Agent of change: Neil Warnock's 50 years in live music

Agent of change: Neil Warnock's 50 years in live music

Neil Warnock is contemplating what it takes to be a successful booking agent in 2018.

After all, if anyone should know, it’s Warnock. For five decades, he has not only been at the top of his game as a booking agent, but has played a significant role in reinventing that business and shifting the balance of power away from promoters and venues to artists and managers.

The live business has changed beyond all recognition during Warnock’s five decades at companies from South Bank Artists to NEMS to the Bron Agency to The Agency Group to UTA, moving from Transit vans and pub gigs to private jets and stadium shows.

And yet, as UTA’s global head of touring ponders the question of what it takes to make it – 50 years after he took his first steps in the biz by putting on a double bill of The Emeralds and Johnny Hollis And The Nomads at a hall in Debden, Essex – he comes to the conclusion that, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

“You need tenacity,” he says. “It takes having great ears and being able to impart your passion for that music to
other people. And when they say, ‘You’re right, that’s really good, where can I see the act?’, then you’re on your path.”

So, not so very different to the qualities needed by the young Neil Warnock then?   

“Not one little bit,” he grins. “It’s exactly that same passion. That artist that captures you off the front of the stage – if you feel it and think, ‘I definitely want to work with this artist, I can hear where this artist is going to go’ – that’s what it is. It’s about the passion to do it and [to show] that you’ve got the tools to do it. Not only have you got it, but the company behind you has got it, too.”

Sharp of dress and even sharper of wit, Warnock has been in possession of ‘it’ for 50 years now. His own journey has been well documented, not least when he won The Strat Award at the 2015 Music Week Awards.

But while the career of any exec who manages to stay at the top for five decades is, almost by definition, remarkable, perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Warnock is his constant desire to move forward, to keep pushing the envelope of what his job entails. He had that desire when he was running his business from two public payphones during his lunchbreak from the printworks, and he still has it now.

After all, many 72-year-olds have their feet up by this point. Even those that are still working tend to be taking things a little easier. Not Neil Warnock. Anyone who expected him to slow down when he sold The Agency Group – which he’d built from the ground up to become the biggest independent music agency in the world – to UTA in 2015, will have been disappointed.

He’s still up at the crack of dawn sending emails. He’s still out at shows multiple nights per week and still representing everyone from David Gilmour to Dolly Parton and George Benson to Geri Horner (née Halliwell), amongst countless others.

But, most importantly, he’s still on top of the latest developments, talking a good game in digital and social media and all the other areas that some senior execs prefer to leave to the young people.

So he highlights the digital work UTA does, from building a bespoke US tour for Jacob Sartorius based on data insights, to Steps partnering with Pinterest to launch their campaign. And he points to the collaboration between departments that has helped develop everything from DJ Khaled’s starring role in Pitch Perfect 3 to Mariah Carey’s children’s book and E! reality TV series.

And Warnock is still learning too – he lights up with enthusiasm when discussing tips he’s picked up from UTA’s film, TV and literary agents, just as he does discussing old times at Eel Pie Island with Pete Townshend.

It’s the sign of a man who embodies both his business and the restless, relentless enthusiasm of the wider live sector. Time, then, for him to sit down with Music Week in his UTA office to discuss diversity, artist development and his remarkable 50 years in the biz…

Not many people get to spend five decades in the music business…

“I didn’t expect to! I had no idea when I was apprenticed at 15-years-old as a printer. I felt I’d arrived then. Then I got involved with a bit of music, which distracted me in the print area. But it didn’t distract me that much. I thought that, when I got to about 18, 19, I would switch from being a compositor into sales.

Fifty years later, look where we are. It is absolutely ridiculous! And look how sophisticated this business has become in those 50 years. In those days, you didn’t look at capacity necessarily, you didn’t look at ticket price.

You had a price for the band, the band went out for that price and they were very happy. Then we started to invent the business as it is now, where we moved away from us being afraid of promoters as it were, [thinking] that we needed them to buy the band because that was the way the work was generated.

Not the other way round, where the promoter needed the band to make money and the band were in control of the box office. Look at where we’ve come with this. If you think that Wembley Empire Pool at 8,000 people was the zenith for a very few acts and you did one [night].

Now you’re disappointed if your act doesn’t get to two O2s playing to 17,000 people a show, let alone if you want to be Ed Sheeran and play Wembley Stadium to 80,000 people. The business we’re in now and the amount of money we’re dealing with, the sophistication of production… That over the 50 years alone is just an incredible story.”

Is the power shift towards artists the biggest change you’ve seen?

“The dominance of the labels came in the early ‘70s when they really took over, they were calling the shots. Big deals were going down, huge amounts of money were being made from recorded music. That was a huge revolution where us as agents and, to a degree, managers lost control. It became in the gift of the label how things were being done.

That has now evolved again where recorded music has become a souvenir of the live show for most people. In the last 10 years, the artists themselves [have been] totally in control of their own destinies. All of these sophistications have come in that are giving the artists ultimate control over their career.

Years ago, The Rolling Stones would come out with a new album, new single, and then go out on tour. Now, they just go out on tour – and many other artists are the same way. They don’t need recorded music to go along with it. That interface between live and recorded music is now back to much more of the live side.”

Touring has changed a bit too…

“When I was promoting at Eel Pie Island as South Bank Artists, it was not sophisticated, far from it, this was a ballroom in a derelict hotel. Now, I’ve got Nickelback on the road coming up, that’s a modest tour but we’ve got 60 people on the road with eight trucks.

And that’s a multi-arena tour, before you get into anything I did with Pink Floyd or The Rolling Stones where you’re actually moving a small town [every night]. It’s become a wholly different animal from where we were.”

Which did you prefer?

“(Laughs) They’ve both got their attractions. I didn’t know any different in those days so, for me, seeing The Who at Eel Pie Island, I dined out on that forever. Having Pink Floyd play University College or seeing The Doors that I’d booked at Imperial College, they were all highlights in those days. ‘This is amazing, I haven’t had to pay to come in, I’m actually part of what’s going on here.’

Then the sophistication grew and the world started to expand. I took Pink Floyd to Russia while the Iron Curtain was still in place and dealing with the KGB, there was a piece of work! Audiences were standing up and they just wanted to shut us all down. Now look at where we are in terms of the markets that we can get to, right the way across the world.”

Agents pretty much invented the globalisation of the biz that everyone takes for granted now, didn’t they?

“It was the live music business and particularly English artists. Because English artists and road crew would go where other men fear to tread. We were always those explorers.

In fairness to our American cousins, they still get windy about going to some of those places, whereas your English road manager will go, ‘Bring it on! Where is it? India? Yeah, we’ll give it a go’.”

What do you put your longevity down to?

“You’ve got to be able to adapt. And you’ve got to be able to protect your artists. The one thing we’ve all got to remember is that we’re in a human being business. Everything we’re doing, if you’re talking to a promoter, an artist or a manager, hopefully they’re human.

We’re not knocking out Ford cars on a Friday afternoon. We’ve got tremendous responsibilities around sending somebody into a marketplace. Because I’m not going to be at every show. I’m not going to be in Poland or Latvia or Budapest where they’ve got to deal with a problem.”

You’ve always worked with an incredible range of artists. Do you need a very different skillset to look after, say, Cilla Black and Motörhead?

“You need different skillsets completely. I was booking Deep Purple and then Cilla and The Nolans along with Motörhead and then taking on George Benson and learning another skillset of, ‘How do you book jazz?’ But it’s not only the booking, it’s where you actually develop their careers. Look at Guns N’Roses. When they came back the first time without Slash [in 2012], the re-establishment of that was really in Vegas.

The credibility of the band coming back was that they could actually do it, play on time and do a structured set in a structured situation, which Vegas is. That gave all the promoters confidence in Guns N’Roses again so, when the whole ball of wax came together, then you could look at stadiums and more sophisticated ways of rolling that out, because the confidence was there for promoters to invest huge amounts of money and get their return.

What I’ve really enjoyed over all of these years is building careers. I always say we don’t have bookers, we have agents. We’re looking at the construction of careers and how we maintain those careers.”

These days, are you doing more development at the start of careers, like a label?

“I don’t want to bash the labels. When you see a label really get it right, when you see it all come together, it’s an artform. It’s absolutely wonderful. My criticism is, why can’t that happen more often? For example, Steven Wilson is something we’ve been really developing very nicely.

He came out of Porcupine Tree and decided he didn’t want to work under that trademark anymore, his writing was getting more personal and he was building his own career. It was a brave step for him. The work we’ve been doing with Caroline [International] and Peter Rudge, his manager, has been wonderful because it’s been collaborative. It’s not an easy project because as, even the poster says, this is the biggest artist you’ve never heard of.

But he’s played three Albert Halls, all sold out, Europe’s all sold out, he’s going to Australia and India, going right the way across the world. I will get him as an arena act, he will be a significant festival act, but this isn’t a one-shot thing, this is something where we’ve got the investment of the artist and label and the sophistication of a great manager, so we are working collaboratively with the label.

So I don’t want to be that person just bashing labels because I’m known for it… But they do need a kick up the arse sometimes!”

How big a step was it for you to sell TAG to UTA?

“Massive. Massive. At the time of the sale, we were over 100 agents and 2,000 artists. But the business had changed. The services that one needs to bring to an artist have changed. The Agency Group was so super-strong in live, in every area of music, Katherine Jenkins, Alfie Boe all the way over here,

Motörhead all the way over there, George Benson in the middle. The actual dimensions, everything we had was massive. But it was music and we weren’t able to offer anything past that in real terms. So, when the opportunity came for me to sell the company and join UTA, who had very little music at that time but were huge in every other aspect… The actual offer now is really exciting. And for me to join there, you can imagine, I’m giving up my baby.

This is something that’s been mine effectively since ’73 and in reality since 1980, I’ve been my own boss. So to actually join these guys and do what we did has been monumental. But the reality is, what we’re able now to offer our artists, we’re talking about how we’re going to develop an artist and their career.

If they’re interested doing something in music and something in film, reality TV, whatever that may be, we can actually sit down with the agent who’s got all of that expertise.

I’m part of a group representing Mariah Carey. There are probably seven or eight agents in her whole desk, between animation, film, reality TV, live, her fashion area – everything she’s got, we’ve got people in these disciplines.

So we’re not wasting time. If we think an artist has got a parallel career then we’re in there to help. I like the fact that I’m dealing with [UTA CEO] Jeremy Zimmer and other people there and it’s a very honest conversation. We couldn’t do [those things] as The Agency Group. We can do it as UTA.”

Is it as hard to break a new artist in the live arena as it is in recorded music?

“This is a debate we have in every one of our agents’ meetings – how many younger artists do you take on? We’ve only got so many hours in the day to do it. But there’s so much great music out there that I still encourage our agents and myself that, if you hear something and see something, you go, ‘I’ve got to go for it’.

We sign unsigned artists, artists without managers, artists that are very new, because we’re out there the whole time.

Part of UTA now is going to be investing in young talent. We’re looking at seeing how we can support our managers, how we can make that a better and easier way to do it, because the start-up money for artists is getting harder to come by.

We can work with promoters and different entities and we may be able to look at that as a step forward – and I’m pretty sure that’s where we’re going to be giving some help to a lot of our young managers.”

Booking has a reputation for being a very white, male sector. Is that changing?

“It’s changing rapidly. Personally, I’ve had a number of great female agents work for me and we’ve got a great team now. If you look at our board right now, our new CFO Lyndsay Harding is a brilliant woman who’s just joined us, Tracey Jacobs who’s on our board, who I met when I first sold the company, she’s just a powerhouse.

I just love this woman because she does not take any prisoners. I want to encourage more and more women to come through. That’s something that we as a company are right in the vanguard of doing. Look at what we’ve done in our foundation [which has helped fund the Time’s Up legal defence fund], we’re right behind this and it’s something right across the company.

It’s so encouraging to see how that’s being led by the board and how the whole company’s adopted it.”

Can the live business keep growing?

“We’re looking at constant growth – as long as we’re smart. We can see artists getting over-toured. We can
see artists getting over-priced. Our punter has got so many choices of how they’re going to spend their
money, whether they want to go to a football match or go on holiday, it’s a big world out there.

We’ve got to provide them with a fantastic experience, we want [concert-goers] to be telling everybody else that they saw the most fantastic show and they can’t wait to buy tickets for the next one. I don’t see any necessary slowdown at all. Revenues continue to go up.

More venues are going to be built in more parts of the world. We definitely haven’t got to any point of exhaustion or a plateau.

But where we can get it wrong is if we damage ourselves and there’s always a danger of that. If we continue to be smart and get it right, I don’t see any reason why what we’re building can’t go on and develop further.”

And how about you? Can you go on and develop even further?

“You know what? I’m loving what I’m doing. Having all of these different avenues at UTA and learning from so many other people just energises me. I’m very much part of a bigger group of agents.

It’s great to be able to recommend a manager to go and talk to another part of our business and know that they’re going to get that knowledge.

The manager will phone back and say, ‘What a great conversation I just had’. All of our digital teams around the world – we say to our managers, ‘If you want it, it’s there. If you don’t want to take it, don’t take it but these guys are right on it’.

They come back to us and say, ‘We didn’t have that in our arsenal, now we’ve got it’. So that conversation goes on. I love the whole thing. It’s great.”

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