Slick hicks try new trix

Nashville agents bring local style to showbiz

NASHVILLE — Imagine a world in which agents are devout churchgoers. Lunches at chic restaurants cost $14.95. Showbiz offices are adorned with stuffed animal heads rather than modern art.

Some would call it the Twilight Zone. Others would simply call it Nashville.

To most people, the agency biz is centered in Los Angeles and New York and, if they’re thinking broadly, maybe London.

But Nashville is a thriving hub of tenpercenteries, and the workers are caught in a culture clash. The agencies here reflect all the rivalries, the “synergistic” goals and the biz savvy of the other places — but with a style that’s decidedly its own. No black SUVs, no dark suits, no dark glasses.

But don’t mistake Music City for a cow town. The agents here aren’t slick, but they’re not hicks.

The scale is relatively small. William Morris has about 25 agents; CAA has less than half that. Endeavor has no office, but it has an arrangement with Buddy Lee Attractions, one of the “boutique” agencies here. The Firm runs tour marketing for all the music acts it manages out of its tiny Nashville office.

Growth may be on the way. Everyone in Music City thinks the country music biz is on the cusp of another explosion. There have been occasional booms: In the 1980s, post-“Urban Cowboy,” and a decade later, when Garth Brooks, et al., exploded and SoundScan starting to chart album sales, offering proof of the national popularity of country music.

Performers and agents here say this is a time of crucial transition, thanks to the consolidation in the concert arena via Clear Channel, the mainstreaming of country acts (Reba McEntire has her own sitcom, WMA clients Brooks & Dunn recently guested on NBC’s “Las Vegas”) and, crucially, the war in Iraq: Country music always has a big resurgence during wartime.

The Nashville agents don’t negotiate recording pacts or music publishing; those deals are handled by lawyers and managers. But there are mountains of moolah to be made from Nashville’s focus: concert touring.

The Dixie Chicks last year grossed $60.5 million on the road; if they had been a film rather than a music act, they would have outgrossed “Mystic River.” Other country artists like Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney — both of whom could walk into the Grill on the Alley in Beverly Hills without being recognized — pulled in $44.2 million and $34.5 million, respectively, on their North American tours.

And when an agency represents dozens and dozens of heavy-hitters — WMA’s lengthy client roster includes Brad Paisley, Clint Black, Vince Gill, Diamond Rio, Dwight Yoakam, Trisha Yearwood, Wynonna and Willie Nelson, not to mention a separate Christian music department — the figures start to add up big-time.

Nine country acts grossed more than $10 million each on 2003 tours. Combined, the top nine grossed $266.6 million, according to Pollstar magazine, which tracks concert revenue.

It’s clear there is a big, fat, money-making world beyond weekend grosses and Nielsens, and Nashville agents are here to tap into it. Clear Channel, for example, can package several top performers and take them across the country, opening up venues that wouldn’t have previously booked country music acts.

A big Nashville agency will pull in revenues of anywhere from $50 million to $150 million in a really good year.

For the most part, Music City agents are left to their own devices by their Hollywood bosses. And when the Coast people come to call, they can miscalculate who they’re dealing with.

N.Y.-based William Morris book agent Mel Berger brokered book deals here for Barbara Mandrell, Dolly Parton and Mary Chapin Carpenter. But when he first visited Nashville, he showed up in a cowboy hat, huge belt buckle and cowboy boots.

“Mel wanted to ingratiate himself and showed up looking like a drugstore cowboy,” laughs Paul Moore, co-head of William Morris’ Nashville office. As a result, the city dude earned himself the nickname of Mel-Bob Berger.

As Berger quickly discovered, the atmosphere here isn’t Rhinestone Cowboy. It’s a mixture of down-home and preppy — a little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll.

Rick Shipp, co-head of the Morris office, was wearing a typical outfit of faded jeans, a black T-shirt and jacket to the office. Asked the last time he put on a suit, he replies, “Well, the last funeral I went to.”

Most of these agents are not Hollywood or Gotham transplants. Many are locals or people who came to Music City with the intention of pursuing singing or songwriting careers. And they are creating an agency biz that’s not like any other agency.

“There’s a lot of cash that comes through here,” says WMA’s Moore. It’s a familiar boast in showbiz, but Moore is speaking literally: A promoter recently showed up at his office to pay the deposit on a concert by one of the agency’s Christian acts. “It was $38,000 in cash, in $20 bills.”

What does an agent do with a pile of $20 bills?

“We took it, of course!” laughs Moore. “We counted it right in front of him. And, since we don’t have a big enough safe, we sent Sue Ann” — that would be their HR director — “straight to the bank with it. I was thinking, I want to know where that cash came from.”

He pauses. “Or maybe I don’t.”

Needless to say, most transactions are not done via cash.

At the William Morris offices, a non-glam warren in a tall building near Vanderbilt U., the only signs that agents are at work are the ubiquitous headsets and, on the wall of every office, maps with amphitheaters marked with push pins.

Moore describes his job of booking musical acts, which is as old as the entertainment business, this way: “We’re part lawyer because we deal in contracts, we’re part travel agents because we route people from point A to point B, and we’re part bankers because we deal in a lot of cash flow.”

William Morris was the first major talent agency to recognize the potential in country music, setting up shop in 1972. In 1991, CAA followed suit, recruiting Ron Baird from WMA to head its office. A year later, WMA absorbed one of its biggest competitors, Triad Artists, whose Nashville office Rick Shipp had headed.

The shotgun wedding between Shipp and Moore, who had started as an assistant in the William Morris office in 1978, was met with skepticism along Music Row.

“I can remember the first meeting,” Moore says. The staff of both agencies crammed into a single conference room early one Saturday morning. ” ‘Competitors’ was too mild a word,” he says of the pre-merger relationship between the firms.

Now, the big competition is between CAA and William Morris. They’re the only full-service agencies in town that work at that level.

CAA reps major draws like Shania Twain, Tim McGraw and Alan Jackson. When Baird left WMA to start CAA’s Nashville office, he represented three artists, including hot newcomer Clint Black, from an office in his home.

CAA’s timing couldn’t have been better. It set up shop on the eve of the early 1990s country boom. The Nashville operation reps its country and Christian clients as well as a few contemporary acts like John Mayer and jam band My Morning Jacket.

“It took a tremendous amount of hard work, but it was also a little bit of luck and timing,” Baird says.

CAA says its Nashville shop is fully integrated with the rest of the music department in L.A.

But as CAA music head Rob Light says, keeping a Nashville presence is critical to being a country player. “It’s a wonderful communal spirit and community in that city,” he says. “If you are going to operate in country music, you have to be part of that community — the churches, the family groups, the football. It’s a very different atmosphere than in Los Angeles.”

Plenty of other agencies work Nashville, including Monterey Peninsula Artists, APA and Buddy Lee Attractions. These firms tend to specialize in the bookings biz.

Buddy Lee Attractions, one of the oldest Nashville agencies, learned the hard way how the big boys play. Up until 2002, it had represented the Dixie Chicks. But when they began to break int
o the mainstream, they realized they needed representation beyond concert booking and moved to CAA.

Lee decided he needed to team up with a showbiz biggie. After shopping around, he signed up with Endeavor, so that the agency can promote Lee’s clients in other fields.

After Buddy Lee died in 1998, son Joey Lee took over as CEO. He’s still happy with Endeavor, but is scornful of the promises that agents at the full-service agencies use to dazzle young country musicians (commercials! sitcoms! movie deals!).

“When you’re Joe Blow who just got a deal out of Nashville, and you go get agency representation, they tell you, ‘We do this and we do that,’ ” he says. “Yeah, they do that, but they ain’t gonna do it for you, ’cause there’s nothing to do yet.

“Really, nobody (in Hollywood) gives a shit about this here until you’re really A-level out of Nashville.”

Building A-level acts is what Lee specializes in, but he admits that, as in the movie biz, it is getting harder to build new music stars.

The shifting country music industry may bring more pressure, but there are some areas in which country acts can bypass the headaches on other areas of the music biz. Country acts, who have traditionally had more faithful fan bases than rock and R&B acts, perform everywhere from county fairs to casinos to rodeos to amphitheaters and arenas. Many are huge concert draws, even though they don’t have major-label record deals.

And agencies here look for other areas to showcase their talent.

For instance, Buddy Lee and Endeavor are working to broaden the career of Lee Ann Womack.

Both sides at Buddy Lee and Endeavor, which reupped their pact in 2002, admit the bond doesn’t produce a lot of day-to-day biz. But Lee and Perry talk about once a week, bouncing ideas off each other.

Womack had a breakout year in 2000 with her album “I Hope You Dance.” More recently, while recording her new album, due out later this year, Endeavor has also been working on building her TV career.

Phil Gallo in Hollywood contributed to this report.

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