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Music Agents in the Live Music Business – What Music Agents Do and How You Can Get One For Your Band
Finding and organizing shows for a band can be a time-consuming and frustrating experience. You need to play live and reach as many existing and new fans as possible. However, despite all signs that the live music business will continue to grow (in 2009, worldwide concert ticket sales were $4.4 billion, up 17% from 2008), these getting gigs can be difficult. If a promoter offers you a show, you still have to agree to pay and sign the contract.
A music agent is a professional in the live music business who finds you paid gigs and other live engagements. These gigs are called bookings, hence the term booking agent. (Generally speaking, a talent agent is any agent who finds work for their client—such as film, TV, or book writing. A talent agent who focuses on finding gigs and tours for their client is a booking agent. [Waddel, Barnet, & Berry, 2007]. (This article is about booking agents.)
A booking agent doesn’t actually book shows. An agent acts as an intermediary between thousands of artists and promoters of concert venues, festivals, clubs and colleges worldwide. [Hopewell & Hanlon, 2003]
The job of a booking agent A solo music agent usually works as part of a larger agency consisting of several agents. Agents are responsible for their own income and use the agency’s infrastructure (including phone, internet service, legal and accounting services) to run their own ‘micro-businesses’ within the agency’s overall framework. The agency then takes a cut of the agent’s income to pay for those services and (hopefully) make a profit. The best known agencies are Creative Arts Agency (CAA), William Morris Agency (WMA), Artists Group International, Montery Peninsula Artists, The Agency Group, Solo, X-Ray Touring and International Talent Booking (ITB) .
A music agent makes money by taking a percentage of the artist’s gross earnings for a performance. If you play a show for $1,000, the agent will take $100 of that as a percentage. Don’t pay your agent a commission for anything other than what you earn from concerts and tours.
Music agents in the US are regulated by the major entertainment unions, AFM, AFTRA, SAG & Equity, which have capped the agent’s percentage at 10% of the artist’s gross fee for each performance. (The AFM actually allows a maximum of 20% for a single appearance.) There is no such regulation in the UK, but 10% of the gross fee seems to be the norm.
Additionally, if an agent enters into a deal with a promoter that sees the promoter provide non-cash add-ons such as hotels or executive transportation, the agent will often calculate the cash equivalent of these “special terms” and charge a percentage the deemed value of these items when calculating the commission due. After all, the agent negotiated very hard on behalf of the artist to secure these non-cash benefits; therefore, it is fair to reward the agent with additional compensation. Therefore, it is very important for the artist manager to have access to an experienced accountant who can verify the true cash value of these intangible assets. What percentage of the backstage Sony PlayStation should the booking agent pay?
The Booking Process An agent’s job is to negotiate deals with promoters based on what he knows about the status of the act, the city or venue where he’s presenting, and his relationship with the promoter.
The agent works with the artist’s management to identify and plan periods for tours or one-off shows. These shows traditionally supported a new release by the artist, such as a new album, and were treated as part of the promotional campaign for the new CD, along with radio and TV appearances, magazine and newspaper interviews, and in-store signings. . Bands now look to live performances and touring as their primary source of income as their income from recording their music has decreased, so touring is meant to make money and not just as a promotional activity. A good agent will therefore be aware of the options available to their clients.
Once the artist and management agree on the duration of the concert, the agent approaches the promoters to arrange the actual performances. In some cases, this initial approach will be quite simple, depending on the agent’s “clout”. “Superstar” agents like Marty Diamond (US agent for Coldplay, Snow Patrol, KT Tunstall and Artic Monkeys) would obviously be better at getting a promoter to do a small, unknown act. The understanding would be that if the promoter is working with this act now, the agent will offer the promoter the opportunity to book a bigger act in the future.
When booking shows, the agent must consider geographic and seasonal considerations, as well as keep an eye on the competition. An agent tries to plan a tour itinerary when pitching it to promoters. Organizers can choose dates depending on the location of the venue they have reserved. For example, in North America, the agent will contact all the promoters in the Northwest (Portland, Seattle, Vancouver) with available dates for the first four dates of the tour. Then he hits up promoters in California (San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and so on) to keep him open for the next four or five days. In the UK, they would open in Scotland for the first couple of days, then maybe look for promoters in Liverpool, Manchester and Carlisle in the next week of the tour. Hopefully, the agent can then present a fairly logical route for the tour, such as north to south or clockwise around the country. This ensures less travel and cheaper shipping costs.
This type of planning must be done well in advance (usually three to four months) to ensure availability in the desired regions. Sometimes that’s just not possible and you end up with the dreaded “Star of David” tour where every show seems to be the geographical opposite of the last show!
Seasonal matters also play a role. There’s no need to book a European club tour between June and August if you’re an indie/alternative act. The vast majority of music fans head to one of the many festivals such as Reading & Leeds, Roskilde and Pukkelpop, and among these music fans will be your smaller club promoters! Likewise, a Canadian coastal tour in January/February would be pointless. Even if you could get through the snow, would the audience come up?
Finally, both agents and promoters should pay close attention to international sports matches. These events are in direct competition with music events, and unfortunately music always loses!
When the agent has pre-booked the performance in various cities, he informs the artist manager of the date of the offer and the expected fees. If the manager approves the tour, the agent signs a contract with the organizers. The agent will then be available to answer any additional questions or concerns the manager or promoters may have prior to the tour and act as a mediator should any disagreements arise during the tour.
How to get a booking agent? As a performer, a good and successful agent will certainly allow you to get more shows and more importantly, bigger shows opening up to bigger acts. However, getting a good agent will be just as difficult as landing a record deal. Geoff Meall (UK agent for Nickelback, Muse, My Chemical Romance and Super Furry Animals) says that any band he wants to represent “is either signed or close to being signed because [he is] it doesn’t go to waste [his] it’s time to tour something that doesn’t have anything to it other than just being a live band.” Most of Geoff’s work comes to him through direct referrals or requests from artist managers and labels with whom he’s previously had successful relationships. Ed Stringfellow, also of Agency A Group, agrees: “There’s not enough agent to handle the number of good up-and-coming gangs,” he says.
Because of this, it can be a distraction to spend time and money trying to find an agent early in your career. While an agent can make shows and a good agent can make really good shows, you have to remember that superstar agents like Geoff Meall have a reputation and your involvement in the act only really starts when the act is successful . “We get approached every day by bands that don’t have a record deal, basically have a MySpace page, have made some recordings and want to release some demos. Sure, I could go to our place and book 20 shows around the country, but in reality, what’s the point of that? I wouldn’t enjoy it, because there would be no marketing behind them. Very few booking agents will commit to a band from day one,” says Geoff. Bob Gold, managing director of booking agents GAA, admits: “We rarely deal with unsigned bands unless something really exciting comes along.” Bob looks after acts like REM, Annie Lennox and Maroon 5. He adds, “Ha [the band] he’s got a good manager, we might take them on.” It seems like a catch-22 situation: you need gigs to build your potential career, and you need a successful career to get shows!
However, one should not despair. Like record companies and artist management, booking agents need to know that you can put in the hard work and build a fan base on your own. Artist managers and booking agents don’t do the work for you – there is no such thing as an “overnight success”. You have to keep gigging; spreading the word and building fans.
Since booking agents work on commission, they will ask you two important questions:
- Can you attract paying audiences to your shows?
- Once you can draw a crowd, will you be able to sustain those numbers at every show?
Never underestimate the importance of a consistent draw; solid audience numbers mean you’re reaching people and entertaining them, and they want to come back for more. Promoters and music agents want only one thing: guaranteed ticket sales for a given show. Can you honestly go to a promoter and say you can guarantee X number of people at every show?
Focus on the ticket sales potential and the audience appeal of your actions. This could mean you forget to take your shows to the next level for a significant amount of time. Build yourself up as a quality act and the booking agent labels will come to you. It’s much better for your career to play two or three shows a month for six months and get 100 people at each show than to play one show in front of 2,000 people and then not play another show for six months. You’re the best band/artist in the world (yes, you are!), but has anyone heard of you?
Be sure to captivate your audience, no matter how small, at each and every performance. Compel your audience to come to your next show by being professional, friendly and well-rehearsed, both for the audience and the backstage staff. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing in front of 10 or 1000 people, you still need to act professionally. It’s actually more important if you’re playing with 10 people! At least these 10 people are there to see you, so treat them with respect and ask them to spread the word.
Hopewell, M., & Hanlon, J. (2003). Music Management Bible. London: SMT.
Waddell, R., Barnet, R., & Berry, J. (2007). This Business of Concert Touring and Promotion. New York: Billboard Books.
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