If there was one theme that came up more than any other during the Representation Matters: Agents At the Top of Their Game panel at Billboard’s Live Summit on Tuesday (Nov. 13), it was that agents put their artists first and foremost when making decisions.
“It’s about the artist and building a career,” said Artist Group International president Marsha Vlasic early on in the discussion. Vlasic was joined on stage by some of the most accomplished agents in the business: Nadia Prescher, co-founder of Madison House; Cheryl Paglierani, agent at United Talent Agency; Alli McGregor, agent at Creative Artists Agency; Samantha Kirby Yoh, partner/head of East Coast music department at William Morris Endeavor; and Corrie Christopher Martin, senior agent at Paradigm. Collectively, the all-female panel, moderated by Billboard West Coast editor Melinda Newman, represents some of the biggest artists in the world, from Neil Young, Post Malone, Beyoncé, Ariana Grande and Alicia Keys to Imagine Dragons, LCD Soundsystem, String Cheese Incident, 21 Savage and Florence + The Machine.
With that much experience on stage, the conversation was able to be both broad and specific, covering national and local promoters, the art of ticket pricing, mental health on the road, live event safety and the art — and occasional frustration — of festival booking, among other topics.
Early on, the conversation shifted from promotion to ticketing. “It seems to me that that whole book has to be re-written,” Vlasic said, with regard to fees on both the primary and secondary markets. “It’s been really wrong for as long as I’ve been in the business that artists don’t get paid on fees. Now they’re starting to … but for so many years nothing was shared.”
That, said Yoh, is changing now thanks to technology, which is also aiding the business by giving agents, artists and promoters more options and flexibility when it comes to how to handle a tour. “You have to stay on top of all the things that are happening” with technology,” said McGregor, noting that for some artists, their goal is to never have a ticket scalped, while others don’t mind taking part in the secondary market. “You have to know how to navigate all of it, because artists might have a different end game,” she said. When an artist doesn’t want tickets scalped, she added, “You make the best effort that you can so that you can look that artist in the eye and say, ‘I did my best.'”
Martin, who has worked with Imagine Dragons since the band’s early days, spoke about how many of the bands she works with want to keep ticket prices low, even as their popularity soars, to cater to their fans. But that often meant that prices would soar on the secondary market, saying, “The best way to end up with a big scalping problem is to under-price it.” Added Vlasic, “The fan is getting ripped off and you’re not benefiting, so why not understand the process?”
Mental health for artists on the road was also a big topic of conversation, particularly as it becomes a larger topic nationwide. Paglierani, who represents several younger artists who are in some cases embarking on their first major tours and are out on the road for the first time, said she will pay to have a wellness person out on the road with an artist to help them make healthy decisions and look after their health, both physical and mental, and keep an eye on them to gauge how much they can handle when it comes to the demands of the road.
“It’s all of our jobs. It’s our responsibility,” said Yoh, speaking about how to monitor artists. “These are our friends and family. We listen, we plan accordingly and we change accordingly as well… If we have to cancel dates for their health, we have to cancel them.”
Martin also spoke about the importance of maintaining mental health as an agent, stressing that it’s not just artists out on the road who go through intense highs and lows, but agents do too in such a high-stress business. “You have to be half crazy to do what we do for a living, otherwise everyone would do it,” she said, adding, as an example, “everybody up here has probably been fired [by a client] and that’s not fun.” She received a round of applause from some in the crowd for her comments, while Prescher followed up by speaking about several organizations, such as MusiCares and To Write Love on Her Arms, which have been beneficial in helping artists and those in the business deal with such issues, while Vlasic added Road Recovery.
The panelists stressed that de-stigmatization was important, particularly in pursuit of the broader goal of inclusion — making everyone feel safe and comfortable, whether on the road, in the crowd or at the office. And part of that led to a conversation about safety at live events, a topic which has, unfortunately, come up repeatedly over the last several years in light of terrorist attacks at music venues and concerts. Martin said that, while in the past she may have been annoyed when a security officer asked for her badge to go backstage — “Don’t you know who I am?” she joked was her attitude — nowadays she’ll actively call out venue personnel who don’t.
“I will walk a building to find holes, try to sneak in without a badge and then be loud about it,” she said. “I think everybody has a lot more accountability. Anybody trying to cut a few corners… it’s just not worth it.”
The conversation then turned to festivals, as in the last year or so some rock bands have declined to play some festival slots because they have lost audiences to hip-hop acts booked at the same time on a different stage. “As agents, the most important thing is you have to be realistic with your client and let them know, this is your slot and this is what you’re gonna be up against,” said McGregor, with others adding that the problem was some agents not informing their acts.
“The show has to be booked differently — things have to change if they still want to book rock bands,” said Vlasic, adding, “I think kids still want to see rock bands.”