The talent booking business comprises two major segments: the promoters who buy the act and the agents who sell it. A promoter represents the venue and sponsors, while the booking agent represents the artists and their management. For big name acts like Jay-Z or Pink, the agent will work almost as an order-taker; venues and promoters will seek out the agent to hire clients in high demand. In the case of lesser-known bands, the agent must work the phones to sell his or her clients to the promoters or get them the opening slot on a more established act’s dates. For his services, the agent is paid a commission based on the artist’s gross earnings for each performance booked; the industry standard is between 10 percent and 20 percent. Most established agents will work for a talent booking agency and are paid a salary in addition to a percentage of the income they generate for the company.
Whether representing a roster of established artists or baby bands, all agents’ responsibilities are similar. In planning a tour the agent takes into account his clients’ new releases as well as competition with other artists’ tours. There are only so many nights in the year and so many clubs to play in; if Tortoise is touring the Northwest at the same time as TV on the Radio, they can’t both play Neumos in Seattle on the same night. (This is where the successful agent’s inborn need to win comes out and the wheedling and/or threats are deployed to get the prime slot.) Six months out, the agent starts contacting promoters and advising them of his client’s availability. Next the agent works with the record label and band’s management to create routing. Attention must be paid to the markets that get the best and biggest audiences, as well as the distance between stops. (If you represent an indie band, don’t leave them hanging for five days between shows; how will they eat if they’re not earning money? On the other hand, a heritage act like Cher or Black Sabbath may appreciate time to rest between performances.) The agent, on behalf of the talent and their management, negotiates the artist guarantee, ticket price, merchandise agreements, and show times, as well as a rider detailing special requirements of the band. When all contract points have been negotiated and approved by both parties, the deal is done. A booking agent does not travel with the band. The agent is always working on the next deal for their next client, in addition to scouting for new clients.
Skills & Education
A college degree of some sort is often preferred within the blue-chip agencies, but real-life experience is a necessity, and many agents get their start by building their own roster of bands. A degree in entertainment or music business will give you a firm understanding of contract law, accounting and finance, marketing, public relations, sales, merchandising, and other areas crucial to a career in this field. Many booking agents start as independents working in a small territory—often, a large agency will hire new agents as a way of acquiring new clients, as they may bring along their roster. Another way to get a foothold at a large organization like ICM or William Morris is to apply for a position in their agent training programs. These are usually unpaid internships or part-time positions in the mailroom. (Many a CAA mail sorter has a law degree or MBA.) If you are eager to learn and prove your work ethic, you may be able to move up the ranks as an assistant and then junior agent. These positions give you an opportunity to learn from within the industry and build your list of contacts.
What to Expect
You must be comfortable playing both good cop and bad cop. There can be daily fires to put out. When the band gets unruly and wants to cancel or their tour manager fails to properly advance a show, you have to smooth things over with the promoter and venue. On the other hand, when the promoter hasn’t sold any tickets and your next show is three days away, it is your job to fight for your client’s best interest. Be professional and respectful; relationships are the cornerstone of the agent’s career. Sleep is rare, a phone is permanently attached to your head, and the only thing certain is uncertainty. Passionate drive and ferocious tenacity are key to success.
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