Written by Jan Jaben-Eilon Friday, February 25 2011
Snapshot: Elizabeth Sobol
Born and raised in a small mill town in North Carolina, Elizabeth Sobol enrolled in a music conservatory when she was 14, but by 20 she decided she "didn't have the talent to be a great pianist, and I didn't want to be a mediocre one." Sobol was drawn to performing arts management where she landed a job as an intern at an upstart company housed in a basement. Today she is managing director of IMG Artists, the largest international fine arts management company. With offices in the Americas, Europe, and Asia, IMG Artists delivers an array of international capabilities to a roster of global superstars, including the management and touring of the finest musicians, dance companies, orchestras, and attractions; the development and operation of music and arts festivals; consulting, advisory, and event management work for governments, art institutions, concert halls, and corporations; and production of critically acclaimed audiovisual projects. Sobol’s office is in New York, but she lives in Miami with her husband.
Womenetics: Please explain why you say the performing arts business is so challenging.
Elizabeth Sobol: Because, if you look at American society and the 24-hour media cycle, you see how little attention is paid to the arts. In the past, you’d see classical musicians on mainstream television. But the first thing that is cut from school budgets is arts. Only a small percentage of the population considers the arts important to their lives. It’s not considered as important as math and science. In Europe, there’s still a lot of government support for the arts, but it’s a constant fight in America.
Womenetics: What does it mean when you say you operate on a business-to-business model with a twist?
Sobol: We manage, we book, and we service our arts clients. We provide a kind of holistic management that is career-shaping. We shape the repertoire, the media, and decide what and where to record. Booking is simply selling our artists to promoters. Servicing is taking care of logistics and the care and feeding of our crew. Our customers are presenters. We are not marketing and selling to the ticket buyer, but to presenters. The twist is you are dealing with a product that talks back, a product that changes its mind about what they want to play. We don’t have control over our products.
Womenetics: Who are some of your most famous clients?
Sobol: Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell, and Sir James Galway.
Womenetics: How do you decide who you are willing to represent?
Sobol: I always refer to that as the goose bump factor. It’s instinctual. I hear people who have incredible virtuosity, but there are tons of those out there. I’m looking for the epiphany, someone who takes me someplace I didn’t expect to go. There are some truly extraordinary artists I’ve opted not to work with. I wasn’t sure they had the stamina; it requires a huge amount of work. You need perseverance, strength, and stamina. And these days it’s hard not to look for an artist who is savvy in terms of how the world works today, in terms of social media and a willingness to engage with the audience.
Womenetics: How often do you decide to take a risk with a potential up and coming musician?
Sobol: Very rarely. It’s mainly because my workload is so crushing. But the company has a commitment to work with young artists. We have an amazing history of spotting young talent and developing them over time and we will always do that. But the business has shrunk so there’s less of that that we can do.
The last breaking artist I signed was nine years ago. It was a young Cuban group, Tiempo Libre. That’s been an amazing journey. I heard their demo and it blew me away. I had one of those meant-to-be moments.
Womenetics: You manage clients, you produce musical productions and festivals, and you connect musicians with recording companies. What would you say is the favorite part of your job?
Sobol: I love creating new collaborative projects for my clients. Bringing people together from different genres of music in ways that might throw off amazing sparks.
Womenetics: Do you have a favorite type of music?
Sobol: I love great music, great jazz and great classical music, and because I have so much of it, I don’t love going to concerts. I have to go to so many performances out of obligation, and those concerts are extraordinary so I’m spoiled. If I’m going to take the time to go to a concert, I want to make sure it’s a transcendent experience.
Womenetics: Your bio credits a teacher at the North Carolina School of the Arts for directing you to focus on music’s connection to one’s life and soul rather than instrument mastery. How did that impact your life?
Sobol: That is probably the most profound direction I’ve ever had in my life. It’s not even a conscious thing, but I’m always looking for points of contact. Where’s the common point? Figuring out how to connect with people – everything is about that. If something impacts me, how will I transmit that to someone else? I’m also always looking at how to connect with people in the office and find out what motivates them.
Womenetics: Forbes magazine wrote a story about women moving to the top of arts management. Why do you think that has happened?
Sobol: I think it’s hard to have the words “music” and “industry” in the same sentence. When I started with IMG, part of it was sports oriented. People would ask, who is the No. 1 violinist in the world. How do I answer that? How do you put a price on something that is priceless? There’s a transformative quality in what we do. I think it’s the male/female dichotomy. Women are better at holistic management and holistic handling of the artistic personality. We nurture careers and people with an emphasis on nurture. I can’t treat an artist as a product. You have to know how to nurture an artist and move them strongly to their goals. Women excel more at that role.
And in arts, where’s the payoff at the end of the day? You put your whole life into this business, and the financial rewards aren’t what they could be in other businesses. I spend a lot of time, as a managing director, on the morale of my staff. We don’t have the resources to compensate people; the margins are so slim compared to other businesses so I need to nurture and inspire the staff.
Womenetics: You travel all over the world for your job. What is your favorite city?
Sobol: Whatever city I’m in at that moment. I love Latin America. I love eating the food and absorbing the culture.
Womenetics: How old were you when you first started playing an instrument, and what was that instrument?
Sobol: I started at age 5, playing the piano, not because of any innate yearning. My parents gave me the choice of ballet and piano. I was such a tomboy that the idea of wearing a tutu was abhorrent.
Womenetics: Your job revolves around music and the arts, something many other people turn to when they want to relax. How do you unwind from your job?
Sobol: It’s not by listening to music. My passion for literature is equal to my passion for music. It feeds the soul and keeps me whole. I also go bike riding, and I have a meditation practice.
Jan Jaben-Eilon was a founding staff writer of the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Since then, she has been the international editor of Advertising Age magazine and has written for such publications as The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Washington Journalism Review, and Consumer Reports. She is the author of soon-to-be-published (There is) Life After Cancer. Jan and her husband have homes in Atlanta and Jerusalem.