Hip-Hop’s Go-To Agent on Indie Successes
Believe it or not, rap artists didn't always have to dedicate one-third of the year on tour. At one point, they lived comfortably, doing occasional guest verses for R&B singers, making 20 stacks here, and 30 stacks there, life was easier. For many of those that are coming up in 2013, however, the hustle mentality of touring, consistent engagement with fans, and incessant release of new materials is "completely" part of the job description.
Doing shows across the country as a traveling musician has become a key—if not the most important—component for many artists. That's why a figure like Peter Schwartz's role as the vice president of The Agency Group is crucial. The 20-year veteran who oversees the careers of Mac Miller, Wiz Khalifa, A$AP Rocky, and most recently Macklemore, has string of successes under his belt to don the label as hip-hop's go-to booking agent. Find out how this New York City native fell in love with hip-hop, and helped usher in a new movement of DIY indie rap stars. —Jaeki Cho (@JaekiCho)
How did you begin working with different hip-hop artists?
I grew up in New York City so it’s always been in my world. It’s been a passion of mine all the way through college. When I came out of school, my first job was for a music video production company called New Generation Pictures. And through working with directors I ended up helping them land a couple of videos. Notably “Rampage” with EPMD and LL Cool J, which ironically years later, I realized J. Lo was one of the back-up dancers in that video.
You should’ve kept in touch with her.
[Laughs.] Totally. She looked very different then. It’s funny to see how people evolve.
Any other directors you’ve worked with?
Jim Swaffield was another director at the company. He did videos for A Tribe Called Quest. He did “Scenario” and “Can I Kick It,” which were some killer videos, trendsetters. We were hands-on with those projects and years later those became some of the most legendary hip-hop videos ever.
This is around ’91, when hip-hop was growing, but money wasn’t in astronomical figures yet.
This is when the Beastie Boys broke on the scene and Def Jam was flourishing. I was at this company and didn’t see the longevity. I thought about what else I could do. And a family friend was a promoter, so I went to see what type of work he might have. He suggested I try William Morris Agency.
I haven’t really thought about being an agent. But I said, “I’m going to take his advice and his connection.” So I literally called cold. And after many, many interviews, I ultimately landed a desk in their agent trainee program, which is a glorified name for starting in the mailroom.
Who were some of your first acts?
At William Morris I had literary, film, TV, lots of different areas I was able to work in, but naturally I was gravitated to the desk of Cara Lewis because she had all the great hip-hop acts.
Wow, even back then she had a great roster?
Hip-hop was going by then. Public Enemy, Ice Cube, Ice-T, Digital Underground, Kriss Kros, and I think that’s when it was really blowing up on the pop scene too. And very soon after I started in the mailroom, I actually started helping her and soon enough she got rid of her assistant and offered me a job. I left the mailroom and worked with Cara for about two years. I was an assistant, but I was booking and doing quite a lot of work for her. And then ultimately The Agency Group, which at the time was just opening an US office, approached me. They wanted me to build an urban roster for the company. So I left William Morris and joined The Agency Group. I can say that it was a large leap to leave a very well established, corporate agency to a new, smaller, start-up agency, but I felt I needed to spread my wings and have my own independence and not always be under Cara’s umbrella.
What’s interesting about The Agency Group is that it sticks with smaller acts before they really evolve into full-fledged stars.
I feel like artist development is our greatest strength. Sometimes there’s a grind or an up-and-down. Maybe there’s a change with the label, manager, so many variables that make it tough finding what group you want to invest the time in. And for us we have to put on our A&R hats and find the next ones we want to sign. Of course, being able to sign them is another task because we need to show why we’re the better place for the artist.
We were with Wiz, booking tour dates before “Black & Yellow” came out, we were with Macklemore long before The Heist or before anyone ever heard of “Thrift Shop.” We try to find a good talent, which also has a great team of manager, lawyer, and label. Sometimes it doesn’t explode, and those cases tend to fizzle on their own.
How do you approach artists differently than other agents?
I try to see them live and in some cases I meet them before. What I try to do is get a meeting and get to know them. It’s not like, “I’ll buy you.” And it’s always good to come in with an approach. It’s good to be educated about the artist, know something about them, talk to them about where we see them going, the steps we need to take to go to certain levels. Look at what we’ve done with this artist or that artist. We have a lot of great examples of things that we’ve done.
We also have a good global team. It’s not just the Unites States. My associate, James Ruben, who books all our international shows, is just fantastic. Colin Lewis who books my artists in Canada. So when you see Wiz or anybody taking off with what I’m doing, we’re also doing that globally. That’s something that we’ve been very good at, orchestrating the artist’s global career. Wiz did South America, Macklemore just toured Australia, and Mac Miller was going to support Lil Wayne’s arena tour in Europe.
I love hip-hop still. I think when people come to my office and they don’t find ten guys sitting in a big boardroom in suits looking stiff [laughs] they feel comfortable. We want the artist to feel this is a team.