Music Business: How to choose an agent
I recently met with an artist manager who was looking for a new agent for his client, an electronic music producer and DJ.
This manager isn’t a music industry lifer, in fact he’s spent more of his career in adjacent fields. So whilst he brings a lot of very useful skills, experiences and questions to the table, he also has a few blind spots. One of those is knowing what to look for in agents. There are some obvious traits of course , but his curiosity and diligence made him want to dig deeper so we got chatting.
I thought it could be useful to collate and share some of what we discussed for other people going through the same process either now or in the future .
This article refers to electronic music – if there’s sufficient interest I’ll aim to put together a follow up that takes some of these ideas and maps them to other spaces in the business of talent representation.
Typically your choice of agent/agency boils down to 3 options,:
1. Go for broke on big roster (in terms of quantity, profile or both)
2. Be a high priority on a small roster
3. Hedge your bets and find somewhere in the middle
You can make a choice based on this alone, but it’s probably not enough. So how can you make a more informed decision?
When it comes to electronic music, the touring side is built more on soft tickets  than hard tickets; 95%+ of events in this world are delivered in this way.
Assuming you are/working with an electronic artist and you’re doing soft tickets, there are a few key areas to analyse when choosing an agent to represent you, and they’re all inter-connected , .
These areas are all very important in hard tickets too, but with soft tickets they’re crucial.
This is especially relevant when an artist is focused on having the right positioning and also wants enough revenue to sustain (most of) their living from touring.
There are exceptions, but these two factors of positioning and revenue are very important to most artists I know in the electronic world.
So what does all this mean?
(For a primer, I wrote about Tribes here. Also check out Seth Godin’s work if you’re interested in Tribes more broadly.)
The electronic world can be surprisingly nuanced and is very tribal. The more niche you go, the more nuanced it tends to get in terms of tribe and positioning around that.
You want to look closely at the agent (or agency) roster alignment with what you want to do (i.e. your strategy). The agent’s own tribe alignment is generally more powerful than agency alignment. However, if the agency and their roster are at the centre of a tribe and the agent is close enough to this (a la the mafia saying of ‘he’s a friend of ours’), that agency alignment may outweigh that of a singular agent elsewhere.
Tribes are everywhere in electronic music: some interconnect and play nice together; others repel, sometimes to the surprise of the uninitiated.
As a manager you should know which tribe(s) you are a member of, and which you’d like to become a member of in the future.
Being in and around relevant tribes gives you understanding. It’s the way to build relationships, devise strategies and ultimately gain leverage.
Outside the tribe and not sure how to get in? Provide them with something valuable.
To get right into the tribe you need relationships. It’s possible for to be in the tribe without relationships (i.e. through artists on an agent’s roster that are catapulted into the centre of the tribe) but without the relationships being built on top of this, it probably won’t last.
Relationships also come from time (this can’t be understated; a lot of success comes just from staying in the game long enough).
Agency size doesn’t necessarily matter that much here, although an agent at a larger agency has the chance to build far more relationships than an agent at a smaller agency – as long as they have the autonomy to do so. It may be worth querying the autonomy and authority of an agent who doesn’t have their own name in their company email address for example.
Aside from the tribe, relationships with key venues are also crucial. Promoters are of course important but if you’re looking to stay off multi-act club bills (ignoring festivals here) the in-house booker at a top venue is an important person to know.
Not sure what the key venues are in a market? Look at where the agent’s roster are playing regularly – as an artist/manager it’s worth you knowing the top 3 clubs in each main city in a territory for your (desired) tribe so you can test the agent on it. They should be able to rattle these off without hesitation. See the ‘Miscellaneous Tips’ at the bottom for more tactical suggestions.
Leverage usually comes from roster members being part of a tribe. This leverage is usually directly from an agent but also can come from an agency. Again it’s usually preferable to optimise for agent leverage vs agency leverage but both is best. Leverage increases your fees, billing, and maybe even sex appeal.
For instance, if an agent has a very hot artist, the leverage they gain from that can enable them to raise prices for other artists they represent. If a promoter is desperate to secure a hot act for say $100k (why they are desperate is a topic for another post), it’s relatively easy for the agent to utilise their leverage to get the promoter to book another act for $20k who may be worth $10k in normal circumstances.
Additionally, a promoter will often (subconsciously) see an agent with a hot act worth $100k+ as someone who operates at that level, thus paying an additional $20k doesn’t feel unusual, even if the agent isn’t a ‘big player’.* This leverage is why you’ll see some festival bills spread with acts from the same agent or agency roster.
* I’m sure there’s a succinct economic theory that can sum this up better – any economists reading please let me know.
The leverage point is generally best when the agent represents an artist who is your ‘desired peer’ – someone in or near your tribe, who you want to emulate and is 2-3 levels above where you currently are. An artist 5+ levels above you can be useful too, but if you start pestering the agent for support slots here you’re going to build an unwelcome reputation.
It’s also worth noting some agents have a great knack of knowing when and how to push (whether that’s on billing, money or something else), and frankly a fair part of the job is really a type of pushing* (an inconvenient truth alas). While not easy to gauge, it’s worth setting up another question around this to try and figure out their ability to push.
The best advice on to take on leverage would probably be this:
Find the person who wants to be number 1 but isn’t.
Find the person who wants to be number 1 but isn’t. Their boss currently is, and they really want their boss’s job.
* A word about Hustle. Similar to Pushing, but a little more nuanced and broader reaching. Hustle is effective, but only if the tribe and relationships are in place. Without it, it’s actually pretty useless. If you want to know more about hustle, read up on Gary Vaynerchuk.
This is an agent’s understanding of what the artist/manager wants to do, ideally blended with the agent’s blueprint for something they have done successfully in the recent past.
The agent’s strategy should be roadworthy for the next 12-18 months; with agents it’s actually equally important to pick for where you are now as well as where you want to be.
Thinking short seems counter-intuitive, but a) things can change quickly, b) it’s very hard to predict outcomes far into the future, and c) you can fire an agent whenever you like 🙂
Agent strategy usually comes from being part of a tribe. Most strategies are built on what’s worked for other members of the tribe. Building a strategy isn’t that difficult, but executing successfully on it requires relationships and at least some leverage. It’s worth finding out which agents have alternative strategies – great strategy with decent execution may be able to beat poor strategy with great execution…
How do you test an agent’s strategy? Here are a couple of questions you can ask:
- Imagine things aren’t working out in a particular city. What do you do?
- Which festival plays this year and next year in territory X sum up the strategy and growth of the artist?
And remember the words of Mike Tyson:
Everyone has a strategy until they get punched in the face.
Operations should come from a good agency structure, and doesn’t need to be a big company to be able to do this – in fact the lean setup can work better if done well.
Operational excellence (being organised, chasing the money, etc.) is of paramount importance in electronic music. Like it or not the history of how the business was built means there’s a heavy degree of opacity and a lot of savvy, cash-driven people. Most of these people are legit but within the supply chain there’s a lot that can go wrong, from lack of licenses and money laundering to stoned drivers and incorrect airport codes. People dancing, drinking and doing drugs late at night attracts a few interesting sorts, after all.
If you don’t have a tour manager and are relying on the agency to do your logistics (flights, hotels, visas etc), make sure the agent’s assistant is solid, and that the agency have proper financial management in place. Get to know who these people are. I’ve seen too many horror stories of enormous tax bills, miscalculated withholding and incorrect visas, often from naive ignorance rather than malicious malpractice.
This is far from the glamorous end of things, but it’s important and will cause you pain if it’s not done well.
The further up the ladder you climb, you’ll need the agency day to day operations less, but their support on wider reaching financial affairs as well as more complex promotion details will be crucial.
- Don’t get confused with live agents who have acts that look like DJs; if you’re a DJ doing soft tickets it’s a different world. Many electronic artists yearn for the ‘cool’ factor of being on a trendy live roster but they often end up a) cut adrift from their core tribe and b) learning the hard way how hard ticket guarantees work at the lower end of the scale.
- The economics of hard tickets are…well, hard, at least at the beginning. It can be galling for an artist to realise that their fee for a support slot on a hard ticket show is $100, or that on that for their headline gigs they’re paying for their own flights, hotels and ground transport. Fees for hard ticket shows will typically only outstrip DJ fees at 1000 tickets (if not more). All that glitters is not gold.
- Make sure you get clarity of what the agent defines ‘landed’ and ‘delivered’ to mean. Not knowing this can be very expensive.
- Before you start talking to agents, make sure you know the following:
- Your reference artists – peers and desired peers
- Where they are playing
- How much they overlap with where the agent’s roster are playing
- The key 10 cities you want to make an impact in
- The ladder of venues/promoters in each of those cities
There’s a bunch more I could add but this is already a long post so I’m leaving it here for now.
Hopefully this helps – now get out there, find a great agent, and play some shows 🙂
Want to know more? Or think I’ve got it all wrong? Give me a shout
thanks to Murray Gray for reviewing drafts of this article.
 For brevity I’ve omitted some of the more obvious character traits to look for.
 Soft tickets are where the tickets can’t be tied specifically to one artist, and thus artists (very) rarely share in the percentage of the sales. The majority of festivals work this way, and most night clubs too.
It’s worth noting there’s a grey area in night club world where the headline Artist could be considered to be the singular draw to the venue. Here you’ll often see set fee bonuses rather than percentage splits; this is for a few reasons depending on how cynical you are 🙂
A ‘hard ticket’ is for a gig where the tickets are being sold primarily on the draw of one artist. That headline artist will see a percentage of sales, usually alongside a guarantee. Rule of thumb – if the headliner’s name is at least 2x bigger than any other acts on the lineup, it’s a hard ticket gig.
 I was an agent for a fairly long time, and moderately successful, but I’m now two years out of the game. Some of my thoughts may not have dated well but I hope that’s not the case 🙂
 The basic agent playbook reads something like this:
- Forge relationships.
- Get into a tribe.
- Build leverage in the tribe.
- Learn strategies.
- Refine operations.
- Forge new relationships.
- Get into a new tribe.
- Decide on a niche
- Get leverage in that niche
- Spend time and effort working that leverage
- Have the operations to deliver it
- More onto the next niche