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What Is A Booking Agent?

explaining what is a booking agent

In a simplified view of the music industry an artist makes money in three ways: recordings, publishing and live. The TL:DR/ answer to ‘What is a booking agent?’ is that they manage the live side of an artist’s career.

My insights into Booking Agents, and what they do, come via two experiences:

  1. I designed and delivered a booking system for ITB, one of the world’s largest booking agencies. In order to deliver the system I had to gain a deep insight into the complete booking operation, including initial route planning to the final agreement.
  2. I worked alongside a booking agency called Nova to set up a record label. Nova is a promoter & booker in West London. We signed a handful of artists that, uniquely in most booking agreements, also included recordings and publishing.

What does a Booking Agent Do?

The role of a Booking Agent can be broken down into:

  • Discovering & signing artists to represent them
  • Finding gigs & planning tours
  • Negotiating the best deal for the artist
  • Making sure the artist gets paid

Signing artists

An artist will usually sign exclusively with one booking agent in one territory. If the booking agent is global, then the territory may mean the world. 

Since a music Booking Agent makes money from taking commission on live fees, they want to work with bands who show potential:

  • Can put on a good live performance, meaning, good musicians, good lead singer and songs that resonate with an audience.
  • Building a loyal fanbase
  • Strong work ethic
  • Preferably, has a record deal

The financials of the live industry mean Booking Agents for musicians may struggle to make money from an artist in the first few years of their career. This is because at the smaller end of the live industry, revenue is extremely tight. 

Many bands will start off playing small venues with a 200-300 capacity. For a small show, an artist can’t charge more than £10 – £15. So, even if the gig sells out a booking agent may only make £300 – £400.

If the band perform at 10 shows during a tour, the booking agent makes a couple of thousand pounds. However, to plan a 10 show tour is no small undertaking. It may take several weeks of work, calling and negotiating with different promoters, to get the tour scheduled. 

As an artist’s fan base grows, the money for a booking agent can become lucrative. A successful festival headline act can command between £400,000 to over £1m to perform a show. During the summer they could headline 2-3 festivals per week. 

At 10% a Booking Agent makes £40k – £100k every show, for far less work than it takes to organise a national tour.

This means a musician booking agent has to consider every artists’ “live” potential before taking them on. Although a booking agent doesn’t typically make an up-front investment in the same way as a record label, they have to be prepared to invest time up front to help develop an artist’s career.

What Type Of Artists Does An Agent Sign?

Many of the large booking agents will take on artists and DJ’s across a wide multitude of genres. For a booking agent all that matters is the artist’s ability to sell tickets.

A booking agent for musicians isn’t focused on creating ‘hits’. A hit song is a great marketing boost for an artist because it builds their profile and increases the fee the Agent can demand.

However, for an agent a Hit isn’t essential. There are many artists – think in the folk or jazz genres – who may never achieve household recognition but can build a very loyal fanbase over many years.

The Importance of Relationships

One aspect of the live industry I noticed – artists rarely move booking agents. At ITB, Barry Dickens had worked with The Who, Diana Ross and Bob Dylan since the 60’s. These are very long lasting relationships, built up over years and testament to the art of being a booking agent – putting the artist first.

This isn’t simply a case of making the most money. It’s about being fully transparent in all the deals made. I recall ITB going to great lengths to put every detail into an artist agreement. Every cost, every expense, every ticket sold – they tried to make as much information transparent to the artist as possible. And obviously, it worked, judging by the length of time ITB kept its clients.

Finding gigs & planning tours

Booking Agents have an intimate knowledge of

  • Venues
  • Promoters

Both are essential to finding gigs for their clients, the artists.

There are a variety of shows available for an artist:

  • Headline show or tour
  • Support show or tour
  • Festival line-up

Headline Tours

A booking agent and artist manager will plan a tour months in advance. The planning will usually coincide with an event, such as a single or album release. This means the tour can take advantage of the additional publicity generated by the record label.

  • The manager and booking agent will typically pencil in a range of dates.
  • Booking agencies will route the tour, probably with 2 or 3 different alternatives
  • The booking agent will invite promoters to offer bids to promote the show/tour
  • The best offer will be accepted and a contract signed between the promoter and agent.
  • The promoter will plan marketing for the shows
  • The agent will help the artist plan the tour, the show production and hiring road crew – although bear in mind, the tour itself is handled by a Tour Manager.

Tour Routing

A music agent will know every venue in every town and city in the country. They’ll know, roughly, the capacity of each and the type of music it puts on.

  • Naturally, it’s better to go around the country, rather than criss-cross it. The availability of certain venues may dictate the route. However, an Agent won’t win many friends if the artist plays in Newcastle one day, London the next and Glasgow the day after.
  • The band’s home town will usually get a larger crowd.
  • London gigs are usually mid-week so the media can attend (they don’t tend to ‘work’ at weekends)
  • If there is a radio or TV opportunity available, the record label or manager may request a detour.

Booking agencies for musicians must be realistic about the pulling power of their clients. However, there is also a balance between booking a large venue to sell more tickets vs selling out a smaller venue. Some agents may feel it’s beneficial in the long term to play slightly smaller venues but sell-out the venue, rather than play larger venues with empty spaces.

Finding Promoters

The booking agent, having planned out the dates and target venues will invite promoters to bid for either individual shows or the entire tour. This means being realistic but also pushing for the best deal.

A promoter will bid for a tour based on their knowledge of the artist and how many tickets they think they can sell at a pre-set price. The maths are fairly straightforward.

  • Let’s say, 10 venues with an average capacity of 700, means a total of 7,000 tickets. 
  • Tickets to all shows are usually the same price, with a small premium for London shows.
  • If a ticket is sold for £15 (net VAT) then the total potential revenue is £105,000.

This is highly simplistic for the purposes of the example. In reality, there would be a lot of costs to be factored in.

However, for this example, the booking agent will want to get offers as close to £105,000 as possible.

Typically, a promoter will pay 50% upfront. Therefore, a booking agent can get £50,000 upfront for a tour. They will deduct their percentage then pass the rest to the band.

The band now have some money to plan the tour. Bear in mind, the band must plan their travel, accommodation and sound & lights. The upfront fee enables an artist to book what they need to make the tour happen.

One of the slight idiosyncrasies I noticed in this model is that because the fee is guaranteed, a band isn’t really motivated to promote the tour in the way you’d think. 

Artist Guarantees

Traditionally, there was very little an artist could do to promote a tour, apart from tell their Fan Club (if they had one). The primary marketing tools were driven by the promoter – posters, adverts in magazine, event listings, etc.

Today, the main marketing tools all belong to the artist – mailing list, social media, website etc. It’s therefore a slight anachronism that a promoter is responsible for marketing a show when the artist has most of the tools.

However, since a band gets paid whatever happens, it’s incumbent on the promoter to keep pushing the band to market their shows through mailing lists, social media and websites.

You’d think this was obvious. But take it from me, you wouldn’t believe how many music artists have to be reminded to promote their own shows! Partly, because they get paid regardless of how many tickets are sold.

Support Shows

This is a well worn route for new, developing artists. Landing a support slot on a major tour is beneficial for an artist. Not only does it increase their profile in front of a receptive audience, it provides a huge opportunity for an artist to learn the stage craft required for their own live show.

  1. Booking agents will naturally prefer a tour’s support act to be one of their own artists. Therefore, this gives an advantage to artists signed to larger booking agencies, who have a lot of large tours needing support slots.
  2. Support bands get paid very little. The accepted thinking is the support act should think themselves lucky to be on the large tour and therefore payment is kept at a minimum. 
  3. Support acts will often get minimal billing and scant opportunity to sell merchandise. And the chance of getting any personal details from the audience, i.e. potential fans, are virtually zero.

Festival Line-Ups

To get on a festival bill is the crowning achievement for many artists. It can be tremendous fun and enables an artist to ‘live the dream’ of playing on a large stage in front of an appreciative audience. 

get booked for festivals

Booking Agents play a crucial role in getting bands onto a festival’s line-up. Each year, agents will call the festival stage bookers, pitching artists to them. This can take the form of ‘trading’ – if the festival want a headline artist represented by the booking agent, then don’t be surprised if a few of that agent’s other acts get on the bill!

The larger agents will be booking artists on festival line-ups up to a year ahead. The main time for booking Summer festivals is pre-Xmas. So most festival slots will be booked early in the year. 

When I worked with Jamiroquai and The Prodigy, both bands would fill their summers with festival shows. When you’re top of the bill the perks are fabulous. Business Class travel, 5-star hotels, airport pick-ups. Furthermore, production costs are low, since the festival is fully kitted out. So, an artist only needs to hire musicians, front of house and a tour manager. 

In addition, headlining festivals pays extremely well. A mid to large size festival will be paying their headliners well into 6 figures. Perform at 10 festivals throughout the summer and it’s a very good earner.

There can only be one headliner.

The majority of artists are jockeying for position on the bill. A booking agent will try to negotiate a place as high up the bill as possible but must be realistic and either accept the festival’s offer of 4th on the bill Saturday afternoon, or refuse and try to get a better offer.

Further down the bill, the fee can drop off markedly. If you play on the main stage then you should receive a decent fee. But play on one of the outlying stages and you’ll be lucky to get a small fee, some expenses and a couple of free tickets. For many bands, playing at a festival is what being an artist is all about, rather than a way to earn money!

That said, I remember working with The Raveonettes, a decent indie band from Denmark. Although they didn’t sell many records they put on a good live show and had a dedicated following. They made a living from playing festivals during the summer, often performing on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

The European festival season lasts from May to September, which gives a Booking Agent nearly 20 weeks to book as many festivals as possible. 

Exclusivity Clauses

One of the main complaints made by booking agents against festivals is their insistence on Exclusivity clauses. This may prevent the artist from playing festivals in the same country. Or, it may prevent the artist from announcing their own tour before the festival has announced it’s line-up.

These prohibitive clauses must be weighed up against the value of playing the festival. Post-COVID there is a call for festivals to drops these clauses, enabling artists to play more shows and catch-up on lost revenue.

Tour costs

In our hypothetical example a band doing a 10 date tour, tickets £15 (ex tax), average capacity 700, could make a potential £105,000. 

Now, let’s take a look at the costs:

  • Travel, meaning, hiring at least a van.
  • Accommodation – Bands will become very familiar with Travelodge’s
  • PA, sound & lights – must be hired
  • A crew to operate the equipment
  • Production costs – backdrop, special effects, costumes, backing musicians
  • Flight cases
  • Each day on the road costs money in salaries, food and hire costs. 

I’ll go into more details in a future article, but for now, it’s safe to say that, for many bands, the aim for touring is to BREAK EVEN! There is not a lot of money in touring for artists playing in small to mid sized venues, i.e. the vast majority.

Traditionally, record labels offered ‘Tour Support’. They paid this because it was in their interests to have the artist out on the road, playing gigs and building up a live following. It was a vital part of subsidising expensive tour costs for developing artists.

Tour Support has reduced significantly as record labels themselves became far more strapped for cash. 

The agreement

The contract between the agent and promoter is one of the most important aspects of an agent’s role. 

  1. The agreement ensures everyone knows what to expect
  2. Agreements are vital when things go wrong

To set expectations

A typical agreement will cover all the details regarding a show. This can include showtimes, how long the show will last (minimum), what time the show must finish (hard finish), and details like support band and the all important, ‘rider’ (e.g. including a bowl of M&M’s with all the blue ones removed).

When things go wrong

Given all the time and expense of putting on a show, a promoter wants a strong guarantee the show will go ahead. If an artist breaks any of the key terms stipulated by the promoter then they could be liable for covering the shows expenses, which for larger shows could run into hundreds of thousands of pounds.

However, artists are human. Voices & throats can get tired. Artists can fall ill. Forces of nature can interfere. And, when things go wrong, managers, agents and promoters will reach for the agreement and make sure their insurance policy is valid!

All shows will be insured and if the artist has a genuine reason for cancelling a show, then the promoter will typically claim the 50% advance back and the rest of their costs via their insurance policy.

Shows may be cancelled for other reasons, namely, poor ticket sales. If a promoter can’t shift enough tickets then this is their worst-case scenario. Some promoters will resort to giving away tickets rather than have the venue empty.

However, sometimes a promoter will tell the artist that tickets haven’t sold well. And, it’s at this point you will often hear about the lead singer getting a sore throat and having to pull the gig. It happens. Since it’s difficult to prove otherwise, ‘sore throat’ is the typical euphemism for ‘low ticket sales’. Then, the gig is pulled, fans promised they will get a refund and an insurance claim made.

Negotiating the best deals

Agents for musicians are typically paid a percentage for every show they book.

The typical percentages is 8% – 15%. 

By putting tours out to tender, the agent is supposed to look for the promoter who offers the best bid.

This rarely happens.

As with any business, personal relationships play a huge part in deciding which promoter gets an artist tour.

Bands will get to know a promoter and trust them. The booking agent will have their own preferences. In each country, the agent might want to use a promoter they know and trust, rather than risk going with an unknown promoter.

This means, any new promoter who thinks all they need to do to break into the industry is run a super-efficient operation and bid higher for gigs and tours, still has a huge amount of work to do.

Furthermore, venues, promoters and ticket agents have consolidated. Live Nation operate both venues and Ticketmaster. Gigs and Tours operate venues. DHP operates venues and promotions.

These consolidations mean two things:

  • The venue/promoter can offer competitive packages to artists.
  • Booking agents often don’t have a choice of who to use if they want to play in a specific venue.

How to get a Booking Agent?

Record labels want to sell music

Booking agents want to sell tickets

An artist might sell very little music (by value) but be a superb live act who can sell-out venues throughout the world. 

For new artists booking agents wants to know:

  • How many tickets do you currently sell – to people you don’t know!
  • What size venues are you playing?
  • Do you have a record deal?
  • How many are in the band?

The best way for an artist to get a booking agent is to play great live shows. 

At the small gig level, agents and promoters tend to be the same people. Promoters of small shows may take on a few artists and book them through a small network of local shows.

When performing small gigs, talk to the promoter. Ask them if they’re putting on any other shows in the local area. At this level, you want to know as many local promoters as possible. This includes venue managers and festival bookers too. Call them, have an EPK ready, and then rehearse rehearse rehearse to put on the best live show you can.

As you grow your audience, agents will find you! 

A booking agent will rarely take on an unknown, unsigned band. There simply isn’t enough money in Live at the lower levels.

Get a record deal or a manager and things can change fast.

Your Agent will likely want to be exclusive. I can understand this, since they don’t want to book you on a show only to find another agent has beaten them to it. However, as with anything exclusive, you need to make sure you’re getting the best deal too. If you can’t work with another agent then you have to be sure your agent is doing everything they can for you.

Your manager should be in constant contact with your agent. 

Booking Agent Artist Investment

Booking agents don’t have the same upfront costs as a record label. They work on a commission basis, so it’s in their interests to grow their artists. However, they rarely invest in marketing an artist or pay to develop their live shows

I’ve always found this strange, since agents clearly have an interest in developing live acts to their full potential.

I was having a chat about this to the Founder of one of the world’s biggest booking agencies, and he said to me, “Neil, so long as a band is signed, why should we?”

At the time, he had a point. He was extremely successful doing things the way they had been done for 40 years. Record labels made huge amounts of cash at the time and were prepared to fund tour support and do all the marketing. If a band had a hit album, then ticket sales would follow as night follows day.

The decline in record label fortunes has had an impact on booking agents, insofar as, the record labels are not there to do all the heavy lifting. However, agents for musicians still don’t appear to have stepped up to offer performance development and marketing.

How to become a Booking Agent?

I observed two routes:

  1. Internship
  2. Be a booking agent

The first doesn’t need explaining.

Become a booking agent by becoming a booking agent?

When I worked with ITB, they would ‘sign’ booking agents to become part of their business. A self-employed booking agent, with a small artist portfolio, would be offered a full-time position if they transferred in their roster of artists.

So, what do you need to do?

  1. Find a band
  2. Book them live shows

You’re a booking agent for bands!

Finding Artists

If you want to find artists looking for a booking agent the best place is at small venues. My local venue is The Purple Turtle in Reading. Most nights they have bands playing. The venue is so small it’s easy to find the artists mingling in the audience.

You need to build a relationship with them. Artists will always be interested if someone is offering them a FREE service.

Opening line, “Hey, would you be interested in playing more gigs? Let me have your number and I’ll call you if anything comes up?

Then, it’s your job to call venues and local promoters, convincing them to put on your artist.

You’ll learn how to negotiate rates and convince promoters.

ALWAYS get a contract. Even if it’s only one page. All venues will have a standard agreement. This will provide you with good experience in how to handle agreements.

Talk to other band booking agents, promoters, venues and festival organisers.

Talk to your artist about the sort of shows they want to play.

Keep finding your band gigs and they’ll stick with you. You’re now a Booking Agent!

If you build up a roster of artists, and are breaking even, then you may want to join a larger music booking agency. The advantages are numerous, the main one being a larger music agency will handle all the back office services. 

Jobs like booking agents, like many jobs in music, don’t happen because you take a course. As far as I’m aware, there is no course in ‘Booking Agent’ – please let me know if I’m wrong.

Please leave a comment on thisx

Like many jobs in music, you become a booking agent by BEING A BOOKING AGENT.

Do what a booking agent does. Find a developing artist and start booking gigs for them. There is absolutely nothing to stop you doing it right now. (Let’s imagine COVID didn’t happen…..)

how much does a booking agent cost?

Booking agents work on a commission, which is typically between 8% – 15%. The traditional amount is 10%. If you’re a smaller artist who doesn’t sell many tickets your agent may want more. As you grow in stature you (or your manager) will be in a position to negotiate. 

At the very highest level you can almost dictate the terms. 

How to get Gigs

I produced a slideshare to show artists how to get more gigs. You can watch the slideshow here.

However, in summary:

  • Produce an EPK
  • Search venues in the places you want to play using Google
  • Call venues and ask to speak to the venue’s booking manager
  • They will ask you the same questions so be prepared
  • Ask questions so you don’t assume anything!
  • Ask for an agreement to confirm what has been agreed.

This may sound obvious, but I’m going to say it because I’ve seen so many bands who don’t seem to appreciate it:

Live performance is part of the Entertainment business. When you’re putting on a live show, think of it like theatre – you’re putting on a show. And people want to be entertained.

  • Put effort into your live show.
  • Rehearse.
  • Think about the way you look.
  • Talk about choreography. I don’t mean you have to dance. But think about how you move.

David Bowie put on an amazing live show, but he trained as a mime artist. He learnt how to move his body to express himself. 

When I think back to the bands I know who really knew how to put on a live show, from all the hundreds of bands I’ve seen, a handful really stand out. Although they’re quite diverse musically, their live shows stood out as being a ‘PERFORMANCE’ as opposed to them simply standing on stage and singing their songs.

  1. Motorhead
  2. AC/DC
  3. Public Enemy
  4. Birdland
  5. Pink

I’m digressing 🙂  

Conclusion: What is a Booking Agent

  • A booking agent is a vital part of an artist network
  • An artist booking agent develops your live career
  • Music booking agencies charge a commission of between 8%-15%.
  • Experienced music agents will know every venue and promoter in the country.
  • An agent is interested in how many tickets you can sell, rather than how many people listen to your songs.
  • Technology can help agents plan tours
  • A music agent will assist an artist when planning live shows and tours
  • Large booking agencies for musicians deal with huge amounts of money and volumes of show details. However, for smaller gigs, money is extremely tight. The time spent by an agent on a new band is considered to be their investment into the artist.

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