For many artists, booking agents are a logical first or second team member to bring on board. Playing live is a huge part of how most artists earn an income, build a fan base, and gain press coverage.
When you start booking your own shows, you’ll quickly realize how difficult and time consuming it can be. Researching venues, organizing bills, tracking down promoters, negotiating, and promoting is literally a full-time job.
At a certain point in an artist’s career, these things are typically handled by others. The booking and negotiations are handled by a booking agent, manager and a promoter. The show itself is handled by a promoter and a publicist, and the technical details are worked out by a technical team and a manager.
Ah. What a beautiful thing. This is what I mean: If you’re booking your own tours and shows, there is simply no way you can do it as effectively as an entire team of people doing it.
This is why artists want and have booking agents. They identify where you should be playing, who you should be playing with, and do most of the legwork for you. It’s also beneficial to have someone handle negotiations. Experienced agents can almost certainly get you a better deal.
If you’ve identified an agent as a team member you want to bring on board, read on.
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Are You Ready For An Agent?
You may want a booking agent, but wanting one and being ready for one are two different things. For many years, my band and I hounded agents to come out to our shows, but we never got the response we were looking for. We weren’t ready.
When will you be ready for an agent? Consider the following.
Your Show Needs To Be Whip Tight
Like seriously. It needs to be all there. Your show should have transitions, or at least a general vibe and theme. There should not be obvious, show-stopping mistakes. You should be road-testing your show and constantly editing and revising it. There are so many artists out there, your show needs to be among the best.
Not every show will be the same; obviously, a folk singer will tell stories and interact with the crowd, whereas an indie-pop act might have a heavily transitioned, smooth show. It doesn’t matter what form your show takes, the point is, it needs to be incredible.
Take things your fans say seriously. If you’ve changed some element of your show, and are all of the sudden getting a much better response, take note. This could signal a change in the direction of the whole show.
Having Your Branding In Order Helps
It will be much easier for agents to pitch you if you’ve already cemented a solid brand, have high-quality promo photos, a great bio, and great live video. If you don’t have these things, your agents will just have to tell you to get them, which is annoying.
Get your social media, branding and press kit in order. It will not only help you in the short term, but it will help you for years to come. It’s an investment in time and money that is absolutely worthwhile.
Having Management Helps
I’ve now heard from many different agents that they do not like working with artists who do not have management. Management is well-trained and versed in the ways of the music industry, and they are quick to get back and make decisions.
Artists, on the other hand, are notoriously unreliable. I’m not saying that’s you, I’m just saying that’s the reputation we’re stuck with!
If you secure reputable management, it won’t take long to secure an agent as well. This is not possible for most indie artists, but it’s important to realize that part of the reason you haven’t seen the success you’re looking for could be the lack of a team.
Having A Track Record Helps
Having a track record is sort of a Catch 22. Many of the major stepping stones in the career of an artist relies on a track record and a well-crafted story. But it’s difficult to build a track record without already having one.
For example, it’s much harder to get any sort of radio play if you have not already had radio play in the past. It’s harder to get publicity if you have never received any sort of press coverage.
If you’ve developed a touring track record, then you will have a much easier time securing an agent. Whether it’s with your current act or with a previous act, you will have developed relationships and fans that an agent can then capitalize on.
Having A Draw Helps
Having a local and touring draw relies on the combination of the above forces. If you’ve been a DIY artist for a while, putting together a wicked show, and getting some good opportunities, you’ve (hopefully) been building up a fan base that wants to come out to see your shows.
Agents get paid on commission. They take between 10 – 15% of your gross income on a given show. If you’re already putting 100 butts in seats in eight cities, you’re guaranteed to make them some money, which is what everyone wants to do.
Agents are always paying attention to local bands that can draw a crowd, and touring acts that swing through and bring out a crowd. It’s usually a good indication of a great band that is working hard.
These are a few of the things that agents (and any team member) will be looking for when they sign a new band to their roster. That said, most of these items will only be of some help. None will guarantee you an agent, nor will a lack of one thing necessarily disqualify you.
If anything, the single most important factor is your music. If the music is great, it can open doors for you.
How To Contact Booking Agents
If you’ve decided that you’re ready for an agent, it’s time to start reaching out and meeting them. The best way to meet agents is to meet them after they’ve caught one of your shows. This way, you’ll be full of confidence and you’ll have something worth discussing.
Agents (especially new ones) are often out checking out new bands, and it is totally possible to get them out to a show. Here are some first steps.
1. Target Specific Agents And Agencies
There are all sorts of agents out there. Just like labels and managers, agents have their areas of expertise. In certain scenes (punk and folk music), there are agents who are 100% devoted and immersed in a certain genre and scene, and wouldn’t step out of it very often.
Do your research. Look at other similar artists and bands, and find out who their agents are. This will lead you down a rabbit hole of agencies big and small, and you can often find their emails on the websites of bands they work with.
It’s also worth talking to promoters and venues. It’s important that you get an agent that has good relationships with venues and promoters. Find out who promoters like to work with, and then target those people.
I once made the mistake of underestimating an agent who made an offer for my band, but was from a fairly small, rootsy agency. We decided to hold out for a bigger offer, but that took years to manifest. As it turns out, this small agency was quite well known for being excellent, and they probably could have secured us some good opportunities in the meantime.
Make a list of specific agents and agencies you feel would be a good fit, and target those people. There’s no point wasting time on an email if it isn’t a good fit to begin with.
2. Put Together Good Bills And Play Live Regularly
Wherever the agents are is where you should be playing. This may mean traveling. If you do not have a strong draw on your own in cities where agents will be seeing you, you need to be putting together good bills and playing as support.
In fact, this is a good strategy anytime. You should always be looking to play to other people’s audiences. If you try to put on a headlining show every single month, you’ll quickly run out of fans that want to come and hear you play.
Opening slots are also perfect to invite agents to. You’ll usually get enough of a guest list to put an agent on it. You’ll probably be playing a short set, and there will likely be a good number of people in the audience. Also, agents will love the fact that you’ve developed these relationships with other bands, venues and promoters.
3. Send A Good Email
Your emails to agents need to be super concise. They are busy people and they get a lot of email. It should look something like this:
Subject: May 12, 8:20pm – The Middle Coast – Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto
Body: Hey there!
My name is Liam, I play in The Middle Coast from Winnipeg. We’re playing at the Horseshoe on May 12th at 8:30pm, and we’d love to see you there. If you can make it, your name will be on the guest list.
I’ve included some links to live video and social media below.
Thanks for your time!
60 words. That’s it. Nothing complicated. Include the links to your EPK and live video in the email signature and be done with it.
This kind of email is great, because it gives all the necessary information in the subject line, and a bit of extra info in the body of the text. It would take under a minute to read. If they are curious to know more, they can access all of your info with the links you’ve sent. They don’t need to follow up with another email.
4. Follow Up Once Or Twice
You don’t need to be incessant about it, but it is totally fine to follow up with an industry person once or twice. Not more than once per week. The truth is, if someone can’t be bothered to send a simple yes or no answer, it’s fair to follow up and remind them.
That said, your follow-up emails should be exceptionally polite and short. I usually just reply to the same initial email I sent, with a quick little “Hey! Just following up on this, we would love to have you out to the show if you’re free!”
It’s hard to be upset about something that casual and polite.
5. Keep People In The Loop
If you get a particularly good opportunity, make a new album, sign a label deal, or something else important, let them know. Agents are looking for artists that are developing a story and they won’t mind you letting them know about what's going on.
Just don’t email them every couple weeks letting them know you’re playing the same gig at the same pub you always do, you know?
Keep your website and social media updated with shows and news. Sometimes people prefer to casually check these things to keep up with acts of interest.
6. Don’t Get Discouraged
People are busy, and they may simply have nothing to say to you. Keep in mind that you are not the most important thing in their world.
Agents have a variety of reasons for not coming to your show. Just because they haven’t answered your email doesn’t mean they didn’t read it and are not keeping an eye on you.
Don’t get discouraged. Keep playing shows, keep making music, organize your own tours, and hustle hard. Do what you love to do. There is no other way to go about it in this industry. Keep your head above the water. When you hit upon something really special, the industry will let you know.
Most if not all musicians would love to be able to hand off booking duties to an agent. Unfortunately, this may not happen as soon as you'd like. Stay patient, keep playing, and as you grow your fan base, you'll begin to see others want to jump on the bandwagon.