The Year In Agencies: Pivots, Indies And Uncertainty

Dua Lipa
Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for dcp
– Dua Lipa
Dua Lipa, pictured at the American Music Awards Nov. 22, is the latest major start to do a high-profile PPV concert.

Although the proliferation of the national (and worldwide) tour has led some to question the influence of the music agent for the last couple decades, still the business has thrived with bigger grosses, creative packaging, artist-curated festivals and ever-growing branding divisions at the major and  boutique agencies alike. 

However, likely nothing could have prepared anyone for what 2020 would bring, with the idea of next to zero ticketed live appearances taking place for the better part of a year. The impact of COVID on a business that relies on volume of shows and commissions on appearances can not be overstated.
Maybe no better example of the unexpected situation 2020 would bring is Stephanie LaFera, who came from her own Little Empire management company to lead WME’s electronic music division. She started March 10.
“It took a good week or two for everyone to just sort of process what was going on and deal with all the cancellations that were coming,” says LaFera, whose husband is still running Little Empire. “A lot of people were involved in the shows coming down. But pretty soon after that we got busy pivoting, really thinking about – especially in electronic music, which is so natural to that scene and culture, connecting with their audience in a direct fashion. We really started moving into the virtual space.” 

Stephanie LaFera
– Stephanie LaFera
WME’s new head of electronic music.
Pivot indeed, as the major agencies were forced to make difficult decisions while trying to salvage any semblance of business for the year. In LaFera’s case, that has meant major branding deals, such as with Steve Aoki and Fortnite, Sour Patch Kids and Nutter Butter as well as Kygo’s own Golden Hour Festival virtual event in May. It also means the formation of a whole new Virtual Appearances division at WME, which LaFera was instrumental in forming, which is led by Nashville-based music agent Marissa Smith, and has organized hundreds of hard-ticket virtual events, including Dua Lipa’s recent, record-breaking “Studio 2054” livestream, coordinated by London-based music agent Levi Jackson. The stream drew 5 million viewers according to WME.
With COVID-19 has come unfortunate and often unavoidable layoffs and furloughs, impacting the agency business particularly hard. However, with artists often tied to agents rather than agencies, many have found themselves in a position to continue on their own. 
“We were in the very early stages of understanding the ramifications of COVID-19 in our business and at the same time trying to get clients on the phone and reassure them that things were going to be OK,” TBA’s Avery McTaggart says of the pre-formation days of TBA agency,  which launched in September. Other similarly formed agencies, such as MINT Talent Group and Arrival Artists, have taken shape as the pandemic rages on, with agents retaining core, viable, ticket-selling clients and choosing to go on their own in a world that may not require the backing of the traditional major agency.
“There’s going to be a whole new wave of these independent shops popping, and I think it’s going to be nothing but good for the industry in general,” says MINT Talent Group co-founder Patrick McAuliff, who enlisted agents from four different agencies for their own shop.
It’s not been all bad news from the major agencies, however, with high profile livestreams, drive-in tours and charity events. Particularly active has been United Talent Agency, which had the first drive-in tour in June with one-man electronic artist/humorist Marc Rebillet taking his “Loop Daddy” stylings on the road, followed by fellow UTA clients Bert Kreischer (grossing close to $100,000 on some shows) and Iliza Shlesinger with a coast-to-coast, often two-shows-a-night Tailgate Comedy Tour. Meanwhile, UTA electronic music client Kaskade has picked and chosen multi-night engagements, grossing $485,906 in six shows at the City National Grove of Anaheim among others.