Though the job of an agent in the music industry can encompass any number of things, the primary topic of conversation between the six top-tier agents gathered at the Billboard Touring Conference & Awards on Wednesday was unsurprising: artist development in the digital age. How do you take an artist like Twenty One Pilots, as CAA’s Jeff Krones brought up, from local fame in Columbus, Ohio to a national, mainstream act? How to you make sure a buzzy act like Post Malone, as UTA’s Cheryl Paglierani described, doesn’t get too quickly pigeonholed as “just” a rapper?
The answers were a blend of patience (“Artist development is a long haul,” said Paradigm’s Jonathan Levine), intuition (“We gotta get hit by that same arrow [as the fans] first,” Krones added), and careful strategy that often focuses on live dates as a way to build a fanbase.
“With Skrillex, we started with weekly parties,” AM Only’s Lee Anderson told the panel, which was moderated by Vector Management’s John Ingrassia. “When it started growing pretty f—ing fast, we moved to more of how you promote any other band.” With DJs, he said, there isn’t a significant difference, except for the pace. “The way they create and release music is a little different,” he added, alluding to the fact that it’s easy for a DJ can to create a song one day and release it the next.
Kevin Neal, whose primary focus at WME is in Nashville, said that developing Jason Aldean’s base was also contingent on live success. “We sent him out for a year,” he told the panel, adding that by making the shows low-cost and avoiding “crowded markets,” they were able to build up Aldean’s “hard ticket value” — even if people were only paying $15 to see him, they were paying to see him specifically, rather than sitting through his set as the precursor to a larger act.
Anderson added that even though he appeals to a vastly different demographic, Zedd’s team took a similar approach, “leaving festival checks on the table to build hard ticket value.” “I think a lot of people are giving their value to these festivals, and I think it’s a mistake,” Krones added. A festival booking isn’t all bad, but all the agents present emphasized the need to be selective, resisting the temptation of fast money in favor of building a dedicated base that’s willing to spend long-term. With Sturgill Simpson, Levine said, they had 50 festival offers in 2015, and accepted only 14. “We intentionally stayed in only eight markets,” he added. “We could screw it all up by just looking for the check.”
At the end of the day, “you never know where the impact is going to happen,” said ICM’s Rob Prinz, who emphasized the importance of a full-service agency that can tackle an artist’s career from multiple angles. “Now artists need agents to develop them, before labels will even consider signing them,” he added, a sentiment that most of the panel agreed with. The best way to do that? Starting with an unforgettable live act, and making sure as many people get to see it as possible.