Featured Column: Making The Band:Musician, Book Thyself
Last column I wrote that while most new bands probably don't have acquiring an outside publicist as a top priority, it might be in their best interests to move that to the top of their list. Conversely, it seems a lot of acts just getting going set out in search of a booking agent before the appropriate time. So this column is about why, in my experience at least, it's good to develop your touring career a while on your own before searching out a booking agent, how to decide when it is time to pursue an agent, and then what to look for in that agent.
I received an email from a vague acquaintance this week. After some quick pleasantries, he got to the point. Would I take his promo pack and a recommendation to my band's current booking agency? The agency who books our band, it just so happens to turn out, is his "dream agency". But alas, they state right on their website that they are not taking submissions from new acts. So he's hoping to circumvent that through us. Besides the fact that I think these types of requests are unfair and in bad taste (if somebody wants to champion your music, rest assured they'll let you know about it asking them to do it is just not cool), this guy needs to realize that he, and his ilk, are precisely the reason the agency isn't taking submissions in the first place. Everybody and his dog has a nice-sounding CD, some glossy photos and a few press quotes from fanzines and internet sites. Agencies, at least good ones, need to know you've already gone beyond assembling a Musician's Handbook For Success-style promo pack and actually begun to develop a career.
Of course there are exceptions. Sometimes a great agent hears a band with nothing going on but its natural charm and creativity and decides to go after them. But don't hold your breath. Like 99% of successful bands, you're probably going to have to earn your breaks.
Before taking you on most established booking agents want to see either that you are showing at least the early signs of a potentially successful touring career, or that you have signed with a noteworthy record label or recognized manager.
The resistance to taking on new acts is not about the money. Okay, sorry. It's about the money. But it's not only about the money. It makes sense. A band that has begun to develop some kind of touring buzz already has proven a few things. It can handle at least some life on the road without breaking up. It can win over people with its live show. It can get places on time and honor commitments. Truth be told, many starting acts will struggle to come through on even one of those things. An agent would seem kind of foolish, or maybe desperate for work, to take on bands that are more likely then not going to never mount a serious touring career. And you probably don't want an agent that is foolish and/or desperate (although, who knows, maybe a new guy who doesn't have much work yet will end up kicking ass for you).
One exception is if your band is already signed to some kind of potentially career-accelerating entity (probably label or manager). Then a strong agent might roll the dice and take you on (although you may well get a fair amount of ambivalence until something big happens elsewhere in your career to get demand up and the agent excited).
This is all just preamble, however, to the two real reasons you should not pursue a booking agent too soon out of the gate: 1) if you are a new act, you can almost assuredly do a better job booking yourself then an agent would; 2) if you wait for your career to develop a little bit, the quality of agency you can eventually sign with, and the level of attention you can get from them, will increase dramatically.
It's an obvious point, but bands seem to forget it all the time. Having the same agent as Big Rock Band A does not get you any of Big Rock Band A's audience. If you don't draw, you don't draw. Again, I'm sure there are exceptions, but the general rule is it all starts and ends with whether people will pay to see your band (at least for bands trying to build up fan bases in original music venues; bands that aim to play mainly school concerts, arts series, and such events should probably disregard this whole column). If somehow you do convince a big agency to take you on and somehow they get you gigs at cool rooms, who's gonna be there? People don't just show up at gigs cause they like the band's agency. Doesn't happen (wish it did). It's just going to be a waste of everybody's time.
If you are a new band you need to play where people already are. Popular pubs, or opening spots for bands that draw enough to be good for you exposure-wise, but not so big as to be unreachable. House parties, college nooners, whatever. You need to scrounge up work, and the truth is The Big Agency isn't really going to have a fire in the belly for that. But you will (if you don't, you should maybe consider a different line of work). Get after it and you'll find tons of opportunities. Combine those opportunities with that publicist you hired last column, your stellar live show, your commitment to promoting your band every way you can think of, and a reputation for being reliable and professional, and your band will have a strong buzz before you know it.
Which begs the question, when you should give up the booking duties? There's a combination of factors that will tell you it's time.
First off, as you gig more often and are on the road longer you will start to just be too busy. With cell phones and laptops you can probably hold out longer then you could have a few years ago, but there will still reach a point where you sense you can't do as good a job as somebody sitting in an office could.
You might also start getting the sense that you're leaving a lot of money on the table. This could be because as your band's draw and reputation grow you start working with promoters who are quite a bit beyond you in experience and guile. It's easy enough to negotiate a door deal with a $3 cover at the local watering hole, but when you get into larger rooms with their myriad inflated expenses it's considerably more difficult. Or who knows what a festival that you've always wanted to play is willing to pay? You gotta take a stab in the dark and hope you're not pricing yourself out the gig but not short-changing yourself either. A competent agent will have either dealt with the promoter before, or be skilled at intuiting what is available for the band.
Or, even if you have a real knack for negotiating, as a member of the act that's being hired you may not feel comfortable really going after the best deal that's out there on behalf of the band. I personally sometimes feel conflicted over high guarantees. I know when they are offered we've earned them and in a business-sense are worth it, but I also know we were the same people playing the same songs for much less not long ago (or sometimes still now depending on the market). And negotiating for bigger bucks can make you feel like it's not so much about the music anymore. While that's not a true or fair conclusion, I just find it easier to not negotiate shows I'll also be playing.
Another factor in deciding it's time to go with an outside agent is when agencies start sniffing around your band. You don't need to go with a booking agency as soon as it starts showing interest, and you likewise don't need to wait for that interest before looking into representation. But unsolicited inquiries you might receive from agencies are surely an indicator your band is starting to reach a point when it might be good to make the switch.
Ultimately, if you have a long and relatively successful touring career you will need representation. While I am obviously arguing here for delaying the move, I don't think in the long-term it's advisable for successful acts to book themselves. Of course there's no rule against it (and I'm sure there've been instances where it worked beautifully), but the logistics of trying to do it while out there doing the actual performing, coupled with difficulties you may have being taken seriously within the industry, would make it pretty overwhelming. So, assuming you have developed a thriving live performance career through your own stellar early-stage booking efforts, good promo, and a great show, you'll eventually have decide who you are going to let represent you.
There's a tendency to shoot for the big agencies, the famous ones. But unless your career has really exploded to the point where somebody at one of the biggest three or four agencies is likely to make you a huge priority, you probably don't want to even look there.
For a time, a large Canadian booking agency was doing our dates north of the U.S. border. I was in our responsible agent's office discussing a tour which, over ten or so dates, would gross under $10 grand. Our meeting kept getting interrupted by calls from a manager of a bigger act who was upset about a date potentially falling through on their upcoming tour. The date in question would gross into six figures. I realized I couldn't really complain when our dates were slow being booked because our whole tour was going to gross 1/10th of what this other act grossed per night. Well, I could complain. I just couldn't be surprised if my complaints didn't have a huge impact.
Similarly, some friends of mine in a Northwest band were represented on a trial basis by one of the huge U.S. agencies. They're first tour was a 30-day jaunt through the West and Southwest. The agent got them less then 10 gigs, most of which were lame, and they lost money hand over fist.
Aim to be a medium act on an agency. Don't be at the bottom in terms of earning power because you just won't get the attention you need. Don't be right at the top because you want to know the agency is capable of taking a band farther then you already are.
Look for agencies that book a variety of acts, with a fair amount of bands that would fall vaguely into your genre. You want to be sure there are at least some bands of your ilk because a lot of your work can come from calls to your agency about another band where either the other band is unavailable, or the promoter is looking for more than one act. And you want to know the agency is experienced with the types of rooms that suit you.
But an agency that is really focused on one style of music can often be limited in terms of the variety of opportunities to which they can expose bands. Just because a band not entirely unlike yours took a certain path doesn't mean that's the best path for you. The more options you have the better.
Other than that, just ask around and make sure your agent has a proven track record for helping bands grow, and for dealing with business matters in a manner with which you'll be comfortable. Find someone you trust and feel comfortable talking to, but don't expect to be best friends. It's probably better you aren't.
When you do choose an agent, be prepared to spend a lot of energy on the relationship. Most good agents have a good number of acts they are working with and the squeaky wheel does get the grease. It's a delicate balancing act to stay on your agent's mind without becoming a complete nuisance. Personally, I think the key is never expecting the moon. Make sure your complaints are always fair, well-articulated and supported with specific examples and facts, and a reasonable agent will not have a problem with you voicing them.
Dealing with agents, like every aspect of the business-side of your career, can be frustrating. But if you wait till you're in position to choose a good one, and then manage your relationship fairly and proactively, it can be a beautiful thing.
If you have feedback on this article or an idea for a future article, I'd love to hear from you. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.