Chicago's alternative music world paid little attention to American Famous Talent; the small but sturdy booking agency's nut was made setting up tours for blues standbys and slightly faded roots-based stars, from Buddy Guy and Koko Taylor to Johnny Winter and John Mayall. Nevertheless AFT, based in a small office on Evergreen just south of the North and Clybourn intersection, had grown over its 12-year life to become the biggest booking outfit in Chicago.
It's not anymore. A couple of weeks ago the company's two senior agents, Garry Buck and Ron Kaplan, told owner Ric Bracamontes they wanted to have lunch with him. Their news: they were jumping ship to open up a company of their own in partnership with Monterey Peninsula Artists, the prestigious California agency that's home to acts like Aerosmith, Bonnie Raitt, the B-52's, and Melissa Etheridge. Bracamontes was stunned. As the trio walked back across the street, a truck waited outside the AFT office--"three guys chewing toothpicks waiting to move them out," as Bracamontes recalls it. "What did I do to you guys that you would do this to me?" he asked rhetorically.
The absconding pair have similar backgrounds: both musicians, they got started in the business in semisuccessful local acts, and Kaplan even toured with Mayall. They met at an agency called Prestige, which they left soon after to get in on the ground floor with American Famous Talent. Over the years they'd emerged as the company's most valuable assets. All the parties involved say the problem was never the pair's lack of equity ownership; rather, it seems they had bigger ideas than were dreamt of in Bracamontes's philosophy. The big jump had its genesis a few years ago: Monterey came to town to aquire AFT, but the deal never jelled. "Recently, we revisited it," says Kaplan.
For the record, everyone says that everything was done on the up and up. Kaplan and Buck insist that none of their artists or their managers knew what was being planned; Monterey Peninsula's most prominent partner, Fred Bohlander, says that the pair's clients "weren't part of the premise at all. They're outstanding agents; it wasn't necessary to bring their clients with them." But the booking business is based on personal relationships. The agents, not the business, find the acts, sign them, nurture their careers.
And indeed, with Kaplan and Buck went perhaps 75 percent of AFT's business. Guy, Mayall, and Taylor, Alligator acts like Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials and Lonnie Brooks, guitarist Robben Ford: all these have taken the walk down to the River North offices of what's been christened Monterey International. "It was a relatively simple situation," notes Bruce Iglauer, who owns Alligator and manages Taylor and Brooks. "They booked 75 to 80 percent of the dates the artists played. When we heard they were moving to Monterey, it seemed logical to continue to work with them." On the other hand, he points out, Alligator's Elvin Bishop, who was generally handled by Bracamontes, is thus far still with AFT.
Neither Kaplan nor Buck nor most of the agency's artists had contracts, Bracamontes admits. "In retrospect I'm kicking myself in the ass," he says. But he points out that much of the business is done that way. "If they like what you're doing they don't leave." While the decimation of an existing agency isn't typical, agents do move--one recently left Monterey Peninsula, taking R.E.M. with him. "We did it by the book," Buck says. "We had some very strict guidelines. After we talked to Ric we talked to the managers and said here's the situation. We let them decide for themselves." Adds Kaplan, "We spent a lot of hours with counsel figuring out how to do it in the most professional way."
The plan is to combine Kaplan and Buck's client base with that of Monterey agent Paul Goldman, who handles nonrock acts like Acoustic Alchemy and Spyrogyra: the Chicago office will be Monterey's center for blues, world beat, and jazz. The days when biggies like William Morris had offices in Chicago are long gone, making this "the first time in 20 years an agency with this much force has been in town," Buck says. Duff Rice, booker of the Cubby Bear, says he's excited for Kaplan, with whom he frequently works. He sees the plain benefits of a big-name agency being familiar with his club: "It's easier to bring people into the room when you don't have to make that extra step."
Meanwhile, AFT will have to reconfigure itself: some longtime support staff have already been let go. Bracamontes's only agent left is Sam Perlman, his most recent hire and the one person who sees the bright side in this. "I'm going to be turning the negative into a positive," says Perlman, who just signed a New York band called 22 Brides and a Madison artist named Willy Porter. "This is a huge opportunity for me to do the things I couldn't do while those guys were around." A glum Bracamontes agrees. "We're competing against giants, as we have in the past. But we're going to compete and continue to be a viable company."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brad Miller.