The Agency Group’s Peter Schwartz and Joshua Dick talk with Pollstar about the ongoing success of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, reminding us that hard work, passion and dedication are necessary requirements for booking agents in the 21st century.
Voodoo Experience, City Park, New Orleans, La.
November 1, 2013
One of 2013’s more remarkable success stories belongs to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. One year ago the Seattle duo was playing such places as Minneapolis’ First Avenue, Detroit’s St. Andrews Hall, and Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, N.C. Now, after almost 12 months of steady touring, the act is headlining arenas.
The first half of the old saying about how “success has many fathers” certainly applies to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. While the rapper and producer have worked extremely hard to get to where they are today, their rocketing into the box office stratosphere is also due, in part, to the talented people behind the scenes. People like their manager, Zach Quillen of Wexington Entertainment, and The Agency Group’s VP and Head of Urban Music, Peter Schwartz, agent Joshua Dick, and international touring top gun James Rubin.
While talking about the ongoing story of Macklemore & Lewis, Schwartz and Dick made one point absolutely crystal clear – success in the music biz is hard work followed by more hard work that’s followed by even more, well, you get the picture. Luckily for them, they’re as passionate about the music and their artists as they are about their chosen profession.
The Agency Group’s Peter Schwartz, Joshua Dick and James Rubin.
Peter, you were once a drummer in a band and as a teenager your friendship with promoter Ron Delsener’s family led to an inside look into the concert industry. At what point did you decide to become an agent?
Peter: I started in the mail room at William Morris. That was my introduction to the agency world. I went over there really not knowing what agents did on all different levels. William Morris had multiple different departments besides music. I learned what was happening and gravitated to Cara Lewis’ desk because she booked all the rappers I liked. In my personal history I was so into hip hop. When I saw her repping acts I was listening to … it was obviously one of those connections, like, “If I could work with the people I listen to, it would be so cool.” … From there I really learned how to do the job.
It was a great place to learn. I learned the agent job from her. Then The Agency Group [asked] me to come join them. I was able to come over here and do it more my way.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis were doing clubs less than two years ago. What drove them to where they are today? Radio play, internet, word-of-mouth?
Peter: For those guys it’s a combination starting with phenomenal music and lyrics. It starts with the core, you’ve got to have great material. I don’t think really poor artists explode and have large careers. The music is the huge backbone. Then the people, the kind of guys they are [and] the work ethic. The way they’re able to put together concepts and have a vision on so many different levels, from important world topics to smaller fun ones. They really cover every angle in how they approach things. Touring is a huge piece of the puzzle. We’ve had them on the road nonstop. Zach Quillen, who’s their manager, was with us at The Agency Group. So you have a manager who’s very wise and understands the touring world very well. I think he’s done a great job in helping to really orchestrate a lot of what you see.
How do you find the Macklemore & Ryan Lewises of the world?
Peter: We go home and pray every night [laughs]. They arrived in a basket one morning.
Josh: Zach, the manager, was the very first agent on this act. I think that the way he found them is probably the best example of how we stumble upon things. He represented a group in Seattle called Blue Scholars and he became immersed in that scene. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis had opened for Blue Scholars and he saw this connection that … was absolutely undeniable. [Macklemore] had been in the Seattle scene for quite some time, about 10 years. Zach saw [the connection] and decided that’s something he wanted to work with. That’s when he put the plan together that led them from tour to tour to tour to this current tour.
There are certain places that we know to go to find music. … Today’s radio is obviously the internet and there are a lot of blogs that you’re able to go on [where] you’re able to sort and sift through a lot of stuff and find something that connects. … There are obviously no guarantees in life; I wish our batting average was 1,000 but it’s not. You hear something and feel, “OK. I think we can put this into a system that will yield success in a 12 month, 18 month plan.”
Peter does Wiz Khalifa [who] headlined right out of the gate. Macklemore – same thing. Other than a few support spots, he was able to headline out of the gate. Others we have, we do a longer process. Probably a good example of another act Peter and I work on together is the A$AP Movement – A$AP Rocky and A$AP Heart. Rocky was the out-of-the-gate star … he headlined but we also did a couple of big [tours] like supporting Drake.
[A$AP] Ferg is more of the grinder. We had a Juicy J tour that Ferg was on, he was also support on some Rocky tours. Now Ferg is out on his own selling out 1,000-capacity rooms across the country. So no two plans are ever the same. No two artists are ever the same. That’s what, I think, Peter and I excel at – identifying what methods need to be involved with each act and how to develop it so the next year is better than the previous year.
Peter: About the headlining thing. Even with Rocky, he did support Drake, but I think when you have someone like Drake offering you a slot at an early point in your career, you’re compelled to go along for all the positive reasons – aligning yourself, doing the right thing, not creating any sort of friction, you kind of go with it. Even though he did that tour, we still, prior to that, had put Rocky out doing headlining gigs. Because we feel that it’s important when the act comes out to establish what their value is. That’s not just what the opinion is but how many tickets they can sell. That’s how we craft the plan. If they can sell tickets, the plan goes one way. If it’s harder selling tickets, we adjust the plan.
I love Josh’s point about the radio. Internet is today’s radio. You have more stations than you ever had. We find great talent that we represent that’s purely internet-driven and might not be on the radio yet, but those tours can do as well if not better than someone with a very hot single.
When you have up-and-coming artists playing small gigs early in their careers and you factor in travel expenses – the cost of transportation, accommodations and such – at what point does an act like a Macklemore & Ryan Lewis actually begin to see a profit?
I think no two touring acts are the same. … I’m not going to say the profit was [then] what the profit is now. Even on a 250-capacity club tour, they [Macklemore & Ryan Lewis] were able to sit down and say, “What is the cheapest way we can tour?” They don’t have a huge entourage. They have, probably, one of the best merch games in the industry. You should see the lines at these shows. They snake around the entire venue. Peter and I, when we were in Portland, walked around the entire Rose Garden freaking out at how long it was. Each tour they go on they have their own unique merch. So they’re an example of someone who, I bet, they did make money on that first go-around.
There are others where … there’s a big entourage. A$AP, there are a lot of people on the road with that crew.
It depends on the group. Some of them are very smart about it and they cut it down. They jump into a van, initially. There are others who want to be on the bus, have it cush, might need support. Again, the entourages can run big. Again, it’s up to the individual artist and it does very case by case. I think on the club level these groups should be able to make a profit. Like Josh said, once you factor in merchandise and other sources of income you can make while you’re on the road, it shouldn’t be that long to turn a profit if it’s really done right.
When scouting new talent, are you already sizing up the potential lifespan of the act?
Peter: I think so. I think touring is building success and if it’s done right it’s something that can be built and grown over a long period of time. So of course we look for groups that have that desire. What is key is the groups that want to put in the work. It’s hard. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis did. I think they’re up to about 250 shows this year. That’s a lot of shows to do in one year. Flying around the globe, it might be Europe one day, U.S. the next and then back to Europe. The amount of flights and the effort, it’s really incredible how much work it takes. I think you need that commitment. Same thing with Wiz. We’ve done 500 shows together and I don’t think he’d be where he is if he wasn’t willing to get into the vehicles and put in the time. So I give the artists a lot of credit for that kind of commitment.
Sometimes you do see an artist and say, “OK. This is going to be big now.” And you’re not sure but you still want to get involved there at the moment. I think the internet makes the revolving door a little bit faster than it used to be. Because people’s attention with the internet, they can click from one thing to the next. I think it’s important that the artist, and on our side, we try to hold those fans and keep them and not let them go somewhere else.
UIC Pavilion, Chicago, Ill.
November 4, 2013
So it’s much harder to keep fans’ attention than 25 years ago?
10 years ago. … That’s why you find groups, especially in hip hop, putting out more and more material. [While you] wait three years [to release] another record, you can put out singles, put out videos, you have things in the marketplace to keep the fans’ attention.
Do you think long-time established artists had to work as hard to build their careers, say in the 1960s, when the number potential media appearances – late-night talk shows and such, was limited?
Peter: I think it comes down to that there is a lot more to be done now. The connection through the Web is a huge thing. Just the amount of incoming inquiries we receive for interviews, meets and all kinds of things like that which aren’t even part of our daily routine, that might go to the label or manager to deal with … there’s so much the artist could do, I think, now more than ever. Before you didn’t have that global exposure that way. You had to go to town. Being on the road was the one time you were there. So if you wanted to promote in Philadelphia you had to be in Philadelphia.
Do you have an approximation of how much time is spent developing and maintaining an artist’s career compared to scouting new talent?
Josh: I can’t speak for Peter but I imagine it’s a very similar process. Every day, like most people wake up and read the newspaper, at some point during the day I have a few different blogs I like to go to and see what’s out there. Put people on a sort of a watch list and then once a month or on a weekend [while] my daughter is napping and my wife is not yelling at me about something, I put the headphones on and listen to some stuff. What I find happens is eventually something just manages to hit me.
I signed this new act, Vic Mensa. I’d been familiar with him but I saw a video, fell in love and said, “ Have to work with him.” Same thing with another act I signed this year, 100s. Saw a video, absolutely loved it, listened to more music and felt, “OK, I need to reach out to the manager.”
That doesn’t ever feel like work. … The reason Peter and I got into this business is because we like doing that. We like finding, seeking out new music. That never feels like work, it just sort of happens organically in the midst of our day.
Considering that younger demos – high school kids, young adults and college students – often drive pop music trends, how do keep thinking young and stay in touch when it comes finding artists for those audiences?
Josh: Peter has young adults now in his own household. I’m 35 still thinking I’m a 16-year-old rapper. I feel like I’m one of these kids that I’m working with.
Peter: I just celebrated 20 years at this company so I’m hardly a young guy any more or as young as some of these artists. But the thing is I’ve been in hip hop for that long, I’m a veteran of the genre and I still, personally, love it. The music that’s been coming out during the last few years, I really like it a lot. It kind of reinvigorated me. It fired me up. After doing something for a long time, I wasn’t loving a lot of the groups. Although I liked what I was booking, I wasn’t being excited by the genre. It did start to get a little bit wearing on me. Then I’d say in the last 3-4 years I really loved a lot of the music. The groups we book, I listen to all the time. I love it. I think that really gets me excited to work at it and stay connected to it.
Josh is one of the biggest hip hop aficionados I’ve ever met. He’s lived it and loves it. I think with that, we have a huge advantage. When we sit down with a client, we’re not talking about something we don’t know about. We’ve listened to it, we give our suggestions, sometimes, on a better setlist order, or “this song might be better.” We get deeply involved with it and I think the groups like that and can feel that.
Josh: Peter does bring up an amazing point. The last 4-5 years of hip hop have been a real throwback to its golden era. I’ve been very excited about it. I think that’s important because at the end of the day an agent is only as good as the music that’s being put out. What Peter says is true. We are huge fans of every one of our artists. If I wasn’t working with them I’d still be listening to them. … There’s a community now that is in a pipeline, it’s a lot of fun to watch and it’s a lot of fun to have acts go through.
Excluding families, is there anything else in your lives that you are as passionate about as you are about your artists and hip hop?
Josh: Peter and I see each other more than we see our families. This is as passionate as you can get. I would say for three hours every Sunday in September through January, if there is a Giants game for me or a Jets game for Peter, that’s probably the one three-hour window that something has super-ceded our passion for our jobs.
Peter: I’ve got a burning passion for the New York Jets but I’m not making money from it and it’s not driving my career. I have to remind myself of that sometimes. Like, “Peter, you don’t work for the Jets, you’re just a fan.” We are very passionate about our football teams but I think the work and this music is what it’s all about.
Last night at Macklemore’s show ... I ran into someone from Syracuse University where I went to school. I hadn’t seen them since right after I graduated college, a year or two later. I was into hip hop back in college and they knew me and they knew that very well. I had not seen them this whole time and they stopped me last night and I was like, “I haven’t seen you. Where do you live? …. What are you doing here?” And they said, “This is the New York show to see. I brought my kids, they’re huge fans.” And I’m like, “Oh, my God. I’m Macklemore’s agent.”
And the guy said, “You know what? I’m not surprised about that.”
It’s such a funny line because he’s saying, “I remember how into it you were and if this is what you’re doing, it just makes so much sense.” And it really caught me this morning. I just thought that that was such a funny story and that someone would say that. And it went back to something that was a part of me for so long.
You were talking about plans. At this point, how far into the future are you planning for Macklemore & Ryan Lewis?
Josh: I think with that group [we’re] probably more than a year thinking that far out. They’re going to have to record a record and we have to work backwards from when do you think the record is going to be out. … Peter and I sit down. Obviously if it’s a warmer time of year you’re thinking sheds. If it’s not you’re thinking arenas. In that particular case you’re thinking two years ahead.
Peter: That’s in terms of general game-planning. In terms of booking dates I’d say we’re generally not really farther than a year ahead in terms of what’s confirmed. We have some confirmed dates for next summer. Some of these summer festivals have been booking earlier and earlier. It seems like every year they’ve shifted it one month earlier that they’re booking. People doing festivals next August … are already booking them now and have been since October. So they’re 8-9 months ahead.
“I think touring is building success and if it’s done right it’s something that can be built and grown over a long period of time.”
What can you tell the future Peters and Joshs, the college students who are just now thinking of careers or young adults who are totally infatuated with rap and hip hop and want to work in the business?
Peter: Make sure you’re passionate and be prepared to work hard. That’s something you’ve really got to be prepared to do. It’s not an easy thing. It’s definitely very time consuming. I hope the people really love it because it’s hard to do if you don’t.
Josh: I did something at Billboard … a hip hop roundtable. …there were college kids there and I was giving them my background story, telling them rights and wrongs. I think it’s important whether it’s hip hop or not … to identify a person you want to work with and a company you feel you’ll be able to go up the ladder in, and make that your goal.
You remember [retired Agency Group agent] Nick Caris? Nick, 13 years ago was my first desk. I shifted from him to Steve Martin and learned a ton from him. I wouldn’t change anything for the world but as far as my job, it did cause a delay in terms of me being able to do what I’m passionate about, which is hip hop. So I didn’t realize that being on the wrong desk might stunt your growth. If somebody is looking at The Agency Group and they want to be the next Peter or the next Josh … “How do I get an internship there? How do I get involved with that?” I think Peter right now has two great assistants that he’s trying to groom to be the next Peter Schwartz. That’s what he’s all about here is growth. So if you’re talking to young kids, that’s the system you want to get into. And what Peter said applies as well. If you’re passionate about music, a hard worker, somebody who’s a good learner…”
Peter: You also have to have good ears. You have to be a good salesperson. You really have to commit the time and effort. Sometimes we don’t, but you’ve got to go to that show at 12 midnight downtown. You’ve already been out three nights, you’re pooped [but] if there’s a group that you really should see, you have to make the commitment. We push ourselves a lot to do things that we might prefer not to. You need to be everywhere and you need to be committed to the job. It’s also a good job for people people. You’re interacting. … You’re working with promoters on one hand, you’re working with artists, managers, all different personalities. You have to find a good voice for yourself.
Early in your careers, what was the best piece of advice anyone ever gave either of you.
Josh: I can tell you … when I’m booking a show, I’m not thinking of the show I’m booking. I’m thinking of the show after the show I’m booking. And I think that applies to every single thing that we do because all we do all day is book. It’s all about the bigger picture.
Peter: I was told, “Don’t focus as much on the money. Focus on the quality. Quality will lead to quantity.”
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ manager Zach Quillen (left) with Macklemore and Peter Schwartz.
Upcoming dates for Macklemore & Ryan Lewis:
Nov. 22 – Duluth, Ga., The Arena At Gwinnett Center
Nov. 23 – Tampa, Fla., USF Sun Dome
Nov. 24 – Miami, Fla., AmericanAirlines Arena
Nov. 27 – Houston, Texas, Reliant Arena @ Reliant Park
Nov. 29 – Cedar Park, Texas, Cedar Park Center
Nov. 30 – Grand Prairie, Texas, Verizon Theatre At Grand Prairie
Dec. 3 – San Jose, Calif., SAP Center At San Jose (Now 99.7 Triple Ho Show)
Dec. 4 – Los Angeles, Calif., Staples Center
Dec. 5 – San Diego, Calif., Valley View Casino Center
Dec. 6 – Los Angeles, Calif., Staples Center (KIIS FM Jingle Ball)
Dec. 6 – Los Angeles, Calif., Nokia Theatre L.A. LIVE (The Grammy Nominations Concert Live)
Dec. 7 – San Francisco, Calif., Bill Graham Civic Auditorium
Dec. 10 – Seattle, Wash., KeyArena At Seattle Center
Dec. 11 – Seattle, Wash., KeyArena At Seattle Center
Dec. 12 – Seattle, Wash., KeyArena At Seattle Center
Dec. 13 – New York, N.Y., Madison Square Garden Arena (Z100 Jingle Ball)
Feb. 28 – Brisbane, Australia, R.N.A. Showgrounds (Goodlife Youth Music Festival)
March 1 – Brisbane, Australia, R.N.A. Showgrounds (Future Music Festival Safari)
March 2 – Joondalup, Australia, Arena Joondalup (Future Music Festival Safari)
March 3 – Joondalup, Australia, Arena Joondalup (Goodlife Youth Music Festival)
March 7 – Melbourne, Australia, Flemington Racecourse (Goodlife Youth Music Festival)
March 8 – Randwick, Australia, Randwick Racecourse (Future Music Festival Safari)
March 9 – Melbourne, Australia, Flemington Racecourse (Future Music Festival Safari)
March 9 – Randwick, Australia, Randwick Racecourse (Goodlife Youth Music Festival)
March 10 – Adelaide, Australia, RA&HS Showgrounds (Future Music Festival Safari)
March 12 – Wellington, New Zealand, TSB Bank Arena
March 13 – Auckland, New Zealand, Vector Arena
Please visit Macklemore.com and TheAgencyGroup.com for more information.