Paul Morris admits that when he founded his AM Only booking agency out of the back of New York’s Breakbeat Science record shop in 1996, he didn’t foresee dance music’s explosive boom in popularity. “I’d like to say that I saw where this would go over the next 20 years and where I would be today,” says the London native. “But I can’t.”
Yet Morris and his agency played a pivotal role in shaping the genre’s swiftly expanding landscape — from turning Skrillex into a global touring juggernaut to engineering groundbreaking Las Vegas residencies for superstar DJs like Tiesto.
It’s all a long way from Gainesville, Fla., where Morris, who had moved to the state with his dad when he was a teen, got his start by working at a nightclub and in dance-music promotion while attending the University of Florida. He relocated to New York and worked at Mute Records before co-founding Breakbeat Science and AM Only, where his first client was drum’n’bass act DB (real name: DB Burkeman), a close friend who remains AM Only’s creative director and A&R rep. Soon Morris expanded his roster to include an enviable array of talent through such savvy signings as Carl Cox and DJ Dan.
Today, AM Only is home to more than 200 artists, including heavyweights like David Guetta, Zedd and DJ Snake, and has offices in Brooklyn and Los Angeles. In 2012, Morris, 44, inked a joint venture with booking powerhouse Paradigm Talent, similar to the pact it made with The Windish Agency in August — that has enabled his agency to grow to a staff of 65 without compromising its “family atmosphere.” That all-together vibe — whether figurative (in the trust Morris places in senior agent/vice presidents Lee Anderson and Matt Rodriguez) or literal (his wife, Stephanie, is general counsel) — is key to everything the father of two does.
How did you get started in dance music?
It started with my friend [XL Records founder] Richard Russell. I was going to the University of Florida after I first moved to the U.S. and he would send me promos. That was my way into the clubs. There was a big electronic music scene, believe it or not, in the early ’90s in north Florida, DJ Icey was in Orlando and guys like Sasha & Digweed and Josh Wink were coming through a lot. We represent Sasha and Josh now.
What was your initial vision for AM Only, and how has it changed?
Well, first and foremost, it was a job. But the idea at the time was to try and help make this scene, which was just starting to grow, a little more professional — it was really the Wild West. I always think it’s “people first, agents second,” and even as we’ve grown I’ve been able to maintain that. After [Paradigm music chief Chip Hooper] and I meet somebody, we’ll look at each other and say “Do we think this is a good person?” more than “What booking business does this person have?” As the company gets bigger, we need to be more aware of maintaining our culture.
Who have been some of your mentors during your career?
One of the reasons I joined up with Paradigm was because I was looking for that person. I didn’t really have anybody. I’m very close friends with Richard Russell; he told me, “Never sacrifice the long-term vision for a short-term gain.” In the early days of AM Only, I actually had a strategic partnership with Marty Diamond [now Paradigm’s East Coast head of music] when he was still at Little Big Man. And now Chip is definitely somebody I consider a mentor and one of my dearest friends.
How has the Paradigm partnership benefited AM Only and its clients?
Paradigm has been a big force behind helping me control the growth: They have taken things off my plate that I didn’t want to be handling, such as HR and office build-outs. Just as we’ve gone from club shows to festivals to arenas, it has been great having people that have worked in all those different kinds of buildings to tap into that knowledge, and also with the branding and sponsorship department. We’ve really tapped into their college booking department and together we’ve started building a really strong marketing department.
What are some of your biggest branding successes?
On Skrillex’s Full Flex Express Tour, our branding department put together deals with Red Bull and Frank & Oak [menswear]. We worked with both companies to turn a bare cargo car into a recording studio on one end — the Red Bull activation — and an artist lounge on the opposite end — the Frank & Oak activation. His team wanted to make the train a one-of-a-kind experience for everyone on the tour, and our team was able to align with brands who could help make a lofty idea a reality.
Paradigm recently partnered with Windish. How has that changed things?
I’m really excited by it. We have formed an executive board across AM Only, Paradigm [and partners] Windish and Coda, so we are constantly communicating. I’ve respected and admired Tom Windish for many years.
You’ve worked with Skrillex since 2010. What’s your most vivid memory?
I went to see him open for Deadmau5 at [New York’s] Roseland Ballroom right around the time he signed to AM Only — he was relatively unknown and absolutely tore the roof off the building. I also recall him working from a desk in our office for a few hours the following day.
What are the greatest challenges facing booking agents for dance and electronic acts?
The venues are a struggle. Arenas just aren’t right for all acts. There’s not a [venue like San Francisco’s] Bill Graham Civic Center in every city. If there was, we would be in really good shape.
AM Only has made its mark on Vegas with Tiesto’s residency and others. To what do you credit that success?
We got in there early, understood the landscape and put together some great deals. But the truth is that dance music has been in Las Vegas for a long time, even though there weren’t residencies like there are today. And Tiesto made a commitment to the market — he saw something potentially fantastic there. But 10 years ago, I never would have dreamed that his face would be on the side of the MGM Grand — and even though Tiesto always dreamed of having a Vegas residency, I’m not sure that he ever dreamed about seeing his face on the side of a building, either.
This article was originally published in the Oct. 3 issue of Billboard.