From the infancy of the country music business in the 1920s to the early 1990s, independent booking agencies, which secure tour dates for artists, dominated Nashville, representing the genre’s biggest acts. But the August acquisition of The Bobby Roberts Company (BRC) by The Agency Group (TAG) leaves little doubt that these boutique talent operations are an endangered species.
The numbers tell the tale. Country music’s top 50 touring acts grossed $574,834,701 in 2013, according to Billboard Boxscore. Of those, 45 are currently booked by major national agencies, three are handled in-house and just one, Emmylou Harris, is serviced by an independent, High Road Touring, which has no Nashville presence. Roberts, who says he sold BRC because it was “the right situation,” notes that the trend is nothing new. “Active consolidation is part of the cyclical nature of the business, and we will see new indies arise over the next 10 years,” he says.
In the process, however, mid-level acts and those before or past their commercial prime may suffer, and Nashville will lose connection to its more personalized and colorful past as great personalities are relegated to the history books.
During the heyday of indies, Music Row was populated by savvy showbiz men, many of them performers, who booked top-shelf country acts nationwide. Firms included The Halsey Company, World Class Talent, Chief Talent, Entertainment Artists, Buddy Lee Attractions (see story, below) and BRC.
Save for BLA, all of those agencies have been acquired or shuttered due to the death, retirement or departure of the founder or a flagship artist. Even BLA took a major hit when its president Kevin Neal jumped to William Morris Endeavor (WME) in May. Neal, who was with BLA for 25 years and president since 2009, took a number of heavy hitters with him, including Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line. “I wanted to go someplace that had more resources for my clients,” Neal told Billboard upon his departure. WME (then just William Morris) was the first national agency to open in Nashville in 1973, and by the end of the ’90s, Agency for the Performing Arts, Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and Monterey Peninsula Artists — now Paradigm — had followed. (Based on Boxscore and Nielsen SoundScan data, WME and CAA command the largest market share for arena-level country acts.)
As with most market shifts, money changed the game. In the mid-’80s, when such acts as Hank Williams Jr., Alabama and George Strait began selling tickets on par with their rock brethren, the national agencies began signing country talent. Their pitch was hard to resist: Although the majors could not match the attention and nurturing that local bookers provided, they boasted leverage and deeper resources.
Greg Oswald, co-head of WME Nashville, sums up the advantage: “There are 80 people on this floor, each with a specific job so we don’t let anything slip through the cracks. And if you have [WME’s] market share, you can’t help but have leverage and information.”
Among the indie bookers, only BLA and Brand Entertainment maintain multi-artist country rosters. Others, like New Frontier Touring, have learned to thrive by expanding representation to niche genres like Americana and contemporary Christian.
Paul Lohr, who spent 19 years at BLA and a brief stint at TAG, opened New Frontier in 2003 and signed then-fledgling neo-folk group The Avett Brothers. When their career took off, so did New Frontier. Today, through a “very judicious A&R approach” to talent, the agency has six agents in three offices booking 65 acts including Shakey Graves and Paul Thorn.
New Frontier’s success has expectedly led to interest from the majors, but “we’ve got a really good thing going right now,” says Lohr. “So, I kind of turn the tables. I say, ‘How about if I buy you?’ “