Robert Norman is a senior agent at Creative Artists Agency LLC, based in Los Angeles. CAA represents thousands of the world’s leading cultural artists. Mr. Norman’s purview is primarily in private event bookings for its clients. His team books some 900 to 1,000 events a year.
How did music become your focus?
My five sisters always had music playing in our home in Toronto. I got bitten by the bug early; learning the guitar soon replaced hockey as my passion. For me, school was a place to try to find some direction: working hard, being creative, enthusiastic and a self-starter were crucial. After two years at the University of Toronto, friends and I formed beginner bands playing at weddings and clubs all over Ontario, then across Canada. Four young rockers in a van having a blast, seeing this big, beautiful country, one town at a time. Then I joined a more established band from the Rochester/Buffalo area that got quite popular there.
That seems like a big risk.
Sadly, that band, Buxx, never became Bon Jovi, so I bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. The first year was tough. My support group was a bunch of twentysomethings I knew from upstate New York, all trying to start careers like me. No money, crashing on sofas, but very driven. None of us had family in California, so some motivation was looking at palm trees, not wanting to go back home in the dead of winter. But I was at a crossroads. My father ran Hanford Lumber in Rexdale; as a teenager, I often worked there on Saturdays. It was either move back into that business or try to get into the music business I’d grown to love.
Did you feel like you’d taken the harder road?
After a very frugal year of hustling, I finally landed an entry position at a small boutique booking agency that represented Anne Murray: Yes, she was as nice to a novice agent from Canada as you’d guess. I first looked after Paul Revere & the Raiders, then Three Dog Night, both hard-working bands. I was super determined to put in the hours and dedication to get ahead. That agency was bought out, so again I was Mr. New Guy, sent the random calls nobody wanted to deal with. I soon realized a whole business was happening outside public touring in private, non-advertised events. It was a steep learning curve figuring out who was real and who wasn’t, but you develop intuition pretty quickly.
Since you joined CAA in 1999, revenue from private bookings has risen to almost US$200-million annually. How did that happen?
I was invited to join the major agency to establish a private event-booking division; 20 years later, we handle bookings all over the world. I still love the variety of opportunities and challenges that come at us every day. Each event is unique with different artists, requests and issues. Our team books everyone on our roster from hot new artists to established big touring names for huge tech conferences for tens of thousands of people to dinner parties … and everything in between.
You’ve been called the king of private bookings. Does that gratify your modest Canadian core?
[laughter] I’m not sure anyone would’ve ever called me an expert, but I became known as a specialist in the area. Music keeps you young like almost nothing else. It’s a shared common language. You remember where you were, who you were with the first time you heard a fantastic song. I currently look after some great touring artists – Diana Ross, John Fogerty and Jeff Beck to name a few – so I travel. Whether a huge venue or intimate, there’s nothing like a live concert, it’s magic, a communal experience. I often walk around during a show and see fan reactions, hear how much the music means to them, to celebrate, fall in love or get through tough times. That’s what creates demand for the artists we represent; it never gets old.
Do your sons think you’re cool?
Well, they think I have a cool job because they get to see shows. When they were young, at bring-your-parent-to-school-day, I followed an astronaut who brought a space mission glove that got a huge “Awesome!” response. Then I talked … crickets. It’s all perspective.
Fill in the blank. You’d not be where you are without … ?
A few lucky breaks that I was fortunate to recognize and take advantage of; it might not be a big break, but it opened a door. Also, some great mentors – always pay that forward – and sense of humour and work ethic from my parents and sisters. For fun I still play guitar occasionally, just not trying to make a living at it; I leave that to the pros.
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