At the very top of the Future Bosses: Meet the Next Generation panel at the Billboard Live Music Summit on Wednesday (Nov. 6), Billboard editorial director Hannah Karp came right out of the gate to address the elephant in the room.
“I have to say, it’s not the most diverse panel I’ve ever moderated,” said Karp to kick things off. Indeed, of the six young power agents on stage — Paradigm agent Lee Anderson, STG co-owner Tim Borror, ICM partner Robert Gibbs, CAA agent Joe Hadley, UTA agent Jbeau Lewis and WME agent Ben Totis — not one of them was a woman.
By way of explanation, Karp pointed out that the panel was compiled by asking every agency to submit agents who were currently on the leadership track at their respective companies, inadvertently resulting in the male-dominated group that assembled on stage at the Montage Beverly Hills.
With Karp setting the tone for the rest of the conversation, diversity — both gender and racial — became a frequent topic of discussion, with Hadley the first of the panelists to address the issue directly.
“I think there are literally less than 15 black music agents globally, and of those, three are women,” said Hadley, who is African-American. “So we need to change our hiring practices, we need to make sure that people of color are getting the same opportunities. Because we are not the exception, we need to show that we are the rule — we just need the same opportunities as everyone else. So across the map [in] entertainment, not just agencies, we need to find a way to make sure that we are diversifying and making sure that the executive side is representative of what the music and the talent side looks like.”
During the audience Q&A portion near the end of the panel a female questioner pushed the issue further, asking the men on stage what their respective agencies were doing to be more inclusive of women specifically. In response, Hadley spoke to the responsibility of individuals in leadership positions at agencies to lift up women — particularly women of color.
“My last four interns have been women of color, [and] three of them have been hired,” he said. “That’s not a coincidence, that’s me going to our HR and saying, ‘If I’m going to have an intern, if this person is going to work with me, this is what I need from you: it needs to be a person of color, specifically a woman of color.’”
The rest of the panelists also had ready answers, with both Gibbs and Anderson stressing the importance of mentoring women agents and Lewis stating that diversity also has to be a consideration when choosing which clients to take on. Borror noted that building in considerations of diversity from the get-go has been a priority at STG, which he started alongside his UTA colleagues Dave Shapiro and Matt Andersen last November.
“I’m not trying to wave a flag or pat myself on the back, but to me, going to the year 2020, it’s kind of a non-issue if somebody’s got talent and they’ve got in earnest to do what we do, then they should be doing it,” he said. “There’s not a lot out there at this point…but I feel like the door finally, hopefully is feeling more open than ever.”
A focus on structural change in the industry at a time of great transition came to dominate the discussion, including the need for a greater emphasis on self-care. Indeed, if the remainder of the panel could be boiled down to one overarching theme, it is this: being a music agent is hard, and in the digital age it’s only getting harder.
“As agents coming up in the business, we were the gatekeepers, right?” said Gibbs. “[To] access the talent…you had to call the agent. Well now, it’s Twitter, it’s Instagram, it’s social media, you can get right to [the artist]. And so the way of just doing the core business, it just doesn’t work [anymore]. You have to be able to expand that.”
The lift for agents in 2019 has become more difficult in a variety of other ways. For one thing, agents are now expected to flesh out their clients’ bottom lines in ways they simply weren’t expected to before, particularly as the share of revenues from recorded music has plummeted.
“At the end of the year, when you’re looking at the pie charts of where the revenue’s coming from, a lot of that comes from touring,” said Anderson. “And I think because of that, they rely on us to deliver for a lot more of these [additional] revenue streams and opportunities. There’s a million deserving clients out there, and it’s how do you find a way to deliver for all of them with only so many opportunities.”
As Lewis put it, given the higher “sweat equity” now involved in representing an artist, it behooves agents to be ever more careful about which clients they decide to invest their energies into.
“I think that what that requires is that all of us are that much more judicious, more prudent about who the artists are that we do take bets on,” he said. “With the realization that [when] we do take a bet on that artist, that’s going to require time and energy of a multitude of people. So we better all damn well be ready to make that bet if we’re going to.”
As Totis sees it, the singles-oriented nature of streaming also requires agents to be more nimble when it comes to plotting careers. “We’re touring on singles now, so you have to activate your plans sooner,” he said. “It’s not waiting for the album and then you’re going out and touring.”
That breakneck pace, coupled with increasing client demands, often results in often-ungodly work hours for agents who were already overworked long before the rise of streaming. So how do the panelists cope?
“I’m like 20 pounds overweight, so I’m the wrong guy to ask,” said Anderson to laughter when Karp questioned the panelists on their self-care practices.
“At UTA we certainly have company-wide initiatives pushing people toward wellness,” said Lewis, “whether it’s groups of people [getting] together and talking about it or meditation sessions at the office, things like that, where people can sort of step aside from the daily grind and get into it. But communication and talking about it is so much of the battle as well.”
For a panel about “future bosses,” Karp went on to ask a crucial question: what would the panelists change if they were to run things at their respective agencies? In response, Hadley passionately led the charge on another timely issue: the burgeoning, social media-driven campaign for higher assistant salaries at entertainment companies.
“I think a lot of us are in the mindset of like ‘Oh, I came up, and I made $25,000 flat so everyone should do that, and you have to pay your dues,’” said Hadley. “It’s just not right. If we want to attract the best and the brightest, then we need to have competitive pay or at least systems in place to help these people be successful, because I’m tired of losing good people because they can’t afford to work.”
Anderson was arguably even more blunt in his critique, focusing on his personal experience to make the point.
“When I moved to New York, I was living below the poverty line. I was ducking the subway turnstiles to sneak on the train because I couldn’t afford a metro card sometimes,” he said. “There were days I would go to bed because I couldn’t buy food, and that’s not that f—ing long ago…if it was my company, I would pay [support staff] more. I’ll probably get called into the HR office when I get out of here for saying it, but…it’s an old f—ed-up model and I don’t agree with it.”
Lewis boiled things down to an even more fundamental level.
“I think there’s an overarching theme here that, whether we’re talking about who we represent or who we work with, we’re dealing with people, we’re dealing with human beings,” he said. “Despite the competition, despite the celebrity, keeping the perspective that we’re dealing with human beings every day is pretty critical here.”