Hello! I hope everyone is having a great, fun, and productive summer.
I used to work for a booking agent that will remain nameless. This guy would show up at the venue, where he booked my buddy and I in as a duo to pay us $200.00CAD, in person. We found out from the bartender that he was paid $300.00 and taking a 33% cut from the budget as his booking fee. We didn’t like that number and neither did the bar. This person ended up being fired as the booker because of this and my mate took over from him. The venue was able to lower the budget and artists were able to be paid more. That’s a win-win I’d say, plus the shady booking agent lost his job at that venue proving that dirty practices will only hurt you in the long run. This story is quite relevant to today’s article.
Today I want to talk about playing shows AND being a booking agent. Being really good at playing live gigs gives you an exclusive opportunity to be the person in charge of booking talent into that venue. I want to explain how the two “jobs” work hand in hand and I want to discuss the upside of using this strategy. Playing shows AND being a booker can be a one-two punch that really pays off if you’re able to balance both responsibilities well.
Here’s how I fell into it and why I loved it.
I’m a musician first so I don’t consider myself a booking agent, but I’ve done bookings at many venues, so technically speaking I’ve worn that hat and done that job. I never set out to be a booker initially. I kind of fell into the position because I had pitched my music services to a venue in Toronto and was successfully hired on. The venue did not previously offer live music so I was laying the foundation for that venue’s live music initiative. After playing my first gig there I received rave reviews from both staff and guests alike and I was asked how often I could return to play. I was pretty busy at the time and so I couldn’t offer them more than one or two shows a month. I have a ton of friends that are great musicians however so I told the manager that I can book artists in to play on days I couldn’t make it. They liked how I did business and so they decided to give it a try and trust me as a music booker. I created a schedule and hired my friends/musician colleagues from the Toronto music scene and I was successfully booking my first venue. I enjoyed the perks of being a booker so much that finding more venues to book became a part of my overall strategy as a pro musician.
Why be a music booker?
Once I started booking in colleagues to perform for me I realized that there are several great benefits of being the music booker at a venue.
- As an artist I could book myself in to play very regularly and so it was nice to have some control over my destiny. There’s no such thing as 100% job security in this business but at least matters were more in my hands. I had no commission to pay to anyone which means I got to keep all the money I was paid for the gig. There was also no chance of falling out of favour with a booker and being replaced at the venue (getting the shaft for whatever reason).
- It pays ($$$)! As a music booker you negotiate a fee from the venue for a music performance. The trick is to get paid enough from the venue to be able to pay the musician/s fairly as well as keep a booking (finders) fee for yourself. If you can book a few venues per week then you can actually make a nice bit of money for it.
- You get to employ your friends and deserving musicians. It’s great to be able to employ people you care about and respect. One of my favourite thing about booking a new room is that it expands the music scene and gives musicians more opportunity.
- When you scratch people’s backs, they scratch yours. Offering musicians work means you will be on their radar when they have work to offer. Musicians often get offers to play gigs on days that they are already booked up. If you have offered someone work then there’s a good chance you will be high on their list of contacts to offer work to when they can’t do a job.
- This is a DIRECT way that YOU can influence your music scene, for the better. When more venues offer great live music it can influence non-music venues to consider offering music as well, to compete with the “new music venue”.
- You can gain a reputation of credibility. Having work to offer makes you a valuable member of the scene. Imagine being the person that books some of the city’s best talent into some of it’s best venues! Achieving this would make it even easier to find new work as a booker as your reputation of success would speak for you. This means the better you do the more opportunities will arise, taking you to heights you may still not even realize exist.
- You will be able to watch artists you hire and enjoy if you have the evening off or finish your gig in time to catch your hired act’s last set. You can get to know artists that you hired better and you have the opportunity to foster new friendships with musicians you enjoy and respect.
How do you go from performer to “booking agent”?
The first step is to find a venue that is interested in having you come in and perform. *Don’t try to be the booker in venues if someone else sent you in to play! That’s a no-no which can wreak havoc on your reputation so keep that in mind!* Find your own bars/restarants/club/etc. and pitch yourself as an artist providing an evening of music for a fee (See the “How-to find paying gigs” article for more info). Get in and do a great job. This means show up early to set up and start right on time. Be friendly, play music that matches the demographic of the venue, take requests, don’t take long breaks. Basically give the best value possible. Think about what other artists do and be the best at it. Be the absolute best you can. The devil is in the details and it’s little things like what I mentioned above and dressing sharp and being an absolute pro that will ensure the venue knows you are on top of your game.
Once the gig is over you can chat with management and get their feedback. There’s a really good chance they will want you to return if everybody likes what you do. Only you will know how to proceed at this point but if you’re interested in booking then let them know that you “can’t play every week as you have other commitments, but you do do bookings and have a great roster of talented reliable artists and that you’d be glad to work out a schedule to accommodate the venue’s needs”. Basically think like a business person. They have a need/want, which is music, and that is the product/service that you provide. That’s the dynamic. They aren’t doing you a favour anymore then you are for them. It should be mutually beneficial.
Simply put, kick ass and then put your businessperson hat on and sell yourself as a booking agent.
Pricing and paying artists
You can underpay your artists if you want to (yikes!). There’s no law against it. After all, artists will agree to a gig or not (for better or worse) based on their own circumstances. That being said you will earn a reputation of being greasy/sleazy and not a good person to work for. On the other hand, paying your artists well and being professional and respectful for them will have the opposite effect of making people want to work with you and work hard for you. Try to ask for a fair rate of pay from your venue.This depends from place to place but I typically aim high. In Toronto I always aimed for $250.00-$300.00 for a 3 hour show (3 sets). If this I’d keep $25.00-$50.00 for myself as a booking fee. Seeing as how many artists will play for $150.00 I believe that paying $225.00-$250.00 is very competitive.
In Edinburgh the British Pound is worth more than the Canadian Dollar so I would charge £150..00 and keep £25.00 as a booking fee.
These are just guidelines to serve as an example. If you can get a venue to pay £125.00 and you take £15.00-£25.00 it is still quite fair as many people would play shows in Edinburgh for £80.00-£100.00.
This is where your experience as a performer comes in handy. You have to know the scene and understand what constitutes a fair pay in your city/area. If you’re offering someone more pay then they would make elsewhere than you can take a bit more for yourself as it was your negotiating ability that made the higher budget available in the first place.
A booking fee of %10 is very fair when all else fails.
But do bookers really deserve a “bookers/finders” fee?
Its might seem like a booker’s job is really easy and that you do all of the work. If that were the case then you could easily wonder “what makes this person deserve a cut?”. The fact of the matter is that without the booking agent being a pro and earning the trust of the venue you probably would not have gotten in to play there. It’s business and the booker had to work hard to gain that trust.
Also when something goes wrong it is the booker that has to scramble to fix the situation, whatever it might be. Booking can be a pain in the arse and so the fee they collect is very warranted as long as they are not extortionate. The booker also has to arrange the schedule and deal with artists cancelling and a wide variety of issues.
They also need to make a living. They are contributing to the music culture in their music scenes and are creating venues in which music can be enjoyed and musicians employed. They definitely deserve our loyalty if they are good to us, find us regular work, pay us fairly, and have our backs in instances where there are problems (A booking agent has to have the interest of the venue at heart, true, but also the interests of the artist). Good bookers know this and show good leadership in these cases.
My challenge to you!
I challenge you to find a venue to offer live music and convert them. Become their music booker and hook yourself up with regular work. Hook your colleagues in the music scene with regular work. Start small and try it out for yourself to see how you like it! Get into this for the right reasons and treat people well and you will go far. Comment down below to discuss your experience and/or ask for further tips.
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All the best Musos! I know you can do this!!!!
(I wrote this article today (Tuesday July 25) in Holyrood Park, Edinburgh, Scotland. The Feature Photo has nothing to do with booking or playing gigs but the setting was a big part of the mood of my article. I hope this article inspires you like this scenery has inspired me!