Industry Profile: Neil Warnock
By Larry LeBlanc
This week In The Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Neil Warnock
Following several consecutive tough years, the global touring industry is now taking a hard look at its basic business model.
However, London-based Neil Warnock, chairman of The Agency Group, began a major shift at his company in 2005.
In the face of the touring business contracting and consolidating, as well as seeing a lessened influence of the major record labels, and seeking to offer his clients additional services, the wily London booker recognized that a change was needed.
Not only was a new North American management structure put in place but Warnock expanded the agency significantly last year with the buy-out of the Kork Agency (Atmosphere, Peaches, the Gossip), and the launch of a Speakers Department following the acquisition of Roth Talent Associates.
The restructuring was also a reaction to The Agency Group's accelerated expansion in recent years as well as a reaction to facing mounting competition for new acts, and to keep existing ones within a fiercely-contested new global booking world.
During the past decade, with the rise in popularity of such groups as Arcade Fire and Death Cab for Cutie, booking competitors like Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and the William Morris Agency became increasingly interested in pursuing independent bands.
While a handful of smaller booking firms still maintain their independence, many boutique agencies have lately merged with larger agencies.
In 2004, Paradigm Talent Agency brought Monterey Peninsula Artists into its fold and acquired Little Big Man in 2006. Last month, it continued its expansion into music by purchasing the Nashville-based Christian music booking firm Third Coast Artists Agency. Last week, The William Morris Agency and Endeavor Talent announced a merger creating William Morris Endeavor Entertainment.
Warnock launched The Agency Group in 1981 after his purchase of the Bron Agency, where he had been managing director for 8 years. Previously, Warnock had been a director at NEMS Enterprises. In his teens, he had operated South Bank Artists, which handled college and univeristy bookings for Pink Floyd, Donovan, and Tyrannosaurus Rex in and around London.
The Agency Group is now one of the world’s leading booking agencies, with a roster of over 1,000 artists and offices in London, New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Malmo, Sweden.
Where are the future headliners coming from?
We have Muse coming through in the UK and France now. They are a stadium attraction and are growing quickly. There will be artists of their generation that will come through. The interesting phenomenon that we are now seeing is that kids will now download a single track, not an album. The difficulty that we’ve got (as a touring industry) is how do we build a career? How do we get recorded music into a fan base so that it stays a fan base. If people are a fan of three minutes of music, how do you make them a fan of the overall body of the artist’s work?
We are seeing artists in the UK having one big album, and then becoming an obscure artist. They didn’t build a fan base.
We have to get artists out there working. We’ve got to establish a fan base. We’ve got to insure that their website is very active. We’ve got to get them to react well with the customers that they’ve got, and then spread that (enthusiasm).
Where are our next live music customers coming from?
We have to approach our customers from a variety of ways, whether they are a young customer brought into a show by their parents or whatever. Okay, that’s the first level. Exposing them to live music. You want them to be excited by going to a live show, wherever they come in. The next thing is how do we get an experience that is affordable? We’ve got to look (at pricing) because now days there are so many other ways that people can be entertained. And music is competing with all of that.
If we continue (as we have been) or if we in any way rob our customers and they feel ripped off, or if they feel abused, then they will take their share option and money and go somewhere else. We have got to be aware of that. The customers has the ability to say, “No.” If we keep loading them up with extra charges, they will say “No,” particularly in the (economic) circumstances we are in now.
Forty years ago, when we were punters ourselves and just going out, it was all about music. That is what we wanted to hear and see. And we would generally be able to get into a show unless you wanted to see the Beatles or someone like that. Generally, you could get access. Now, it is more difficult. But, I think, this is where we have to be smart. We’ve got to be ticket smart. We have to look at all-ages shows. We have to look at how we identify our customers and don’t abuse (the relationship). Otherwise, we will go the way of the labels.
Should managers and agents, as well as promoters, be more realistic about what can be pulled out of a market?
Every one of us has to look at every single circumstance. We have to look at artists, their capabilities and at the venues we are going into. We have to look at how we are constructing deals for the artist and for our customers. In the end, if we can’t put those two things together as industry professionals, we are failing our artists and our customer.
How do you see the proposed Live Nation/Ticketmaster merger affecting the industry, if it goes through?
Whew, that’s a difficult question. It is an interesting time seeing if this merger goes through. Everybody has an opinion about it. Whether that is an opinion forged by sheer knowledge or speculation. It is taking place in a difficult time. Whatever happens, we as an industry have to look at that, in the end, if we don’t bring value for money to our customers, we won’t survive.
Can a boutique booking agency still work in North America? Or does it need to be bigger?
Some managers and artists will want to be with a small company where they feel they will be better looked after. They feel that if they’ve got the talent, and they are getting personal service, then they will be heard and they will get through (to the market).
So there’s an argument for the boutique (agency) set-up. But it doesn’t have to get crushed in the current climate.
Ever since I’ve been in it, the (booking) industry has ebbed and flowed with companies developing, growing, disintegrating, and amalgamating. It is a human being business we’re in; that represents other human beings who represent their products. And it is always going to have an ebb and flow. Every time, there’s an amalgamation that throws talented people, those people don’t necessarily go away. They regroup and come back in a different way.
Still, it must be intimidating for a young band or manager to look at The Agency Group. You must have to operate like a boutique agency for some clients.
Well, we do. We operate like a boutique because we don’t territorially book. That makes us very different from most of the other (agencies). When we take an artist on, it is taken on by an agent dedicated to that artist’s music, and who has a real desire to book the artist .
We hope we are being seen to give a very dedicated personal service to artists and that they are not being lost in the system. At the same time, artists have the backup of a bigger organization that gives them the clout to be seen where they should be seen, and gives them the services that they would want from a big company.
Certainly, agency business is more cut-throat today with the recent mergers and with mainstream agencies like the William Morris Agency and CAA working more with alternative music acts.
The business has grown. Last year, we had over 17,000 contracts on issue. In 2000, we had 2,000 issued. The volume, and where the agencies and the business have grown, has created the situations we’ve got now.
When we were smaller, when all of us were smaller, we were fighting in a much smaller pub. Now we are fighting in a big ocean. And we still all want to have the ability to take on that young new artist. What the bigger guys are doing now, along with us, is developing unsigned independent talent. We are supplanting the labels in being A&R sources.
In 2005, you took a hard look at the company’s basic business model and introduced sweeping changes. Why?
The way we look at the agency is that we have to provide services to people. I honestly believe that the music labels, prior to that, had been running from behind. They were not in the contemporary world to market their product. We were gathering more and more information for our artists in every part of the world to help managers make decisions about how they were going to tour; where they were going to put their emphasis on releases; and gauging the promotional time that they would give.
We were becoming more than just a booking agency by being a supplementary information service. At the same time, promoters around the world had started to beef up the information services that they had within themselves, in the end, record companies are now distribution sources and the rest of us are A&Ring, and developing the talent. Not necessarily totally A&Ring, but certainly developing the live platform of the artist as well as (providing services) for soundtracks and publishing or any other element that our artists want to get involved in.
Many managers have beefed up their own companies as well to include ancillary services.
You are 100% right. Different managers now have different areas that they are engaged in. Some are surrounding themselves with marketing tools and marketing people or seeking out different information pieces for the information highway.
Fifteen years ago, it was the labels dictating to us, particularly to us in the agency world, when they wanted artists to appear on the road. And they would arbitrarily move release dates without telling us. They didn’t consider that it was important enough to inform us about that, “We’ve decided to move the album release date by two weeks.” “What about the tour?” “We don’t really care that much about the tour.”
We are now telling the label where the artist will tour now. We know what the artist’s strengths are. We have situations now where record company doesn’t want to release (an album) in some territories and yet we will still take the artist there. We will almost say to the label, without being totally rude, “By the way the artist is going to appear in Paris. If you care to put the album out in France, we would be very obliged. But in your own good time.”
Twenty years ago, bands from North America didn’t tour extensively outside North America, except touring England, Germany or Japan.
I suppose you are probably right. But the talent I represented went a little further afield. A lot of Americans still suffer from a cultural shock of there not being a McDonald’s or a Starbucks on every other corner.
You encouraged Rush's management to book dates outside of North America in 1977. Also, their first South American shows in 2002 proved to them that they had fans there, and encouraged them to play other new venues. How did the South American dates happen?
It was a conclusion of a long, long campaign to get the band to go there. It wasn’t as much they didn’t want to go there. It was that they didn’t believe they could do the business there. They didn’t believe how big they were. I was saying to them that, “There’s Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones and then there’s Rush in South America.” They went,” Don’t be silly.”
But the record sales for Rush didn’t reflect that popularity.
No but the groundswell of fan fever and the information I was getting from a variety of promoters always told me that. And, by the way, (low record sales) will be the same for Pink Floyd or the Rolling Stones in South America with how much piracy there is there.
It must drive you crazy that Rush doesn’t often tour?
Every other year that they don’t tour has driven me nuts. They don’t have a big desire, even in North America, to do a huge amount of work. So I’m always grateful when a few crumbs fall of the table, and they decide to do Europe or South America. Hopefully, some time they will go back to Japan. [The only time Rush played shows in Japan was in 1984.]
Will markets in Asia open more for Western music acts?
We have to look at China as the market that will establish itself in the future. But music will be only one of the many things that the Chinese market will look at, including sports.
It is a bit of a myth to (talk about) the integration of Western music into the Chinese culture. It will happen. But it’s going to be a lot slower than anyone imagines. And it will take a lot of work.
On the live side, I think China is a market that will grow. The information highway is driven through the mobile phone there. As marketing is done more through that medium, we will see the newer (Western) artists benefit from that form of marketing, far more than any of the historic artists.
Korean music is very big in China. Indigenous Chinese music--rock and pop music--is also big there. Just imposing Western music doesn’t impress them. There is no God-given right that we have that our artists will be big in their marketplace.
It is fair to say that the artists that I’ve had to tour there, including the Rolling Stones and with Deep Purple, the majority of people those acts play to are Western, not Chinese.
There’s also a lack of venues in China.
That’s absolutely right. In their culture there’s been no culture of a club or a pub circuit. There have been no growing grounds for artists in the same way there has been in the Western world. So the multi-purpose facilities are the ones being used. It is hard to find the right venues that suit the right artists.
The tragic events in November in Mumbai, India in which gunmen killed 171 people during a three-day siege has had a huge impact on Western artists not touring there as much.
I think that India went through a “night-of-the-long-knives’ as it were when all of that happened which has made them re-appraise how they secure their country, primarily for their own people.
Live music in India has always been based on sponsorship. If you haven’t got a sponsor, you don’t have a tour. What is happening now is that because of the resurgence of cricket and with it being the major attraction, a lot of sponsorship money is being deflected away from music and into cricket. It is becoming increasing difficult to tour there, not withstanding the security aspects, because you can’t always find the sponsorship. I think that’s why there have been a decrease--along with everything else--for the number of (Western) artists playing there.
You have been touring acts in the Russian market since the ‘70s.
I had Pink Floyd there while the Iron Curtain was still in place. They did a week in Moscow (in 1989). Status Quo, Deep Purple and a-ha have played there early on I’ve had a lot of our artists there since. Obviously, Deep Purple and a-ha still tour very comprehensively across Russia
Russia is in upheaval right now. Predictions are that it will take 3-5 years for stabilization there. How does that affect touring?
Economically, Russia, along with a lot of the other emerging markets, is certainly in upheaval. I don’t know if upheaval is too strong a word. I think that while we are going through what we are going through, touring markets that had become stable have now become unstable again. They are more difficult to tour in now.
How did you come to land at NEMS Enterprises in 1967 and become senior director of its contemporary music department? You were only 21 when you were hired.
I left school when I was 15, and I was an apprentice printer. I had a couple of semi-professional bands that I was booking into colleges. I got to know the social secretaries, the buyers. Nobody was then catering to these customers. So gradually, they turned to me, and asked if I could book this or that act for them. So I opened South Bank Artists which came to control the bookings of all of the major colleges and universities in and around London.
I gradually built up this huge client list of colleges so that all of the major (booking) agencies then would go through me to get their acts into the colleges. I was booking Donovan, the Doors, and Pink Floyd. I booked Tyrannosaurus Rex in a package with (BBC Radio 1) DJ John Peel for 75 pounds.
So your small company was a pretty powerful business card. What happened next?
I got a call from someone at NEMS I had been booking talent with, asking if I’d be interested in a job there. I thought, “Working for the Beatles’ company? ‘Scuse me. How much do I have to think about that?” So I went for a succession of interviews and ended up going there as a very junior agent.
NEMS was very cash rich because of the Beatles and everything else going on in the company. In 1969, the company bought the Bryan Morrison Agency which (booked) Pink Floyd, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Ansley Dunbar, the Soft Machine, the Incredible String Band, and Fairport Convention…the whole lot of the contemporary music scene and it was brought into NEMS.
These were the same artists you had been booking with South Bank.
Yeah, so I came to the (contemporary music department) much to the annoyance of the agents from the Bryan Morrison Agency who didn’t want to be in NEMS anyway. They taught me my job. They taught me that I had moved over from being a venue buyer to being an agency artist agent, to where I had to be looking at an artist’s career. That is what these guys from the Bryan Morrison Agency were doing. They were developing Pink Floyd for Pink Floyd and Tyrannosaurus Rex for Tyrannosaurus Rex. They were not doing this as part of the old regime where the promoter is king, and here is a bit of talent that is going to fill up the ballroom.
[The Bryan Morrison Agency had booked such then underground acts as Tyrannosaurus Rex, Tomorrow and Pink Floyd. Morrison's accountant Steve O'Rourke began to manage Pink Floyd in 1968, and did so until his death in 2003],
When you joined NEMS, band leader Vic Lewis was then the managing director. He wasn’t up on rock music.
Vic did all of the showbiz and jazz (bookings), and he looked after Cilla Black. He took on Donovan, but he didn’t know anything about Donovan. He thought he was some guy in a kilt. He phoned me and said, “A friend of mine has this act, Donovan. Would you help me?” So I did work on Donovan.
Another friend of Vic’s took on David Bowie, and I did some work with David Bowie. But those artists wouldn’t stay with Vic because he didn’t know who they were. And I was the junior at that time. I didn’t have that sort of position before the Bryan Morris office came in. Then we expanded with Humble Pie, Beck, Bogart & Appice, Deep Purple, although Deep Purple had been a NEMS’ client. I’ve been working with Deep Purple since 1967.
[In 1965 Brian Epstein bought the Vic Lewis Agency and appointed Lewis to the board of NEMS. After Epstein's death in 1967 Lewis's power increased and by 1969, he had signed Elton John to the agency. The company changed hands a couple of times, and when Lewis found himself unable to get along with new owners in 1977, he left.]
How did you come to head NEM’s contemporary music department?
At NEMS nobody was looking at the business side and (at first) I didn’t know about business. The accountant started asking me about things like projections. I’d ask what that was and how to do it. Slowly, the contemporary music department came under me. I became a director of the company by the time I was 25.
How did you come to be managing director of the Bron Agency from 1973 to 1980?
Gerry Bron had been on at me for awhile to join the Bron Agency. Then NEMS changed ownership and I didn’t want to stay with the new owners. So I went into Bron and brought all of my talent there. Gerry was then very active with his label (Bronze Records). Uriah Heap was at their height (of popularity) and Motorhead was soon after that and then Girlschool.
One of your first moves on your own was to open a office in New York. It didn’t work out. Why?
We opened Cricket Talent & Booking in New York. We had Simple Minds, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Echo and the Bunneymen, and the Revillos. It was all esoteric English talent. We naively thought we would have enough volume out of our English side to make the company work. It didn’t. As well, we didn’t visit New York enough to make sure the company was being run properly. Whereas, now I am in New York once a month.
It was another 10 years before The Agency Group opened in New York in 1992. Were you making sure, you wouldn’t have a repeat of Cricket?
When Cricket went down, I was really struggling to make The Agency work.
What did you do in 1992 to launch in North America?
I was frustrated that I couldn’t get things done for my artists. I was having a conversation with Steve Schenck who managed Blue Oyster Cult. I said, “I have this band Nazareth who tell me that they can turn over (sell) in America.” He said, “I can book a Nazareth tour. I can book them into the same places that Blue Oyster Cult goes. We’ll get a license and issue the paper.” I went, “Oh, okay.” Then I was working with the Stranglers in the UK, and they wanted to go to North America. So I asked Steve if he wanted to get involved. And he said sure. So we set up in the Fisk Building (250 W 57th St.) in a, tiny office. That was the start of The Agency Group in North America.
It was very casual at the start?
It was very slow in terms of what we did. But then we took on another agent and (Agency Group president, North America) Steve Martin joined in 1994. Then we started to kick forward in a very different way, and the company began to grow.
You opened an office in Toronto in 1996 where you compete head-to-head with S. L. Feldman & Associates. Still, the office has signed such acts as Nickelback, Three Days Grace, and Billy Talent.
Ralph James and Jack Ross called me out of the blue about opening in Toronto. I told them I had no intention of opening in Canada. That I had enough problems in America. But they knew I had an affinity with Canadian music having represented Max Webster, Lee Aaron, Triumph and all of these Canadian artists in the early days. (Canada) was really a very good (talent) source for me.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008, Larry was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.