On the guestlist: Making season 1 of the Tickets podcast

A few weeks ago I received an email from someone telling me they’d just finished the whole season of the Tickets podcast.

There’s a mix of gratitude, pride, and slight trepidation in knowing someone has invested their time into something you’ve designed and created.

In this case, it involved 10+ hours of their time and a closeness and intimacy to the work that the direct voice of podcasting is rare in providing.

Having done a lot of live events and consulting work of late it also reminded me of the value of creating something that is able to live forever. It’s out there, anyone can access it, and it’ll stay out there, available, until I decide I no longer want that to be the case.

That’s empowering, and a little scary too.

This post is a summary of the 16 episodes of the podcast series I started in New York in the long Winter of 2017/18.

Continue reading “On the guestlist: Making season 1 of the Tickets podcast”

My Podcast Gear: recording, editing, and publishing

a podcast studio mic

I’ve learned a lot from creating a podcast series: from asking good questions and improving my spoken delivery; to sales, marketing, and audio engineering.

As much as podcasts are a hot trend right now and plenty of people are jumping on podcasting in part because of that, I do genuinely believe there are many skills that can be built by getting involved in podcasting. So much so, I’d like to see every school include podcasts on the curriculum.

One of my earlier learning curves in starting my podcast was figuring out what equipment I needed, especially as I was working on tight a budget (this was a side project after all, and I’m a lean startup kinda guy...)

After a couple of early recordings using just my laptop’s mic (surprisingly passable, but only just), I invested in a more robust setup which I still use today.

My main point of reference for deciding on my podcast gear ended up being this Kit list from Tim Ferriss. I didn’t buy the whole lot from this selection but it definitely helped me figure out how high-end I needed to go to get the results I wanted.

After being asked a few times of late what I use and how I got set up, here’s a quick post covering my podcast gear, as well as some background on how I edit and publish.

I’ll put together a follow-up on distribution and marketing too.

And if you’ve got any questions on any of this feel free to drop me a line!

Here we go…

Continue reading “My Podcast Gear: recording, editing, and publishing”

Why Penn & Teller ignored the audience

One of Penn Jillette’s least favourite terms in show business is ’this works’.

It’s easy to let the audience (whether fans, critics, or business people) decide what works, and effectively write your act. This can be counter to the work of a creator.

When Bruce Springsteen wrote Born to Run some people said he was writing songs about girls in cars. Then, once in a while, he’d write some songs about girls in cars.

Was that what he was really doing as an artist, or was he listening to what the audience said they thought he was doing?

Penn believes bad reviews don’t hurt you that much, but good reviews really can. 

In good reviews, people are more likely to speculate on what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. It’s easy to agree with them, and you can soon find yourself doing just that.

If they’re wrong about why, that’s rarely good for you in the long run.

So Penn & Teller decide not to read their reviews.

Of course, nowadays is a little different to when Born to Run was released.

We create a lot of things in full view, with other people. Comments are open, feedback is everywhere. 

The challenge now is how to let other people inform the work in the right way, rather than the way that hurts you.

Penn Jillette on The Moment with Brian Koppelman

Bonus: Penn & Teller, live, and upside down…

Beyond The Happy Meal: products to transcend generations

Regular readers will know I’m a fan of the author and broadcaster Steven Johnson.

I also admit I’m rarely an early adopter (as frustrating as this can sometimes be), and in Johnson’s case I only discovered his work via his TV series How We Got To Now which was broadcast on BBC2 in the UK a couple of years ago.

As I tweeted from our sofa how much I loved the show, my (now) wife could only look on with bemusement when I gesticulated in wonder 10 seconds later. The show’s host had retweeted me to his 1.5m followers. It was magic, until I sheepishly realised the programme had of course been recorded months before. He was probably at home having a cup of tea.

Something else with a bit of magic is the kids’ version of the How We Got to Now book which launched a few months ago.

It got me thinking about other products, ideas and creations that either transcend age gaps or can be repurposed wonderfully for those much older or younger than the intended audience.

Here are a few of my favourites.

Arts & Raps

This series from Russell Simmons’ All Def Digital takes the TV interview format and flips it into today’s youth culture (hiphop stars, young hosts, and YouTube). 

I like the blend of education and entertainment – the show touches on some tough topics that are important for young people to understand, without feeling like a public service announcement. And watching rappers squirm as they try to explain their lyrics to the young hosts is entertaining for adults too.

This path has been trodden before through shows like Kids Say The Darndest Things (the hook is the “out of the mouths of babes” cliche)  – but as Derek Thompson suggests in his book Hit Makers, a key ingredient to making something popular is often about New Wine aged on Old Oak.


The London-based computer company ostensibly exist to support kids in becoming developers, but their products are used enthusiastically by people of all ages.

As the company say, billions of us use computers, but only 1% of 1% of us can take them apart and change them. Kano’s mission is to drastically increase that number.

Musicians are creating weird and wonderful new instruments, street artists are creating code-driven installations, and teachers are teaching other teachers how to code.

I interviewed Kano co-founder Alex Klein on the Tickets podcast – check it out:

Netflix’s Sex Education

Netflix snapped up this UK comedy-drama in late 2017, and the first season was made available at the beginning of this year. Its combination of dry British humour, US-style college campus setting and superbly curated cast have made it a sleeper hit. 

I assume the show is aimed at the same demographic as its stars (14-18), but whether you’re going through the tribulations of puberty, have just cleared some of those hurdles, or wince at the memory of your own school days in decades past, Sex Education hits the spot on the number of levels. And it’s binge-worthy: my wife and I watched the whole series over this past weekend.

But the extra element that really makes it really stand out for me is that the unpacking and understanding of difficult topics are woven into the plot in a way that offers a guiding, but still optional, torchlight, rather than feeling like sitting through 6 hours of traditional sex education.

Kids’ fashion styles

Have you ever noticed how stylish some young kids’ clothing lines are? 

Notwithstanding a few premium designer brands, why is it that beyond the age of 8 so much fashion (especially for men) defaults to black, white, grey or a little bit of navy?

I’m constantly astounded at the get-ups my wife and I have bought for our now 3 and a half-year-old nephew.

The search for something suitable in my size continues…

Pornhub’s sex education

From one style of sex education to another.

This one is more strongly aligned to edutainment than necessarily crossing generations, but given Pornhub’s traffic levels it’s fair to assume a few different age groups are using their service.

Note: This Quartz article that delved into Pornhub’s incredible data capabilities is well worth a read.

Partnering with Dr Laurie Betito, Pornhub’s Sexual Wellness Center is a knowledge base of responsible advice, Q&As and other content.

At the time of writing the site has been up for about 18 months. Given Pornhub’s undoubted financial resources it seems a bit of a half-hearted effort thus far, especially as there’s such a big opportunity for brands of all types to create valuable educational content.

Still, it’s a good idea – could Pornhub content even be on the school curriculum one day?

Inclusive Apparel

Sneakers are big business.

NBA star Steph Curry has released a number of signature shoes with sports brand Under Armour. The latest is the Curry 5.

They’ve been a big hit – until one young female fan discovered the shoes weren’t available for girls. She wrote to her hero telling him so.

A little embarrassing for Curry as he’s been outspoken about gender equality in sports, and has hosted a girls’ basketball camp in the past.

His response on Twitter helped clear things up:

There are a couple of things going on here.

First, it turns out sneakers for girls are no different in shape or production than the ones for boys, it’s just design/branding that shifts. This makes the Curry 5 omission even worse.

Second, this episode shines another light on big sports brands still having issues with inclusivity, particularly at a corporate level. Nike and Under Armour have both come under fire on this

This lack of inclusivity is a big missed opportunity for these companies.

It sets them back on attracting great talent, connecting with new audiences, developing a better internal culture, empowering the athlete in everyone (as Nike to like to say), and yes, selling more shoes.

It’ll be interesting to see what the apparel brands do next on this front.

Of course, alternate versions or fully cross-generational products have been around for decades – from the McDonalds Happy Meal to The Simpsons.

What’s so interesting now is the increased generational fluidity across products – and more broadly than just toys, fast food or entertainment.

These are just a few examples of what’s happening.

What else can be taken from adults to kids, or visa versa?

Concealing the Clues: Lessons from TV & film writers

The British crime drama series Broadchurch is one of the most critically-acclaimed TV shows of the past 10 years.

First arriving on UK screens in 2013, its 3 seasons and 24 episodes focused on the fictional town of Broadchurch and two of its police detectives.

Broadchurch is a classic whodunnit story. 

While the overall arc of the story is compelling, it’s the gradual reveals, shifting sense of suspicion, and carefully placed clues, decoys and questions that really keep the viewer guessing.

Creator Chris Chibnall spent a lot of time white boarding all the routes and paths before putting pen to paper.

He didn’t even know the identity of the killer until a few episodes in, and decided to rewrite elements based on what was happening during the production.

This method is very powerful when done well: concealing the clues, diverting attention at particular times, and tapping into natural human instincts of wanting to solve problems and also holding biases.

It begs the question of where else we could apply the best of Broadchurch and other innovative and compelling storytelling styles [1].

Is it in education? Tiago Forte writes about this on Twitter:

I’m excited about applying these ideas in what I’m doing here, as regular readers will be aware.

But what about other art forms? Or in hospitality? Even retail?

The question is no longer whodunnit? but who will do it, and how

Bottom Line: Stories are powerful, and when combined with other elements that influence people there are all kinds of new and improved experiences that can be created

[1] This post doesn’t even touch on the likes of Bandersnatch or Steven Soderburgh’s Mosaic project. That’s for next time…

Life Advice from Underground Resistance & Marcus Aurelius

The DJ Lee Burridge posted this epic 5+ hour mix on his Soundcloud page a little while ago.

Like many good DJ sets, there are a few purple patches where a sequence of tracks come together that make the listener feel they were created exactly that way.

Part of the joy and skill of putting tracks in the mix is that it’s possible to make the weird wonderful, the wonderful weird, average good, the good great, the great… even better.

One of these sweet spots is around the 1hr 40 mark, where a re-edit of a Nils Frahm track is overlaid with the acapella of Underground Resistance’s classic track ‘Transitions’.

Listening to this in my office one afternoon (as opposed to the Tibet mountain that Lee suggests), the ‘Transitions’ lyrics struck a chord, especially as I’m currently reading Marcus Aurelius’ incredible book ‘Meditations’.

One of the magical things about music is you can listen to a track 10,20 or 100 times, and then in a particular place, space, time or mood it’ll suddenly take on a completely different form. That happened this time.

Continue reading “Life Advice from Underground Resistance & Marcus Aurelius”

Career Fuel: How to get paid like a DJ

I don’t charge for DJing, I charge for flying to get there now.

The traveling is the aspect I charge for; the DJing is free.

John Digweed, Magnetic Magazine, 2012

John Digweed is a British DJ.

He’s never had a breakout hit song, never been voted the number 1 DJ in the world, and never been on the cover of Billboard magazine.

But he’s been a constant in the upper echelons of the electronic music world for over two decades. He has a hugely passionate fanbase across the world. He makes an excellent living and has made very few creative compromises in his career.

His fans would wholeheartedly agree he is a master of what he does, and despite championing pretty niche underground music and being closer to 50 than 30, in what we keep being told is a young person’s world he’s as in demand as ever.

And the DJing, the craft, is still free.

He charges for the travel time. Or rather, he charges for everything involved to get him to the DJ gig: the travel, the practice, the developing of the craft, the preparation.

Here are just some of the skills creative professionals have to invest in on an ongoing basis:

  • Professional development
  • Equipment and Tools
  • Planning
  • Editing
  • Filtering
  • Trashing
  • Drafting
  • Rehearsing

These are expensive – either in time, money or effort. They are all things most people don’t want to go through the hardship or cost of. They don’t offer instant gratification. They send us down difficult paths.

That’s why true professionals can charge what they do.

Charging for the travel (or any of these other things) also removes time from the equation. John Digweed doesn’t get paid per hour of travel time, he charges based on the market and his value within it. That value has been built over time by his investment in what he does.

The good news is that a true professional can charge a lot of money – far from the ties of the hourly rate. And over time that can compound.

The bad news is that it’s hard. It takes time, it takes effort and it takes trust. The results don’t appear quickly. In fact they appear slowly, and once you’ve had some good results you can’t expect tomorrow to be better or even the same as today – you have to keep reinvesting.

Which route would you like to take?

Music Business: How to choose an agent

I recently met with an artist manager who was looking for a new agent for his client, an electronic music producer and DJ.

This manager isn’t a music industry lifer, in fact he’s spent more of his career in adjacent fields. So whilst he brings a lot of very useful skills, experiences and questions to the table, he also has a few blind spots. One of those is knowing what to look for in agents. There are some obvious traits of course , but his curiosity and diligence made him want to dig deeper so we got chatting.

I thought it could be useful to collate and share some of what we discussed for other people going through the same process either now or in the future [1].

This article refers to electronic music – if there’s sufficient interest I’ll aim to put together a follow up that takes some of these ideas and maps them to other spaces in the business of talent representation.

Typically your choice of agent/agency boils down to 3 options,:

1. Go for broke on big roster (in terms of quantity, profile or both)

2. Be a high priority on a small roster

3. Hedge your bets and find somewhere in the middle

You can make a choice based on this alone, but it’s probably not enough. So how can you make a more informed decision?

When it comes to electronic music, the touring side is built more on soft tickets [2] than hard tickets; 95%+ of events in this world are delivered in this way.

Assuming you are/working with an electronic artist and you’re doing soft tickets, there are a few key areas to analyse when choosing an agent to represent you, and they’re all inter-connected [3], [4].

  • Tribe
  • Relationships
  • Leverage
  • Strategy
  • Operations

These areas are all very important in hard tickets too, but with soft tickets they’re crucial.

This is especially relevant when an artist is focused on having the right positioning and also wants enough revenue to sustain (most of) their living from touring.

There are exceptions, but these two factors of positioning and revenue are very important to most artists I know in the electronic world.

So what does all this mean?



(For a primer, I wrote about Tribes here. Also check out Seth Godin’s work if you’re interested in Tribes more broadly.)

The electronic world can be surprisingly nuanced and is very tribal. The more niche you go, the more nuanced it tends to get in terms of tribe and positioning around that.

You want to look closely at the agent (or agency) roster alignment with what you want to do (i.e. your strategy). The agent’s own tribe alignment is generally more powerful than agency alignment. However, if the agency and their roster are at the centre of a tribe and the agent is close enough to this (a la the mafia saying of ‘he’s a friend of ours’), that agency alignment may outweigh that of a singular agent elsewhere.

Tribes are everywhere in electronic music: some interconnect and play nice together; others repel, sometimes to the surprise of the uninitiated.

As a manager you should know which tribe(s) you are a member of, and which you’d like to become a member of in the future.

Being in and around relevant tribes gives you understanding. It’s the way to build relationships, devise strategies and ultimately gain leverage.

Outside the tribe and not sure how to get in? Provide them with something valuable.




To get right into the tribe you need relationships. It’s possible for to be in the tribe without relationships (i.e. through artists on an agent’s roster that are catapulted into the centre of the tribe) but without the relationships being built on top of this, it probably won’t last.

Relationships also come from time (this can’t be understated; a lot of success comes just from staying in the game long enough).

Agency size doesn’t necessarily matter that much here, although an agent at a larger agency has the chance to build far more relationships than an agent at a smaller agency – as long as they have the autonomy to do so. It may be worth querying the autonomy and authority of an agent who doesn’t have their own name in their company email address for example.

Aside from the tribe, relationships with key venues are also crucial. Promoters are of course important but if you’re looking to stay off multi-act club bills (ignoring festivals here) the in-house booker at a top venue is an important person to know.

Not sure what the key venues are in a market? Look at where the agent’s roster are playing regularly – as an artist/manager it’s worth you knowing the top 3 clubs in each main city in a territory for your (desired) tribe so you can test the agent on it. They should be able to rattle these off without hesitation. See the ‘Miscellaneous Tips’ at the bottom for more tactical suggestions.




Leverage usually comes from roster members being part of a tribe. This leverage is usually directly from an agent but also can come from an agency. Again it’s usually preferable to optimise for agent leverage vs agency leverage but both is best. Leverage increases your fees, billing, and maybe even sex appeal.

For instance, if an agent has a very hot artist, the leverage they gain from that can enable them to raise prices for other artists they represent. If a promoter is desperate to secure a hot act for say $100k (why they are desperate is a topic for another post), it’s relatively easy for the agent to utilise their leverage to get the promoter to book another act for $20k who may be worth $10k in normal circumstances.

Additionally, a promoter will often (subconsciously) see an agent with a hot act worth $100k+ as someone who operates at that level, thus paying an additional $20k doesn’t feel unusual, even if the agent isn’t a ‘big player’.* This leverage is why you’ll see some festival bills spread with acts from the same agent or agency roster.

* I’m sure there’s a succinct economic theory that can sum this up better – any economists reading please let me know.

The leverage point is generally best when the agent represents an artist who is your ‘desired peer’ – someone in or near your tribe, who you want to emulate and is 2-3 levels above where you currently are. An artist 5+ levels above you can be useful too, but if you start pestering the agent for support slots here you’re going to build an unwelcome reputation.


It’s also worth noting some agents have a great knack of knowing when and how to push (whether that’s on billing, money or something else), and frankly a fair part of the job is really a type of pushing* (an inconvenient truth alas). While not easy to gauge, it’s worth setting up another question around this to try and figure out their ability to push.

The best advice on to take on leverage would probably be this:

Find the person who wants to be number 1 but isn’t.


Find the person who wants to be number 1 but isn’t. Their boss currently is, and they really want their boss’s job.


* A word about Hustle. Similar to Pushing, but a little more nuanced and broader reaching. Hustle is effective, but only if the tribe and relationships are in place. Without it, it’s actually pretty useless. If you want to know more about hustle, read up on Gary Vaynerchuk.




This is an agent’s understanding of what the artist/manager wants to do, ideally blended with the agent’s blueprint for something they have done successfully in the recent past.

The agent’s strategy should be roadworthy for the next 12-18 months; with agents it’s actually equally important to pick for where you are now as well as where you want to be.

Thinking short seems counter-intuitive, but a) things can change quickly, b) it’s very hard to predict outcomes far into the future, and c) you can fire an agent whenever you like 🙂

Agent strategy usually comes from being part of a tribe. Most strategies are built on what’s worked for other members of the tribe. Building a strategy isn’t that difficult, but executing successfully on it requires relationships and at least some leverage. It’s worth finding out which agents have alternative strategies – great strategy with decent execution may be able to beat poor strategy with great execution…

How do you test an agent’s strategy? Here are a couple of questions you can ask:

  • Imagine things aren’t working out in a particular city. What do you do?
  • Which festival plays this year and next year in territory X sum up the strategy and growth of the artist?


And remember the words of Mike Tyson:

Everyone has a strategy until they get punched in the face.




Operations should come from a good agency structure, and doesn’t need to be a big company to be able to do this – in fact the lean setup can work better if done well.

Operational excellence (being organised, chasing the money, etc.) is of paramount importance in electronic music. Like it or not the history of how the business was built means there’s a heavy degree of opacity and a lot of savvy, cash-driven people. Most of these people are legit but within the supply chain there’s a lot that can go wrong, from lack of licenses and money laundering to stoned drivers and incorrect airport codes. People dancing, drinking and doing drugs late at night attracts a few interesting sorts, after all.

If you don’t have a tour manager and are relying on the agency to do your logistics (flights, hotels, visas etc), make sure the agent’s assistant is solid, and that the agency have proper financial management in place. Get to know who these people are. I’ve seen too many horror stories of enormous tax bills, miscalculated withholding and incorrect visas, often from naive ignorance rather than malicious malpractice.

This is far from the glamorous end of things, but it’s important and will cause you pain if it’s not done well.

The further up the ladder you climb, you’ll need the agency day to day operations less, but their support on wider reaching financial affairs as well as more complex  promotion details will be crucial.


Miscellaneous Tips

  • Don’t get confused with live agents who have acts that look like DJs; if you’re a DJ doing soft tickets it’s a different world. Many electronic artists yearn for the ‘cool’ factor of being on a trendy live roster but they often end up a) cut adrift from their core tribe and b) learning the hard way how hard ticket guarantees work at the lower end of the scale.
  • The economics of hard tickets are…well, hard, at least at the beginning. It can be galling for an artist to realise that their fee for a support slot on a hard ticket show is $100, or that on that for their headline gigs they’re paying for their own flights, hotels and ground transport. Fees for hard ticket shows will typically only outstrip DJ fees at 1000 tickets (if not more). All that glitters is not gold.
  • Make sure you get clarity of what the agent defines ‘landed’ and ‘delivered’ to mean. Not knowing this can be very expensive.
  • Before you start talking to agents, make sure you know the following:
    • Your reference artists – peers and desired peers
    • Where they are playing
    • How much they overlap with where the agent’s roster are playing
    • The key 10 cities you want to make an impact in
    • The ladder of venues/promoters in each of those cities

There’s a bunch more I could add but this is already a long post so I’m leaving it here for now.

Hopefully this helps – now get out there, find a great agent, and play some shows 🙂

Want to know more? Or think I’ve got it all wrong? Give me a shout


thanks to Murray Gray for reviewing drafts of this article.



[1] For brevity I’ve omitted some of the more obvious character traits to look for.


[2] Soft tickets are where the tickets can’t be tied specifically to one artist, and thus artists (very) rarely share in the percentage of the sales. The majority of festivals work this way, and most night clubs too.

It’s worth noting there’s a grey area in night club world where the headline Artist could be considered to be the singular draw to the venue. Here you’ll often see set fee bonuses rather than percentage splits; this is for a few reasons depending on how cynical you are 🙂

A ‘hard ticket’ is for a gig where the tickets are being sold primarily on the draw of one artist. That headline artist will see a percentage of sales, usually alongside a guarantee. Rule of thumb – if the headliner’s name is at least 2x bigger than any other acts on the lineup, it’s a hard ticket gig.


[3] I was an agent for a fairly long time, and moderately successful, but I’m now two years out of the game. Some of my thoughts may not have dated well but I hope that’s not the case 🙂


[4] The basic agent playbook reads something like this:

  • Forge relationships.
  • Get into a tribe.
  • Build leverage in the tribe.
  • Learn strategies.
  • Refine operations.
  • Forge new relationships.
  • Get into a new tribe.
  • Repeat.

or alternatively;

  • Decide on a niche
  • Get leverage in that niche
  • Spend time and effort working that leverage
  • Have the operations to deliver it
  • More onto the next niche


Video stream: The Future of Human Attendance (panel session, 1/3/17, London)

With the emergence of VR and live streaming, how long is it going to be before people are attending events via a headpiece, watching gigs from their front rooms and disappearing down the digital rabbit hole?

On 1st March I hosted a panel session exploring this topic at the Interchange venue in London.

The panel was represented from three different angles of consumer participation: live streaming, virtual reality and immersive event experiences.

  • Deborah Armstrong — Creator of Glastonbury’s Shangri-La and Director of Strong and Co
  • Mazdak Sanii — COO Boiler Room
  • Dave Haynes — Investment team — Seedcamp

Click the link below to watch the video from the event which was streamed live via The British Council’s Facebook page and via Supreme Factory on Youtube. We discuss early investments in VR, how AI could enable the curators of the future, and how to engage audiences through blended physical and digital experiences.

7 lessons from the story of CAA

CAA’s founding team in the mid 1970s

A few months ago, James Andrew Miller released his new book telling the tale of Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of Hollywood’s most renowned and powerful companies.

Coming in at 707 pages, it’s a pretty hefty read. There are definitely a few flaws and some sections feel like a slog, but the snappy talking heads style works well and plenty of juicy anecdotes can be found.

If you don’t want to work your way through the whole thing, here are seven key lessons from the company’s 40 year history.

1. Think Long

One of the best passages in the book describes how CAA founder Ron Meyer began working with Sylvester Stallone. It’s a great example of the benefits of forgoing the short term gain for the longer term opportunity.

At the time, Stallone was on the cusp of becoming one of the biggest movie stars in the world but didn’t have an agent, only management.

The management company were very wary of their client being wooed by a talent agency and strongly advised him to keep Meyer at bay as they felt he’d just be looking for cash, even when he hadn’t earned it.

Whilst not (yet) his agent, Meyer had been informally advising Stallone on script matters around ‘Rambo: First Blood’, and upon a deal being closed for Stallone to star in the film for $5m, the star decided to test his would-be representative.

Knowing that the then-fledgling CAA was in need of cash, Stallone called Meyer to offer him 10% of his fee as a commission. Without Meyer being aware, Stallone had one of his management team listen in on the call so they could both gauge the reaction.

Meyer declined, feeling he hadn’t done enough to earn the $500k, and that he wished Stallone the best of luck and hoped they’d work together down the road.

With his manager red-faced, Stallone knew he had his man and signed with Meyer and CAA, knowing the long game would always be front of mind.

2. Get in the centre of the action

There are many examples of this throughout the book, and a few cases that veer into nepotism territory, but either way the chances of success increase hugely if you’re in the middle of the industry you want to be in.

In the late 80s a young writer moved to LA to study at UCLA and write movie scripts. Via a friend who knew someone at CAA, the writer got a meeting with a CAA agent and one of these scripts (which had been left in a bin for the previous 6 weeks) piqued the agent’s interest.

Within a few days it had sold to Warner Brothers for $250,000 and became one of the biggest hits of the decade — Lethal Weapon. The writer, Shane Black, went on to write some of the biggest action and adventure movies of the last 20 years.

Without being in the middle of an industry, that kind of rapid breakthrough is far more difficult.

Marc Andreessen also talks about this in his Guide to Career Planning

Once you have picked an industry, get right to the center of it as fast as you possibly can.
Your target is the core of change and opportunity — figure out where the action is and head there, and do not delay your progress for extraneous opportunities, no matter how lucrative they might be.

3. Know the numbers; data can make deals

Kevin Huvane and his quartet of fellow ‘Young Turks’ rapidly rose to take over the running of the agency in 1995. However, whilst they were very capable agents, they realised running the business was a completely different proposition and that the numbers were key.

Huvane admitted to having never looked at a spreadsheet before. The realisation of how much the company was spending on fruit was the wakeup call that he needed to get a proper handle on the numbers if he was going to be able to lead the agency.

A deal where data modelling helped persuade the doubters and make its principals rich was for the Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito film ‘Twins’.

Sandy Climan (aka ‘The Briefcase’) and his team modelled out how the deal could take shape, persuaded the studio to run with it, and also convinced the stars to give up their usual advance fees in exchange for a big chunk of the back end. The result was the biggest pay day Arnie & Danny had ever had.

As a footnote, several sources quotes on the book allude that one of the reasons CAA founder Michael Ovitz’s AMG venture crashed after he departed the agency may have been because he didn’t have a strong enough handle on the numbers, particularly in the TV business.

4. Client service should go beyond the direct field of expertise

Throughout the book, Michael Ovitz gets a pretty rough ride from a range of people (seemingly justifiably on more than one occasion), but one of the things he excelled at was knowing when and how to go above and beyond the expected level of service.

Ovitz understood that client service goes past core expertise; an example of his all-seeing eye being very much in the interest of his clients was that he made a point of knowing all the best physicians, schools, architects and other service providers across LA.

Calculating it may have been, but connecting his clients with these people was all part of the service. By getting them what they needed when they needed it, the perception of him being at the very centre of their universe only increased. Very quickly he became the man who could make things happen.

5. Put together packages

CAA arguably built their entire business around packages. The concept certainly isn’t new, but they were the company to make it their calling card and turn it into a huge operation.

In the case of the Dustin Hoffman movie Tootsie, all the casting was done within the CAA office rather than at a casting agency office or studio. CAA agents outside the deal were able to easily get wind of a casting opportunity for their clients, while agents outside the building had a hard time getting anyone in. Michael Ovitz pushed for Sydney Pollack, another client, to direct despite the animosity between the two men, and then shoehorned Bill Murray into the cast at the last minute.

The agency were able to position themselves as a purveyor of through-the-line talent, able to put together directors, producers, lead roles and small supports all under one roof.

The package CAA put together for Jurassic Park in 1992 included a piece of the action on any by-products created off the back of the movie. The movie itself did very well, but Jurassic Park was a real winner because of the sheer breadth of the franchise spin-off package. CAA got paid every step of the way.

6. Know when you’re a principal and when you’re not

Michael Ovitz was the trailblazer who shocked Hollywood in the 80s and 90s by expanding into investment banking and advertising. Quoted from a recent article on arch rivals WME’s entry into other sectors, Ovitz says;

“I had a slogan I used: ‘No conflict, no interest.’ We were constantly getting the back of our hand slapped with a ruler and told, ‘Hey, you can’t be a principal. You can’t produce commercials.’ But we did. We got around it. I don’t believe that today’s environment is hostile to that. Creating jobs is all anyone cares about.”

Conversely, CAA’s long-time head of music Tom Ross recalls an incident when he was in rehab for weight loss and met a famous rock star. Ross knew his job wasn’t to be the principal, it was to be their representative and by default be at least one step back in the shadows.

Tom Ross: “I was there a month, and one day I ran into Steven Tyler, who was there for drug rehab and sexual addiction. They arranged for us to spend an afternoon together and Steven said to me ‘Man, I don’t know if I can do this. I just can’t imagine going to a gig and not getting laid or not getting a few blow jobs.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Try being an agent for a few years. You get used to it.’”

Agent Paula Wagner realised that the role of the agent was to be the representative of the principal, not the principal themselves. She left CAA to become a principal — in this case Tom Cruise’s movie production partner.

Trying to become the principal when not it’s the part you were originally supposed to play can be dangerous territory — although in recent times the boundaries have become far more fluid.

It’s going to be interested to see the progress of WME’s moves into new spaces.

7. The power of 3

A group known as the Young Turks made moves to take over the running of CAA in the mid 90s. There were 5 in the group, but 3 of them stood out as the leaders and are still at the top of the company to this day.

There’s a lot to be said for the power of a tribe, and also for the power of a trinity. In the Young Turks’ case the trio at the centre started a tribe that was able to change the culture of the business and quickly build a power base.

They did it through the combination of Byran Lourd’s charm, Richard Lovett’s ego and relentless nature, plus Kevin Huvane simply being a great agent. A trio with this blend of skills is not an uncommon sight at successful companies, particularly those in the creative industries.

And with the Young Turks having been together for over 20 years, CAA co-founder Bill Haber’s words also ring true;

“In any business on earth — I always say to people — nobody will leave you for the money, and nobody will leave you over titles. People will only leave if they have no loyalty to you.”