Executive Profile: Kirk Sommer

If Kirk Sommer had just one client, it would be a big deal. For instance, Adele. Sommer signed her before she was one of the biggest voices in the world. But that’s just one ringer. 

Add Sam Smith – winner of four Grammy awards, an Academy award, and countless other achievements. The biggest name in pop, if not Adele. Between Adele and Sam Smith, that’s about it; that’s all you need. The Killers. The band was his first signing, they’ve gone on to sell millions of albums, sold out arenas around the world and places like Wembley Stadium and Foro Sol and headlined nearly every major festival under Sommer’s stewardship (although he’s quick to credit their hard work for their success).

Ellie Goulding. Sommer represents Ellie Goulding. Here’s some more: Arctic Monkeys, WeezerMorrisseyFoster The PeoplePet Shop BoysPassion PitEmpire of The SunTegan and SaraAmos LeeEdward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros (and its Big Top Circus), Coheed and Cambria, and The Shins.

Sommer found himself working with them after they had album cycles.

Also, there’s 2015 best new artist Grammy nominee and Brit award recipient James Bay

Hozier. Sommer represents Hozier and also Paolo Nutini. Then there was the late Amy Winehouse. Sommer, a principal and partner at WME, is a strong supporter of different children’s charities, a proud family man and quite possibly the most modest agent in a business often known for just the opposite. He has been nominated for Pollstar’s Bobby Brooks Agent of the Year several times, including for 2015.

He’s also been named Paste’s most influential agent, listed on Billboard’s 30 under 30 and 40 under 40 top music executives lists as well as nominated for best agent at the International Music Awards presented by Shazam.

To date Sommer has signed more than 50 percent of the BBC Poll winners in the last 12 years as well as three of the four artists ever to have topped the BBC Poll and won Brit Critic’s Choice Awards. Bay was a Brit critic’s choice award recipient and runner up on the BBC Poll.

There are other artists to mention, ones who are quickly leveling up: Stevie Nicks’ buddies HaimSteve AokiGeorge EzraMichael KiwanukaBanks and Jake Bugg.

Three recent signings – LåpsleyFrances, and Cloves – made their marks at Coachella. The 19-year-old Låpsley packed the Mojave tent both Fridays, with Stereogum proclaiming the first set one of the festival’s memorable moments. Idolator said this of the Frances set: “It’s bold to perform at a music festival with just a piano and a collection of gut-wrenching ballads, but that’s exactly what Frances did on Day 1 of Coachella. And the 22-year-old, who has been hailed as the U.K.’s next break-out star, pulled it off through sheer sincerity and the undeniable quality of her voice.”

Meanwhile, the 20-year-old Australian singer Kaity Dunstan, who goes by Cloves, “conquered” the festival, according to the Australian Associated Press. And yet, with all of these artists to handle, sometimes you can get Sommer on the phone.

“What do you mean sometimes?” Sommer erupted. “Have I never taken your call or responded to your email?”

It’s true: Sommer is always available, including while on the grounds of Coachella during the production of this feature.

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Kirk Sommer and his wife, Chloe (R), with Sam Smith after the 88th Academy Awards.

So how did you get into this business?

I tried playing instruments throughout grade school. I played drums, I played guitar and bass when there were too many drummers. An instrument requires dedication and hours of practice. I don’t think I had severe limitations but I had other interests and knew I was never going to be nearly as good as some of the people around me if I didn’t put in the hours but I loved music.

Around ‘95 while at NYU, I realized some performers weren’t necessarily the best representatives of their talent. Although they could write, sing or play, they didn’t necessarily have a platform.

I booked some small shows and started doing everything from open mic nights to lesbian parties to large bridge-and-tunnel events at a myriad of venues throughout Manhattan. It wasn’t related to “Student Activities” – it was more or less an opportunity. It was New York; it was a playground. There’s a club and a restaurant on every other corner and there is a very large and active population, lots of opportunity. 

This was not unchartered territory; people who did what I did would claim different nights of the week at new establishments.

Essentially you’d stake claim in x-night of the week for x-number of weeks and you’d guarantee a club a minimum number of people through the door and a food and beverage minimum. 

We’d normally take the door, supply our own enforcer to handle the cash and we would hire the talent. If we cut a good deal, we would participate in F&B.

I worked with or competed against some promoters that are the most successful and accomplished club promoters in the world today. There are some pretty smart and ambitious folks that are constantly adapting to that landscape and scaling.

Our electronic team is in business with a lot of those folks today in some capacity. We recently partnered with a select group to screen longtime friend and client Steve Aoki’s documentary, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” around the Tribeca Film Festival.

Any particular artist you gravitated toward?

Not really, no, unless they were interesting or had a super positive attitude, there was such a wide spectrum of talent and events for all walks of life.

So how does this lead to an internship at Ron Delsener’s office?

Some of these smaller events turned into larger one off events with larger talent on select nights of the year, we would charge a premium on said nights to everyone clamoring to go wherever their friends were going.

It may have been my first experience in dynamic pricing. Once we were near capacity, or midnight, the price of admission went up.

Having a strong interest in the music business and connecting people, and not wanting to throw everything away in my own restaurant or club, I thought I’d try something new. I stumbled across an opportunity to intern at Delsener/Slater.

Ron, Sarah Weiss, Sam Kinken, Jim Glancy and Randy Henner were the core group in the office. It was a very brief stint. I was only there a few hours a couple days a week, for a few weeks.

I quickly realized I was more interested in the agent side of things. I liked identifying new talent and wanted to be more involved in artist development and making decisions to help grow and cultivate an artist. I was also a little tired of living like a vampire in New York so I flew out to L.A., interviewed at all the agencies, and William Morris felt like the right fit.

I left other opportunities on the table that offered larger salaries and quicker advancement than William Morris. If you are going to do something, you do it right.

So did you do the traditional route, through the mailroom?

I was hired as an agent trainee, in the mailroom. I didn’t have a car or apartment. On my second or third day on the job some of the mailroom assistants were bent out of shape because I was using the fax machine or the FedEx machine. Those positions in the mailroom were for more senior people. 
In retrospect, I understand why there are systems in place. I came in one morning and picked up a whole ream of paper off the mailroom floor; I had loaded one of the many fax machines incorrectly the night prior.

Much like my internship in Deslener’s office, my stint in the mailroom was brief.  I didn’t get caught up in the BS and my resume looked attractive so a couple of the more senior agents at the time thought I had more experience than I did and plucked me out of the mailroom to go work for them.

Kirk Sommer with Adele Laurie Blue Adkins.

What did an “agent trainee” mean to you?

In those days meant you made less money because the agency was providing you with an education. Fortunately, I had saved up some money and the cost of living was a little friendlier on the pocket in Los Angeles. I put my head down and I worked around the clock. I showed up before everybody and I left after everybody went home (unless Aaron Pinkus was sleeping in an office). I turned those horrible lights on and I turned them off, then I’d go out to a show and do it all again.

That lasted for nearly three years. Things are very different today; the trainees are compensated fairly, we spend a lot of time training and they work in all areas of the Personal Appearance space.

Anyway, I had some other offers on the table and I knew there were some other very capable assistants with great relationships that had been at the company longer. It was time to have a conversation.

I went into [WMA worldwide head of music Peter Grosslight]’s office and said, “I kind of need to know what’s going on. I feel I’ve put in my sweat equity here. This is where I want to be but if something’s not happening for me, I need to know.”

Historically, there had been cases where a senior agent takes you under their wing. In this case, there was not a sole agent that was championing my cause but my first boss, whom I did not work with for very long, gave me some good advice. He said, “You should suggest that Peter speak to all the agents in the department and, if after speaking to all the agents, he didn’t feel it was a good fit, then so be it. But maybe you’re the people’s choice.”

So I said that to Peter, and he was a large part as to why I was there in the first place. I admired him and respected him. I just told him this was it. It was three years.

I sat next to Peter’s longtime assistant. She said, “Smirky (she called me Smirky), keep your mouth shut but you’re getting promoted.” 

I had a really hard time answering someone else’s phone after that. I packed up my things in the work station and missed a few phone calls; I was beyond ready to go.  Today we have a partnership and we discuss these things as a group.

So did you walk in with a roster?

John Marx jokingly told me I needed to drop all of my hip-pocket clients. We have more than 100 dedicated agents in the PA space across Beverly Hills, New York, Nashville, London and Sydney, with approximately 200 in support staff. We book by territory and genre globally, so I was given a contemporary club territory in North America.

But you have a roster now; did it happen quickly?

Everybody said, “Take your time, there was no rush. Just find your feet and over time you’ll develop a roster.”

But the reality is, around the time I was promoted, Charles Attal, founder of C3, moonlighted as a regional A&R scout for Tom Whalley at Warner Bros. And there was a guy named Braden Merrick who was a regional A&R scout for Tom as well on the West Coast.

Braden found a band called The Killers from Las Vegas and was trying to get them a recording contract. He was interested in finding the band the right agent. (Note: Merrick became The Killers’ manager then parted ways acrimoniously in 2006.)

Because Charles had experience with agents as a promoter, he knew a lot of agents. Braden asked Charles for some ideas and Charles gave him a very short list of names. I may have been at the top or the bottom but I was on it. In a couple of days, I received a CD in the mail. The name of Braden’s business was From The Future, so this CD came “from the future.” 

The note basically said, “If you like me, call me.”

I listened to it and it was love on first listen, they were too good.

Kirk Sommer and Brandon Flowers at the White House July 4, 2010

I booked a show immediately and that was it, months later, they did a show at Don Hills during CMJ. Rob Stevenson and Lyor Cohen brought them to Lyor’s townhouse and signed them to Island / Def Jam.

After that, it had a rocket attached to it. Immediately there were others, including one band that had the second-largest alternative Soundscan debut in history at the time.

People claim to have pivotal moments but, really, stories like that are rare.

I’ll be honest. It’s much like my wife.  I met her in my freshman year at college and I was her first boyfriend. We broke up after about a year and not a day went by where I did not think about her and nobody ever compared to her. It gave me the best lens, or filter, for what and who I was looking for. Ten years later, we reconnected and we got married. My work may have made that possible.

So, signing The Killers was the best lens or filter I could have in my space, it helped me determine who or what I was looking for because they set the bar so high.  I just said, “If something doesn’t make my heart sing, and it’s not great, and I don’t see a future, I’m not doing it.”

What advice would you – or do you – provide to new agents?

Work hard, take advantage of every opportunity, be good to everyone and honesty is best policy. If you make a mistake, own it. You never know where you may cross paths with someone again, this is a small world. Some of the people I trained with and some of my former assistants manage some of the biggest talent in the world today.

Can you elaborate on your charity work?

It is extremely rewarding when you can help break an artist and play a role in their ascension, but is equally as rewarding when you can leverage talent or harness some relationships to do something meaningful and make a difference for those less fortunate. Each year my amazing wife, Chloe, and I get together with some friends and support different causes for children.  WME has a foundation and does a lot of great work as well. 

They say an agent works 9 to 5 – 9 in the morning until 5 in the morning. How do you balance that with family?

The reality is this: My family is my family, my clients and colleagues are my family. You take care of your family. That’s what you do. I’m committed to my clients. Some of my clients might like my wife and my kids more than they like me. My girls will be 6 and 8, and this will be their fourth Coachella. Last week, they were at the opening of the T-Mobile Arena with The Killers and they were at Staples Center for Ellie.

Kirk Sommer, Steve Aoki and Marvin Ross Friedman on Sommer’s wedding night, April 22, 2006

What are some career highlights?

A few would be The Killers at Wembley Stadium and The White House. In 2007, five Grammy awards for Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black. In 2011, six Grammy Awards for Adele’s 21 and the Academy Award for “Skyfall.” In 2014, the four Grammys for Sam Smith’s In the Lonely Hour and the recent Oscar for his “Writing’s On The Wall.”

Ellie Goulding checked every major media and award show box including the Royal Wedding.

I think the Weezer, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, and Coheed & Cambria concept tours were all very memorable.

I will never forget when we all died and went to Hozier at Communion’s showcase at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Austin during SXSW.

And, next week is my wedding anniversary. That’s undoubtedly the all-time highlight – marrying the love of my life.

Answering all those emails, returning all those calls: it’s gotta be tough.

Not really, I’m the first one up and the last one to bed at home. I make my girls breakfast and drive them to school. A prominent U.K. manager said I am the last to email at night and the first call they receive in the morning.

What artists do people need to be looking at?

Frances, Låpsley and Cloves.

Cloves got signed to Polydor in the U.K. and Interscope in the U.S. Låpsley is about to embark on her sold-out tour this month. 

All of these acts are all on Coachella, Lollapalooza, Osheaga and Outside Lands. They’re all on the Corona festival in Mexico City. We’re figuring out their next moves.

Also, James Bay may have been nominated for three Grammy awards earlier this year and had the biggest selling new album in the UK last year but he’s about to explode in the Americas.

Anything promoters can do to improve their relationships?

I tell people, “If at any point you think I might be interested in knowing something, tell me!” 

Everyone gets busy. Everyone has a moment where they think they should tell people something. Tell me! Is that an irrational expectation?  The sooner we deal with adverse conditions, the better off we will all be.

I think people that really care, work hard and take pride in what they are doing do pretty well. We love being educated and equipped with photos, lists of acts, ticketing info, marketing info, what’s working and what is not. I would think most people are highly responsive to those that are also highly responsive and helpful.

What do you think will be the highlights of the summer?

This festival season starts now – Coachella marks the beginning of the major festival season and we’re talking about 2019 and beyond. Our festival group books more than 1,000 festivals in almost 100 countries. There has been major consolidation in the festival business. AEG and Live Nation are snapping up festivals left and right. It’s like playing air traffic control. You have to chart an overall plot and have a long-term strategy.

It’s definitely not brain surgery but it’s changing, you’re going to see tour offers bundled with festival offers. Ultimately everything is a conversation but that’s going to happen.

Where do you think the industry can improve upon?

One area that could use more focus is ticketing and pricing. It seems archaic. There are so many ways to approach it.  It’s going to take some new legislation and some courageous artists with the palate to try something new to cause major disruption.  It will have to be refined over time.

 What else is interesting?

It’s going to be really interesting and exciting to see what major players like Google, Amazon, Twitter, Spotify, Facebook and Apple will do and how we can work with them. We are a pretty big company and it gets more interesting by the minute.

Few have the track record of successful agents or promoters. What is the criteria?

It’s almost like a chef and a kitchen. A chef spends countless hours in the kitchen, sources the best ingredients and works tirelessly on preparation in teams. They are in tune with the seasons. They establish relationships with the finest purveyors and farmers. They study and challenge how the ingredients work best together as well as how dish gets plated and when it gets served.

It’s not very different from what we do. It all starts with the artist.

For me, a voice and songs needs to make my heart sing. You should probably scratch behind the surface and ask yourself does this have a future? Then you have to look at what’s around it. How do you set it up to achieve the best results, make an impression and build a solid foundation.

There’s a lot of great talent out there that will not get out of the gates. It takes the right determined people, strong quarter backs that share their knowledge with strong teams to work together around a great voice to execute a vision. It requires stamina and timing is important. I really like the chef and kitchen analogy, there was a clear and distinct shift in culture when Marc Geiger (now global head of WME music) re-joined the company and again when we became WME.

Ever roll the dice?

It’s a two-way street. I’m not signing something because it may do something. We’re not out there trolling with a net and putting everything on ice. We’re looking at and feeling what we know is right. It’s a big commitment; I’m giving up a part of my life every time I sign up for something. I wake up with anxiety when something’s not in its place. Nobody puts more stress on me than I put on myself.

Any closing thoughts?

Sometimes you only have one opportunity to get things right and these are people’s livelihoods. You’ve got to keep antennas up, your head down and stay connected; you must play long ball.

You must respect the artist, the music, the career and the fans. I live in Los Angeles and if you think I am going to build a house and compromise the foundation you are mistaken.  Most folks are overly eager for immediate results in many areas of our business; you must always think about what is next and how what you do today impacts what you do tomorrow.

Not every opportunity is the right opportunity and just because there is always someone willing to stroke a big check it does not mean it is a good deal or in one’s best interest. It’s a bit about where you want to go, what kind of impression you want to make, how you will get there, and what you do and what you don’t do when you have some momentum or need to create momentum. Artist and team engagement is very important to be successful.