Written by Mark Scott
Interview by Lee Koury
It was a ski trip that would forever change Corey Shapoff’s life.
He was a political science major at UCLA on his way to law school, but this day, he just wanted to ski. As he climbed aboard a chairlift, he realized he was sitting next to Ray Parker Jr., the man who wrote and performed the theme song to the famous 1984 movie, “Ghostbusters.”
“So we went skiing and, he said, ‘Corey, you’re the kind of guy who would be a good agent,’” Shapoff says. “I said, ‘What’s an agent?’ He explained it to me and I said, ‘God, do I really want to go to law school or am I just doing that because that’s what poli-sci people do?’”
Shapoff decided to look deeper into the idea of becoming an agent and was intrigued enough to pursue it. He began writing letters to agencies in an effort to land a job.
“I wrote 15 letters and got into the biggest talent agency,” says Shapoff, who was hired in 1989 at the William Morris Agency. He worked with many of Hollywood’s premier writers, directors and actors, and appeared to be on his way to a glamorous life and career.
But something just didn’t feel right about it.
“I got into the talent agency, and I didn’t love it,” Shapoff says. “At the time, I didn’t like the vibe of it. It just really wasn’t me.”
It was about that time that he had an encounter with Jim Steiner, a legendary sports agent based out of St. Louis.
“The classiest, nicest guy you’ll ever meet,” Shapoff says. “I learned real quickly at a pretty young age the kind of businessman I want to be. It’s OK to be a nice guy, where with the agencies, it was a different mentality. I had a guy say to me that he’d do a deal with the devil if he could. Jim had integrity. He stuck by his principles. When he showed up at the airport in jeans and a T-shirt, I was like, ‘Wow, he’s my kind of guy.’”
The influence Steiner had on Shapoff’s life is visible every day at SME Entertainment Group LLC, the business he founded in 1991 and now leads as president. The company became part of Live Nation after its acquisition by Front Line Management Group and has orchestrated live events for high-profile clients such as Mercedes Benz, Microsoft, EY, Morgan Stanley and Hewlett Packard.
The ability to build strong relationships with such powerful companies as well as work with musical acts such as Christina Aguilera, Maroon 5, Katy Perry and Kelly Clarkson takes a lot of skill and even more trust.
“The customer service has to be extremely strong in this business,” Shapoff says. “It’s very competitive out there.”
Know your clients’ needs
One of the key differences when it comes to scheduling live events and concerts for a private audience is the fact that you have to think about what that audience would like to see.
“When you do concerts for the public and you have your advertising, people buy tickets because they are a fan of that act,” Shapoff says. “When you’re doing a business event and you hire a band, you have to have somebody that everybody likes and that can be a challenge. Even if I bring in Paul McCartney for free, there’s going to be a few people there who weren’t into The Beatles.”
That’s where the strength of the relationship between SME and its clients comes into play. You work with them to understand what type of event it is they want to have and what kind of entertainment would be the best fit for that event.
“I had a company that wanted to have the Black Keys perform at their event,” Shapoff says. “The average age of their group was 45 to 60. I’m like, ‘Guys, maybe you want to do somebody like Journey or somebody like that where they’ll know all the songs.’ They said, ‘No, no, no, we want to have the Black Keys.’ It wasn’t the perfect fit. The band did a good job, but somebody came up to me in the middle of the show and said, ‘Corey, you were right. We probably should have done a Journey or somebody like that.’”
The companies that take the time to customize their service to clients and develop a plan that meets their needs at a detailed level are going to be the companies that generate business from that client again and again. The reputation that is built through both trust and solid business practices can go a long way toward fostering such strong bonds.
It can also serve to broaden your reach.
“Through our partnership with Artist Nation, which was previously Front Line Management Group, we have access to 300 acts that they manage,” Shapoff says. “So we have some leverage in the business. If we need somebody who is not under our umbrella of 300 acts, we’re able to get pretty darn good pricing. It’s in everybody’s interest.”
Engage your team
One of the biggest personal challenges Shapoff has faced throughout his career is the ability to take occasional moments to stop and celebrate success.
“I’m a grinder, and I have naturally high expectations,” Shapoff says. “Fortunately, things have gone great for us other than a couple of years outside of 9/11 and a couple of years with the economy. But I’m the kind of guy who is always looking to what’s next.
“It’s just always been my mentality. It’s hard for me to turn it off and say, ‘That’s great.’ I’m always thinking about tomorrow. What if the stock market crashes? What if there is some unknown thing that happens? You can’t take things for granted in our business.”
Shapoff has learned to lean more on his team to ease the burden on his own shoulders and help SME stay on top of its game.
“I like to be involved, and I want to know everything that is going on,” Shapoff says. “But I have to delegate to my team. That was the biggest adjustment for me and it’s not an easy thing. I want to see everything. But you can’t be everywhere at one time. So there was a night where we had Maroon 5 performing. I was calling L.A. and asking, ‘How’s it going? What’s going on guys? Is everything good?’ But I was in Monaco for the World Entrepreneur Of The Year Conference. It’s that ability to delegate to others and trust them that is something good leaders have to do. When I started this business, it was just me and myself.”
Opportunities such as the World EOY Conference do take him away from his company, but they also provide invaluable lessons that help make him a better leader when he returns to the home office.
“If you dissect the Strategic Growth Forum that EY does or the World EOY program, it’s amazing,” Shapoff says. “When I look at everybody who is involved in how these programs come together, it’s inspiring for me. Inspiring for me and for my team to see what it takes.”
As he looks to the future for SME and the live event space overall, Shapoff sees plenty of room for growth.
“A lot of companies do events in Singapore, Hong Kong and China, places like that,” Shapoff says. “So having a presence there and a presence in South America and in Europe, that will be key. We already do have a presence with Live Nation, but I’m talking about my division and doing the corporate dates.”
There are days from time to time when Shapoff reflects on being a sports agent and misses those days. But as he reflects on the experiences and successes he has had after more than 20 years in the business, he is confident that he chose the right path.
“You’ll read about LeBron (James) signing a huge contract and everybody says, ‘I want to be a sports agent,’” Shapoff says. “They’re not reading about the agents who represent the seventh-round pick, the sixth-round pick and you barely have enough money to get by. There’s that aspect of the business that people don’t talk about.” •
- Think like your clients.
- Allow your team to do its job.
- Keep the future in mind.
The Shapoff File
Name: Corey Shapoff
Title: Founder and president
Company: SME Entertainment Group LLC
Education: Political science degree, UCLA.
Shapoff on his greatest marketing challenge: No. 1 is how do you reach everybody? So many different people do events. How do you reach everybody is one of the challenges. How do you service everybody is another challenge. People might not talk like it’s a challenge, but it is. Where and how do you spend your time?
How to reach: SME Entertainment Group LLC, (310) 207-2233 or www.smelivenation.com