When APA’s John Pantle was a child, his father worked for Japan Airlines out of the company offices near Los Angeles International Airport. His father served as a liaison to help companies and entities navigate the culture of Japan.
“My dad used to meet with companies who would come over there or bands like Mötley Crüe or Christopher Cross or the NBA or big accounting firms,” Pantle told Amplify. “When tours would go through Japan, my dad would be the guy who would go to the company beforehand, give them information about Japan, and then he would go with them.”
According to Pantle, in Japanese culture the workplace is treated like a family and group activities are encouraged. Around 11 years old, Pantle’s father invited John to play on the company softball team — he was the only non-Japanese player on the squad. The league the Japan Airlines team played in was filled with players from other LAX businesses.
“Some of these teams couldn’t make sense of why there were all these Japanese people on a field playing softball with them,” Pantle said.
He explained that if a member of his team did well, there were often taunts relating to Pearl Harbor or Nagasaki.
“It would piss me off, but it wouldn’t make anyone else on the team mad. They would just smile and laugh with each other,” Pantle said.
Pantle said he took away two lessons from the childhood experience. One, that it was important to take his own team’s feelings into consideration. If they were okay that was what mattered. Two, that it is vital to open people’s minds, educate them, and promote diversity.
“It made me want to share my experience of what wasn’t right and I think the only way that you can do that and open people’s minds is just by educating them,” he said.
One look at Pantle’s roster and it is clear diversity is something he stands by. The APA agent works in various foreign markets including Europe, Mexico, Korea, and, naturally, Japan. He works to expand the reach of Spanish language artists and found an exciting demand for Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra in Mexico and South America.
Amplify caught up with Pantle to learn how he shaped a lasting career around diversify and bringing new ideas to new places.
You grew up in Los Angeles?
I grew up in Orange County. I grew up in Anaheim.
Were you into music when you were younger?
Yeah. I played in a ska band, a symphony orchestra, and a jazz band. I started in the business because I played in a ska band.
How did that happen?
Orange County is traditionally very conservative. If you’re a kid and you love listening to Public Enemy, N.W.A, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Specials, and Fishbone, it was very difficult to go to shows. My friends were all working as bellmen at hotels in Anaheim for some reason. It was great money. Then the Rodney King beating happens. It killed off all the tourism in Southern California. Nobody wants to come to Disneyland so all the big conventions were cancelled for about two years, because everybody was scared of riots. So there are all these empty hotel ballrooms. Hotel ballrooms are the only place in Orange County at the time that had the ability to do all ages permits for live music because of quinceañeras and weddings. So I started renting out all these hotel ballrooms and putting on concerts. I would just talk to the general manager and say ‘Hey, can I rent a hotel ballroom for this amount of money?’ They said ‘Okay. What do you want to do?’ I said ‘We’re going to throw a party, but you guys can keep the bar.’ So we would do these all ages shows where there was a full bar. I don’t know if it was legal or not.
Where did you find these bands?
The first guy to really give me a chance was Steve Kaul who is an agent with UTA right now. He got me Firehose and I paid $2,000 and I paid it all in advance. I put together the show and it sold out, but I lost money because I did every single thing on the rider that they wanted. But I was successful in that I learned how to do shows. For the next two years, I would rent out all these ballrooms and put on shows. I did No Doubt, The Offspring, Sublime, Thelonious Monster, The Skatalites and I was the only guy doing all these shows.
One day the boss of the hotel calls me into his office and tells me he is getting a lot of shit for me throwing shows and says others are claiming he treats me differently. He said I either had to stop doing the shows and be a bellman full time or keep doing the shows and I can’t work here anymore. That morning I had sent $4,000 to William Morris for a Thelonious Monster show, so I told my boss ‘I sent the deposit so I guess I won’t be working here anymore.’ That’s how I became a professional in the business.
How old were you when you were doing this?
I was 21 0r 22. I wasn’t old enough to know what I was doing. I was in the ska band and at practice one day and a car blindsided me and hit me with the rest of the band in the car. I found a chiropractor and he taught me how to game the system. I got a really bad concussion, but I also got about $12,000. I used that money to start investing in concerts. I just kept doing it and I did good. I mean, it didn’t do good at first but you learn not to screw up the way you screwed up before. If it works, everybody thinks you’re a genius. If it doesn’t work, then you’re a moron.
Did you have any mentors?
Mike Watt helped me a lot from Firehose and the guys in No Doubt. I went to school with Tony Kanal and I grew up with Gwen Stefani and I knew her really well. I also managed a band for a while called Reel Big Fish and I knew the people in Dance Hall Crashers. I played in that band for a while. I also played horn for the Aquabats. There were some agents who really helped me out when I first started. They would be amenable to taking my calls. I was the little guy. I was nothing, but I worked hard and I always sent in my money.
If something screwed up, even if it wasn’t my fault I would send a check. I booked a show once in Utah and they screwed up on CAA. It was Tommy Lee and they screwed up on Brett Steinberg, so I wrote Brett Steinberg a personal check for it. I think it was $7,000 which was almost all the money I had at the time. But I did it just to be a stand up guy about it. I also got a lot of help from Scott Weiss.
What places were you booking at in Orange County?
I ran a few clubs down there. One of the nightclubs that I ran was called 8 1/2. That ran for three years. There was another one called Viva Las Vegas, which ran for two years. The concerts that I did in house were at the Quality Hotel and the Inn at the Park hotel. I also put on shows at a Denny’s restaurant. It was called Punk Rock Denny’s. There is a Denny’s restaurant in La Habra that has a full bar in the back and a convention room for like 150 people. We had two shows before the city shut it down. Just the idea of doing a show at a Denny’s restaurant was so great.
Where did you go from booking gigs in Orange County?
Eventually I got hired by House of Blues because they heard what I was doing. They asked me to be the Junior Talent Buyer for Los Angeles. Then I worked there for a long time.
Were you with House of Blues when they were expanding?
Yeah. It was such a great opportunity. I started working there a week before it opened. At first I was the guy who did whatever everyone else asked me to do. Then I would start putting on concerts. They let me do my Orange County stuff at the same time because I wasn’t getting paid very much money at all. Since I had these other projects, I was always motivated.
My boss, his name was Kevin Morrow, was a really cool guy and god bless him for giving this kid from Orange County so much latitude. He was from Huntington Beach. We got along immediately because it was us Orange County guys against the world. I never wanted to let him down. At the time, there was no venue that was trying to be truly multi-genre. I really believed their theory of unity in diversity. I still carry that around. My roster has so many different nationalities on it.
You worked your way up the ladder there?
Kevin Morrow gave me a lot of freedom, but he was very hard on me. He was a very fair guy. I went from being the assistant to the head talent buyer to running two venues to running three venues to eventually being the head of the House of Blues club network. I was running the division when I was 27 and it was insane. I would do board meetings wearing a Dead Kennedys shirt. The company made a lot of money and I learned so much from it. I made a lot of friends that are still really close to me.
Were you still there when they were purchased by Live Nation?
Yeah. That was cool as well. A lot of the people I worked with are still at Live Nation.
When did you stop putting on the Orange County shows?
Eventually the workload at House of Blues got so busy that I couldn’t put on shows any more on my own. Then I just did shows at House of Blues/Live Nation. The Orange County bit stopped, but I kept playing in bands from Orange County.
Where did you go after House of Blues/Live Nation?
I booked the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. That was a three-month project. It was crazy, but it was a lot of fun. I got to book the two venues outside of it plus the athlete’s parties. Then I booked some of the stuff for the opening and closing ceremonies. Then I ran the Knitting Factory. The LA and the New York venues.
How did you become an agent?
A band came up to me and asked if I could help them find an agent. It was Café Tacvba who were a very popular band in Mexico City. They kept feeling like every agency would tell them ‘You’re great. You’re a special boy. We love you. We don’t see you as being a Mexican band. We see you as just being a great band.’ But at the two major agencies that they went to, they were neutralized. They were placed on a Latin roster and they didn’t get the attention that they wanted. They said they wanted me to be there agent and I said ‘I didn’t want to be an agent. I don’t like agents.’
I started reaching out to agents that I believed in. Eventually a guy named Bruce Solar conned me into coming into the office. He said we could get lunch and see who we could put the band with. I go over to The Agency Group offices and he puts me into a closed room with Steve Martin, who is now the head of music at APA. Steve Martin is sitting there and he is smoking indoors and it is a scene just like “The Godfather.” He says ‘I hear you don’t want to be an agent.’ I said ‘Yeah.’ He goes ‘Why? You like us enough to work with your band. You like me. I’m an agent.’ I say ‘Yeah. You’re good.’ He says ‘This is probably just something in your head. Why don’t you just do the opposite of whatever script is in your head about what a bad agent is and you just call yourself whatever you want to call yourself.’
I said ‘Okay. Let me get about four bands together who will probably all be into the same idea.’ If it works out and all four of these bands want to come, I’ll become an agent. We go to Mexico City and all four of them are in. I’m doing everything I can to make sure this doesn’t happen. All four of them say they are in and that they trust me. I’m like ‘Fuck. That’s the opposite of what I wanted.’ But a deal is a deal.
You dropped everything and became an agent?
At this time I still had a job with the Knitting Factory. It was going through some changes. I didn’t think the changes were going to impact me too much. We come back from Mexico and that week they shafted me on a $150 or $200 expense bill. So I took that as my sign and I just left. I started being an agent the next day.
You started with The Agency Group?
The first agency I was at was The Agency Group. Then I left there because I wanted to be at a full service agency. I was the first agent for Pitbull and I lost him because we didn’t have a film and TV department. We couldn’t make Pitbull larger. It was difficult to have the instinct to see something and then know that you can’t pull it off. There’s nothing more heartbreaking than that.
Where did you go after there?
From there I went over to UTA. I went over there and I built stuff with Public Enemy and helped build their live comedy department because I did touring for Jon Lajoie who was the main actors on the FX show The League. I also worked with the Lonely Island and helped them figure out their record contract. There were a lot of artists at UTA that didn’t necessarily have a music background, but wanted to do music. We put together tools for that. We had a really good team there.
You seem to work with a variety of different artists in different genres.
Yes. I’m terrified of being asleep. Kevin Morrow taught me that there are three things in the business that can kill you: drugs, alcohol, and ego. In this business there is a lot of down time and there is a lot of free alcohol and stuff, if you want that. There are a historical amount of people in our business that have taken that too far. Then there is ego. For me, I never wanted to believe that I was so good that I couldn’t learn more. It’s an honor to be in Billboard’s Latin Power Players, but it weirds me out at the same time. It’s not that I don’t believe in my abilities. I believe in my abilities. But generally if people start to believe in you blindly that’s not good. If you start to believe that there is no room for improvement, that’s usually when you fail. I’ve seen the music community change so much and it is endlessly fascinating. I never want to lose that fascination. I don’t want to calcify.
How do you manage to continue to be successful?
Paying attention to where the audience goes. You can’t assume the same audience is going to be there. Markets always change. I’ve tried to focus on a few key markets which are South Korea, Mexico, Japan, the U.S. and Europe and how these five main markets work within one another. For example, I represent Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra who are huge in Mexico and South America which is crazy because they don’t sing in Spanish. But there is a huge ska community down there. To me, a great agent is somebody who can see a concept from a far distance and create a mechanism for that genre to be successful.
So being an agent is still working out for you this many years later?
My job is to try to represent my clients and hopefully have clients that represent the virtues that I like. I am always searching for artists that are innovative, that are trying to showcase their message in a larger way. I think right now we are in an era where the larger agencies may not even be agencies in the next couple of years. We have no idea what is going to happen if these entities go public. There is constant fluidity. What hasn’t changed is the importance of innovation and staying on your toes. That’s what keeps me from calcifying. I never want to take my job for granted or my abilities. The best way you can do that is every morning waking up and saying ‘Let’s come up with something new.’