Whether playing bass in his anarcho-punk band, co-heading the massively successful Coda Agency or pushing his body to the limit by cycling up yet another mountain, Rob Challice has always been about “striving to challenge the norm”.
As Challice enters his 35th year in the business, he’s celebrating the rise and rise of Coda Agency, which he co-founded in 1992.
Joined last month by another defector from United Talent Agency, Geoff Meall, Coda’s 20-plus agents represent a broad spread of artistes, including Take That, Bastille, The Prodigy, Ellie Goulding, Clean Bandit, Imagine Dragons, Jess Glynne, Example, The xx and Shawn Mendes.
Challice has no hesitation in describing the Coda team collectively as “mavericks”, but their successes prove that whatever may superficially appear to be somewhat cavalier, it’s underpinned by an unflinchingly logical method.
He was born in Southend-on-Sea, a classic English resort town, and launched himself into the world of music as bass player in Gravesend’s finest anarcho-punk outfit, Anthrax (not to be confused with the American band of the same name) in 1982, while still at Longfield School.
His father being a vicar, the band rehearsed in the church hall, which is also where another early Challice venture, the punkzine Enigma, was produced on an old Gestetner copier.
Leaving school at 15, Challice worked briefly as a toolmaker but was soon made redundant.
“Luckily,” he recalls, “I got a sizeable redundancy cheque, which enabled me to move up to London.”
His early adventures continued from a none-too-glamourous squat at No 96 Brougham Road in Hackney.
By 1984 he had started a new band, Faction, but he was also clearly heading towards the business side of music, founding his own tape-based indie label 96 Tapes, then taking over the running of All The Madmen Records and Wot! Distribution, a mail-order company selling vinyl, fanzines and more.
His entrepreneurial spirit was already clearly in evidence. “In June we ran a gig for the GLC [Greater London Council] in Victoria Park with two flatbed trucks, and we realised it would be great to drive down to Wiltshire afterwards to visit Stonehenge Festival.
“We couldn’t get anywhere near that, so we carried on to Glastonbury, turned up early on Sunday morning and said, ‘We’ve come to pick up the PA’ and they just let us in. We parked up, went off and enjoyed the Sunday, and they assisted us off the site at the end.”
Come 1987, with his existing jobs providing precious little income, he nudged a shade more towards the mainstream when he joined Allied Agency, where, “I started booking acts like Desmond Dekker, Four Brothers, Real Sounds of Africa and a lot of Celtic and folk acts such as Oysterband and Davy Spillane. It also enabled me to start doing bookings in mainland Europe.”
Six months later came another dramatic move, when Challice started his own agency, F.A.B. (Forward Agency Booking), which is where he first started working with a man who remains a close colleague, Steve Strange (later a co-founder of X-ray Touring).
“In the previous year I’d been promoting in Ireland, and the last shows I ever promoted were Young Gods, who Rob looked after and sold-out in Belfast and Dublin,” Strange recalls.
Challice invited Strange to join F.A.B. and he accepted. “Rob mentored me a lot during that period. Among other things, he taught me how important it was to have a strategy,” he says. “He guided me through my first experiences of working in mainland Europe, with Ash and the other artistes I had back then.”
In this period Challice also continued to promote shows in the capital, the most celebrated of which was Nirvana’s first London concert, in which they supported Sub Pop label mates TAD at the School Of Oriental And African Studies (cap. 600).
“I co-promoted that with Simon Aldis of the Student Union and we booked the Nirvana/TAD double bill from the agent Russell Warby shortly after the release of Bleach.
“The crowd went crazy as soon as Nirvana hit the stage. As was the way at punk/grunge gigs then, we were our own pit security – a handful of us and their PR holding off a mad sea of bodies and limbs,” Challice remembers.
“We probably oversold the room, it was 700 going on 1,200 people and I remember settling with Russell after the show, we had more than doubled guarantee.”
F.A.B. continued for 11 years until, in 1999, Challice teamed-up with Clive Underhill-Smith to form Concert Clinic. One lasting relationship he made in his three years at Concert Clinic was with Ron Euser of Amsterdam-based Mojo Concerts, who says, “It’s not just about the money, with Rob. I think he has to be moved by the music he gets involved with.
“You still see him at a lot of gigs and showcases, and he’s always looking for new artistes. I think he knows, when he starts working with certain acts, that the ceiling for that act might never be more than 1,000 people a night, so his commission will be moderate, but it’s about working with music he enjoys.”
Another of Challice’s distinguishing features is that he likes to break new ground, even when that involves taking a sizeable risk. There’s no better example of this trait than the Summer Sundae Festival, which he started in 2001 as a joint venture with the 2,000-capacity De Montfort Hall in Leicester.
Richard Haswell, manager of the hall at that time, remembers how the idea first surfaced while he and Challice were having a drink in a local pub.
“I’d worked with Rob before, and we got talking about how we could see a gap in the market for a festival with a diverse range of music, that would appeal to all age ranges, where people would be treated nicely,” Haswell says. “Incredible as it sounds, festivals like that barely existed then.”
What they came up with, the Summer Sundae Weekender, was in the vanguard of the boutique festival development which was then in its infancy.
The first, headlined by Lambchop in the hall, and Morcheeba in De Montfort’s garden, drew 2,000 people and by the time it ran its course in 2012 it was a three day event which had overflowed into a nearby park and was reaching 8,000.
Another of the most significant relationships in Challice’s career also started in 2001.
“I was invited to the MPI [agency Miracle Prestige International] Christmas party at a pub in Camden, where I saw this guy win the quiz and then throw the trophy out of the window, before setting his chest alight.”
Needless to say, his curiosity was aroused and he soon befriended the unusually extrovert agent, Alex Hardee. As luck would have it, MPI was suffering from staff departures and, as Challice was simultaneously having doubts about the viability of Concert Clinic, “a merger of the two seemed to make sense”.
Asked to reflect on their momentous coming together, the engagingly idiosyncratic Hardee offers, “I wasn’t as straight-laced and clean-living then as I am now, but I do seem to remember that he had a nice head of hair back then.”
As is his way, Hardee chuckles at the memory, before adding, “Rob leans towards generally guitar-based and more sophisticated artistes like Calexico and Bon Iver, as opposed to the stuff that I look after. My musical tastes are more, er, mainstream.”
The merger moved ahead with alacrity and, “By January we’d moved into the MPI offices in Camden. The new venture was named Coda, and it was a limited company. MPI directors Phil Banfield and Miles Copeland had the bulk of the shares, Clive [Underhill-Smith] had some and I had mine.”
“Finally I felt like I was part of a real agency”
Thus Coda was launched with six agents, seven support staff, and about 180 acts.
“Finally I felt like I was part of a real agency,” recalls Challice. “Up until then I’d run small agencies and made things happen, often in a very hand-to-mouth way. At Coda I really started being an agent, and making major decisions as part of a team.”
Although Copeland, original manager of The Police and then Sting, had been a part of the company since his and Banfield’s Prestige Talent merged with Steve Parker’s The Miracle Agency in 1992 [Parker left in 1998], his involvement with the new entity required some refinement.
“He was based in LA and I didn’t want people to have the perception that Coda was run by Miles, so a deal was done,” says Challis. “It was all very amicable, whereby he got a cheque.”
The newly-established Coda boasted a mix of savvy veterans and fresh young blood. Having been agent for artistes such as Black Sabbath and Sting, MPI boss Banfield, for example, came with an invaluable fund of experience, and the inclusion of accountant Dave Hallybone meant, says Challice, that “suddenly we had an accounts department”.
Coda started out as an Limited company but, perhaps understandably for a former anarcho-punk rocker, Challice says, “I don’t like pyramids. I like to feel that the boss is in the trenches along with everybody else. It’s a huge driving factor when you know that the people around you are fighting similar battles to yours.”
From his perspective, then, “the key thing in Coda’s history happened in 2007, when we decided to become an LLP [a limited liability partnership]. That meant Phil, Dave, Alex, James [Whitting], Tom [Schroeder] and me could sit at a table as equals, with equal responsibility for the risks, bringing in staff, bringing in other agents. That gave us all real drive.”
The week at Coda is still structured, as it was back then, around two lively weekly meetings, held in a specially constructed arena-like section of the office where everyone sits on semi-circular rows of benches. Tuesday brings the agents meeting, attended by all the bookers.
“It’s a really good talking shop looking at every aspect of what we’re doing,” says Challice. “When new agents join us, they find it very refreshing.”
Wednesday is the management meeting. “Those are where we learned how to take risks, and not be scared of failing. If somebody has a really good idea and they’re going stick their neck out and make it happen, then we’re going to back them.”
Another cornerstone of the Challice approach to staff inclusion is that, “You have to be able to laugh at your own cock-ups. Before I started Coda, I was quite guarded. I kept myself to myself. Then you meet a big character like Alex who tells it all.
“When he lost Calvin Harris he was completely open to everybody about what had happened. So his experience became something we could all learn from rather than feeling miserable about.”
Enter the Shame Up Trophy. “If you screw-up,” he explains, “maybe not winning a pitch, or losing a band, putting a show on sale and it bombs … rather than hide and pretend it didn’t happen, you can claim the trophy.
“We had one agent who won it by asking, ‘How often does Music Week come out?’”
Marty Diamond, Paradigm Talent Agency, US
“Rob is thoughtful, artiste sensitive, knows what he thinks, and he’s a total gentleman. He’s quiet and introspective and that’s an important part of his thought process. He takes time to listen, and form smart and intelligent decisions.”
Frank Nes, BergenLive, Norway
“With Rob you always get a straight answer, and his team are hard working decent people. I like that. Also, you always know that the acts he takes on are quality acts, even if not always chart-topping prospects.”
Ruud Berends, ETEP/Eurosonic Noorderslag, Netherlands
“We go back a long way. I remember him being the promotor of the London School of Oriental and African Studies show for Nirvana when I was the European agent. Rob is a good, straight, mostly honest agent, and nice guy.”
Juliet Wills, manager of Billy Bragg, UK
“Along with a diplomatic, no frills, no fuss, problem-solving manner, Rob is extremely organised and considered, looks way ahead so his artistes don’t have to. He is the definition of a safe pair of hands.”
Kelly Chappel, Live Nation Entertainment, UK
“Rob is a great listener and always makes everyone feel like they are a key part of the team. He takes his acts’ careers very seriously, but still sees the humour in it all. We often put the world to right over breakfast, sharing stories, debating the music industry, but mostly gossip.”
Andre Bechir, ABC Productions, Switzerland
“My links to Coda go back long before the agency was started. I have known Phil Banfield since the 1970s, Sol Parker for many years, and I’ve done a lot of business with Alex Hardee. It’s a great agency, really good at picking-up new acts, always growing, with more people there every time I visit.”
Andre Lieberberg, Live Nation Germany
“I really love Rob, he’s an amazing man. Whenever we get together we laugh a lot. I think what makes him a great agent, apart from his excellent taste in music, is that he’s a respectful and credible person with a great sense of humour.”
In 2009, after Richard Haswell had departed from Leicester’s De Montfort Hall and Summer Sundae, Challice approached another long-standing friend, Frank Nes of Norway’s BergenLive festival to step in.
“Back in 1996, Rob had been the first agent to trust us with an international act, Nine Below Zero, to play at our festival,” declares Nes. “Unfortunately, Summer Sundae didn’t last much longer, but after that experience, we made a more successful partnership with Rob as part-owner of the UK’s Larmer Tree Festival [4,000].”
Having booked bands into Larmer Tree for over 25 years, Challice knew its founders, James Shephard and Julia Safe, very well. “I’d driven bands down there in vans in the early days. I’d watched it grow, so Frank Nes and I thought it might be a good event to buy into.”
It has proved a happy marriage, and endures to this day, with artistes such as Tom Jones, Caro Emerald, Jamie Cullam, Tom Odell, Squeeze and The Levellers playing the festival.
Fiona Glyn-Jones, Showpony Management
“Rob was incredibly supportive of the idea that my client John Grant should do a tour with the Royal Northern Sinfonia. A lot of agents would have shied away because it required a lot of funding from the Arts Council, lots of paperwork, a lot of personnel, but Rob was 100 per cent involved. They were some of the most stunning shows that John has ever performed.”
Nick Hobbs, Charmenko, Turkey
“I’ve worked with Rob for over 20 years and he is always happy. He’s a music person through-and-through, he’s intelligent, he listens and he’s not a shifty obnoxious shark.”
Karsten Janke, Karsten Janke Konzertdirektion, Germany
“I’ve been working with Rob for a really long time and it has always been great. He has the unique ability to recognize mainstream potential in artistes that many of us would have never imagined in big venues. His straight-forward approach and loyalty make him stand out in this business.”
Andreas Moeller, Schöneberg Concerts, Germany
“Rob is a music fan first and he really respects the art and personality of each of the artistes he represents. Rob always thinks and works on a partnership basis with his managers and also promoters.”
Dominique Revert, Alias Production, France
“Rob has a beautiful roster, very attractive for the French market, especially the cultural market. He is a very composed man and at the same time, very classy.”
Herman Schueremans, Live Nation Belgium
“I like Rob for three reasons: he loves music and cycling and he is a fantastic human being, who believes in building careers for his quality acts, and therefore we are supporters of him.”
Mads Sorensen, Beatbox, Denmark
“Rob has great musical taste, and always gets the job done in the smoothest possible way. Doing Bon Iver with him, going from 200 people in clubs to an arena in Denmark, has been an amazing journey.”
Jason Colton, Red Light Management, US
“With me being based in Seattle, Rob is often my last email before bed and the first email I respond to in the morning. Even after many years of working in Europe, the shifting international touring landscape requires ongoing education for many US-based managers like me, and Rob always has the patience to explain what I need to know.”
Asked to list some of the most significant moments in Coda’s history, apart from the decision to become a partnership in 2007, Challice includes the company’s move to new offices in Compton Street in 2011.
“We felt we’d won a battle around that time,” he points out, “because another agency was trying very hard, almost every week, to steal acts from our agents, particularly in the dance/pop area. Facing that off made us stronger.”
What has been perhaps Coda’s most momentous decision came in 2014.
“We were increasingly aware that the wind was changing more towards managers, and people were talking about global strategies,” explains Challice. “Then Alex Hardee met Marty Diamond of the Paradigm Talent Agency in the USA, and they hit it off immediately.”
It quickly became evident that Paradigm was structured in a similar way to Coda. “Their agents were all mavericks who ran their own companies, but they all pull together, and it was easy to see how we could work with them.”
Paradigm is owned by billionaire Sam Gores who, says Challice, “fosters an environment where those kinds of people could continue being themselves. So, like Coda, it’s an agency run by its agents for the benefit of the clients. That’s what stops us becoming corporate.”
The union with Paradigm in 2014 brought its 2,079 clients into the fold alongside Coda’s 823. Despite his love of the partnership, Coda had to become a Limited company again to enable Paradigm to buy equity.
Paradigm’s senior executive agent Jonathan Levine observes, “I think Rob is driven by what moves his passions rather than just whatever will swell his bank account. The success Coda maintains with its artistes and the incredible quality of the people who work there, is because of the commitment that they make from day one.”
The sheer scale of their joint operation is daunting but, as a result of his typically meticulous planning, Challice is confident that, as well as their switched-on team, they have the technology that will enable them to keep abreast of any challenges.
First, he singles out Coda’s CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system.
“We started developing our contract system 10 years ago,” he states. “We’ve had to invest significant amounts of money, but we finally got it right, and it is now one of the best in the business. Paradigm are basing their system partly on what we’ve developed over here.”
The company also has what Challice calls, “Our A+R intranet which means that the A+R process we developed here over 10 years is now on the system.
“Everybody here and at Paradigm feeds information in, about who’s hot, who’s being looked at and so on, so we can go in globally on an artiste in ways we couldn’t have done before. With this, we know what’s going on with any act that’s starting to happen.”
Looking ahead, he tells me that Hardee has started a relationship with ITG (UK-based Independent Talent Group), which could see Coda branching out in an exciting new direction.
“They look after actors like Daniel Craig and Maggie Smith. It’s still coming together, but I’d like to see us moving ahead with that.”
As a coda, using its literal meaning, to the Coda story so far, Challice adds, “And did I mention that we’ve got a record-breaking, standing-floor run of eight nights by Bon Iver at London’s Eventim Apollo [5,200], starting on 22 February.”
Fra Soler, Primavera Sound, Spain
“Rob has supported Primavera Festival since day one and I am extremely grateful for that. Probably our first booking together was Yo La Tengo in 2001, but we have worked in many many artistes since then. He’s a very thorough agent, has the whole picture in his mind and builds mutual trust between agent and promoter.”
Folkert Koopmans, FKP Scorpio, Germany
“I think we first worked together when Rob was at F.A.B. in the early ‘90s. Since then we’ve worked on a lot of acts like Billy Bragg, Warpaint, The Civil Wars and more. I find him to be very grounded and you are able to discuss everything – he is listening, but of course he always wants the best for his artiste.”
Matt Wooliscroft, SJM Concerts, UK
“Rob’s not a mainstream agent for the most part, but he really understands where his artistes belong in terms of venues, festivals and promoters.”
Dmitry Zaretsky, Pop Farm, Russia
“I have worked with Coda for many years and over 70 per cent of the shows we put on come through Coda agents like Alex Hardee and Sol Parker. As an agency, Coda has an ability to get the coolest bands very early.”
“The Coda board is made up of very, very different types of people, and it keeps getting bigger. When Rob and I started we only had about 10 people on staff, now we have 10 just on the board. And all these different people bring different values to the table.”
“I was just a young whipper-snapper starting out, when Rob joined us at Concert Clinic, whereas he had been there and sold the T-shirt. There is more to Rob than meets the eye initially. Alex and James can be a whirl of ideas, whereas Rob has an invaluable calm, measured authority. I sit somewhere in the middle, but we simply wouldn’t be where we are without the chemistry between us all.”
“I’ve only been with Coda for a year, but being the mother of a three-year-old I’ve found it to be a fantastic and vibrant company, which is ever-changing and forward-thinking. They allow me to work at home three days a week, which is hard work, but whenever I’m in the office, I love the camaraderie and open-ness … and it’s fun too.”
“I joined Coda because Chris Hearn [having returned from a sojourn at Primary Talent International] said he would give back the car he nicked from my Dad when he left Concorde [for MPI in 1992]. I think humour is the key element in Coda’s success.”
“Rob Challice is the most unlikely person to get kicked-out of the pub at our Christmas party. But it did happen once, because he got absolutely smashed. Not even Alex Hardee was kicked out, that year.”
“After over 20 years of working at agencies, Coda offers a unique outlook both in terms of teamwork in the office and the culture of developing artistes. Most of all, its a fantastic environment to work in.
“I met Rob Challice back in 1992 and one of the first things he tried to do was fire me, hardly surprising given my skill levels back then. The thing that makes Coda the most dynamic agency in the business is their independent, maverick spirit – employing the right people who are driven to deliver the right long-term career goals for their clients.”