The Hurok and Columbia Artists offices in New York, and Ibbs & Tillett in London proudly held sway, with other significant managements such as Konzert-Direktion Adler in Berlin and the Hansen operation based in Copenhagen enjoying prestige and reverence internationally.
These stately galleons patrolled home waters, and through their system of semaphore regularly arranged for attractions on each other's lists to be winched from ship to ship for concert tours in the varying territories: the old buoy network.
Such was their pre-eminence that the specific interests of performers were in the main considered of lesser importance than providing concert promoters with mail-order catalogues crammed with the broadest choice of names. The last 25 years have seen the gradual but revolutionary move away from that outlook, a change pioneered to a large extent by the Harrison/Parrott office in London - still a market leader. From the late Sixties, the agency brought artists such as Vladimir Ashkenazy and Andre Previn to increasing prominence by daring to focus the service offered on their requirements as commission-paying clients.
'The younger generation of artists began to rebel against the idea that the agency was the crucial instrument of state,' remembers Jasper Parrott, managing director of Harrison/Parrott. 'They grew up with the post-war media explosion, the development of the record industry and so on . . . and had a sense that there need be no boundaries for them.' Whether they actually possess the drive to make it work - whether or not they have the calibre of artist in tow to make it worth while financially - large numbers of European and North American agents ('artist managers' in the new parlance) would now say they aspire to the practice of personal management.
David Sigall, London manager of Ingpen and Williams, says: 'Security of income is bound to entail close attention to the development of artists' careers in a range of countries. As a result, the more bold and innovative managers - especially from the UK where the home market has its financial shortcomings - have responded to the needs, aspirations and demands of artists by circumventing the international network of agents, although only when it appears more appropriate and efficient to sell direct to concert promoters abroad.'
Often this 'direct dealing' has theoretically contravened laws in countries like France and Germany designed to protect home markets. A vocal minority of European artist managers has regularly protested in a doomed rearguard action - many with an antipathy to what is seen as British and American imperialism.
'Smaller countries with small classical music markets like Holland and Belgium are especially vulnerable to direct dealing,' suggests Cornelia Schmid, managing director of the Hanover-based Konzertdirektion Hans Ulrich Schmid agency, which also owns a leading Amsterdam office. 'Artists doing just one or two dates each year there may feel there's no point using local agents, whereas in a market the size and importance of Germany it may be different.'
The emphasis on personal management has inevitably led the more forward-thinking to diversify into associated fields. Stephen Lumsden, managing director of the London-based Intermusica office, handles the careers of such artists as conductors Yan Pascal Tortelier and Matthias Bamert. 'Most of this grows out of concern for the artists. For example, if one of my conductors is appointed to a music directorship then I'm bound to take an interest in the development of his orchestra in terms of tours and other projects.'
The accusation of diary-filling - and other associated afflictions such as an obsession with competition winners - is frequently levelled at US artist managements. Tom Morris, executive director of the Cleveland Orchestra, comments: 'There are artist managers in the States who want to make the bookings and run . . . and yes, the pursuit of the latest hot-shot talent is still a driving force in our music business. But, allowing for the fact that our systems run differently in Europe and North America, I wouldn't say US managements are excessively commercial and many are creative in outlook. Still you have to accept the simple fact that securing work is an important management function.'
Those who fear that the continuing commercialisation of the classical music business is incompatible with the upholding of performing standards, artistic vision and broadening of repertoire may see the arrival in London of IMG Artists (Europe) - part of the US sports supremo Mark McCormack's empire - as a worrying augury for the future. The head- hunting just before Christmas of major London singers' managers Tom Graham and Diana Mulgan from their respective agencies brought to an end a breathless two years in which the IMG Artists (Europe) managing director, Stephen Wright, has progressively signed up talented staff from many areas of the UK music business.
IMG in London now comprises not just artist management (of names such as James Galway and Lynn Harrell) but departments specialising in television and video, sponsorship, event management (buying in Dame Kiri, Jessye Norman et al), orchestra touring and even record production - what looks on the surface like an in-house commercialisation kit.
But Stephen Wright stoutly insists that the make-up of the company is no sell-out to commercialism. 'We remain the servants of the artists. There is no pressure to commercialise careers like that of, say, the pianist Leif Ove Andsnes . . . intelligent, modest and not keen to take on too much at this stage. Significantly, we haven't lost an artist in the two years we've been here. Artist/manager ratios have been deliberately kept low. The point is that we can perform both an artist management function and, quite separately, operate in the more overtly commercial fields, like perhaps filming a portrait of Mariss Jansons and the St Petersburg Philharmonic for TV and video.'
There seems to be genuine confidence that there is nothing to fear from IMG or any other mammoth new arrival on the scene. 'I have the sense that with each indication of the greater commercialisation of classical music and the concentration on just a few names, there's an opposing reaction in other areas of the market worldwide, involving artist managers and concert promoters, towards encouraging new names and more diversity in repertoire,' says Stephen Lumsden, whose Intermusica agency has always been run on small-is-beautiful lines.
'The business isn't about the size of managements, power or packaging,' insists Jasper Parrott. 'It has to do with subtle, individual relationships with orchestra managers, festival directors and so on - indeed, with people of artistic integrity and imagination like the director of the Vienna Konzerthaus or Gerard Mortier at the Salzburg Festival. And I'm encouraged by the newest generation of artists who seem to me to have a heightened sense of the need to defend their individual characteristics.'
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