Overpaid, Oversexed And Over Here?

After years of seemingly nebulous ILMC panel discussions about the wrongs and rights of U.S. agents booking their acts into Europe, this year’s gathering will be the first to have a real chance to react to the Americans actually moving in and setting up shop in London.

Maybe Europe – and particularly the U.K – has an inherent resistance to any U.S. intrusion, typified by the way the Brits’ three major moans about American GIs stationed here during World War II were that they were "overpaid, oversexed, and over here."

Former Dire Straits manager Ed Bicknell, who’s now running William Morris Agency’s worldwide booking and was instrumental in setting up the Los Angeles-based agency’s European HQ at London’s Centrepoint Tower, said he wasn’t aware of any widespread territorialism from U.K. agents but admitted "one or two of them may have felt we were pissing up their lampposts."

In a similar way to how the American GIs had a quick response to the Brits’ jibes by saying they were only jealous because they were "underpaid, undersexed, and under Eisenhower," WMA worldwide head of music Peter Grosslight – an ILMC panel vet – also has a strong counter-argument: The original reason the U.S. agents booked Europe was because London-based agents weren’t interested in taking their acts.

Grosslight cites his early days in the business when direct booking was the only way to get European work for acts such as Johnny Mathis, Sergio Mendes and Henry Mancini.

He also said nobody complained about it until WMA’s rock roster developed, which led to it being "a big deal issue" and what became the annual ILMC arguments with U.K. agents.

As Bicknell was working on setting up the WMA office, the London agency grapevine started buzzing with stories about who he was approaching, who was likely to move to WMA and who was more likely to stick where they are – with a few complaining about something running down their lampposts.

He said he can’t say whether the setup went according to his expectations, as he didn’t really have any and approached the job "with a blank sheet of paper."

Grosslight said he knew a lot of U.K. agents by name but very few of them personally, and most of the early meetings were more like "exploratory" talks and certainly not similar to interviews or negotiations.

"We weren’t trying to do anything quietly. We knew everybody would be talking about us. We weren’t naïve."

He said he sees the concert industry as a "people business" and believes blending people with the "right chemistry" was always going to be a better way to start in the U.K. than just buying an agency.

Bicknell has been quoted as saying he didn’t want to be involved if WMA was only going to buy an agency and then "fuck off back to L.A. and forget about it."

Grosslight, Bicknell and particularly WMA chief operating officer Jim Wiatt – who was at ICM in the ’80s and involved in the company buying into Fair Warning and Wasted Talent – are no doubt mindful of what happened when the resulting company (ICM-Fair Warning) was left to polar opposites, John Jackson and Ian Flooks.

Bicknell’s happy the "exploratory" approach has worked well. He said the agents he spoke to quickly divided up between "people who got it and people who didn’t." He’s confident the chemistry is right because during his discussions with them, most of his new London team had recommended each other.

Asked why he’s bothered returning to the music business when he could easily buy enough beaches to enjoy a long retirement with regular changes of scenery, he said he’s only been out of it since he stopped managing The Blue Nile at the end of 2005.

His involvement with William Morris was almost by accident and came as an aside he made to Grosslight in a telephone conversation about a charity project – they’ve known each other for a couple of decades – when he (apparently jokingly) asked when WMA was going to open up in London.

Grosslight said he’d already been thinking about it as a sensible move for the simple commercial reason that the combined European touring market equals the U.S. in revenues.

"It was the natural place to open up because we didn’t exist there," Grosslight told Pollstar. "We have offices in all our major areas of interest. We have an office in Nashville because we have country artists and in Miami because we have Latin artists, and so this is a natural expansion.

"The timing is accidental," he said, preempting any questions about the U.K. agency and trade media perception that being first to set up in London had become something of a WMA vs. CAA arms race.

Moving into Europe a decade ago would have meant running a business that was more than 6,000 miles away, but Grosslight said improvements in technology – including video conferences – makes the distance much less of a problem in 2007.

The U.K. reaction to this U.S. occupation is mixed between those who say it’s "the largest change in the booking agency business in the last decade" and "a bigger move than Live Nation moving into Europe," and those who think it’s no more than a proverbial tempest in a teacup that will make next to no practical difference in the way the European booking business operates, nor will it change well-established personal business arrangements and friendships or significantly alter the continental market share.

London agents are already half-jokingly saying that WMA, which has departments covering literature, theatre, television and cinema, will market itself so aggressively that it’ll try to steal acts by offering them film parts. But Grosslight and Bicknell laugh off the idea of trawling the city’s pubs and clubs and offering baby bands the chance to be "big in the movies."

Apart from having a cogent explanation as to why U.S. agents first dabbled in Europe, or were first forced to dabble in Europe to have any chance of sensibly developing the live careers of Mathis, Mendes and Mancini et al, Grosslight said the WMA philosophy is to continue "to render the best possible service to our clients."

The consensus of opinion from most of the major independent U.K. agencies is bullish and leans toward the idea that the new WMA and CAA offices – both staffed with London agents – won’t amount to much more than those same agents repping their acts in the same way as they have always done.

They see it as the same competition under a different flag, and however good the U.S. "chemistry," the base elements in the equation are still London-based agents.