Agents: It’s not such a mystery

by artistsofnote-logoJoann Murdock, founder, Artists of Note

I often chuckle at the famous advice for musicians, commonly attributed to Pete Seeger: “Don’t quit your day job.”

As anyone lucky enough to have created some momentum in a performing career has realized, there is a lot of work involved in building a successful career in music. It’s overwhelming when you start to think of all the different hats you get to wear: musical scores and rehearsals if you have a band; writing, arranging, researching repertoire; travel agent; publicist; record company; equipment and instrument maintenance; clerical and record-keeping; what else — you name it.

Oh yes, and then there is the task of getting bookings. Research on venues; contacting venues; explaining why they’ll love your music and how you will be able to help bring in audience; computing the travel distance; negotiating the fees; booking conferences; what else — you name it.

Some artists love the social aspects of booking. By our very nature, artists are hands-on personalities, and so they love to get to know the people they will be performing for. But other artists feel like a square tire on a bicycle doing this part of their job, and they’d delegate it in a flash.

So that’s where an agent can come into play. Think of yourself or your band as a small business, because that’s what you are, if you hope to quit your day job. Once you realize how hard it is to get all these tasks done on your own, you may start to think about hiring someone to help you. Record label, publicist, bookkeeper, tour manager, agent.

One small detail. “How would I ever be able to pay someone to do this for me?” you ask. You may hire an employee at an hourly rate, or a contractor at a set price. Working on commission is a surer way for a musician to keep costs in line with revenue, and of course, it’s a motivator for the agent, because we don’t get paid unless we can get the work!

As a quick aside, let me mention that there are several types of agents in the music industry. There are a few agents who work for several music venues, and their job is to search for, recruit, and field offers from performers to book those multiple music venues. If they work for the music venues, then by all rights, their commission or payment should —and probably is —            arranged with the venue, rather than commission coming from an artist.
When someone thinks about being an agent, they often start out with no commitments from artists of venues, and find work in a “catch-as-catch-can” mode, connecting performers and venues for appropriate (or not) bookings, and taking a commission from probably the artist in most cases. Early on, I thought that was what an agent was, but I quickly learned that it’s not an efficient way to make a living. Booking takes time, and a sustained effort and commitment between agent, artist and venue.

For Artists of Note, and for most, if not all, of the agencies you would meet at the Kansas City FAI Conference, you’ll find that the agent has a specific longer-term relationship with the artist. Generally, it’s an exclusive booking arrangement, or at the very least, its a relationship in which the agent has learned in depth about their particular artist’s abilities and needs (tech, fees, hospitality, special audiences, quirks, etc).

An agent is unique in that they are not employees, and they are sandwiched between people on two sides of a negotiation. So artists are my Clients. And venues are my Customers. And we must make both sides happy enough to keep coming back to us. I just try to be fair to all sides. I am a member of the same folk community, with the same values of preserving and enriching our music scene.

Circling back to the top of this article, let’s revisit the concept that you, the artist, have hired an agent, to do a part of your day job. So being the agent is my day job. I make commitments to help a limited number of artists, on what I call my “roster.” Agent and artist have discussed realistic goals in terms of gigs and income expectations. In building my roster, I walk a delicate line between making commitments with too many artists vs not bringing in enough money to pay my salary and overhead. So I when I consider adding an artist to the roster, I look for someone who has a proven history of earning somewhere in the $30,000-40,000 a year— at a minimum. It’s sad, but true. An agent can’t help you get started.

So there is a mutual commitment between agent and artist. We need to make a living. That’s the justification for entering into these agent-artist partnerships as exclusive relationships. Yes, the artist is “suddenly” paying commission on a gig which they’ve played every year and which they could call up and book for themselves in a minute. But the artist realizes that she has too much work to do, so she has hired someone to do a part of her job. Yes, a venue may “suggest” that they book you directly as they always have in the past. But once you have signed with an agent, that is how your agent is paid, and there will be a period of learning to let go, to delegate. That’s a whole ‘nother article, as they say.

So I’ve given you an overview of what it means to work an agent. Maybe I will return with another article in a future newsletter, to talk about what it takes to start your own agency, or how you might grow your own in-house dedicated booking/promotion staff. It might take awhile, though, because, as you well know, the booking work seems to be never finished.

Joann Murdock founded Artists of Note agency in 1984. She finally started to understand what she was doing after a couple of years. She can be reached at http://www.ArtistsOfNote.com

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