James Hanley 26th Apr 2021

Meet the new indie booking agencies that have created opportunity in a crisis

There were few positives for the live industry in 2020, with revenues across the sector drying up almost overnight as the world was plunged into Covid lockdown. But the squeeze felt by giant agencies like CAA, UTA, WME and Paradigm could prove to be the beginning of an indie agency revolution, with a host of experienced execs striding out and setting up standalone operations purpose built for 'the new normal'...

The recent Alan McGee biopic, Creation Stories, harks back to a golden era when being independent didn’t stop you defining a generation. How apt, then, that another DIY revolution is gathering pace in the present day – this time in the live music business. It only took a global pandemic to get there.

More than half a dozen UK-based indie booking agencies have emerged from the wreckage of the Covid-19 shutdown, reshaping a sector that had edged increasingly towards consolidation and transatlantic partnerships.

Encapsulating the scale of the shift, the world’s biggest touring artist is now represented by an independent agency. Ed Sheeran’s long-time agent Jon Ollier exited CAA in late 2020 to launch his own company, One Fiinix Live.

“The impact of the pandemic has made things splinter,” Ollier tells The IMI. “The large agency model hasn’t been built to withstand it, so you’re either going to see talented people get made redundant, regrettably, or you’re going to see people that believe the answer to the problem doesn’t lie in their current situation.

“I’ve chosen to invest in myself and have therefore built a business model that doesn’t rely on there being intense amounts of cashflow in the next two years. That takes my attention away from firefighting and on to building. It means that, when things do switch back on, there won’t be a desperate clamour for cashflow and so I can maintain strategy and the best interests of my clients.”

Ollier, who has taken with him a roster including Sheeran, Anne-Marie, Lauv, 2Cellos and JC Stewart, concedes he might never have taken the plunge if not for the enforced break. “This is about a unique opportunity that wouldn’t necessarily happen under normal circumstances,” he says. “At some point, I’d definitely have wanted to run my own business. Do you ever arrive at the opportunity though? You’ve always got commission in the book that you would like to get paid on and a range of clients at different points in their career, so it’s very, very difficult to uproot that.”

It’s a similar story for respected agent Natasha Gregory, who departed Paradigm to join forces with her brother Mark Bent and launch artist management and live agency Mother Artists shortly before Christmas last year. Gregory heads up the firm’s live division, repping artists such as Idles, First Aid Kit, Amy Macdonald, Cate le Bon and Unknown Mortal Orchestra.

“I don’t think I would have ever been able to do this if there wasn’t this pause,” suggests Gregory. “Last year hit everybody hard, with all agencies suddenly bringing in zero income every month, and it was really just taking back control of the situation. Each [new agency announcement] gave an extra kick for those who were already entrepreneurially inclined to go and do something. They say out of a crisis comes opportunity, so a few of us felt this was the time to make the leap.”

Natasha Gregory left Paradigm to launch Mother Artists with her brother Mark Bent.

Matt Hanner’s Runway Artists was one of the first new agencies to pop up, quietly launching following his departure from ATC Live last spring. “The outlook for an unemployed booking agent last May/June wasn’t great,” remembers Hanner, who works with the likes of The Futureheads, Sleeper and Mercury Prize-shortlisted Lanterns On The Lake. “There were rumours of people being let go left, right and centre, so I wasn’t going to be able to walk in somewhere else.

“I had to decide whether I wanted to keep doing it and, having put about a decade of my life into getting to this point, I decided it was worth the risk. The great thing from my side was that I spoke to 14 artists who were all more than happy to come with me. They felt I’d done a good job for them and their relationship was with me rather than the companies I’d worked with them at previously – and were happy to move forward.

“As far as new pandemic-era agencies, I was slightly ahead of the curve because ATC was good enough to try and make decisions early in the process, so that people weren’t left in the lurch. Being able to crack on with it was very beneficial. Would I have chosen to do this at this point in non-pandemic times? Possibly not. I’d possibly have waited for a little bit longer and tried to get myself into a position where I was slightly more established. But the pandemic has opened up this great chance for people to be entrepreneurial.”

Orange Goblin frontman and ex-UTA agent Ben Ward united with music manager Jules Chenoweth to unveil Route One Booking at the back end of 2020. The firm’s eclectic roster includes Discharge, Fu Manchu, Voivod and Shooter Jennings, among others.

“The industry is changing – a lot of staff are being laid off and people just don’t really have an alternative,” says Ward. “I’ve been in this business for 25 years and it’s all I know, so when I left UTA in September last year, the natural thing for me to do was to start an agency on my own.

“We don’t have massive overheads like the major agencies, so we’re not stressing about the financial implications too much at the moment. We’re concentrating on our artists and looking at alternative initiatives we can offer them. Artists now need full service, so we’re looking to think outside the box and offer something new. Part of that is collaborating with other agencies in certain territories.”

Iconic British music company Marshall, which launched its own record label in 2016, joined the indie agency rush at the start of 2021. Led by 15-year industry veteran Stuart Vallans, Marshall Live Agency has already added the likes of Gen And The Degenerates, Crashface, Elijah Miller, Gallus, Make Friends, Moray Pringle and Polar States to its ranks.

"When I was made redundant from WME, I didn’t get the feeling for one second that it was a negative move for me."

“It’s a time when things are changing and our whole ethos as a business is, ‘How can we help?’” says Vallans. “The Marshall brand and name carries a lot of weight, so it just made sense. The bands we are working with were all selling tickets in their hometowns and getting great plays on streaming services, and they’re ready for that next push. That’s where we come in – to solidify those bands as touring acts.

“A lot of people have been in touch, including some big management companies, so it’s progressing a lot quicker than we ever thought. We had a two to three-year plan, but we’re way ahead of schedule.”

Punk, rock, metal and alternative agency Loud Artists, launched by ex-WME senior assistant Dan Owens became the most recent addition to the fray in March this year. Signings include Palm Reader, Teeth, Blanket and Eloise Kerry. Owens is naturally excited by the scope of his new venture.

“When I was made redundant from WME, I didn’t get the feeling for one second that it was a negative move for me,” he reflects. “I saw the opportunity to leave with all my contacts in place, thankful for the experience and the knowledge gained. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial mindset, so I started mentioning the idea of doing my own thing to a few close friends in the industry and the feedback was universally positive in that I should do it.

“My passion is for the noisy side of rock – bands that are exciting and have creativity and energy bursting from the seams. I feel there’s a need to give those artists stronger support and we have an opportunity to lean into that creativity.”

Moreover, the shifting sands have not been limited to the UK. Across the pond in America, five former Paradigm agents formed new talent agency TBA, while another handful of ex-Paradigm staffers teamed with former Billions Corporation COO Matt Yasecko to launch Arrival Artists, which has partnered with London-headquartered ATC Live in Europe.

“We have been looking for the right partner in the US for a few years and, despite a number of positive conversations, we hadn’t quite found the right fit,” explains ATC Live’s Alex Bruford. “When Erik [Selz, Arrival partner] got in touch with news on the plans for Arrival and the excellent team of agents involved, our conversations progressed very naturally.

“Most companies, particularly the larger ones with the highest overheads, have had to make cuts across their businesses, and a number of excellent agents have found themselves looking for new ways to operate. Our partnership with Arrival is a direct consequence of the industry-wide upheaval in the last 12 months, but the cessation of touring has given us the time to focus on developing the relationship – time we wouldn’t have otherwise had.

Ed Sheeran's agent, Jon Ollier, exited CAA in late 2020 to launch his own company, One Fiinix Live.

“Our primary objective is to be able to offer an innovative global solution to our artists and managers, but with all the benefits that come with personal representation in each market. We are delighted to now be able to provide this, and also to work closely together in finding and developing artists across our extensive networks. We are all excited to see how the relationship unfolds.”

Despite the rapid resurgence of the independent scene, the traffic has not all been one-way. Only last month, UTA snapped up UK-based Echo Location Talent Agency, while Paradigm agreed a deal to sell its music division to LA-based sports marketing and talent management giant Wasserman.

“I still think there’s an element of consolidation that will make sense for larger companies,” offers Runway’s Hanner. “Having offices on both sides of the Atlantic is going to be increasingly important, because it’s going to be seen as what’s needed. Even if it’s not a formal merger or acquisition, there are obviously strategic benefits to having that broader footprint and relationship globally, so I think we’ll see elements of that continue alongside the rise of independents.”

“I think we are in the midst of a rebalancing of the system,” adds ATC’s Bruford. “We will likely see more consolidation amongst the biggest companies, but that will be offset by the continued strengthening of the independent sector. In my view this is a good thing, as the more potential routes to market there are for artists the more chance they have of making a breakthrough.”

One Fiinix Live’s Ollier admits to mixed feelings as to whether the business will revert to type post the coronavirus crisis. “It would be foolish if some of the behemoths didn’t learn lessons from it in terms of the amount of overheads they’re carrying,” he says. “But equally, these things are easily forgotten when the taps come back on. It’s difficult to say, really, but I certainly will be trying to make sure that, financially, we could hibernate for two years if we had to in the future.”

Understandably, given the events of the past 12 months, there remains a degree of trepidation as to how the rest of 2021 will play out.

“At the start, in March last year, we were all shifting tours to August/September/October, which in hindsight shows a lot of us weren’t aware how long this would take,” reflects Mother Artists’ Gregory. “Rescheduling is something no agent will ever complain about having to do again! So perhaps the flipside has happened this year, where everybody is erring on the side of caution. But there is this desperation for human contact and to get out and be together – I even want to go clubbing!”

One Fiinix’s Ollier warns that even once the domestic scene is back up and running, it will take longer for international touring to return en masse. “I fall into the cautiously optimistic column,” he says. “What Festival Republic is doing is fantastic in trying to bring the issue to the forefront and push it along with the Government, but we’re just talking about one country there. This is a global business, so there is a long way to go before we’re back to normal. But we have more chance of that next year than we’ve had to this point.”

"It's a break that the whole industry needed. I think it has proven that we need to have more of a strategy in place... More forward planning, more collaboration, more communication."

Marshall Live Agency’s Vallans is more bullish about the road ahead. “I’ve got tours being booked and festival slots pencilled in so I’m optimistic about it all,” he says. “You’ve seen already, with festivals selling out left, right and centre, that people want this stuff more than ever – and long may it continue.”

“I’m confident there will be shows happening at some point, in some shape or form, whether full capacity or not,” affirms Route One Booking’s Ward. “If on-the-spot rapid testing needs to happen then so be it, because public safety is first and foremost, but I think we could definitely have full capacity shows and tours by October/November.”

Little over a year into the dreaded “new normal”, things finally appear to be looking up for the beleaguered sector. Indeed, there may even be a few positives to take from the darkest period it has ever faced.

“It’s a break that the whole industry needed,” insists Ward. “I think it has proven that we need to have more of a strategy in place. There needs to be more forward planning, more collaboration and more communication.

“The safety and wellbeing of the average gig-goer is going to be front and centre as we move forward. In the past, I think people were a bit neglectful of that and were happy to just fill rooms with as many people as they possibly could – regardless of the safety implications.”

“Hopefully, everybody has reflected on what was and wasn’t good about this industry,” says Mother Artists’ Gregory. “I hope companies have got the message that there are better ways of doing things.”

“The pandemic has brought to light elements of the job that people aren’t that keen on, and ways that we can do things better,” nods Runway’s Hanner. “Going independent gives you a lot of freedom to remodel that.”

Loud Artists’ Owens concludes that Covid has “shone a light” on the agency business.” It has accelerated changes and it’s had the effect of a reset,” he says. “Agents have left, new agents have joined, powerful giant agencies have suffered huge losses, whilst others have doubled down and grown in numbers, signing huge clients and consolidating. Then there are all the new independent agencies that have formed, each bringing something new and fresh to the table and it’s reinvigorating.

“Covid has shown at once how valued our industry is yet just how vulnerable it is at the same time and we have to do more to protect it.”

Like Alan McGee’s life story, it should make a hell of a film one day…

James Hanley

Freelance Journalist, United Kingdom

James Hanley is a freelance journalist, specialising in the live music business. He began his music industry career as news editor of Audience/Live UK magazines in 2012 before moving on to Music Week, where he spent six years as senior staff writer and remains a regular contributor. He also writes for publications including M Magazine and Champions Journal.