In this Bandzoogle interview, summarized by William Paterson University Professor David Philp, music industry veteran Bruce Houghton shares a booking primer for artists at all stages of their career, as well as, lessons learned at the helm of the Skyline Artist Agency. You may also know Bruce as the Publisher and Editor of Hypebot and MusicThinkTank.
By William Paterson University Professor David Philp from Music Biz 101
Your Professor Philp watched a webinar (which he found on Twitter) on May 29, 2018 through Bandzoogle called “Ask a booking agent: An interview with Bruce Houghton of Skyline Music.” Click HERE to read about Skyline Artist Agency. You’ll probably recognize some of the artists they represent.
Bruce also runs Hypebot.com, which has republished a number of articles we’ve written here.
We typed as Bruce spoke during the webinar. Most comments are what he said exactly, although there is some paraphrasing from when I stopped typing for a moment to eat a slice of pizza. Regardless, there are some great tips in here for DIY artists. Bookmark this page and come back to it. You can’t remember it all.
And off we go!
What do booking agencies look for in an artist?
We’re a small to mid-sized agency. There are some things we don’t do well (Hip Hop, Rap, Pop). That’s not what we do. Make sure the agency you’re looking at is good in your genre. I’m strong in the Rock, Classic Rock, Americana artists. There are certain things we’re good at and certain things, I have to admit, we’re not.
Those agencies with 20 or fewer employees are genre specific. TKO is heavy Alternative and some Classic Rock. CAA, ICM have hundreds of employees and teams of individuals good at everything.
A lot of Skyline Artist Agency referrals come from talent buyers, club buyers, festival buyers. A lot of referrals come from managers, other artists. We then turn around and look for:
- We have to like it, “get it.” Somebody in the company has to say, “I love this.” The love will get you through the bad times.
- Where are they in their career and is their career growing? There has to be growth in multiple markets. Anyone can sell out their hometown. But I want to see them do more. There doesn’t have to be thousands of people, but there has to be multiple-market growth.
- Is there a team and is there a plan? This doesn’t mean a hotshot manager. They just have to have their act together. I want to know that they have a plan to build their career. My job as an agent is to maximize the value of the artist. I can’t create that value.
Plan. Be active on socials.
Do they every take unsolicited bands?
We try to spend just a couple minutes, at least, with every submission we get. I’m going to listen to your music and look at your tour schedule. I’ll look at the size of venues, the cities you’re playing. Are you only playing the absolute starter room in a city? Or are you playing the next level?
If I get the music, the website looks good, and you’re playing multiple cities, then I’ll look more seriously at you.
To up your chances, have the referral come from a club/venue/festival buyer; somebody who said, “I like this band and I’m going to be their champion.”
With the referral, they’ll get 15 minutes of a look from us and probably a real response.
If you’re in a mainstream genre, you almost certainly need a label to help get you to that next level. Sometimes it’s label services, like Thirty Tigers, or a really smart manager who just says, “I’m gonna do it.”
Should an artist have already experienced the DIY touring life?
Draw a circle around your city of 100-300 miles. Play within the circle. You have to prove honestly that you’re willing to do the work to grow your audience.
How do agents decide markets and cities to book for their artists? Do they use data?
Festivals are whatever we can get.
We use data to sell an artist to a festival. But honestly, if I can get a festival almost anywhere and the band isn’t going to lose money doing it, I’ll book it. Just the simple fact that you’re playing a festival is marketing to sell your band to other venues around.
If there’s a record out, we let owners know. We use geo-targeted stats. “I’ve got 200 fans in Cleveland.” That’s just gold to me.
We represent Zoe Keating, a DIY cellist with a completely self-run career. She’s got over 1.15 million followers on Twitter and we can run those numbers and help rout shows around there.
Who are the venues and who are the buyers who are going to care about you and help promote your career? When I find a buyer who said, “I lost money but I love this band,” I want to get on an airplane and hug them because they’re going to help the band.
How does the money work?
10-15% is pretty standard. If someone is asking for a long-term contract, run in the other direction. We have letters of intent, meaning I book you a gig, you play it, I keep 10%.
In fairness to managers, they can only represent 2-3 acts effectively. I’ll have 20 acts touring simultaneously. We don’t have to be reliant on any single artist.
A label invests money. We just invest time.
10-15%. Exclusive relationship. Don’t sign a contract. You may work with a regional agent who’s only good in your state or the three states around you. Understand their expectation around you. One might just do colleges. One might just do clubs. Make sure you understand.
You know you and what you’re capable of and not capable of. You know how you want to be presented, what types of bands you want to play with, etc.
Do agents ask for an upfront fee?
It doesn’t exist and I don’t recommend it. I don’t like it, I’m not a fan of it. Those types of gigs aren’t doing you much good.
There are some regional agents who want a minimum. They’re trying to make a living too, so as long as you understand what’s going on, it’s not terrible.
Do you include the artist in the booking?
We never book a date before asking the artist. “I’ve got the 23rd of June, 4 hotel rooms and $600.”
We try to piece it together and rout a whole tour and have a weekly call. There’s a constant flow of information
What happens once a show’s booked – what’s your role? Do you help promote the show?
We have minimal involvement after a show is booked. That goes back to the team. Their job is marketing the band. When we issue a contract we send links to the band/promoter, including the technical rider. We do ticket counts starting 8 weeks out. If you’ve only sold 11% of the house and we’re 3 weeks out, that may be a problem. We’ll pick up the phone and ask the promoter if they’re doing their job. We’ll talk to the team and make sure they’re doing their job.
We send all data to Songkick and BandsInTown. You can do that individually; it’s absolutely free. We do it because those two sites spread to other sites. Songkick goes to SoundCloud and Spotify.
On Spotify we look at not just how many streams you have, but how many followers you have. When you play within 50 miles of that follower, they will be notified. For us, that stat is really important.
On BandsInTown they’re called Trackers.
I’m particularly interested, and so are the club owners, with how you communicate with your audience. And start an email list. Make it ridiculously easy for people to find you. Clubs look at your website, your Facebook page – do you create Events for every date you have coming up? Are people on your email list, tracking you on BandsInTown, following you on Spotify – they want to make sure you’re doing your part to marketing to your fans.
Do you actively encourage your bands to monetize their live shows?
Merch, definitely. In the indie rock world, all of the bands have record deals of some kind. The beginning band is making maybe $250 a night. But they’re selling maybe $500 a night in merch. I believe most bands should be better at selling merch than they are.
There’s also the VIP experience. It rewards the superfan. They got to go to sound check, they got to get into the venue first. They got their picture with you. It cost you absolutely nothing. You make a little more money and that fan feels special. If only 10 or 12 fans buy the experience, it still helps. This is a way to make more money but also to make the superfan more loyal.
Sitting in the first row of a venue without reserve seating is a big deal. But coordinate this with the venue. Do it with the cooperation of the venue.
I’m X artist in X genre, how do I find the right agent?
Look at the artist one or two steps above you. Not ten steps above you. See what they’re doing and borrow heavily from them.
See who their agents are. If you play venues they play, try to have the talent buyer give you a reference. Whether the agent is big or little, they’re usually specialists in a genre. The metal specialist is an expert with the metal festival genre, for example.
When an artist doesn’t have an agent, what some of the best tips you have for them to book themselves? How do they play more music festivals?
Get all your stuff together. Make sure website and socials look good. They’re going to look. When you send that email, make it really easy to point them to the one or two things that make you look best. 9 views on YouTube… I can’t get past that. Send links to things that make you look the best.
Target places where you think you can sell tickets. In the end, when talking pure club booking, they make money by selling tickets and selling beer.
In a new city, always play a small venue. Use gig trades. Open for a band in Kansas City and have them open for you in New Jersey.
Festivals – Everybody wants them. Take anything you can get for almost any money you can get. Take the right festival and get in front of people. Ask for a better stage and better time and see if you get it. Playing a festival is better than not playing one. Playing for free at a festival is better than not playing at a festival.
Festival buyers look at themselves as curators. You’re not going to sell tickets, so you want to figure out where you fit in their scheme. To look more attractive to those curators, we try to time the release of when those curators are buying, not when the festival runs. If they’re buying in November for May, tell them. Then send them a video in December. And a new point of reference (we’ve got 10,000 streams on Spotify) in January. And something else in February. Think about when they’re buying, not just when the festival is.
I see buyers and agents spending too much time trying to get the big gig and opening act. I used to get 5-10 Dave Matthews gigs a year. The band would play in front of 15,000 fans who really only wanted to see Dave Matthews. Six months later, my band would come back and play to the same 72 fans who cared about them at the Dave Matthews gig.
It’s much easier to win 50-100 fans at a smaller gig than the bigger gig, in which the fans specifically went to see the headliner and spent lots of money for their tickets.
I like to book shows with bands that are just a little bit bigger (than my bands). Those fans will be a lot easier to win over for my bands than the superstars.
Promoter vs. Agent
Assume the promoter will do nothing to promote the show. They may have to work the bar, etc.
How to pitch Bruce
Be persistent and “ease of use.” Did you show up on time? Did you put in the effort?
How do I become a booking agent?
Start by booking a few other bands by genre in your region. Florida, California, New York want you to get a license. Everybody that I’ve hired, at one point in their careers, that’s what they did.
Best way to grow your company is to work with bands people want. If you see bands in your town that you like, approach them. They probably need help.
Pay to play and other notes
I’m not a fan. Unless you’re renting a venue and paying your own show, I don’t like pay to play.
If you’re trying to do a national tour… I’ve recently looked at Indie on the Move. I found some things on there, which is like $20 a month, that I didn’t see anywhere else. There’s Pollstar but it costs like $700 a year.
House concerts are incredibly valuable, especially for solo artists. It goes back to that axiom of Play Where People Are. Play a festival or street fair. Play the little festival. Play the BBQ festival in your market. Play the beer fest. Think about wherever you can perform where there’s already an audience and you can get them on your email list. Get ’em that way.
Noisetrade is a great way to use email.
Top selling merch item: Signed CDs.
U.S. vs International
Only about 10% of what we do is overseas. This is sort of a general rule: It sounds cool to play Europe or even New Orleans, if you don’t have a purpose and only play to 20 people, what was the point of playing?
In most places, you need a local or international agent. Think about just like here: How are you going to build an audience? Who’re going to be your partners.
Going overseas is okay as long as you have a purpose.
What about Sonicbids or ReverbNation to play festival gigs or live shows?
These are nice people who run these services and well intended. But the ratio of artists applying for a show to those who get the gig is small. It’s not a bad thing, you’re not hurting yourself if you have the money. But don’t have that be your only strategy. The direct contact, the ability to create a direct relationship with clubs/festivals, is harder but much more fruitful.