Understanding the Music Industry: Artist Managers and Booking Agents – what they do and why you need them

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Understanding the Music Industry is a series that outlines the framework of the business, explaining the roles of the industry professionals, what their jobs entail, when it’s important to involve them and deal specifics that you want to be aware of. Artist managers, booking agents, music publishers, labels, A&Rs and others – we’ll treat them all.

Let’s rewind about four years, to my first days in the music business.

I had teamed up with my best friends, who had started producing. I would be their manager.

We were eager and ambitious.

And absolutely clueless.

I had no idea what an artist manager really did. Nor did they know what goes into being professional artists.

Our enthusiasm and drive would make up for that lack of knowledge. We would wing it, learn on the fly, failing and learning from our mistakes.

Not a bad approach at all – but perhaps more admirable for initiative and grit, than for efficiency.

What we lacked was insight into the framework that underlies the modern music industry. An understanding of the interconnected gears and sprockets – the music industry professionals – that drive the careers of successful artists.

Artist manager, booking agent, music publisher, label A&R, radio promoter, PR agent, event promoter… we didn’t really know what all these jobs entailed, what work they did or at what stage they became relevant to an artist’s career.

I suspect that if we did have that knowledge, this initial four-year journey would have brought us farther than we are now.

The Framework

Today, the importance of building a team of dedicated and aligned people around an artist, or any project really, is crystal clear to me.

There is only so much that you can do independently. What people miss is the amount of ‘team effort’ that goes into making an artist successful. All the big guys at the top have a manager, booking agents for different territories, a dedicated label A&R, a PR person, so on.

Independents today have the tools to kick-start their careers themselves, and they need to – with the overload of supply on the market. However once the ball is rolling, bringing the right people on board, at the right time, can propel success to whole new levels.

The goal of this series is to give you insight into that framework. To explain what all the different music business professionals do, what typical deals look like and when you should involve them. So that when you start making waves, you’ll know what to do.

MusicIndustry_FrameworkExample of the team that we have built around one of our own artists.

The Core

Closest to the artist are the manager, booking agent and music publisher.

These are the people that start working with an artist in the earliest phase of their career. Sometimes a manager is found first, other times an agent, and often these two jobs are done by one and the same person.

Publishers tend to come into the picture later, once an artist is represented by management or is releasing music that’s showing promise.

Labels are becoming involved sooner too, as the rise of the internet has lead to a surge of independent labels, who are picking up brand-new but promising artists and showcasing them to the world. This is especially true for electronic music, where the net-labels are often involved with artists even before attentive managers and agents are.

Download the full 25+ page .PDF about the music industry

‘The Core’ is the group of people that is closest to the artist. Often the manager, agent, and publisher. They help build the career of an artist from the ground up, many times starting their collaboration before even an ounce of success has been achieved. It is their job to shield the artist from the outside world, to take care of all business affairs in their domain, and to find and involve other people that believe in the artist and want to work for them.

You’ll find that the most successful artists always have a strong Core group surrounding them. People they’ve been with for years, that have all become perfectly aligned and dedicated to a mutual goal – their artist’s success.

Artist Managers

What does an artist manager do? An artist manager’s job is multifaceted and broad in scope. In essence, their primary duty is this – to create opportunities. It’s their task to devise and execute a strategy. To facilitate the artist to excel artistically, in some cases even streamlining their personal lives.

To connect them to the right people. To create a state of order from which creative work is easily done. To bring the right people on to the artist’s team, for the right reasons, at the right time. To make the decisions that the artist doesn’t want to make. To give the bad news that the artist doesn’t want to spread.

A good manager has a plan for an artist and will do everything in his power to make that a reality.

That entails coordinating and streamlining the efforts of everyone working for an artist; agents, publishers, label A&Rs, PR people and others. It also entails making countless of sales calls and pitches, negotiating contracts and relentlessly pursuing opportunities – even when the odds are slim.

Managers need to truly believe in their artists. It’s necessary for the job. To endlessly sell and receive NO for an answer most of the time. To be an objective sounding board for the artist, being able to say so when a product or track isn’t good enough. To be critical to the outside world – filtering out the nonsense and telling people how it is. With tact. And then still maintaining that belief in the inevitable success that’s coming in the future.

Artist-manager relationships become very personal over time. I think it’s a necessity. The best managers are involved artistically, helping curate and develop the musical content and branding. These things concern creative ideas, which are very personal in nature. For artists to receive and appreciate feedback from a manager, it’s necessary to establish trust but also to have respect for each others’ authority on certain subjects. I can be critical about certain things to my artists, because they respect my opinions on those matters.

Types of managers

Managers that start working with an artist in the early stages of their career are often business-oriented friends or want-to-be industry professionals, that take on the job because of a belief in the music. In the early stages the manager is often also the booking agent. These are the individual managers.

In the higher tiers, managers work for agencies and sometimes for record labels. They tend to have bigger networks and more resources, but are more selective about the artists they work with. As a rule of thumb, you should assume that the higher up the chain you go, the more people will preselect for artists that are already making waves independently. Also, managers at big agencies tend to have more artists on their roster, resulting in less time spent on each individual act.

For the really rich musicians, management can be split up into music management and business management. The prior is all that we have just discussed, whereas business management takes a more financial spin. These managers concern themselves with asset and capital management, do investments for their clients, find tax and administrative loopholes.

There is something to be said for both the stand-alone managers as for the agencies. My experience has taught me to never work with people where the artist is not among their top priorities. Be watchful of the people that sign artists like notches, to hedge their risk in the hope that one of them will break through. Our best results came from working with people that were enthused to work with our acts, showing initiative out of their own accord – even if they had a lesser track record or weren’t with a big agency. It’s not all in the name.

Download the full 25+ page .PDF about the music industry

The deal

The deals on which managers sign acts vary widely.

Beginning managers often work with acts on the basis of a gentleman’s agreement. This is a procedure that sometimes extends to the honeymoon period of more serious artist – manager relationships. This is the trial period before an actual contract commences.

Serious managers sign their artists, working for a commission ranging between 10-20% off gross revenue. The industry norm is 15%, however the rate should be decided upon based on the manager’s (future) contribution to an artist’s career. Most managers will take this cut off gross revenue, meaning all revenues without any deduction of costs. I’m against that – a fair manager should only make money when the artist does.

The term for these agreements range from 1-3 years, the latter being most common. I view management as a long-term investment so will always try to sign artists for a three-year term. You’re building something together after all.

Managers also hedge against the risk of creating success for an artist and then being abandoned, by so-called Sunset clauses. These entitle the manager to a certain percentage commission, diminishing per year, for a period after the agreement with an act ends. For example, if I sign an act for three years on a 20% commission, and we end our collaboration after that third year, I’d ask for a 15% commission in the fourth year, a 10% commission in the fifth, and so on until we end at 0%.

Established artists have more clout in new contract negotiations, as the managers have contributed less to their development. The bigger the act, the less dependent they are on a manager’s involvement for success. And in those cases the manager also stands to gain esteem by working with the act.

Booking Agents

The booking agent’s job is to facilitate live performances, in the broadest sense.

This entails securing and arranging performances, negotiating deals, arranging proper technical set-ups for shows, and in many cases also securing hospitality (hotels, dinners), logistics (travel, flights) and promotional efforts.

They receive requests for performances and pitch the artists. This leads to offers which they negotiate on until a deal is closed. During this period, an ‘option’ is held on the date and time-slot for that promoter. Good agents make sure that contracts are signed long before the actual show, and collect deposits (read: payments) beforehand.

I am in favor of having 100% of the deposits collected before a show, as the last thing you want to do is to chase a promoter for money after you’ve already performed – that removes all your leverage. It’s the agent’s job to make sure this is agreed upon per contract and that the cash actually comes in in time. Also they communicate the technical requirements for the show with a document called a ‘technical rider’ and include hospitality and logistics in the contracts they sign with the promoter.

Agents represent artists for specific regions. This is done as it is unreasonable to expect that an agent in one market (read location) will have the same network and clout as in another. The major territories are split up as Europe (EU), North America (NA), South America (SA), Asia and Australia + New Zealand (Aus / NZ). Asia, Australia and New Zealand are often combined.

Big acts often have one head-agent, who coordinates all the sub agents in the different territories. For example, for our artist San Holo, I am currently his head-agent as his manager, and I coordinate our sub-agents in Australia and North America.

The head agenda and event promoters

Agents work closely with management and the event promoters.

Management determines an artist’s schedule for the coming year, dedicating certain periods to shows in specific regions. This is done in accordance with the head-agent. The agents, in turn, have to fill in these periods with shows. So the head-agenda might dictate a Europe tour in March, Canada in June, NA in July – August and then Asia leading up to Australia + NZ towards New Years. The primary agent or manager will then coordinate these dates to all the sub-agents.

Event promoters are the people hosting the events. We call them promoters. These range from small-scale groups that throw recurring nights at clubs, to venue owners, and the bigger event agencies. These bigger agencies host a wide variety of events in specific regions, sometimes even holding the rights to events that spread internationally. This is especially a thing in electronic music, where companies like Insomniac (Electric Daisy Carnival) and ID&T (Sensation) are responsible for most major. They, in turn, are owned by major entertainment conglomerates like Live Nation and recently SFX.

It is the job of the agent to foster relationships with the key promoters in their region, that host events to which their artists match. These lead to long-term partnerships, where the promoter looks to certain agents to deliver the majority of the talent (read: acts). Big promoters will often ask for exclusivity on an artist for a specific region. For example, if you play EDC Las Vegas, it is very likely that you’ll be asked to refrain from playing any shows in the state for a specific region.

Download the full 25+ page .PDF about the music industry

The deal

Agents differ slightly from management as it is far more common for an agent to work solely on the basis of a gentleman’s agreement. Also agents tend to have bigger rosters.

The bigger agencies and more serious agents sign agreements with acts. However, in many cases the deal between a head-agent and sub-agent not be on a contractual basis. It is much more common for these partnerships to be established on a verbal agreement or quick note via email, than via legal deal.

Agents work on a commission basis, varying between 10-15% of the artist’s booking fee. The 10% rate is common in scenarios where the agent does not ‘advance’ the show, nor routes and arranges hospitality and logistics. Advancing means following up to the promoter to ask about how the show will be promoted, what ticket prices will be, coordinating marketing efforts and so on. The 15% rate is the norm for the ‘all-in’ service of an agent. The duration of these agreements ranges from one to three years, two being most common.

In Europe, the standard is that agents charge the booking fee, hospitality and logistical costs, on top of the artist’s fee. So if an act is booked for a show of 1 hour, for a fee of €500, the agent would charge €75 on top, in addition to hotel and travel costs. In the USA, this is different. ‘All-in’ shows are the norm there. Meaning that deals are made based on a full fee from which the agent’s commission, hospitality and travel costs are deducted.

My recommendation is to solely involve agents when they express interest to work with an act out of own accord. If you have to sell them on working with you, don’t be surprised if you are not on the top of their priority list. Also, a 15% commission is fair in exchange for advancing and routing hospitality and logistics. The agents can often to a better job than you can in their specific regions. Sure, I can book a flight to Asia, but by no means do I have insight into the local customs and tricks that can make travel there more efficient.

In terms of agreements, restrict the duration to two years at max – coinciding with a certain performance measure. For example that the agent has to match x amount of shows per period, or has to make specific tours happen. Also, get on paper they will always try to get their fees and costs on top of the artist fee, and that they collect full deposits before the shows.

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This concludes the first part of the new series, Understanding the Music Industry.

Here’s a full overview of the series:
1. Understanding the Music Industry: Artist Managers and Booking Agents
2. Understanding the Music Industry: Music Publishers, Syncs and Licensing
3. Understanding the Music Industry: Record Labels, A&Rs, Distribution, Pluggers and PR

Before we finish, I have a question for you that you can answer in the comments below.

“Are you working with a manager or agent already? If so, how did you meet? If not, what’s keeping you from going out and building a team?”

Continue reading the second episode here, which covers music publishers, synchronizations (putting your music in videos) and licensing.

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