It is often said that business—and life—is all about relationships. There is perhaps no one better to attest to this than community member and talent agent Jeremy Barber—a fierce proponent of creativity and an emphatic supporter of classical music and the arts. This month, we spoke to Jeremy about his whirlwind life as a partner at a talent agency, the necessity of forming connections based on “creative partnerships,” and his upbringing and experience with Leonard Bernstein. Read a bit from our conversation below:
Hello Jeremy, and thank you so much for taking the time for our audience to get to know you a bit. To start, could you please explain what you do—from the start of your day to the end—as a partner in a talent agency?
I think the first thing to understand is that the concept of time as it exists in other jobs does not exist for a talent agent. With clients all over the world working on different schedules in different time zones, agents do not live in a 9-5 day or a 5-day week. Artists experience time differently from other working professionals. As an agent, you’re blessed with not having typical Sunday night blues, because every day at some level is the same. Like a doctor or a surgeon, as an agent you are always on call. (Although what we do is hardly as important).
What is it about your job that makes it all worth it?
It’s pervasive and all-encompassing. The great thing about the job is that you get to partner with creative people and support their endeavors. And, if you do the job well, you help people realize their hopes and dreams. If you love creativity, there are few jobs better than this.
How did you come to assume your role?
I grew up in New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s in a world surrounded by creativity and the arts. It seemed everyone at that time was involved in the arts in some way. I lived in a place where creativity was the currency—in every conversation and at every event. At some level, creativity was the only path. I acted and wrote until I was 21. Ultimately, I received a law degree from Georgetown.
I was lucky to have a mentor who suggested I marry my vocation (creativity) and my profession (the law). So, I became an entertainment lawyer, which set me on my way to ultimately becoming a partner at a talent agency.
How are relationships different with creative clients than with non-creative people?
A big part of my job is to believe in people. And in order to believe in people you actually have to believe in them. An agent is a collector of sorts who curates a list of artists he or she believes in. It is also not dissimilar to friendship or dating in that there has to be chemistry that works. You must establish trust with people who are often distrustful for very good reasons. If you can establish that relationship, you then have the capacity to represent an artist well. Cynicism is not part of the equation. With any luck, you will be on a magical mystery tour with your clients and will experience both real highs and lows with them. As an agent, your reward is you are surrounded by artistry and creative genius.
You mentioned that this job is very much creating a partnership or alliance with someone. What is it that you do to let them know that you are “in it” with them?
Honest feedback is invaluable; you need to be able to disseminate it if you want to do your job well. At its essence, my job is to be a fan. The work has to resonate. You have to be able to give meaningful, honest feedback to help artists shape their work. The job is both emotional and strategic. You are in a nuanced, complicated relationship.
As an agent, you narrate the story of someone’s career with consistency and humor. One of my strengths is my ability to maintain an even keel in the stormiest seas. Being an agent is an intensive and amazing career, but it is not for the faint of heart or for people who like hikes on a Sunday afternoon without a phone signal.
Could you please delve into your unique family history as it relates to classical music?
My grandfather was a bassist, and he left a seat in the New York Philharmonic to run music education in the New Jersey public school system. He was a professional musician and—legend has it—he created swing bass.
My grandparents owned a house in Massachusetts where Leonard Bernstein would stay while he was conducting at Tanglewood. Because he stayed at my grandparent’s home, I got to see him up close. He loved nothing more than conducting the student symphony at Koussevitzky Hall. In my childhood, it seemed that I was surrounded by great artists everywhere I looked. The excitement of being around creative genius has certainly helped fuel my career. I was lucky to be exposed to people who were changing culture and were working at the top of their game in a hotbed of creativity.
What is one memory from your youth with Bernstein that really sticks out for you?
When you’re little people seem larger than life—but I think with Bernstein, he might actually have been. I remember sitting in the garden while he was holding court wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and of course his big shock of hair. In the ‘70s people looked larger than life because often they were. Bernstein felt like a person on fire.
My grandmother was also close to Norman Mailer who would join us in that garden. Watching Mailer and Bernstein entertain and spar was an amazing experience. As a child I got to sit at the knee of greatness, and now as an agent, I get to have that same experience every day.
Why do you support classical music and arts organizations in general?
JB: Because I believe there is no undertaking more risky and more rewarding than being an artist and shaping culture, I have dedicated a lot of my time and energy to supporting the arts. To me, there’s no greater good than changing the world through storytelling. Perhaps because of those summers in the Berkshires with my grandparents, classical music is one of the things that soothes me when I need to catch my breath, and that feeling has informed my commitment to supporting organizations like the Israel Philharmonic.
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