This article originally appeared on The Unsigned Guide.
Working with a booking agent is a topic the Unsigned Guide is often asked about by artists and bands who wonder whether they should still undertake all gig bookings themselves or acquire the services of an agent who can bag those lusted-after festival slots and tour supports.
Do I need an agent? At what stage should we approach one? Will a booking agency even work with an unsigned or emerging band? If you’ve ever wondered about any of the above, this blog is for you!
We’ve enlisted the assistance of three experienced booking agents to tackle your questions. Jack Cox and Beckie Sugden work for X-ray Touring, an established agency working with a huge range of acts from Blur and Coldplay to Courtney Barnett and Black Honey. Adam Gainsborough is the Founding Director of This is Now Agency, home to Molotov Jukebox, Beans On Toast, Too Many T's, and many more.
How long have you been an agent, and how did you get into it?
Adam: I have been an agent for around eight years and it all started with my own company called C23 Management, after a good friend of mine was doing well in the Fidget House scene and started getting inquiries for shows. He didn't want to deal with the whole negotiating process and asked if I was interested in taking charge of it all. He made me an email address and a Myspace page, and we never looked back. Since then, I worked for a well-known record label for three years which progressed into a management company, and then I started This Is Now Agency in 2013.
Beckie: This is my tenth year as an agent and eighth year at a major agency. I was actually a TV news journalist at ITN before I moved into the music industry. While there, I got the opportunity to judge the best unsigned band competition to play at Wireless festival in the Myspace tent! From there, I met a few managers and later ended up joining a management and events company on a casual basis, whilst repping gigs in the evenings. I then ended up helping at In the City conference and met a company called 10xbetter who offered me a job as an agent when we got back to London. Having got a year's experience at the company, I naively decided to go out on my own and set up MixedTape Agency. For a small company, we did really well really quickly, and by the end, there were three people working for me on a freelance basis. After only a year, I had been approached by William Morris and moved over there… the rest, as they say, is history.
Jack: One and a half years. I got into the agency world through booking a large tour of 250 gigs in 250 days for a band I played in. After the tour ended, I knew the band wasn’t working, so I began to explore my options. Agency was a natural direction after hustling for shows. After a little networking, a job came up at X-ray. I had to compete for the position but got it.
So, what does a booking agent do? What can you achieve that bands and artists won't be able to do for themselves?
Adam: A booking agent seeks as many opportunities for their clients as they can to help progress their profiles and careers. Having a good working relationship with both promoters and festivals enables agents to speak directly to the powers that be, which artists find hard to do. Having a good reputation with successful acts helps get quick answers instead of bands themselves having to go through the application process to play at events and festivals.
Beckie: We scout, pitch, and sign a roster of acts. Our job is then to apply a personally tailored, strategic, international touring plan based on an artist’s releases and general activity. It’s about putting the artists in the right place at the right time, in the right way. You don’t need an agent until you have stopped asking yourself this question and you know the answer! We take everything to the next level!
Jack: A good agent will have the contacts that artists will not have and will be able to give insight into the best live choices for an artist. It’s essential for an agent to elevate an act through venue and promoter choice along with which cities to play and when. In short, on top of booking shows and tours, a good booking agent will guide and advise on an artist’s live career. They will also fight for their act to get the best possible slots in an ever competitive world of live music events.
In my opinion, the role of an agent is evolving into a more personal member of a musician’s team, along with the manager, lawyer, PR, etc. that it didn’t necessarily used to be. Agents' opinions and advice is being sought after more often than ever, as the live career of the artist is now normally the largest revenue stream.
A mistake many unsigned and/or unrepresented artists make (including myself when I was in a band) is overplaying and touring in a disorganized, poorly routed, and poorly promoted way. As briefly mentioned before, the live career of an act is the largest revenue stream now, so it must be correctly exercised – a good agent can ensure that this happens.
How many acts does your agency work with? How many artists do you work with personally?
Adam: This Is Now Agency works with 13 artists and acts. These include Molotov Jukebox, Beans On Toast, Too Many T's, Will Varley, DJ Format & Abdominal, and Skinny Lister. I personally look after nine, and my assistant, Sarah Joy, looks after the rest.
Beckie: We work with hundreds of artists in various genres. I personally work with a roster of 35 acts currently including Anderson .Paak, NxWorries, Hoodie Allen, Deaf Havana, Beartooth, Attila, and God Is An Astronaut, to name but a few.
Jack: I work with around 15 artists (a comparatively low number), and our agency represents over 400 artists from stadium acts to breaking acts.
At what stage in their career should a band or artist approach a booking agent? Is there any point unsigned acts doing this?
Adam: Bands should really get in touch with agents when they've reached a level that they can no longer manage themselves. Bands obviously can be picked up quite quickly by agents and management due to the potential that’s seen in them, but more often than not, a band really needs to do a lot of leg work in raising their profile as much as they can until they need to increase the number of the team that they work with.
Beckie: My rule is that you should not be approaching me until you can sell out a hometown show at least! I personally think being signed is now less important than it has ever been; for me, it's more important to have a manager. Different agents will take on bands at different stages and be looking for different things, so I am a big advocate of the saying, "nothing ventured, nothing gained!” Just make sure when you are approaching an agent everything is at its peak, i.e., people are clamoring to see you, your branding is strong, you have a clear and infectious vision, the songs are the best you can produce at that moment, and the live show is flawless. It’s hard to get an agent’s attention, so when you do, you need to be undeniable, as competition is fierce.
Jack: Yes, there certainly is; agents tend to sign bands way before record labels nowadays. I would advise that unsigned acts/artists approach agencies through their lawyer or after you have a manager in place. Do not bother doing so before.
What do you look for in a band or artist?
Adam: This Is Now Agency's ethos is unique entertainment and we believe the performance is just as important as the music itself. If you make us say "wow" or make our jaws drop, then we're more likely going to want to be say hello. Yes, you're a hard-working band who tours relentlessly, but do you sound any different than the millions of other acts out there? If you don't, you need to take a look at what you're wanting to achieve and how you're going to make yourself stand out.
Beckie: The complete package. As I said above, you need to be undeniable in every respect. You need to have songs that stick in my head. I want to see an image forming that fits the band. Your live show should impress and I want to know you have a clear and realistic vision of who you are as a band and where you want to go.
Jack: The clear ability to write songs of musically contextual competitive quality and an amazing live show.
How do you source exciting new acts to keep an eye on?
Adam: We receive a lot of emails from bands looking for agents but more often than not, we find new acts through our own network. Whether that’s through friends in the industry, other acts on our roster, or at events themselves.
Beckie: Honestly, I mainly find my bands through tips within the industry or through my bands’ recommendations. Rarely do I sign a band from a speculative approach. You can be clever with getting on an agent's radar, i.e., find one of their bands you fit with and do everything you can to get on as a support. Make friends with that band and get them to watch you and hopefully they will recommend you to the right people.
Jack: I find them myself in the majority of cases. If I receive an email out of the blue from an unsigned and unmanaged act, I can’t treat it as a priority, as I need to concentrate on the artists I represent. The best way to find new bands is to get to shows and build up a network of individuals who have good musical taste and who are also positioned to help acts. These can include artist managers, label and publishing scouts, and (sometimes!) promoters.
Obviously X-ray works with a pretty big roster of established artists. Do you think this allows you to be more flexible when taking on new/emerging acts than smaller agencies, as you know you can rely on the better known acts to bring in the money?
Beckie: It doesn’t work like that, as you have to deliver certain earnings based on your roster, so if you have the huge headliners on your roster then this could apply, but if you don’t, then it just does not work like that. Every new act you take on is a risk, not just financially, but a risk on your time and your ability to be effective for your whole roster. I think that if you love an act, you take them on, whatever it adds to your plate.
What do you take into consideration when you book tour dates or festival slots for an act?
Adam: It really depends on which acts we're booking the shows for. Unless you're one of the biggest artists in the world who will sell out shows no matter what you have going on, a tour really needs to coincide with a new release so all cogs work together: PR, radio, TV, etc. If you have a release coming up, you're also more likely to get bigger and better slots at festivals, as these shows can also be mentioned in interviews and listings, which in turn is free promotion for the festivals.
Beckie: Absolutely everything! This is actually a really tough question, as you are thinking about things in different ways at different times. So firstly, you will look at what releases they have out and when it makes the best sense to tour, then when you have the green light to get it all started, you start to look at what other artists are in the market, public holidays, major sporting events in the area, what avails you can get in venues. There are so many variable factors to consider and take into account when deciding the best course of action. It would probably take a small book to explain this in depth!
Jack: Every act’s live career and strategy is different. In a very basic sense, a release is usually needed to tour. When considering tour dates and festival slots, I consider placement – a certain act must appear in a live space or at a festival that will benefit them the most. You aren’t going to book a very gentle singer songwriter onto a heavy-metal festival. Another thing to consider is how to deliver an incredible show; hard work and creativity is required to elevate a band, and an element of this is considering alternative venues and spaces for the act to play in.
How does it work financially? Do you take a straight percentage cut from money made from the gig?
Adam: We work differently from other agencies out there, as we manage a lot of our artists as well as do their bookings. We look after social media, promotion, as well as being the "tour manager" delivering the itineraries for each show. We have a lot of different deals with our clients, so there’s no real rule of thumb as such, but a straight-up agency deal is normally 10 percent. That is generally for solely booking the show and passing over the details to the band directly or to their manager or tour manager to sort the logistics.
Beckie: Ten percent of gross is the industry standard.
Jack: An agent takes a cut of the fee they negotiate for the artist; the cut is completely different from act to act.
Learn more about booking agents:
- Is It Time to Hire a Booking Agent?
- How to Find a Great Booking Agent for Your Band
- 6 Qualities Every Booking Agency Should Have
- What's the Difference Between a Concert Promoter, Talent Buyer, and Booking Agent?
Louise Dodgson is editor of The Unsigned Guide.