This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Christine L. Barkley, president/CEO, Creative Booking Agency.
Founded in 2011 by Christine L. Barkley, Creative Booking Agency in New York City is a full-service boutique talent agency with an eminent roster of artists, special attractions, and high-quality tribute and theatrical productions greatly favored by performing arts centers, arenas, casinos, fairs, and festivals.
Prior to opening CBA, Barkley was VP and head of the New York City office of Agency for the Performing Arts (APA) for 7 years. She was quite successful in launching APA’s Special Attractions and Theatrical Division into the performing arts sphere.
Previously, Barkley spent another 7 years as a VP at the venerable Columbia Artists Management (CAMI), booking some of the world’s leading orchestras, instrumentalists, and singers. This included the Berlin Philharmonic, Boston Pops, the Momix dance company, Cirque Éloize, Leahy, Kennedy, Marvin Hamlisch, Renée Fleming, and Anne-Sophie Mutter; as well as leading world music, theatre, and dance attractions.
Barkley’s first foray in entertainment was as VP of sports and entertainment at David Fishof’s DFP Entertainment in New York.
After graduating from Fordham University in the Bronx with a B.A. in political science, Barkley worked as a legislative legal analyst for the legal division of the New York City Council from 1993 to 1997.
None of us know when the COVID-19 pandemic will end.
What is encouraging is that in May investment bank and research firm Goldman Sachs released a study of the global industry that was optimistic about a quick recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic, predicting that the live sector, in particular, will make a healthy comeback in 2021. Goldman estimates that global industry revenue will reach $140 billion by 2030, driven by live shows and music streaming.
What we are now witnessing is a restructuring of the business. People have read these financial predictions, and they figure that when the live music sector comes back, it will be a big business again.
I think it is going to be huge when it does come back. Everybody is biting their teeth, and hoping it comes back sooner than later. With everything going on in the industry, there’s a lot of opportunities now for the independent promoter.
People in the sector are now determining new business models, including opening new agencies, and new ventures both here and abroad— ”Let’s get our chess pieces in place on the board now. We know the business is coming back. We have to be ready.”
Right. Structurally, with the business, you still have to maintain your own business, and depending on the agents, and the deal that they have cut with whatever agency that they have left, hopefully, those agents took their rosters, and those artists need to be fed. So someone has to manage those re-bookings. We found ourselves going from March to July (2020); and January, February, and March through to August 2021. Right now we are looking at January and February (2021). We are now starting to re-date the first quarter. We are doing this in segments. We are constantly now on the phone trying to hold dates. I could spend 25 hours a day on the phone trying to get all of this stuff sorted.
This is where sharing information and contacts with agent and venue friends becomes important. Knowing what others are doing. “What are you holding? I’m holding this.” Or is it more like playing poker, “I won’t show you my cards, yet,” or “I will show you a couple of my cards?”
The agents in the business, I look at us as all family. Obviously, some of us are closer than others. Everybody right now wants to help each other out. There is a lot of sharing of information. I was just on the phone with someone, “What are the venues that are pulling out? What are the venues that are falling out? Which venues are canceling, and not being cool about it?” We are all talking. Just as venues are talking. Everybody has been collegial and trying to make it work because we are all in the same boat together navigating these very turbulent waters. Everybody wants to see everybody be successful and get beyond this. It is all about trying to make it out the other side, and just outrunning the virus.
Ironically, all of the shows that we re-dated, and we re-dated a lot of shows, we didn’t cancel any of them. We postponed them. The venues were able to announce them as a postponement. The date we made sure it wasn’t a cancellation. They (venues) offered, in certain cases, a window of time, “Here’s your new date. Your ticket is valid. If you have any problem with that date call us.” The shows right now are set to play, and even in February we have ticket sales. Some of those shows are sold out. Whether or not we have to move them, we are taking it day by day. For an agent who has spent the last 25 years planning a year and a half ahead, I am in new territory in that we are trying to plan for today and tomorrow and the next day.
With much of the classical music sector shuttered by the COVID-19 pandemic –as well as Columbia Artists Management closing down after 80 years, and Opus 3, another leading management agency being acquired by an unusual buyer, the San Francisco Conservatory in an unconventional transaction– are there not also opportunities available for creative talents, and top-tier executive talents now suddenly in play?
Well, the silver lining in all of this is that there are certainly a lot of things happening at the big agencies, and the small agencies. There are a lot of people who are on the street, and the beauty of that is that they are forging partnerships. A lot of them. You see new agencies popping up from senior agents who left various agencies.
There is a lot of talent on the street right now. Disruption usually means that there is opportunity.
As soon as this comes back with the relationships and the teams that are being formed out of this, every single one of them, hopefully, is going to be successful. The strategic partnerships are limitless. I’ve had multiple people call me trying to figure out how we could do stuff. It’s a new day and age.
There is a lot of opportunity that is going to come out of this, and it might be a whole new landscape, and the business is going to change from it. That when you are on your own, you realize that it is about the relationships that you have formed over the years, and that is what is so important going forward. I think that those agents on their own are now tapping into all of those incredible relationships that they have. Not only the agents that they work with, but the managers as well as the buyers and the promoters, and I think that everybody is going to come out of this fine.
Traditionally, people put a lot of weight on working at a big talent agency.
I came from the big agency world having worked at Columbia Artists for so many years, and then working at APA, running the New York office until I left because I realized I had wanted to open my own business. When I made the decision to leave, and go on my own, people were like, “I could never do that.”
A lot of people don’t leave the comfort of the big agency because either they are scared of leaving, or like being under the moniker. You left a big agency to go on your own.
I had always wanted to open my own business. A lot of people are hesitant to take a risk and go independent and leave a big agency as the moniker/acronym of the big agency carries a lot of weight in the marketplace, but I always had the belief and confidence that with my reputation, and long-standing relationships that I built over the years in the industry would enable me and my company to be successful.
Now I think that people are going to realize that they don’t need the moniker. That they have the talent. They have the relationships. If they have left with their artists, those artists hopefully are, I’m sure, exceptional. That they have the relationships with the buyers and, if they can wait out this period where there’s a lull, they are going to be able to book them.
And, of course, it is about forming strategic partnerships early on.
It is great if they can find those strategic partnerships and investors to make a bright future for the next wave of this. So it makes perfect sense for anybody who forms those relationships with all of this incredible talent that is now on the streets for one reason, the pandemic, and that’s it. It’s not for any other reason. We’ve got a lot of amazingly talented people that are now going to form awesome partnerships. It is just this constant rolling that we are just going to have to sustain until shows and concerts happen again because the agents can’t get paid until the artists play. That is the waiting game.
It’s scary for some to not be under the umbrella of a major agency, especially if they have been there for some time.
It’s scary, but if you are confident, what it boils down to is not the moniker that is on your business card it is you as an individual, and the confidence that you have; how you conduct yourself; that you know your strengths; you are honest: you’ve got good talent. If you have a great roster, you don’t need the moniker. You just need to be a go-getter, and get your work done, and book your tours. It’s going to be an incredible day when this all comes back. It is challenging right now. I won’t lie to you. We are all doing the same amount of work, if not more. We are working harder. We are doing more.
You are well-placed in both the commercial side of live music and the arts world, a sector that is considered high maintenance. One so exact to detail with so many different moving parts. You usually aren’t dealing with a few members of a band, and their representatives, and a handful of venue bookers. In normal times, you deal with nearly 40 diverse parts, and you are trying to assemble 30 to 40 dates, 18 months out front.
Sure. If we sell a show to France, we are selling it usually to one person or one company, and they route the tour, and about half the time they are taking risks on all of the dates. And they rent the venues. Whereas in the States, there are so many moving parts with the major tours. On one show we have 26 weeks booked. So yes, you have to be incredibly detail-oriented, and incredibly organized to book all of these dates. The relationships have to be buttoned up. I guess I go back to Rob Light (managing partner of Creative Artists Agency) saying at CIC that whether you work for a promoter or a label or a venue or an agency you just have to up your game. You can’t be complacent.
You recently posted the 2004 speech by Rob delivered at the Concert Industry Consortium (Pollstar) conference.
Rob said: “Whether you work for a promoter or a label, whether you work at a building or live on a tour bus, whether you sell tickets or take tickets, whether you are an assistant or the head of an agency, you have a choice. You can be complacent or you can aggressively change what your piece of the world lets you change. You can accept mediocrity or you can challenge yourselves and those around you to work at a higher level. You can accept the status quo and complain or you can find a new answer. You can live and flounder in the model of yesterday’s success or you can choose to learn from it, be inspired by those who created it, and then build upon it in an innovative way that no one could have expected. And, 20 years from now, someone will stand here and point to a moment when an innovator stepped up in turbulent times and found the answer.”
This quote stuck with me throughout my entire career. It became my mantra. I have it posted on my wall in my office and everyone that works at my agency sees it every day. I think it’s really important to know that each job you do, whether small or big, no matter what part of the industry you are in, has a huge effect on the overall operation of the business and the entertainment industry as a whole. We are all spokes on a wagon wheel that make it all run and work and you have to work hard to be successful. I don’t believe in mediocrity or the status quo. This business is 24/7 we all have to work at a higher level especially more than ever in this challenging time with the pandemic.
We are problem solvers; we are the rainmakers, so we have to put the pieces of the puzzle together to route and reroute tours for the artist.
It was that shared belief to always work at a higher level that constantly motivated me. Challenge and striving was ingrained in me as an athlete and when I played competitive volleyball – it naturally carried through to my business. At the conferences I would always get inspiration from hearing all the major industry power players and agents speak like John Meglen, Rob Light, Peter Grosslight, Michael Rapino to name a few. Seeing their success from afar motivated and inspired me to be the best that I could be in my corner of the business, and for my clients, and eventually it gave me the drive and guts to go independent and become an entrepreneur and pave my own destiny. Luckily, its worked out in spades and been the best decision I ever made, so I am thankful for all the major players in our business that represent the endless possibilities of success.
The relationships and friendships you first made are now nearly 25 years old.
I think that people know that when they work with me that I’m with the process from start to finish. Some people have said that they found that to be a blessing. I will even show up on dates sometimes. Not every date because I can’t be everywhere at all times. But I take great pride in the relationships, and building the shows, and routing the tours. Everybody knows that I am constantly available on my phone anytime that they need something. I’m handling the settlement. My accountant is working with the road manager and with the tour manager. We are juggling everything. With some shows, we are even helping with the management. On “DrumLine,” we help a lot with the management. We secure the bus, the trucks with our relationships. So we can tap into a lot of different things to help our artists to get the services that they need as well.
How much staff do you work with in normal times?
It is really flexible. We are lean and mean in the office. As they say “It’s not about size it’s about how long a tour is.”
How many people work in the office?
I don’t really talk about the size of my staff because it depends on the show that we are touring. It also depends on if we are producing the show.
Surely, you aren’t working out of your Manhattan office with what’s going on right now.
I am actually. I’m working out of my office on 6 45th Street, between 5th and Madison (Avenue) every day, and then I go up to my second property and work out of that office as well.
You are not only booking and re-booking dates and tours, but also calming down clients who may be on the poverty line.
Yes. I think about some of these predictions that they are making; like I read one quote that was predicting 1,500 to 2,500 venues might go belly-up because they have operating expenses for 6 months. Then you see the stimulus proposal from the government come to a pause. With those kinds of things, you go, “What? It’s an awesome business, and it’s very sad seeing what’s happening. But every different day, you are on a roller coaster of emotions to what is going on from politics, and the pandemic.
How heart-breaking it must be for you the closure of your former agency Columbia Artist Management, a giant in our business for 8 decades, and a home to managers, producers, and agents serving an unsurpassed roster of top instrumentalists, conductors, opera singers and other vocalists, orchestras, theatrical, musical attractions, and dance ensembles.
(Columbia Artist Management (CAMI) worked with many of the greatest artists ever to perform on the concert stage, including sopranos Leontyne Price, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Renata Tebaldi; mezzo–soprano Risë Stevens; contralto Marian Anderson; tenors Jussi Björling, Mario Lanza, John McCormack, Lauritz Melchior and Richard Tucker; bass–baritone George London; bass Paul Robeson; pianists Van Cliburn and Vladimir Horowitz; violinists Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin; cellist Mstislav Rostropovich; conductors Herbert von Karajan, Eugene Ormandy, Antal Dorati and Otto Klemperer; composer–conductors Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky; and composer-conductor–pianists Sergei Prokofiev and Sergei Rachmaninoff.)
I was there for 7 ½ years. I worked my way up from being an agent in the Midwest and became one of the VPs there. The bookers were like a family. Everybody booked. It was the giant.
Certainly, the COVID pandemic was a blow to CAMI, but the once mighty agency was said to have drifted aimlessly after its manager Ronald Wilford’s death in 2015. He had been described as, “classical music’s biggest power broker” Since his death, CAMI had been subject to various attempted takeovers, and slim downs.
However, the mighty classical roster which CAMI had maintained for decades had broken down, and the support of international orchestras by the numerable American venues that could underwrite a $200,000 night had dwindled as corporate sponsorship largely disappeared in the live arts sector.
Furthermore, the executive directors at PACs (performing arts centers) that once booked classical and jazz had retired, replaced by bookers who relate more to rock or pop, as do their audiences. As well, the impact of PBS on the sector had greatly waned.
Not only has the entire arts ecosystem evolved beyond recognition, but I wonder if CAMI, which continued to support classical, opera, and theatrical shows, moved fast enough to survive with the times.
I’ve been gone since 2006 so I wouldn’t know what the climate was at the moment. When I was there, they diversified. We didn’t just do classical. They had Blue Man Group They had a symphony PAC division. They tried to package things. They had some orchestra programs. They had “Lord of the Rings” doing orchestra, and there was CAMI Theatricals that Gary McAvay ran (as president, Columbia Artists Theatricals).
Gary McAvay was at CAMI for over 40 years. In 2016, CAMI’s Theatricals Department was shut down. All of the staff were let go, except Gary.
He’s an icon in the business. It was a diversified company but it just shows that this pandemic is affecting everyone’s bottom line, including the major agencies.
Opus 3 Artists president David Foster said the coronavirus pandemic led the agency to evaluate its future leading to its buyout, after there were approaches from several commercial entities by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in late October.
“As the COVID thing hit, and we had to reduce our staff,” he said, “it became clear we were going to have much-reduced income. So the question is then, what do you do?”
(Opus 3 Artists traces its roots to the pioneering role of the legendary impresario and artist manager Sol Hurok between the 1920s and 1970s. A successor organization, ICM Artists, was formed in 1976 as a subdivision of International Creative Management, and the company became independent again as Opus 3 Artists. in 2006
Among Opus 3’s 150 artists include conductors Marek Janowski, Marin Alsop, Patrick Summers and David Robertson; pianists Emanuel Ax, Yefim Bronfman, Radu Lupu and Garrick Ohlsson and Danil Trifonov; violinists Sarah Chang and Gil Shaham; sopranos Christine Goerke and Lisette Orospesa; mezzo-sopranos Stephanie Blythe and Kate Lindsey and Tamara Mumford; bass Morris Robinson; baritone Nathan Gunn; composer Osvaldo Golijov; Broadway star Patti Lupone and saxophonist Branford Marsalis.)
So now you and other agents are all scrambling to recover dates vacated from this year with whatever open dates are out there.
Sure, absolutely. In the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we had a big tour that was disrupted right in the middle of it, while they were on the road from Europe in the United States. So we dated those dates to July/August. A month afterward in April, I kept looking, and waking up with a sick stomach thinking, “I don’t know if July/August is going to play.” All of the other agents were talking, and saying, “What are you doing? What are you doing? Are you holding dates out?” The big tours were still holding dates out for July and August. I finally said to myself, “If we don’t move now the inventory is not going to be there.” So I was in my office at midnight one day, and we had already talked to everybody about the tour and back-up dates, and I literally just sat there and I said, “Forget it, I’m reissuing.” I stayed in the office from midnight to 7:30 in the morning and I reissued all of the contracts for the tour. The next morning I laid down on my couch at the office and I woke up at 10’oclock to a barrage of emails from everyone going, “Is this too premature.” I was like, “No, I’m telling you. July/August is not going to play for anybody.” So we wound up with ending the whole tour, getting all of the dates. We didn’t lose any dates. All of the dates that we had to move. We made the right decision. We are here once again.
We had just finished our tour of “Greatest Love of All” which is with Belinda David and we had just finished that tour and our “One Night of Queen” show that is like the #1 Queen tour tribute show in the country. We had about a 16 or 17 week tour booked, and it blew up right in the middle of the tour while on the road.
Many managers I know shifted 2020 dates to 2021, and at the same time locking in the exact dates and venues for 2022.
It really depends on the act. We are very fortunate with our shows. With our business, in general, we book a year and a half out. So we moved 20 weeks for that tour. We already had the 2021 tour booked, and we had 2020 in process, and 2021 summer booked, and then we had to move
Everybody, as I said, is trying to re-book 2020 shows to 2021 and beyond.
What I was saying about that was when 2020 imploded, we moved everything this summer, July and August. The hope amongst all of us at every agency was that “This can’t last this long. Hopefully, it will come back in the summer.” So all of the big tours were going out then. As I said, then I was at my office one night, after basically re-dating all of our dates and I just sat there at midnight with a sick stomach saying, “I just have this gut feeling that it is not going to play.” After moving them four weeks earlier I reissued every contract from 12 in the morning until 7:30 at night. For the entire tour. And sent them dates in 2021. Then I laid down on my couch, woke up at 10 o’clock to a barrage of emails from every promoter in the country asking, “Is this premature?” And I said, “I can guarantee you that these dates are not going to play in the summer.” I don’t think that anybody’s dates are going to play.” And we made the right decision.
Such tour disruptions would cause anyone nightmares.
It has been some sleepless nights dealing with this, especially in New York City with everything that has happened there. When the pandemic hit, I went to the office every day to make sure that the artists came first and made sure that all of their tours were rebooked. We didn’t lose one date in the midst of all of this. We are fortunate that we were able to secure every single date that we booked for the entire year.
You had productions touring America when the pandemic struck?
Yes, “One Night of Queen.” We had our “Greatest Love of All” show with Belinda Davids (accompanied by a 6-piece live band and dancers) which is a tribute to Whitney Houston. They were here from January through March and while that was going on “One Night of Queen” came in February. So we had both of them simultaneously on the ground while the pandemic was blowing up in California, and in Washington. It was as if the pandemic was following them.
We have to remember that at its initial stage the general belief was that the pandemic would be quickly over.
When California started shutting down we had just finished our “One Night of Queen” dates in California, and it was like every time that they would load the bus out another market was shut down. Then they went to Arizona. and all of California was shut down. Then they went to the Midwest and Arizona shut down. We wound up having the tour get shut down. We were playing the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids (Iowa) on March 14th (2020) which became the last date on the tour. We had loaded the rig in, and the promoter was calling me every 20 minutes saying that he may have an announcement from the governor that we might not be able to go on. They had a sold-out show. They unloaded the rig, and all of a sudden, we might have the show shut down right after we played. The tour was scheduled to play through to May, and then in the summer, July and August as well.
Even if performers agreed to perform prior to the close-down, there’s an entire freelance crew involved in putting on a concert—the stagehands, the venue’s crew, the touring crew; production technicians including audio, backline, lighting video and, front of house crews, as well as drivers, and runners and so on. As much as you could provide sanitization onstage, backstage, in the venue, and with buses, you don’t want to put people at risk.
No, and everybody was just concerned that this COVID was on the West Coast. Nobody knew that it was in the Midwest. There were no cases that anybody knew of. It was just this fear that it’s here. So we got the show off and the next day they made the announcement that everybody had to get out of the country. So we were scrambling every five minutes to try to get these guys new plane tickets, and had them holed up in hotels. It is beyond catastrophic when you have a band on the road with a huge tour with expenses already incurred with CWA and taxes and tour buses and lighting and sound. Especially with a tour like that. It’s not just the band. It is a theatrical production where they are carrying everything, racks, and stacks.
With most rock shows, there are from 15 to 20 to 40 personnel traveling but with theatrical productions, you are essentially moving a Broadway- show.
Yes. With “One Night of Queen” we have about 14 cast and crew touring with it. With our “Greatest Love of All” show, we have 18. With “DrumLine” we have 45. It’s huge. It is a marching band. It’s the HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) come to life onstage, the premier African-American touring show. It is such an incredible show. They are the group that was fortunate to be one of the groups that backed Beyoncé at Coachella. They were the top of the pyramid. There is one segment of the Grammy Awarded Netflix Special “Homecoming” concert video where the band comes down, that’s our drumline. The girl with the cymbals.
(Beyoncé’s two-hour “BeyChella” shows at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in 2018 featured approximately 100 musicians and dancers — including appearances by her husband, Jay-Z; her sister, Solange; and her former bandmates in Destiny’s Child, as well as brass and string players, a drumline, and a baton twirler — all of whom helped her reimagine familiar songs in a context clearly tied to her role as the first black woman to headline the annual Coachella desert festival. “Ain’t that ’bout a bitch,” she joked onstage.)
Beyoncé’s show at Coachella was one of the best productions I’ve ever seen.
Yes. “DrumLine” is pretty phenomenal. They are incredible. We have been very blessed. They were also utilized as extras in the final episode of HBO’s “Euphoria” with Zendaya.
Many of the shows you work with are high-level tribute shows including “One Night of Queen,” “The Music of Sam Cooke, A Change is Gonna Come,” “Greatest Love of All” (Whitney Houston), “Proud Tina” (Tina Turner), and “The Australian Bee Gees.” We have each sat through cheesy tribute shows, and obviously, these high-caliber shows aren’t that. What makes the 2-hour stage show “One Night of Queen” with Gary Mullen and the Works so popular?
Gary Mullen was discovered on “Stars in Their Eyes” and a producer got involved and put the bells and whistles and the production value and incredible marketing and they took on the show itself. We signed them when I was at APA in 2007.
(Gary Mullen, a former computer salesman from Glasgow, scooped more than 820,000 votes as Freddie Mercury in the ITV show “Stars in Their Eyes” final in 2000. Securing more than twice the number of votes than the runner-up, and setting the all-time record for votes on the show. Two years later, “One Night of Queen” kicked off and there have been tours of the UK, France, Belgium, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States)>
According to Gary Mullen in an interview, “One Night of Queen,” will “in a slow year” average 150 shows.
“One Night Of Queen” has done over 2,500 shows just in the United States. Mostly sell-outs. In the last four tours, I think that we sold out 98% of the shows.
With most of the productions you are involved with, do you primarily just book the United States?
It depends on the artist and the show. For example “One Night of Queen” we book in the U.S., but if there’s a market that we have a relationship with, and they don’t have somebody that they are currently working with, then we can bring them dates. But “DrumLine,” we represent worldwide.
You are more than an agent in some cases. You are also a producer, invest in shows, and go out on the road with productions.
With all of our shows, I make sure that I show up on a lot of dates. Sometimes I will strategically show up in California, and Florida (laughing). But on some shows, I take the full risk. Like “Techno Circus” (“Techno Circus starring Siro-A”) that we brought in from Japan.
“Techno Circus by Siro-A” made their first public appearances at festivals in Japan in 2005, followed shortly by Japanese TV features. Many people have compared them to Blue Man Group which in itself is a clue as to what to expect.
I was not only the producer, but my agency booked the show, and we produced all of the dates and took financial risks on the tour. So we are very attached and have also invested in some Broadway shows, so we have taken on investor roles. Investing in any show especially Broadway is risky and picking a winner is a crapshoot. The running joke is “If you are going to invest in Broadway shows, you may as well throw your money in the backyard and burn it.”
You book shows at PACs, arenas, theatres, casinos, and even festivals. You have to be very flexible to stay on top of each of these distinctly different venue types
Yeah. When I first got into the business, I had been in government (as a legislative legal analyst in the legal division of the New York City Council) so this wasn’t my thing. I was a sports person, and I was brought into the rock side of the business. My first conference was Pollstar in 1998. So when I was at Pollstar, I met people from every walk of life, from the casinos, the arenas, and all of the promoters.
Then I went to Columbia Artists, where I really cut my teeth, and learned every part of the PAC business and every orchestra and symphony under the sun. That is where we really focused on business. I also went to IEBA conferences (presented annually by the International Entertainment Buyers Association). I have been going to IEBA for nearly 24 years since I started in the entertainment business at DFP Entertainment.
When I was at CAMI, I didn’t have a lot to sell at IEBA, but I would show up at the conference and participate in Agent’s Alley every year where my primary goal was to meet as many people as I could and build relationships across the country with every promoter, venue, arena, casino, fair, festival, corporate, and PAC buyer.
Back in the day, IEBA was really focused on the big venues, promoters, arenas, festivals and casinos. It was all country, rock, and pop. It was all of the big stuff. So when we would bring in something from Columbia Artists, it was like, “It’s not quite a fit for this marketplace.” But that was where I was able to build relationships in all of these other genres of buildings, venues, and promoters. I had relationships across the board.
When I went back to the rock side of the business at APA those relationships followed me. I already knew the major buyers. I was able to bring a little of my background from a Columbia Artists to APA and built their theatrical and PAC department from the ground up. I signed over 20 amazing artists and attractions as well as some amazing high-end tribute acts.
IEBA is an amazing organization and it has come full circle for me as I now serve on the IEBA Board of Directors.
You took a different path, being in the commercial side of live music, and the arts world.
A lot of agencies stay in their lanes. I was like, “I can sell. If you give me Lenny Kravitz I know who to call. If you give me Chuck Mangione, I know who to call. It is a different mindset because it is really based upon the relationships that I made in the marketplace that made my value in the marketplace so that I could take it anywhere. And when I opened my own agency, I can sell any kind of show.
Why I like the hybrid model of dealing with PACs, casinos, fairs festivals is that fairs and festivals usually tour spring, summer, and fall months, and then you’ve got the PACs, some of them early in September but most October through May. Then you got your casinos which are more short-terms. PACs work a year and a half out. Casinos are a little short-term booking where they will book maybe 90 days out.
At the same time, these sectors have changed greatly, particularly PACs. Many PAC dates were once booked as part of a subscription series. That aspect of the business has largely disappeared. Also, for decades, PACs booked shows directly often risking a loss which was usually underwritten by sponsorship or endowments. That has evolved into them doing more commercially viable shows and doing co-promotes.
Sure. And with performing arts centers back in the day, it was interesting because Columbia Artists used to have the mindset that they controlled the route, and they could take any artist, and they would basically route 90 dates. They would just fit them in. And those were the type of relationships that we had. They really made the investment of sending the agent on the road. In the 7 1/2 years that I was at CAMI, I probably—and every other agent at our company—graced the stage of every single person that we represented or booked with in that market. They would send us on week-long trips. I remember starting by picking my car up in St. Louis and being in Kansas City by that night visiting whatever major performing arts center that was there, and by the next day I was in Lawrence (Kansas), and then up to Omaha. By Friday, I was flying out of Iowa City. When you are showing up in somebody’s backyard, relationships do develop, and they (venue bookers) are going to book with you, especially because we had some of the greatest artists.
You’d book a road trip whether you had an act or show on the road or not?
Just going on the road. If there was a show that was touring, I might have the opportunity to go and see it or you would just book a road trip to visit your clients. And then you might go and see a Broadway show that they were having that night, and taking the buyer to dinner, and really developing those relationships. Some of the relationships that I have in the country have been for almost 24 years, It is amazing how time has passed.
The entire arts ecosystem has evolved far beyond recognition. While they still book 18 months or so out, PAC buyers are more cost-conscious.
Yeah, they book far in advance. Those days of operating solely on endowments and booking with the ability to lose money are few and far between. People caught on that it’s better to be the black rather than the red. There are some places that will book a show really to provide talent. Some of the villages in Florida where they have a built-in subscription or in Hot Springs, Arkansas where some older community (venues) are providing talent, and they sell in advance. It varies now between some people are still operating on a subscription series.
Some of regional venues will seek to book a touring Broadway production.
The Broadway sometimes underwrites the classical. Classical is not making the most money at the moment, obviously. That is why some of the orchestras are in trouble. We were talking about tributes earlier; now you see some of the orchestras offering some tributes with symphonies. So the landscape has changed
Do you miss the impact of PBS in the live arts sector? Its value has greatly waned.
PBS was always a great vehicle, but yes it lost its caché. It was a love/hate relationship. They would bring in an artist, and you’d tell the venue that you got the tour to line up with the PBS show, but then it’d be, “I need 100 tickets comped.” Then, if the show didn’t sell on PBS, they would pull it. So then you’d be left holding the bag going, “Well, it didn’t work on PBS. You’d have all these 100 ticket (requests). I think right now with social media and live streaming and the new wave of the future. Hopefully, PBS will keep doing what they are doing. I love PBS.
With the pandemic have your clients all picked up their social media activities?
Yes, everybody has stepped up their social media. There are always the challenges with the live streaming depending on the type of act that you have, and rights issues where everybody now is jumping through hoops trying to figure that out. But it is the wave of the future from Zoom calls to all of the rest.
While casinos weren’t worried about making money from entertainment years ago—as a casino loss leader, entertainment was then a lure to attract bodies that could be separated from their dollars on the gaming floor—and managers and agents considered a casino play a great payday.
That may have been the model in the past…
As casinos began struggle to hold onto customers in the face of a softer economy, and increased competition in their marketplaces, it brought casinos more in competition with the mainstream concert business. Now casinos want value for their buck. That great payday is long gone.
It’s long gone. A lot of the casinos that we work with now they like to bring in our production shows. We’ve had a couple of our casinos bring in sit-downs for our “Cirque” show or our Chinese acrobats had one of the highest drops at one of the casinos that they had ever had. We are very malleable to the casinos with our shows. We will work with the casino to fit their model with our show. If they want a shorter show we will cut our show down in order to make sure that they can get their gamers back on the floor.
We have had really incredible successes with some incredible casinos, like with Ben Slaght from Cache Creek Casino Resorts (in Brooks, California) where he brought in such unique programming from our acrobats to our flamenco company, Los Vivancos, and to our tribute shows like “One Night of Queen.” Things that you would never think the casino would want to bring in. The same thing with Potawatomi Hotel & Casino in Milwaukee. They have done incredible shows. They have done everything that we have. It is about providing entertainment to the masses.
That is what I love about IEBA. It is one of the premier conferences in the industry. They have even changed up their model in order to bring in more family programming too. They are starting to get more performing arts centers. Before they were the pop, and rock. The big agents, the big casinos, the fairs, and the festivals all came to IEBA. Now we are getting more PACs. They will do showcases where we have had our acrobats there. We’ve had our tribute shows there and “DrumLine” showcase. It is really that the whole industry is changing and people are looking for diverse programming which is really wonderful.
At the start of your entertainment career, you were VP of Sports and Entertainment at DFP Entertainment in the late ‘90s. You worked with David Fishof who also runs the Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camps?
I did. I was with David for one year (1997-1998). When I worked for David I had come off from being a legislative legal analyst in the legal division of city hall. I first met David because I was a volleyball player. What had intrigued me about David was that I wanted to be a sports agent.
David had quite a great sports practice with over 30 players. He had Lou Piniella, Phil Simms, and he was booking basketball star Earl “The Pearl” Monroe. He had the whole front line of the New York Giants in the ‘80s. He shared an office with Gary Kurfurst who was representing the Talking Heads, and the Ramones, and was sharing office space with (manager) Shep Gordon (Alice Cooper), (actor/dancer) Ben Vereen, and Cleveland International. David drifted into music management by first representing the Association, and then Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, and the Turtles.
Yes, at one point he had represented the whole front line of the New York Giants. He worked with (baseball player) Dave Magadan at the time, and he was representing (football quarterback) Phil Simms as a broadcaster. I went in with the idea that I really wanted to do sports. What I like about David’s office was that it was a boutique agency. It was small, and he did both sports and music. He was also a producer. So he had brainstorms of “I’m going to put ‘The American Gladiators Live Tour’ together, and I’m going to do the ‘Dirty Dancing Live Tour.’ And, “I’m going to reunite the Monkees. And, when I was there, he was representing Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band. That was his idea to put Ringo back on the road with his own band.
(In 1986, David Fishof had turned many heads in the live music business by producing the Monkees’ 20th Anniversary Reunion Tour. In 1988, he successfully produced the “Dirty Dancing Live Tour” which toured the U.S., Europe, and Australia. In 1991, Fishof, with Kenneth Feld, co-produced “The American Gladiators Live Tour” which was followed by his “Mortal Kombat Live Tour” in 1995. Fishof created and produced Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band. From 1989 to 2003, he produced a total of 8 separate “Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band” tours. In 1999, Fishof developed “British Rock Symphony,” an elaborate touring show that featured classic rock hits with a gospel choir, a full orchestra, and vocalists performing symphonic renditions of music by the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and The Who.)
I love David. I think he’s a maniac.
Everybody thinks he’s a maniac. I think David will admit that he’s a maniac. I was there for one year. I was kind of his right hand with a couple of other people. He was working with Columbia Artists Management artists which is how I segued into working at CAMI. I think on one of my first days on the job with him the phone rang, and I picked up the phone, and somebody with a British accent said, “Hello is David there?” I said, “One moment. Who’s calling?” And he said, “Ringo.” I put the phone on hold, and I said, “David, Ringo is on the phone.” I then called my mum and I said, “I think I just spoke to a Beatle.” That was my entree into the music business.
When I was there, we would have these morning briefings. Four of us would sit at David’s table. He would hand us a 20-page document that he’d spent all night working on. I don’t think he slept. The document had everything that needed to be done from sponsorships to putting on a show. At the time, we were putting together “British Rock Symphony,” an elaborate touring show that featured music by the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and the Who, and it was Roger Daltrey, Peter Frampton, and Zak Starkey.
It was just an idea and in one year it went from being an idea on a piece of paper to right before I left his agency we were at Radio City (Music Hall) with the show performing with Roger Daltrey onstage, with Peter Frampton. I sat there with tears in my eyes thinking, “Oh my God, I was part of this. This is the coolest thing.” That is when I knew that I wanted to do music and not sports. CAMI was booking that show, and they kind of stole me over to be an agent, and that was my entry into the booking world.
It seems to me that the big canvas for you was being VP at the Agency for the Performing Arts (APA). You were there 5 years (2006-2011) running the New York office. You were making the pivotal decisions in the theatrical division. You spent 7 ½ years at CAMI. Was it difficult to leave?
Yes. While I was at CAMI, 5 of those 7 years I went to the Pollstar conference, and that is where I met the Troy Blakleys of the world
Troy was then executive VP and Head of Music at APA and later became a managing partner, reshaping APA. (Founded in 1962) APA by then had offices in Los Angeles and Nashville.
The people running APA every year would call and say, “Why don’t you come over? You can move to L.A.” I was such a New Yorker that I could never do that. Even when I was in L.A., they would say, “Why don’t you stop by?” and “Why don’t you move here?” I would be like, “It’s beautiful, but it’s not New York.” Finally, Jim Gosnell, (president/CEO of APA) came to me and said, “If you come over, we will re-open New York.” New York had been closed for 6 or 7 years. “If you come over you can run it, and we will re-open New York.” That was exactly the opportunity that I wanted. I thought would be building something. Being part of something new.”
All you had to do was look out the office at 3 Columbus Circle to see Broadway.
Yeah, actually, we were right across from CAMI (at 1500 Broadway). APA was in the main high-rise on 57th Street between Broadway and 8th. CAMI was on Broadway between 57th and 58th (at 1790 Broadway, in a 1912 building at the corner of 58th Street at Columbus Circle). So we were kitty-corner from each other. I could look out my window to their offices
You graduated from Fordham University in the Bronx with a B.A. in political science. You then worked as a legislative legal analyst for the legal division of the New York City Council for four years (1993-1997).
As an intern, I worked there for two summers. I lived on the campus in the Bronx in the summers, and I would work down in New York. I was young, and I thought that I would be able to change the world. When I finally got in there with a full-time job, I realized that we were pre-empted by state and federal governments on so many different levels that it was hard with all of the red tape. It was hard to even get a street sign.
Where are your from?
The town of Pleasantville in Westchester County. My father is James Barkley, one of the top illustrators in the country— an incredible talent.—and my mom Diane Barkley is his agent. They are retired, but my dad still does his artwork, and she still represents my dad. At one time, they represented over 40 illustrators across the country. I guess that is where I get my creative artistic entrepreneurial spirit.
(Artist, illustrator, and professor James Barkley has provided illustrations for children’s books, book covers, classic books, advertising, television, newspapers, and magazines. He has created artwork for the novels of Pearl S. Buck, Stephen King, William H. Armstrong, James Baldwin, and Alex Haley. He has also created artwork for opera productions of “The Merry Widow,” “Madame Butterfly,” and “La Bohème.”
Barkley has also painted for the National Geographic, the United Nations, the U.S. Department of the Interior, the National Park Service, the U.S. Postal Service, NBC, IBM, General Foods, PepsiCo, Sony, Columbia Pictures, Esquire, and McCall’s.
He is the cover illustrator of the O’Jays’ 1973 album “Ship Ahoy.”)
After graduation from Fordham University, you began living in New York City on your own?
Yes. I was living downtown. My first apartment was in Peter Cooper Village (on the east side of Manhattan).
No doubt scaring your parents.
Thankfully, my aunt and uncle lived in Stuyvesant Town which is right next door on 20th Street
A few years ago I interviewed Marsha Vlasic, president of Artist Group International. When she started as a booking agent in the early ‘70s, being a woman really was an issue. There were then only a handful of female agents in New York City.
In July, VenuesNow honored you and 9 other women with its Women of Influence Award for their leadership and positive impact on the industry.
Among those also honored were Michele Bernstein, founder of Michi B Inc. and consultant at WME; Donna Daniels, EVP, and Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, and GM for Harris Blitzer Sports and Entertainment; Stacie George, SVP of booking, Live Nation New York; Marlene Hendricks, SVP of guest experience and staffing for Hornets Sports and Entertainment; Geni Lincoln, GM/SVP of live events at The Forum in Los Angeles; Jamie Loeb, VP of marketing for Nederlander Concerts; Amanda Mann, SVP/GM, Rose Quarter Operations; Kelly McGrath, director of sales and marketing, XCel Energy Center in n Saint Paul, Minnesota; and Hallie Yavitch, VP of booking at Staples Center and Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.
This is quite a list of prominent women working in entertainment and sports. Today, a great portion of the leading positions in live music, sports, film are held by women.
Thank God, right? It was an incredible privilege this year to be named amongst those women. What an incredible group of women to be in company with. They all have such awesome unique stories. We have all worked really hard at the business. Collectively, I myself have 24 or 25 years in the business. To be recognized is awesome. I think that every person that you come across in your path you can learn something from and the one thing that I always feel is that women should always support other women because we are a major part of this music industry. And we are going to continue to be so.
The overt sexism of the past may not be as evident today, but the agency world is still regarded largely as a boys’ club. By the time you became an agent at CAMI, were you generally accepted?
As I said earlier, I have been in the business for 24 or 25 years, and I was one of the guys at the table. And I was respected as one of the people at the table. I never walked into a room thinking, “Oh, I’m the women here.” And I proved myself and I consider myself good at what I do, and I think that I am respected for that. Any person who doesn’t mentor and who is trying to compete I think that they are doing themselves a disservice.
A lot of people in entertainment won’t always help others. You are widely known for helping promising agents, and managers. You learn from others, especially younger people. It’s a good business strategy as well. A way to build up relationships that could pay off down the road.
Absolutely. I have a mantra where you have to be supportive. My door is always open, whether or not you walk through it that is your choice. I think that it is really important in this world for women to support other women, regardless. That competitive thing only gets you so far and usually not far enough. You have such an incredible pool of talent out there, both men and women. . I will be there for anyone I know who I can trust to help them out any way I can during this time. I think when we do come back the industry is going to be booming.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of new companies have launched DIY booking platforms to bring venues and artists together. This really isn’t anything new.
Middlemen have been around since the stone age. Some are successful, and some are not. There is a lot of that happening. We don’t deal with a lot of middlemen because we have the direct relationships. I’m not saying I would never deal with a middleman but there are a lot of people who are trying to do that middling dates. We’ve had people calling us asking, “Can we represent so and so?” and I’m like “No we represent them.” Everybody is trying to figure things out
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-80. 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, and the London Times. He is a co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide,” and a Lifetime Member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
He is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.