Cleaning Toilets: Do We Need This Booking Agent or What?

Ought shot by the band

“My band has been around for a couple of years, releasing our own stuff and booking our own tours because it didn’t occur to us to do it any other way. But now our first real album is about to come out on what I think is a reputable label and they work with a publicist and all of that. So lately we’re starting to get emails from booking agents who just want to throw us on a few shows at first, which has been fine, but then eventually they start to want to talk about working with them for tours and everything. We can’t decide if we need one. If we do, we don’t know what to ask for, or how to tell we’re getting a good deal. Is there some sort of threshold bands cross for when they need a booking agent? We’ve done alright without one so far.”

There is a very good chance you band will never be more successful than you are right now, and if that is the case booking your own shows is absolutely the smartest thing to do, but if you are viewing this moment as the first part of a new phase of your band, then you should get a booking agent. If your career is going to grow, booking the shows will become a job unto itself, and that job requires a lot more than filling out a calendar.

You probably have a reliable network of promoters and venues you hit up when you are coming to their towns, but what about when you are drawing audiences two, three, or four times the size? What about the opening slot for a band that draws 10 to 20 times what you draw now? What if someone who you don’t even know is willing to give you a better offer? It sounds like right now you have money on the table, which is 10% (roughly) of your shows income as most agents work on commission, so all these people flirting with you want that money. You can save by continuing to book your own tours, but you can also limit what larger number that 10% commission would come from, so this question ultimately comes down to two things:

  1. Do you think you will make more money with the resources an agent can provide to recoup the commission you pay them?
  2. How do you know the difference between a good or bad agent?

No. 1 is more complicated than it seems, especially if you’ve organized multiple tours successfully in the past. I’m willing to bet that when you have booked tours in the past the origins of the tour have gone like this:

Bandmate 1: “Hey I think we should go on tour.”

Bandmate 2: “Yeah, me too.”

You: “Cool! I’ll email X, Y, and Z tomorrow.”

That is how tour booking is handled when it is DIY: by necessity. Being a self-managed artist teaches people to live in a mindset of constant necessity, and when you live in that mindset one of the things that gets pushed out is long-term planning. Sure, your art and career might have long-term plans, and in this case that might include playing for 600 people instead of 200 two years from now, but I bet you are spending more time thinking about your music two years out than you are about what merch rates you can get in at a venue that houses 600 people. Additionally, you also probably don’t know the merch rates of competing venues in the same market, nor do you know what type of door splits these competing venues offer or if they would be willing to give up a percentage of the bar sales if they really like a show.

Booking tours where you accomplish getting a date for every city you planned feels like an A but is actually a D—all you really did was manage to pass, barely. When we grade on the curve of a necessity-driven trench mentality, our ability to survive feels like success with flying colors.

Information isn’t the only resource an agent has that you do not. Another is negotiating power, or leverage. Every time they email a venue about your show they have the negotiating power weighted with all the other artists (big and small) that they can bring through that city. Another resource they have is experience. They know what to expect from each venue and which are most appropriate for you. They know how to get people to compete for a show. They have relationships with other agents and can collaborate on tours, which are connections that are hard to find unless you know where to look.

Leverage, connections, information and experience. If your band gets popular, you will get an amount of leverage and some connections will come to you, but will you get the information or the experience? More importantly, will your lack of information and experience lead to you walking away with less money than if you paid someone with those skills a commission to book your tour?

One of the first thing you will notice when you get a booking agent is that they will make you say “no” to your friends more often than you want to.

So as for No. 2, how do you find a good booking agent? It is a hard job with a very high turnover rate, which is why enthusiasm for your art is crucial. Be wary of an agent who doesn’t treat going into business with you as a career-long commitment. A good agent will want to sign you early and take you from playing small clubs, to opening slots on national tours, to mid-sized venues, to festivals and headlining large venues on national tours. A bad agent will sign a band with some buzz and plug them into a one-size-fits-all tour route, then drop them after a year when their commission isn’t what they were hoping it would be.

The music industry is a much maligned profession, unfairly, I might add. Booking agents, publicists, managers, and A&R reps are people (like us) who love art and are trying to find a way to make it their life. They make a career out of doing the jobs that all artists do when first getting started, and as they scale with intensity as their popularity grows it gets to the point where it makes sense to outsource it so they can focus on writing and performing. I adore Will Oldham but have never thanked his booking agent from saving me from a world where Bonnie “Prince” Billy is booking his own tours; it is largely a thankless job.

One of the first thing you will notice when you get a booking agent is that they will make you say “no” to your friends more often than you want to, or rather they will take on the job of saying it for you. This is often the hardest transition for a band to deal with, but figure out what shows are important to you and what aren’t, and don’t resent your agent for being a buzzkill. Once you get successful there will be a lot of people who say to you are parties, “Hey, we should do a show sometime!” It would devalue what you do to play all of those shows. A good booking agent has you play shows that make sense. A bad booking agent is protective of their gatekeeper position. Know the difference, and appreciate it when you have someone who does a good job looking out for your best interest, even if it isn’t what you want at the time.

To better understand the industry that you will be incorporating into your life, there are typically two points of entry to being a booking agent. Someone can start as an assistant and work their way up to begin taking on clients, or someone can book independently, representing themselves and their friends until an agency brings them on board. These independent bookers make up the first tier or underground of booking agents. The second tier of agencies, or boutique agencies, are made-up by the likes of Flower Booking and Panache, which have a few dozen to a few hundred clients, a handful of agents, and maybe multiple offices.

Over the past two years a lot of these mid-tier agencies have been getting bought by larger agencies. The Agency Group was acquired by UTA. Windish, AM Only and Coda were acquired by Paradigm. WME and IMG merged into the creatively titled, WME-IMG. If you want Coldplay to play your private corporate event, you can book them through Paradigm. William Morris, the WM in WME-IMG, began as a vaudeville agent in 1898. The Agency Group, who book a lot of indie rock bands that are very likely playing for 400 people or less regularly, is owned by UTA, United Talent Agency, which is a multinational company that exists in a world not dissimilar from an episode of Entourage.

I don’t mean this to demonize these companies for their scale and history. I actually think that from one respect, it is great that artists I work with have a direct line to people who can access an entirely new world for them. However, as a trend, it seems that the industry is shifting towards larger agencies, and with that comes more resources but possibly less direct personal investment. Anyone who successfully books has a direct personal investment, but I would say systematically it is encouraged less than with an independent booker or boutique agency. For example, Michelle Cable, who runs Panache, reps Mac Demarco. Mac will be playing corporate events for Slack or Dropbox or whatever in a matter of time, I’m sure, but while Michelle doesn’t have the institutional ties that Paradigm has, she does care a great deal about her client and tirelessly works for him. Because of the enthusiasm, Mac is constantly playing large rooms filled with equally enthusiastic fans, and I’m sure making a decently living doing so.

Ask any agent who approaches you who they work with and for how long. That last part says the most. Another example of a great booking agent is John Chavez. He works for Ground Control and his roster includes Titus Andronicus, Woods, Real Estate, Beach Fossils, DIIV, Porches, Frankie Cosmos, and as far as I know he has been with all of them since they first started working with an agent. Before he worked for Ground Control he did an independent agency called The Free Agency, and here is a quote from him from ten years ago in the Oberlin Review: “But I also run a business booking shows for other bands. Both things are extremely important to me, and I’m excited about entering a largely unethical scene and trying to do things the right way.”

Who doesn’t want that guy representing them? Also, full disclosure, I don’t believe I have ever successfully booked a band through John, so he is definitely doing something right!