AaronP / Bauer-Griffin / GC Images – CAA
MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE: Creative Artists Agency headquarters is pictured in the Century City section of Los Angeles. With its pending acquisition of ICM Partners, CAA makes the biggest agency deal since William Morris Agency merged with Endeavor in 2009.
When news of the impending acquisition of ICM Partners by Creative Artists Agency – two of the talent agency “Big Four” –broke, veteran agent Wayne Forte of Entourage Talent Associates’ response was, “What took them so long?”
Jim Gosnell, CEO of APA – which could claim membership in the “Big Four” among full-service talent agencies when and if the CAA / ICM deal is finalized – says, “My attitude is, ‘Good for them and great for us.’ I think it’s fantastic.”
Marshall Betts of TBA, which was created by five former Paradigm Talent Agency reps during the pandemic-driven industry shutdown of 2020, offers another view: “We are trying to create something new and starting our own thing, trying to be different. And that’s an opportunity that we see.”
The three agency execs may operate in different levels within the industry ecosystem, but what they have in common is an entrepreneurial drive to find opportunity in times of disruption.
CAA announced its intention to acquire ICM Partners on Sept. 27, after a weekend of negotiations that reportedly concluded only hours before the news became public. Described in the press in such apocalyptic terms as “bombshell,” “an earthquake” creating a “juggernaut” or “monolith,” the “mammoth” deal will, according to some, create “aftershocks” for years to come.
Forte reminds us this isn’t the first tie-up of major agencies to set hands wringing and tongues wagging. In fact, it seems to happen in cycles of about every 10-15 years – the last occurring when Endeavor and William Morris Agency merged in 2009. Each caused a measure of shock throughout the industry, but also opened doors of opportunity.
CAA and ICM Partners themselves are products of a similar period in 1975, when a merger of then-powerhouses Creative Management Associates and International Famous Agency birthed ICM. That disruption preceded the defection of five young agents, including an upstart named Michael Ovitz, from WMA that founded CAA.
“I was involved in the [merger that created] ICM,” Forte says. “I lived through it. I saw what happened there. And, you know, everybody was like, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be the beginning of the end,’ or whatever. But you know what came out of that? CAA.”
Forte and his company have survived agency disruption from mergers to COVID and represents clients including Tedeschi Trucks Band and Derek Trucks Band, Joan Armatrading, Joe Satriani and 10cc.
APA’s Gosnell also believes an acquisition by CAA of ICM could cause sufficient industry disruption to create new business – such as COVID has – as agents and their artist clients seek out other opportunities, whether by inevitable “streamlining” or as a matter of seeking greener, or even just different, pastures. As a mid-level major and full-service agency representing not only music clients but actors, writers and other artists, it’s in a position to likely take advantage of opportunities created by the pending deal.
APA has more than 100 agents in the fold and includes clients running the gamut from Gary Oldman, Mel Gibson, 50 Cent, Mary J. Blige, Ronny Chieng, Eddie Izzard, Blondie, Brian Wilson, Judas Priest and Beach Bunny.
Gosnell concedes that he’s not unhappy at the prospect of picking up a few more. While keeping his cards close to the vest, he notes that while music and live entertainment are but part of a full-service business, the ecosystem is such that whatever happens at the mega-agency level affects business at every level.
Given there has already been a degree of de-consolidation in the agency world because of COVID, it’s not clear how many more new agencies, agents or clients can be absorbed into a changed market.
TBA was formed by a downsizing at Paradigm, before the sale of its music assets to Wasserman Music, so Betts knows of which he speaks, having experienced it from the inside.
His agency, formed in September 2020, sports clients The War On Drugs, Courtney Barnett, Chvrches, Tune-Yards, Cut Copy, Beirut, Guided By Voices, Jungle, Cuco, Purity Ring, José González, Tycho, Caribou and Alvvays among others, and launched with five agents and a small support staff.
“You have probably a half-dozen new agencies of various, different sizes,” Betts explains. “You have two major agencies that are consolidating but, as far as I know, the terms of that and what that’s going to look like haven’t exactly been ironed out.
“I’ll say that since we started hiring and sent out job postings, we’ve gotten hundreds and hundreds of applications from people that are still looking for jobs and who have a ton of experience. And I believe that to still be the case. If business as a whole is still getting back to where it was, and if you’re a company that large, you take that chance,” Betts continues.
“The pandemic afforded a lot of people time to think about change and how to shift their business. Firing a third of your staff and then figuring out how to build those pieces back together or starting something completely new – the pandemic allowed all of those things to happen. Some good, some bad. It’s probably a little too early to say what direction this could go other than an opportunity being seized by a lot of people.”
Forte points out that mergers have a tendency to cause uncertainty in the industry. “You’re merging with another company and what happens is you create two things: You create uncertainty with talent, which is not good; and you create uncertainty with agents – equally, not good.
“There’s going to be consolidation for sure, because there’s going to be fallout, people leaving, people let go, whatever. So there’ll be smaller agencies saying, ‘OK, let’s buy this company, or let’s merge with that company; let’s beef up so that we can do battle and compete.’ I think it’s going to go both ways. A lot of things happen; there’s a lot of movement.”
Betts says there’s a critical difference between at least some of the “big guys” and smaller shops like his.
“With those types of companies there’s always going to be a want and a desire to continue to get in meetings with new artists and potential clients and offer the moon,” Betts says. “Or they partner with companies to offer what they view as a superior service.
“There’s a mindset that operates at a very high level and among big companies that, instead of being nuanced or focusing on details or, you know, creativity, it’s a business model that is more about the masses as opposed to the art.
“That’s not to say that those companies don’t have agents or people that don’t do impeccable or incredible jobs. That’s why I have some of the top agents in the world,” Betts continues. “But it is a business model that works for a large company like that where you’re able to offer a ton but potentially not come through with a ton. Other agencies want to focus on a smaller number of people and deliver. It’s just a different way of doing business. But I can’t imagine how [the acquisition] would significantly hurt any of those companies, and probably they’re both going to excel.”
While the CAA/ICM deal could be the tip of a new wave of industry consolidation, Forte thinks COVID already set the stage for more new companies, not fewer.
“It opens up a vista,” Forte says. “There’s already a bunch of new companies after COVID, and perhaps there’ll be more. There will certainly be people either leaving or let go. That just always happens.
“There’ll be some smaller companies that’ll beef up because there’ll be some other talent available. There will be artists that may not like it and they want to leave. So be creative. Shift the company. There’s going to be changes.
“I don’t think it’s doom and gloom by any stretch of the imagination,” Forte continues. “It’s not like, ‘Oh my God, now it’s over. They’re big and we’re little.’ [The acquisition] just makes them bigger. And that’s a different game.”