Barrett Wissman

Since Barrett Wissman became involved with IMG Artists, the company has been expanding with new offices and festivals around the world.

Robin Newton reports…. THERE WAS A TIME NOT SO LONG ago when IMG, along with CAMI, dominated artist  management. The power they wielded gave them an unprecedented level of influence and control; and that was quickly turned into serious money.

The foundations of IMG, however, lay in sport where the constant influx of new stars and the constant exposure of existing champions provide seemingly endless revenue opportunities. The arts, with the exception of a few proven long-term performers, did not yield such riches. By the beginning of the 21st century, the artist management branch of IMG was failing; some reports claimed annual losses of £1m ($1.7m).

Clearly, something had to change. IMG decided to sell its artist management arm but found buyers hard to come by. In 2003, Mark McCormack, the founder and heartbeat of IMG, died suddenly, making the situation more urgent: there was no clear way forward but swift action was essential.

S e e m i n g l y out of the blue, Barrett Wissman appeared. His offer to buy a majority share of IMG’s artist management business was accepted with alacrity and a new era began. Now rebranded as IMG Artists, 70% of the company is owned by Wissman with the remaining 30% remaining in the hands of IMG.

Not surprisingly, Wissman’s appearance generated more questions than it answered. Although his background showed a love of music – he trained as a
pianist, has a degree in music and married the cellist Nina Kotova – there was nothing apparent in his professional past to suggest why he might want to take over IMG Artists.

Wissman, however, has been great success. IMG Artists has experienced a considerable recovery: turnover has increased by 40% in two years and is expected to grow between 10% and 15% more in 2006. Add to that a new Singapore office opened in October 2005 with another opened earlier in Italy and things certainly look good for IMG Artists.

Wissman’s belief is that the world of artist management must change rapidly if it is to build a future for itself. ‘There is so much going on around the world today, not just in our kind of music but in all areas, that we are in danger of losing our audience if we don’t nurture it. We as an agency cannot behave as we used to, simply booking artists into engagements the world over and taking commission. We have to work on building our audience. We have to give our artists the opportunity to be involved directly with the public. We have to reenliven the arts and not just take money out. Our job as arts managers is to move in new directions and, because we’re in touch with so many artists at the same time, we’re in a perfect position to do exactly that.’

The challenge facing artist management, Wissman feels, is combining global reach with local understanding. In some ways there is nothing new in this concept; larger agencies with an international remit have commonly relied on small, local agencies for information. Wissman’s modification, however, is to have many smaller offices all under a single management umbrella.

‘Local knowledge is vital,’ he says. ‘It is important to be global because we need to be aware of all the potential opportunities for our artists. without knowing what is happening on the ground, though, we would never discover these opportunities. The reason we have offices in all these places – which now includes New York, London, Paris, Lucca, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore – is build relationships with local organisations, ministries of culture and so forth.’

Nevertheless, building such a network is only valuable if it is used in the right way. Wissman believes that the key to unlocking this potential lies in creating events. ‘It is essential for us as managers to keep the business of music making alive. You see this on the pop side of the fence with constant thinking about marketing and publicity – always coming up with new ways of getting people interested. I don’t believe that we should necessarily copy that and I am absolutely certain that our art should remain pure but I am quite sure that there are other ways of getting people interested. We want things that become infectious; success stories that everybody wants to buy into. ‘I want to try to create events that bring people together, events that artists really want to come to, events that encourage audiences to get involved and to engage more with the performers.

Four years ago Wissman founded The Tuscan Sun Festival, which is a combination of music, art and literature literature.

Not only that, he also introduced food and wine events into the mix. ‘The idea is that people come and try different things and gradually become more and more involved. It might take a couple of days or three years but we’re encouraging a new audience. The Tuscan Sun Festival has been so successful that we’ve extended the idea to include Napa Valley in the States that will unite the world’s best and most adventurous music making with the visual, literary and culinary arts.’

Singapore is interested in hosting a similar event and in China IMG Artists started a huge music education festival called the Canton Summer Academy with Charles Dutoit as music director. More than 800 students from all over Asia participate in concerts and masterclasses during a week and a half of activities.

None of this is to suggest that IMG Artists is no longer engaged in the day-to-day business of negotiating and scheduling for a large roster of artists. Wissman, however, is convinced that without generating new interest, there will be nothing to book his artists for. ‘The notion of arts management as a booking service is gone. The landscape has changed dramatically in terms of funding and in terms of what people actually want. We have to keep the business alive and at the moment I don’t see other agencies doing this. It might mean that we don’t get rich but we have to generate successful platforms for our art. If our festivals are of a high enough quality and create the right atmosphere then they will be such platforms.

‘As long as we don’t actually lose money, its worth it to me.’

Reprinted with permission from International Arts Manager magazine.

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