- Scott Legato/Getty Images
- Brian Ahern is co-head of the London music division of William Morris Entertainment (WME), one of the biggest talent agencies in the world.
- He told Business Insider that the concept of a “rock star” is evolving.
- He believes hip hip is so widely accepted now that it’s “probably the new rock and roll,” and the likes of Travis Scott and Kendrick Lamar are the new rock stars.
- Along with traditional musicians like Drake and Rihanna, the agency works with digital stars and influencers like Casey Neistat and Lily Singh.
- Ahern believes these modern artists are rock stars in their own right, too.
Brian Ahern knows the music industry inside and out.
He started in the mailroom of William Morris Entertainment (WME), an Endeavour network talent agency which is one of the biggest in the world and looks after actors, musicians, athletes, and authors like Rihanna, Drake, Ryan Reynolds, Adele, Oprah Winfrey, Lewis Hamilton, LeBron James, and Serena Williams.
Now, he heads up the company’s entire music division in London.
Ahern told Business Insider he originally studied finance and was “not really a music guy” until he met with a Hollywood producer in Los Angeles who suggested he try working for a talent agency.
He applied to a number of agencies and was hired by WME in LA, where he worked in the mailroom for nine months before going on to work as a line agent for indie bands. He became an assistant to Lollapalooza cofounder Marc Geiger (head of music at WME), which he said taught him a lot about the “backbone of the music industry.”
“He [was] representing bands like The Pixies and Nine Inch Nails,” he said. “I got a lot of perspective of the business – not just booking bands. I worked with him for almost two years and then he sent me on the road.”
Ahern worked as a tour manager “jumping off trucks and tour buses” across the US, which he said is something “a lot of agents don’t have experience doing.”
From 2005, he became an agent doing what he called the “normal day job” of booking shows for artists and bands, including rappers and DJs.
He even went on to run the EDM department with a colleague, overseeing the DJ business, which involved Las Vegas and was a “cool experience.”
In 2016, Geiger asked him to move to London to run the music department alongside co-head David Levy – a role Ahern has been doing for two and a half years.
His role mainly involves coordinating with the company’s offices and teams around the world and working out how to grow the business. However, he still books shows and festivals for his own clients, which he explained is the main job of a talent agent.
The role of the talent agent
- Brain Ahern
Ahern calls the artist the “CEO of their enterprise,” but added that they “outsource a lot of their responsibilities on a day-to-day [basis] because they’re supposed to be creative individuals.”
“I think ultimately the artist is the decision-maker in every equation, [but] they may trust people to make a lot of decisions for them,” he added.
These people include lawyers, publicists, an “army of people at record labels” including marketing, in-house publicists, and A&R people, then business managers “doing the finance and number crunching and making sure they can afford to live,” financial planners for people who “have a lot of money and want to invest it,” plus the manager, who Ahern called “the epicenter of overseeing a lot on their behalf,” from “making sure the kids get picked up from school” to “dealing with the finances and talking to the lawyer about what they need to be doing.”
Then there’s the talent agent, who traditionally books shows and events on behalf of an artist.
“Some artists only require us to book shows and that’s a one-dimensional job at times,” Ahern said.
The booking process involves looking at the festivals and shows happening over the next few years and figuring out when and where an artist wants to play.
“Somebody we represent globally, we look at when’s the best time to be in Australia, when’s the best time to be in Asia, similarly Europe, the UK, US, South America, Mexico,” Ahern said.
“Lollapalooza is in South America around March, we want to be there, we want to be at Coachella in April, Glastonbury in June, Reading and Leeds in August – we look at those things.”
- Brain Ahern
He added that there are some venues that are considered to be prestigious because they’ve been associated with historic artists.
“If you’re a big Zeppelin fan and you know they did something at [London’s Royal] Albert Hall, you might say ‘I really want to do something at Albert Hall someday,'” he said. “Some of it’s alignment with personal goals of the artist – they might be interested in stadiums, they might be interested in small clubs that service their fanbase.”
He added that performing at the likes of Coachella, New York’s Governors Ball, Glastonbury, or Reading “lends credibility” to an artist.
“In the past it used to be a lot more album cycle driven – the record drops here so we’d have to figure out where to tour on the back of that. Now it’s a little bit more [about] where are the looks we want to get, where do we gain notoriety, where do we gain market share [or] the most eyeballs?”
He added that venues have availability issues and there are “bumps along the way.”
“Someone gets sick and we have to make adjustments, all the way through to fulfillment when the tour happens,” he said.
Artist first, musician second
However, he said that at WME, the role of the booking agent has involved into more of a “consultant.”
“We still do our primary function and responsibility, [but] the agency has other wings and departments to service clients needs, so if they want to write a book or star in a movie or go into business or whatever it is, we’re here to employ ourselves in that way as well. As a full service agency we want to help the artist build their career across the world.”
“We’re here to fulfill their desires but also be the expert in the room, the doctor you go to for advice. You don’t go in and tell your doctor ‘This is how you’re going to operate on my leg,’ the doctor says what’s best for you to get better.”
WME has helped artists get into movies (either through acting or getting a spot on the soundtrack) or land brand partnerships, like becoming the face of Coach or Rolls Royce.
“My colleagues are able to jump into those arrangements and say, ‘Here’s the right brand to be associated with, here’s what we can get from that.”
“Obviously sometimes [these deals] arise because of their own notoriety, but often times we bring those opportunities to them directly and solicit for them on their behalf.”
There are a few other unexpected tasks that come up along the way, too.
“Tyler the Creator built a festival in LA we were heavily involved with,” Ahern said. “He’s a genius and creative mastermind… but we have a team that were able to help him.
“You may look at an [artist] as an actor first, as a musician first, but we look at them as an artist. Putting them into multiple places is important.”
Part of Hen’s job has also involved learning to adapt to the constantly changing concept of what a celebrity or artist actually is.
Along with its Motion Picture, Television, Endorsement, Music, Theater, Book, Sports, and Speakers divisions, WME also now has a “Digital” business, looking after the likes of YouTube stars and influencers like Joe Sugg (8.5 million YouTube subscribers), gamer JackSepticEye (20 million YouTube subscribers), Casey Neistat (11 million subscribers), and Lily Singh (14.5 million YouTube subscribers.
“Kids are looking into small screens rather than big screens, or both, and that has created new stars and celebrities, which is why we have a digital department at WME that’s global,” Ahern said. “I think your Jake Paul or Lily Singh or Casper Lee or Joe Sugg or whoever it is, those people are rock stars in their own right now too.
“They may not play music every day – though Joe does music as part of his discipline – but I think some of those other people, they have their own credibility, their own sway in the marketplace as a result of being present in kids’ lives every day.”
Ahern added that the distribution of content “leads to more opportunities for these artists, more tours, more everything.”
“We took a company mandate a few years ago to sign as many of them as humanly possible right off the bat to make sure we were positioning ourselves to be competitive in the long run with the next crop of talent. Digital talent is just talent in general… they’re just traditional talent, traditional actors, musicians in the making, they’re just breaking in a different medium and they’re doing it themselves in a lot of ways.”
“We recognized that eventually they were going to populate a lot of the big screens just like they did the little screens, and [we’d] probably see them some day next to a Hugh Jackman or Matt Damon or whomever it is… Some of them want to stay in their bedrooms and do what they do because they’re good at it and they get paid well, that’s what they’re comfortable with, but some of them want to go on tour and do a podcast and so different stuff.”
He added that the money they earn is comparable to other non-digital A-list celebrities, too.
“Digital talent doesn’t have a ceiling,” he said. “You can’t draw a distinction between an entire genre and another genre to say this one sells better than that one, but demand is demand – if people want to see something, they want to pay to see it.
“Some of the digital or YouTube stars or podcasts that we tour, tour similarly to some of the other live events that we book.”
The new ‘rock stars’
- Frazer Harrison/Getty
Ahern said within the company, there are a lot of debates about “what a rock star is any more.”
“I think obviously there are people that are popular for very different reasons, whether it’s their fashion influence or their musical influence or whatever it is. I grew up looking at a rock star as a Robert Plant or a Kurt Cobain or whatever it was, [but that has] certainly evolved.
“There are examples like that now, but the Travis Scotts of the world are rock stars. They definitely are. The Kendrick Lamars are rock stars… It doesn’t mean you’re not a rock star if you just rap now.”
He added that hip hop is “so across the board accepted now [that] it’s grown to a place where it’s probably the new rock and roll.”
“You play guitar, you can be a rock star. You can be a DJ [too] – Skrillex is a rock star.
“When you become an iconic artist who has influence culturally, not just with your music but with the words you say and the associations you make and the choices you make as a brand filter or cultural filter or whatever you want to call it, those people are rock stars. They’re the people people want to look up to.”
‘I want to remember what I was capable of doing’
While his mindset may have changed throughout his career, Ahern has had the chance to work with plenty of traditional rock stars, too.
He’s also seen plenty of them live – a clear perk of the job.
He recalled seeing the Foo Fighters with his mom when he was a kid – she worked for Delta Air Lines and was able to bring him on trips for free.
“I missed Nirvana which is my favourite band ever,” he said. “I begged my mom to let me go see the Foos… I saw this amazing show. I’ve never sweated so much in my life. It was great.”
Other gig highlights for Ahern include a sound check with Nine Inch Nails when they re-formed the band, and standing on stage when the Pixies got back together in 2004.
“I have every laminate, every ticket, every backstage pass because I want to remember what I was capable of doing and what I had access to,” he said. “I’m very lucky.”