Gary James' Interview With The Founder Of
Supreme Entertainment Artists
Alex Ross is the founder of Supreme Entertainment Artists or SEA for short, a premier boutique booking agency. Alex has represented John Waite, Jordan Knight and Thomas Dolby to name just a few. He was the first agent to discover and work with Maroon 5, Sugarland and Jesse McCartney. We talked with Alex about how he got his start, the acts he's worked with and the state of the music business these days.
Q - Alex, what kind of a day do you put in?
A - I'm usually up 6, 6:30 (AM), like clockwork, do my stock market research and return e-mails and sometimes I'm here until 8 or 9 o'clock at night.
Q - Taking those calls from LA.
A - Yeah, West Coast stuff. Recently I've done some stuff over in Australia and Southeast Asia and just dealing with the time difference and digging under rocks and stones trying to dig up business. That's what you've got to do at this level.
Q - So Alex, what kind of a marketplace is it in today's music world? Are there enough dollars to go around for all the artists who want to perform?
A - That's a tough one. I think the dollars are out there. The dates are definitely out there, it just depends on how much you want to take. Take that tribute band 40 Ounces To Freedom that's on the roster. The guys are playing bars, but they'll play 250 bars a year and make around a quarter of a million to 300,000 (dollars) and laugh themselves all the way to the bank. But those guys are out there hustling, driving 5 to 6 hours to a gig, flying from LA to the East Coast overnight for a $7500 date and fly right back. They'll do it.
Q - What are they a tribute to?
A - Sublime. And there are other acts I've worked with. They've got a family barbecue and they don't want to wake up at 4 o'clock in the morning and hit the airport at LAX and they don't want to hustle.
Q - Does that mean you won't work as hard for an act like that?
A - There was one act recently that's no longer on the roster that you'd bring in fair, festival and casino opportunities and it just seemed like it was one excuse after another. When you start working with those acts, you ask them for their blackout dates, dates that they are not available and if it's not listed as unavailable on the schedule, you go out and try to find the best dates that you can.
Q - How would you say the tribute act business is? I see it as a growth industry.
A - We've had a lot of success with 40 Ounces To Freedom, Liz Zeppelin, the female Led Zeppelin tribute, and we've been approached by numerous others, but generally speaking the tribute business seems like it's gotten, I don't know if you'd say oversaturated, or just tougher to compete. I'll be speaking with the buyers who have been friends for ten years that say, "Hey, why am I going to pay your tribute $2500 - $5000 when I can get the local guys down the street for $500 and a case of domestics?" So you just gotta be the right talent and the right timing and obviously a great show.
Q - You were the first agent to discover and work with Maroon 5 and Sugarland. When you say "discover", what does that mean?
A - Before Sugarland it was the Jennifer Nettles Band and we had worked exclusively with them for five years. They were, I guess you would say, a strong regional band based down in Georgia. That's where Jennifer is from. We'd tour up and down the East Coast, make runs to Texas. When she moved over to Sugarland, I was the first agent on that project for the first 15 to 18 months and it just exploded.
Q - Don't artists who have someone like you in their corner from the beginning reward you by making you their exclusive agent? But Sugarland is with Creative Artists Agency, aren't they?
A - Yeah. They are either with CAA or William Morris. I know that they switched a couple of years ago. One of the Big Two. With Jennifer Nettles Band, Jennifer was the band leader and manager. She's a sweetheart. With Sugarland they had on board Gail Gellman. We really didn't have any face-to-face contact and couldn't build up, I don't know if you'd say personal relationship.
Q - And Maroon 5?
A - The guy that I started this business with 12 or 13 years ago, Jordan Feldstein, he was an assistant at ICM and I was working over at Don Law at the time. We kind of said hey, we're really not making much money. We are not happy. Let's start our own business. Jordan is a very unique personality. I joke around and say, he can convince you that he could bring the Brooklyn Bridge and drop it in the middle of Nebraska in your front yard and you'd believe he could do it. It's just his positive attitude and energy. We finally said let's give this thing a go and Maroon 5 was his management client and he'd been with them since day one.
Q - And they too left you!
A - Yeah, we were booking them and managing them and it was the label that was pushing them to be part of a major agency.
Q - When an act is really good, how do you find out about it? Do you go out to clubs? Is it word-of-mouth? Do you actively scout for acts?
A - Yeah. For the developmental acts probably not as much as I should. As you get a little bit older you have other responsibilities to take care of instead of being out in the nightclubs seven nights a week like I used to, to one or two o'clock in the morning. It's anything from networking with talent buyers on the ground, the small 200, 400 venues, asking them to send you over web links, to just folks hearing about you from a friend or an associate either in or out of the music business. You can check it out that way. I'd certainly like to break and hold onto a Maroon 5 or Sugarland. I feel a lot more experienced now. We are a lot more equipped to do that. I guess the direction we have seen to go in is working with either your Candlebox(es), John Waite(s) to Aaron Carter(s). For a major agency they are not going to say this is the next greatest thing since sliced bread. If you dig under enough rocks and stones you can go out there and make all the phone calls and e-mails and be proactive in making some of those acts more money than they would be in being with a major agency that has so much volume and so many acts to take care of that they may not get the personalized attention. If their phones are ringing for 20 or 30 acts that are out on the road touring, we keep the roster at a decent size and we'll always have five to ten people out on the road at a time. That affords us so we can get up all the fair, festival, casino and appropriate club buyers. We'll make sure everyone's been contacted, not just the person here, the person there.
Q - That's the plus. You can provide the personal attention a William Morris cannot do.
A - Yeah, especially with the roster of acts we do have. William Morris and CAA have a long history of being the top dogs in the business. I've had friends that have been on both rosters and I think it's more about the agent that you end up with. If they feel passionate about the project, whether the act is making $100 or $1 million, they'll do the right job for you. There's some acts, with what they have to offer, their literary divisions, their film and TV divisions, that it makes absolute sense. John Waite, in 2012, we made him more money over the year's touring then he had made at a major agency in 2008 or 2009, his manager was telling me. That comes with a lot of time, a lot of research, and putting forth the effort of making the phone calls and sending out the e-mails. If someone doesn't reply or call you back, you call them back the next week. That's how we try to kick down that door.
Q - Because John Waite and Jordan Knight are "name" acts, does that make it easier for you to pitch them or harder because they have a past?
A - If you go down Aaron Carter's schedule (a client of Alex Ross) I think he has about 50 dates on the books and I've got a handful of college dates and that unfortunately we didn't know we'd be getting the great "buzz" with the colleges around Aaron. We've already got tickets on sale for club dates. We are trying to move these college dates to the Fall. I had a buyer say to me, "My daughter was an Aaron Carter fan when she was 12. Now she's in college and she's 18. Aaron Carter is done." Well, I'm in the midst of cutting and pasting Aaron Carter's 50-plus dates and were going to be adding more dates today and say this doesn't look like an artist that's done to me, considering three of the first four shows on the tour have sold out on a 500 to 600 date.
Q - Are you getting into merchandising, marketing or linking brands with artists?
A - We don't. That's typically been something that's been more of a managerial responsibility. Not a day goes by where I think having a small agency, just as a human being, thinking of different ways I guess of bringing in different revenue streams into the company myself. I do the stock market thing in the morning and that's being very successful on a personal level as part of Supreme Entertainment. We've got a consulting division working with some of those developmental artist starting out, just trying to give them ideas, whether it's ideas on help in social media and imaging front, trying to hook them up with support slots for tours as well as trying to come up with a touring game plan that can be successful. The phone rings and it will be a young band saying "Hey, book us a tour from New York City to LA." Okay. We really don't do that. What's your history like? "Yeah, we are playing Arlene Grocery for like the Tuesday night showcase at 7 o'clock. We're making $150." Well, if that's your hometown and all you're getting is $150, you'll probably be out of gas before you hit Columbus, Ohio. Refine the game plan. Pick out a handful of markets. Try to get a handful of the right venues and promoters that feel passionate about your music and want to help you out and grow and develop to that next level.
Q - If you are a local band and you don't have tour support behind you, it's practically impossible to tour across the country.
A - It's just a waste of time. I say concentrate on your own hometown market and pick out four or five other markets within a two or three hour drive and keep hammering away at them every couple of months.
Q - It probably would be easier for you if you had an American Idol contested on the roster. I'm not talking necessarily about the season winner, but someone say in the Top 10. The exposure that person would have is invaluable.
A - We've got one American Idol on the roster. We had another, Elliott Yamin. We worked with Luke Rossi, who won Rockstar Supernova. I've got a friend who manages Javier Colon. It just seems every year that you're not on TV or you get away from that success, you fall another rung down the line unless you are one of the lucky few like Kelly Clarkson or Clay Aiken that have been, I don't know if you'd say be in that top two or 3% and, with some great music and have some great management to be able to sustain a career. A lot of these guys, whether they do it the wrong way are not, it comes down to the music and the work ethic.
Q - You opened a second office in New York City in 2009. The way computers are today, you could work from home, couldn't you? Why did you open a New York office?
A - I had a couple of guys still working for me based in New York. We rented office space out of the Red Light Management office. Some good contacts. Good environment. Good synergy to be had. I think nowadays there are some of your top agents working from home. You can dial a number from New York or LA and be transferred to a home office in Chicago or Minneapolis or Texas. I was just talking to a buyer, one of Pollstar's top 50 clubs. We were shooting the shit about Aaron Carter and they sold out date that he has and looking to book another one in September and the whole winter he's been working from Costa Rica, just off a Skype phone and a laptop. So, people can be anywhere in the country or anywhere in the world for that matter, and do the job. There's a guy that owns a couple of theaters in Connecticut, Worchester and Buffalo that is working from London, England. That's where he and his wife wanted to settle down. You see some of these large management companies and sometimes you'll hear about guys or girls going into the office two days a week, working from home three days a week. They'll set up satellite offices. They got a quality person that's part of the company and if that person lives in Kentucky or Kansas and they don't want to be in New York or LA, hey, as long as you are putting the time in, you can get the job done.
Q - I didn't realize until I read your bio that Aerosmith had a bar in Boston called Moma Kin.
A - They did.
Q - How did you get the job there and what were you doing?
A - I was in college at the time. I believe I was still living at home and got the, "Hey, you got to get out and get a job." Lansdowne Street in Boston is filled with nightclubs that doubled as discotheques, music clubs. I was just walking down the street had my suit and tie on and was filling out a job application over at the old Avalon, which is now The House Of Blues, and the general manager just happened to walk in the door at the time I was filling out the application. He said, "You're looking for a job? We are opening up a new venue next door, Moma Kin. You want a job?" So I said, "Sure." I think I started two weeks later. Great time. Fun experience. I think I'm 5' 9", 160 pounds. I started off just being a security guard.
Q - You had to hold that nobody bigger than you came through the doors and gave anybody any trouble.
A - We had a bunch of big guys there, so I was just the meeter and greeter at the door, checking I.D.s.
Q - From that job, were you promoted to something else?
A - I just felt the passion for 'live' shows. They had everyone there obviously from Aerosmith to Marilyn Manson to John Mayall And The Bluesbreakers. So, I had this ingenious idea of being a band concierge. You'd see these different artists roll into town in their tour bus in the afternoon and I was kind of na´ve at the time, so I'd gone around to all these local restaurants and got their take-out menus, information on where folks could get their clothes cleaned, movie theaters and anything under the sun that you would think people would want to do, kind of like on a vacation to Boston, a sightseeing trip, and put together a pamphlet and was trying to get my foot in the door with record labels, booking agencies, anything music related. After getting twenty rejection letters from labels based out of New York, I think I got offered a job at Pinnacle Entertainment, but it was a move from Boston to New York City, making $18,000 a year. I don't know if you could live off of that. From working at Moma Kin and then working over at Avalon, I kind of got my foot in the door with the Don Law Company and started working for a guy named Tim McKenna, doing the running and setting up the dressing rooms for the bands. I took a lot of pride in that. I got to know a little bit more about the business and got a job inside the office in Cambridge, starting out part-time, 30 hours a week. They had a small agency there and I just kind of started on my own, picking up the phone and making calls to bands that were already on the roster, picking up a couple of local acts on my own.
Q - Who was Tim McKenna?
A - He was the head of production for all the shows at the Avalon and the Paradise back in the day. I'd work for Tim as I said, doing the running, setting up the dressing rooms. I kind of took it as like an art form. Then from there a job opened up in the office over in Cambridge, just being an assistant, helping everybody out, whatever they needed help with that day. There was an agency that was part of the business. There were acts on the roster from a Godsmack to a Howie Day. I had The Push Stars for a little bit that were all a part of the company. Just kind of felt the passion. Saw some of the other guys and girls in the office booking the bands. That's when I kind of said, "Hey, I want to be a booking agent," as I was still doing assisting. I just went out and picked up a couple of local bands I felt passionate about and started from there.
Q - Let's say that guy hadn't asked you "Are you looking for a job?" Does that mean you wouldn't be in the entertainment business today?
A - I probably would've had to start pitching for the Boston Red Sox.
Q - I take it you were a pretty good player.
A - Yeah. I went to school actually to play baseball. I was good back in the day.
Q - So, you had something else you were thinking about.
A - Guys I've made friends with in the past 10 to 15 years kind of sit and talk and say, "What else could we be doing?" I'll walk down the street, whether it's go to the bank, go to the post office, and yesterday I saw a guy lugging those bottles of Poland Spring Water canisters up the stairs into a condo complex and I said "I don't want to do that." Then a block later you see some guy jack-hammering the street and you say "That doesn't look to be a fun job." Or you go into the convenience store and you see a guy putting bottles of Coca-Cola on the shelves. When you look back, I'm very fortunate, very lucky to be in the industry, and this position. It's certainly a lot of hard work and dedication and sacrifice, but you can't imagine doing anything different outside of playing for the Red Sox. I see growth on my side of the business. Every year gets a little bit better. You are always trying to find ways, whether it's professionally or personally, to bring in different streams of revenue. I think more opportunities continue to present themselves in all aspects of life.
Q - The entertainment business is growing, there's no doubt about that. The only downside to the work you are doing is the mental stress. The guy putting the soda on the grocery shelf doesn't have that mental stress that you have. It's physical work. But that mental stress is tough to deal with.
A - Yeah. It's definitely something that does get to you. I probably take everything much too hard and care too much. I'm still that agent that will return a text message at midnight or pick up the phone at midnight. I have my cell phone next to me. That's definitely part of it. If a buyer loses on a date, you feel bad, you send them back their commission money. Or the band says "We didn't make as much money as we expected," you cut your commission. I've just been one of those people that's nicer, I don't know if you say needs to be, but you care about everyone you work with, both from an artist side and the buyer side. You try to cut their deals. I've got a client on the roster right now that just switched managers. Typically, we've gone out there the last couple of years and pretty much everywhere you go you are making $5000 a night. He just switched to managers and this manager is asking $15,000 a night. Buyers have asked me about it. I've said, "Honestly, I couldn't sleep well selling you a hard ticket $15,000 date because it's not there. Five grand is the price point where this act should be at.
Q - Was it expensive to open your own agency?
A - Not really. You need to get a phone, a fax which is now becoming obsolete. With Pollstar Pro all the information is on there. You sign up for that subscription. I think it's like $400. I think the LLC and the legal expense was like $700. The insurance is another couple of hundred dollars. It's all, I don't know if you would say relative, but it's at least a couple of thousand dollars to get things off the ground. When I was growing up I never thought I'd be doing this. Over the course of 12 years, I've seen there's a lot of money to be made in this business if you do things ethically and fairly. I'm just very thankful. I'm in a great spot. I've got some great clients. Made some great friends. You wake up, you put a hard days worth of work in and it all comes back. You can be rewarded in the end.