bunny in Bullet Train and “Narcos”; Post Malone in Wrath of Man and an executive producer credit for Offset for the soundtrack to American Sole, which he will also appear in as an actor.

In July 2020, UTA pledged $1 million over four years to social justice causes and announced a series of internal initiatives to raise pay for entry-level positions begin unconscious bias training for employees and increase representation of people of color in senior-level positions.

"The pandemic was a moment to acknowledge our own humanity," says Kirby-Yoh. "I think that is really important that we take the time to learn so that we can do it differently coming out of the pandemic. In particularly that means paying attention to how we can do better at strengthening diversity in front and behind the stage."

When the pandemic does end, UTA should be well positioned to capture the pent-up demand for live music. Bad Bunny’s 2022 tour, which sold 480,000 tickets in less than a week, was the fastest selling since 2018, while the Jonas Brothers are preparing for a 44-date headline tour of arenas and sheds that’s on track to sell out. And with a growing variety of artists and a bigger branding department, Zedeck says UTA is diversified enough to weather any uncertainty that could come as the pandemic lingers on.

The agency business won't get any less competitive, but Zedeck says he’s more focused on solidifying music’s role as a top commercial art form than worrying about UTA’s market share. If artists continue seeing "the kind of the volume happening around truly inspiring collaborations and events," he says, there will be plenty of opportunity for everyone.

"You can't underestimate the importance of pop culture right now," he says, noting that the ability of artists to connect with fans is the key to unlocking value.

"We can’t think of ourselves as gatekeepers any longer – the idea just doesn’t exist in music right now," Zedeck says. "As long as we stay focused on helping our clients benefit from new opportunities, we continue to succeed and grow."