INTERVIEW WITH NEIL WARNOCK, CEO, THE AGENCY GROUP WORLDWIDE
Over the course of a career which has spanned five decades, Neil Warnock has worked with
some of the greatest entertainers to have ever graced the planet.
He’s also turned his passion into a globe spanning business. A former printer’s apprentice, Warnock got his start booking bands such as Traffic, The Doors, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Donovan and Fairport Convention into universities in the UK. That lead to a career with NEMS Enterprises, the home of The Beatles. By 1981, the then MD of the Bron Agency bought out that companyand changed the name to The Agency Group.
With five international offices (including its headquarters in London) and 70 agents who represent over 2,000 artists, The Agency Group (www.theagencygroup.com) regularly wins professional industry awards, yet they’re not sitting on their laurels. Literary and Speakers departments are the latest developments within the company. Ahead of his upcoming appearance at Music Matters in Hong Kong, Scott Murphy caught up with Warnock in
Mumbai to talk about his views on Asia, as well as a frank assessment of why The Agency Group is recognized as one of the world’s premiere booking agencies.
What are you doing in India?
NW: I’m here because we are investigating the opportunities of possibly opening a company in Mumbai. I think the appeal to me is–a number of reasons–the first one being is that we have international artists who fly over here every time they go to Australia, and they should be visiting here. The infrastructure is difficult but it is getting easier. There is a willingness to
build venues. There’s also an infrastructure of clubs where you can build artists. More importantly, there are a great deal of talented Indian bands that will, in the not too difficult future, break in the international touring market and I want to be a part of that as well.
Based on your visits there, what do you see happening musically?
NW: It’s very rapid in the last couple years. The Hard Rock is here now and we are seeing a lot more willingness at the government level to encourage entrepreneurs to be in business here this year. There’s a lot more speed in getting stuff done. Young entrepreneurs are really coming in and getting things done as opposed to the old guard who are conservative and
promoting sponsored shows. The traditional way to work here is to get the sponsor, then the sponsor dictates the act they want and they just become the facilitators.
You’re attending the Music Matters conference in Hong Kong this year. Why are you coming and what do you want to achieve and get across?
NW: What I hope to achieve is to bring like minded people together to increase the efficiency of having artists tour the whole of the region from China to India to Australia. It’s a whole touring market and I want to be able to hang it all together. There’s not enough discussion from promoters to do this–and from a label standpoint. I also think this would be good for
developing bands and for bands that are already established.
There must be many of your acts who say they want to come to Asia.
NW: Absolutely. It depends band by band. There are some acts who say they would love to go to Singapore or Vietnam or Taipei and money isn’t a n issue. Some artists who have sold a lot of records might think otherwise. It varies. There’s also the amount of time you need to do each show. Playing one show in Hong Kong and Taipei takes up a lot of touring time, for example.
Tell me about the The Agency Group at the moment. This is your chance to boast.
NW: The Agency Group is a very particular animal as opposed to some of my contemporary rivals. I believe that my agents and I bring a personal service to booking that isn’t always there in some of the other offices. There is no territorial booking in America and elsewhere. The agent who signs the artist looks after the artist for the whole of their career and some people may have some more expertise ins some area. Around the group, there is always
somebody, somewhere who has been in all the buildings around the world and who has worked with all the promoters around the world. I have always set us up to make us truly international and make us truly entrepreneurial.
Even if an artist doesn’t wan to tour in one particular territory, we at least bring to the manager the opportunities so that the manager can bank it and discuss it with the artist. We bring the possibilities for all of our artists all of the time. That’s why we are set up so broadly in the UK, Sweden, Canada, New York and LA. We’re able to bring a worldwide perspective on what we do. We have about 150 employees in five offices with about 76 agents and
nearly 2,000 artists. Guys in the literary dept and in the speaking agency have clients who aren’t involved with music. We also represent sports people.
You now have a speaking division. Tell me about it.
NW: It’s about a year old…and now we have Alice Cooper doing speaking engagements. It’s presented a way for an artist outside of their rock and roll shows. We offer them these opportunities or if they write the book of their life that is interesting for people to read. It could be a book on quilting, for example. Imagine Lemmy (Motorhead founder) doing that.
What would someone like Alice be hired for?
NW: Often the client hires them as a theme. Alice can speak about alcoholism, golf, being a committed Christian–and he is happy to speak about that. He, of course, is also and he’s a legendary rock star, which his area of speaking in his own sphere. But if he’s been asked to speak about another subject, if they can articulate it, they are happy to do it.
What’s the difference between what you do and a promoter?
NW: I’m not a promoter and have never been a promoter. I’m an agent. A promoter takes the risk to mount the show. We facilitate the deal between the artist and the promoter…we’re brokers. One of our touchstones is that we are committed to signing young artists, some before their record deals and we are very committed to doing artist development. Our youngest acts are in artist development and so are our veteran acts.
Do you know of all the artists in your Group? It’s quite a large and eclectic group.
NW: No. There was a time when I knew every band’s music. It would be ridiculous now with the number of artists we have and the number of agents. I get out to see as many bands as I can and when I’m needed for a particular project I make it my business. The whole idea of The Agency Group is that we have agents with great ears. When one of my guys are developing a band coming through, I’m thrilled for them. I can’t get emotionally distraught that I didn’t do the development and I didn’t know the music. As much as I have my operating roster–and I do have my own roster–I do book and I always book.
But I can’t know everything that’s going on. That would be nuts.
What’s the price range for booking acts?
NW: It depends on the status of the act. I’m not going to discuss individual fees.
You were recently named Booking Agency Of The Year (in Canada and nominated by Pollstar). What’s that mean? How many are out there and what makes yours stand out more?
NW: I’ve had personal awards and the company have had many. I think we won Pollstar eight times in a year. When you’re voted by your peers, it’s very important and it means a lot to me. We’re competing every single day with CAA, with William Morris Endeavour, with ICM, with Paradigm every day. We’re in the business to represent the very best talent and so are they. We have to contend with the fact that there are competitors.
We’ve talked about India already, which you’re enthusiastic about. What do you have to say about China at this point?
NW: I’m a lot more cautious about China, I have to say. At one point I was very gung ho on China, a number of years ago. But the whole of the overall Asian market–Japan or wherever, you are always excited about breaking through in those markets. It’s all part of the remit around the world and not just playing North America. There’s a big world out there and I want
our artists to be able to go to as many places as they can all of the time.
And, I want to keep interested because the more you keep contacted the more opportunities there are.
However, I think the China market has become a lot more restrictive to Western artists and it’s so incredibly difficult to deal with the restrictions there. It’s hard to get the artist fees out and unless I can see something solid, or encouraging, I’m not encouraging my artists to go there. For example, Bob Dylan never made it there in the end. It’s just too much aggravation.
I’m excited about India. I’ve been bringing acts here since 1981. I came here with Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, Michael Jackson, the Rolling Stones. I’m very, very up on this market and you can see that this market is on its way to being a proper touring market.
Expand on that point please.
NW: I would say that we are looking at Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi, Goa and more. There may be different music sometimes and there may be as many as five plays, certainly in the club scene. I think we’ll see a lot more artists here for a lot of different reasons. The festival market is very buoyant for instance.
Do you see yourself opening offices in Asia?
NW: I’m investigating the possibilities for India and as for anywhere else, there may be others but nothing that we can discuss here right now.
Why is a group like yours more important than ever for artists?
NW: Because, what’s happening in the live business, what’s happening in the music business, is that with the slow down of record sales and the increase of live touring, if you want to go see a band you pay for it. You can’t download it. More bands are earning a living than ever before. Our job is to investigate which promoters, which buildings—and we’ve become more and more significant in the services that we bring….
How does that work with artist development?
NW: In general, it depends on whether it’s a product related tour. If that’s the case, then we are obviously working with the label on where a record has been released and we’ll reflect that in touring. In other cases we’ll be with an artist and we’ll discuss where to go, what ticket price, what size building and who should do the job. In doing that, we can say to our artist, ‘If
we do this now, this is the cause and effect. If we do a festival first, we’ll be able to do THIS in six, eight months time.’ It’s not about grabbing what’s there now. We’re in the business of artist development and it’s just as relevant to Alice Cooper as it is to our newest signing.
How often do egos get in the way?
NW: We’re hired to do a job. Musicians are a particular animal. The manager has to deal with the artist most often. If we are dealing with an awkward artist, you expect them to be difficult. Some are the sweetest people and some are monsters. That’s the same in banking and anywhere else. You’ve got the good guys and the bad guys.
You’ve had quite a run over the years and in some ways it seems as though your expansion has been based on flukes. Talk about it.
NW: Can you imagine being a printer and two years later, I’ve gone from being a printer’s apprentice to working for the Beatles agency? I had my own group South Bank Artists, which was booking acts for universities at the time. But to get the job at the NEMS Group and rise through the ranks was fantastic.
What I think they saw in me was a raw person at that time. I was booking colleges and bands. But to be thrust into probably the hottest agency at that time—one of three in contemporary music—I would imagine that they were shocked about how little I did know. I had to go through a steep and fast learning curve to become an agent. It wasn’t before NEMS brought The Bryan Morrison Agency and bought the agents with them, that my own philosophy became the way I am now. The steepest learning curve was getting to know the deals and knowing the promoters. I was booking bands for colleges. Cilia Black, for example, was still a contemporary artist and suddenly I was booking her all over the world. I was coming to grips with worldwide booking,
learning on the job very fast and having everything thrown at me.
By the time I got to the end of the NEMS era, which was 72-73, I was virtually running everything. I knew what I was doing. I knew P&L and I was looking at costs. When I went to the Bron Agency, I didn’t have any fear of having to do that. When I took over the whole of the agency of 1981, I knew what I was doing by then.
Along the way you expanded into new markets…
NW: I was pretty disillusioned with how US agents were looking after my artists and I thought I would open in America and show them how it was done. I think everyone thought I was nuts doing it. I was looking after the artists personally, not looking after the promoters. We look after them the way they need to, as partners. Our priority is and are the artists and that’s the
priority for us, always.
What are the best business lessons you’ve learned along the way?
NW: The ability to listen would be one thing, not just arrogantly flying into things without investigating it thoroughly. That’s absolutely important. To investigate every situation as thoroughly as you can. Those are a couple of things. Enjoy what you are doing. If you don’t enjoy it, it will reflect in your work. It’s a 24-7 job.
The glamour of your role vs. the day to day of The Agency Group. Talk about each.
NW: I don’t believe in the glamour side. People say ‘Aren’t you lucky–you meet all these stars’ and if there is anything on that side, I love seeing live music. What turns me on is seeing an act develop then come right off the stage and give me the chills. I saw The Who two weeks ago at The Albert Hall, I bought the tickets. I’m still a punter, a fan. I still love my music. Yes, there is some glamour. But the day to day of it is that we are backroom boys. We put it all together. We’re providing the services behind our artists that enables them to do the very best job in the circumstances for them at that time.
What do you see happening with artists who are breaking away from record labels and doing it on their own at the moment? What are the possibilities for them?
NW: They are in control of their own destiny. The historic way of signing your life away to a major label doesn’t have to exist anymore. There are other ways that don’t require a major conglomerate being involved. Labels can still be involved by becoming an entertainment group. You can pick and mix what part of the label you want to pick out and use. If I want to go and sell music through a website or be independent, there are many, many ways to get
music across. As agents, it’s not necessary for us to say that if you’re not signed to a label that we’re not taking you on. We will still help with them to help bring that about. In general terms yes, you have to recognize that there’s a worldwide recession. Recovery is just talk. We haven’t seen the end of it. As we are climbing out of it, we are seeing great sales for our artists right to the end of the year. We see great sales in festivals in Europe and less so in the U.S. I see this as a great time for artists to be out there. It’s a crowded market.
There are lots of great artists coming through. A manager has to be pretty aggressive to get themselves across.
What are your current concerns, both positive and negative for the industry?
NW: The positives: the continuation of the explosion of live, as long as we look after our customer. The labels didn’t look after their customer. They charged whatever they wanted in the CD market. It was complete arrogance. The one lesson we can take from that is to give the customer the right experience and we will survive and prosper with where we are now
and where we go in the future. The other side is that we are seeing a big type of change with the Live Nation/Ticketmaster merger and Frontline Management. It will be very interesting to see the development from that and the response from other markets and promoters as to how they
will respond. We’re in the human being business and it brings out entrepreneurs. In this context, this is what happens in these times. It’s an interesting and fast developing time at the moment. It is an exciting time for the The Agency Group too. It’s a bright time and we have great people
and great music. I’m very optimistic. My glass is always half full.
Is there anything else you would like to say about the upcoming Music Matters conference.
NW: I met the guys when they did the conference here in India. I was very pleased to do that and I’m looking forward to coming over to Hong Kong.
Finally, you’ve worked with so many great acts in their prime: Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd–and we could go—are legendary acts. Could you see their star quality? And what are your best memories in the business to date?
NW: Obviously the work that I’ve done with Pink Floyd has always excited me. What we’ve done with the show, unique venues and having to close down the city of Versailles for a week to get the gear in there, that was exciting.
Representing Johnny Cash and being around him and being part of his family was gratifying. He and June were among the most generous people to make you feel like you were part of their family. Working with Brian Wilson—how I came into the business was loving four part harmonies—same with The Beatles. The Four Seasons and the Beach Boys were always close to my heart. Working with Brian in different set ups is something I always enjoyed.
I could also say the same with Lemmy (Kilmeister). And there have been extraordinary things, some I can’t even talk about. I’m lucky. I’ve got lots of stories. Some I can tell and some I can’t. I’m very, very lucky to work with a cross section of music and I represent the fans. It’s fantastic. Just look at the success of Nickelback. We looked after them from when they were a baby act to arenas and beyond. They’re brilliant people, know what they are
doing and are great to be around. Great talent is great talent. That’s what gives me the buzz. Communicating through music is what it’s all about. If you can write it and communicate it to the back of a venue, you’re a star.
Thank you. We look forward to seeing you at Music Matters.
NW: Thank you.
Neil will be at Music Matters 26th-28th May 2010