Executive Profile: Brian Hill

When an agent like Brian Hill starts dropping names like The Long Ryders, The Three O’Clock and The Beat Farmers, you know it’s going to be a good interview.

Hill has won Pollstar’s Third Coast Agent of the Year award twice but his background is squarely in the realm of California-based alternative music.

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“When I was 14 years old, I was into REO Speedwagon, Styx, Michael Schenker Group, that kind of stuff,” Hill told Pollstar. “Then a neighbor who was a few years older played me London Calling. And he played me The Gift by The Jam. Figuratively speaking, I burned my record collection and started over. I was hooked.”

That began a love affair with California punk rock like X, Black Flag and Circle Jerks. And he became a massive fan of The Three O’Clock, arguably one of the most celebrated bands of the ’80s California scene that never reached its potential.

A person who knew Hill also knew that band’s manager – John Silva, who’s gone on to manage acts like Foo Fighters, Beastie Boys and Beck. At age 15, Brian Hill was helping The Three O’Clock handle its fan club needs, including hand-writing envelopes and providing tickets and passes to the converted.

Eventually he went to University of California at Irvine for college, where he joined a concert committee that was run by Ed Dorsey, currently the events director at Bakersfield, Calif.’s Rabobank Arena. After Dorsey graduated, Hill took over and handled the booking of shows at UCI, many times in partnership with Avalon Attractions or Goldenvoice.

We’ll pick up the story from there, because names like Mike Piranian and Buck Williams deserve Hill’s detailed account.

You realized that, from promoting concerts in college, it was better to be an agent where you wouldn’t be risking your own money.

Yeah, that’s where it clicked. As college was coming to a close, I applied at all the major agencies – CAA, William Morris and Triad. And I got a job offer from each one to work in their mailrooms and I ended up taking CAA’s.

I graduated on a Sunday afternoon and the next morning I reported to the mailroom at 7:30 a.m. for $4 an hour. So while all my friends were out partying after graduation, I was packing up my stuff and moving home to San Marino, where I had grown up.

I did the mailroom for eight or nine months. And I was lucky enough to get promoted pretty quickly. They put me in the music department on Mike Piranian’s desk, which was a trial by fire.

I worked for Mike for a few years, which was a great lesson. I was there from ’91 to ’94. At the time he was the agent for Rod Stewart, Kenny G, KISS, The Wallflowers, Megadeth and Lenny Kravitz. So at any given moment, some of the most powerful managers and promoters in the music business were on the other line and Mike afforded me the opportunity to listen in on the phone calls and learn.

That’s how I got my first real education in the real music business.

Then I tried to get transferred to CAA’s Nashville office, which was pretty young then.

What attracted you to Nashville? The music? The business representatives? The demeanor of the clients?

At the same time I was going to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers and X, I was also going to see Dwight Yoakam, who, as I saw him, was a punk rocker who happened to be a country singer-songwriter.

You have to put it in perspective of the mid- to late-’80s. I was going to the Palamino club and Fender’s Ballroom, to see all these rocking country bands – The Knitters, The Rave-Ups. I saw Buck Owens. Saw Dwight Yoakam probably a dozen times.

The Beat Farmers?

I saw the Beat Farmers a bunch of times too. The Long Ryders was one of my favorite bands. They were punk rockers, if you think about it. And I developed a real affinity for that kind of music.

And after a few years in Beverly Hills I grew tired of Southern California, especially the West Side and playing that fast-paced California music business game.

So it made sense to me to move to Nashville and to a genre of music that I loved best and still work for a great company like CAA. They flew me down here once or twice, and I blew the interview. It was my job to lose; it was a layup and I blew it. I acted like the kid I was at the time and was rewarded with a “thanks, but no thanks.”

Then what the heck happened?

I ended up going to work for Buck Williams at Progressive Global Agency and starting that company with Buck and Scott Clayton in ’94. Just the three of us, quite literally in Buck’s garage. When I left we had just moved out of the garage and into another building in town from Buck’s house way out in the country.

It was a great proving ground in retrospect. I drove from L.A. to Nashville in two-and-a-half days. I had never booked a date in my life. Didn’t know what I was doing. I had only been an assistant and Buck just kind of threw the phone book at us and said “start dialing.”

The good news is that Buck was a seasoned veteran, was well respected, and knew exactly what he was doing. And Scott had been booking at least regional talent for a long while and knew how to book anything, anywhere, anyhow.

So I just rode the wake behind those guys and tried to learn how to do things. And I must say, they were both very patient with me. PGA was a really good education. I was only there three years when Fred Bohlander called with a great opportunity to move to Monterey Peninsula Artists, which eventually became Paradigm.

Why do you think Monterey hired you?

What they probably saw in me was a guy they could ask to do anything and I’d just shut up and try to make it happen. Whether that was bringing in alt-country, focusing on mainstream country, taking over responsible agent status on bands, who knows?

From that point I signed a couple small regional bands that never really turned into anything big. And then they gave me a few bands that were on the roster here –Robert Earl Keen, most notably. Being blessed with that project was the turning point for me.

How so?

Instead of booking bands for $250 that wanted to fill weekends and to get any gig that was there, they handed me a guy who had a strong, established fan base. He was a viable commodity not just to the company but was on the road all the time and had sold thousands and thousands of records.

It was like finally being able to put on a good suit. I had a lot of pride in it, I felt like a grownup. I thought, “Holy crap, I’m responsible for the fortune and well being not only of the artist but for the band, the crew and all their families.”

For which acts on the roster are you the RA?

Jack Ingram, Kevin Fowler, Eli Young Band, Reckless Kelly, Roger Creager, Carter’s Chord, Jaron & The Long Road To Love, Micky & The Motorcars, Tyler Ward and Radney Foster / Foster & Lloyd.

You’ve won the Third Coast award twice without a megastar arena headliner. Why do you think so many people voted for you?

I’ve thought about it a lot. This is the truth without any false humility:

I realized a long time ago I would never get to be the smartest guy in the room. And I tried to figure out in my life how I would make a living, be successful and provide for myself and whatever family I made.

I decided I was not going to pretend I was the smartest guy but I knew in my heart that I could outwork anybody. I definitely have a blue-collar work ethic about me. Whether it was shoveling mulch with my dad as a kid or whatever, I knew nobody could outwork me.

So I decided this a long time ago: I would choose a profession that I love, which is music, I would work as hard as I could possibly work, I would tell the truth and I would try to honor the job, God, my family and myself. I would just take a very straightforward approach to whatever I did.

My Grandfather used to tell me about, how during the Depression, he scrubbed toilets for pennies just trying to make ends meet. I tried to apply what I saw in him to my own life. And truthfully, sometimes scrubbing toilets seems like a pretty good alternative … but not really!

The only thing that I can think of that put me on that stage at the Pollstar Awards was maybe it’s a result of the aforementioned. Maybe I’m nice, maybe people like to talk to me. I don’t know, but I can only assume it’s that part of me and not based solely on the roster, although believe me when I tell you, I understand that it all starts with the client.

We (Paradigm) have great artists that I get to work with. But yeah, you’re right. I don’t have a solid arena headliner. I believe that day will come but not at the time I won those awards.

That’s the only thing I can think of. I didn’t stuff the ballot box and I didn’t make a single call asking people to vote for me. Maybe it’s because I treat people fair. I still scratch my head. If you ask my wife, she’ll say, “Because you’re the best!” But that doesn’t count. She’s biased.

Speaking of being fair, does that include making adjustments with buyers when a show isn’t doing well?

There are certain situations where as a booking agent you know that you need to extract as much money as you possibly can from a gig. We do just that all day, by proxy, or by the sheer nature of the job, but I prefer working with bands that understand their worth, understand where they are and understand where they want to go. But they also understand playing for what you’re worth rather than playing for what they “need.”

To me, that sounds backwards. I think when we start making decisions based solely on money, it’s the cart before the horse.

For instance, I just had Eli Young Band and Kevin Fowler play at the Cotillion in Wichita. It sold out. Sold 1,650 in advance, 50 at the door, and it was clean before the first fan bought the first beer.

And we cut a fantastic deal for the bands but what we did – and they won’t mind me saying this – we did a door deal. I told the bands, “Trust me. We know it’s going to work. You’ll make more money this way and I know the show will do great.”

And they trusted me. They let me do it my way. So I told Richard Leslie at the Cotillion, “Here’s the deal: I’m not going to charge you a guarantee. I’m going to take on some of the risk with you but you have to reward me if we do well.”

He had never cut a deal like that in 30-plus years there. He told me on the phone today, “I’d cut that deal again in a heartbeat. It took pressure off me on the front end and everybody left happy. I kept the concessions. I made a lot of money, you guys made more money than you’ve ever made here before, and it was a success.”

I think the business is moving in the direction where bands are going to have to take on a greater share, or a partnership, with promoters to get things done. When you put hard economic times in there and declining numbers all around, I think the choice is to partner up and create a win-win. And I endorse those kinds of deals as long as the artist is rewarded when the gig does well.

What kind of rooms work best for your artists?

I am a huge fan of the big club and ballroom shows, where you’ve got bodies close together in the audience and your artist is the headliner, and is the focus of the night. That’s something I learned from Buck and Scott.

You create the entire experience – the camaraderie of the audience, the experience of being in a club or a ballroom, the experience of seeing a band play in a more intimate environment than they could.

As a band, you get more from the audience by giving more to the audience. I just think that environment – the Fonda in L.A., Slim’s in San Francisco, George’s in Fayetteville, Ark. – gives the patron so much more.

You’ve foregone at least one big country music event to spend time with your family. How hard is it to balance everything?

I love talking about my family. I could lay down the music business tomorrow as long as I’ve got my wife and my four kids. And I’ve told Steffany numerous times, “Tell me when you’re not getting enough of me, or tell me when you’ve had enough of the music business, and I’ll go bag groceries until we figure out what to do next.”

Just to spend more time with them.

And I mean that 100 percent. I love the music business, I love music in general, and I love live music, but they’re a distant second to my family life.

So it’s very hard for me to balance the two. I work very late almost every day and I have to try to get home for dinner once or twice a week, not including weekends. And I have a lot of guilt about that.

But I’m married to somebody who understands this is the nature of this job. We talked about it before we got married, and we talked about it before we had kids.

But I’m theirs on the weekends when I’m home. I cook every meal on the weekends. I do a lot of cleaning. I do most of the yardwork and I spend every waking moment with my wife and kids. It’s rare for me to go see a show on a weekend. We live way out in the country and it’s very rare for me to come into town to work on the weekends. That’s my time with my family.

There are a lot of people in this business who end up raising kids that aren’t right, for lack of a better word, and I don’t want to be that guy. The truth is I need to do a better job of being a dad and a husband than I am now. It almost feels like I’m married equally to my job as I am to my wife. Balancing it is a daily struggle and challenge for me.

So how did you run into the artists you’ve signed?

Robert Earl Keen is an industry unto himself. He’s the king of the Texas Red Dirt Music scene. When I got handed that project I started seeing all these other bands: Pat Green, Billy Joe Shaver, Cross Canadian Ragweed. All these guys who were doing it on their own.

Maybe they had a record label, maybe they did not. Some with major management, some without. Some booked themselves in-house, some had major agencies.

I loved rock ’n’ roll, as I told you before. I loved country. And to me, the Texas scene was the perfect hybrid. The Long Ryders might have been half country but they were D.I.Y. The Beat Farmers, same thing. The Blasters, same thing. And today in my World: Reckless Kelly, Kevin Fowler, Roger Creager, and Micky & The Motorcars have that same drive and ethos.

And I saw these bands doing it on their own, making money on the road. They always worked.

So I thought, “Wait a second! Instead of chasing everything that was coming down the pipe at a record label, or going for adds on radio, or whatever the band of the moment in Nashville was, I’m going to start working with these bands that do it themselves.” They create their own audiences and aren’t dependent upon radio or what a publicist or record label tells the consumer to believe or buy. And there are fewer ups and downs. They would always tour. I would always have an income.

There’s the intersection of practicality and what my heart led me to do musically.

Of your roster, any that you’d like to make sure buyers are aware of?

I’ve said before, and I stand by it, the best rock ‘n’ roll band in America is Reckless Kelly. They’re not a country band. They’re a rock band that sometimes gets confused for a country band.

For my money, and again I’m biased, Reckless Kelly is the best rock band in America. They can play with anybody. We’ve had them with Willie Nelson, we’ve had them with Reverend Horton Heat, and we’ve had them with The Black Crowes. And to their chagrin, we’ve had them in the Neon Armadillos of the world.

And what’s going on with the Eli Young Band is staggering. Everywhere they go they make friends. Promoters love them, the house crews love them and they’re very good to their fans. They win every time they play. And all you have to do is look at the charts. By the time this interview comes out, they’ll have a Top 10 single, or close to it, on the country charts.

And don’t get me started on Kevin Fowler who is both the nicest guy and rowdiest performer we have on the roster. I’m very excited about his 2011-2012. Mark my words.

Was there one that got away?

Yeah, there was an artist that I helped bring to town from North Carolina. I did everything you could imagine: I bought him meals, took him around town for meetings. I’m still very close to the former manager. I basically propped him up, got him some gigs, got him on his feet.

He ended up signing to a major record label and had a hit song. His record debuted at No. 1 on the country charts. Two days later, his attorney calls me to tell me I was fired.

The manager was fired, too. The attorney ascended the throne with another party and they became co-managers, and the attorney told me he had a much better relationship with a competing agency. It was a rookie maneuver all around.

In the end, the artist was his own worst enemy and got exactly what he deserved. He has moved on to other agencies and other managers and no longer has that record deal. But that one hurt because it was so personal to me. I was there from the very earliest days, only to get canned when the going was about to get lucrative, however briefly.

That sounds rough all right.

This is a true story. I had a major tour set up for said artist to support this gigantic country headliner. And it was a done deal. The headliner’s people called the morning I was about to get fired! They said, “You’ve got the tour for your client.”

I said, “Fantastic. I’ll make sure it gets done.”

A couple hours later I get fired.

So I called back the manager of the headliner and said, “Guess what. We’ve decided to not take this tour but we would love for you to consider Jack Ingram instead.”

And they gave the tour to him. And the artist who ended up firing me? The major headliner was this guy’s personal favorite of all time. He was enamored with the headliner.

But the point is, we had done nothing wrong. We didn’t deserve to get fired. And I thought, “You know what? I have to demonstrate some sort of self-respect.” And that was the kickoff for Jack and his very successful touring career and he had his second or third Top 10 hit in the middle of that tour, so the timing couldn’t have been better.

I’m not a vengeful guy but that just hurt, you know? And I thought, at least I’m doing something good for somebody else. And that somebody else was Jack Ingram, a guy whom I love like a brother and for whom I would lay it all down for.

So that’s the one that got away, but I have a short list of people I’ve passed on that went on to success. Oh well. We all do.

What makes an ideal manager in an agent’s eyes?

I love managers that understand the road, because the road is so different than any other part of the business. I love it when a manager has been on the road. Maybe they were artists themselves. Maybe they were road managers. Maybe they were tour accountants.

I like people who understand the dynamic of being on the road, doing a show, getting to the next city, knowing how to settle a show. They know how much time to put between plays in a certain city.

It’s no secret I’m very close to George Couri at Triple 8 Management. He is the manager of three clients at this company (Eli Young Band, Kevin Fowler and Jack Ingram). And not only is he a great manager, I know he’s got my back, and I have his.

The collaboration we have is unique. We partner up in getting things done. I’ve never seen a better diplomat when it comes to dealing with all the different parts of this business, period. And Sarah Blincoe at his office is equally fantastic. She has the most incredible bedside manner and is a future superstar manager herself.

And I cannot fail to mention Larry Murray there, too, who has run day-to-day on Eli Young Band in near-perfect fashion. The combination of the three of them is a great case study for how things should get done in a management company: Everyone using their strengths to make the clients better off.

What’s a bad manager?

I’m not a fan of agents, managers and publicists who mistake themselves for the star. I know of managers and agents who have their own riders for when they visit a city to cover a gig. Doesn’t that seem crazy? I love going on the road but the greater point is, let’s not forget who the fountainhead is.

Any closing thoughts?

I don’t want to come off as a shill, but I have to give credit to Fred Bohlander and Chip Hooper for basically saving my life. For hiring me when there was no good reason to hire me other than I was a nice guy who’d work hard.

And this company is just an absolutely incredible place to work. I’m not just saying that; For me, this is home. They’re very supportive at Paradigm. To be a good agent, you have to have what Dave Ramsey calls the heart of a servant. You have to enjoy being in service to others. You have to derive satisfaction and joy from bettering other people and that’s what’s Paradigm’s all about.

We have a company whose ethos is completely predicated on bettering the lives and careers of others. And when you can positively affect others and do what you love while making a living, you’ve won the Game Of Life.