On the morning of April 15, 2009, Elizabeth Sobol was flipping through The New York Times in her Miami Beach apartment when a headline and photo stopped her cold.
“You son of a bitch,” she said.
Sobol, managing director of IMG Artists, one of the world’s premier classical music talent agencies, was looking at a picture of the agency’s 47-year-old chairman, Barrett Wissman, in a story titled, “Hedge Fund Executive Guilty of Securities Fraud.” Wissman, a Texas financier and classical pianist, had purchased IMG Artists for $7.5 million in July 2003, two months after the death of the previous owner, legendary sports impresario Mark McCormack. Originally a division of parent company IMG, which also operated businesses in sports, media and modeling, IMG Artists was an international firm with an A-list roster that included conductor André Previn, pianist Evgeny Kissin, violinist Itzhak Perlman, soprano Renée Fleming and flutist James Galway. But McCormack’s unexpected death had thrown the company’s future into jeopardy. Wissman, a fashionably stubbled bon vivant with a taste for linen suits and fine wines, had been welcomed by the staff of IMG as a savior. He seemed ideal — a wealthy financier with musical talent.
But, as Sobol learned from the Times, Wissman had lately enhanced his wealth by illegitimate means. He and two New York state political operatives had conspired to direct billions of dollars from the state’s pension fund to private investment firms in return for kickbacks. Wissman had personally made millions from the pay-to-play scheme and was awaiting sentencing.
Angry and incredulous, Sobol picked up the phone and called Wissman at his home in Dallas. “You couldn’t even give me a heads up this was coming?” she said. Sobol demanded that he assemble the New York staff for a morning meeting, get on the speakerphone and explain what his guilty plea meant for the company’s future. “And then,” she added, “you are going to ask the staff for forgiveness.”
Wissman obeyed, but he faced bigger problems than winning back the good graces of his staff. If he did not appease the New York state attorney general’s office, he was looking at up to four years in prison. To avoid that fate, he testified against his co-conspirators and investment firms that had awarded kickbacks — and paid $12 million in penalties and forfeitures.
IMG Artists felt the financial repercussions. “We were already undercapitalized,” says a former senior manager. “And once Barrett’s assets were frozen, there came a point where we were holding back payments to artists.”
Finally, in 2011, Wissman sold part ownership of the agency to a minority shareholder. At first, the staff knew little more than his name: Alexander Shustorovich. “We could find nothing, and I mean nothing, about him on the web,” says Alec Treuhaft, then an IMG senior vp, apart from Shustorovich being a Russian-born U.S. citizen who had made his fortune in what sounded like an arcane field, publishing scientific journals. Wissman insisted he would remain in full control, and all but characterized Shustorovich as a silent partner. “Barrett told us, ‘You’ll never see him,’” recalls Treuhaft.
It didn’t work out that way. Before long, the staff was summoned to meet Shustorovich at IMG’s New York office, and he confounded expectations. “We pictured some greying guy in a rumpled suit,” says Treuhaft. Instead, they encountered a tall, slender, preppy-looking man in his mid-40s. “He was much more vital than we had imagined, more so than Barrett.” Shustorovich, who turns 55 in June, projected intelligence — he had graduate degrees from Harvard’s law and business schools — but little charm and less tact. “He showed up without having any idea who was who and talked about everything we were doing wrong,” says Treuhaft.
In the decade since, Shustorovich has conspicuously elbowed Wissman aside. “Alex is very much running the show,” says Ian Smallbone, former managing director of IMG in Europe. Wissman, 58, is designated chairman and Shustorovich president/CEO, but those are not legal corporate titles. Shustorovich says he now has majority control of the privately held company. Wissman claims his stake and Shustorovich’s are equal. The two men do not appear to agree on much, and their mutual distaste is palpable. Wissman will not speak of it on the record; Shustorovich has no such qualms.
“People have asked, why would I get in bed with a guy like this?” says Shustorovich of his fellow shareholder. “I thought he’d done his penance. He presents himself like he’s a nice guy, and a lot of people fall for that crap. Now that I’ve got to know him better, I’ve learned to be more careful.”
Shustorovich says he recently had to sue Wissman in New York State Supreme Court for failing to repay a large personal loan. Wissman is currently suing Shustorovich in the same court for allegedly overcharging the agency for rental space in a New York townhouse Shustorovich owns.
A brawl at the top was once inconceivable at IMG Artists, but the company bears little resemblance to the collegial agency founded in 1979 by two former school teachers. For a quarter-century, says co-founder Edna Landau, “We ran our office like a family.” The camaraderie was such, she adds, that “nobody ever left.” The era of Wissman and Shustorovich changed all that. During their reign, senior managers have departed en masse — including Sobol, who had risen from intern to U.S. managing director — taking with them decades of institutional memory. They also took artists. When Charlotte Lee, a 17-year IMG veteran, left in 2015 to start her own boutique agency, Itzhak Perlman went with her.
Many of the managers who quit grumbled about Wissman, but said the tipping point was Shustorovich. Classical artist managers are not called agents because they provide services well beyond booking, and bond tightly with their artists, but Shustorovich, former staffers claim, was too imperious to see managers as other than interchangeable. “He immediately gravitated toward the fiscal inefficiencies of the business,” says Lee. “In a normal corporate context, good for him. But this is not a normal business.” She adds: “We used to call him ‘The Oligarch.’”
Shustorovich has heard the criticism before, and says, “I don’t know that there’s much I could have done differently.” He has a reputation for blunt talk, but not for talking to the press, and his Billboard interview is his first ever with a music publication. “Alex is a difficult person to get information on, and shrewd about keeping himself out of the limelight,” says Smallbone. Though now a major player in the business of classical music, he remains an elusive presence in that world. He has been equally coy about his other ventures, which, in addition to publishing scientific journals, include Russian media, advertising and real estate interests. “I’m the opposite of Elon Musk. I try not to be the frontman,” he says. Learning about facets of his complicated life — Yeltsin-era wheeler-dealer, uranium broker, million-dollar Trump donor — required interviews with knowledgeable sources, supplemented by court filings and other documents, public and private. Many details about Shustorovich appear here for the first time in English, or anywhere.
Say what you want about Shustorovich, he has continued subsidizing IMG Artists with his own money at a time when COVID-19 has devastated classical-artist management. “I told our people from the beginning of the pandemic, ‘I will keep our business afloat,’ ” he says. Not every artist-management company has been so lucky. IMG is surely now the world’s largest classical music agency, following the unforeseen collapse of its biggest stateside rival, Columbia Artists Management. Last August, the music world was staggered by the news that Columbia had been felled by the pandemic and was shutting down for good. For decades, Columbia Artists was the king of agencies, the looming giant across the street from Carnegie Hall. Its client list filled page after page of the trade magazine Musical America — without even including its roster of conductors, which Columbia did not deign to publish. There was no need. Columbia’s all-powerful boss, Ronald Wilford, seemed to control almost every major orchestra leader in the world. When Zubin Mehta resigned as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1991, the Philharmonic board simply asked Wilford to replace him, and he inserted Kurt Masur. The business had never before seen a kingmaker like Wilford, and probably never will again.
When Wilford died in 2015, he left a successor, Tim Fox, who held no voting stock. Columbia was owned by Wilford’s widow and other private shareholders, who peremptorily shut the company down, effective Aug. 31, 2020, after making their intentions known via email just two days earlier. Even top managers at the agency did not see it coming. “Stunning and sad and scary,” sums up David Lai, co-president of boutique management agency Park Avenue Artists. “If a behemoth like Columbia Artists can fold so easily, what does that mean for the rest of us? This is like our Lehman Brothers.”
Another dramatic announcement came less than two months later, this time involving IMG’s other biggest competitor in the United States, Opus 3 Artists. Headquartered in New York, with a satellite office in Berlin, Opus 3 is the lineal descendent of the agency founded in the 1920s by impresario Sol Hurok. In October, Opus 3 disclosed that it had been 100% acquired by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the first time a nonprofit institution has bought a for-profit artist agency. David Foster, the longtime president/CEO of Opus 3, says that during the pandemic, “Our income shrunk to about a seventh or eighth of what it was,” and 40% of the staff was let go. Had it not been for the sale to SFCM, Foster admits, “We might have gone the way of Columbia.”
Now, with Columbia gone, IMG’s only rival for size is the London-based classical agency HarrisonParrott. But IMG has a greater global reach, with 10 offices in seven countries. It also has more diversity, with departments for dance, jazz and world music, and touring attractions that include the occasional outlier, such as an Aretha Franklin tribute show. Classical music remains the core of IMG, with a roster hundreds deep, including stars such as pianists Leif Ove Andsnes and Mitsuko Uchida, vocalists Susan Graham and Lawrence Brownlee, violinists Hilary Hahn and Sarah Chang, and conductors Semyon Bychkov and Franz Welser-Möst.
IMG’s sheer size and international scope are advantageous for booking and touring, and having offices in many different countries creates a valuable intelligence network. But classical artists rarely sign with an agency merely because it is big. Opus 3 is a prime example — though half the size of IMG, its roster, which includes edgy conductors Marin Alsop and Teddy Abrams alongside stalwarts such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, is considered sexier.
Not surprisingly, the San Francisco Conservatory was not the only suitor for Opus 3, but Foster says it was the most appealing one. SFCM president David Stull, the architect of the Opus 3 purchase, says the benefits of the acquisition for the conservatory are manifold. Stull foresees Opus 3 providing invaluable career mentoring to students, and booking students to appear at clients’ concerts as guest soloists. He also wants to take full advantage of SFCM’s new Bowes Center, a $200 million performing arts complex and recording studio, complete with classrooms and dormitories. SFCM will invite Opus 3’s clients to Bowes to record, perform, and give master classes — a creative way of drawing topflight musicians to campus in the manner of artists in residence.
Though Opus 3 will remain an autonomous for-profit company, profit is by no means a high priority for the new owner. “We didn’t buy Opus 3 with the idea that it will be a financial asset,” Stull says. “We purchased it in the hope that it will be an artistic and educational asset.” It is a unique business model for classical artist management, and the industry is watching to see how the partnership will work.
Today, artist management companies are among the last remaining for-profit organizations in classical music. Record labels are another example, but their margins are slimmer than they were in the heyday of the CD. “Record deal advances are zero percent of the business now,” says Michael Benchetrit, president of Minerva Artists, an agency he founded in October after the collapse of his previous employer, Columbia Artists. The fee structure for classical management in North America is a standard 10% for opera and media and 20% for concerts and recitals. The financial returns tend to be unexceptional. “The pay is modest,” says Treuhaft. “The real compensation is psychic.” Concurs David Lai: “You don’t go into this business unless you love music.”
Indeed, many artist managers started out as musicians. Nicholas Mathias, a London-based manager who works as a private consultant in an exclusive arrangement with IMG Artists, began his career as a violinist with the Bournemouth Symphony. Today he handles mostly conductors, including Sir Antonio Pappano and Vladimir Jurowski. Mathias has a broad understanding of repertoire, and his expert guidance illustrates why classical artists bond with their managers and not with the agencies that employ the managers. He can tell a guest conductor what to perform and what to avoid in order to make a good first impression on an orchestra. “For debuts, Mahler’s First [Symphony], Prokofiev’s Fifth, Dvorak’s Seventh rather than his Eighth or Ninth, and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, are good choices,” he says. “You must never do Bruckner for a debut — too risky.”
Another distinctive feature of classical music management is the long lead time for performances. Opera companies and symphony orchestras plan their seasons years in advance — sometimes four and five years out. Or at least they used to. COVID-19 has created a logistics nightmare. “At the moment, I’m working as hard as ever,” says veteran manager Kathryn Enticott — not on booking events, but on rescheduling them.
For now, star violinist Joshua Bell is not complaining about the postponements. After 30 years of nonstop touring, he is finally getting the sabbatical he had craved, and is practicing Bach, shooting hoops, raising chickens and playing with his sons. But when his touring schedule resumes, he tells Billboard, “It’s going to be like fitting Tetris pieces together.”
Bell’s equanimity is not the norm. “The artists are extremely depressed,” says Benchetrit. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it.” Even with the increasing pace of vaccination, and the growing likelihood of indoor concerts by the fall, classical artists are anxious about the future. Sports fans will likely return to large arenas – but will older music fans crowd back into opera houses and sit through six hours of Götterdämmerung? Will international orchestral tours – one of the most popular but also among the most complicated and expensive of classical events – resume as before? No one is sure.
As of mid-May, live classical performances in the United States were sporadic and livestreaming income was negligible, and the classical industry was anxiously awaiting the Metropolitan Opera’s planned reopening in late September. If the Met, the nation’s largest performing arts organization, makes a successful comeback, it augurs well for live classical performances in the United States. Internationally, the outlook varies by country: For example, Australia has effectively resumed its classical concerts, but foreign artists have to endure a two-week quarantine before being allowed to perform there.
Shustorovich thinks a fall recovery is “optimistic,” adding that IMG’s budget is based on the expectation that bookings for 2021 will be only 25% of pre-COVID-19 levels. “I think that was our estimate last year, but it came in at 10%.”
Whatever the long-term economic impact of COVID-19, the classical music business will go on, because prestige drives the business more than profit. It is the reason sports marketing mogul Mark McCormack took ownership of IMG Artists in its early years, and let it run at lower margins than the rest of his empire. “Mark understood that the sports business had good names, but never the level of prestige of a classical music business,” recalls one of McCormack’s former deputies. When IMG sponsored a 1988 production of Aida at Earl’s Court in London, “Prince Charles and Princess Diana showed up. They wouldn’t have come to a golf tournament.”
The prestige factor cannot have been lost on Shustorovich, who has been known to chauffeur prospective clients around New York City in a Rolls-Royce. He says he invested in IMG Artists “because I believe classical culture is very important,” and speaks animatedly of culture having enriched his life. But he does not deny that being CEO of a big performing arts agency lands him in social settings with other business leaders — many of them, like himself, immensely wealthy. Shustorovich has been labeled a billionaire in the Russian press, though his name has never appeared on Forbes’ annual list. “If I made an effort to be on the list, I probably could,” he says. “I don’t disclose my net worth. Is it substantial? Yes.”
He did not grow up with money. “My childhood experience in the Soviet Union was living in a communal apartment with lots of neighbors,” he says. “There was one common bathroom for everyone, and you had to stand in line.” He found escape from the drudgery when his parents, Evgeny and Maria, took him to cultural events. “Being brought by my parents to the Moscow Conservatory, or to the Bolshoi Theater, was like traveling to a different world.” The feeling stayed with him years later, when he attended his first opera at the Met in New York, where he recalls “walking into a venue full of beautiful people in a beautiful setting with glowing chandeliers.”
Evgeny was a master chemist, and a member of the prestigious Soviet Academy of Sciences, but as a Jew in Soviet Russia, his opportunities for advancement were limited. During the 1970s, the USSR, bowing to social pressure, allowed nearly a quarter-million Jews to emigrate, but the application process was maddeningly capricious. Evgeny applied for himself and his wife and son, and they received their exit visas after only four months. Evgeny’s brother waited 10 years.
Alexander Shustorovich, age 11, and his parents arrived penniless in New York in 1977. Soon the family of three was living in Ithaca, N.Y., where a philanthropic couple, Suzanne and Jaime Hecht, lent a hand to Russian émigrés. The Shustoroviches were “the first family we helped,” Suzanne recalled years later in an interview with the Ithaca Journal. “They were just such wonderful people.” Evgeny joined the research department at Eastman Kodak in 1979, and the family moved to Rochester, N.Y. Maria, who had taught high school mathematics in Moscow, learned English and then American sign language in order to accept a full-time teaching position at Rochester’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf.
Alexander earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, followed by a J.D. from Harvard Law School and an MBA from Harvard Business School. Remarkably, while taking postgraduate courses, Shustorovich was shuttling between the Soviet Union and the United States. There were opportunities for him in Russia, and he was a young man in a hurry.
During a trip to the USSR in 1989, Shustorovich met British-born John Evans, today IMG Artists’ chief operating officer, and then international director of Bob Guccione’s General Media — the publisher of Penthouse. Evans wanted to launch a Russian edition of General Media’s pop-science magazine, Omni. Shustorovich had befriended Yuri Osipov, a high-ranking official at the Academy of Sciences, of which Evgeny Shustorovich had been a member. (Alexander says his father never met Osipov until years later.) The Osipov connection would prove invaluable. By September, General Media had entered a joint venture with the academy to distribute Russian Omni.
On Dec. 26, 1991, the Soviet Union was dissolved, and Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Federation, ushered in sweeping economic reforms, privatizing state-owned industries in a way that created once-in-a-lifetime business opportunities for the well-connected. For Shustorovich, there was a much bigger prize to be gained than the Omni deal. The academy published hundreds of scientific journals, for which universities and corporations paid hefty subscription fees — especially if they were translated into English. Shustorovich had to have been aware that British media magnate Robert Maxwell had built his empire out of the profits of his first company, Pergamon Press, a publisher of scientific books and journals. By 1992, with the backing of General Media, Shustorovich had launched his own publishing firm and, like Maxwell, given it a Greek name – Pleiades. He set his sights on the academy’s journals.
In September 1992, 19 prestigious Academy of Sciences journals previously translated and published by the American Institute of Physics came up for grabs. AIP executive director Kenneth Ford could not believe that Shustorovich, a non-scientist in his mid-20s, bankrolled by the publisher of Penthouse, was in contention for the rights. He complained about Pleiades to the British magazine Nature, which ran an article about the controversy, alongside a cartoon of a leering magazine salesman telling a customer, “If you want something stronger, I’ve got the Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Physics under the counter.” Ford was not going to surrender to Pleiades without a fight.
“I was in my office on Long Island, talking to Shustorovich on the phone,” Ford recalls today. “He was in Russia and was telling me why he expected to get those contracts, and why I should bow out. I was so angry I was shouting. I suspect I’m not the only person in the world to have shouted at Shustorovich.” AIP ultimately held on to the 19 journals. “It’s a miracle we prevailed, because Pleiades had political connections and clout,” Ford says. “But scientific loyalty triumphed.”
In the long run, Shustorovich triumphed. Today, Pleiades is the world’s largest publisher of translated Russian scientific journals, with an estimated 90% of the market, and Shustorovich is Pleiades’ principal, if not sole, owner. In 2016, the company entered into a worldwide distribution partnership with European giant Springer Nature — publisher of the very magazine that 25 years earlier had mocked Pleiades in a cartoon. “Pleiades is a big company, and Alex has become very wealthy as a result,” says Evans.
The Russian press has accused Shustorovich of monopolizing a state industry, and exploiting his business ties with the academy and Yuri Osipov. “My detractors make it sound like the fairy godmother came to me and gave me some big business,” he says. “It’s a competitive industry — we have over 100,000 authors’ rights contracts every year — and no one person could control that volume of people, including Mr. Osipov.
“Was he a relevant person at the time? Yes,” says Shustorovich of Osipov, who nine days before the dissolution of the Soviet Union became the academy president.
While publishing scientific journals made Shustorovich’s fortune, Osipov and other powerful friends supported him in a venture of far greater significance: Megatons to Megawatts, the program that paid Russia around $17 billion to destroy over 30,000 nuclear weapons, creating enough reactor fuel to provide, for two decades, 10% of all the energy consumed in the United States. It was arguably the most consequential business transaction of modern times — Russian warheads meant to obliterate American cities ended up lighting them — and Shustorovich wanted in. His involvement disrupted and ultimately threatened the success of the entire program. From corporate boardrooms to the U.S. State Department, the question was repeatedly raised: What is he doing in this deal?
One person asking that question was the man who conceived Megatons to Megawatts and for 20 years helped hold it together, Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Thomas Neff. In October 1991, U.S. and Soviet scientists and Soviet officials met at a hotel in Washington to discuss a dire problem: What would become of the Soviet nuclear arsenal after the USSR was dissolved? Tens of thousands of warheads would be spread out over vast independent territories, and the dying Soviet empire was so broke that Viktor Mikhailov, head of the USSR nuclear program, could not even pay the security personnel guarding the weapons. Warheads could fall into the hands of rogue states or terrorists. During a break, Neff found Mikhailov chain-smoking in a corridor, and made a proposal. If Mikhailov could collect and dismantle Soviet weapons, the highly enriched uranium from the warheads could be blended down into nuclear reactor fuel worth billions of dollars. Intrigued, Mikhailov asked how much uranium he could sell. Neff took a gamble and proposed a huge number: 500 metric tons. Mikhailov believed he could provide that amount.
Neff’s big idea changed the world. The Megatons to Megawatts agreement was cosigned in February 1993 by Mikhailov and William F. Burns, a retired U.S. major general. It was dubbed the “HEU deal,” shorthand for highly enriched uranium. By then, Yuri Osipov had introduced Shustorovich to Mikhailov, who now ran Minatom — Russia’s Ministry of Atomic Energy — and whose support Shustorovich needed to get in on the HEU deal.
Mikhailov did give that support, and even attended Shustorovich’s Harvard Business School graduation, prompting the Russian media to depict Shustorovich as Mikhailov’s “godson.” Mikhailov debunked the idea, telling The Wall Street Journal, “He’s a Jew and I’m a Russian, so it’s impossible.” Neff points out that Osipov was a frequent visitor to the household of Boris Yeltsin, and suspects that when Mikhailov threw his support behind Shustorovich, “He might have just been following orders.”
The Megatons to Megawatts program was negotiated to run for 20 years — 1993 to 2013 — as a commercial enterprise backed by two governments. Tenex, the overseas trading company of Minatom, was selected as Russia’s executive agent, while the United States assigned the U.S. Enrichment Corporation (USEC), a business division of the Department of Energy.
Shustorovich first popped up in the HEU deal in 1994. That year, a new joint stock company called Matek was formed by a group of Russian and American partners, including the Russian Academy of Sciences and American aerospace company Allied-Signal. Matek claimed in a press release that it could accomplish “more rapid conversion of weapons grade uranium to peaceful purposes.” Viktor Mikhailov supported the idea of Matek replacing Tenex as the Russian executor of the HEU deal, even though Matek was 20 percent American-owned. The Matek board consisted of corporate leaders and senior government officials — and Alexander Shustorovich, who was listed as Matek’s vice chairman.
Neff, acting as a back-channel intermediary between the U.S. and Russia to help keep the program on track, was baffled. Who was this young man who, by Neff’s calculations, stood to gross perhaps $360 million as part owner of Matek? Neff recalls thinking that the instructions to give him a central role in the HEU deal “had to have come from above, likely far above.” In time, Neff saw evidence that the Yeltsin family, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, and oligarch Boris Berezovsky were supporters of Shustorovich. Neff never met Shustorovich in person – he dealt directly with other Pleiades associates – but remembers a Russian official describing him as “a guy who can get up your ass without grease.”
The Matek deal was opposed by Vladimir Potanin, an oligarch with close ties to Anatoly Chubais, Russia’s deputy prime minister, and the pushback was enough to undo the plan. Shustorovich was far from deterred. In January 1996, he registered a new Delaware corporation called Pleiades Group, not to be confused with his publishing company. Pleiades Group’s stated goal was no less than to buy the U.S. Enrichment Corporation, which was about to go private — the biggest government enterprise to be sold since Conrail. If Pleiades acquired USEC, Shustorovich would become the U.S. executive agent in the HEU deal. And if he had influence with Minatom (and therefore Tenex) through his association with Osipov and Mikhailov, he could conceivably control both sides of the deal. It was, Neff says, “a breathtakingly audacious scheme.”
It was unclear how Pleiades would scrape together the financing for the acquisition, but Shustorovich had a bigger problem. The Clinton administration was aware of his ties to Minatom, and there were prohibitions against USEC being sold to a foreign agent. Shustorovich needed to dispel the idea that he was one. Two weeks before he incorporated Pleiades Group, he managed to meet President Bill Clinton as one of 15 invitees to a coffee klatsch in the White House Map Room. It is unlikely the HEU deal was brought up, but Shustorovich no doubt endeavored to make a good impression. He had come as the guest of a business friend, Democratic donor Ronald Oehl.
Shustorovich was, in fact, a lifelong Republican. In 2000, he disclosed in a press statement to Russian newspaper Obshchaya Gazeta that at 18 he had cast his first vote for Ronald Reagan. (He also wryly noted that on the day he was born, a relative wrote a letter for him to read as an adult, instructing him how to be a good Communist.) For the HEU deal, he needed U.S. political allies, and it made sense to court influential Republicans. His first such business ally was Max Kampleman, formerly President Reagan’s chief arms negotiator — but Kampleman soon became uneasy over Pleiades’ Russian ties, and opted out.
Then Shustorovich met Georgette Mosbacher, a socialite, cosmetics entrepreneur, and author of the motivational book for women, Feminine Force. She was also the wife of Robert Mosbacher, former secretary of commerce to President George H.W. Bush. Georgette did not respond to interview requests from Billboard, but in 1996 she told journalist Andrew Cockburn that Shustorovich had been introduced to her as someone who could help her sell her Borghese cosmetics line in Russia. He agreed to assist, she explained to Cockburn, provided her husband joined his company. In October 1996, Robert Mosbacher became chairman of Pleiades Group. James Baker IV, son of the former secretary of state, also was hired as Pleiades’ corporate counsel.
Pleiades now had more credibility with the U.S. government — “a clean bill,” Robert Mosbacher told The Wall Street Journal — but by then buying USEC had taken a back seat to other moneymaking opportunities in the HEU deal. The natural uranium content of the nuclear fuel shipped by Russia was a state asset, just like gold. Under the terms of the Megatons to Megawatts agreement, it had to be replaced with ore warehoused in the United States, or its equivalent sale value — an estimated $4 billion over the span of the program. The broker for that uranium stood to make a handsome profit, while helping Russia replenish its near-empty coffers. Cameco, a Canadian uranium trading company, made a bid to be sales agent, as did Cogema, a French nuclear company. Pleiades, which had no experience in the uranium market, also put itself in the running.
In a March 1998 article headlined “Uranium-Gate,” the Russian business daily Kommersant reported what happened. “The Minatom leadership opted for the Pleiades company, previously unknown to anyone. It is led by the Soviet émigré Alexander Shustorovich…who does not like to appear in public…. No one knows how Shustorovich charmed the leaders of Minatom.” Under the terms of an April 4, 1997, agreement between Pleiades and Tenex, Pleiades would store the uranium for two years in anticipation of market prices going up and Russia getting more money. But in reality, Neff says, there was no reason to expect prices to rise. Meanwhile, Pleiades could conceivably borrow money against the stockpile, while the Russian Federation got nothing. “Incomprehensible,” an unnamed Minatom employee told Kommersant. The newspaper stated: “Without any guarantees of payment, Russian state assets worth about $700 million will be kept at Alexander Shustorovich’s disposal.”
Whether or not the $700 million estimate was accurate, Pleiades had thrown a monkey wrench into the HEU deal. Yeltsin was under pressure, and the Clinton administration was alarmed. Naseer Hashim, senior vp of Pleiades, asked Neff to lend his support. (Hashim did not respond to interview requests for this article, but he told Der Spiegel in 1996 that he and Shustorovich had gotten into the HEU deal “to do God’s work.”) Neff was not disposed to help Pleiades. On March 8, 1998, he wrote a memo to the office of Vice President Al Gore, and reported: “There is no money from [the natural] uranium because Minatom chose to do business with inexperienced friends of Russian officials when it could have done a good deal with major western companies that could pay immediately.”
By that time, Pleiades’ status in the HEU deal was already imperiled. A week earlier, Yeltsin had summoned Mikhailov to his office and asked for his resignation. There was speculation that Mikhailov was pushed out of Minatom because of the Pleiades controversy, although he denied it. An increasingly hostile Russian press had taken to calling Shustorovich “uranium boy.” Mikhailov’s replacement, Yevgeny Adamov, no fan of Pleiades, essentially tore up the company’s April 1997 agreement with Tenex, and ultimately made a joint deal with the Canadian and French firms, in addition to a Germany-based uranium broker.
The long delay in Russia receiving money for the natural uranium took its toll. At a Moscow summit on Sept. 2, 1998, Yeltsin informed Clinton that Russia was pulling out of Megatons to Megawatts. Clinton asked Yeltsin to give him a chance to find a solution. The following month, even though the program was not supposed to use public funds, Congress approved paying Russia $325 million for two years’ worth of natural uranium, saving the HEU deal and putting an end to Pleiades’ involvement.
Shustorovich was not ready to give up, and he initiated a round of lawsuits, all of them unsuccessful, including a $1 billion suit against the Russian government filed in Stockholm. Pleiades went after Tenex in New York federal court for allegedly breaching its 1997 agreement. A U.S. lawyer for Tenex says, “Shustorovich was smart and strategic, but his agreement was not what he claimed.” The judge, Thomas Greisa, appeared to concur, commenting from the bench that the purported contract struck him as “a head walking around without a body.” Then the Clinton administration weighed in with a statement of interest requesting that the Tenex case be dismissed on national security grounds. “That was extraordinary,” the lawyer says. “The state department policy is never to intervene at the district court level.” When all was said and done, Pleiades’ role in the HEU deal helped precipitate a U.S.-Russia diplomatic crisis and arguably cost U.S. taxpayers $325 million.
Today, Shustorovich’s account of the HEU deal differs radically from the accepted historical record. “Thomas Neff may think otherwise, but I’m the person who brought the Megatons to Megawatts idea to the Russian government,” he says. “I had a conversation with Mikhailov in 1991, and I say, ‘What do you think of this intellectual idea?’ He likes it. And I was the guy on the ground making it happen. Neff was nowhere in the picture.” Neff calls that “nonsense,” and adds, “He’s trying to self-aggrandize, as usual.” Neff’s role in Megatons to Megawatts won him the coveted Leo Szilard Award for “outstanding accomplishments by physicists in promoting the use of physics for the benefit of society.”
Though no longer in business with Robert Mosbacher, Shustorovich maintained a lasting friendship with Georgette, who described him in a Wall Street Journal interview as “like a brother to me.” She was skilled at handling the press, but inadvertently brought Shustorovich some unwanted publicity. In August 2000, just before the GOP convention nominated George W. Bush for president, Shustorovich, at Mosbacher’s urging, wrote the RNC a check for $250,000. Through a clerical error, the check bounced. Shustorovich offered to replace it with a certified check, but by then the RNC had made inquiries and learned about the uranium controversy. His money was refused. A New York Post headline read: “A Fat 250g ‘Donation’ to GOP Goes A’Bouncin’.”
Shustorovich had an even harder time ducking the spotlight in Russia, where his business ventures included the broadcast franchise for FashionTV, which fed into his status as a conspicuously eligible bachelor. He was often photographed escorting models, and his wedding engagement in 2005 made him fodder for Russian gossip columns.
Shustorovich’s fiancée, Ksenia Sobchak, was a blond society girl dubbed “Russia’s Paris Hilton.” She was the daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, the first post-Soviet mayor of St. Petersburg, who held the dubious honor of being the teacher and political mentor of Vladimir Putin. Ksenia’s notoriety was of a different kind. She hosted Dom-2, a long-running reality TV show marked for its vulgarity, and occasionally acted in Russian B-movies (she was Eva Braun in a 2008 spy caper called Hitler Goes Kaput!). Later, she became a political activist and worked to rehabilitate her image, a transformation even some Russian opposition leaders thought genuine.
Sobchak told Komsomolskaya Pravda, a Russian tabloid, that she met Shustorovich on Feb. 19, 2001, at a concert in honor of her father on the first anniversary of his death. (Putin had wept at Anatoly’s funeral.) Shustorovich “courted me for a year, then we began to live together,” said Ksenia. They shared an apartment on Tverskaya Street, the most expensive shopping street in Moscow. Shustorovich proposed in 2004, and a wedding was set to take place in St. Petersburg on July 1, 2005. He would be 39, and she, 24.
Sobchak decreed the wedding would be “simple,” by which she meant 300 guests at the Konstantin Palace, a bridal gown from fashion designer Valentin Yudashkin and a wedding-reception band hired for $200,000: the Pet Shop Boys. One week before the ceremony, the wedding was called off. The official reason given by the Konstantin Palace was that a close relative of the groom had died, and the family was sitting shiva. The real explanation, according to the gossip pages, was that Shustorovich’s family disapproved of the bride. Sobchak, for the record, said she decided she was too young. She has since married twice, and has a son from the first marriage. Shustorovich remains a bachelor.
Shustorovich’s engagement to the daughter of Putin’s mentor led to speculation about a Shustorovich-Putin connection. The evidence is not there. For one thing, Sobchak’s political activism started to be taken seriously when she began to speak out against Putin; and in March 2018, as a member of the Civic Initiative Party, she was one of 69 candidates who opposed him in the presidential election – a decision, she claimed in interviews, that displeased him, although as journalist Masha Gessen put it, “no one gets on the ballot in Russia without Putin’s permission.” (Putin’s chief political rival, Alexei Navalny, was kept off.) Sobchak garnered 1.68 percent of the vote.
The question of a Shustorovich-Putin connection was examined and dismissed by investigators in the course of Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Shustorovich had sent a $1 million check to Donald Trump’s inaugural committee — this time his money was accepted, no questions asked. He thereby became one of six Russian-born million-dollar donors invited to an exclusive, black-tie “Chairman’s Global Dinner” on the eve of Trump’s inauguration. (Warner Music Group owner Leonard Blavatnik was another.) An FBI inquiry into whether men with supposed Kremlin ties were reporting their private conversations with Trump to Russian intelligence proved a dead end. All that is certain is that for $1 million, Shustorovich, who once described himself as a “political junkie,” got to break bread with the president-elect. Georgette Mosbacher, who knew Trump from her New York socialite days, reaped a more tangible benefit from his election: he made her ambassador to Poland.
No one could have imagined an owner like Alex Shustorovich when IMG Artists was getting started. In the late 1970s, Charles Hamlen, a French teacher and sometime pianist, had a stint as a page turner for a chamber music series, where he heard performers grumbling about their managers. Artists wanted to be listened to, instead of being told what was best for them. Around that time, Hamlen met Edna Landau, a former choral instructor at New York’s High School of Music and Art. “We had this incredible bonding — two school teachers, idealistic about wanting to help artists, caring more about ethics than money,” says Landau. They launched Hamlen/Landau Management in 1979.
Elizabeth Sobol, a young pianist, joined as an intern. The Hamlen/Landau office was “a small basement apartment on W. 85th Street in Manhattan, with plywood furniture,” recalls Sobol. “The phone rang maybe three times a week — and two of those times it was Charlie’s mom.” The outgoing calls were relentless. “I’d hear Charlie and Edna trying to book artists nobody ever heard of, with nothing to go on but pure passion. When they’d finally nail a $500 contract for pianist so-and-so to play in Paducah [Ky.], they would literally do a dance of joy.”
In 1982, Hamlen saw a 14-year-old violinist named Joshua Bell perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra after winning a national competition. Bell lived in Bloomington, Ind., with his father and mother — a research psychologist and therapist, respectively. “Charlie and I got in the car — we didn’t have money to fly in those days — and drove to the Bells’ farmhouse,” says Landau. Joshua appreciated the effort. “It said a lot,” he remembers. Bell signed with the small agency, but only after reassurances from Hamlen. “My psychologist parents had a heart-to-heart with Charles,” Bell says. “They told him, ‘We don’t want him to overdo it; we want him to be a kid.’ He was very sympathetic. They could see he was not in this just to make money.” Hamlen developed Bell at a deliberate pace. Many other prodigies were pushed too hard and burned out; Bell built a career. In October 2018, two months after Hamlen died of leukemia, Bell gave a memorial concert in his honor.
Hamlen/Landau now had a future star, but no marquee names and no big earners. Few in the business took the agency seriously. In the early 1980s, classical management was dominated by two large firms — Ronald Wilford’s Columbia Artists and ICM Artists, the company that would one day become Opus 3. Hamlen/Landau was dwarfed by those competitors and constantly on the edge of insolvency. At one music festival, says Landau, “Charlie and I camped out in a tent.” She recalls thinking, “We can’t go on like this.”
While Hamlen and Landau were struggling to keep the lights on, another company owner was on his way to becoming a billionaire: Mark McCormack, the man credited with inventing the sports marketing business. As a student athlete at The College of William and Mary, McCormack had dreamt of becoming a golf pro, until a varsity tournament encounter with another student athlete, Arnold Palmer, made him rethink his ambitions. McCormack instead got a law degree from Yale and went on to practice law in Cleveland. In 1960, he and Palmer crossed paths again and, over a handshake, Palmer became his first sports client. McCormack made Palmer a millionaire several times over through endorsement deals. Other sports clients, including Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Rod Laver and Martina Navratilova, followed by the handful. McCormack understood that maximizing TV coverage for his clients meant greater fame and earnings. He was the largest producer of televised sports outside the networks, and to boost coverage he created his own tournaments. McCormack’s International Management Group would soon make him, according to Sports Illustrated, “the most powerful man in sports.”
Despite his success, McCormack sensed a gap in his expanding business empire. IMG had become a marketing consultant to major corporations — and corporations were interested in the arts. McCormack credited a 1983 golf outing with soprano Kiri Te Kanawa, one of opera’s greatest stars, as his inspiration for moving IMG into classical music, about which he was largely ignorant. Te Kanawa advised McCormack that the first thing he needed to learn was that at a concert or opera, the break was called “intermission,” not “halftime.”
It remained for McCormack to find managers who knew the classical business. Through a friend, investment banker James Wolfensohn, then-chairman of Carnegie Hall, he learned about Hamlen and Landau. The two managers were flown to London as McCormack’s guests at Wimbledon — the tennis tournament was an IMG client — and summoned to meet the sports impresario at a townhouse. They were nervous. “We walked up a very long staircase to meet Mr. McCormack for the first time,” says Landau. “I looked at Charlie and said, ‘Everything’s going to be fine,’ because I found out [French composer Hector] Berlioz once lived in the same townhouse.” She took that as a good omen.
The meeting went well. It was decided that McCormack’s corporation would acquire Hamlen/Landau and rename it IMG Artists — a big brand name for what was still a tiny agency. Landau recalls one remark by McCormack that terrified the two managers, however. “He looked at us and asked, ‘Do you know who Ronald Wilford is?’ ” Of course they did. “I’m going to put him out of business,” said McCormack.
Mark McCormack liked to be first at everything. Tall and blond, he had an Ivy League bearing — until you sat across from him in a negotiation. Then he became the man the sports industry called “Mark the Shark.” His daily schedule was a rigorous to-do list broken down into 15-minute segments. McCormack could consult one of his yellow legal pads and tell you where he would be at a given moment six months’ hence. At the end of a workday, after checking off every item on his legal pad, he went to sleep, or, as his second wife, tennis doubles player Betsy Nagelsen, put it, “accomplished rest.” In his bestselling book What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School, McCormack owned up to being “very demanding of myself,” and consequently “very demanding of our management executives.”
No one at IMG Artists believed McCormack was too tough. “Mark liked the business, he liked the people running it, and he was super supportive,” recalls one of his former deputies. Artist managers who worked at the agency during McCormack’s reign remember him fondly. “Those 20 years under Mr. McCormack allowed us to grow without counting nickels and dimes,” says Sobol.
One day in 1985, Sobol picked up the office phone, and a man claiming to be Itzhak Perlman asked for Charles Hamlen. Sobol thought it was a gag — the violinist’s baritone voice was easy to imitate — but the call was genuine. Perlman’s manager, ICM Artists president Sheldon Gold, had died of heart failure at 55, and Perlman had heard good things about Hamlen and Landau. He was also a sports fan who was familiar with McCormack. By the following year, Landau was Perlman’s manager, and IMG Artists had its first household name. More eminent artists followed, including pianists André Watts and Evgeny Kissin.
Though now a player, IMG Artists remained a small agency. McCormack still had ideas of unseating Ronald Wilford’s Columbia Artists. In an interview with British music journalist Norman Lebrecht, McCormack derided Columbia as “an American outfit.” The IMG parent company, he pointed out, had offices on five continents.
McCormack saw an opportunity to outflank Columbia in 1989, when Harold Holt Ltd., then the largest classical agency in Britain, was looking for an investor to offset its financial troubles. He made a tentative bid to buy Holt, but, before closing the deal, asked one of his department heads to go over the agency’s books. Late the following year came a new, markedly lower bid. “The rest of the board was outraged,” says Stephen Wright, then Holt’s youngest director. “To me the revised bid stood to reason.”
When McCormack’s offer was officially rebuffed, Wright quit Holt for IMG, taking around 25 staffers, including virtually all of Holt’s orchestral touring department, and many illustrious artists. The IMG roster now had top-tier conductors — the glory of any classical management agency — among them Mariss Jansons, Neville Marriner and John Eliot Gardiner. IMG Artists was no longer a boutique. “We got what we wanted,” McCormack told Lebrecht, “the most profitable part of Holt’s business…and their most talented person in Stephen.”
Wright insisted on IMG paying Holt a six-figure settlement to help keep his former agency afloat, but hard feelings persisted for years. “I was seen as the bad guy,” he says. (Holt did survive, and today is Askonas Holt, one of Britain’s leading arts management agencies.)
As IMG Artists grew, a notable percentage of senior management positions in the United States were held by women. Romana Jaroff, one of the few managers from the McCormack era still with the agency, says the company joke was that IMG stood for “It’s Mostly Girls.” By the mid-1990s, Hamlen/Landau’s first intern, Elizabeth Sobol, had risen to associate director, and on her own initiative had begun building IMG’s dance department. Her first dance client was the choreographer Bill T. Jones. In 1996, she wanted to sign one of the earliest hip-hop dance companies, GhettoOriginal Prods., but to land the deal, IMG had to agree to co-produce the troupe’s forthcoming off-Broadway show, Jam on the Groove.
“I called Mr. McCormack’s secretary and asked to see him,” says Sobol. “The secretary asked, ‘What is the smallest amount of time you require?’ I said, ‘Seven minutes.’ She said, ‘Be on the corner of 74th and 5th at 2:07 p.m. His limo will pull up and you’ll get in. You will have exactly seven minutes.’” The car arrived on cue; Sobol was dropped off at 2:14, with permission granted.
McCormack continued to push himself, and friends warned he was rushing headlong to an early grave. In January 2003, he had a coronary and went into a coma. Four months later, he was dead at age 72. He left behind a company overleveraged from ambitious expansion plans. IMG’s top executives, Bob Kain and Alistair Johnston, laid off employees, closed offices and divested assets. After 20 years of stable ownership, IMG Artists was up for sale.
One month before McCormack went into the hospital, he spoke to Wright, then the managing director of IMG Artists Europe. “He said, ‘There’s someone I want you to meet,’ ” recalls Wright. “ ‘He’s a Texas businessman and a pianist. I’m thinking of bringing him in as a minority shareholder.’ ” But, McCormack told Wright, he had no qualms about turning the investor down “if you’re against the idea.”
The businessman was Barrett Wissman. “I met Barrett a couple of times,” says Wright, “and didn’t like him. But by then, McCormack was in a coma.” Wissman’s $7.5 million purchase of IMG Artists in July 2003 was 50% above the next-highest bid. (Parent company IMG’s sports, modeling and other businesses were sold in 2004 to private equity firm Forstmann Little and today are jointly owned by Endeavor and Silver Lake Partners. Endeavor also owns a small stake in IMG Artists.)
Wissman’s official biography states that he began performing as a concert piano soloist at age 11, graduated cum laude from Yale in economics and political science, and earned postgrad degrees in music from Southern Methodist University and the Accademia Chigiana in Italy. In 1985, he landed a Wall Street job; two years later, his father died, and he went home to Dallas to run the family business, a collection of modest-sized companies that sold household goods and other products. In the 1990s, Wissman founded a money management firm, HW Partners, with Clark Hunt, a Dallas schoolmate and the grandson of oil billionaire H.L. Hunt. “The investment management business was pretty successful,” says Wissman. Within a decade, he had homes in Dallas, Montana, St. Croix and Tuscany.
At a 1996 concert at London’s Wigmore Hall, Wissman was, as he later said in an interview, “swept away” by the soloist, Nina Kotova, a 26-year-old Russian cellist and former catwalk model. As a child, Kotova studied at the Moscow Conservatory and showed early promise, but fell on hard times at 15 when her father, a virtuoso double-bassist, died suddenly. She moved to the United States and found herself in New York, too broke to afford a cello. That problem was solved when she aced an audition at the Ford Modeling Agency, and began appearing in the pages of Vogue and Mademoiselle and working for design houses such as Chanel and Ungaro. Kotova quit the runway when a British management company landed her the Wigmore Hall gig, her solo debut. Her concert included a self-penned work called “Sketches from the Catwalk.” She got mostly good reviews.
Soon after Kotova’s London concert, Wissman began courting her. He bought her an engagement ring with a gemstone “the size of your watch face,” in the words of one newspaper columnist, and the 1673 Stradivarius cello that had once belonged to British cello legend Jacqueline du Pré. Wissman and Kotova were married June 30, 2001, on his Montana ranch.
Once Wissman bought IMG Artists, he and Kotova got to work developing a new line of business for the agency: lifestyle festivals — a melding of music, wellness, wine, haute cuisine, and fine arts in a vacation setting. The debut event, in 2003, was the Tuscan Sun Festival in Cortona, Italy. Well-known artists played at reduced fees, says one former IMG staffer, “in exchange for good wine, good food and free spa services in a beautiful place where there were no music critics.” The success of Tuscan Sun led IMG to establish lifestyle festivals in California’s Napa Valley; Boca Raton, Fla.; and Singapore. Movie stars were frequent guests. “I have to hand it to Barrett,” says Sobol. “Those festivals were really brilliant.”
They also provided showcases for Kotova, leading some industry observers to suggest that Wissman had bought IMG to advance her career. “Not at all true,” he says. “It would have been a lot less difficult to make a major donation to a symphony orchestra and have her play a series of concerts.” Kotova was aware of the suggestion; last August, she wrote on her Facebook fan page, “I used to play at every festival [and] that used to infuriate a lot of women in the classical music management business. I once heard that I wasn’t supposed to do it all: to be a performer and to be an Artistic director of a festival at the same time. Why not?”
The festivals that Wissman and his wife had shepherded at IMG now appear defunct, apart from the one in Napa Valley, which is no longer associated with Wissman. Industry observers point to this as the clearest indication of his diminished role at the agency. Not so, says Wissman, who adds, “I have significant projects in the works, including two or three lifestyle festivals, one of them very significant.” At this time, he says, he is unable to elaborate.
Wissman says he bought IMG Artists for one simple reason: “I am a huge fan of the classical music world and a passionate lover of the arts in general. In fact, I love it almost too much. I don’t get to play concerts anymore because I’m a perfectionist. A concert takes me three months of work, and I don’t have time.” He adds, “I was never a genius, but I was considered a fine musician.”
There is no disagreement about his talent. “He plays quite well,” Joshua Bell says. Moreover, says former IMG senior vp Alec Treuhaft, Wissman has a discerning ear – a useful quality in the co-owner of a talent agency. Sobol adds, “Despite everything Barrett put us through” with the pension fund scandal, “he always cared about the music. He loves the artists for their artistry. In my mind, that’s his redeeming quality.”
Wissman lost points with the staff for having what was perceived as an inflated sense of himself. Some say it’s an attribute that he and Shustorovich shared, making their eventual clash inevitable. Wissman’s godmother, Rachelle Klepak, since deceased, told D Magazine in 2009, “There was something that made him feel that he was better than everybody else, smarter, more talented.” Wray Armstrong, a former department head for IMG in London, found Wissman’s ego hard to take. At a concert at the Great Hall of the People for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, “Barrett tried to force himself backstage,” recalls Armstrong. “He was shoving the guards, saying, ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ Of course, they didn’t.”
The pension fund scandal humbled Wissman. Embarrassing details kept emerging, such as Wissman rewarding a co-conspirator by investing in his movie project, a low-budget comedy called Chooch – Italian for “jackass” – which featured a slapstick donkey ride and a romance in a Mexican brothel. The scheme’s alleged mastermind, Hank Morris, a powerful consultant to the New York state comptroller, ended up serving over a year in the state penitentiary. In a closed hearing on Feb. 3, 2009, Wissman pleaded guilty to one felony and one misdemeanor. Judge Lewis Bart Stone admonished him that unless he cooperated fully with ongoing cases and paid the negotiated $12 million settlement, “all bets are off,” and he could expect to do time. Three and a half years later, Stone permitted Wissman to withdraw his felony plea, and he walked out of court a free man convicted only of a misdemeanor.
The public relations problem that resulted from Wissman’s conviction was addressed in June 2009, two months after the scandal broke, when Charles Hamlen, who had left IMG in 1993 to start an AIDS charity, was brought back as chairman. (Edna Landau had voluntarily retired in 2007.) Hamlen’s appointment was a cosmetic move — Wissman retained control of the agency — and did not last long. In October 2011, Wissman announced he was returning as chairman.
Just five months earlier, a reluctant Wissman had sold a minority position in IMG to Shustorovich at a deal-closing in Rome, Italy. “I had previously said no to him several times,” Wissman says.
Shustorovich says his investment in IMG grew out of his decision, in 2007, to finance the Metropolitan Opera’s revival production of Prokofiev’s War and Peace. As a consequence of his gift, his mother, Maria, served on the Met’s board of advisory directors for four seasons – an apotheosis for an opera lover. Shustorovich considered it payback for his parents taking him to concerts as a child. “I never went to music school, and I don’t play any instruments,” he says. “My parents were the people who put this appreciation of music in me.”
His patronage led to him meeting the female lead of War and Peace, soprano Anna Netrebko, then an IMG client. Through Netrebko, he met her manager, Jeffrey Vanderveen. In 2009, Shustorovich says, “Jeffrey asked for a lunch with me. He saw me as a guy putting money behind culture, and he said, ‘There’s a chaotic situation at IMG, with Barrett and all his financial issues, and the company is not doing well.’ He told me royalties to artists weren’t being paid, which was outrageous. He said, ‘IMG’s got a unique position in the market, and it can fail if somebody doesn’t come in and sort things out’.”
Shustorovich says when he first invested in IMG, he believed “cash alone would fix the problems,” and had no intention of trying to run the company. The staff had a different impression.
Damage control. That was the mission Alec Treuhaft set for himself after Shustorovich spoke to the New York staff. One of the top vocal managers in the business, Treuhaft had left Columbia Artists for IMG in 2000, bringing with him vocalists such as Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, Audra McDonald and David Daniels. It was apparent to Treuhaft that Shustorovich seemed neither to know nor care who he was. “He immediately said several things that made all the kids, my assistants, think they were going to lose their jobs,” he recalls. Shustorovich showed an equal lack of deference to Elizabeth Sobol. “After less than two minutes, he started talking over me,” she says.
Mark McCormack had written books disapproving of business-school orthodoxies; Shustorovich adhered to them — including the value of basing corporate decisions on data, a concept foreign to artist management. “We went through every MBA model of how to run our company when Alex came in,” says Romana Jaroff, who worked with Treuhaft in the vocal department. “There were planning meetings to discuss KPI’s – key performance indicators. Imagine being an artist manager for 25 years and being told all of a sudden you have to do it differently.” Jaroff, who remains with IMG, says, “I didn’t take it personally.”
Treuhaft did. In 2013, after he and Jaroff worked overtime for weeks compiling data, they were handed spreadsheets based on those numbers. The calculations were wrong. “The projected income of one of my clients was 60% of the correct figure,” says Treuhaft. “This was information we all walked around with. I can tell you to this day how much Renée Fleming earned in 2002.” He adds, “I lost my temper and walked out, slamming the door.”
Sobol quit the same year, after more than three decades with the agency. Today she is director of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “IMG was my whole life, my heart and soul,” she says. “I imagined the last working breath I took would have been for IMG. But I decided for the health of my soul I could not continue.”
David Lai, who was hired to replace Sobol, left after two years to run his own management agency, Park Avenue Artists. Joshua Bell went with him, although he is still managed in Europe by IMG Artists. Bell’s bookings are handled by Charlotte Lee, the 17-year IMG veteran who quit in 2015 to create Primo Artists, taking Itzhak Perlman. (Lee and Lai departed IMG within a month of one another, and remain close colleagues.) Lai is vague about his reasons for leaving; Lee is blunt about hers. “Shustorovich didn’t get that the talent of IMG was us, the senior managers and the staff,” she says. “He thought artists could just be assigned to someone else if their manager departed. He learned the hard way once we all left, and the Perlmans and Bells went with us.”
The lesson was learned in time to avert disaster. Two London managers, Nicholas Mathias and Kathryn Enticott, were given sweetheart deals to prevent them from leaving the fold. They now manage their artists as independent contractors in exclusive arrangements with IMG Artists, which provides back-office support. Mathias and Enticott collectively handle around 30 top conductors and instrumentalists. Losing those artists would have been a gut punch to the agency.
Shustorovich puts a different face on the Enticott and Mathias deals. “I think of it as profit sharing,” he says. “It was improper to be paying them a few hundred thousand a year for business that was worth a lot more.”
For his part, Shustorovich says he just wants IMG Artists to pay for itself or make a modest profit, as it did pre-COVID-19. “I don’t draw a salary or take expenses out of the company,” he says, adding that his investment in the agency has run into tens of millions of dollars. “It borders on charity.” Some of the money put up, he says, was to compensate artists for unpaid royalties during the period of Wissman’s financial difficulties. Asked whether the open conflict between him and Wissman will eventually lead to a parting of the ways, Shustorovich says, “It is what it is. He’s a shareholder now.” He adds, “Time will tell.”