What Do Booking Agents Do?
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Making music is inherently public, and the importance of being in front of a live audience cannot be overstated.
Performances create multiple opportunities for an artist to introduce and/or workshop new material, establish a brand and tell a story, spread a marketing message, and above all, make money—all the while giving their fans a memorable show.
Live performance is so important that crafting such a strategy requires input from not just a manager, but also a booking agent. Agents are intermediaries between their roster of performers and talent buyers looking to book an act. Together, the manager and agent work to create and execute a strategy designed to maximize public appearances for the benefit of their client. If a manager is the chief operating officer of a business focused on their client’s career, then a booking agent is that organization’s head of sales.
The music business is a relationship business
Like every sales job, relationships are key, and agents leverage theirs—with promoters, venues, and talent buyers—on behalf of their clients. These relationships may be genre-specific or location-based. A specific promoter may only present certain kinds of concerts or work with performers whose draw is similar in size to a specific venue.
But unlike a manager’s responsibility for a client’s entire career, an agent’s specialization means they have a single territory or focus. Often, an artist will hire multiple agents to ensure they’re properly represented.
Booking Agents vs. Talent Agents
Two important notes about agents: first, their role in the music business is different from that in the film and TV industry. In music, booking agents only procure live performance opportunities, whereas, in film and TV, talent agents are responsible for much more and work similarly to music business managers. Second, because an agent seeks employment on behalf of their clients, their business is subject to state law. If you’re an artist looking to hire an agent, be sure to understand their scope of work. If you’re interested in starting an agency, learn about the licensing requirements for agencies operating in your state.
Building an artist’s career
To better describe an agent’s role, it’s helpful to discuss how they interact with two other participants in the touring and live performance industry: managers and promoters.
Agents know the importance of cultivating relationships with promoter and venue partners. They understand the impact of performing in the right venue at the right time. They are also conscious of how a performer’s growth can affect the venues at which they perform.
Likewise, each promoter knows their audience and is on the lookout for musicians who are a good fit for their programming. Agents are sensitive to this, providing talent that fits into the venue’s creative programming and has the potential for a sell-out. Together, it is understood how relationships built today are meant to pay off should a particular artist become a star in the future.
Telling an artist’s story
At the beginning of their career, musicians might play small venues and open mic nights in their hometown, often for free. They might then play venues where passing the hat is how they get paid. As word spreads further and their draw increases, door deals at local gigs give way to guarantees at regional shows, increased ticket prices, and bigger audiences. As time passes and experience increases, they move to larger markets and soft-ticket shows (where the venue relies more on their own marketing than the artist’s to fill the room).
At this stage, musicians may attract the attention of a headlining act and the opportunity to open shows in front of even bigger audiences. Clubs give way to theaters; theaters give way to sheds; sheds to stadiums, arenas, and festivals. Ultimately, the goal is to become a headliner themselves, make money from hard ticket shows, and attract national and international interest from promoters and venues.
This is the story an agent hopes to tell: constant growth in audience, ticket price, markets, and demand. Having a history and demonstrating results is what agents use to book their clients.
Developing a touring strategy
The process begins with an overall strategy. Management decides the goals, touring periods, and marketing plans with their client. The agent is then consulted on marketplaces, promoters, venues, and pricing. Their experience is crucial in executing the overall strategy, and agents use it to put the artist in the right place at the right time.
Pitching promoters and venues
With the goals and time periods of a touring strategy in place, the agent will pitch their contacts. Like all salespeople, agents use lists. These lists—of promoters, venues, talent buyers—are categorized so that agents can tailor their pitches. Each contact represents a relationship, and an agent will use their expertise to identify those most receptive while continuing to build relationships with the others.
Finding a date
The next step is to check availability. Every promoter and venue operates on a different schedule. While local and regional clubs typically fill their schedules only weeks or months in advance, the big ones—performing arts centers, sheds, arenas, and festivals—are booking a year or more in advance. Knowing this is important, as there is no reason to pitch a promoter uninterested in the period the artist is trying to book.
Education is key
If there is interest in an artist and a particular date from a talent buyer, the agent will follow up with more details, answering questions and providing data about the artist’s tour history, draw, ticket price, and marketing ability. There is considerable risk in promoting a show, and providing information to talent buyers helps alleviate that risk and aids their decision-making.
Obtaining a hold
If the parties agree to put the date “on hold,” it means an offer is forthcoming. Holding several dates may give both sides extra flexibility to create more efficient routing, eliminate conflicts, and maximize opportunities. This scenario becomes a juggling act for the manager, agent, and promoter, as other holds may need to be released to make things work.
In addition to tour history, the venue or promoter will ask for the artist’s rider and backline. Knowing this information helps them assess whether a show is technically possible and what additional costs will factor into their decision.
What’s the fee?
Up until now, there has probably been no conversation about a fee. In fact, there is no reason to talk about money until a date is put on hold. Precedent is important, and given that the deal might still fall through, disclosing the price too early could mean being locked into a lower fee in the future because a price was quoted for a show that ultimately got postponed. It can even mean losing the date altogether.
The manager and agent have a sense of an artist’s typical expenses and have agreed on the minimum price they would be willing to accept. The agent will also have an intuitive understanding of the market that contemplates the artist’s draw and top ticket price. Research may also uncover offers made to similar artists.
Getting an offer
If all goes well, the promoter or venue will make their offer. Often, it will be a short contract containing the financial terms and any other relevant details about what each party is to provide. The agent will take this to the manager, and together they will assess the date’s contribution to the overall strategy and its money-making (or losing) potential.
Offers have expiration dates. Promoters and venues have deadlines. Decisions must be reached quickly so that schedules may be confirmed. This is a fluid process, and both sides will attempt to maintain as much flexibility as possible. They will work quickly to confirm what they can. They will stall if they need more time to decide. Nobody wants to lose an opportunity, so everyone allows for as much give-and-take as they can stomach, given the deadlines they face. If the offer is accepted, the promoter or venue will draw up a full contract for signature, but if the artist passes, the holds will be released, and the parties will move on.
Going to contract
Once the offer is accepted, a full-length contract is sent to the manager for signature. In addition to the contract face including the offer originally agreed to, there may be other (less important) provisions that may require further negotiation, as well as the rider, backline, and stage plot as exhibits confirming the promoter or venue’s ability to provide what the artist needs.
Collecting the deposit
Once the promoter or venue receives a contract signed by the artist, they will return the fully-executed copy to the agent together with payment of the deposit. This amount—negotiable but often 10% of any guarantee—is held by the agent and serves as confirmation that all are on board.
When the show is announced, the agent will receive daily updates on ticket sales. These counts will help monitor marketing efforts and confirm with the box office that the final settlement is correct.
At this point, virtually all other duties in connection with the show become the responsibility of the manager and the promoter or venue. As the date approaches, they will work together (and sometimes with a tour manager) to advance the date, coordinate marketing, travel and logistics, and finalize a day-of-show schedule to ensure everything comes off without a hitch.
Finalizing the settlement
As soon as the curtain comes down, it’s time for the settlement, which takes place at the end of the night at smaller shows. The artist, or their tour manager, will gather with the promoter’s or venue’s representative to witness the count. Once the box office is tallied, the artist is handed their take. Bigger shows follow a similar process, though it’s more likely to occur days or weeks after the performance and likely not in cash. At this point, the agent will settle with the artist, handing over any part of the deposit that exceeds their commission.
Booking agents in the music business have one job: securing live performance opportunities for their clients. They accomplish this by being attuned to the live performance marketplace, their ability to sense their client’s draw, maintaining close communication with the artist’s management, and cultivating a network of relationships. Ultimately, it is those relationships that an agent uses to unlock access to one of the most lucrative entertainment business sectors.
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