Industry Profile DJ Agent David Levy

Words by: Polly Lavin
Posted: 23/6/11 12:40

Industry Profile DJ Agent David Levy Talking at IMS, David Levy is one of the first ever DJ agents and now based at William Morris Endeavour one of the biggest talent agencies in the music industry. Levy is also one of the most feared agents in the industry but is also highly revered and came across as exceptionally grounded.

Starting his career originally as a social secretary by running parties at college Levy drifted into the music industry off the advice of someone who said 'If you want to do well in the music business be an agent, they are in the middle of everything".

His first job in the mid 80's was working for an agent in London for payment of £20 a day. This was a particularly difficult period as his ability to manage bills and more was affected by low wages so he moved onwards to work for a bigger agency. He received a call about an act gaining notoriety in the US called Marshall Jefferson. No-one really believed at the time that a DJ could be a 'show' but having frequented Rock City in Nottingham every weekend he decided to ring the in-house DJ to ask about other acts such as Larry Heard and Frankie Knuckles who were also being brought to his attention. The DJ told him "You want to call this guy in Manchester Mike Pickering". Pickering immediately told Levy "I'll have him" when he heard the acts name. The acts were booked and brought over to the UK to play  but a number of DJs began ringing Levy to tell him they were not being paid, Levy rang the promoter collecting the monies Larry Sherman and told him he thought they should get paid.

Marshall Jefferson returned to Chicago and told people about Levy's money collecting skills and his talent was sourced by others therein to which he said "I didn't really know much about being an agent, I just loved the music I would lose acts onto the bigger guys, but I would move onto the next act." - Interviewed by Ben Turner

Tell us about the scene in London at the time was the scene a bit racist and hard for them to break through?
I don't know if it was racist but the scene in London was all funk and James Brown and downbeat stuff. They would play all over the country then come to London, when we did Adiva live it was the first time that any of those acts that played with a live band.

Frankie KnucklesHow did you start to build the power base of your status?
Big love happened in the 80's I represented Frankie Knuckles, Paul Oakenfold. We found out all the sets had been recorded and how much money had been changing hands and decided right then we better get serious about this. Paul Oakenfold went to his club night 'Future' met the Happy Mondays did a deal with Pioneer and never got sent the kit. So, I asked him for the paperwork and sorted it out for him.

You fell out with Paul at the time didn't you?
Yeah, just the once everyone tried to split us up, we fell out over an internet deal with James Malumbo. We'd be at the same place 3 or 4 months and it was quite stupid really, eventually our boss at the time, Barry Dickens just came in and said 'you two sort this out its stupid' and we were like 'Ok than Barry' sort of moved on then. That was the moment when Maria became much more the point person for Paul; it changed the way our relationship then worked.

People talk to me about the famous David Levy phone calls I've had a few? Were you an angry person at this time?
Yeah, I think I was. I mean it bothered me that professionally a lot of people were not trying to be the best they could be, but your reputation was set at that point. To be fair to me there was a period where a lot of these promoters were actually drug dealers posing as promoters, but I didn't go to gigs due to people seeing me.

Tell me how many times you now make that famous David Levy phone call?
Maybe twice a year? I'm semi-retired now.

Tell us about how the William Morris arrangement came about and your feelings about making the leap?
It was a personal decision, I wasn't pushing myself, it wasn't about being unhappy at ITB, I needed a challenge, the idea of joining a company that was more than about music and electronic. Pete was also looking for a way to work with me, greatest broadcaster in dance music history, one of the greatest A&R people to exist in the industry, his A&R skills of finding talent and developing talent.

Paul OakenfoldIn terms of the people who you took with you? You didn't take Oakenfold?
Oakie, Layo and Bushwacka etc stayed where they wanted to stay. They were Maria's clients. Emotionally I miss Frankie Knuckles the most, this guy played at my wedding.

The current vision for William Morris?
According to the competition we're taking over the world, but I don't know about that. I think we're trying to be the best that we can. I wouldn't say we have it right yet, we get some right, some wrong, ultimately what we want to do is provide anybody from the electronic world who knows the culture and value to navigate with other areas of entertainment industry.

The number of artists who have chosen to work with us some have left but most have stayed, I think I'm enjoying the most positive relationship I've ever had with promoters at present.

There are a lot of smaller agencies who are squeezed out by William Morris?
I understand them I was that guy, but all we're trying to do is raise the ceiling, we're not saying there is not space for other people, we work with independents in our team.

You have big global internal meetings where pretty much everyone knows what's coming in? How do you feel about that I know from people who book talent, everybody is driving prices up internally?
I think it's our job to get our clients the best deal possible but it's not always about money. One of our best relationships we have is with Fatboy Slim who we focus on keeping relevant. There is always going to be a moment in an artist's career where they need to monetise there's certainly promoters who don't give back to the artists.

Norman JayHow do you find the politics of promoting today?
Stimulating. I like an intellectual challenge, I'm certainly one person who would sit down with an artist and manager and challenge that.

Ibiza was a bit of a late discovery for you? What took you so long?
God knows? How stupid was I. I think as a young person I had quite strong views about drug culture, I had friends from school that got very messed up in a stupid way and I think Ibiza for me was about Ibiza uncovered.

You sort of hang out in a different place on Monday morning? DC10
I love it, I love the fact that they care about people in that club more than anything else. It's a proper old fashioned club all about music, play a lot of music that I happen to like too. It's the first club since 'high on hope' that Norman Jay used to run that I get a feeling at.

I think if you lose the feeling as to why you would go to a club, its lost. I love the other clubs too though the terrace on Space etc but DC10 has that spirit for me. As a company I think we'd like to be more involved in that space. As an individual I think I want to see Ricardo Villalobos and Davide Squillace last season which was a revelation for me.

You are mentoring a lot of people at work at the moment will you ever lose the desire to be on the phone nailing deals?
Well, at the moment we have an amazing bunch of people who work at William Morris and I love that aspect of working with a global team. I think that's why I agreed to talk today I don't feel I need to hold on to anything.

There is an uneasy relationship between artists & promoters, they both need each other to exist, right now it's a bit of a gold rush, there are lots of people throwing money at it and it's very hard to say no...What's your interpretation of electronic music becoming true global phenomena?
In some ways we're already there we're just not organised. We live in a hip hop world where electronic music has become the lifestyle. We should all be getting the rewards of that anybody who has put 10/20 years into it. William Morris can talk about how to take electronic music into films, TV etc even books.

Prices for DJs going up? Are you seeing that across the board?
I hear of pricing for some DJs that does surprise but I'm not involved in that. It's a simple equation, how many people walk in the door at that price and can you make that money. In the rock and roll business it's a fact that the artist make 85 -90% of the take. There is an uneasy relationship between artists and promoters, they both need each other to exist, right now it's a bit of a gold rush, there are lots of people throwing money at it and it's very hard to say no.

People throw silly numbers out then others price on that basis, if you put it in your contract then you are always protected.  Promoters or DJs who overly inflate their ticket price and their fee though won't be around very long; careers and longevity are about making it last not a single moment.

BjorkWhen are you going to retire so we can all make some money?
I actually have never exploited a situation. It's a little known fact I could have owned a few electronic companies along the way but I'm a bit of a purist at heart.

You never wanted to go independent?
Well I was independent when I was younger and it was sort of a thankless task, you wake up wondering how am I going to pay the bills, I have been there.

Which artist do you wish you had of had on your books?
I guess I regret the fact the relationship I had with Luciano didn't pan out, as I think he is an amazing guy. I do respect those guys so much musically that it might get in the way. I'm very lucky though I work with some truly amazing artists.

Who have you really enjoyed working with most over the years?
On the basis of 3 artists who have really been with me the whole journey and I love them to bits. Norman Cook, the nicest person in this business. Massive Attack, they are just great guys and they really let me do what I want. Bjork is easily the most creatively fulfilling artist. I have the creative input to shape her tours which has helped me, most importantly it also taught me there is nothing you can't do it if you want it.

What are you looking for in an artist?
Uniqueness, what do I see that I don't see somewhere else. When I meet any artist I ask myself the question can I make a difference and if I can answer yes then I can. I like to be more involved in the process as to why they are going to make that journey.

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