Ronald Wilford, Steel-Fisted Manager of Virtuosos, Trashes His Board, Tries to Remake Columbia Artists

Ronald Wilford, Steel-Fisted Manager of Virtuosos, Trashes His Board, Tries to Remake Columbia Artists

William Berlind

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Ronald Wilford, who can’t read a lick of music, plays the classical music business like a Stradivarius. As the president and principal shareholder of Columbia Artists Management Inc., the premier booking and talent agency in the classical music business, Mr. Wilford guides the batons, bows and voices of Mstislav Rostopovich, Yehudi Menuhin, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Kathleen Battle, Grace Bumbry, Marilyn Horne, Frederica von Stade and Samuel Ramey.

His company also manages the following conductors, among others: Seiji Ozawa of the Boston Symphony Orchestra; Esa-Pekka Salonen of the Los Angeles Philharmonic; James Levine of the Metropolitan Orchestra; Michael Tilson Thomas of the San Francisco Symphony; and Kurt Masur of the New York Philharmonic.

In other words, Mr. Wilford is a mighty maestro, dominant in the classical business, and CAMI (pronounced “cammy”) is an empire built on pomp and circumstance, sound and fury, over which he has presided for three decades with an iron will.

But lately, discord has entered the 57th Street brownstone that serves as the agency’s headquarters. Last June, Mr. Wilford hired a corporate management company called Metaquality Inc. to teach his notoriously Balkanized staff how to make peace and work together.

What happened next came con molto furore . In early February, Mr. Wilford slashed CAMI’s board of directors from 11 to eight, adding two new members from outside the company. According to a source familiar with the reshuffling, the five board members who lost their seats had not gotten with Mr. Wilford’s program.

In a faxed response to questions from The Observer , Mr. Wilford said: “Many of these managers had little interest in the business side of running a corporation as it had little to do with their specific expertise. We decided to have a smaller board with some outside members-one lawyer and another from Metaquality. The board is not involved with the daily running of the company, only major policy issues.”

Depending on whom you talk to, Mr. Wilford’s objective was either to streamline communication among managers or to consolidate complete control of the board. “The changes are evolutionary,” he wrote in his fax, “and I think everyone has been impressed with many things which have come from the process.” Either way, it left Mr. Wilford, 71, with more power and fewer board members to voice discontent with how the business is being run.

But when an internationally known, five-star client such as Kurt Masur gets blindsided by the board of the New York Philharmonic, or Seiji Ozawa catches flak for his intractability with the Boston Symphony, or Claudio Abbado decides that, at 64, he’s had enough of the Berlin Philharmonic and would rather go sailing, the question arises: Who’s minding the store? “That’s not the old Ronald I knew,” said one former CAMI manager. “Of course, you can’t control all circumstances, but there’s something strange about the Ozawa episode followed by the Masur episode.”

In recent years, CAMI has faced increasing competition from International Creative Management Artists Ltd., or I.C.M., and from the newcomer I.M.G. Artists, a subsidiary of the billion-dollar sports management company International Management Group. And smaller boutique agencies are popping up more and more, giving young artists viable alternatives in an industry that Mr. Wilford has long dominated. But the old divide-and-conquer rules of the business seem to have been replaced by a new one: diversify or be conquered. To that end, CAMI has started to slouch toward the inevitable: Last fall it signed its first hip-hop group: Skism.

“The days of the impresario are dying,” said a friend of Mr. Wilford’s. “Ronald is used to operating in a world where his kind of drive is the norm. Now the world is vastly different, and he gets frustrated and impatient.”

The Impresario and His Mime

Mr. Wilford started honing his skills early, scoring big in 1955 by orchestrating the ascent of Marcel Marceau, the French mime, from small theaters to Broadway and finally to a national TV spot, where the budding impresario and his mime attracted the attention of Arthur Judson, then chief of Columbia Artists’ talent agency. He was hired by Columbia Artists in 1958. In 1970, he succeeded Judson as president.

Tirelessly corralling conductors, Mr. Wilford capitalized on a musical environment where the conductor’s primacy grants him ultimate control of his orchestra. By conducting the conductors, who determine the makeup of their orchestras, Mr. Wilford achieved a kind of monopoly over the industry; he and his managers are able to craft the arcs of young artists’ careers by hitching them to the bigger attractions on the CAMI roster. “He controls so many orchestras, he can make sure that a young performer is seen in the right places,” said one industry source. “Maybe the management of the Cleveland Orchestra doesn’t care about a new violinist, but if they want to get [James] Levine, they better be ready to deal.”

Mr. Wilford maintains a close personal relationship with such world-renowned clients as André Previn, Mr. Levine and Mr. Ozawa. He attended two universities but never graduated. He can’t read music. And he’s been married three times. His third wife, Sara Delano Roosevelt Whitney, a granddaughter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a stepdaughter of Vanderbilt heir John Jay Whitney, was married to the pianist Anthony DiBonaventura-until Mr. Wilford took him on as a client.

“It’s a very perverse world,” said one artist who has been with the agency for five years. “It’s not like sports, which is entirely market-driven. If you play well as a college athlete, then you have the power to get what you want as a professional. It’s not really like that in the classical world. Classical musicians are made.”

But before you can manage an artist’s career, you have to figure out how to manage the managers. Mr. Wilford studies Freud in his spare time and fiddles with his managers’ fragile egos like a virtuoso. “He doesn’t let you get too comfortable,” observed an agent at I.M.G. “That’s his way of controlling situations.” Recalling Mr. Wilford’s technique for keeping people under his sway, one former manager put it simply: “One moment a manager was a star, and the next a black hole.”

‘They’re Used to Working Alone’

Mr. Wilford’s ability to manipulate individuals and the industry in which they work stems partly from the structure of the company itself. What is now Columbia Artists was born in 1930 when Arthur Judson, a major shareholder in the Columbia Broadcasting System, pooled seven independent concert managers to form a subsidiary talent-management company. The conflict of interest was evident from the outset-CBS the talent agency funneling artists to CBS the broadcast and record company. But it wasn’t until 1946 that the Federal Communications Commission ordered CBS to sell off its talent agency. The managers bought out CBS’s share, and Columbia Artists Management Inc. was born. The same template still exists today in CAMI’s 15 semi-autonomous managerial divisions.

CAMI’s unusual structure fosters an atmosphere of intense rivalry among the managers. “There was a competitive, negative spirit in the building where I wouldn’t share information with a colleague because he might steal that artist from me,” said one manager. “We were very protective of our artists and our contacts.”

Enter Metaquality, a Stamford, Conn.-based corporate-rejuvenation company. Metaquality’s technique is grounded in the teachings of W. Edwards Deming, who is viewed in certain circles with a kind of reverence usually reserved for the likes of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Using Deming’s “System of Profound Knowledge,” three Metaquality administrators descended on the CAMI offices, sitting in on meetings and encouraging the agency’s territorial managers to share information and try to refrain from back-stabbing. The process, which Mr. Wilford said “will continue indefinitely,” has received mixed reactions. One manager mildly derided the process as “one of those look-in-your-navel kind of things.”

But it was the upheaval of the board that caused the most trouble. One manager said the 11-member board was “not effective” and deserved to be reconfigured; with all the divisional border disputes, the CAMI executives couldn’t govern themselves. Others saw it as a purge carried out by Mr. Wilford. “It’s what the president felt was necessary at the time,” said one manager.

“Through the Deming process, we are moving from one paradigm to another,” Mr. Wilford wrote in a fax. “So far, so good! No one has left because of Deming, and everyone sees where we are going.” However, he noted, “the process is not easy.”

Marshall Thurber, the president of Metaquality, had a more profound take on the situation. “They’ve got beautiful people there, but they’re used to working alone,” he said. “The problem with that is that you can’t achieve the synergy or the creativity you get when you support each other. No matter what you do, without cross-pollinating, you don’t get the full fertility of an organization.”

Ooh, Barracuda

Mr. Wilford is a man who has cross-pollinated many times over the years-so successfully, in fact, that he’s come away with a slew of nicknames. ( See also: the Barracuda, the Silver Fox and King CAMI.) He rarely gives interviews, and when he does, it’s only on the condition that his personal life not be broached.

This is how a cult of personality is created. In this case, tales of Mr. Wilford’s professional ferocity circulate in the insular world of classical music, striking fear into the hearts of cellists everywhere. Not that the image of a cutthroat deal maker is a disadvantage for a man in his position. “This persona that has grown up around him is a total myth,” notes a friend, “although it has ultimately been very good for him-like the Wizard of Oz.”

Indeed, there are those who know the great and powerful Oz is really just the man behind the curtain. “He’s not like the person he’s always portrayed-this Machiavellian character who’s evil through and through,” offered the rival agent. “Yes, he’s a highly savvy deal maker, but there’s also this very vulnerable side.”

That vulnerability is evident, to a certain degree, in the agency’s recent forays into popular culture. According to sources at the agency, Mr. Wilford has instructed his managers to chart a course for new musical horizons. Hence the 21st-century culture division. Since its formation five years ago, it has signed a few not-totally-washed-up-yet pop musicians, ranging from ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland to aging folk legend James Taylor.

And then there’s Skism. Skism’s appearance comes at a time when classical music’s audience is shrinking, and some wonder whether CAMI is doing anything to revivify the concert halls. “Classical music is forever moaning about how the audiences are getting older and musical education is down the toilet,” observed one former CAMI agent. “But they don’t do anything about it. CAMI lacks a vision for the future. What has CAMI done to return to classical music what it’s taken out of classical music?”

The Tao of Wilford

At least some in the company seem to have taken Metaquality’s come-together mantra to heart. “We’ve begun the process,” said one manager. “The process defines the ending.”

But for now, the success with which CAMI weathers its internal Sturm und Drang rests largely in Mr. Wilford’s hands. The tale of Sheldon Gold is often held up as an object lesson in the Tao, as it were, of Mr. Wilford’s management style. Mr. Gold was a highly successful agent at CAMI until he decided to leave in 1976 to co-found I.C.M. Not content to let a top manager walk out unscathed, Mr. Wilford forced Mr. Gold to work off the remaining two months of his contract in a tiny stripped-down office without a phone.

Such stories are often balanced by the testimony of friends. “He’s a brilliant but tough negotiator,” said Peter Duchin, the society band leader. “As a friend he is gentle and nice.” It’s a yin-yang kind of thing. Even Mikki Gold, Shelly Gold’s widow, speaks well of her husband’s former captor. “He was hurt because Shelly was deserting him,” Ms. Gold said. “But I ran into him at the Metropolitan Opera a year after Shelly died. I saw Ronald across the room and I was going to say something to him-you know, there was a lot of water under the bridge-and when I got to him, he put his finger to my lips and said, ‘ Shhhhh. I miss him.’ I’ll never forget that.”

Ronald Wilford, Steel-Fisted Manager of Virtuosos, Trashes His Board, Tries to Remake Columbia Artists