After leaving CAA Nashville after 17 years for crosstown rival WME and making a slew of of high-profile hires and signings, Scott Clayton is finally ready to talk about why he made the move. Speaking publicly for the first time since joining WME in November, the head of WME’s rock division and co-head of the agency’s Nashville office tells Billboard he’s fully embraced Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel and Executive Chairman Patrick Whitesell’s aggressive growth strategy. That strategy has included a number of high-profile acquisitions — such as Ultimate Fighting Championship — and has been fueled by several new investments, including cash infusions from a Canadian pension fund and a Singaporean sovereign wealth fund in August; and an investment from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al-Saud in March.
Clayton, who brought with him to WME top-tier artists such as My Morning Jacket, Warren Haynes, John Mayer, Michael Franti, Dead & Company and Kings of Leon, followed up by hiring away CAA agents Matthew Morgan and Buster Phillips, plus three assistants and former human resources executive Brandi Brammer. Tasked with building the agency’s rock and contemporary business divisions at WME, Clayton also led the hiring of Adam Voith and Andrew Colvin away from Billions Corp., bringing acts like Bon Iver, Jason Isbell, Mumford & Sons and Vampire Weekend into the WME family.
Billboard recently sat down with Clayton to discuss his move, his partnership with agent and longtime friend Jay Williams, the impact of private equity firm TPG’s $225-million majority purchase of CAA and whether his crosstown coup might have tipped the balance of power in Music City.
Billboard: What can you tell us about your decision to leave CAA?
Scott Clayton: I had a great 17-year run at CAA. I was a partner there, I was a co-head of the Nashville office. I still have tons of respect for all the friends I have over there and former colleagues. None of the guys in the Nashville office had anything to do with my reasons for leaving. That wasn’t a factor in it. Nor was my decision to move a financial one.
Basically, I wasn’t happy with the direction the company was going. It goes back to when TPG got involved. After they purchased a controlling interest in the company, I started to feel a bit of a shift in the culture at CAA. It felt like there was less of an investment from the top down and that we were just trying to hold on to the position we have in the marketplace. Our business had become more silo’d with less collaboration between departments.
While I was experiencing that at CAA, I was looking at what was going on at WME and I could see them aggressively expanding the company and increasing market share and somewhat dominating the country market in Nashville. I also saw an opportunity to build something special for contemporary music, because they were not in that space in Nashville. I thought the structure I was seeing would be good for my clients. So all of that led me to a series of conversations with Patrick Whitesell, and through those conversations, it just became clear to me that Ari [Emanuel] and Patrick were building something very special that I wanted to be a part of.
And you didn’t think that was happening at CAA?
Ari and Patrick are aggressive about how they’re trying to grow WME. You’ve seen that in all the acquisitions made over recent years. All of those acquisitions were about trying to find synergies for our clients and trying to create an ecosystem that can provide opportunities for them across the board. So I was watching these guys make all these acquisitions, increase market share, be aggressive, and I did not feel that was what was happening where I was sitting at the time.
Do you think your move has affected the balance of power in Nashville??
I wish I could take credit for that, but no, I don’t think that’s the case. One of the reasons I was interested in making the move is that I was watching this company and feeling their market share in country music had been dominant for quite a few years already. I think the scales had been tipped way before I came over here. Jay [Williams] has done a phenomenal job with artists and was one of the primary reasons that I started considering coming to WME. We’ve been friends forever. We’ve always wanted to work together, and I mean — and I’ll be honest — I tried to get him to come to CAA many times.
What’s changed for you now that you’ve made the move?
When I worked at CAA, I spent a lot of time worrying about what was going on [at WME]. What I found once I got over here is that these people, this place, these new colleagues of mine, don’t spend any time worrying about what the other guys are doing. We’re just trying to build the next generation talent agency. It’s something that’s never been done before. Part of the reason I am talking to you now is because I wanted to set the record straight. I hope this is the last time I really have to talk about what CAA is doing or not doing, because it’s not important to me anymore and it’s definitely not important to this company. And look, they’re still a great company. I’m not trying to make it out as if they’re not. It’s just a different mindset over here.
Tell me about hiring Adam Voith and Andrew Colvin. How did those two pop up on your radar?
I first met them six or seven years ago when I was at CAA. Adam had first moved here and then Andrew moved to Nashville a year later and I had been trying to hire those guys ever since. I love their rosters, I love their taste in music and they’re just good people. At the time, they weren’t comfortable with coming into a large company or corporate situation. So nothing ever happened.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that Jay Williams had also been having the same kind of conversations with them from WME. Now that Jay and I are on the same team, I think it gave these guys much more confidence in what was going on over here and they were more comfortable to open the door and have a dialogue. And this office is full of creative and driven people. Everybody loves music. We’ve got incredible resources that we can put to work on behalf of our clients. But I think it’s also a place [where] guys coming from the indie space can come in and feel comfortable. We’re just really happy that they decided to make the move. At the end of the day they did it for the same reason that I made the move over here, which was that they realized it was going to be good for their clients.
Are you still looking to add more people to your team?
We’re always looking for the right people, but I love the staff we’ve got right now. We’re not actively recruiting. We’re very excited about the chemistry of all the people here. We made this move not because we’re in some major expansion mode. We made this move because we found the two perfect people to fill out the team here in Nashville.
Part of your focus now in Nashville is continuing to grow the contemporary music division. Rock doesn’t seem particularly ascendant right now, but what, in your opinion, are the long-term prospects for the genre?
I think you’re right that at the moment, pop and hip-hop are dominating what’s happening in the festival space. But I’m a big believer that we’re going to have another resurgence of rock n’ roll and guitar bands. I think that you’re seeing that with the success of a band like Greta Van Fleet. I think there’s a hunger for that and I feel very confident that we’ll be seeing a wave of new rock bands in the in the next couple of years.