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More on Booking Agents

We've talked about how to book yourself, especially if you're a solo or duo. We've talked about how to work with frat and sorority booking agencies and we've covered specialty agents like those who deal with show bands for corporate gigs. We haven't covered top 40 club bookers and pro level agencies, so let's talk about them today.

Pro level agencies: These agents are typically out of your reach unless you've got a track record. Even if they are right now, it helps to understand what goes on with them and why you may well be better off staying as an independent artists for longer than you might have ever thought practical in years gone by.

I toured in the early 90's with an actor who thought himself a country singer. He was pretty famous for his TV show in the 80's, and because of it he landed a record deal and was able to get an agent to book him for tour dates, which were primarily county fairs and once in a while a club or festival date. The act was handled by Buddy Lee Attractions here in Nashville. This agency, like other agents, booked the dates and collected their fee as the deposit and left for the road manager, which was me, to prize the money from the local promoter. Unless you have some celebrity value, you're not getting on with an agency like Buddy Lee Attractions. Bottom line. You'd need a record deal, some name-recognition value and the ability to take your act on the road to all kinds of venues all over the USA or Canada. 

We toured from one end of the USA to the other, even up into places like New Brunswick, Canada and more. Now, the whole reason I'm bothering to school you on an agency like Buddy Lee and the value of signing with that kind of agency if you have a good amount of name recognition is to give you a reality check on the economics of the whole thing. You'd think that having a record deal, a famous name and a great agency like Buddy Lee booking you would lead to some pretty high dollar dates. Well, that wasn't always the case, folks. Since I was the guy who had to collect the money, I was often pretty amazed at just how low these gigs paid. 

Now, keep in mind that for this actor-turned-musician to be able to do these shows, he had to have a band on call, to whom he paid a monthly retainer of $1000.00 per musician (while cheaping-out on me, the lowly sound engineer and road manager with a $500 a month retainer). These retainers were not counted against the per-show (not per day on the road fee). So with a four piece band and a road manager/sound engineer, the base costs per month to hire a backup band of good musicians was $4500.00 off the top of any income. Add to that the "scud" costs (which is what we called the horrible psuedo tour bus which was a glorified RV), the gas to get to the gigs, the hotels (three rooms per show plus a nice hotel room for the star), and per diem meals on the road, the act required a lot of shows and money for them to cover the costs and even make this worth his while. However, a lot of times these gigs were paying less than my Grateful Dead cover band was making for frat shows. No joke. Sometimes this guy was booked for all of $1500.00 for a fair date in rural West Virginia, in which case he lots hundreds of dollars to take the date. The only hope was making it up in selling autographed pictures, CDs, t-shirts, etc. Sometimes that did well, sometimes, uh, not so much. As I recall, the average gig take was $2500-3000.00. I saw it as low as $1250.00 and never higher than $4500.00. There were far more in the $2000.00 range. When 20% off the top went to Buddy Lee, well, it made it a dicey venture. Fortunately this actor had some nice residual checks for re-runs to help underwrite things. 

Touring is expensive. Its even more so when fuel costs soar like they have the past couple of years. Fortunately this was going on back in the early 90's when gas was $1.24 a gallon, and diesel was actually the same price or lower. I know this guy doesn't tour anymore, and frankly if he was he would be losing his shirt. I worked with him for about a year, though we were not out every week. And the tour dates were a bit of a pain. Because the musicians and myself were paid for each performance, but not each day on the road, nobody wanted to hit the road until the 11th hour leaving very little time to get to the gig and have any margin for error in case the scud broke down on the road, which it often did. 

I bring all of this up because the music business is changing rapidly. Gone are the glory days of getting a record deal and selling millions of records, where touring is simply icing on the cake. Its not anymore. Its now the cake. And more and more "360 deals" are popping up where a record label is taking a cut of all of the income from a band, not just record sales. These days its not unusual for a newly signed act to be asked to give up a percentage of touring income, merchandise sales, record sales, publishing income and more as a consideration for getting signed to a major label. As you might guess by now, the grass is not always greener on the signed-act side of things. 

In certain parts of the country, especially places near tourist destinations, there still exists the Top 40 party band club booker who specialized in clubs more than frats. Often they are the same agency as a frat booker, but sometimes not. When I hit the road looking for a good time as a teen fresh out of high school, I was tapping into a scene that, before the drinking age was raised, generate a decent living for musicians willing to live out of a suitcase. With the demise of a lot of the party clubs hiring top 40 bands when the drinking age jumped to 21, these agencies had a lot less work for bands. But a few years later, Indian casinos began to pop up all over the country in places we never dreamed with ever have casinos again. These casinos have become the new "top 40" clubs of the 21st century, because entering a casino only requires one typically be 18, not 21. Casinos don't want the loud primary entertainment of the top 40 clubs of old, but they do want good bands that can entertain and hold a crowd in-between the slot and table action. 

These agencies work much like the frat and other agents. Same fees, but your more likely able to go to a casino for a week long gig which includes a few rooms for the band and meals, where you'll live while you gig then go off to the next casino for another week. Pay is not great, but its not terrible either if you want to be a full time musician. You can expect a five piece cover band to command about $1000 a night plus rooms and meals. Considering you stay there for four or five nights at a stretch, its not a bad life for a young person getting their feet wet in working on the road. Of course, the agency fee still has to be paid, but often with casinos booking an act for a week, the fee to the band is net of the agency fee. It sounds like pretty good money, and if you're comparing it to digging a ditch, its not bad. Of course, $800 per person for four nights of five 45 minute sets at a casino for a week's work is gross, includes no tax withholding, no social security contributions, no health benefits or 401k contributions, so keep all that in mind when the dollars dance in your head. 

Most of the casino gigs I've seen did not require a band to bring a PA along. That helps. You bring your backline and costumes only. One bummer about casino gigs is the volume you have to play at, which is usually very reduced. I've been in casinos in Vegas where there is a top 40 band playing in the lounge off the casino and their total stage volume was so low it amazed me they were having a band play at all. Digital drums, instruments going through Pods or similar devices, all routed through the PA system which is kept very quiet. Its a long way from the old top 40 bar days where we turned it up and shook the bottles at the bar. 

To get an agent's attention to hit the casino and club circuit hiring top 40 acts, you've got to package yourself exactly as that. Your group needs to play a massive array of hits, note for note to the original albums. The talent buyers have no interest in your original music, don't even want to know you have original music, and would shy away from an act that might deviate from known hits to promote their artistry. Like the show band groups, top 40 groups are a service act, not an artistic endeavor. You'll need proper stage costumes, not t-shirts and jeans, and a degree of showmanship not far from the Nick Winters impersonation of a lounge singer from the old Saturday Night Live shows with Bill Murray. It beats a real job, but if your goal is to get signed and be an artist, you're going to be pretty miserable singing in a top 40 act entertaining in Vegas-style Indian casinos. The work can be fun playing beach clubs during Spring Break, but its more casinos than spring break gigs. 

Bottom line to all of these posts on agencies is known your act before you approach them. Make sure you're matching up what you do with what the agency sells. Don't try to force the wrong kind of act on an agency that doesn't already book what you do, you're wasting your time and theirs. Some good homework before approaching an agency, some networking with acts they already book allowing for an introduction to the agent, and a reality check on what you're really ready to do with an agent at must-haves to take your act on the road. 

Posted: 1/2/2009 10:39:16 PM with Comments | Add Comment | Email Link | Permalink
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