Neil Warnock is the head of music worldwide at United Talent Agency – one of the world’s leading booking agents across several decades. He was interviewed by Music Week editor Mark Sutherland.
Warnock “stumbled into the music business by finding out I was the world’s worst drummer”, putting some gigs together for a local band. “One thing led to another, and I was then booking my bands from two underground telephone boxes in Leicester Square station in the UK.”
Eventually, Warnock was running gigs for all the colleges in London, before moving on to Brian Epstein’s NEMS company, which bought an agency that represented Pink Floyd, T-Rex, Fairport Convention and other artists that he was already booking into colleges.
What is the biggest change he’s seen in the business since then? “This is now a real business. When I came into it back in the day, there weren’t any real percentage deals. Artists just worked for flat money,” he said. “Bands in those days, it was almost a bonus to get signed. They were making their living off touring.”
He added that in the 1960s and 1970s, a “world tour” would essentially mean Europe and the US and could be done in seven months, but today a band like Muse will be on the road for anything up to two and a half years: multiple tours of the US, tours of Latin America, Asia, eastern Europe. “The world has become a bigger place. We add on China. We add on a little bit of India,” he said. “The deals we put together today are vastly different from the 60s and 70s.”
Is live the biggest part of the music business now? Earlier in the day, Daniel Glass complained at the “disrespect” shown to labels by artists and managers who see live as their big earner in 2016, rather than recorded music.
“No disrespect to the labels but they cut themselves out. The labels back in the day were totally arrogant. They thought they could keep pushing product at people who were going to buy at any price whatever they wanted to. They thought they could dictate the lives of recording artists. And I think for a long time they forgot where the music comes from: the artists,” said Warnock.
“Warnock talked about the past dominance of labels, who would decide to put an album release back a month at short notice, forcing him to reschedule tours at the drop of a hat. If a label said that to him now?
“I would say ‘tough’. We are too deep in. Now touring has become far more complex. We are looking at five, six, seven, nine-truck tours going out… We’re moving these villages of people around, it’s far more complex in terms of hiring and bringing a team together.”
Could Warnock get a label to move an album release now, to suit a tour? “Yes. We have reasons for touring artists at a certain time of year,” he said.
Warnock talked about the A&R work that UTA is doing, with scouts out all the time trying to find new artists. “Three minutes of music can really turn an artist around. Even before they’re signed we need to be part of their team… We’re going to be all over it. We feel now agencies and agents are effectively the new A&R. We’re looking to see and hear what we want to see and hear.
He talked about the lessening gaps between tours for the biggest artists, for whom touring has become “easier and more efficient – and it’s a huge source of income”.
Does that cause problems for newer artists trying to break through to become arena or stadium headliners? “No, I don’t believe that one little bit. If you’ve got a veteran artist you’ve got a veteran audience going with them… I think that we’re still in the end of the ‘baby boomer’ market where music was everything to them. Anyone between 55 and 75 who can still walk and talk and go to a show is likely to want to see their idols from that time.”
He cited Coldplay and Ed Sheeran as examples of younger artists who have made the leap to stadia. “That proves that music is there to everybody, and I don’t believe anybody is taking away box-office from anybody else,” said Warnock.
He criticised labels. “They aren’t investing in young acts like they used to. So we are having to find other ways of underwriting artists on the road,” said Warnock, who talked about growing partnerships with promoters and brands on that front. He praised the ability for young artists to put their music out on the web – “you couldn’t do that back in the 60s and 70s, so the information highway… has changed the face of how we actually get new music across“.
Warnock was asked about the secondary ticketing market – “a difficult and fairly gruesome market” – and noted that touting has gone on ever since music-hall days. “It’s one of the oldest ways of making money: it’s called supply and demand. If a place is sold out, and I have a ticket and you want it and are prepared to pay me more… then I’ve made a deal,” he said.
Warnock called for a much more transparent secondary market: “Some of what’s going on is absolutely disgraceful,” he said, noting that several artists are pressing hard for solutions. “We’re always looking at ways we can make the ticket unique to the buyer so it cannot be transferred,” he said.
Warnock talked about his most difficult situations. “The bigger the job gets, the bigger the aggravation. I’ve had problems in Italy with the mafia, in Russia with their version of that, I’ve had problems with the KGB,” he said. “Sometimes the challenges that you overcome to make things happen are the most satisfying. We are in, in the end, a human-being business.”
The conversation turned back to the labels. “I’m a big, big fan of the independent market. To some degrees when we look at the really big companies, I’m not saying they’ve entirely lost their way,” said Warnock, citing recent campaigns for Adele and Sam Smith as examples of labels doing great work.
“But it’s a different world that is actually now far more driven by the artist than it used to be back in the day when it was driven by the labels more dictating to what the artist would do. Now the artist really is in the driving seat, and can almost pick and mix what they want out of the industry.”