Gary James' Interview With Super Agent
He won the CMA (Country Music Association) SRO Agent Of The Year award twice. He was also awarded Country Agent Of The Year by Performance Magazine Readers Poll twice. He was nominated as Third Coast Agent Of The Year by Pollstar Magazine. In June of 2000 he was named Agent Of The Year by the International Entertainment Buyers Association and presented the Hubert Long Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association Of Talent Directors. Just some of the acts he handled as an agent include Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patty Loveless, Neal McCoy, Sawyer Brown and Tracy Lawrence. He co-ordinated the Farm Aid Benefits from 1985-1995 and The Highwayman I and Highwayman II tours for both the International and North American tours. The Highwaymen were of course Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson.
We are speaking of course about Mr. Tony Conway.
Q - Mr. Conway, you have your own company called Conway Entertainment Group. What exactly is Conway Entertainment Group?
A - Conway Entertainment Group is a talent agency, management and live event production company. It's got three different departments or divisions.
Q - What can you do with your company that you could not do with Buddy Lee Attractions?
A - Well, simply, you can do all three, which at Buddy Lee Attractions you couldn't do but one. Buddy Lee Attractions, which I was with for 31 years and the co-owner of, was a talent agency. Especially the last 15 or 20 years it was just a talent agency. Prior to that we were involved in 'live' production and prior to that they were involved with management.
Q - Were you signing people to the agency before they had a record deal? Or after they had a deal?
A - For the most part, all the years I was with the agency, I signed; the bulk of the artists we signed had record deals. We did sign a number of artists that didn't have a record deal. For example, Garth Brooks. When we signed Garth Brooks he did not have a record deal. When we signed Miranda Lambert, she did not have a record deal. When we signed The Dixie Chicks, they didn't have a record deal. So, both.
Q - When you signed Garth Brooks, what did you see in him that made you think this guy is going to go on to bigger things?
A - The day that I met Garth he came up to our office. He had an appointment with one of our agents, Joe Harris. He had actually walked in off the street and dropped a work tape off and Joe listened to it. He was in Joe's office with an acoustic guitar, demoing some stuff he'd written and I was walking down the hall and I heard this powerful voice coming out of the office. I walked in and pretty soon there were ten people that had been in there. It was just riveting. He had a very unique way and style about him that I hadn't really seen in a long time. It was almost like a magnetic star power type of thing. So, we said you're signed today. You want you to deal with us, we'll do it! And we signed him that day.
Q - You signed people like George Straight and Mary Chapin Carpenter to Buddy Lee. Were these people also being courted by William Morris and Creative Artists Agency?
A - Oh, yeah.
Q - What then, did you offer them that made them sign with Buddy Lee?
A - I started with Buddy Lee right out of college. I was in my early 20s. At that time we might have had a slight monopoly on Nashville because there wasn't William Morris here. There wasn't a CAA (Creative Artists Agency) here. There wasn't APA (Agency For The Performing Arts) here. There wasn't really any corporate agencies in Nashville. So, there were a lot of smaller, what I would call Mom and Pop agencies. There might have been two large agencies in Nashville at that time besides Buddy Lee Attractions, I think there was the Bob Neal Agency, maybe the Lavender - Blake Agency. There wasn't as much competition. As those other agencies moved into town, we just continued to do what we did. We were really, really good at booking 'live' tours and breaking acts and we specialized also in the outdoor arena. We were probably the largest Fair and Festival agency in the country. We actually had joint venture deals and partnerships with other agencies like I.C.M., Premier Talent, people like that, that didn't have a Fair Department, but wanted their acts to work in Fairs. So we represented their acts for the Fairs and Festivals. We just did what we did and we did it very well and I think when the agencies started pushing the West coast film and television division, we reacted and went out and affiliated with film and television agents that were partners with us on our clients. Even though we didn't necessarily own those companies, we struck deals with them so they represented our clients for film and television. So we were always on an equal level. Our agency might have had twelve agents or fifteen agents and some of the Morris' and CAA's had a hundred agents, but we were focusing on Country music at the time. I think some of those other agencies had about the same number of Country music agents as we did. The sheer number of having a hundred agents didn't really matter.
Q - I think I met one of Buddy Lee's agents at Hotel Syracuse back in 1975
A - Joe Higgins. He's a legendary agent. He was with a company called GAC (General Artists Corporation). Then GAC (Creative Management Associates) and then it became ICM (International Creative Management). He was Arthur Godfrey's manager.
Q - He was kind of a surly guy.
A - (laughs) He was a legendary, icon agent from the '40s, '50s and '60s. He was a big deal. In fact, at one point, I don't recall what agency represented The Beatles...
Q - GAC.
A - He booked them on a number of dates. I remember hearing those stories.
Q - Whatever happened to Joe Higgins? He can't still be alive today?
A - No. He passed away 10, 12 years ago. We had an office in New York and he ran our New York office. Another interesting thing about that office is that one of the agents that worked for us in our New York office under Joe Higgins as a guy by the name of Jimmy Gosnell. He is now the CEO of APA in Los Angeles. He runs APA.
Q - If only I had known Joe Higgins background back in 1975.
A - When I came to work at Buddy Lee, he kind of handled the non-Country stuff, which I was interested in. So, we were handling Blood, Sweat And Tears, David Clayton Thomas, B.B. King, Gladys Knight And The Pips, Teddy Pendergrass, Alice Cooper. We had a lot of acts like that, that we represented for Fairs and Festivals. Joe was the one who kind of over-saw all that. I'll never forget the first week I was working for Buddy Lee Attractions, he called me up and said "Hey, kid. Do you know a group called The Bay City Rollers?" I said "Yeah. I know The Bay City Rollers." He goes "Good. You're probably the only hillbilly," he used to call us hillbillys in Nashville; "You're probably the only hillbilly in Nashville who knows who they are." He said "I signed them today." So we booked The Bay City Rollers for a couple of years, their tours. He was a character.
Q - He was.
A - He used to call me Antony. I don't know why. My real name is Anthony.
Q - Isn't being an agent a very stressful job? How do you avoid getting ulcers?
A - It is a very stressful job 'cause you've got hundreds, if not thousands of people depending on you to deliver for them. I don't know how you deal with it. Myself, I decompress sometimes by some of my hobbies, which are boating and hunting when I'm not around a phone. Then, I think if you're good at what you do, you have some type of confidence in what you're doing is a good job and that your plans will all work out. It always amazed me when I used to think about it. It's like a domino effect. If you're representing 60 or 70 different entertainers and then you add in the number of band members each one has and you add in the road crew and the bus drivers and the truck drivers and if you start looking at it that way, it can really stress you out. (laughs) You're responsible for the income of all these people, at least in a way you are. You've got to find this show in this city that routes with this city and everybody's depending on that income to make living and pay the bills. There's a lot of stress because you're dealing with not only the artist and the managers and the business managers and the publicists and the record label and the attorneys of all of those people on each act you represent, but you also have to deal with the staff. You have to make sure they're heading in the right direction and doing the right job, paying attention. There's thousands of details you have to pay attention to as an agent. When I get really busy and I get really going, I always try to remember don't skip over that paragraph in that contract. You're gonna still have to take time to read it and understand it. There's a lot of detail work in being an agent.
Q - Is the job easier today or harder?
A - It's easier. I think the hardest part about being an agent was learning how to do it. Fortunately I had a great mentor with Buddy Lee. He was a great teacher. I think once you understand it...and honestly, everybody who asks me this and I can't explain it. I knew from when I was in high school that I wanted to be an agent. I don't think a lot of people at that age say "that's what I want to do when I grow up." I had always felt like wanted to be an agent, a talent agent. I like working behind the scenes. I was more into how the act got there and how they got to the next city and how much money they made and what percentage and technical stuff. If I would go to a concert, of course I was listening to the music, but I was studying everything else about the show, how long they advertise it, what the tickets look like, how the security worked. It's gotten so I could kind of do it in my sleep now.
Q - You were actually promoting concerts at 16?
A - Yeah. (laughs)
Q - How did you do that? You were in high school then?
A - Well, you weren't supposed to do that. I didn't tell my parents that I was doing it. Actually when I would call up an agency and buy and act, I would try to disguise my voice so that I sounded older. (laughs) Of course I had a company made up. I don't even remember what I called it. I had a company that I was acting as a promoter and somehow I got away with buying dates back in those days, this would have been in the late '60s, without having to pay a deposit. The first show I ever did was The Buckinghams and they cancelled on me the night before. I had sold it out, 1,200 seats, in a high school auditorium. So I had to replace them with another act instead of just cancelling the show altogether, which was a group called Steam. They had a song out called "Na Na Hey, Hey". Anyway, long story to short, I lost about $1,000 and I told the agent that was there that night, "I don't have the money." Well, first of all when he met me, he said "You're Tony Conway?" He must've thought I was a lot older. I said "Well, I don't have the money, but I'll figure out a way to get it to you." He said "Yeah, you sure will." (laughs) So I got a group at the time that was from Kentucky, where I was born and raised, that was pretty hot called Exile. I did a straight percentage date with them, no guarantee and it sold out. That was a gymnasium. I made enough to pay off the loss on The Buckinghams show. I paid it all in cash that night to the agent. Same agent. Truth be known, the way my parents found out I was promoting these shows, I did B.J. Thomas the night after he was on The Ed Sullivan Show, when "Raindrops" was a number one record. I did him the next night and sold that one out. The way they found out I was doing these shows is my mom was cleaning my room one day and she went through my desk and found this stack of contracts that I had signed and called my father and said "Do you know that Tony has signed all these contract and they've totaled up to several thousand dollars and he's not even 18 years old, so we're responsible for anything he's done?" My dad was like, "I'll talk to him when I get home." (laughs) I'd already done about 10 shows.
Q - Wait a minute, you're 16 years old. These shows are at night you're promoting. Didn't you have a curfew? The shows would end around 11 PM.
A - If you think back, this was in a little town of about 10,000 people. It was about 40 miles south of Louisville, Kentucky. I don't ever remember doing a show and being there later than 11 o'clock, to be honest with you.
Q - Where would you tell your parents you had been?
A - I was either going to the show... I had tickets to the show or I don't really remember what I told them. (laughs) But they never knew it was me. Then when they found out, they were like, you know, we always wondered when we saw these ads in the newspaper. I would actually put ads in the newspapers to promote my shows and it wouldn't say promoted by who. They were always wondering who's bringing these shows in? For some reason the newspaper never mentioned it to my parents. I mean, it was a small town. My father had a Ford dealership there. I know the lady who ran the newspaper had to talk to my father all the time, but never did she tell him that I was actually buying ads in the newspaper on credit and they were billing me at the end of the month. It was all done with cash, so I didn't have any checks. After school, I'd walk up to the newspaper and pay 'em. Here's what I owe you. Now I need to put an ad in for the next show.
Q - What a nice, simple story, but I don't know if you could do that today.
A - I don't think you could do it today. (laughs)
Q - Back in 1982, I talked to concert promoter Cedric Kushaer and I asked him how much money it took to get his concert promotion company off the ground. He told me when he started, "$500. Today (1982) it would take $250,000 and be prepared to lose $100,000 before the whole thing turns itself around."
A - Yeah, he's right. There were a couple of shows I did where I did have some big loses, but I was smart enough to get some of my buddies to... when I'm saying big loses, back then $500, $800, was a lot of money. I'd get four or five of my friends to put up $200 apiece. They would work at the hamburger joint or whatever. It was all the money they could scrape up. I said "c'mon, go in with me on this." Sometimes they would make money and sometimes they would loose money. In fact, I went to a reunion a couple of years ago. One of my old buddies that I hadn't seen in years said "Hey, you still owe me some money from one of the shows we did." I was like, "No. I paid you back." He just kept going on and on. I said "OK, how much do I owe you?" He said "I think it was $120." I said "Here's your $120. I don't want anybody to say I owe them any money." That's funny.
Q - How is the booking for concerts today? Back 30, 40 years ago, concerts were everywhere.
A - Well, it's changed a lot. The economy has affected the touring right now. It seems like the arena level acts are not having too bad of a problem. Ticket sales may be down 15 to 20%, but they're still holding up. The biggest change I see is the venues have all changed. There's so many more places to pick from to play now that there's a lot of empty buildings. You take a town like Nashville, we have every size venue you can imagine. There's probably 10 clubs here that are 500 seats or smaller. We've got a Performing Arts Center with a 500 seat, 1,200 seat, 1,500 seat theatre. We've got 2 arenas here. One's a 9,000 seat. One's a 17,000 seat. We've got a 70,000 seat stadium. There's just so many places you could play and there's just not enough shows or money to buy tickets to do the shows in all the venues. I think ticket price has affected a lot of shows. The artists are so expensive, they have to charge a higher ticket, but when it gets to be in the $80, $90, $100, $150 range, then people are just not gonna spend that money like they used to.