Agency Intel: How WME Electronic Music Head Stephanie LaFera Got A Crash Course With Early March 2020 Start Date

Stephanie LaFera
– Stephanie LaFera

2020 was a good year to learn new skills and try new things, but some examples are more extreme than others. 

“Monday, March 9 when they put out the release I was joining the company, I went to two meetings – one on Monday and one on Wednesday, and by Thursday the office was closed,” says Stephanie LaFera, an electronic music veteran who left her own Little Empire management company to lead WME’s electronic music division. “What we’d originally planned to do, and all the ideas I had, had to kind of pause for a hot second.”

WME wasn’t the only major agency 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 launching, 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.  

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.

Pollstar: What was it like starting at WME in a major role right as the pandemic hit?
Stephanie LaFera: 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. 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 is so natural to that scene and culture, connecting with their audience in a direct fashion. We really started moving into the virtual space. 
Nobody could see [the pandemic] coming but how you handle yourself in times like these is kind of what you’re made of. [WME] has done a good job as a company treating people fairly and with respect. It’s been a strange beginning and strange time but I’m very happy to be here with such a brilliant group of people.
A lot has changed from then to now doing a paid stream with pop star Dua Lipa that sold 5 million tickets. How has the Virtual Appearances team gotten to this point? 
At the very beginning at the time, the team just started vetting all these companies. Whether you’re an artist or manager or agent, the second people started doing virtual shows, there was a new company every two hours that wanted to present it, or host it, or ticket it for you. They dug deep and did their research and had an amazing understanding of the platforms, the deal structures. That’s a service, to ensure our clients are getting the best deals. 
This past weekend, Dua Lipa’s stream was just so incredible. The amount of people in our company who had their hands in that, working with management, to bring it to so many people is amazing. She’s not my client, so I’m not sure – but I don’t know if she’s the kind of artist that would have done a livestream seven months ago. Everyone is seeing there’s so much value in it, from increased streaming around catalogs, increased possibilities for brand partners to be in deeper relationships, and of course the relationship with your fans and supporters.
How about drive-ins? That one has developed much since March as well.
Not all drive-ins are equal. It depends on the audio and where its coming from, and the level of production. Look at what Insomniac has done in Southern California, they have created a very cool event and people have more of a pod environment, you’re able to get out of your cars, there’s big speaker stacks and full production. It’s still a great show. We’ve had several, several clients who have really leaned in to the drive-in. A lot is country, even Nicky Jam did a show on a boat, we’ve run through all the options. There’s a WME department that heads up what we do with drive-ins and what that looks like, comparing the sound and deals and everything. It’s one of the bonuses of a company that is this large – you have the manpower and minds to really review these options and make sure we’re putting clients in best-case scenarios.
It’s kind of a whole new thing and starting from scratch in many ways.
For the entrepreneurs and creatives and people who love to make things happen, this is the best time in our history. It’s unfortunate what’s happened to live events, but it’s made people have to use different parts of their brains.  If  people walk out of this without taking stock and a positive, they’ve missed the point. All that should be focused on is creating and building together, not pointing fingers. 
What does the near-term future hold and how do you plan anything right now?
So much of not just our business but all business is hinged on how the country you live in distributes this vaccine and at what pace it’s delivered to the masses. People have stopped re-booking over and over again. We’re going to look at what happens to some of the big tentpole festivals, if they think they can play and when. I think a lot of people are cautiously optimistic when the vaccine can hit the point with our population to get the green light to operate and ready to rock the second we can. Any agent has five versions of the same tours in mind depending on when we get the go. Also, none of us know what the traffic will look like when we finally hear who is putting their festival on which weekend and what radius that has and how far. When it comes to the club level of shows, it’s difficult to plan in this exact moment if you’re intending to play festivals as well, because those are getting moved around still.