Seismic Shifts Ahead For London Agencies

The financial troubles of the publicly traded Sanctuary Music Group may prove to be the initial catalyst for a series of major deals that could reshape the U.K. booking agency business.

The impending departure of Merck Mercuriadis is only the tip of the iceberg and a raft of other departures and changes are expected in the coming weeks. Mercuriadis was still working at Sanctuary at press time and would not comment, but indicated he will release a statement soon.

Stories that Mercuriadis is leaving the Sanctuary fold – and taking Guns N’ Roses with him – to align himself with Irving Azoff and Howard Kaufman’s Front Line Management have been quickly followed by rumors that company co-founder Rod Smallwood, senior manager Craig Jennings, and Emma Banks and Mike Greek from Sanctuary’s London-based Helter Skelter talent agency are also on their way out.

Media reports saying Smallwood has already left aren’t true, but he could well be heading that way. Iron Maiden, his longtime management client, has reportedly come to the end of its Sanctuary contract. Former Sanctuary chairman and chief exec Andy Taylor – his partner for more than 20 years – was booted out by incoming chairman Bob Ayling in May for allegedly allowing misleading information to be supplied to the London Stock Exchange.

The industry has always identified Sanctuary as Smallwood and Taylor’s company even as it morphed into a public entity. With its credit rating now in shambles, Ayling might attempt to take Sanctuary private again, although the company may be only a fraction of what it was three years ago.

But the news likely to cause the most raised eyebrows among international agency business people is that the highly regarded Banks and Greek may be leaving Sanctuary for more financially stable environs. Industry talk in London is that the pair has had discussions with several companies including Creative Artists Agency and William Morris Agency about setting up a London-based office for one or the other U.S. companies.

CAA has been rumored to be scouting for the right people and situation to set up an office in the British capital for years. The agency already books many of the acts on its roster on a worldwide basis from America, but the gap in time zones makes a London office a logical step.

William Morris has had a London office for decades but it has never been staffed with full-time music agents. That might be changing.

Top WMA music execs Peter Grosslight and Marc Geiger were in London recently for meetings. There is also considerable chatter about former Dire Straits manager Ed Bicknell making a surprise return to the business to head a London-based team of music agents for WMA.

Repeated attempts to reach Grosslight, Geiger or Bicknell were unsuccessful at press time. When Pollstar called the existing WMA office in London and asked to speak to Bicknell, an unnamed staffer said, “He doesn’t actually work here, but he was in last week and was introduced to all of us. I suggest you try again in a couple of weeks.”

In response to a call to Sanctuary to clarify the situation regarding Mercuriadis and Smallwood, a member of the senior management team in the London office said he wasn’t prepared to comment on speculation.

Responding to a similar question regarding Banks and Greek, he said, “Emma and Mike are both still at Helter Skelter,” but he wouldn’t comment further if he thought that would still be the case in a week’s time.

It’s been impossible to get a comment from Banks or Greek as both are said to be out of the office until September 18th. CAA was also not commenting at press time.

The loss of Banks and Greek would be a major blow to Helter Skelter. Greek has some of the hottest new acts in the U.K. including Franz Ferdinand, Jamie Cullum, KT Tunstall, and David Gray. Banks has been the responsible agent for a host of headliners ranging from Red Hot Chili Peppers to Nine Inch Nails.

At the beginning of 2005, Helter Skelter endured the loss of Ian Huffam, Jeff Craft and Steve Strange, who all left to set up X-Ray Touring with Martin Horne and Scott Thomas from Live Nation’s International Talent Booking.

Speaking of ITB, with Barry Dickens recovering from a serious illness, there is also plenty of chatter about several of its remaining agents holding discussions with other agencies.

If Banks and Greek do leave to set up the CAA London office, and the betting line on that is off the board, it’s quite possible that Sanctuary will hive off the remainder of Helter Skelter to another agency. Although the agency denies that it is actively looking to expand into the U.K., the name of the expansion-minded Paradigm Agency has also been floating in the rumor mill.

So get out the grease board and be prepared in the next few weeks for a near total rewrite of the power structure of the live music business in London.

– John Gammon