Sam Feldman thrives on the chaos and risk of the entertainment biz.
Sam Feldman feels like his career has been a bit of a wager – and that’s just the way he likes it. The 40-year talent agent who manages or represents such stars as Diana Krall, Elvis Costello, Michael Bublé, Sarah McLachlan, Nelly Furtado and the Chieftains happily admits to a “serious amount of misspent youth” in pool halls and at money games. While he’s graduated to playing only at the odd CEO-style poker tournament in Las Vegas nowadays, Feldman knows risk-taking is still very much in his blood.
“Do I still gamble? Every day I go to work,” avers the CEO of Vancouver-based talent agency S.L. Feldman & Associates Ltd. “That’s what working for yourself is all about and why it suits me.”
Like a lot of Vancouverites, in his early years he headed to the pulp mills in Prince Rupert to earn money, but soon realized a “boring” salaried job was not for him. “That is jail to me,” the 62-year-old says with a grimace. He tells the now-fabled story of how he fell into the ’70s club scene – as a doorman – to repay $300 borrowed from a friend to return from his European travels, adding, “I never wanted a nine-to-five so I got a nine-to-two a.m. instead. But it never felt like a job. I just loved it.”
Forget training, he says; that level of passion is what’s essential for the business: “It’s like a Moroccan bazaar – you just have to walk in and find your own way,” he explains over seafood chowder, duck salad and green tea at Granville Island’s Bridges Restaurant near his office. “You are going on your wits from square one.”
Clearly his wits are weapons-grade. Since partnering in 1971 with fellow manager Bruce Allen to create the management and booking agency, A&F Music Ltd., with the likes of Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Loverboy and Doug and the Slugs, he’s since segued into various other divisions including ones for film and television talent. It’s all fuelled by a “strong-willed” staff of 70 in Vancouver, Toronto and L.A., he points out. “I’m not in favour of a yes-man format among my organization,” he explains. “You have to have a devil’s-advocacy system; controversy helps crystallize the best way forward.”
The industry is both easier and harder now than when he started. Recording is cheaper and the Internet is an obvious global megaphone (he used to staple-gun posters around town). “But at the same time there are now a bazillion artists doing it and it takes companies like mine to really pour fuel onto the fire to get noticed,” Feldman adds. Potential stars must have longevity for Feldman to put them on his roster. No one, not even his 21-year-old son Leon, who is in two bands, is cut much slack: “It’s the only way to learn,” Feldman comments.
Living on Vancouver’s west side with Janet York, his film-and-television producer wife, Feldman’s downtime revolves around his family (the couple has five grown-up children between them) as well as friends, golf and travel, often to their holiday home on Hawaii’s Big Island. Going to gigs is clearly a busman’s holiday, but he singles out one concert where he allowed himself a moment of particular pride: the three sold-out shows of musical legends Carole King and James Taylor, the latter of whom he co-manages, at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 2010.
The reflection is short-lived, however. Feldman relies less on past success and more on “constant paranoia” to fuel the business. “We have a good reputation and smart people,” he continues, “but it’s not like we’re selling widgets and have orders for the next seven years. Anything can happen.”
And, of course, it does: Norah Jones, the Grammy-winning jazz star who had been with Feldman since her dramatic debut in 2003, left his stable late last year. “It’s horrible – I hate it,” he says, before expanding less viscerally, “but artists are artists and they have their reasons; logic doesn’t play a big part of this business. You just have to roll with it, move on and wish her luck.”
If that sounds like slightly anodyne “take-the-high-road” corporate speak, Feldman means it to be. “It’s a tough road to take, but that’s where you have to be. This business is extremely competitive; full of egos,” he says gingerly. “No one gets out alive.”