Q’s With ICM Partners’ Andrea Johnson On Booking Performance Arts Powerhouses

– Andrea Johnson
ICM Partners
While Andrea Johnson positively gushes about the playing and creative arranging capabilities of many of her clients, she laughingly told Pollstar: “A little part of me dies when someone calls what I do classical music.” 

Johnson is very familiar with the depths of the phrase “classical music” – which, she says can broadly be defined as anything composed during the “classical” period – as she has a degree in Western classical music from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where she received a partial scholarship for voice.

An agent for ICM Partners since 2014, Johnson represents performing arts acts like Michael Feinstein, Straight No Chaser, The Piano Guys, 2Cellos, Natalie Imbruglia and 98 Degrees. Prior to her current gig, she headed the performing arts department at The Agency Group from 2007-14.

Clients like 2Cellos do hold sway within the classical music community, but much of their setlist on tour includes arrangements of popular music – with cellos rocking just as hard as electric guitars.

Several weeks back she shared on the “Promoter 101” podcast’s 100th episode the story of an accomplished classical artist missing several flights to a performance because he couldn’t be convinced to leave the nightclub he was in, akin to the film “Get Him To The Greek,” showing classically trained artists also party like rock stars.

Johnson spoke with Pollstar about her experience with performing arts centers, blending popular and classical influences, and whether classical instruments are going away.
Pollstar: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that PACs are less able to support lengthy fine arts tours. Has that trend continued in the past few years?

Andrea Johnson: I can’t see a situation where the pendulum swings back in the other direction. 
Back in the day … everybody had local symphony orchestras, local opera companies, local ballet companies, local theater companies that would serve as tenant organizations for PACs. To a certain degree there still are, but certainly not as many as there used to be because they don’t have funding. Very few of these organizations can operate just based on what they make at the box office. They need donations, both corporate and private, in order to stay afloat.
If the ballet company of Tulsa, for example, is not fully funded, they’re gonna cease to be a tenant organization for the local PAC and then what does the building fill the dates with?
Some buildings still have mission statements to bring in international touring orchestras or international dance companies. But if you present Ballet Argentino for three nights, the chances you are going to make your money back are slim to none, even if you sell really well, because these shows are just so expensive to produce, put on the road, and present. 
Most of the arts presenters I work with come out of the fine arts and have a passion for it. But they also understand you’re not doing anybody any favors by running your building into the ground by presenting a ton of things that aren’t sustainable in your community. You have to pick a couple of things and figure out how you are going to finance that. It has to be some sort of aggregate of grassroots donations from individuals, larger corporate donations, and then, hopefully, you bring in things that actually do make money at the box office so you can subsidize that programming. 
But there’s fewer of those [PACs committed to the fine arts] today than there has ever been. 
Are audiences losing appreciation for classical or classically influenced music?

No. [Look at] the story of how The Piano Guys came to be. These artists used the power of social media to get their art out to their fans. 
One day David Simoné [co-manager of Piano Guys, from DSW Entertainment] sent me a link to Piano Guys’ version of the Coldplay song “Paradise,” which they perform in Swahili with the Kenyan artist Alex Boye.

I found it to be incredibly moving and beautiful, and it was a new way to showcase the piano and cello. They’re re-appropriating these instruments that we typically think about with regard to classical or art music and they’re using them in popular music instead. And it was backed by a symphony! I knew immediately that people would love it. I didn’t know they would love it to the tune of 1.5 billion YouTube views and a couple of gold records.
Their mission, by the way, is to bring classical and art music to people who maybe would not ordinarily go to the symphony or PACs to see it. One thing that they do is take a Coldplay song and weave it into a Beethoven symphony. They’re mashing up classical and pop. So that was really well received.
[And] they started on social media the same way a singer-songwriter or a rock band would. There’s not some different path to getting their art in the hands of their fan than a hip-hop artist would take. It’s the same general principle and [performing arts musicians] use the same platforms.
You’ve been in the performing arts for a decade. How has the nature of your work changed as public tastes have changed?

It doesn’t look the same as when I got in the industry [with ICM Artists, now Opus 3 Artists].  
We represented 20 or 25 orchestras, international and domestic. We would put the Pittsburgh orchestra on tour, or the Russian National Orchestra featuring a violinist playing Tchaikovsky on tour. We would be able to sit in a booking meeting and route the country – about 50 cities for about $75,000 to $100,000 a night. 
This gets to that conversation of what PACs used to be versus what they are now, because it was PACs that were buying these. They had a mission statement: to bring in great international orchestras. And they would underwrite that. If your running costs are $200,000 a night, you’re not gonna make money at the box office, at least not in an 1,800-cap theater in a secondary market.
To be fair, I have not been in the core-classical world for a long time, but I would argue there are maybe 15 markets left that would have the wherewithal and the want to underwrite something like that. And it makes me sad because I believe that great art should be accessible to the masses. 
But the only way that happens is if it’s underwritten in some way. And certainly in the political climate we live in right now it’s not going to be underwritten by the government, so we have to look to private donations to make that happen.
Anyone else you want to shout out?

I definitely want to highlight Straight No Chaser. They were the very first ones to break for me [around] 2007, when that footage [of the band] went viral and they got signed to Atlantic. Their manager David Britz is brilliant and we work together on a lot of things.