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CAA Music Head Rob Light on the Industry’s Year of Idling Dangerously: ‘Everyone’s Figured Out How Important the Live Side Is’

Chris Willman
·8-min read

CAA partner and music division head Rob Light spoke with Variety as part of the cover story on the 25th anniversary of the changeover at the top of the agency. Light was there when those seismic shifts of the mid-‘90s happened; his tenure with CAA goes back 36 years. But his mind is very much in the fraught present right now, with a concert business that’s in crisis, to risk understatement. We spoke with him about the different turns the agent/musician relationship has taken this year and what it might look like to get back to normal after, as he puts it, “The hose gets turned back on.”

You’ve said live touring has become the single most important part of marketing an artist. Record labels might disagree, but a lot of people wouldn’t.

LIGHT: If there’s a positive of this about touring, every record company, which used to think touring was just a small part of their marketing program, has come to the unbelievable realization that touring is the most critical part of marketing. Every label I’ve talked to misses touring so badly — the live connection, and the ability to leverage radio off the top of it, plus the ability to leverage social media. You can get a hit single; you can create a TikTok video or get online in a second. But that ability to create longevity and a real connection to the fan is missing. And every one of them is bemoaning that it’s gone. So, I mean, I don’t want to say that I’m thrilled about it, but it’s a nice thing to know that they’ve figured out how important the live side of this is.

Now that we’re in a year where touring is shut down, we know you’re not twiddling your thumbs. How much of what you do is getting ready for the return of the live business, and how much is rerouting that energy toward other deals you can be setting up for clients?

Besides obviously giving counsel and rerouting tours and rebooking tours and trying to get ahead of the curve of what’s going to be a fire hose of talent when this turns back on, we’re doing a little bit of everything. Livestreams and pay-per-view streams have obviously taken on a life of their own. And the numbers of book deals being done, everything from autobiographies to poetry to cooking books to self-help books…So many of our clients are working on children’s books that you’ll see coming out over the next few months. Believe it or not, online private events, where artists are doing streaming events for corporate America and private events, has really taken on a foothold. All these corporate events have gone online, because they can’t go to a convention, and they’re still doing the entertainment portion of it. A lot of our clients are doing that. The sponsorship endorsement business actually has never been hotter, because all these brands are looking for ways to connect online, and artists become a critical part of that. So there’s a lot more activity in that space. Podcasts have taken off in a big way.

I will say nothing will replace the arena tour and the stadium tour. That is the cornerstone of what we do. But in the interim, keeping clients engaged and giving them things to think about and work on has been great for them, because they feel like someone’s thinking about them. It’s great just for the industry to know that people still stay visible. So we’re excited about a lot of the things that are going on.

There are a million artists from your client list we could ask about, but one who’s prominent now is Dua Lipa. We’ve heard the story of how you wanted to sign her literally the moment she sat down in your office, before the meeting was even underway.

That’s true.

Her record has been a favorite this year — one that’s helped a lot of us get through 2020.

I agree with that, too. [Laughs.] It’s a great record.

She has a global pay-per-view coming up Nov. 27. Using her as an example of somebody who had a hit record this year and was presumably going to be on tour, and then probably is having a moment of panic, like a lot of your artists, thinking, “How do I spend my year?” — how did you work with her on her 2020?

Since you brought her up, she is the perfect example. She saw what was happening and she asked her team around her, “What should I be doing?” And she became incredibly active on social media, more than she was. She started doing a lot more TV. She guest-hosted “Jimmy Kimmel.” Think about that, right? I mean, how many artists of her stature, and where she is in her life as young as she is, could [host] a late-night talk show? She very quickly adapted to the world that was given and made the best of it, and always with a smile on her face and an energy. And that record doesn’t burn. It’s an interesting album. It’s so upbeat and fun that it stays with you. I hope it gets a bunch of Grammy nods. [Editor’s note: It did — six, including all three of the top categories, record, song and album of the year.] And I think you’ll be blown away by this pay-per-view, because unlike some of the other ones that have just been pure performance, she’s going to really try to stretch the envelope and reinvent the art form a little bit.

Everyone’s wondering where the goalposts are for the concert business coming back. When you talk with artists, are you trying to be realistic with them? And do the goalposts change for you, or are you trying to set them out as far as possible so that no one gets disappointed when this thing lasts longer than we think it will?

I think we’re going to have a horrible [period] going into Christmas, with spikes everywhere and lockdowns. I think we all know that’s coming. But a vaccine right around the corner, and I think the treatment protocols are right around the corner. And I’m going to be optimistic that sometime late summer — mid-to-late summer — we’re going to start to see events come back. And I feel great about next fall. Because I’d rather be optimistic. We can always move again, but I want to be optimistic. Because people want to go, and the artists want to play. I’m going to look at the bright side of this if I can…or the bright opportunity in the future of what’s happening today

Recently the industry blogger Bob Lefsetz wrote something questioning whether agents are really even important anymore, for artists who can make a one-stop deal with a Live Nation or AEG. You wrote an eloquent response about the role of agents in things like knowledge of local markets that can’t be replaced. Does it feel like that has to be re-explained as time goes on and people look for ways to streamline and reevaluate anything that seems to them like a middleman?

The live business accounts for so much of an artist’s earnings, and as we all found out now, is really the linchpin for a connection with their fans. And that’s all we’re finding out…If you remember the end of my piece, it’s all about that relationship. It’s easy to say, “Oh, I’m a lawyer. I’m going to just go put this deal together.” It’s not just a deal. It’s all the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth steps. It’s the follow-up. It’s the on-sales. It’s the marketing. It’s the right ticket price. It’s knowing who else is in the market. And I think our role actually became more important when national touring came in, because when it was localized, that local person had so much at stake, they actually fought for it. When it became national and worldwide…I don’t want to say it was cookie cutter, but it sort of became one-brush: “Okay, we’ve got the tour. Let’s go.”

Emma Banks, the head of our U.K. office, will tell you what works in London isn’t what works in Germany, which isn’t what works in Asia or South America. And what works in the U.S. South isn’t what works in San Francisco. There are different needs and thought processes. I think labels and managers have started to understand: “Oh, they really actually add something to this, more than we ever knew.” It doesn’t diminish what a great manager does, or a fantastic record company. But our role is as important if not more so than it’s ever been.

And I think when the hose turns back on, it’s going to take on a whole new value. Because there’s so much traffic, and ticket pricing and packaging are going to become so important. I’ve said this to a few clients: No one’s going to make all their money back in the first six months. That’s just not going to happen. But people who are strategic and look at the turn-on, with I think one-, two-, three- and four-year plans to take advantage and reignite, are really going to be important. Smart agents with some vision are going to be game-changers. And I’m blessed to work with a bunch of those.

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