Sara Newkirk Simon’s ascent to partner at William Morris Endeavor, where she co-heads the music department (with Kirk Sommer) and represents Pharrell Williams, Miguel and Selena Gomez, among others, is a genuine music-industry rags-to-riches tale.
From humble beginnings in rural Indiana, where her father lived on a hog farm and her mother had a house in Clarks Hill (population: 716), some 50 miles north of Indianapolis, she procured a scholarship to an elite Northeastern boarding school as a 14-year-old that would radically transform her life’s trajectory. (“Everyone in my hometown thought they were shipping me away because I was pregnant, because no one goes away when they’re 14,” she cracks.)
Her first industry job was an internship at famed Boston venue the Middle East, which led to managing local ska outfit The Mighty Mighty Bosstones during the band’s mid-’90s heyday. She then moved to New York, skipping college to work as a waitress and booker at a downtown dive bar. Simon began a management concern with Cornerstone in 2000, counting Nas, M.I.A., Maxwell and TV on the Radio among an impressive roster. That lasted until WME’s Dave Wirtschafter and worldwide head of music Marc Geiger called Simon in 2006, inviting her to the agency side, where she has worked ever since. She now oversees a staff of more than 200.
A sculpture made from a broken surfboard by Newkirk’s husband Jesse Simon entitled , which she calls a “prized possession.” The “K” shape stands for his former KGB graffiti crew.
Married to sculptor Jesse Simon and based in Los Angeles, Simon is expecting her second child in July. Billboard caught up with the 38-year-old to learn more about her rise up the music-biz ladder, the art of making crossover deals and the scoop on Justin Timberlake‘s new album.
What music did you grow up on?
Classic rock. I know every lyric to REO Speedwagon’s High Infidelity. I remember the local radio station in Lafayette coming out to the fish fry in our town of 716 people and giving away cassettes. The two I got were Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” single and, of course, because it was Indiana, Guns ‘n Roses Appetite for Destruction with the original artwork that was banned (I still have the tape). I played both of them non-stop and feel like that’s a great mirror to music, my career and how diverse it is. I love them both equally but they don’t really go together.
How did you ever get beyond the borders of Clarks’ Hill?
The big changing moment was I went to a doctor’s appointment in Indianapolis. On the waiting room table there was Indianapolis Magazine which had an advertisement for Skip and Judy Barber’s acting lessons which I begged my mother to take me to and was an hour drive each way. They were these amazing people and they said, ‘There are these things called boarding schools that you can go away to and you should go to one. There are four of them in the country and we’re gonna get you the forms and you should apply.’ When my mom was away one Saturday I set the VHS recorder up and just did a monologue and taped it on four different VHS tapes. I made packages, mailed them off and got into Walnut School for the Arts. Everyone in Clark’s Hill thought they were shipping me away because I was pregnant because no one goes away when they’re 14.
Wow! Was there any culture shock in going there?
So I arrive at this school, it’s like 200 students and they’re all artistes with their Doc Martins and dark eyeliner, and i’m putting up my New Kids on the Block Poster, teddy bears and whatnot. That first Saturday I’m carrying my laundry down and this man is trying to help me and and it’s Yo Yo Ma who is teaching a master class!
What music were you exposed to at Walnut?
There was l these flyers where you could sign-up to go to concerts in Boston or to Worcester remember seeing the Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam and Jane’s Addiction tour and seeing this list and being like, ‘What are these bands?’ Then everything changed. I remember hearing Nine Inch Nails for the first time and Depeche Mode and stuff I hadn’t been exposed to and it was just such a great moment and feeling of your whole world opening.
How did you get from there to the music business?
One of the women who worked in admissions at my school, her brother was the drummer in this cool Boston Hardcore band called La Gritona. She begged him to meet with me and he so sweetly did. He was the one who introduced me to the Middle East in Cambridge. That’s where I got my first start and started interning there in 1995.
Is that where you got your foothold in the music business?
For sure. Frank Black was downstairs eating falafel every day; I saw Aerosmith do a secret show there and saw J. Geils, Buffalo Tom — I love Boston bands. That’s where I met The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and their manager Amy Bennett. But after a year in Boston, I realized I needed to be in New York, so I moved to this horrible apartment in Brooklyn and waited tables and started booking a night at the Continental off St. Marks Place.
Were your first experiences booking shows rewarding?
Booking there was a disaster. My budget was like $300 for five bands. But I got to meet Chris Whitley [who died in 2005 at 45 from lung cancer] and spent amazing time with him I’ll always cherish. He was one of the great songwriters. After a few months I got a call from Amy, the Bosstones’ manager, who said, “Come work for me and be my number two.” I worked for them just as they were blowing up with “The Impression That I Get” [a No. 1 Alternative hit in 1997]. I was 19.
What happened with you and the Bosstones?
Once Amy Bennett had resigned the goal was for me to take them to a big management company, which i did with Arther Spivak who was amazing and sweet and great and Stu Sobol who passed years ago but was also wonderful. Dicky Barrettt [the singer] has a place in my heart forever and it’s fun to see Nate Albert [former Bosstone turned EVP of A&R at Capito] — I worked with him on the Weeknd. They didn’t need two managers and I wanted to do other kinds of music and so they went on with Arthur and that’s when I call Jon [Cohen] at Cornerstone, who had worked radio for the Bosstones for forever and he created an opportunity for me at Cornerstone.
Who was your first client there?
I developed a relationship with Zach de La Rocha and that’s who I signed as my first client. i had a friend who knew him and I was just tenacious in figuring out how to get to him. We made that quintessential Reverend Run DJ Premiere, Zach Fader cover that Jonathan Mannion shot which is still one of my favorites. And through that i developed a relationship with him and found out that he wanted to have a solo career. Jon Cohen was like ‘You can do this, you can just manage him.’ And that’s what happened.
Your first clients at Cornerstone included de la Rocha, M.I.A. and Serj Tankian from System of a Down. Does shepherding outspoken, political artists require a different management approach?
Yes, but they were all very smart about how they were portraying their political messages and views. There were times when things would get a little crazy, but it would just be about talking things through, providing every option and being protective but not being scared. Art is supposed to be about this.
What did you learn as a manager?
To not be a manager. (Laughs.) I learned how important it is to care and to always pay attention. There were many great achievements: watching Nas release a double album; what happened with M.I.A.; seeing TV on the Radio break — every one was completely rewarding. It’s also completely exhausting. I don’t forget that when I’m having to deal with a manager; I know how hard it is. I try to instill that with everybody who works for me.
What led you to jump to an agency?
Management is the hardest job in the business, and I didn’t want to be working 24 hours a day and have no life. I had lots of clients at William Morris and was exploring working for other management companies. I got a phone call from Dave Wirtschafter who said, “I have an idea.” And I was like, “I don’t want to be an agent — that’s the worst job ever.” And he said, “No, I don’t want you to be an agent the way you think of a music agent. I want you to come over and do something different.” Then Marc Geiger [who co-founded Lollapalooza and ArtistDirect //LOSE and WME worldwide head of music//], who I met when I first started working with Zack, called and said, “You have to do this, this is the best idea, we need you.” After lots of meetings and thinking about it, I decided to do it.
What were your apprehensions?
My perception of a music agent was that they were limited in the involvement they had with an artist. It was important to me to work on a deep level and try and push change forward and make sure we weren’t just doing transactional tour bookings, but helping with the creative process and branching into other areas.
How has that manifested itself?
Many of my clients are amazing crossover examples. Miguel will be in Ben Affleck’s movie [Live by Night] and recently put together a conceptual installation called Wildheart Motel, which was totally different and forward-thinking. Usher plays Sugar Ray Leonard in Hands of Stone, coming out in August. He’s constantly doing things with art, fashion or working with different collaborators. Pharrell is such an exciting client, from producing Dope to being a producer of Hidden Figures, which is a story that resonates with him [about] these African-American women scientists in Virginia in the 1960s who end up working for NASA. Selena touches so many different worlds, from her Netflix show to her tour to being one of the few artists who has had three No. 1s in a row [on Billboard‘s Pop Songs radio airplay chart]. It’s a credit to the team around her from management to the 15 people here who work on her.
What departments are those 15 agents from?
Everything from a commercial agent; a motion picture-lit agent who finds directors and writers for her projects; a talent agent who’s looking for movies; a music agent who’s booking tours; a television agent who’s looking for TV projects; agents working from the IMG side with models and branding — we’re talking very deep teams here.
What’s your take on the general state of the music business with recorded music’s revenue decline and streaming unable to fill the breach?
I don’t want to sound Pollyanna or naive, but ever since I’ve been in music, I’ve always worked with artists who were centered around things other than just record sales. I was managing eight guys in plaid suits playing ska music who weren’t going to be all over the radio.
What is a lesson you learned the hard way?
If it doesn’t feel right from the beginning, it’s not going to go right in the end. There are very few times that something fails and you’re completely surprised. I think it’s about being able — especially as you get older — to trust your gut more and know that you’ve got these instincts that come from years of experience.
What is your business philosophy?
I say this a lot to our staff: The client is king and we are in the service business. That is something to never forget.
You’ve clearly come a long way from rural Indiana, what do you credit to your successes?
I didn’t feel that anything was beneath me. I think that’s definitely being where I’m from. I couldn’t afford to live in New York City on an assistant manager’s salary so I waited tables. I left early on Wednesday and waited tables at night and did a double on Saturdays so I could afford to live. I wanted to work. The first year i worked with the Bosstones, they did 300 shows with no tour manager. So that was me doing it from the office – -it was the best college you could go to for the music business.
You were tour managing them, too?!
From the office and not knowing what I was doing! But it was the best college you could go to for the music business having to jump into that.
We hear Justin Timberlake has new music on the horizon and has been working with Pharrell. Anything you can tell us about how it sounds?
Maybe… Maybe I was blown away…
A version of this article was originally published in the April 30 issue of Billboard.