Episode: After Ronald Wilford, Classical Music's Super-Agent, Who Calls the Shots?

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After Ronald Wilford, Classical Music's Super-Agent, Who Calls the Shots?

Ronald A. Wilford, once classical music's biggest power broker, died on June 13 at age 87.

Wilford was an artist manager of the old school, wielding major control over the business but keeping a very low profile. In 50 years at Columbia Artists Management, Inc. (CAMI), he was the power behind the thrones occupied by James Levine, Riccardo Muti, Seiji Ozawa and Herbert von Karajan, among other conductors. With his legendary client roster, Wilford was able to call the shots and secure bookings for lesser-known artists in exchange for one of his A-listers.

But the classical music business has changed dramatically since Ronald Wilford's glory days – and so has the role of the artist manager.

This week's episode looks at Wilford's legacy and the future of artist management with Bill Palant, the founder and managing director of Étude Arts, a new artist management agency; until last month he was a vice president at IMG Artists. Also joining us is David Middleton, a managing partner at Alliance Artist Management, and a onetime employee of Ronald Wilford's CAMI.

"Mr. Wilford had the benefit of being in a position to shape and drive programming globally," said Palant, by essentially forcing orchestras to take the soloists his conductors wanted. But that style of deal-making has become far less routine. "It's no longer a quid pro quo where you say to the orchestra 'my conductor is coming and he or she wants this quartet for a Beethoven Ninth Symphony.'"

Middleton agrees, noting, "In my days at CAMI, there was a sense of heavy-handedness, and that control wasn't felt so well in the industry, particularly on the presenting side."

The management business may still exercise some hard-nosed tactics, but Palant and Middleton say that stealing other firms’ clients is a no-no. "In my experience, there is a respect for each other where we try not to poach artists if at all possible, particularly if it's from a manager that we respect," said Palant. But if a major artist approaches another manager, wanting to jump ship, "then it's fair play.”

Listen to our guests' comments on the future of artist management at the top of this page and share your reactions below.

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