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‘Live Trumps Everything’: ICM’s Robert Gibbs on Future of Touring & Industry Diversity

“It’s one thing to talk about diversity,” says Robert Gibbs. “It’s another to actually put people in positions of power to help shape the future.”

That’s the position Gibbs finds himself in now as head of music at ICM Partners. He’s also the highest-ranking Black music executive in the agency business, following the restructuring of ICM’s leadership team in February. Based in Los Angeles, Gibbs took over Mark Siegel’s role in an ICM shuffle that saw Siegel replacing Rob Prinz as ICM’s head of worldwide concerts. (Prinz returned to being a full-time agent and remains a partner.) Gibbs says the blueprint mapped out under Prinz’s watch was “a redefining moment for ICM’s music department, despite the challenges” created by the pandemic. Just prior to the shutdown of the live-music business last March, ICM expanded its international footprint by partnering with London-based agency Primary Talent International (The 1975, Alt-J, Stormzy). Over the last year, nine new music agents from Paradigm, WME and other companies also came on board.

Born and raised in Ann Arbor, Mich., Gibbs was enrolled in the music business program at the Art Institute of Philadelphia when, in his words, he “stumbled upon the agency world” during an internship with a boutique firm. He found his mentor in Dennis Ashley at Creative Artists Agency, where he was hired as Ashley’s assistant in 2001 before becoming an agent. Gibbs later joined Ashley as co-head of ICM’s West Coast urban music division in 2006. Both advanced to partner status in 2016. (Ashley, still a partner and concerts agent, reps Nelly, D’Angelo and Trey Songz, among others.) Then last August, Gibbs joined ICM’s leadership team as head of contemporary music before ascending to his current position.

Throughout his career, Gibbs has focused on R&B and hip-hop and still maintains relationships with artist clients in those genres as well as their managers. They include J. Cole (whom he has repped for 12 years); Cole’s manager and Dreamville president Ibrahim Hamad; Dreamville artist Ari Lennox and her manager, Justin Lamotte of Blackwax; PartyNextDoor and manager Tyler Henry of Range Media; and, most recently, SoFaygo, who is co-managed by Barry Hefner of Since the 80s. Now as ICM’s head of music, he adds oversight of pop, rock, electronic and alternative, alongside Siegel.

Gibbs is intent on paying his success forward through his role as a board member of DiversifyICM. “I love this world,” he says of the agency business. “Hopefully, we can inspire other young men and women that look like me to feel the same way.”

After Billboard spoke with Gibbs, ICM was the subject of a May 5 story in the Los Angeles Times in which former employees alleged a toxic work environment involving misconduct ranging from sexual harassment to a culture of pervasive bullying. He would not comment, but ICM issued a statement from board members and department heads Lorrie Bartlett, Jennifer Joel and Janet Carol Norton. “Neither we nor our company are perfect; no one is,” the statement read, in part. “But in a challenging, competitive and labor-intensive industry that demands much of its participants, we feel privileged to enjoy a safe and encouraging environment, fair and abundant opportunities, and the respect and support of all colleagues of all genders.”

COVID-19 decimated the live industry. How was ICM able to remain resilient?
When things shut down, we said, “How do we get better?” So, we went out and acquired agents like Simon Clarkson and Paul Gongaware to build out and oversee our new electronic music department. We also brought in Pete Nash from WME. He represents Kings of Leon and Pet Shop Boys. We began integrating more on the international front with the March 2020 acquisition of Primary Talent International. We pivoted to virtual shows and brand and TV/film deals for artists that wanted to dive into those. Now it feels like full steam ahead.

As festivals and shows ramp up, how are the economics of the agency business and booking changing?
When we started to negotiate artist fees for festivals, the conversation was, “Well, the artists are going to need to take a reduction, because we don’t know what the capacity is or what other restrictions are in place.” Then, over time, there was more science and more people were being vaccinated. Outside Lands was one of the first festivals that went up, and they had massive numbers on their launch day. After that you had Life Is Beautiful, Bonnaroo and the Reading and Leeds festivals in Europe — all with sales numbers going up and up. Then promoters were saying, “Let’s not worry so much about reducing artists’ guarantees. The demand is there and people are ready to go.”

People are paying a premium right now. That is great for our business. However, agents, artists and managers can’t get lost in this moment of pent-up demand. As we go into 2022, there are going to be more shows and festivals — along with movie theaters and restaurants reopening. There are going to be so many options for fans. We have to be very smart about ticket charges.

Hip-hop had explosive growth in streaming and touring before the pandemic. Do you see more hip-hop artists selling out arenas as live music returns?
Selling out arenas doesn’t always correlate with streams. Do I see more artists moving into that space? Yes. You’re probably talking about a handful of hip-hop artists from the present generation that can headline arenas: Drake, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Travis Scott, Childish Gambino and Tyler, The Creator. And from the generation before them, there are just four headliners: JAY-Z, Kanye West, Eminem and Lil Wayne. I’m not including R&B artists like The Weeknd, Rihanna or Beyoncé. When you look at the careers of all those artists, it has taken time to build up to that level.

How is R&B holding its own in relation to hip-hop?
It hasn’t gotten the credit it should have over the years. R&B is stronger than ever, and it’s only going to get bigger. With Chris Brown — who continues to deliver No. 1 records — Rihanna, The Weeknd and Queen Bey herself, the sky’s the limit. And beyond the high-profile artists, people’s eyes are opening up. That’s why you’re seeing the success of H.E.R., SZA, Jhené Aiko, Ari Lennox, Daniel Caesar and others who are phenomenal songwriters.

Conversations have arisen recently about the lack of diversity at ICM and other agencies. Given how important the live business is to the music industry, why haven’t agencies come under the same scrutiny in terms of systemic bias?
It’s no secret that there aren’t a lot of minorities in our business. But current events have opened everyone’s eyes to look around and say, “This isn’t right.” It’s incumbent upon all of the agencies to step up, educate and truly mentor — to not only get people of color in the door but to make sure we’re there to walk them through the process. Saying that we are doing our job because we hired someone of color is not going to fly. We must reach into our communities on a local and national level to find candidates. ICM has partnered with HBCU LA to bring in one-third of our interns this summer from historically Black colleges and universities around the country. Education is where it starts. Going to school, I didn’t know much about what agencies did or their history. I stumbled upon the agency business when someone took me under their wing and mentored me. That gave me the opportunity to grow and succeed.

Endeavor, the parent company of rival agency WME, recently went public. What does that mean for ICM and other agencies moving forward?
Agencies are getting into other businesses. We’re diversifying our portfolio. While a primary goal remains building a global footprint musicwise, we’ve also entered the sports world, having just acquired the U.K.-based sports agency Stellar Group. I hope Endeavor is successful, because their success is good for the entire sector.

As the live industry reboots, what does the new landscape look like?
It will be a hybrid of different things until everything is back. Livestreams and virtual meet-and-greets will continue. And as that market sector and virtual technology continue to develop, there will be big events that people can tap into and feel like they’re inside the venue. Over the past year, there have been some pretty good virtual shows, but the majority have been underwhelming. Live trumps everything.

This article originally appeared in the May 15, 2021 issue of Billboard.

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