WME’s music business, like that of its fellow agencies, withstood tremendous blows for much of 2020 and into 2021 as the coronavirus pandemic brought touring to a halt. To get a sense of scale, consider that in a typical year WME, whose roster includes Adele, Bruno Mars, Rihanna, Dead and Company and Foo Fighters, books some 30,000 concerts, all of which had to move dates, many to new venues.
Changes weren’t limited to the road: Inside the offices of WME, the music department had a shakeup of its own that saw longtime co-heads Marc Geiger, a 17-year veteran of the agency, and Sara Newkirk Simon step down last June (the latter transitioned to a consultant role at Endeavor), in addition to Brent Smith, who left WME in October 2020, and Joel Zimmerman, who exited due to workforce reductions tied to the pandemic in May 2020.
The new leadership trio has Los Angeles-based Kirk Sommer (pictured at right), who’s been with the company since 2000, when it was WMA; Nashville mainstay Scott Clayton, who joined from CAA in 2017; and London’s Lucy Dickins, who came over in May 2019 from the U.K.’s ITB.
In their first interview together, the three music co-heads and WME partners reflect on this challenging chapter in their careers and draw a hopeful picture of the path forward.
In having to move a tour around several times, how’s the competition for venues? Is it the “Hunger Games” yet?
Kirk Sommer: Quite literally. The truth is, we’ve been well ahead of it. We’ve been talking about this for a long time. … Shows we booked for a third time in 2020, we were holding dates in 2021, 2022 and were clearing dates for 2023. We weren’t going to wait to be late. But it varies territory by territory, where you have to ask, “What’s going on with the vaccine? How close is it to herd immunity?” Every continent, country, county, state and city is different. We’ve gone into it eyes wide open and we know every date could be subject to changes and we’ll adjust accordingly.
Lucy Dickins: It’s been a struggle, but the flow of information between all of us is so strong that we think we’re in a better position than most.
Has the agency become more nimble?
Scott Clayton: We’ve all had to work on contingency plans for everything. Now when we’re booking tours, we’re assuming we better have a backup because it could easily be moved. And that’s the mentality right now. So you’re doing three, four times the amount of work on different possibilities, and that’s been hard for as we were all trying to push through 2020.
KS: We’re moving at a rapid clip and we’re definitely more agile. We’ve been extremely communicative across all offices. We have several meetings every week where all offices participate, just sharing information, what they’re hearing, what markets are opening up, where we think we’re going to land.
Livestreaming during the pandemic has brought music acts to markets that tours don’t always reach. How do you see virtual concerts in the future?
KS: We feel livestreaming is here to stay, but perhaps in some hybrid capacity where there’s a number of tickets available for a virtual show. But then, where are the cameras — onstage? What does that look like? So I think the creative is going to drive it.
SC: It’s not going to replace touring, no question about that. We recently put together a Zac Brown Band livestream where we used it to announce the tour. So it’s a tool for things like that — an album release and promo around that. But there are a lot of new players in the space and we had to learn how to navigate the pros and cons of each individual company in that area. … During the shutdown, we were looking for opportunities for all of our clients and the livestream space was one that we really leaned in to.
LD: For example, Dua Lipa had one of the biggest livestreams [with Studio 2054]. What they turned around was pretty incredible. It just got bigger and bigger and bigger. And with our team, they found the best people to use.
WME has signed several key acts in the past year, including buzzy newcomers 24kGoldn and Olivia Rodrigo, both of whom have recently had No. 1 songs.
LD: We’ve actually signed over 200 new artists, and I think I’ve signed about 30. I feel so proud of everyone during this time when they were using initiative to just find things out there. In our A&R meetings — we hold a music discovery meeting weekly — there was there was so much stuff coming through. With people at home, it was a time to discover and listen to music and pick up the phone to people who had time to tell you about what they were listening to.
KS: I don’t know that there’s been a year when we’ve had as many artists who are making such quick ascensions.
LD: And we’ve had some really great additions to the team who brought over some pretty incredible clients, too.
Caroline Yim and Zach Iser joined WME in January to co-head hip hop, installing a woman of color in that position. How has the agency addressed corporate makeup and diversity?
LD: We have a team dedicated to diversity and inclusion, and groups that break out into subgroups. We all need to educate and better ourselves to make positive change. We have Whitney Boateng, who’s a young promoter in the U.K., she’s coming to join our office. And we’re already a company with a lot of women in leadership, myself included. … The issue is really being pushed to the front, which I think is a great thing, because everyone I speak to — American record companies over here and other agencies — seems to be on the same wavelength. We need to really force that change.
SC: We brought in a lot of new colleagues during the pandemic. You mentioned Caroline and Zach on the hip-hop/R&B side. It’s a huge area for us and we wanted to maintain our market leading share in that world so we continue to reinforce the team there, which includes Dana Jeter. Other hires include Ikenna Izeh and Andres Paz Micheo, handling commercials with a focus on music; Aaron Tannenbaum, country music agent out of Nashville; Leyla Kumble, music for visual media agent; and Andy Duggan out of London. We also Phil Sandhaus who came in before the pandemic as head of WME Legends, the estate management business that we’re working on. It’s another area where we think there’s a huge opportunity. The company is really built for that type of a business.
How much of a priority will music be at Legends?
KS: Phil has an extensive music background and has worn every hat in the business. He’s worked with everyone from Bowie to the Stones — legends, literally. We have the Peter Tosh estate, Notorious B.I.G. … We identified it as a growth area. It’s not like we weren’t in that space, but there’s so much we can do with it, so we’re going to lean into it. And if it’s not working, we pivot again.
With each of you in different cities, how do you navigate time zones and divide duties?
SC: The way we’re structured is that it’s a global vision on everything that we’re doing. Lucy’s not just overseeing the U.K. business or international, she’s running North America with us as well. I think it’s different in other agencies because some tend to be more North America-centric; or if they have offices overseas, those focus on the business over there. We’re really looking to work on behalf of our clients globally. It’s a better strategy. I can’t think of any artist who’s saying, “We want to be as local as possible,” right? That really is essentially our vision for the future: putting a global perspective on everything we do.
I feel for Lucy who probably can’t have dinner uninterrupted, like, ever.
LD: I mean, that is my life’s journey. Now I’m used to it. I go to bed with [Kirk] and I wake up with him is all I’m saying.
KS: Lucy gets the late shift; I get the early shift. But the reality is, the company’s working for you around the clock. There’s always someone working on something. And our communication is incredible. We really do everything together; we have company-wide meetings with all offices reporting. … And we’ve learned a lot. One of the silver linings of the pandemic has been tech, [so] our meetings are structured and efficient; we’re getting more input; people are speaking freely; they’re preparing. Don’t get me wrong, communication was good, but now it’s at an all-time high, and so is the camaraderie.
How do you see the return to in-person concerts?
There are questions that are going to come up: Have you had the vaccine? Do you have the antibody? Have you had a negative COVID test? Must you be vaccinated? Is there a digital passport? Is there something that’s centralized or nationalized? We don’t know. All this remains to be seen. If you’re traveling from Russia and you have the Sputnik vaccine and you come to the U.S., are you vaccinated? Does it have to be a U.S. approved? So we’re on top of it. Thankfully, we have a lot of resources at the company since we are all in regular dialog across all offices so we can see what’s happening on the ground in different territories.
Is there a plan to go back to the office?
SC: We have a plan to start slowly going back to the office in the next couple of weeks. It’ll be agents first and not mandatory. To have the support staff in there all at once, there’s still a lot of hurdles, but probably by Labor Day or so. I’m looking forward to when we can all be back in the office. I mean, we’re all about collaboration; we’re all about getting new ideas flowing, and when you’re in the office, you can have sort of those accidental collisions with colleagues and ideas. We’re probably missing that right now.