Getting a booking agent is vital to your live music career – find out what they do and how to get one in this article.
CORONAVIRUS/COVID-19 UPDATE JUNE 2020: The live music business is going through changes at the moment. I’m leaving this site up as a legacy resource and the content does not reflect the current situation.
Finding and organising shows for your band can be a time consuming and frustrating experience. You have to play live and you need to reach as many existing and new fans as possible. Yet, with all the indications that the live music business will continue to grow (worldwide concert ticket sales were $4.4bn in 2009, up 17% from 2008), actually getting those gigs can be difficult. Once you are offered a show by a promoter you still need to agree a payment and sort out a contract.
A music agent is a live music business professional who will find you paid gigs and other live engagements. These gigs are known as bookings, hence the term booking agent. (It is generally accepted that a talent agent is any agent who can find work for their client – film, TV, book writing for instance. A talent agent who concentrates on finding gigs and tours for their client is a booking agent [Waddel, Barnet, & Berry, 2007]. This article shall deal with booking agents.)
The booking agent does not actually put on shows. An agent acts as an intermediary between the thousands of artists and the limited worldwide body of promoters of concert venues, festival, clubs and colleges. [Hopewell & Hanlon, 2003]
The work of the booking agent
An individual music agent usually woks as part of larger agencies comprised of a number of agents. The agents are responsible for their own revenues and use the agency’s infrastructure (including telephone, ISP, legal and accountancy services) to help run their own “micro-business” within the overall framework of the agency. The agency then takes a cut of the agent’s revenue to pay for these services and to (hopefully) generate a profit. The most well known agencies are Creative Artists 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 income for a performance. If you play a show for $1000 then the agent will take $100 of that as their percentage. You should not pay your agent money commissions on anything other than what you earn from gigs and tours.
Music agents are regulated in the US by the major entertainment unions, AFM, AFTRA, SAG & Equity, who have capped the agent’s percentage to 10% of the artist’s gross fee for each show. (AFM in fact allows up to 20% for one-off appearances.) In the UK there is no such regulation but 10% of the gross fee seems to be the norm.
Additionally, if an agent makes a deal with a promoter that sees the promoter providing non-cash additions, such as hotels or executive transportation, then the agent will often calculate the cash equivalent of these “special terms and conditions” and charge a percentage of the perceived value of these items when calculating the commission due. After all, the agent did negotiate very strenuously on behalf of the artist to secure these non-cash perks; it is therefore only fair that the agent should be compensated further. It is thus very important that the artist manager has access to a highly experienced accountant who can verify the true cash worth of these intangibles. What percentage of the Sony PlayStation included backstage should your booking agent charge for?
The booking process
It is the agent’s job to negotiate deals with the promoters based on what he or she knows of the act’s status, the city or venue he or she is pitching to, and the relationship with the promoter.
The agent will work with the artist’s management to identify and plot periods of touring or one-off shows. These shows were traditionally in support of a new release by the artist, such as a new album, and were treated as part of the promotional campaign for that new CD, along with radio & TV appearances, magazine and newspaper interviews and in-store signings. Bands now see live shows and touring as a primary source of income as their recorded music revenues have decreased and so tour to make money and not purely as a promotional activity. A good agent therefore will be aware of what opportunities exist for their clients.
Once a period of gigging activity is agreed with the artist and their management the agent will approach promoters to arrange the actual shows. In some cases this initial approach will be fairly straight forward, depending on the ‘clout’ of the agent. ‘Superstar’ agents such as Marty Diamond (the US agent for Coldplay, Snow Patrol, KT Tunstall, and Artic Monkeys) would obviously be more able to persuade a promoter to take on a small, unknown act. The understanding would be that if the promoter works with this act now, then the agent will offer the promoter the chance to book a bigger act in the future.
When booking shows, the agent has to take into account geographical and seasonal matters, as well as keep an eye on the competition. An agent will try to plan the routing of the tour when pitching to promoters. Promoters will be offered their pick of dates depending on the location of the venue they are booking. For instance, in North America the agent will approach all promoters based in the Northwest (Portland, Seattle, Vancouver) with available dates in the first four days of the tour. Then he or she will approach promoters in California (San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and so on) with possible openings for the following four or five days. In the UK it would be openings in Scotland for the first couple of days, and then maybe promoters in Liverpool, Manchester, and Carlisle would be approached for the next week of the tour. Hopefully, the agent can then present a fairly logical routing for the tour, such as north to south or clockwise around the country. This will ensure less travelling and cheaper transportation costs.
This type of planning has to be done well in advance (typically three to four months) to ensure availability in the regions wanted. Sometimes it is just not possible, and you end up with the much-dreaded “Star of David” tour in which every show seems to be at the geographical opposite from the previous performance!
Seasonal matters also come into play. It is pointless to try to book a club tour of Europe between June and August if you represent an indie/alternative act. The vast majority of music fans will be headed for one of the many festivals, such as Reading & Leeds, Pukkelpop, and Roskilde, and these music fans will include your smaller club promoters! Likewise, a coast-to-coast tour of Canada in January/February would be pretty pointless. Even if you could make it through the snow, would the audience turn up?
Finally, both agents and promoters should have a keen eye on international sports fixtures. These events are direct competition to music events and, unfortunately, music always loses!
When the agent has provisionally booked the act into various cities, he or she will inform the artist manager of the dates on offer and the fees expected. If the manager approves the tour, the agent will issue contracts to the promoters. The agent will then be available to answer any further questions or concerns the manager or promoters may have before the tour and will act as a go-between should any disagreements arise during the tour itself.
How can you get a booking agent?
Certainly, as a performer, having a good and successful agent will enable you to get more shows and, more importantly, bigger shows opening up for larger acts. However, getting a good agent will be just as hard as getting a record deal. Geoff Meall (the UK agent for Nickelback, Muse, My Chemical Romance, and Super Furry Animals) says that any band he considers for representation should be “either signed or close to being signed because [he is] not going to waste [his] time on touring something that has nothing outside of just being a live band.” Most of Geoff’s acts come to him through direct recommendation or request from artist managers and labels he has had successful relationships with in the past. Ed Stringfellow, also of the Agency Group, agrees: “There are not enough agents out there to deal the number of good emerging bands,” he says.
It may therefore be a distraction to spend time and money trying to secure an agent at the start of your career. Although an agent can get you shows, and a good agent can get you really good shows, you have to remember that superstar agents such as Geoff Meall have a reputation, and his involvement with an act really only starts when the act has some success. “We are approached daily by bands that have no record deal, basically have a MySpace page, have done some recording, and want to release some demos. Obviously I could go and take this band and book it 20 shows around the country, but, in reality, what would be the point of that? They wouldn’t enjoy it because there wouldn’t be any marketing behind them. Very few booking agents will get involved with a band from day one,” Geoff says. Bob Gold, the managing director of booking agents GAA, admits, “We rarely deal with unsigned bands unless something comes up that’s really exciting.” Bob looks after such acts as REM, Annie Lennox, and Maroon 5. He adds, “If [the band] has got good management, we may take them forward.” It does seem like a catch-22 situation: You need gigs to build your potential career, and you need a successful career to get the shows!
You should not despair though. As with record companies and artist management, booking agents need to know that you are capable of putting in the hard work and building a fan base on your own. Artist managers and booking agents are not going to do the work for you – there is no such thing as an ‘overnight success.’ You need to keep playing gigs; spreading the word and building up your fans.
As booking agents work on commission they are going to ask you two important questions:
- Can you draw a paying audience into your shows?
- Once you can draw a crowd, can you sustain those numbers at every show you do?
Never underestimate the importance of a consistent draw; solid audience numbers mean you are reaching people and entertaining them, and they want to come back for more. Promoters and music agents only want one thing—a guaranteed amount of ticket sales for any given show. Can you honestly approach a promoter and say that you can guarantee X number people at every show you do?
Concentrate on the ticket-selling potential and audience-pulling power of your act. This may mean forgetting about taking your shows to the next level for a significant amount of time. Build yourself up as a quality act, and the booking agents labels will come to you. It is far better for your career to play two or three shows a month for six months and have 100 people turn up for every single show than it is to play one show in front of 2,000 people and then not play another show for six months. You are the best band/artist in the world (yes, you are!), but has anyone else heard of you yet?
Make sure you captivate your audience, no matter how small, at every show you play and in every set you perform. Compel your audience to come to your next show by being professional, good-natured, and well-rehearsed, both to the audience and to the behind-the-scenes workers. It does not matter whether you are playing to 10 or 1,000 people, you should still act professionally. In fact it is more important if you are playing to 10 people! Those 10 people are at least there to see you, so treat them with respect and get them to spread the word for you.
Hopewell, M., & Hanlon, J. (2003). Music Management Bible London: SMT.
Waddel, R., Barnet, R., & Berry, J. (2007). This Business of Concert Promotion and Touring New York: Billboard Books.