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THE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL: THE HITS INTERVIEW WITH ROB LIGHT

CAA Music boss Rob Light is back in 24/7 mode as he and his team navigate the reopening. We asked him to assess the current landscape but also reflect on the lessons and epiphanies of the pandemic. Despite the live drought, the agency was anything but idle during quarantine, pushing the creative envelope in search of new opportunities. The company’s Music Brand Partnerships team closed hundreds of deals amid the shutdown, including Jennifer Lopez with Coach and Cardi B with Balenciaga. In Nashville, the division brought 15 music clients, including Lady A and Little Big Town, into a lucrative partnership with Camping World that included a weekly virtual concert series. Indeed, CAA booked some 250 virtual events between March of 2020 and this spring. One virtual event Rob would probably have preferred to cancel? His conversation with us.

This was an interesting 14 or 15 months.
Yeah, unprecedented. A great learning experience.

What’s your sense of the state of play in the U.S. now that summer’s kicking into high gear?
Personally, I’m ecstatic about the first shows going up and the festivals selling at the level they are, just thrilled because it puts the exclamation point behind what we all believe: that there was this real desire to go back and see live music. I do think, however, that this notion of “pent-up demand” is slightly skewed; I think there’s a pent-up demand to get out of the house. Everybody just wants to get out and do things, and multiple sectors will benefit. Travel, restaurants, theater, museums—all of that is going to do great. I hope music is at the top of everyone’s list, but I also don’t believe that a 35- or 40-year-old who might’ve gone to one or two concerts a month is suddenly going to go to five.

So as an industry, we can’t make all our money back in the first six months; we have to take a long, two- to three-year approach on the health of this business. We’ve got to be conscious of packaging, ticket pricing, playing the right venue at the right time, not overwhelming the audience with choices, finding a way to balance all that. What’s interesting is that for the first time, we’re looking at each other and saying, “We’ve got to be respectful of each other—promoters, agents, managers— while we let the business find its sea legs again.” This is a moment where the goal is for everyone to win, and hopefully we’re all going into it with our eyes wide open. But I’m sure it’s going to be amazing 24 to 36 months in. I’m happy for the artists who’ve had to sit home and I’m even happier for the fans who can’t wait to go.

What are you hearing from the acts and managers and your team as they finally get back on the road?
Enthusiasm. Though there’s obviously some anxiety and the fervor that now goes back into that. We all sort of let that muscle relax, but those urgencies have taken on a new life. It’s back to 14-hour days and “Why didn’t I get that information an hour ago?” All that “Hurry up and give it to me,” which is great. We’re retraining those muscles. But they’re as enthusiastic to scratch that itch as anyone.

How are you and your team managing the directives of local governments, the impact of public health decisions on capacity?
You still really don’t have touring in Europe. You don’t have any touring in South America. Asia is still very much closed down. So everything is coming here. This first 12 months is going to be nuts here. We’re all dealing with the legalities, the lack of insurance that goes with the uncertainty. You have to watch the other live events to gauge what’s going to work. Sports is at full capacity. Conferences, Vegas—full capacity. We’re going to be as open-eyed as we can be looking for the speed bumps, and there will be a few, but it’s going to be more consistent as we move forward. The real unknown is the rest of the world. Too many countries in Europe have opened, then closed, then opened, then closed. Even in the U.K., everything was going to open up in mid-June; now it’s been pushed back a month. Because there’s less consistency to what is going on over there, we’ll be more tentative in how we go out in those territories, trying to read the tea leaves. Fortunately, Emma [Banks] and Mike [Greek] are so on top of every market; they’re in touch with every local promoter. They see which way the wind is blowing and when it’s changing. I do believe, though, that once we all open, it will be hard to ever close it again; I don’t think we’ll ever go through what we’ve gone through again because we’ll deal with it in a different way.

How does 2022 look?
You’ve got legendary superstars working again and bulletproof. From The Eagles to Bruce Springsteen, Keith Urban, Tim McGraw, Justin Bieber, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and so many others—they’re all going to be fantastic. Add to that, because of social media, a next generation that is going to be off the chart. Harry Styles is enormous and only getting hotter. Then there are Dua Lipa, H.E.R., Glass Animals, Doja Cat, Conan Gray, HAIM, Maggie Rogers, Lil Nas X and Lil Baby. I’m not even mentioning all the new country acts like John Pardi, Dan + Shay, Kelsea Ballerini… Hip-hop has never been hotter, with all of those superstars. 

There are many conversations regarding future generations having career superstar artists as we have today; will fan loyalty stay intact over time? I believe the answer is a resounding “yes.” You can easily rattle off 20+ amazing artists who will still be making great music and selling arena/stadium-size tickets 20 years from now. Everyone used to say that our generation loves music differently than this generation, that they have so many other things demanding their attention, so many distractions, that it’s not as important to them as it was to us. That’s just not true. Music is the soundtrack to everyone’s life. And at least as far as I can see, it always will be. The Rolling Stones may not be the thing to my daughter, but Britney Spears means a hell of a lot to her. The festival scene tells you there’s a generation of kids who just love going to music. Love it. And that’s great for all of us. So I think it’s very encouraging. I’ve never been more enthusiastic about the next generation of artists. It’s a really interesting moment in time, just exhilarating. And I’m excited for my young agents, who are working with all this talent, and for the industry as a whole.

When you look at TikTok, how kids are interacting with music, it’s in some ways more a part of their lives than the way we interacted with it growing up.
I agree with you. And the Holy Grail for the entire industry has always been, as the fan and the artist get closer, how do they talk to each other? For years, certainly in the ’60s, they couldn’t; there was AM radio in between them. There were all these blocks… record companies… you could see all the pieces in between. But we’ve created this bridge and each new technology brings them closer. TikTok has brought them much closer. And the more that relationship is locked in, the better artists will do.

The stability of CAA over the last year is, to use your word, unprecedented. How were you able to pull that together?
Taking a huge step back, CAA as a company has always been incredibly consistent and stable. If you look at the leadership of the last 26 years, it’s the same people running the company. But decentralizing that leadership was a very important thing for us pre-COVID; we were very deliberate in bringing all these people into the conversation, empowering more people in leadership so there were more points of connection for the staff. I can’t say enough about all of my partners, Darryl Eaton, Mitch Rose, Rick Roskin and Emma Banks, whose leadership through the pandemic was thoughtful, empathetic and smart. Add to that the many agents who stepped up. I wish you would list them all, but I know you won’t.

And when agents like Kevin French, Adam Voith, Mike Marquis, Matt Galle, Mike Mori and Rachel Pestik join our family, it’s a huge deal—and I believe the reason they want to be here is the camaraderie, support, intelligence and creativity of a huge group of agents who’ve worked together for many years and actually like and respect each other.

You then wrap in all the amazing signings this team had over the past 16 months—The Weeknd, Miguel, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Arcade Fire, Roddy Ricch—and the artists who joined with our new agents like Tame Impala, Shawn Mendes, Mumford & Sons, Janet Jackson, Vampire Weekend, girl in red and so many others, and it’s amazing and unprecedented. I cannot say enough about every member of this music family. I am blessed to sit in the chair I get to sit in.

So when you have a roster of senior agents who’ve been working together for 20-plus years and you have empowered senior staff, you have stability. You get into a rhythm of how you deal with tough issues, like these last 15 months. And not to sound corny, but our company credo from the day I joined 37 years ago has remained the same: If we take care of each other, good things will happen. And that’s what we’ve done. People really rose to the occasion, whether it was helping the clients, making sure tour moves were happening the right way, facilitating management conversations or, if somebody felt overwhelmed, bringing people in. We worked very consciously on the mental health of our staff, making sure people were reaching out to other people, particularly people home alone, people with young kids. There was a real effort to make sure everybody was as OK as possible so that they never felt disconnected going through this. When it was someone’s birthday, someone’s anniversary, someone was having a health issue, we rallied around them any way we could. So it was deliberately making sure leadership was connected to all the pieces of the department and consciously staying in touch, particularly when you weren’t going into an office. And then it was taking this camaraderie and this culture and letting people in on it and making sure word spread into the marketplace.

Can we talk a little more about how you supported the clients amid all the uncertainty?
We said to the staff from day one, “You need to be checking in.” Under ordinary circumstances, you talk to the manager and the artist regularly, but it’s harder to do when there’s nothing going on. So it was very deliberate: “Are you checking in once a week? Are you having a meeting, really talking about what we can do, asking, ‘What’s going on? What do you need?’” Because some of it is just emotional support.

I did conference calls with every manager we do business with, sometimes just to check in. And part of that was simply to project optimism, even as late as January, when people were saying there’d be no touring until 2022; [Marc] Geiger had gone on the record that there wouldn’t be a single show until 2022, but I was telling people, “We’re going to have shows this summer. We are.” And I believed it, and here we are now and there’s a lot going on. So some of that was optimism about when shows were going to come back but also about what the world was going to look like when it came back.

We also pushed really hard to find ancillary things for people to do: books, podcasts, livestreaming, sponsorships. In terms of sponsorships alone—no exaggeration—during the 15 months of COVID, we did 454 deals for over $67 million. Artists took deals that might’ve been a little less than they were used to, but they understood that they couldn’t promote their work the same way they had been. A lot of artists just said, “Yeah, let’s do something.” People wanted to work, so they did. And again, it was coming from a very positive point of view, never perfect but engaging; we were bringing people ideas to consider. If you said to a client, “Hey, you ever think of doing a children’s book or a book of poetry?” and they said, “Yeah,” even if it took a few months to come up with the idea, they’re working on something. You’ll now start to see some of the fruits of that labor coming out. We’re very proud of the interaction at every level of our business, and how quickly it happened.

Ultimately, though, we didn’t go into COVID saying, “Okay, we’re going to make a bunch of deals”; we went in saying, “Let’s just stay healthy and stable.” And we think it worked.

I’d also like to point out something we learned as an industry during COVID: We actually all do respect each other. The coming together of voices to try and make it through this was really impressive; competitors worked together to get through it, which I thought was great. And the overall optimism that we would get through it was great. So I’m proud of our industry. I really am. The other part is that everyone, every record company, every publisher, realized the importance of the live aspect. We were always sort of on the outside looking in and everyone woke up and went, “Wow, this is hard to do without live music.” So if some good came out of it, it’s that we all learned how important live music is.

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