Gary James' Interview With The Owner Of
Battle Artist Agency
He's worked for some of the biggest talent agencies in the business. We're talking Top Billing, McFadden And Associates, Entertainment Artist Inc. and A.P.A. (Agency For The Performing Arts). Along the way he's booked some of the world's biggest acts; Keith Whitley, Lorrie Morgan, Buck Owens, Billy Ray Cyres, The Guess Who, Bachman - Turner Overdrive, Rick Springfield, Boston, Poison, Air Supply, Mickey Gilley, Judas Priest, well, you get the idea. And now he's decided to strike out on his own. That's right, Rob Battle has opened up his own booking agency appropriately titled Battle Artist Agency. We talked with Rob about his agency and his journey to be on his own.
Q - Rob, do you necessarily have to live in Nashville or around Nashville to represent some of the artists you now book?
A - I've done this for over thirty-five years now. Initially the ground work I laid by working for Top Billing International, Jack McFadden, Entertainment Artists and then A.P.A. Those years of experience allowed me to build a good client base of people that I love to work with and they're good artists and it also got my name out there and I don't think you can do that unless you're on the ground, going to the showcases, attending the functions, covering the dates, you've got to do that. That's pretty much based out of here in Nashville. But with technology today, wherever I take my laptop and my cell phone, I can do the job. But I'm relying upon the connections that I have made over the years. I've got the numbers, the e-mail addresses. You don't necessarily have to be there. That's the beauty of what it is today versus what it used to be. When I started at Top Billing I was basically a clerical assistant. I did contracts is what I did. I programmed their word processor. Everybody was using typewriters back then and they had bought this thing, the word processor. At the time it was a huge I.B.M. thing. Nobody knew how to work it. So, I came fresh out of Belmont College and I was very interested in computers, but they weren't even called computers at that point. They were, but nobody had a personal computer. I couldn't type fast enough, so I was about to lose my job at Top Billing. The option was, figure out how to make this thing do it for you and it worked. It's like where you put the information in once, you simply merge it to the contract, to the rider, to the cover letter, all the way down to the sticker you put on the envelope to mail the contracts out. So that saved my job. In the meantime it impressed a couple of agents, one of which was Paul Bryant, who was going to go work with Jack McFadden when he started his company and he asked me to come set up the same system for them with the promise of if you do this for us we will let you become an agent, and that worked well. I got that going. Jack McFadden had been Buck Owens' manager for ever and ever and Jack had come to Nashville to start an agency and a publishing company and he ended up launching Billy Ray Cyrus, Keith Whitley, Lorrie Morgan and Rhonda Vincent. He did some really good stuff during his tenure here. I looked at Jack as a master for my career. Jack's been passed away for fifteen, twenty years now, but he was one of those guys that anytime I was getting ready to make a choice or a decision in my career I would go to Jack and ask him, "What do you think?" He would give some of the best advice you could ever imagine. It's just like fatherly advice. He was like, "Do this. Don't do this. Trust that guy. Don't trust that guy." And he was always right. I looked at that as being just invaluable. Those are the kind of things you have to be on the ground here to do. But today, wherever I have my laptop and cell phone I can do the job.
Q - And you left out the printer. One agent told me with a laptop, cell phone and printer you can live anywhere.
A - Right. He was right. I still have paper. Lots of paper. I can't totally rely on just that machine. If something happens with that, I'm down. I've got to have hard copy paper. Usually I print stuff all the time, just to make sure.
Q - It would seem to me to be almost a trying experience to deal with the egos of a lot of these famous singers and musicians. What satisfaction do you get out of being a booking agent?
A - I think for me initially, I went to Belmont College. When I was at Belmont I didn't really have an idea of what I wanted to do, other than I wanted to be in this business. My dad was a newspaper man with the local paper here in Nashville. He was always involved with Country music artists. He did lots of interviews with 'em. He was a writer for like The National Enquirer, Country Song Round-up. There was four or five of those type trade magazines. So he was always out to like Johnny Cash's house or Tom T. Hall's house. They were always going to parties. This was a cool lifestyle. And sometimes you would get to go with them as a kid. It was like this is pretty cool. These people were having a large life here and I really like this. And, they were always really nice to everybody that was around me. I loved it. They were nice to me as well. So, that was fun and it kind of got me the allure of why I wanted to go in that direction. I determined that I was not musically inclined to be a producer or writer or even an engineer for that matter. So, the only other really option was like a record label or a performing rights organization or a talent agency. So, I started sending out e-mails and everybody was passing on me, even my Dad. "We don't have anything for you." So, I met one day with Frances Preston, who was the head of B.M.I. Nashville at the time. She had built B.M.I. out of nothing. She said, "Here's what you need to do. You made a mistake when you were going to Belmont. You didn't do an internship. The next person that offers you an internship, take it! You're going to work for free for awhile, but nine times out of ten if you're any good it'll turn into a job." Then she says, "I don't have a job here for you. I don't have an internship available. Just do that and you'll be in the door." A couple of days later I met with Tandy Rice who was the head of Top Billing and a couple of years prior to that Top Billing had been a major force as far as one of the biggest talent agencies here in Nashville. I met with Tandy and Tandy knew my father. It was kind of like the same deal, "We really don't have anything here for you." Dad got a phone call to Tom T. Hall and Tom T. Hall invited me to lunch. He said, "Let me make a call. I'll get you taken care of." Tom turns around and calls Tandy Rice back and said, "Tandy, I really want my friend here to have an internship at your place. Do you have any spots open?" "Oh, absolutely!" So, I was in. I worked in the evening doing an accounting job for a company that manufactured fifty caliber machine guns here in Nashville. It was an interesting job. That's what made the income. Then in the day it was like 9 to 5 at Top Billing for free. First I started off as like a press assistant. One of the girls who was doing contracts left to go to be with Chip Pay, who had Alan Jackson just starting out and Ricky Scaggs. So, that slot became available. Tandy said, "I know you don't want it, but we do have a position available as a secretary to issue contracts. I know you don't want it, but I've got to offer it to you." I said, "I'll take it." It beats getting not paid at all. That's how I got started. Programming the contracts into the word processor before I got fired. From there forward it parlayed, one thing after another after another after another. One door closed, another one opened, but it's been a very good career.
Q - You're so fortunate that Tom T. Hall went to bat for you.
A - Oh, yeah. Every time I see him I always thank him, He told me a couple of years ago, "You gotta stop thanking me. I didn't do anything. I made a phone call for you." But I appreciate it. I don't think I would've gotten in without you! (laughs)
Q - What do you think would've happened to you? You probably would've gotten in eventually.
A - But it would've been as something else. I don't know that I would've been an agent. I had that drive. I was gonna do this or bust! I told you I worked for a company that manufactured machine guns. Right after I got out of college I was still working there before I transferred over to their accounting office downtown. These are pretty rough people grinding metal parts. A guy looks at me and says, "Son, you got your college education. Now what are you going to do?" That's what the driving motivation was. I'm gonna get the hell out of here! That's what I'm gonna do. (laughs) And it worked. It drove me. It really drove me.
Q - What kind of degree did you get from Belmont?
A - I got a Bachelors in Business Administration with a concentration in the music business.
Q - Right. I know they're famous for their music program.
A - Right. They have a great music program. They're just expanded unbelievably over the past few years. At the time they had a studio that was in the bottom of the Jack C. Nacee Business School, which was not a very large building. They had a studio down there that Alabama had given them, a control console and basically outfitted the studio for them. I got to experience that. I did take music courses which I didn't do very well in but I excelled in the business parts of it. There was a guy who taught a course one summer that I was taking. It was Artist Management Agency Development. He's a great guy. He's still a friend of mine. I see him periodically. He's worked for TNN for awhile. He was the teacher of that. He was so interesting. Most of the courses were cut and dry out of the book. This guy comes in, no book, wearing jeans, a baseball cap and sat there and told road stories. What Dolly Parton did here or whatever. He had lived it. And it was like, this is what I want. This is the direction I want (to go). It's the people. It's the personalities, the fan stories, the things that are exciting other than just sitting there doing business. (laughs) That's what my driving force was in that regard.
Q - When you do a good job for a client, does it necessarily follow that if you join another agency that client will come with you?
A - That has worked to a certain degree. When I left A.P.A., which was six years ago, five years ago and a couple of months, my initial clients were The Bellamy Brothers, who work all the time, some of the greatest guys in the world, Williams And Ree, the Indian and the White Guy, Earl Thomas Conley, came with me who had been with me back in the early days at Entertainment Artists, Eddy Raven came with me. He had been with me in the days of Entertainment Artists. It's almost like this has worked very well. I did some other things that were interesting. I had an agent I worked with before, Reggie Mae, who had his own company with George Jones. He approached me, "I need some help with some of the George Jones stuff. Can you help me do that?" "Absolutely." We worked on the George Jones project right up until George passed away. Ray Price was another one I worked with. I was Ray's last agent. Word of mouth is where a lot of this gets started. When I was working with Ray, which I was truly in my opinion, honored to work with. I'd been a fan forever. This was an amazing talent. A legend in his own right, and one of the nicest guys in the world. Ray was the one that did a date with Gene Watson and I had worked with Gene Watson years ago at A.P.A. early on. Ray said, "It's like man, I've never been so happy. I'm getting a lot of work. I'm getting dates that I haven't had before. My agent is doing it and this is the guy." It wasn't very long after that that Gene Watson called and said, "We worked before at A.P.A. and if there's a slot open I'd love to take it." So we made a deal and it's worked very well. I love Gene. To hear him sing, he just knocks it out. There's not a better vocalist out there. This is kind of what my niche is. I'm a fan as well as an agent. I love that music. I grew up on the music of The Bellamy Brothers. Vocally, the band is hot. Right to the last of Ray Price, his vocals were dead on. He struggled to walk. He'd sit on the bar stool. The vocals were amazing. The ones that we have today, Gene Watson has it. Gene Watson is having a large resurgence in his career. He can, night after night, put between 1,200 to 2,000 people, hard paid tickets in their seats. There's not a lot of artists in that genre today that can do that. That's an amazing thing. It's not just here and there. It's not spotty. It's all over. It's night after night. That's the kind of artist I'm looking for. They're nice to people on the road. If they had been not so nice, if they had been misbehaving, they wouldn't be doing what they're doing today. Truly professionals. What it all comes down to is the music, the vocals. Does it sound like it does on the record, recorded product back when it was a hit on the radio? Yes? That's what I'm after. I can't imagine doing anything other than what I'm doing for a living.
Q - You spent sixteen years at Agency For The Performing Arts. Why would you leave? Was it just money?
A - (laughs) I ask myself that same question. I'm going to be totally honest with you. I had been there for sixteen years. I helped open the office with Bob Kincaid. Bob and I worked together probably six years and then they changed positions in the office and brought in Steve Lassiter from William Morris. Steve's a great guy, but some of the focus on how business was handled changed. It was not really a whole lot of fun. I'll just be honest with you. I started out having a whole lot of fun. It was more like a volume production agency. Then I got sick. I had like a gall bladder problem that started shutting down the organs in my body. I got really sick. I was in the hospital for a couple of months. It started like Easter, six years ago (2009). I ended up on dialysis for forty-five days and almost died as a result, but got over it. It came back with a vengeance and it's like I'm not ready to lay down and call it quits. So, I got back, went to the office. The President of A.P.A. told me when I was in the hospital, he visited me, "Don't worry about your job. You're fine. We'll see you back. We'll make this work for you." I said, "Great." When December rolled around they let me go through Christmas. January 15th, they said, "It's just not working for us anymore. We're going to make some changes. We're heading in this direction and in fact, this is your last day at A.P.A." It was like, "Oh, okay."
Q - Maybe they did you a favor.
A - I felt like it was because I had gotten sick and they had adjusted the territories while I was sick and removed some of the territory I was booking and so it made it very difficult to hit the numbers as a result that they were looking for. It's like when you're booking dates in Minnesota and Wisconsin only where you had most of the mid-West before you can't hit the same volume of numbers you did before. I felt personally it was a convenient way for them to ease me out the door because maybe I was going to be an insurance burden on them. I don't know. What I did was scratch my head, picked up my toys and came home. The next day I got up, called David Bellamy and told him what had happened. I said, "I would like, if possible, to be your exclusive agent and I'm going to start this thing myself. I'll run it out of my house." His first question was, "How much is it going to cost me?" I said, "It's the same deal you had before, the commission you've been paying before. Not a penny more." He said, "Okay. Let me talk to Howard, but I think we're in." Ten minutes later he said, "I talked to Howard and he said go book some dates." It's like, great! Thank-you! I called Terry Ree, who was another one of my clients from The Indian And The White Guy and same conversation. Terry said, "We were there at A.P.A. because of you. We're going with you." A couple of weeks later Eddie Raven calls me and said, "I hear you're going on your own. You're doing your own deal. Let's meet for lunch." So I met him down at the restaurant. It's like, "We're in business." And that's the way this came about. It was amazing to me. The only way I look at it is as a God thing. I had like five major things happen in my life at the same time. My father passed away right as I was getting fired from A.P.A. My live-in girlfriend moved out. I almost died. Then all of a sudden a corner turned and it all started working. It bothered me for quite awhile 'cause I was an absolute A.P.A. company man. It bothered me for a long time actually, a couple of years, the way I perceived I'd been treated there after being totally loyal and doing everything I could possible do for that company, they pitched me. It was probably the first week or two after having my own office here in the house, at the kitchen table, that I started booking dates. It's like, "This is working. This is gonna work." It's like the dates just started flowing. It's been nothing short of a blessing. Looking at it today it is the greatest thing that ever happened to me in my career. It has given me excitement for what I do again. It has rewarded me well. And it gives me a lot more freedom. The freedom I think it the biggest thing. I don't have to worry about the Mickey Mouse stuff. I know what's got to be done. It's like meeting after meeting after meeting and nothing productive comes out of that. I was done with that as well. My wife and I don't have meetings. We sit here and do our job. We go in the other room and have a glass of wine and call it a day. That's pretty much the deal. I'm thrilled the way this is working and it's working well. I sincerely believe the artists I work with are pleased as well.
Q - How do you determine what you will charge a venue for an artist you book? Do you sit down with the artist's manager and calculate all the costs associated with getting the act to the venue? How does that work?
A - It's primarily market value. That's the way you look at it. Each date is individual. Each artist has a multi-tiered price schedule. For example, The Bellamy Brothers will have a club rate and the club rate will include a back end or percentage of gross potential if it exceeds a certain amount. They'll have a Fair, Festival and Casino rate which is a fixed price. They have a corporate, private fund raiser price. So, pretty much anything that rolls in the door fits to one of these three categories. The other wild cards are if there's excessive travel involved, if there's Canadian taxes involved, we'll adjust the prices accordingly and also the hassle factor of getting there. If it's Alaska for example, it's gonna cost a lot more than it will to go play a date in Texas. A lot of it is market value. For example, with Gene Watson, he's able to sell those places out. He's been doing it for years. One of the first conversations I had with Gene was when I went to see a show he did in Pigeon Forks, Tennessee. I walked in the room and there were probably 2,000 to 2,100 people sitting there who probably paid $25 to $30 a ticket. I said, "Gene, what are you getting paid?" He told me and I said, "That's not right. It's just not right. We've got to adjust this. The promoter is making a fortune on you night after night after night. And you're getting the same terms you have been for years. We're gonna adjust it." I told him it may be a little painful at first that some of the buyers who have been making a lot of money off you in the past are gonna scratch their head and say, "Well, we've been paying this! Why are we going to pay that?" But I guarantee you at the end of the day when they miss the revenue you were making for them, they'll still make a little bit less than they were making before, but they're still making a killing. So, we're gonna adjust it and walk it up based upon what the market value is.
Q - How many people work in that office of yours?
A - It's just my wife and I. It's going to be my sixth year this year (2015). To do what I do today is a culmination of everything I've done in the past. I've got my computer system. I've made it where it does my work for me very quickly. Same kind of old thing I did at Top Billing thirty years ago. Enter the information once and it goes where it needs to go. It makes life really streamlined and simple. But at the same time, because it's just the two of us, she's checking my work. I'm checking her work. As far as the dates are right, the spellings are right, the show times are right, just to make sure. What we put in has to come out properly and keep everybody on the same page.