Departures & Arrivals: How Five Former Paradigm Agents Created Arrival Artists

– Arrival Artists
Arrival Artists – the new agency formed by agents Ali Hedrick, Erik Selz, John Bongiorno, Karl Morse and Ethan Berlin, along with COO Matt Yasecko – was announced to the public on Oct. 20, but it had been brewing for months. 
After the COVID-19 pandemic forced the shutdown of the entire live entertainment industry, Paradigm was soon informing all of its agents of furloughs and layoffs. Agents throughout the company, many of whom had substantial rosters, began talking to each other nonstop, trying to figure out what they were going to do.
“There wasn’t one moment where we said ‘Let’s all work together.’ I can’t pinpoint one day or conversation,” Morse told Pollstar. “The entire industry was in such freefall by late March, we were all trying to scramble to figure out what everyone was doing, not just with ourselves, but our tours. We ended up talking or Zooming with each other all day, every day, trying to piece our clients’ dates back together, and it really just came together organically from there.”
The agents were all interconnected as a number of them had worked together at The Windish Agency some years ago. Berlin, once upon a time, worked as an assistant to Selz at the latter’s Red Ryder Entertainment. Berlin and Morse share clients in Goose and Pigeons Playing Ping Pong and Bongiorno and Berlin share Khruangbin. And, of course, Hedrick and Yasecko worked in lock-step years ago to build the Billions Corporation into a majorly successful independent agency. 
Hedrick was enthusiastic about the idea of opening up her own shop with her departing Paradigm colleagues as the conversations began bubbling up, but she made clear early on that her participation was conditional on the inclusion of Yasecko. 
“I said ‘I want to start my own thing, and to do that with you, but I’m only going to do it if Matt is involved,’” Hedrick recalls. “They said, ‘Ok, let’s meet Matt,’ so they met him and were as impressed with him as I am. … Matt and I worked together for 14 years, he ran Billions and we were one of the most successful boutique booking agencies for a decade, we had massive clients.” 
“I think she brought it up with her partners before she brought it up with me,” Yasecko said laughing. The timing turned out to be fortuitous as he was serving as COO of Plus1 – the nonprofit organization the he co-founded to raise funds for charity through small additions to ticket prices – and that company was in the process of moving its operations to Canada. 
So within the span of several weeks, the six began forming plans of what their business would look like moving forward. While they are limited in what they can discuss about the terms of their departure from Paradigm, they were allowed to keep the vast majority of their rosters in the transition, and they quickly secured the participation of clients like Khruangbin, Sufjan Stevens, BADBADNOTGOOD, Mt. Joy, Nubya Garcia, Car Seat Headrest, Andrew Bird, Chicano Batman, Goose, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Twin Peaks, The New Pornographers, Les Claypool, Pup, Joan Osborne, Glen Hansard and Destroyer.
– Arrival Artists
Karl Morse, Ali Hedrick, Ethan Berlin, Matt Yasecko, Erik Selz, and John Bongiorno.

The New Normal
They weren’t the only ones setting up their own shop, as they saw TBA and MINT Talent Group forming on a parallel trajectory. And while Arrival is embarking upon this journey as a core group of five agents and a COO, they immediately gave thought to building infrastructure to absorb new clients and agents into the organization, as they suspect the upending of the agency business by COVID-19 may not be over. 
“There’s people that aren’t going to keep being agents. It’s already happening and it’s is going to keep happening. And there are artists out there that already sell tickets that need a good home,” Hedrick said, discussing the need for growth. “Sometimes these agents have rosters of 30 acts and maybe two of them were the only real moneymakers. Those agents get furloughed and they are realizing they don’t want to do this anymore. Those artists will need a home.”
So over the last several months the Arrival team has been fundraising – some of which has come from friends, family and partners in the music industry – and laying the foundation for a business that can absorb more clients, agents and employees in the coming years. 
Selz said in terms of bringing along existing clients, the conversations went extremely smoothly. 
“The response from our artists and managers has been largely ‘Thank God.’ For artists and managers there were only a half -dozen, a dozen choices for agencies?” Selz said. “I feel in Europe the mid-section of the agency business is much more robust than it has been in the States. There was High Road and Ground Control, etc. From the artist and management perspective, they have welcomed this new crop of mid-sized independent agencies with open arms.” 
 Bongiorno said the fact that he and his partners have brought nearly all of their clients to the new shop gives them great confidence and, he believes, bodes well for the future.
“More important than my confidence in myself is the artists’ confidence in me,” Bongiorno says. “Without the artists’ confidence there is no company, for all of us. It’s the artists showing confidence in their agents, saying ‘We’re with you wherever you go,’ that is the biggest gesture of support you can receive as an agent, and I don’t think every agent is afforded that. 
“We roll up our sleeves and get very deep in there with the managers. We are very tactical, stealthy, crafty agents, we do the very nuanced work, and I think that has endeared us to our clients, they can recognize that it is not about the company we work for, it is about the agent.”
Bongiorno said the through line of all the agents working at Arrival is a willingness to be very involved with their clients at every stage of their career and their ability to give unique attention to artist development. Hedrick synopsized that by saying that she believes this is a group of agents that truly loves music of many different kinds.
“I think we’re all big music heads,” Hedrick said. “We sign artists that we love, that we believe will make money down the road and become successful, but love is probably the first thing, the reason that we all sign bands. We don’t have massive, inflated rosters. We’re not signing a band a month or every couple weeks. We curate the artists that we work with, because who wants to sell a band they don’t like?”
Berlin said that the diversity of Arrival’s roster – from the rising jam band stars of Pigeons Playing Ping Pong and Goose to the songwriting of Andrew Bird and Sufjan Stevens to rockers like Mt. Joy or The New Pornographers – is a real strength that gives the agents a better understanding of the U.S. landscape and allows them to navigate bands like Khruangbin through very unique channels. 
“For us as an agency, working in all those different worlds allows us to introduce our act to promoters and festivals that they didn’t think made sense, but really do. A good example is Khruangbin. We were able to get them on Newport Folk festival two summers ago. Jay Sweet believed in them, but it was still something new, and I think he had to convince everyone it made sense because they are not a folk act, Americana, roots or anything like that. So because of that we developed this awesome relationship with Jay, and so he asked them to be a part of Newport Jazz Festival, which would have made them one of maybe three or four acts in history to have played both events. … Those types of things happen all the time now. Because we have acts in every space it allows us to be creative and coach our promoters and teams towards being creative with us.”
The Arrival agents are not only experts in getting developing acts the perfect looks, but they are also increasingly experienced at putting people to work while much of the business remains shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, as they have already booked 100 shows in 28 states. 
Leading the charge have been jam bands Goose and Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, which Berlin said should come as no surprise. 
“Just like many other aspects of the music business in the last 50 years, the jam bands were on [drive-in shows] early,” Berlin told Pollstar. “They have always defined trends in the industry even though they are never the hottest thing people talk about. They take those chances first. The Dead defined what it meant to be an American touring band and a lot of the touring structure that exists today popped up because they were touring everywhere. Phish obviously took the European festival model and defined the American festival model. And more recently, with webcasts, these jam bands … I believe we canceled the tours during the week the industry shut down, but by Saturday 11E1even had built their Live From Out There platform and got Goose and Pigeons in their respective studios to can their sets for webcasting.” 

Brandy Fik
– Mt. Joy
Mt. Joy performs at Lakeshore Drive-in in Chicago on Sept. 24. Mt. Joy is one of Arrival’s clients that has remained active throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and in total the agency has booked more than 100 shows in 28 states over the last six months.
Hedrick’s client Mt. Joy has been similarly active during the shutdown and she foresees a big shift in the industry in 2020, as more established promoters begin returning to some form of socially-distant, largely outdoor shows. 
“I think some of the larger promoters offers’ aren’t as competitive as they normally are, but the independents’ offers haven’t changed quite as much,” she said. “There’s going to be a big shift in the industry.” 
“Conversely, I’m seeing some Live Nation rooms that are giving us 60-70% at the door, which is higher than we were getting before COVID. If that’s an artist that I know is going to sell out the room, I’ll take it.”
Arriving Now, Building For Later 
What most of the agents at Arrival seemed to agree would bode well for the future of the industry was tour packaging. Since ticket prices might need to be high when shows are able to start coming en masse, getting numerous artists together on one bill will be an excellent way to give fans their money’s worth and draw the timid back to buyin tickets. Selz expressed that this will, inevitably require short-term sacrifices for many artists, but he emphasized that something is better than nothing and that, in the long term, getting fans and bands back at shows is good for everyone, and packaging may be the best way to make it work. 
“Everyone is loading their tours into the fall of 2021, which is a little terrifying. The holds and avails are kind of out of hand right now,” Selz said. “I think the live business will bounce back with strength, but I think we have to be respectful of the damage to the economy. You can’t expect people to go 31 shows a month. I really feel like creating robust packages, especially in the first 6-12 months when we go back to business, is going to be key. … To be clear, that will require financial sacrifice on the part of artists who have been off the road for 18 months. And that’s going to be a tough pill to swallow but – for the health of the business – instead of beating the shit out of each other with 10 awesome shows a night in Chicago, if there could be some creative packaging, I think that will in the long run benefit everyone.”
With the threat of COVID-19 still casting a cloud of uncertainty over the business, Morse said Arrival has to have best and worse-case plans for 2021, but even absent a vaccine they expect 2021 to be busy. 
“Right now you have to plan for the best and the worst simultaneously. You have to have multiple, parallel plans. We book these big shows, we plan for these big festivals to happen and route around them. At the same time you work backwards from that and if X, Y, Z doesn’t happen, we have A, B and C. We can parse out these streams over the winter months to keep fan engagement high, and starting in spring we can do regional outdoor shows. If we hear about stuff in Texas or the Southwest, we can carve out time to make sure we get down there when that is built up. All the while we are hoping we can start doing more traditional tours by fall of 2021.”
Everyone acknowledges it is an interesting time to start a new agency – when immediate revenue is at an all-time low. Profit may take some time to start rolling in. But when it does, from the outset, the partners agreed they would establish a profit sharing model that distributes a significant portion of all profits to all employees. 
Yasecko and Hedrick said being able to implement this was a very important part of owning their own shop, and they were very happy to join forces with partners who agreed. 
“For me, if we’re building a culture where we are all focused on the same things, the success of our clients, and the success of the agency, it’s key that there is a compensation structure that really backs that up,” Yasecko said. “That was a big thing for us, building a structure that said if we are successful we want the staff and agency to share in that and we should make sure that is built in the fabric of the company. In the agency world that is important too, because it makes sure nobody gets too siloed in their work. They focus on their own artists in particular, but if there are other opportunities to be passed along, if there ways to help other agents and artists on the roster, there is incentive for that to be explored .. You would hope that’s always the case, but it really helps if there’s a financial backing of that as well. So we wanted to formalize that and have that be a key component from the beginning.”
Peter Van Breukelen / Redferns / Getty Images
– Nubya Garcia
Nubya Garcia, another Arrival Artists client, performs during simpler times for the live industry, at Jazz Middelheim Festival on Aug. 17, 2019 in Antwerp, Belgium. Arrival is bringing over nearly all of its five agents’ clients from Paradigm.

For his part, Yasecko is ready to return to the agency world, though it was unexpected, to say the least. He spent more than a decade at Billions and, though he was afforded the opportunity to work as an agent, he found that he preferred the operational side of the business, and was fascinated more by the idea of growing an agency than growing a band. 
“It’s a weird time. If you had told me a year ago I would be back working in the agency world, starting a new agency, I would’ve laughed at you,” he said. “If I’ve learned anything – and luckily I’ve been able to experience this at each stop of my career – the most enriching part is to have a culture and partners that align with your vision for the organization. That was the piece of it that I needed to vet, because I have had that everywhere I’ve gone and I feel that is a key component to success. And it was very apparent after the first few conversations, that they got it, we were on the same page and bringing the same approach to the table. So I said ‘let’s go.’”
And so Yasecko does the less glamorous work of handling HR, documentation, and finances, all of which he is well-experienced with, so that the five agents can focus on the work of being agents. He has been working very late nights for months trying to get the business-side off the ground, but he understood the commitment he was making at the beginning and is excited to be moving forward. Bongiorno expressed a particular gratitude of having someone he can trust to handle the operations side of the business so that he can continue the work of being an agent. 
“The thing that I like about our dynamic is that having Matt here allows us to be agents first. Because that’s what motivates me when I wake up in the morning, it’s not that I’m a partner in this business, I want to kill it for my bands. Having Matt here to run the ship while we go catch the fish, that’s the reason I really fell in love with the idea. It took a couple people calling me, telling me ‘Don’t be an idiot.’ 
“One person said to me, ‘Let me know when you talk to someone who works for themself and is miserable, unhappy.’ That comment really resonated with me, and I have yet to talk to the person who works for themselves and says that.”
Ultimately, Yasecko says Arrival Artists is an agency that will deliver a high level of service for its clients, while at the same time finding ways to do business that can positively impact the live entertainment space, and maybe beyond.
“This is something that we’re all taking a chance on. The circumstances of all of this are unfortunate, but if this disruption unmoors all of the really entrenched industry standards that collectively, or maybe just we, feel could be better, maybe we can take this time to reinvent and build something new. At the end of the day we are going to be an agency that services our clients and books amazing tours for artists, provides the marketing, branding, sponsorship support that they would expect. But if we can do that in a structure that feels progressive and new, it’s a win and it’s something I’m excited about