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NEAR TRUTHS: SETTING THE STAGE

CROWD PLEASERS: Live music is coming back with a vengeance. Ticket sales for festivals are through the roof; with sheds about to go on sale, we’re about to find out if their sales are similarly robust. It’s been about four weeks since the green light went on, and since then we’ve seen millions of tickets sold. By the 4th of July we should have a clear sense of who killed it, who did OK and who should’ve stayed home.

During the last few weeks we’ve seen an absolute deluge of tour announcements as the formidable machine of Michael Rapino’s Live Nation has ramped up with speed and alacrity, leading the charge as artists, agents, managers and their teams revved their own engines. Jay Marciano’s AEG, though more circumspect in its re-entry, put Firefly on sale (the latter scoring its best first day ever, nearly selling out) and announced new fest Born & Raised; in the U.K., the reopening of the O2 and the All Points East fest will have a sizable impact on the live landscape.

It feels like the first flowering after a brutal winter. Among music-biz entities, perhaps none felt that frost so acutely as the agencies’ music divisions. The trajectories of these firms over the last year have formed an unprecedented narrative of struggle and change. As they embark on what looks to be a prosperous new chapter, let’s take a look at what transpired over the last year-plus.

DARK AGE: In March of 2020, the onrushing pandemic slammed the lid on live music. At WME and Paradigm, the situation was exacerbated by financial turmoil. The latter agency had, in a short time, emerged as a cool alternative to CAA and WME, the giants that had dominated the live side throughout the modern era. Sam Gores had cobbled together a distinctive blend of indie agencies in the U.S. and the U.K., from the Dan Weiner/Fred Bohlander-founded Monterey Peninsula, Marty Diamond’s Little Big Man and Tom Windish’s The Windish Agency to Steve Strange’s X-ray, Coda (run by Alex Hardee, Tom Schroeder, James Whitting and Dave Hallybone) and Paul MorrisAM Only. In 2019 and early 2020, Paradigm had not only momentum but gravitas—a boutique vibe with a big reach.

But that mojo was halted by the COVID storm. Over-leveraged from the above acquisitions but without revenue to offset them—and overwhelmingly dependent on music, unlike other agencies—Paradigm lacked the resources to function day-to-day as it waited on the sidelines for said storm to pass.

What was Paradigm is no more, with part of the U.S. company now under the Wasserman banner; some international components remain, while others (such as X-ray) have resumed operating more or less independently. The agency lost a mass of top acts. The controversial Sam Gores turned to the ultra-capitalized Tom Gores to stop the bleeding, but over the course of 2020 we witnessed a mass exodus of agents from the husk of Paradigm. Matt Galle, whose clients include Shawn Mendes, Janet Jackson and My Chemical Romance, among others, is due to land at another agency soon.

The hemorrhage of key personnel and resources continued until Casey Wasserman stepped in to orchestrate a takeover with the latter brother. The resulting agency is notably smaller. The leadership group under Wasserman consists of Diamond (Ed Sheeran, Coldplay), Lee Anderson (Skrillex, Zedd, Disclosure), Sam Hunt (Major Lazer, Run the Jewels), Jonathan Levine (Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price), Corrie Martin (Imagine Dragons, Janet Jackson, Rise Against), Matt Rodriguez (David Guetta, Above & Beyond, Krewella) and Jackie Nalpant (Tasha Sultana, Cold War Kids). Fortunately for Team Wass, it seems both client Billie Eilish and the hot agent to whom she’s been attached, Sara Bollwinkel, will remain with Team Wass. The widely reported but still unofficial addition of Brent Smith brings in Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Tyler, The Creator, Snoop Dogg and John Legend. Other acts in their stable include Big Boi, Powfu and Surf Mesa. Where do things go from here? What will Windish’s role be in the new order? Speculation is that he's still awaiting his back end from the sale of his agency; could he be contemplating a move when his deal is up? Are there further shakings-out on the horizon?

Meanwhile, the other major agency casualty was Team WME. COVID came in the wake of the first, botched IPO attempt spearheaded by Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell (termed “Arigate” by some biz wags), which promised agents big upside if they’d only agree to reduced compensation packages. The poison environment engendered by those deals after the IPO fell apart had already set a great agent migration in motion. Brent Smith, Adam Voith (Mumford & Sons, Vampire Weekend), Marc Geiger (after what some described as an attempted coup) and Samantha Kirby Yoh were among the top players to ankle. Sara Newkirk Simon, having moved to consultant status at parent Endeavor, seems to be off the field. New department heads Scott Clayton, Lucy Dickins and Kirk Sommer are endeavoring to put a lid on things.

WME’s recent gains, meanwhile, have included Nicki Minaj, Olivia Rodrigo, Shakira and GIVĒON, among others, as Carolyn Yim, Zach Iser and Aaron Tenenbaum came aboard from CAA. A high-ranking agent declared that some 200 new artists had been added to WME’s already huge client list during the pandemic—leading the competition to ask contested acts, “Do you want to be one of the 200, or do you want to be with us?”

While a second IPO brought in mega-ducats for the chiefs and a select few participants, one wonders what the Endeavor that emerges from the rubble will look like.

Stay tuned for a look at CAA and UTA in part two.

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