Top agencies take on Nashville stars

Artists move way beyond their Music City roots

There was a time when many Nashville recording artists relied on their record company and a local booker to help eke out a living, a time when New York and Los Angeles regarded most Nashville singers as beneath their radar. Nashville, for its part, went it alone.

Today, the Nashville entertainment industry is heavily integrated with both coasts, thanks largely to major talent agencies like William Morris, Paradigm and CAA, all of whom have a big stake in Music City.

Paul Moore, William Morris’ co-chief operating officer for Nashville, has been in Nashville with the company for 30 years. The coastal influence dates back to that time, he says. “We brought the concept of how business was done on a different level. It became more professional, more businesslike, less ‘Well let’s just hang out in a smoky room and kind of make a deal.’

“At first there was a lot of resistance from the local agencies here, but they’ve all evolved into that because the business has changed to where it really has to be that way. Let’s face it, the money is so different now than it was three decades ago. It’s a huge business now.

“The synergy of departments at William Morris has grown enormously through the years,” Moore continues. “Twenty years ago, we were a country-music booking office, and then we added contemporary Christian and gospel. Now we have digital media agents that are working here. We book all the fairs and festivals and special outdoor events for our entire music roster out of Nashville. We’ve got two television agents who are on the ground working in Nashville. We have a TV department, which we didn’t have for years.”

Meanwhile, there are agents Greg Janese and Curt Motley at Paradigm’s Nashville office. Motley, one of the few Nashville natives working for the major agencies, is the responsible agent for country superstar Toby Keith.

“The lines have blurred between management, the labels and agencies,” he says, “whether it’s going out looking for endorsement deals that have fallen upon management and labels in the past or helping to influence radio where we can, cutting merchandise deals — all revenue streams that we think we can influence.”

Janese and Motley point out that in today’s changing industry there can no longer be an adversarial position among labels, management and agencies. Janese notes labels have come to realize they need an “all hands on deck” approach when an artist is coming out with a record, whether it’s a brand-new talent or an established one.

“I would argue that today almost 99% of artist revenue streams come from touring,” Motley says.

With the music scene in Nashville diversifying from country to alternative country, Americana, rock, alternative rock and indie rock, “All that’s represented here in the creative community,” Janese observes. “That’s why you need an L.A. presence and a New York presence, because you need a variety of strengths that can cover all those areas.”

Despite being in the midst of the present economic turndown, mavens at the major agencies in Nashville expect 2009 to be a good year for touring.

“We understand what’s going on in the economy, and we’re sensitive to it,” says Darin Murphy at CAA.

His cohort, Marc Denis, points to the diversity of their Nashville roster: “We do a lot of country, a lot of comedy, Christian, classic rock; we’ve got four agents here that book our contemporary rock roster as well. We’re very diverse here, in terms of the roster. I can tell you what’s become more important internally here with who we’re looking to sign is: ‘Can you perform live?’ We look at that quality in a new artist almost more so than can this person have hits on the radio.

“You’ve got (country) guys now like Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban who put on shows that’ll rival any rock tour in the country. New artists know that they’re gonna have to be good in a live situation to break through.”

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