This story was reprinted with permission of the Ole Miss Alumni Review.
Many think of Los Angeles as a fast-paced city full of bright lights and brighter careers, abuzz with red carpets, film and television cameras, and a thriving music scene. However, few are privy to what goes on behind the scenes to turn talented artists into stars. Meet Bradford Cobb (BA 96), partner with Direct Management Group and manager for one of the biggest names in music, Katy Perry.
“I do so many different things that it sounds ridiculous when I try to explain a typical day,” says Cobb. “It’s just all over the place, but I love it. You have to love it to be great at it, and I’m so grateful and blessed. It’s been an amazing journey so far.”
Cobb’s journey began more than a thousand miles away on the top floor of the Lyceum on the University of Mississippi campus.
“I took an aptitude test in the Lyceum that basically asks you a bunch of questions and helps you determine the best career path for you,” Cobb says. “I was struggling with what I wanted to major in at the time and didn’t have a very clear idea of what I wanted to do. The test actually told me that I should be a flight attendant.”
While traveling on planes was not exactly on his radar at the time, Cobb took it all in stride and listened to the career counselor’s advice.
“I learned from that test that I’m going to need to travel, interact with people and constantly be doing something different because I would get really bored if my job is a repetitive job,” he says. “Those are the things that are going to interest me and keep me focused.”
As it turns out, the assessment could not have been more befitting.
The son of a Mississippi Delta farmer, Cobb grew up in Tunica working alongside his father on their farm throughout high school and college.
“I came from a very small town in Mississippi and didn’t really think outside of a fairly small box at that point,” he says.
After graduating from the then Tunica Institute of Learning in 1992, Cobb enrolled at Ole Miss in the fall with an initial interest in medical school.
“I quickly realized my heart was not into that, so I jumped from that to an English major,” says Cobb. “I made a deal with my dad, who was very opposed to me being an English major, to minor in business as a compromise. I remember explaining to my dad how I was convinced that an English major was going to serve me well because it was a broad-based liberal arts education. As a manager, you don’t need any particular unique skills, but first and foremost you have to be able to communicate the artist’s vision. My degree certainly helps me do that on a daily basis.”
A member of Sigma Chi Fraternity, Cobb quickly adjusted to the thriving social scene and academic rigors for which the university is known. He counts watching David Lynch movies at the Hoka Theatre, Grove concerts, intramural basketball and football games as some of his fondest memories of Ole Miss.
“I never thought of Ole Miss as a party school, and maybe I missed something, but I always thought of it as a social school, and I love that,” says Cobb. “It helps you learn how to interact with all different types of people. I found a lot of diversity at Ole Miss, and I made a lot of friends that I’m still close to today from all walks of life.”
While he met many people along the way who influenced his life, Cobb is quick to credit one professor in particular who served a key role in both his education and career path.
“Dr. Colby Kullman had a huge impact on me,” Cobb says. “He really helped me develop writing skills and see the bigger picture just by opening my eyes to new ideas and possibilities. You have these teachers that are willing to go the extra mile for you, and he went the extra mile for me.”
After taking several courses under Kullman, Cobb asked for his assistance in writing a resume and recommendation letters for internships.
“It was the summer before my senior year, and I was really kind of frantic, to be honest,” Cobb says. “I wanted to explore and try some things out before I ended up back on the farm. Dr. Kullman wrote over 60 recommendation letters for internships ranging from Jim Henson Productions in New York to the William Morris Agency in Los Angeles.”
After numerous offers, Cobb accepted the internship with the William Morris Agency — an opportunity too good to pass up.
“I was not aware at the time of sending my resume in for the internship that Sam Haskell (BA 77) had also graduated from Ole Miss and happened to be in the same fraternity,” Cobb says. “He was worldwide head of television for William Morris, so obviously he had a lot of clout in helping get my internship.”
Haskell, chairman and CEO of the Miss America Organization and series developer at Warner Bros. Entertainment, recalls urging Cobb to follow his dreams.
“He was deciding whether or not he was going to go back into the family business or whether he was going to pursue his dreams in Hollywood,” Haskell says. “I remember sharing with him all the different people who tried to have an influence over me when I was his age and what I should and shouldn’t do. I told him he needed to go after his dream, and he did. He has done quite well, and I’m very proud of him.”
Cobb moved to LA in the summer of 1996 to complete his internship and returned to Ole Miss in the fall to finish his last semester.
His time at the William Morris Agency proved invaluable in helping him learn more about his career interests, particularly music management.
“I decided that I didn’t want to be an agent,” Cobb says. “While television was interesting to me, my real passion was music. To me, music is the most kindred spirit to literature, and that’s what I fell in love with at Ole Miss. I decided, rather than be an agent for musicians, I wanted to be a manager because they work more closely with the artists and handle their entire career.”
Cobb made several contacts within the music industry during his summer in LA, which led to a job offer with Direct Management Group, an international music management company that offers artistic and business services to a very select roster of artists.
Cobb began working for the firm in June 1998 as an assistant, eventually working his way up to partner alongside co-founders Steven Jensen and Martin Kirkup.
“He has that rare personality that allows him to connect with artists in a way that doesn’t come along very often,” Jensen says. “When you have someone like him who has intelligence, intuition and the ability to deal with artists’ personalities, you have the recipe for success in our business.”
Cobb added to the firm’s roster when he signed The Go-Go’s in 2003 and a little-known emerging artist, Katy Perry, the following year.
“I started working with The B-52’s and essentially became their manager,” says Cobb. “I signed The Go-Go’s after meeting Belinda Carlyle on a trip to New Zealand with The B-52’s. Then in 2004, I met Katy Perry through Glen Ballard (BA 75), and we started working together immediately.”
Ballard, Grammy Award-winning songwriter and producer, met Perry in the early 2000s, when he signed her to his label, Java Records.
“She was turning 18 and had just signed to my label,” says Ballard. “She needed a manager. When I met Bradford, he was just starting out with his firm, and I instantly knew that he was a quality person. He was gracious, tough and smart at the same time and really believed in Katy as an artist. He’s a really effective manager who is always looking out for the artist.”
Cobb fondly recalls meeting Ballard, who needed no introduction. The two shared a strong bond to Ole Miss and got to know each other quickly.
“Glen was probably the first person who really believed in Katy Perry and her talent,” Cobb says. “He entrusted me with this prized student as he saw her, and I was so honored because Glen is incredibly successful. He actually used the words ‘pass the baton’ because he felt a responsibility to her. I think he was almost relieved to pass the management responsibilities to me so he could remain focused on artistic growth for Katy.”
Cobb will never forget the first time he met Katy in his office, when she was a young, energetic 19-year-old bursting with personality.
“She just blew past the receptionist and did cartwheels down the hallway, landing in the splits in my office,” Cobb says, laughing. “That was her greeting on her first visit to Direct Management. She’s got an incredible sense of humor and personality.”
Ballard could not be more proud of the success Perry and Cobb have shared together.
“When I sort of paired him and Katy together, I thought that it could work — and boy was I right,” says Ballard. “Signing Katy and then getting him involved … if I ever did two things right, that was the two of them right there. I’m just so proud of everything that’s happening with them.”
In an industry filled with excitement and uncertainty, the highs are as great as the lows at times.
The pressure to succeed can get to some, but for Cobb, it’s all part of the job. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“When you take on a new artist, you become very engaged,” Cobb says. “I feel a responsibility to succeed because I’m not just trying to succeed for myself — I have an artist who has dreams and ambitions. You don’t want to fail them, especially the ones who work as hard as you do and are passionate about what they do. You feel a deep sense of responsibility to do everything you can to help them succeed. That’s the only real pressure. You feel like you owe them your best.”
In a city filled with talent and creativity and artists vying for their chance to make it big, it’s important to know how to spot the “it” factor.
Fortunately for Cobb, he appears to have a sixth sense when it comes to spotting true talent.
“It’s not just the best songwriter, the best singer, the prettiest or the most poised — it’s all of that,” says Cobb. “There are intangibles such as the drive, the real hunger to succeed and the willingness to work as hard as the manager. To live, eat, sleep and breathe it if you have to. There have been more talented people, better songwriters and singers, but I wasn’t interested in managing them because they lacked that fire and intensity.”
Certainly, Perry is one of those talented artists who possesses the fire, determination and drive to succeed, having recently claimed the record for the most weeks at No. 1 in the 21-year history of Billboard’s Pop Songs radio airplay chart.
While Cobb continues to be proud of Perry’s thriving career, he had a hunch early on that she would be a game changer.
“Perhaps I was a little naïve, but I promise you I really did believe she could be this big,” Cobb says. “I said this girl can be as big as Madonna. I’m sure some people thought I was crazy, and perhaps I was. You have to dream big, and she’s the biggest dreamer. I fell for it hook, line and sinker. Katy is incredibly savvy, and it’s definitely served her well.”
Always one to dream big, Cobb knew he had the drive to excel professionally but could never have predicted the path his career has taken.
Cobb was named to Billboard magazine’s 2013 40 Under 40 list and says he is humbled to be recognized in the company of successful executives.
“They gave it to me the very last year they possibly could,” Cobb jokes. “It’s a great group of people and a small group here in the music side of the entertainment business. I’ve developed great relationships with a lot of people, and I’m honored that they voted for me.”
In addition to professional relationships, Cobb has formed several friendships during his time in LA, many of which are with fellow Southerners such as alumnus Tate Taylor (BBA 91), director of the movie “The Help” (2011).
“He’s one of my best friends,” Cobb says. “Ironically, I met Tate, who introduced me to many of my Southern friends, at an Ole Miss football watch party on Sunset Boulevard. Those friendships have made me feel very at home.”
While he doesn’t know what the future holds, Cobb is certain he’s found his niche and plans to continue to manage artists.
“I honestly do love the music business, and I intend to stay in it for a very long time,” says Cobb. “As long as I can find [artists] I believe in who can say something positive to the world and contribute something positive — I want to manage them.”
By Annie Rhoades.
This story was reprinted with permission from the Ole Miss Alumni Review. The Alumni Review is published quarterly for members of the Ole Miss Alumni Association. Join or renew your membership with the Alumni Association today, and don’t miss a single issue.