For more than 35 years, Sterling Talent, Inc. has been the preeminent entertainment talent agency in the Northwest. Sterling’s roster of clients includes names such as Nike, Microsoft, the Portland Trailblazers to Columbia Sportswear, Alaska Airlines and more.
For a little over a decade, Sterling Talent has been working with J-Fell Presents, the Northwest’s preeminent concert promoter, booking agency and entertainment marketing agency. J-Fell Presents produces hundreds of concerts and festivals a year including, Harefest, the ’80s weekend at Crystal Ballroom, The Alladin and the Spanish Ballroom Tribute series, to name just a few.
So who are the brains and talent behind these businesses that have been supplying the Northwest with top-notch entertainment for so many years? Becky Stroebel-Johnson is the CEO of Sterling Talent, Inc. and Jason Fellman is the musician, promoter and marketing genius behind J-Fell Presents.
As of January 2020, these two trailblazers of the entertainment business have merged to create a powerhouse company that is uniquely qualified to offer both sides of the talent spectrum, both clients and artists, a seamless and successful model to success.
In addition to their background as artists themselves, they share a common bond of business integrity, love of laughter and a shared background growing up Jewish in Portland.
Oregon Jewish Life Publisher Cindy Saltzman was able to catch these two during a rare hour of free time to ask them about their businesses and the merger.
CINDY: Becky and Jason, before we go into the merging of your two companies, tell us a little about how each of you got started in the music and entertainment business?
BECKY: Since I was little, all I ever wanted to do was something in music, and I wanted to sing.
When I was a senior in high school, I remember having a conversation with my parents about wanting to be a professional singer. My dad’s response was, “Well, you need to get your college degree and get a career, and if you want to do it on the side, you can.”
So, I went to the University of Oregon and studied elementary education but never used that.
Things started to change when I (began) doing a lot of singing. Every opportunity I had, to get on a stage with a microphone in my face, I took that opportunity and kept singing.
CINDY: What kind of venues would you play?
BECKY: Any event that needed to have entertainment! I volunteered and I was using tracks, and sometimes there would be a piano player, but I never said no because I loved to sing.
After I got married, I decided to have a “’regular’” job as an employment counselor.
It wasn’t until I was facing a divorce and had a child to support, that I started looking at other options for work. I didn’t want anyone else raising my child but me, so I decided instead of an 8 am to 5 pm Monday to Friday job I would start singing at night, then I hired a live-in nanny, so I could be with my daughter during the day.
I ended up traveling a lot on the hotel and resort circuit. I would take my daughter and nanny on the road with me with high chairs and all kinds of child paraphernalia.
Driving in the car one day with my daughter, we drove past a Holiday Inn, and she said, “Look, mommy – holiday home.” That was one of the things that made me realize that I needed to stop singing on the road, and I was going to have to grow some roots.
CINDY: So, did you stop singing at that point?
BECKY: No, but the seeds were planted that I would need to do something else to ensure my child has a stable environment.
When I was singing at the Red Lion in Portland, I was approached by Earl Palmer, who was known as the father of modern drumming. I didn’t know who he was at the time, but soon learned that he was a member of an influential group of L.A. studio musicians called the Wrecking Crew. He was one of the people that record companies relied on to lay down the tracks of the popular artists that we grew up listening to.
He convinced me to go to visit L.A. and rolled out the red carpet for me. I had this incredible opportunity to move the kids – as I had a second child by then – and myself to LA and work. I considered it and finally decided it was not fair to my children for me to take that opportunity.
I knew that having just received my dream offer and refusing it, my priorities had shifted and it was time for me to open a new chapter.
And I did. For more than two years, I would sing until 2 am, I would get to bed about 3 am, and I would get up at 6 am with the kids and work on Sterling Talent during the day until it was time to go to work at night and sing. I used my singing money to start Sterling Talent.
CINDY: So, at that point, you realized that your dream was changing?
BECKY: Once I made the decision that I had to start the company, and put down roots in Portland, it was still hard to separate myself from the singing career because I loved it so much. It was almost like going through another divorce, separating myself from that experience. Then I got very sick and I lost my voice for a few months. It was a really bad flu, and I just could not sing. So it forced me to take that time while I was getting my voice back to focus on Sterling Talent.
Once I started getting some bookings with Sterling, and the business was taking off, my voice returned.
I knew at that point that I was off and running and the business needed all of the energy I could pour into it, and that’s when I went full-time with Sterling.
CINDY: Jason, I assume your story is a little different than Becky’s?
JASON: Well, there are some similarities. We’re both musicians, that’s a key part of both our stories because it does influence how we approach our business – both in terms of how we interact with the musicians and the level of understanding. But also how we advocate for the best possible musician experience when we’re talking to clients.
CINDY: What kind of musician are you – do you play or do you sing?
JASON: When I graduated high school in 1991, I moved to Los Angels to go to a music school which at the times was a vocational school (now it’s a four-year university) called the Musicians Institute and I studied drums. At that point, I was already a teenager-in-a-band kind of guy. I was going to make it big and all that. After I graduated, I moved back to Portland.
I did the band thing for a couple of years got pretty disenchanted with the whole thing. I was living at home and working at Burlington Coat Factory, and the band wasn’t going anywhere. So I enrolled in the University of Texas in Austin in 1994, and that same year, when I was 21, I started a business with a friend.
That business ended up becoming a very successful, integrated marketing firm. The company grew and we were recognized as one of the 500 most influential companies in the world for multimedia at the time, along with companies like Microsoft, ATT and Disney.
I did that for almost 10 years. We rode the dot-com wave up, we survived the downturn and then when we recovered and the company was healthy, I decided that it was time to move on. I had always kind of wanted to move back to Portland. Austin was a little bit more of a pit stop for me of it just ended up being a 10-year pit stop.
I moved back to Portland, and I was still doing some consulting and I started playing music again. I’d essentially set it aside but at this point, I was 31, my goals were different. Now it’s more of bucket-list thing – I wanted to have an album and to play some gigs.
During this process, I started learning some interesting things about the music business and one of the things I learned is that musicians were woefully underrepresented, and not necessarily getting a fair shake.
I discovered if you want to play in a club, you have to cover about four hours but if you’re an original band that’s really hard to do. So we started playing ’80s music for the last third of the night because I’m from the ’80s and I love ’80s music and it was a little angle to get people to stick around all night.
Basically, we spun off as an ’80s band, called the Breakfast Club, and now it’s called Radical Revolution. It’s still going – I’m the co-lead singer and rhythm guitar player. I also play drums in a Journey tribute band called Stone in Love. Both these bands have been around for more than 10 years now.
Those bands became the cornerstone of my music business that I didn’t set out to have. What would happen is that other musicians saw the success that my bands were having and they would approach me and say, ‘Hey, can you do this for us?’ and I thought well, maybe. I took on a project with a Guns n’ Roses tribute band called Appetite for Deception.
This was my first project as a concert promoter, where I wasn’t playing in the band, and it was at the Aladdin Theater in Portland. We sold out, and at that moment, I had an epiphany. I looked around the audience and I recognized about a third of these people from my last Stone in Love show, and it dawned on me that these bands have overlapping audiences.
From there, I started growing as a concert promoter into what I am now – the number one tribute band concert promoter in the Northwest.
All of a sudden, I was promoting all the shows. Becky was one of the first people to reach out and say, ‘We would like to book your band and maybe a couple the other bands you represent.’ I was on the artist side and Becky was on the side dealing with both buyers and artists.
Over time, we ended up doing a lot of business together to the point where I was her biggest vendor and she was my biggest client.
BECKY: One of the things that is often really frustrating with bands if they don’t understand how to market themselves – to make themselves attractive to the people that book events. Jason was able to take all of his marketing knowledge and turn it toward these music groups and have phenomenal success.
CINDY: At this point, you both must have realized that you both were bringing some real strengths to the table that is going to make what you can offer as a team that much more attractive and effective.
JASON: Eventually, my booking path led me to a place where I no longer became comfortable. My main thing was mostly tribute bands – a band that essentially plays the music of one artist. I was getting asked by clients to do things that I wasn’t qualified to do. I’ve always believed that if you’re going to charge somebody money to do something, you need to be bringing your best and so I asked Becky if she could help.
We started pitching clients together and we were having success so you can see how this all came together. We were marrying Becky’s deep history of working in the business 30 years and my marketing expertise, my exclusive roster of tribute bands. When we put all that together, it made a great value equation for our customers. The combination of the skill sets being complimentary and having the same business philosophies is what brought us together.
BECKY: A lot of times people will ask, ‘What do you do?’ and I’ll say, ‘I have a booking agency,’ and everybody always says that sounds like so much fun.
They don’t realize that so much of that work is done in isolation on your computer and the telephone. When Jason and I started sharing our thoughts about our businesses, and decided to try and do some of these things together, it was so much better.
JASON: And it was way more fun! It’s just so nice to be able to collaborate with somebody you know. We’re in a business where there aren’t very many of us, so finding people who can relate and understand the dynamics of the business that you’re in is rare.
I enjoy being able to jump on the phone every day and brainstorm ideas for how we can help a client make their series better.
BECKY: Another interesting thing I think about merging our two companies is that as much as Jason mentioned our core philosophies line up with each other, we also have very different perspectives on things, and so when you put them together, it gives us a much broader viewpoint.
JASON: What we’re able to do now with this merger is to bring both sides to the table. Not only do we have Becky’s 30 plus years of experience, but we also have my exclusive roster of bands. And on top of that, when a client buys from us – even if they don’t spend an extra dime – they automatically are going to get a certain amount of promotion from my other company. They’re going to be in the monthly email, on a weekly round-up calendar and they’re going to get the social media stuff. That’s something that is more powerful together, that we’re able to do those things for clients.
I was going to be careful not to use too much hyperbole but I don’t believe that there’s anybody else in the Northwest that has our combined skill set.
BECKY: I was going to say the same thing.
JASON: You just never see it because they’re very different businesses. It was part of the reason why I also felt it was so important to get some separation between concert promoter and booking agency. You don’t usually have them in the same business, which we don’t, but we have them in the same ecosystem because we’re connected.
BECKY: I should clarify something. If you go to Jason’s promotion company, J-Fell Presents, you can see all the different activities. Then for the booking side of it, everything falls under the Sterling Talent umbrella.
JASON: The easiest way to think about the difference is that if everything goes through Sterling Talent has a fixed budget, everything that goes through J-Fell Presents is the opposite of that; it’s always variable. There’s a risk component. It’s more like being an investor, each show has a risk and potential reward, and you are managing that on a continuum.
A lot of the time as a concert promoter, I’ll lose money on a booking. That’s just the way it works. But the payout can be massive, if you do a good job, so part of the skill of being a concert promoter is to manage that risk.
CINDY: Does anyone hire you separately now or does it go together?
BECKY: It gives us leverage both on the booking side and also on the promotions side. It allows us to put those things together and offer the artist more dates, and also offer the buyers opportunities to get bands that they wouldn’t normally be able to get on their budget.
JASON: And to that point, I think people are starting to realize that as we’re getting our summer concert series proposals out this year, is that a lot of the prices for these higher-end bands that Becky used to book from me, now that we’re booking together the prices have come down.
We were two different agencies before with double the commission; we took one of the commissions out of the picture.
We’re OK with that because even though the margins come down on those bands theoretically, we can book them for more situations. It’s a win-win because a band might come down by 25% so we can get them more dates because they don’t cost as much, and the band gets paid the same.
BECKY: And it allows our buyers to take advantage of that situation.
JASON: Yeah, they’re definitely getting a rate that would be almost impossible to get from other agencies.
CINDY: It seems as a business model, it would be hard to compete with you.
JASON: We’ve created an unusual hybrid. It’s a very unique value proposition for the Northwest.
BECKY: I want to add, because it may not be obvious, but one of the advantages for our buyers is that let’s say you were looking for a band for a wedding or corporate party and you call them and they’re going to give you a price, but I guarantee you 100% it’s not the same price that they’re going to give us.
We’re not just a one-time buyer, we might be getting them 10 or 20 dates, and so they’re going to give us special pricing and so that helps our customers.
A bride hired a particular band and when I hear what the fee is that she is paying, it’s usually almost twice as much as it might have been had they gone through an agency. But the common belief is don’t use an agency because they’ll add on commissions.
That is a fallacy. We’re going to go direct to the band because first of all, we only work with the best bands, and secondly, those bands have mutual respect with us and they will offer us pricing that nobody else is going to get. So there is a big advantage in going through an agency.
CINDY: What has been the biggest challenge in the business?
BECKY: One of the challenges in doing what I do is making sure that the quality of the artists we present to our clients is consistently high.
Not only do we want to maintain a high quality in the artists that we are presenting, but as former artists ourselves, we want to do the best we can for our artists to help them make a living and continue to make their art. We also work with a lot of corporate buyers, parks and recreational districts, so it’s important that we’re getting our clients the best bands we can at the best price. You want to do the best thing for your buyer, and we also want to do really well for our artists. It can sometimes be a little bit challenging.
JASON: We both have long-standing careers and relationships and there has been a lot of excitement in response to our merger announcement. But the challenge is just the sheer volume of deal flow. Since the merger, we are also merging systems and putting new ones in place while we are experiencing significant growth in terms of booking volume. It’s a good problem on the whole.
BECKY: January is one of the busiest times of the year because everybody that’s having summer events is getting those in place now. As soon as New Year’s is over, we get this influx of clients who want to get their concert series lined up and get everything put together, and they wanted it yesterday, so that’s been a challenge.
CINDY: On a more personal note, Jason, are you married? Do you have kids? Did you grow up in Portland? Do you celebrate Jewish holidays? By the way, I heard you make a mean latke during Hanukkah.
JASON: Yes, and Israeli chicken – those are my two go-to’s. I was born in Portland. I went to Beaverton High School and I’ve got a wife and a 12-year-old daughter.
I had my bar mitzvah with Rabbi Stampfer and Cantor Dinkin at Neveh Shalom. I went to preschool and kindergarten there, too.
Rabbi Isaak was the officiant at our wedding. That’s the abridged version of my story.
CINDY: What is Israeli chicken?
JASON: It’s barbecued chicken, marinated in olive oil, garlic, cumin and paprika. You marinate it for a while and then you grill it.
I grew up in a family of cooks, and I just like the zen of cooking.
We’re in a business with a lot of details, and we both work from home so imagine that you’re working your basement and you’ve got all these hundreds of shows you’re dealing with, and all of a sudden I’m in the kitchen my daughter’s running around and I gotta cook. It’s nice to put on the chef hat and focus on what you’re doing. It clears the mind really quickly.
CINDY: So cooking is one of your ways of relaxing.
JASON: Yes, and for me, I have the good fortune of still being able to play the music and do that part of it. But the business is my social life, my hobby and my living all in one. It’s what everybody wants, right? So I never take that for granted. Other than that, exercising and cooking and family time are my centers of relaxation. My world is relatively compact because so much of it is fed through music. My social circle and my avocation and my business are all fluid in the same thing, so it’s cool.
CINDY: Becky, tell us a little bit about your background.
BECKY: I grew up in Salem and was affiliated with a synagogue there, then I moved to Portland. Although I have never joined a synagogue here, I feel quite bonded with the Jewish community in many ways.
In fact, we call ourselves, 2 Live Jews.
JASON: There is a band called 2 Live Crew, it’s a rap group from the’90s. So we are the 2 Live Jews.
CINDY: Have you ever been exposed to anti-Semitism in the business? On the reverse side, how has Judaism positively informed your life?
JASON: Actually, a huge percentage of the booking agents are Jewish. The stereotypes of Jews being prominent in the entertainment business is there for a reason. It is a reality. I haven’t personally experienced any kind of anti-Semitism affiliated with the business but obviously it is out there.
I think in terms of values. You would laugh if you saw all the various hours of the day and days of the week that Becky and I exchange notes, emails and ideas. I think that our culture, the work ethic, is the thing that comes to mind. Most of the people I grew up within the Jewish community are very hard working, very committed, very ethical.
I feel like that’s a common thread that we have that was formed from our Judaism. Commitment to doing what it takes to do a good job and getting things done right.
BECKY: Yes, and before this merger, I used to do a lot of stuff with national acts, and so you find yourself in a situation where you’re calling the major agencies like William Morris to get information about the artist that you’re going to book. Many of them are Jewish and without having ever met them before you start talking to them and strike a bond, and you find a commonality between you and you feel like you’ve known them forever. That part of it has been really fun for me. It’s actually been important in some situations, and you just feel that immediate bond. Even in the roster of artists that we book here in Portland, there are so many that are Jewish.
JASON: Yes, and the band leaders in particular.