An Interview with Jasper Parrott

By · Photos © Kaupo Kikkas · Date 10/24/2019

HarrisonParrott, the renowned artist management company, represents some 200 classical musicians in all categories, looked after by 72 people on staff. That makes the London-based agency a giant in a small but competitive field. On October 6, HarrisonParrott celebrated its 50th anniversary. Soon after, work brought founding partner Jasper Parrott to Berlin. We met one morning at his hotel close to the Philharmonie.

VAN: As an agent, how do you develop feelers for the kind of artist presenters want to book?

Jasper Parrott: It’s constant dialogue at every sort of level. We have, I think, an exemplary internal networking system between our various managers. We are always feeding to one another the results of basically all conversations with the presenters. That information is logged, managed, and accessible to everybody.

Do you ever accept artists who don’t have any management at all and take them into your company?

Always. With young artists in particular, they almost always come from what you might call a virgin state [laughs].

How do you go about discovering those people? How do you develop a sense of whether they’re going to be successful or not?

It’s networking, and also going to an incredible amount of live performances. My children are all grown up, so I travel pretty much constantly. Last year, I went to 140 performances. I hear a lot of new artists. We have an artist research team—which isn’t very formal, but which gets together regularly. We share ideas, things that have impressed us, artists who’ve come to our attention.

Then we try to find an opportunity of actually hearing [the artist], meeting them in person, getting a sense of their character. The core idea is a mixture between track record, recommendations from others, and our innate intuitive sense about whether the young artist has the power.

What are the indicators of someone’s power?

The first thing is from the performance itself: is it exemplary both in quality and preparation? Then there is a sort of individuality, a voice that you can begin to recognize as being evolved out of a young but very talented mind.

The Berlin artist manager Karsten Witt told VAN he’s not interested in people younger than 25 for his agency. Do you have a minimum age?

No.

So you represent prodigies?

We’ve actually just taken on one of our youngest artists ever. She’s turning 13 next month, a violinist. I came across her quite serendipitously through somebody whom I trust. We were having supper together and she was suddenly very excited about the fact that she had met and heard this young violinist, and had been immensely impressed by her, both as a prodigiously talented musician, but also in terms of her character.

Then I was introduced, I met her, met her parents, spent some time with her, went to one of her lessons with her teacher, spent some more time with her. We started to talk about it and I came to the view, after a couple months, that this was a person who was born for this life. She has an enjoyment of her talent—of what it can bring to other people—and a groundedness which is quite astonishing.

She is absolutely not a practicing-robotic creature. She’s got a mind of her own.

Jasper Parrott with violinist Leia Zhu
Jasper Parrott with violinist Leia Zhu

Do you see it as part of your job to protect these kids from the wider world, or is that the parent’s responsibility?

Sometimes it’s about finding a subtle way of actually convincing the parents that they need to objectify their passionate attachment to the talent of their children. I hope you know that I avoid the word Wunderkind. I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s appropriate. That’s not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in young artists, and there is a big difference.

How do you define that difference?

It’s a sense of an engagement with an artistic persona and life, which can be developed quite early on. Brilliant aptitude [isn’t enough]. Young people often have great digital capabilities, they learn and memorize fast. I personally believe—not just for very young artists, but for all artists—that these days one has to think about the fact that an artist’s life [has] many chapters. Artists have to be able to constantly refresh and enrich their lives and protect themselves from the potential of burnout or injury, or exploitative management and handling.

Is it really possible for a person to interpret Schubert, for example, in a mature way if they’ve never experienced things like unrequited love or profound loneliness? To me that seems like just the basis from being able to understand what the art is about.

I don’t think it’s linked or consequential in that way. I think it can contribute, but in the end, art is also for artists, and artists have a preternatural understanding of many of those conditions of life and their relationship with the world around them, without necessarily having experienced it directly. Otherwise, you’d have a situation where basically the artist would have to go through a menu of experiences…

Most people have had those experiences by, say, 25, but not at 13.

Well, I’m not so sure that that’s my perception of it. Especially in modern life, and it depends on what your background is and where you come from, but there are many people these days who are hugely isolated from or protected from exactly those experiences.

On the whole, it is probably unwise to think that a 13-year-old will have a particularly evolved sense of the profundities of some of the very great music, but you have to start somewhere. It’s just like conductors. There is a theory that you have to be old to be able to conduct Bruckner. I think that’s complete nonsense.

The artist-agent relationship can be fraught. There’s a tendency for people to get close: you hear stories about agents marrying artists. How do you manage that relationship? Do you have guidelines that agents are supposed to keep in mind in dealing with artists, and vice versa?

We don’t bureaucratize that very much. At the same time, on the manager’s side, there are certainly guidelines, and we have a code of practice. It’s so that the artists, especially young and more vulnerable artists, particularly young women, feel that they are safe, so that they understand what they can expect from us, and what they should also be sure that they will not experience. That I think has worked very well for us.

What are the things that they should be sure they won’t experience?

A lot of it has to do with this business of transparency, honesty, truthfulness. It’s also to do with their protection in the workplace: keeping an eye to make sure that they are properly treated by third parties. But you can’t legislate for everything. We feel generally that [things are better] handled with a light touch rather than with a heavy touch.

Are there things that artists aren’t allowed to ask their managers to do? Olivia Giovetti reported a story about artist managers for VAN, where one of the artists asked his manager to rebook his hotel so that his wife wouldn’t know that he was staying with his girlfriend.

I suppose I can only answer that by saying that it’s important for me and my colleagues that we have an ethical view about life, business, and relationships in the company. On the other hand, we are also on the side of our artists—wherever we reasonably can be. But if the artist wants us to do something which is not correct or disgraceful, we would not do it.

There’s a case study on your website about the Philharmonia Orchestra Tour to South America in 2014, which included corporate sponsorship from Avianca Airlines and BMW. What are the benchmarks for those corporations? Do they have specific or objective goals that they hope to achieve?

I can’t tell exactly what the internal processes were. The initial idea came from the very top, and that filtered down through the minions, who put together the case history which was necessary to justify it.

But it’s also interesting what’s happening in terms of, let’s say, BP, and the pressures from the public, who are beginning to protest about the idea that museums and galleries and orchestras…

Or the Sackler family, with the opioids….

Exactly. Should we be supported by companies who could be seen as exploiting and soft-soaping their image through this relationship with artists?

If BP or the Sackler family came through with a great offer for a client—how would you approach that?

We would look at it extremely objectively, very much in terms of the ultimate impact upon both the credibility and the reputation of our client, whether it was an artist or an institution.

I would say that probably now we would be veering quite strongly in favor of not engaging with those sorts of problematic industries. I think that there is a huge sea change coming in terms of public identification with these things. That’s all for the good. I’m actually very much inclined to the view that the music and arts world is too timid in raising its voice in terms of its particular values.

I have a lot of sympathy for the Extinction Rebellion people and I wish that I could organize a massive protest in Parliament Square with all of the London orchestras to block the traffic for half a day in order to make people wake up to the fact that music and the arts are not dispensable. They are not a luxury, they are the absolute core, essential, existential values of a healthy society.

Wouldn’t it be more powerful if all the London orchestras just stopped touring?

No. I think that’s precisely the oversimplistic view of everything to do with climate change—which requires a serious and long term view. I’ll give you a more simple example. If we decide that we will not buy any more beans from Kenya because we don’t think it’s appropriate that there should be this huge amount of long distance travel for transporting beans from Kenya to the European market, if as a consequence of that the Kenyan agriculture begins to collapse, and then we get a huge new surge of migration, then in fact you have to worry about the unintended consequences of your actions. The same applies with orchestras traveling.

Does it?

Yes, because 350 years of values in achieving this incredible thing of orchestras, symphony music, and the arts in general depends upon a sharing of the best examples. You can rationalize and reduce, but if you were to stop all orchestra traveling, the consequence would be that you would actually localize, internalize, you would lose the power of creating the best in terms of shared values around the world. And also, in the end, you would bring the industry to a halt. There’s no doubt about that.

Jasper Parrott with Vladimir Ashkenazy 
Jasper Parrott with Vladimir Ashkenazy 

I know the internet isn’t a perfect way of exposing people to great art. But I think the case could be made that it’s good enough, and the environmental benefits of stopping touring or reducing it would be worth it. Berlin has so many great orchestras. Would we suffer so much if London orchestras didn’t come here, for example?

Well, what do you mean by, “We would not suffer so much”?

As audiences I’m not sure we would miss it a whole lot. If no local group gives us what we want to hear from the London Symphony, we can find them online.

Finding performances online is a very impoverished view of the inspirational value of making live art. Art should be live. I know this myself because I’ve grown up throughout the whole period. I actually very seldom listen to music online or on recordings because, to me, the essence of the whole experience, the core value of creative activity, is a live experience. Therefore, the more of that you have, the more that is sustainable and the more that society believes in that whole principle, the better the society is. That’s my personal conviction.

You said if we stopped touring that would cause serious repercussions for the classical music industry. I’m curious how you see that playing out.

I’ll give you a very present thing with Brexit. If Brexit goes as badly as many of us fear, there is no doubt in my mind that it will have a serious material consequence on the health and the vitality of the British symphony orchestra scene, because of the way that the economies have evolved over the years, and because of the huge increase in international exchange brought about through the freedom of movement in the European Union.

The London orchestras have enormously increased their range and footprint by touring and bringing what they do to other publics and other markets. If you introduce a small amount of control, limitation, bureaucracy, quotas, and everything else, the margin for survival for the London orchestras [would be] very small. I predict that they, in particular, will have very serious problems if Brexit goes as badly as I think it might. ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.