There’s a movement afoot by even really established artists to start booking themselves as opposed to using regular agents. I’ll get to this in a second, but first things first. I’ll need to repeat some things from earlier posts just because they’re that critical, and they tie in to what the associated pros are thinking, the venues, the agents, the managers.
To understand the evolution of this, we need to hit the basics of approaching an agent. You need a track record before you can even approach an agent. They’ll want to see how big your email list is. They’ll want to know how many hits your Youtube channel gets. They’ll want a performance resume. They may even contact some of the venues to see what everyone thought of you. Why? It’s simple. It takes a lot of work to help get a baby band established, and as they work on a percentage, the amount of time they need to spend on you does NOT get covered by the percentage they’ll make off each show. You may get $1000 for a show, and at their percentage, usually between 10-15%, that’s between $100-150 for them. That may sound fine to you, but they may have spent 3-4 hours just putting together that one gig, especially if you need a lot of selling to a venue. Add in administrative costs, hard costs of running a physical office, with printers, computers, etc, and you can see why they’re not too thrilled unless you have some built-in upside.
The other factor that you may not understand is that at some point in your career, you may become a pain in the neck for them. I don’t mean in a demanding I-want-green-M&M’s sort of way, but in a career advancement way. Young artists are notoriously fickle in their career reality-checks. Many will start pushing an agent after only a year or so to get them the bigger gigs that they haven’t yet earned. Or, they get gigs, but reception is tepid and their career sort of stalls. They blame the agent as opposed to their own marketing skills or sheer musical and performance skills. Either way, the chances are really good that a band will bolt the agent that invested a lot of time and money in helping them get established for a newer, shinier agency that may not do any better for them. (I have dealt with artists who basically killed their careers by going to an agency that was either too big, or didn’t care. In one case, they were recommended by a fellow artist who was the agent’s star, and would have gotten plenty of gigs without him. The agent paid attention only to the star, as that was his bread-winner.) At any rate, everyone is after the shiny new toy, and it’s almost a forgone conclusion that the agent that helped build your career will get dumped by you. So, yeah, getting an agent before you’ve earned your stripes is tough.
A separate note on agents: as in every walk of life, there is a bell curve of quality. Not just for agents, but venues, musicians, plumbers, whatever. I have tried booking with some agents who never returned calls and gave up. Sometimes managers get in the way of the agent’s ability to book them. Some agents are absolutely fantastic about returning calls, being proactive with suggestions, trying to book the mid-week filler gigs, etc. When it comes time to select an agent, do your homework. Make sure you fit in the roster, that they’re just small enough to really help you, but that their rolodex has all the right contacts. Same with managers. In the small world of acoustic music, especially the alternative-to-tradition world, managers can sometimes get in the way. Same with PR people. I have some dealt with some that never followed up on contacts, and some that do. From my perspective, as everyone of these professionals require payment (bummer, but hey, so do you..) I would start with a good booking agent. Just get gigs. You can handle PR effectively in the short term. If you start to take off, then a manager can help, but once again, if they can’t help with contacts in areas other than a booking agent, they’re a waste. Make sure they can access the right people for film or t.v. soundtracks, or get you prestigious openings in large concert halls that might otherwise be closed to an agent. The manager is also supposed to handle your money. Again, until you’re making enough to handle, it’s just not a problem you need to worry about. P.R.? It’s a weird world out these for these poor guys. It’s so difficult to get tuff in the hard copy press with diminished spaces, they really need to be high powered to be much good. That means expensive. They can be helpful, but if their idea of p.r. is posting on Instagram and Facebook, eh, you can do that if you’re smart about it.
Why are the established stars booking themselves? Usually it’s all about tour routing. Most would be fine with paying an agent to book them, as it takes a lot of work, but they need the filler gigs during the week to make a tour work. Understand that we’re not talking the Rolling Stones here, where you can work 3 nights a year and live comfortably. You may make $2k one night and think, great, but that goes fast when you spread it out over a week, and especially when you factor in all those pesky expenses. Mid-week filler gigs are where it’s at. And it’s also where most agents aren’t, as they can take the same amount of time to book as a big-payer, but net them all of $75 bucks. A midweek payday of $7-800 sounds great to a lot of even larger acoustic acts. It’s gas money, food money, it covers the expenses so the weekend gigs are the profit (or basic take-home pay). Anyway you look at it, even most of your musical heroes need to work 4-5 days a week, minimum. Agents don’t want you to book yourself midweek, and most don’t allow it, as it can mess up their relationship with their big contacts. I’ve even told agents to shove off after they booked a mid-week gig for a band I was having that Saturday. I was charging $25 a head, and the filler was charging $10, and they were only a 20 minute drive away. Bad karma for me: I look like I’m overcharging for a band that’s probably not good enough to deserve that pay. Otherwise, why would they be willing to play for less?
And that violates booking rule number one. I touched on this in an earlier primer, but do NOT book gigs too close together. Unless you’re a local bar-band (and they can make a very nice living) that thrives on a local, dedicated following, make sure each gig on each tour is at least 2 hours away. You need to stagger appearances. Take Venue A and Venue B. They’re 30 minutes apart. If you want to play at both, book Venue A on your January swing through that area, and Venue B on your July swing. Give them separation. If one was particularly helpful in getting you established, took a chance on you, show some loyalty. At least contact the first venue and tell them you’re looking for gigs in the area a few months down the road. See if they have room. If not, go the extra mile and ask them what venues wouldn’t conflict with theirs. This sort of attention makes you stand out to the venues; they’ll go the extra mile for you down the road when they know you’re part of the team.
Booking rule Number 2: Only contact venues through email. Email only. They’re busy, and a phone call or message through Facebook or something else is an intrusion. I love the Caffe Lena protocol on their website. Dig that out. (I’m not going to link for two reasons, the first being they may not want me to, the second is that you need to get used to digging out your own stuff. It’s a job now, not a course you’re taking. Caffe Lena. Applying for a gig. Look it up.
Booking Rule #3: Make sure you’re right for the venue. This was discussed in an earlier primer, but it’s so easy to get right that when I get applications that are so clearly wrong, it’s worth nothing more than a laugh and a delete. Simply follow the tour schedule of bands that you think you’re in the same mold of. Bluegrass? Singer-songwriter? Alternative fiddle styles? Doesn’t matter. Stick with your genre, and pick touring artists that have been at it only slightly longer than you. See where they’ve played. Contact them. Accept mid-week gigs, if they do them.
That’s about all there is to it. Legwork, lots of emails, lots of rejections. It takes time. In the meantime, keep performing wherever just to polish your performance quality. I know one really well-respected agent who picks folk artists that have extensive busking experience. If you learn to corral and captivate a sidewalk audience, you’ve got the performance aspect down.
Aaand.. the vital Electronic press kit. The more extensive, the better. Links to mp3’s, no matter what site they’re on, is critical. Videos are REALLY CRITICAL now. Not just ones of you and the band in your living room. Presenters want to see live performance footage. They really want to see how you are between songs. Good stories. Have a bunch of great band photos. As venues, we’re all sick of a bunch of slacker-looking dudes standing in an old brick warehouse, or standing in a field. Let’s see pictures that tell your story. As an example, I get great photos of a band from way up north standing in snowbanks, snow up to their chests, holding their violins and guitars. It’s eye-catching, humorous, and I know where they’re from and what they do. Same thing with urban environments. The guys are playing out on the street with a piano they dragged there. They look like they’re having fun, are fun to see, and I get what they do. Have lighter photos and darker photos. The darker ones look great on a phone or laptop screen, but are too dark to print. Yeah, a lot of us still get your pictures in the paper, so we need lighter ones as they reprint better.
I would even consider having a “presenter portal” on your website, which is for presenters only, and you can email them the password. On it, you’d have more bio info than the standard fan would want, or you might want to put in front of everyone. Little things that could give a presenter an unusual angle when they’re trying to promote your show. Here, and probably most importantly, you could invite presenters to give you letters of recommendation. A good review from a well-respected venue goes a long way.
And, as discussed earlier, have those upbeat social media posts going regularly. If you’re not touring, twice a week is fine. If you’re touring, though, always mention each town and venue each, so two posts per gig. New venues looking at you need to see you appreciate the work they’re going to go to on your behalf. Venues that simply put music on come and go, but the venues that are more interested in sticking around forever build community. That’s their product: community. You want to be a part of that community, so that requires you to be a community-minded person. Remember that anytime you approach a venue; show them that you want a win-win-win situation between you, the venue, and the audience.
Good luck, it’s a jungle out there.