The “My Music Row Story” weekly column features notable members of the Nashville music industry selected by the MusicRow editorial team. These individuals serve in key roles that help advance and promote the success of our industry. This column spotlights the invaluable people that keep the wheels rolling and the music playing.
This edition of “My Music Row Story” is sponsored by Worldwide Stages.
Marc Dennis is a Music Agent at leading entertainment and sports agency Creative Artists Agency (CAA), and Co-Head of CAA Music’s Nashville office. Alongside the other Nashville Co-Heads, Dennis is responsible for managing the agency’s business in Music City.
Dennis provides strategic counsel on concert tours and event bookings worldwide to artists Shania Twain, Alison Krauss, Willie Nelson, Brett Eldredge, Billy Currington, Kellie Pickler, Kelsea Ballerini, Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real, Maddie & Tae, Kip Moore, Carly Pearce, Mason Ramsey, Madison Kozak, Cale Dodds, Seth Ennis, Nate Smith, After Midtown, and Little Big Town, among many others. He also works across the agency to create opportunities for clients in film, television, books, theatre, and endorsements.
MusicRow: Where did you grow up? How did you get into the music business?
My family is originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma. We moved around a good bit. My mom and dad got divorced. My mom met my stepdad, Ron Baird, who was an agent at a company called The Jim Halsey company, which was located in Tulsa back in the day. The Halsey Company was definitely the biggest country music agency at the time. I not only fell in love with [my stepdad], but fell in love with the music business through him at a really early age. When I was just a little kid, I was lucky to have access to lot of really cool people and agents that are actually still doing it today.
Did you study music business in college or jump right in to work?
I graduated high school in Oklahoma and I was looking at [colleges in] Texas, Oklahoma and some of the schools in the southwest. I came out to Nashville to visit my stepdad who had relocated here from Tulsa up when Jim Halsey moved to Nashville. I came out here, looked at Belmont and didn’t love it, drove up the road to Knoxville and loved the University of Tennessee, so that’s where I went.
I studied business there and I was elected to run the campus entertainment board when I was just a freshman. It was a student activities committee that was charged with producing special activities for the student body, such as concerts and comedy. I had three or four different venues on campus that I could use, so that was my first job, booking concerts for the college. In that capacity, I was more of a promoter than an agent, but I was speaking to agents and buying talent from people that I ultimately would end up working with later in life.
I also worked for the arena there in Knoxville, Thompson Boling Arena. I worked for the general manager Tim Reese. I worked on the local crew, I worked in the box office there, I did the campus entertainment board, and I also booked all of the bands for our fraternity [events]. So I had a fairly traditional college course study, but I layered in a lot of extracurricular music business stuff.
What were some shows you organized in college?
I was in college from 1988 to 1992. MTV was still a really big deal and they had a lot of those branded content tours that went out, so we did a lot of MTV stuff that was rolling around college campuses, like the Def Comedy Jam. I pretty much just booked my favorite bands and it turned out the rest of the student body liked it, too.
The first big country show that I had something to do with that was playing at the arena was probably Clint Black. That’s when I really started to appreciate country music more. Not only that concert, but the album that he made Killin’ Time. I was wearing that thing out back in 1990, and not a lot of kids my age were listening to country music back then. It wasn’t like it is now, it was much harder to discover music.
What happened after graduation?
I graduated in 1992 and, with my role as the campus entertainment guy, I was mainly into concert promotion, so my first instinct was to keep going with that. I went to work for a great guy named Steve Moore who had just left a company called Pace, which was running the amphitheater here called Starwood. Steve left Starwood and Pace to start his own company called Moore Entertainment. I was his fourth or fifth employee. Steve was promoting Alan Jackson, Reba, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Brooks & Dunn. I would help him build budgets, put offers together, do ticket counts, and just learn how to promote concerts on a big level. He was really a great teacher. Steve was super accessible to me and I really appreciate and respect him to this day.
When did you move to the agency side of things?
In my capacity with Steve, I had a lot of exposure to agents that we were buying talent from. The concert promotion business is really tough. You win some, you lose some, and by nature, you have to be a bit of a gambler. After doing it for a while, the agency side of the business attracted me a little bit more than promotion. A guy named Rick Shipp at a company called Triad asked me if I wanted to talk to those guys. I took a job there at Triad to be an assistant for a really great mentor, Keith Miller. I was his assistant for a while and then William Morris Agency acquired Triad, so I moved over there and learned from a lot of really great people. I moved to CAA in 2005.
After joining CAA, you moved up the ranks, eventually becoming Co-Head. Along with Brian Manning, Darin Murphy, and now Jeff Krones, you help lead the Nashville office. What all does that entail?
At the end of the day, I’m an agent first and foremost. I’m honored to be in the position to help lead the day to day business of our Nashville office. I’m helping counsel all of our clients and I’m helping counsel our other colleagues. We take care of each other. My primary responsibility is making sure everybody is in a position to succeed and playing the position that they were born to play.
I know you’ve probably been asked about the pandemic a lot, but now that we’re getting past it, have you walked away with any lessons learned or new perspectives?
I don’t know that I have a new perspective as much as it’s fortified what I already thought—which is that this is a really collaborative business and a job where the culture of your team really matters. None of us really have degrees on our wall that say, “You graduated from the school of agenting,” so it’s important to learn from each other. I really believe in that. I believe in community and I believe that we learn something from each other every single day. Obviously that was really difficult during the pandemic when we were all separated. We certainly did our best to stay connected. We’ve been looking at each other on a screen for two years now, but you just can’t replace being in the same space physically with each other.
What are some of the best qualities about our community?
I’ve been doing this for 25 years, so I’ve seen a ridiculous amount of growth in this business. It is stunning what the country music business has become. But at the same time, it’s still a relatively small community of people that are doing it. I really appreciate the fact that I can call someone that I was doing this with 25 years ago.
What have been some of your favorite experiences over the years?
I don’t want to give you a boring, soundbite answer, but I really do enjoy seeing a young person at CAA rise through the ranks and excel. There are four or five agents here now that were my assistant at some point. I’m honored to have been in the position to promote all of them to an agent. I will never forget all of those moments, because I know what it takes to get to that point. I know how hard they’ve worked. I know they’ve had long days and long nights, tough days and great days. When you get to that point, it’s really special.
With our clients, I think a lot of agents would probably say their favorite part is when the artist is first breaking–that first single that works really well or that first album that everybody falls in love with. You can just see their lives changing, both professionally and personally. We all get a lot of gratification out of that. You start working with someone typically when no one knows who they are, and then you’re able to experience a transformational period of time with them. Of course it’s driven by their creative talent, but hopefully you’ve made a couple decisions along the way to help that process.
If someone asked you how to be a successful person in business or in life, what would you say?
This is a very emotional business. All we do is deal with people. Who we represent is a human being with emotions, feelings and thoughts, and who we sell them to…there’s a relationship there as well. When you’re dealing with people all the time, it lends to some complicated situations occasionally which can be emotional. There can be a lot of highs and lows. You can experience the highest of highs and literally 10 minutes later, it’s like you’ve completely forgotten about it because there’s a problem over here that you need to fix. So I think consistency is huge in this business.
One phone call doesn’t need to feel like what you experienced on the phone call before that. I try to not ride a lot of highs or lows, I try to just be consistent every day. I come in and what you see is what you get, people know what to expect from me. I try to be a really stable, logical force, and normalize a super abnormal business as much as I can.