Industry Profile: Paul Fenn
By Larry LeBlanc
This week In The Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Paul Fenn
Paul Fenn was Americana before Americana was cool.
Fenn, the joint managing director of London-based Asgard Promotions, has been booking Americana-styled country acts in Britain and Europe before the genre was even fully identified.
When Fenn and his partner Paul Charles teamed up in the early ‘70s, their roster of clients was largely considered as being “left of center.”
Today’s Fenn’s client list is formidable.
It includes such iconic musical figures as Joan Baez, Steve Earle, Guy Clark, k.d. lang, Alison Krauss, Rodney Crowell, Richard Thompson, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Beth Nielsen Chapman; Lucinda Williams, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Buddy Miller, the Waifs Kasey Chambers, and the Flatlanders, which all have strong followings overseas; and such promising newcomers as Jace Everett, and Diana Jones.
For years, Asgard has also worked with the cream of America’s mainstream country acts, including Willie Nelson, Trisha Yearwood, and the Mavericks.
Fenn has been presented with the Country Music Association’s International Talent Buyer/Promoter of the Year at least four times; and served on the association’s board for two terms.
2009 has been a good year for country music in America, where Carrie Underwood’s “Play On” became the 7th album from the genre to reach number # 1 in the year, following earlier recordings by Taylor Swift, Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban, Sugarland, George Strait and Reba McEntire.
American country music may be popular in America, but the genre almost completely died out in the UK after the Country Music Association closed its London office in 2000.
The genre had some British success in the late 90’s with Shania Twain, the Mavericks, and LeAnn Rimes. Trisha Yearwood came close to a breakthrough there as well, However, after these artists passed their prime and the CMA office closed, the genre saw a sharp decline there.
Today, many country albums aren't released overseas, and only a handful of American mainstream country acts tour abroad.
However, Taylor Swift's successful recent entry into the European market coupled with Toby Keith’s recent swing through the UK, Norway, and Sweden, is giving hope that Europe, particularly Britain, may be ready to embrace mainstream American country acts again.
Taylor is currently in the UK for two shows, one in London at the Wembley Arena (Nov. 23) the other in Manchester at the Manchester Evening News Arena (Nov. 24).
While Keith Urban and Rascal Flatts have fared poorly in the UK in recent times, Sugarland made significant, progress touring there this year. As well, "All I Want to Do," licensed for Europe to the Hump Head imprint of independent label Wrasse, was playlisted at BBC Radio 2 which also aired an acoustic session of the duo with announcer Bob Harris.
American country acts haven’t been welcomed in the UK market for several years. Are they deemed as being too American?
It is that they are too American, and their lifestyles don’t translate to us at all. We don’t understand them visually or any other way. And, there is a huge reticence in our media to embrace these artists. Then, when they have the twang, it doesn’t fit on our radio.
Did it hurt shutting down the Country Music Association’s London office in 2000?
Yes. But it was symptomatic of that time. Things were tightening up. The labels in Nashville—there were five main labels at that time—none of them had seen any success in Europe. The whole thing (touring and marketing) was funded or driven by those labels. They saw no result in Europe so I can understand that there was no reason for pursuing (this market). However, when they did take (the CMA office) away, things slowly, but surely, fell away around it. Would they have fallen around at the same time? It is very likely that they wouldn’t of. Still, in my mind, there’s been no acts coming out of Nashville that have been suitable to break into the main market here anyway.
For decades, Don Williams, George Hamilton IV, and Boxcar Willie were popular in the UK.
They were big here, but (their successes) never got replicated. After all of those big Wembley Festivals went away in the ‘80s, we were involved with all of these artists from the periphery that is now called Americana because I had a lot of connections in Nashville. That meant I also had good connections with the mainstream (country) artists. In 1988, we hooked up with Randy Travis who could have easily been the new Don Williams. He had the same kind of songs that could have gone straight onto the radio. We tried and we tried. I don’t know what happened. Maybe, the label didn’t have the faith all of the way down the line within the label. Whatever it was, it just didn’t happen.
With every one of these mainstream (American country) acts, you can talk them into trying it once (coming overseas), but you don’t get a second chance.
You can’t really count Taylor Swift because she’s not being marketed as a country artist in the UK.
Taylor Swift is huge here. She’s Hannah Montana. That’s where she’s come from. She is, and will be, very successful.
Toby Keith was in the UK this month playing dates in London, Glasgow and Belfast after saying for years he’d never go over there.
But the reason he was over here was because he is a huge success in Norway. I read that he went through an airport and some Norwegians recognized him. Maybe, he then realized that he could come to Europe.
You were quoted earlier this year as saying that Rascal Flatts never had a chance in the UK, and shouldn’t have bothered coming over in 2008.
It was totally true. Nobody has proven me wrong yet.
[After the American country act's Feb. 2008 launch, the "Rascal Flatts" album spent just one week on the U.K. chart at #64.].
Do you watch the annual CMA Awards, and also think “Don’t bother coming over here?”
I used to go to the CMA show for about 10 years while I was on the board of the CMA (Country Music Assn.) I did two stints in the middle of the ‘90s and then later on (1991-94). When I started going, I could look at the people on the stage, and I was working with 50% to 70% of them. Now, I’m down to 5% of clients that are on the show. As I watch it today, I am thinking less and less about those acts being viable over here. However, this year I am starting to think that, maybe, there’s a change. Our media is opening up to them again and, maybe, there is a possibility that some of them might work here.
Many popular American artists – of all genres – aren’t known in the UK today.
I travel to the U.S. frequently and I am conscious now that there are more artists in the American charts that I haven’t heard of than any other previous time. Is it because they are coming up so fast and are new or is it because there’s a smaller percentage of them going international than in the past?
Keith Urban got off to a good start, but he hasn’t done as well as expected in the UK.
I wasn’t involved (with Keith) but I have watched him carefully. He came over in 2005 and opened (in the UK and Ireland) for Bryan Adams which was as good as any way to set up (in the market). Then he came back and did his own shows but the record he was promoting (“Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing”) didn’t have a hit single on it in the way that the one before did. So he didn’t get the radio airplay while he was here. Then he got married, and he hasn’t been back since.
Why was opening for Bryan Adams good for a country act?
Because it put him in front of an audience that has no preconceived notions of country music.
[In 2005, Keith Urban supported Bryan Adams on his U.K. and Ireland tour, which included dates in Earls Court in London, SECC in Glasgow and The Point in Dublin. On June 6, 2005, a UK-only album, “Days Go By” was released with songs from his “Be Here” and “Golden Road” albums.]
Martina McBride keeps going back to the UK. She was there this year.
Keeps is the word you use wrong there. There was, I think, either a 9 year or a 13 year gap between her two visits.
[Martina McBride’s recent tour were her first concerts in the U.K. and Ireland for some 15 years.]
You represent Faith Hill and Trisha Yearwood. Do they have a UK presence?
Faith is on the (client) list but if it ever came down to a tour I don’t know (if we’d be involved). I haven’t talked with her management in a long time. She did one show in Cork (Ireland) for us a long time ago. Trisha was very active here in the early ‘90s, but she hasn’t been back since. When the golden opportunity with the single called "How Do I Live?” came she was lined up for (BBC’s) “Top of the Pops,” but they couldn’t get her over. One or two months later, Lee Ann Rimes brought it out, and took the credit. And she did do the promotion here.
[Faith Hill and her longtime manager, Gary Borman of Borman Entertainment parted ways this month after 16 years.]
Who could do well in your market?
Jamey Johnson. I also think Sugarland with the right treatment could do well.
[Johnson received three Grammy Award nominations at the 51st Grammy Awards held on February 8, 2009: Best Country Album for “That Lonesome Song” on Mercury Nashville Records; and Best Country Song and Best Male Country Vocal Performance for "In Color” which won the Academy of Country Music's 2009 award for Song of the Year.]
Sugarland toured Europe, and the UK this year.
Sugarland did very well but they played some strange markets. Jennifer (Nettles) was sick, and they canceled some shows. They did some media but it didn’t translate into the real world I don’t think. But they are still a long-term possibility to break through here, if they spend the time on doing it.
You and Paul Charles are partners in Asgard?
Yes, it's a partnership. It has been since 1978. Paul came to work with me around 1976, and (our relationship) developed into a partnership a couple of years later.
[Before becoming partners with Fenn, Paul Charles worked as manager, lyricist, roadie, sound engineer and agent for the progressive Irish rock band Fruupp. Charles has since been the UK agent for an array of acts including: the Blue Nile, Ray Davies, Paul Brady, Jackson Browne, Christy Moore, Don McLean, Elvis Costello, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Rory Gallagher, Nick Lowe, Ry Cooder, Robert Plant, Planxty, Tom Waits, Van Morrison, the Waterboys.
He has also programmed the acoustic stage at Glastonbury Festival for the past 15 years.
in 1996, Charles wrote his first Detective Inspector Christy Kennedy Mystery, “I Love The Sound of Breaking Glass, which was published the following year. Eight further Christy Kennedy titles have followed, plus a novel concerning the Beatles, titled “First of the True Believers” and the non-fiction book, “The Complete Guide to Playing Live.”]
How do you and Paul split duties?
We each have our extensive client list plus I tend to oversee the admin side. Paul has his book writing as a sideline. I tend to get bogged down fighting government departments as my sideline, including the recent seismic changes in the UK work permit system. I spent a lot of time representing both the Agents Association (The Official Association for Entertainment Agents and Bookers) and the CPA (Concert Promoters Assn.) at the Home Office, and the UKBA (UK Borders Agency) to ensure that the original - impossible - proposals weren't implemented. What we now have, when it eventually gets bedded in (legislated), will be far better than we had before.
Asgard has a strong Americana roster.
Quality is what the definition is. We’ve got some good stuff.
Well, there aren’t many agents chasing these niche acts.
With a few exceptions, we don’t have a lot of competition chasing after our acts. Obviously, the relationships (with the artists) are pretty solid at this stage after all of these years, but there aren’t really that many people involved in that field. Maybe, they have decided that it is commercial suicide.
Asgard was once a concert promoter as well as an agency.
In the last 5 to 10 years, we’ve gotten away from promoting partly because the promotion field has become so bureaucratic; and partly because of the necessity of having to gear up with the Internet side which is a huge investment. We weren’t having enough shows to justify doing that. As well, some of the acts we were taking on were into national deals where we weren’t just taking care of London on their promotions.
Asgard was very active in the ‘80s and ‘90s promoting shows.
In the case of our Americana acts—though they weren’t called that then—we knew the market better than any other promoter we’d be dealing with did. We were still dealing with all of the major promoters with some of our other artists but they hadn’t heard of these (Americana) acts, and they didn’t know the market. So there was no real reason for them to book those types of acts. In those days, we had a very active mailing list for that genre. We were very up front with all of the managers about why were (promoting shows) If any of them had a problem with that, we’d make (the dates) wide open.
Promoting, you can lose your shirt.
Luckily, that didn’t happen too often. But you are absolutely right.
Do you do many club bookings?
With some of the smaller acts, yes.
Has the business changed with the Americans coming over in such great force in the booking and promoting fields?
It has definitely changed but at the same time we are busier than ever. For every problem that comes along, there’s another opportunity.
How much of your business is in Europe?
I would say 50/50, and we book into Australia and Japan occasionally. People like Steve Earle, who has toured Europe for 20 years, have a big following in Europe. He will sell as many tickets in Stockholm as he will in London. Whereas some of the newer acts in the Americana field haven’t developed the European side and, therefore, don’t go there as much. Steve is in the middle of 50 shows at the moment. Ten of them are in the UK, and the rest are in Europe. We booked all of them.
Is Germany a good market for your acts?
My Americana acts don’t have a good time in Germany. I do a lot of business in Germany with Joan Baez. She sells very well there, but Steve Earle, no. He will play 6 to 8 classy clubs there.
Joan Baez used to do well in France.
Joan still does. The strong territories for her are the UK, France, Germany and Italy. She was just in Scandinavia for the first time in 28 years, and sold phenomenally well. Joan has now confirmed that she’s going to go into Spain in March (2010) for the first time in a long time, and do 6 shows there.
What is Joan’s appeal?
She’s an icon, and she does a great show. In Scandinavia, the promoters didn’t think (the tour) was going to sell out. They said, “Well, she doesn’t sell any CDs, so she’s not going to sell well.” We ended going in on low guarantees for the regular 2,000 capacity concert halls, and we sold them all out.
Many of your clients don’t get radio airplay in the UK.
We do get sporadic activity on the radio. Radio 2, which drives this market that we are dealing with, is open to playing the right tracks, if somebody brings them in. Beth Nielsen Chapman gets played on Radio 2 quite a lot. As a result of that, it has helped her career, and she has sold tickets.
BBC Radio 2 has been there all along.
In the days, we were doing all of the stuff with Route 88 (an ambitious cross-label campaign in the late ‘80s to establish several American country stars in the UK) we didn’t get any radio airplay there with Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis. We certainly got a lot of press. If you don’t know you are missing (radio), you don’t realize that you are missing it. You work with the tools that you are given.
Alison Krauss and Lucinda Williams do well in the UK.
Alison Krauss will sell a lot of tickets the next time she tours, and she has sold a lot of tickets in the past. Lucinda Williams does well, but she hasn’t had the radio support because she hasn’t made records that are suitable for the radio.
Bob Harris has two shows on BBC Radio 2, a Saturday night program and the weekly “Bob Harris Country” program. He plays a lot of Americana styled artists.
He does. However, I take issue with Bob in an amicable manner. He has so many great new artists that, at the end of every year, I’ve had 52 acts tell me that they have been the Album of the Year with Bob Harris. He plays them three times, and then stops. We need more concentration (air repetition). Not just from Bob but from the media in general on certain artists. That is why none of them are breaking through big and fast like they used to. The attention has dissipated.
You have represented k.d. lang for years, including when she made the transition from being a niche artist to the mainstream. That happened first in the UK.
Yes. But we didn’t see it as a transition over here. In that period 1987 to 1989, k.d. lang, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Dwight Yoakam, and Steve Earle were all coming through here. Each one of them were selling more tickets in London than any city in the U.S. and Canada. We were ahead of (the market) for all of those acts at the time. And, then because we were breaking these acts—I wouldn’t say anybody was making huge amounts of money—they were able to go back to the U.S. or Canada with a story. Then, as we came out of that period, each one of them had a reason for why the ball was dropped. k.d. continued, but she, obviously, exploded worldwide.
Was it the print media that broke those acts in the UK?
No. The musical taste for American and Canadian roots music has always been strong in the United Kingdom. In the ‘late ‘70s or early ‘80s, we did Ry Cooder at the Hammersmith Apollo, and sold 6 nights. With 18,000 or 19,000 tickets, that was a hell of a lot of people.
At that point, the media embraced (roots music) as well. Whereas now, we still have a good following for roots music (in the UK) but it’s not there in the media anymore. Back then we had all of those people writing about all of these things. We had a very active media. But we also had huge numbers of people who wanted to see those shows.
The first tour by an artist of any new territory is a loser all around.
Well, the artist loses. In the old days they would lose money and would need tour support, and record companies gave it to them. Deals with the promoters were being struck so the promoters were doing (shows) as an investment, not necessarily losing money.
Few labels today give tour support to go overseas.
It is very, very rare.
Has that hurt business?
Well, we are busier than ever. Does that mean we have more clients than before? We have as many new acts coming through than we ever have. I’ve got some of the baby acts like Diana Jones, and I had Jace Everett in London last week. He’s about to have a hit record (“Bad Things”) from the "True Blood” soundtrack. Raul Malo (former lead singer of the Mavericks) counts as a new act because he has started again.
Are there too many summer festivals in the UK?
Certainly, some of them went wobbly this year. When you read now about one or two of them that have finally gone into bankruptcy, you realize how much money that they owed. But everyone had a rough summer. All businesses. Not just festivals. No festivals is going to come out and say that they are on shaky ground now and that they are going to be on shakier ground next summer. So it’s difficult to say at the moment. Everybody is full of optimism for next year.
Is the economy having an effect on live events?
Oh yeah. But the successful festivals are very successful. The ones that aren’t so successful is it because they have crappy ideas about their booking policy or they have the wrong concept for the festival or have people run out of money and did want to go or couldn’t afford to go? It’s difficult to know.
Does having so much talent from overseas drive up artist fees for the festivals?
The summer season for the festivals is in June, July and bits of August. You have artists coming over for that period. That’s their career plan. “This summer, we do the festivals in Europe.” The reason the talent price goes up for the artists that are headline acts is because they have four different offers on each weekend. It has nothing to do with the travel costs and all that. It’s the fact that they can play each festival off against each other.
Did you have an interest in music while growing up in London?
As a fan. I can’t play anything at all.
You are 58. You went to clubs and shows in the ‘60s?
Yeah. The number of times I went to see Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac, Ten Years After, and all of those acts. When acts toured in the ‘60s and ‘70s, they played clubs all around London, as well as going around the country. So you would have Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac playing 6 shows in London in a course of a month. Now, artists do one London show every two years.
How did you become an agent?
While I was at school in Barkham in East London, I was involved with a club in Stratford (in East London) that was running on Friday nights using the name Asgard. I sort of took over the running of the club. Club refers to one night a week Then when I left school in 1968, I became an agent not knowing what that was. I kept the name of the club.
You soon found a hole in the market with roots music type acts.
Yeah, I didn’t go looking for it either. In the mid-70s, Martyn Smith was A&R at United Artists Records in London. He was a close friend of mine, and he introduced me to Country Gazette managed by Eddie Tickner. I wouldn’t say that I was a bluegrass fan at that stage--or ever have been since-- but I got involved through his enthusiasm.
Out of that came my connection to Emmylou Harris. Then, if you look at all of the musicians that have been through (Emmylou Harris’s backup group) the Hot Band, there’s been a whole bunch I’ve been involved with, including Rodney Crowell, Ricky Skaggs, Emory Gordy and Tony Brown. I knew all of them through that. That’s how I got to meet Roseanne Cash. I did a Flying Burrito Brothers’ tour through my connection with Ed Tickner. All of the stuff that continued came from that one source.
[American artist manager Eddie Tickner was an accountant who got into the music field when he started managing Odetta in the early '60s. During his careers, Tickner represented the Byrds, Emmylou Harris, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, Odetta, Etta James, and the Hacienda Brothers. He died from leukemia in Tucson, Arizona in 2006 at the age of 78.]
Who had you been booking up to that point?
The biggest act was Hawkwind when they had their #3 (UK single) hit in1972 with “Silver Machine.”
Larry LeBlanc 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.