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Why you don't need an agent...
...and what to do when you do.

By Jacey Bedford

JaceyMany newcomers assume that in order to get gigs, they need to get an agent and they spend fruitless weeks and months sending promo packages to every agent they can find in the listings. What they don't realise is that an agent can't manufacture gigs for them. There are only so many gigs to be had and an agent is no better at accessing them that an artist is. Maybe an agent is worse.

Though an agent does have contacts, no one will be a better agent for you than you can be for yourself. You will always be your own best agent because you will always have yourself at the top of your priority list. Agents may have ten, twenty or even more artists on their books and may make a decent living, but the individual artists may get relatively few gigs each. And as an artist you can build up your own contacts, just as an agent can.

It takes as much effort to get a £100 gig for an artist as it does to get a £500 gig. In fact it takes more effort to get a £100 gig for an unknown artist than it does to get a £1000 gig for a well known, crowd-pulling artist. At 15% an agent makes £15.00 out of one and £150.00 out of the other. If you are a new artist, struggling to establish yourself, and therefore your fee is at the lower end of the scale, you are going to be, in your agent's eyes, little reward for a lot of work. This will give you a rough idea of your place in the pecking order. (The figures are examples and in no way are meant to suggest fee values.) Until you have built up a fan base and your name has some pulling power your fees will be modest and your value to an agent as a business proposition will be small.

Of course, you may find that a perceptive agent will spot your emerging potential and will work with you to build your career, but It's very rare for an agent to take on an unknown artist. Let me say that again: Very. Rare. And just for the record I'll state here and now that I've done it in the past and I don't do it any more.

When do you need an agent?
Once you have established yourself and have built up your fan base so that your name on the bill will be some kind of draw, you'll start to get busy. You may find that you are on the road for days or even weeks at a time and that you are even touring abroad fairly frequently. When you are gigging so much that you can't be at home to write emails or make the phone calls this is the time when you begin to need an agent.

When does an agent need you?
An agent needs you when you have established your reputation with both venues and audiences, built up a fan base so that you are playing to respectably full houses and eager audiences, and have proved that you can get gigs and repeat gigs for yourself. An agent needs you when you've made friends in the business, when venues re-book you because you're thoroughly professional and easy to get on with and you understand the business. An agent needs you even more if you have got the backing of an enthusiastic record company and/or if you appreciate the need to employ other industry professionals to take care of their specialist areas of business (publicists, pluggers etc.)

When does an agent not need you?
An agent doesn't need any act who thinks that by getting an agent all their troubles will be over and that they are going to suddenly go from twenty gigs a year to two hundred. It doesn't work like that - honest! An agent does not need an act that few people have ever heard of. An agent does not need an act with a reputation for being high maintenance, stroppy or for cancelling gigs at the drop of a hat. An agent does not need an act that is not willing to work it's backside off raising its own profile and promoting its own music.

There is much confusion on the subject of What an agent Does and Does Not Do so here it is in black and white with links to a useful article by American agent David Tamulevich..

How to find an agent that suits you
Presuming you are ready for an agent and can present a good business proposition, you should look around and ask around. Which agents have the best reputations? How many artists do they have on their books? What type of artists do they represent? What type of gigs do they appear to get for them? Are they proactive (seeking gigs) or reactive (arranging gigs when bookers call to enquire). If an agency is too big, they may be overstretched if they take on your work. If they are too small, they may not be handling performers on your level and may set their sights too low. Talk to them, court them, see if they are interested, ask about the way they work. Arrange a face to face meeting.

Don't forget you need to convince them that you are going to be an asset to their agency business. How much do you earn in a typical year? Is a pecentage (say 15%) of that going to be attractive to an agent? Can you provide them with all the right promo material they need? Do you work hard to get and maintain a profile in the folk media - local and national. Even better, do you employ a publicist? (Or have you got the backing of a record company's publicity machine?) Are you willing to provide a complete contact list for the venues you've played before? Are you willing to pass on all future gig enquiries, even the ones you've dealt with personally for years?

If your wants and needs seem compatible with the agent's methodology and if they are willing to invest time in you, then maybe you've found yourself an agent. Don't expect miracles immediately, however, because it takes time for an agent to draw you in to his or her established 'family'. There's often lead time of twelve to fifteen months on gigs, so any agent taking you on is not going to start making money out of you (and you out of him) for a year or so. Make sure your forward gig list is healthy enough to cover the slack in the changeover period.

Exclusive or Non-exclusive?
Some artists may think that they can take on an agent on a non-exclusive basis - i.e. continue to get some of their own gigs and let the agent top-up with extras. This is not generally a good idea because no-one has 'the big picture.' Both you and the agent may approach the same venues, confusing the venue bookers and making the second caller (you or the agent) feel slightly foolish. If you're going to sign with an agent, you should be prepared to let them do it all. You should even be prepared to pass on any gig enquiries that come in straight to you, much as it may gall you to lose 15% on something you feel the agent has not worked for. From the agent's point of view, these hand-overs help to make up for the gigs that are really hard to win.

For the record I'm not interested unless artists are prepared to work exclusively with me.

Multiple Agents
Sometimes you see that artists have signed non-exclusively with two (or more) agents. The same applies here as applies in the paragraph above. Agents don't want to be treading on each other's toes, or getting into any kind of competition with other agents. Their enthusiasm for booking you will wane very rapidly.

Pecking Order
Always monitor the gigs that your agent is getting. When you are newly signed to the agency, you may find plenty of gigs rolling in, but in the second year, your gigs may be fewer for a number of reasons:

  • The agent has been especially enthusiastic for a new act and has given you more time - pro-rata - than his other artists.
  • The agent now has some new acts who have diverted his enthusiasm.
  • The agent got you gigs with every one of his pet venues in your first year but it will be two or three years before they book you back again, so he has less venues available to him in your second year.
  • The agency has become too big and the agent's time is spread too thinly
  • You're a foreign artist and you've picked the wrong touring period and are trying to draw on the same clubs and festivals two years in a row. or maybe you are hoping to do clubs and venues in festival season.
  • You haven't continued to work at your own promo and so other better publicised artists are getting the gigs.
  • You want more money than your pulling power is worth and you won't set a realistic fee level.

Some of these are issues which can be addressed, others are not. If the number of gigs the agent is getting you steadies to a reliable and economically viable rate, then be very happy. If the number of gigs decreases steadily, be aware that you may need to change something in what you are doing or you may need to extricate yourself from this agency agreement and either go elsewhere or take on your own gig booking again. Also be aware that if an agent perceieves that you are not working hard to maintain your profile and build a fan-base that they may wish to extricate themselves from the agreement. It works both ways. If you don't put enough bums on seats at a venue you won't get a return booking even if your agent has a silver tongue.

How not to get an agent

  • Contact agents who don't represent your type of music or work in the area you wish to tour in. (You wouldn't believe how many emails I get from rappers in Chicago or would be pop-stars from Birkenhead.) DO YOUR RESEARCH!
  • Send unsolicited CD packages and press material through the post (I never listen or look if I haven't asked for it and it's such a waste.)
  • Send duplicated impersonal email enquiries to a whole list of agents (it's so obvious).
  • Send unsolicited emails with high-res pictures and music
  • Phone too early in the morning or too late at night. (For me that's not before eleven or after eight.)

Other Forms of Representation
Signing with an established agent is not the only way of getting representation. There are many performers who have a willing spouse or mother who can learn to become an agent. This sort of situation can often be the best one. They are your personal agent, working for no one else, and as such they are as hungry for gigs as you are. You learned how to be your own agent, they can learn too.

Similarly, you may decide to employ someone to work exclusively for you. they may work from your office and generally help out with the paperwork that always has to be done. (Never underestimate the amount of paper that needs pushing around just to keep you on the road.) Or they may just take on your agency work and work from their own home. You may pay them by the hour or on a percentage basis. They may already know the music business, or you may have to train them from scratch. Whichever way it works, if you get the right person doing the job, this can often be the best way of working.

Never forget, though, you are your own small business. Ultimately the responsibility is yours.

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