You’ll Never Work In This Town Again! The Vicissitudes of a Hyper-Competitive Agency World

Michael Ovitz
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– Michael Ovitz
New chapter in the same book: The ever-changing agency business is rife for the yearly shakeup, as reminded by famed CAA co-founder and Hollywood agent Michael Ovitz, who started the mammoth company as a former William Morris agent.

The agency business can be cutthroat, rife with opportunities for betrayal and subterfuge. Multiple talent houses vie for top talent and agents while clients are not bound by contract to their reps, making for a dog-eat-dog, or maybe a deal-eat-deal, world.  

A recent example is Juice WRLD, who went to WME after coming up with rising entrepreneur Andrew Lieber’s MAC Agency. Although Lieber took it in stride, praising Juice WRLD’s team, continuing with red-hot rapper DaBaby and adding that the decision was his to not come along to WME, losing a red-hot client smarts and is a tale as old as time (at least recorded or filmable time). 
“The thing we all do in the agency world, I don’t care where you work, you’re always looking over your shoulder trying to protect what’s on your plate, protect your relationships, super-serve and keep everyone happy and hope there’s never, ever a reason for anyone to want to move,” says veteran rock agent Tim Borror, formerly of UTA, who recently formed Sound Talent Group with Dave Shapiro and Matt Andersen. They opened shop just seven months ago with clients including Killswitch Engage, Lamb of God, Black Label Society, Zakk Wylde and dozens of others. He adds that the hyper-competitive business environment keeps agents delivering at a high level.  
But artists still switch agencies, often to a full-service house with vast relationships in media like TV, film, sports, branding, publishing, fashion and more. 
Dolly Parton manager and CTK Management CEO Danny Nozell acknowledged as much when the country queen joined WME last year, with an official statement that “WME has a vast global network in the entertainment market, especially in the areas that we have strategically identified as priority such as licensing and unique commercial and touring opportunities.”
With artists able to choose their reps at will, individual agents are also able to shake things up – with the ability to take multiple clients along to hated rivals. 
An agent can leave a boutique for a major, such as last year when Adam Voith and Andrew Colvin of the Billions Corporation joined WME, taking major clients such as Mumford & Sons, Bon Iver, Jason Isbell and others, or in 2017 comedy agent Michael Berkowitz (Kevin Hart, many others) joining WME as partner from APA. 
With the glamor of CAA or WME, and roots to old Hollywood and the fame and fortune associated with it, the move from boutique to full-service major is not as shocking as perhaps the lateral move to rival major agency (often leading to the ceremonious desk-cleaning and escort out the door). 
Even CAA’s genesis was a betrayal of sorts, as co-founders Michael Ovitz and Ron Meyer and others started the now-mammoth agency as former William Morris Agency bigshots. 
More recently, agent Kevin French just joined CAA from Paradigm bringing Coachella-headlining Tame Impala, The National, Sharon Van Etten and others in maybe the first huge agent shift of the year. Although cynical types may see the only difference being the email address, a major agent switching companies means major clients leaving as well, such as when Scott Clayton (Dead & Company, later Zac Brown Band) joins WME after being at CAA, which later hired influential hip-hop agents Caroline Yim and Zach Iser from ICM Partners. 
Another example is now ICM co-head of worldwide concerts Rob Prinz leaving UTA in 2015 with his wife/agent Nikki brining clients including Celine Dion and Jerry Seinfeld.
Usually any drama is played out behind the scenes, for the reasons for switching are fairly obvious – greener pastures.   

Los Angeles
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– Los Angeles
The view from the top: Los Angeles, as seen from Mulholland Drive, where the stakes are high and dreams can come true.
But things sometimes get messy publicly, like when comedy agent Nick Nuciforo joined UTA from CAA and brought a host of others to start a new comedy department. CAA filed a complaint in 2015, in which it described UTA of conducting a “lawless, midnight raid … launched against CAA in a desperate attempt to steal clients and employees.” An attorney for UTA told Pollstar in February “The matters were resolved and the state court action, the arbitration and the petitions were all dismissed.” CAA at the time declined comment.
UTA’s disruption in the music space included the acquisition of stalwart The Agency Group in 2015, the music-focused booking agency started by Neil Warnock in London officially in 1980. The settling of the dust has seen some longtime Agency Group reps including Steve Martin, Bruce Solar and Andy Somers now with senior roles at the formidable APA. 
Just last year, UTA acquired leading dance agency Circle Talent to start an electronic music division with major clients including Marshmello, Excision and soon to be arena-headlining Illenium. 
But there is yet another option – starting your own. “[Being indie] is kind of looking at the same problem differently, or having a different approach,” adds Borror, who along with Shapiro and Andersen came from UTA after the Agency Group acquisition. “Dave and I worked at the bigger companies for a long time and there’s nothing wrong with working with them, nothing wrong with what they are – they’re an amazing option for most, frankly, and they wield loads of power and leverage.But when you’re small, nimble, focused and have great clients that give you some leverage, you can be in the fight in a different way.” 
Taking a page from the likes of longtime indies such as Frank Riley (High Road Touring) the late Dave Kirby (TKO) or Dennis Arfa at AGI, the formation of Sound Talent Group – along with former Circle Talent agents opening their own 33 & West with a stable of active touring artists including Dance Gavin Dance, DMX, and Converge – could herald a new era of truly indie talent agencies. 
“This is ours, and this is awesome, and we can build this how we want and take care of people how we want, and make sure we’re doing things on our own terms with honesty and integrity,” STG’s Shapiro says. “Being in the situation where it’s on us to do that and us doing things the way we want and need to has been really liberating.” Going solo has the added benefit of not defecting to a direct competitor as well.
“The UTA folks were gracious about our departure and we’re still really close with a lot of them,” Shapiro added. “The fact we were leaving to start our own thing – while I don’t think they wanted us to leave, I think they had a lot of respect for it and support for it, and still do.” It’s also attracted other agents to join, including John Pantle who brought varied-genre clients including Run DMC and Natalia LaFourcade.
“People want to see us win,” Borror adds. “It’s a great feeling to know the festival promoters and buyers and managers are in our corner, and there’s nothing that says what your clients think about you better than when you make this kind of move, and the opportunity is free and clear for them to make a move, and they stay with you. So that’s awesome.”