After the Fox, classical business faces uncertain future

After the Fox, classical business faces uncertain future


norman lebrecht

June 14, 2015

Slipped Disc editorial

Ronald Wilford’s death yesterday leaves the agency world in turmoil.

Wilford chaired and largely owned CAMI, the largest classical agency with several hundred artists on its books. In recent years he confined his activities to a tiny handful of cherished conductors but his writ ran across the company and his personality continued to dictate its policies.

Jean-Jacques Cesbron, his next in line, is Lang Lang’s manager, a businessman with more flair for show than substance. He, and the agency, have shown little interest in emergent talent and artists of depth. All the young conductors who have emerged in the past decade have taken their talents elsewhere. As far as classical music is concerned, CAMI has been in slow decline. It has forsaken its 57th Street fortress and is no longer first port of call for orchestras in search of the next music director.

That said, it still manages the careers of several hundred artists and the absence of Wilford – whose passion for classical talent was unquestioned – will shake their confidence in the giant agency.

The only other agency of comparable size, IMG Artists, is in a state of advanced disintegration with agents and stars departing on an almost monthly basis and its hapless owners powerless to stem the flood.

The two pillars of the classical music business are in disarray. These are turbulent times. CAMI has issued a ‘business as usual’ notice in the hope of stemming uncertainty. But Wilford’s death changes everything. The forces that have controlled classical music careers for as long as anyone can remember are orphaned of their emperor.

The only artists who can feel secure are those with dedicated small management and a well-defined mission.


fallen towers: the former CAMI palace

For more on Ronald Wilford, read The Maestro Myth.


  • John Borstlap says:

    It is bizarre that classical music is managed by organizations which look like supermarkets or conglomerations of oil companies. Music is not a commodity.

    • Angela Rodion says:

      Alas, these days, it is very much a commodity.

    • Alvaro Mendizabal says:

      Western music was created in the churches and castles of Europe as a way of reaching enlightenment or social status, not ROI. That society does not exist anymore – but musicians still feel entitled to the ancillary benefits they used to get (from the long gone patronage system).

      Today’s society works on an ROI basis. If you don’t like it, go to Venezuela, Saudi Arabia or some other current monarchy and – very much a’la 18th/19th century – convince the king of that land to invest in your music and everything is happiness. It happens to Leo Brouwer in Cuba, El Sistema in Venezuela, etc, etc.

      Other than that, music is very much a commodity and you should WISH to have larger enterprises that give musicians the tools to reach wider audiences. Unfortunately this business model is essentially unscalable, leaving only boutique agencies which will continue to reach smaller and smaller sets of people until the regurgitated concerts and recordings of the same music over and over again slowly fades into a sect-like group of people who – Like in this blog – can only see the artistic side of things and lament the ‘old days of glory’ of a failed industry.

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    When Sol Hurok passed, his disciples branched off from the Hurok agency and opened their own offices, taking respected artists with them to start their own concern. Much depends on who owns the share of the business after one passes. Regarding agency size, there are many good points for both. I have been represented by several from the largest to the boutique agency. As far back as time tells, many musicians have sought the smaller agency because they felt they would have more personalized attention, which, in most cases, still rings true. For larger agencies with a wide ranging roster of artists, more phones ring and faxes buzz due to volume of clients, which creates a buzz of its own. Either system works to its best effect. However, the component today helping young artists cultivate their new careers (and even older artists maintaining their careers) has its roots in the internet. This can include websites, social media, YouTube, self-released recordings, and publicity. Prior to this phenomenon of networking, we had to personally phone call conductors and presenters through personal friendships, in order to cement the seeds for future engagements. In the end, no matter large agency or small agency, it is how an artist works with their manager who helps contract, set fees and schedule performances for the most part. Being an ‘agent’ for employment, no matter the profession, has changed to some degree as the walls of communication (to some degree) have come down. People are more reachable these days, compared with the 20th century. I shudder to imagine what classical music might have faced if not for the internet and new ways of bringing music to the masses.

    • Alvaro Mendizabal says:

      The whole “the internet = democracy” is a failed argument that has become a Meme for musicians, who in spite of their clear failures to differentiate still believe in it!

      Let me explain: Technology can be a very disruptive thing, agreed. However, when it REALLY is disruptive, it completely obliterates the old accepted systems. Have you seen a flip-phone recently? How about Cassettes? VHS Tapes? What happened with Blockbuster? WHAT ABOUT KODAK?? can you even buy film cameras anymore? In all those cases, a new technology arrived and DESTROYED the previous status quo, even for a company like Kodak which in the early 90’s was one of the largest corporations in the world, very high in the Fortune Global 500.

      Then Facebook, Youtube and iTunes appeared and all the muscians thought it was going to destroy the labels/management agencies. My question: Are labels still out there, after 15 years of Facebook/Myspace/Napster/Kazaa/iTunes/etc? Are management agencies still out there? OF COURSE they are. Further, neither CAMI, nor Sony music/Universal were ever behemoths of industry like Kodak, Ericsson, Motorola or RIM, which means that they were much more exposed should a really breakthough technology came into play. YET, THEY ARE STILL HERE!

      This means that the whole argument that “musicians don’t need a middle man’ is COMPLETELY failed. Yet people still believe it.

      • Jeffrey Biegel says:

        Always need a middle man to service contracts and set fees. Agreed. It’s just the accessibility in networking which has expanded visibility for musicians.

  • Olassus says:

    CAMI has also for a long time fielded a weak and past-it roster of singers.

  • Alvaro Mendizabal says:

    Industry fragmentation = less bargaining power for the smaller player, leaving them much more exposed to trends and less able to further their artists profiles to a mass public, which is what labels and Venues need to stay afloat (audience draggers). This leaves the players in need of secure bets, because of the logistics of ‘creating a career’ simply do not justify the overhead expenditure of 3-5 years before any relevant return exists.

    A lot of CAMI’s current offer is not classical music at all (I.E. Cami spectrum/Theatricals?), It might have been a large player in our little niche field, but its dwarfed by larger talent agencies from the west coast with which it will likely compete in the future.

    This further corroborates my assessment that the growth of classical music in the 20th century was simply unsustainable and should not have been. Its something great, but we must all understand it is a niche market and a very, VERY small subset of the population will follow it. The market simply works itself out.

  • Nick says:

    Ever since wresting control of Lang Lang’s affairs from IMG Artists, the “new” CAMI business ethics have been steered towards cash and to hell with those who provide some of the opportunities for its clients. Having engaged Lang Lang at a very substantial fee soon after his move, Jean-Jacques Cesbron then insisted on the contract being signed in a matter of days. A couple of months prior to the concert we got wind that the pianist would be performing elsewhere on the same date. That turned out to be true. At no time did CAMI ever inform us that the contract had been unilaterally “disengaged”. Indeed, Cesbron and his associates never once bothered to reply to any requests for confirmation of the non-appearance!

  • Josh J. Washington says:

    Having read this article I can definitely say that old standards for business are not valid anymore and is the main reason why Kodak and similar ones have gone to the dark. The rules are being changed very quickly and those who are able to adapt will win. I can highlight virtual data rooms as reliable next link in the chain of evolution.