How Booking Agents Work


Former Beatle Pete Best now tours with his own band. His mother was credited with giving the Beatles their first break.
Former Beatle Pete Best now tours with his own band. His mother was credited with giving the Beatles their first break.
© Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Every band, no matter how famous they are, once had a first gig. On Aug. 29, 1959, a woman named Mona Best opened up a small music club in her basement in Liverpool, England based on the "beat bars" she'd heard about in London [source: Lammy]. She called it the Casbah Club, and the first band she booked was a bunch of local boys called The Quarrymen.

After her son Pete joined the band on drums, they changed their name to The Silver Beatles, and then just The Beatles. Those local boys -- John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison -- owe Mrs. Best a thank-you note.

Rock bands make their reputations at live shows. They start out as opening-for-the-opening bands and gradually build up a local fan base until they're finally getting shows of their own. Before long they're ready to hit the road and take their sound on tour.  But how do you book gigs in cities that have never heard of you? That's where a booking agent comes in.

Booking agents are described as middlemen, which is a fair, if unattractive assessment. Booking agents work in the middle ground between artists their fans. They help the artists land live gigs where they can build their fan base. And booking agents for movies help get studio and independent films into your local theater.

Both types of booking agents work long hours with little public recognition, but without them, the artists and the public would never connect.

What do booking agents do for bands? What do they do for movie theaters? And how can you break into the industry? Keep reading to find out.

Booking Agents for Bands

Music agent Benny Medina books music acts into gigs.
Music agent Benny Medina books music acts into gigs.
© Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The main responsibility of a rock band is to make music, not spend all day on the phone trying to book the next gig. That's why many musicians hire booking agents, also known as talent agents. A booking agent is half employment agent and half salesman. It's the booking agent's job to find work for his clients by convincing club owners that the band will generate ticket sales.

A booking agent negotiates with promoters on behalf of the band and the band's manager. Promoters are the people in charge of booking acts at a concert venue. The booking agent not only reserves concert dates at clubs, but negotiates the band's fee or percentage of the ticket sales.

A booking agent spends his day in constant communication with managers, promoters, theaters, clubs and artists, booking gigs six months to a year ahead. In many cases, the agent is trying to assemble a regional, national or international concert tour for a band. This requires careful scheduling and routing to ensure that the band can get to every venue on time.

Not only does a booking agent have to book gigs for her existing stable of artists, but she has to be constantly on the lookout for new talent. She might receive tips from friends in the recording industry or from the bands she already represents. She'll spend hours listening to CDs of new artists and browsing MySpace pages. In the end, she has to trust her musical instinct to figure out which bands have the best chance of making it big.

Booking agents can either be independent or work for a larger talent agency. For an up-and-coming band, there's a distinct advantage to being signed by a booking agent at a large talent agency [source: Wavra]. Let's say your booking agent works for the William Morris Agency, which also represents The Killers and Snoop Dogg. It's much easier to land an opening spot for one of these big-name acts if your agents share an office.

At a talent agency, bookers are often assigned a specific region of the country or part of the world. They get to know all of the major concert venues in that area and establish relationships with the promoters. So when it's time to schedule a major tour for one of the agency's clients, the booker can go straight to the promoters and start reserving dates.

Nearly half of all states in the United States require a special license to be a booking agent, but the strictest regulations are in California and New York [source: Agent Association]. In California, booking agents fall under the legal umbrella of talent agents. They're required to get a license from the Labor Commissioner, submit standard contracts for approval and are forbidden from charging more than 20 percent commission (10 percent when working with union talent) [source: Agent Association].

Many booking agents pride themselves on doing more than just booking dates for a band. They see themselves as part of an artist's team -- manager, lawyer, agent -- looking out for the interests of the band and helping it develop a successful career path.

Now let's look at a second kind of booking agent: movie bookers.

Movie Booking Agents

Movie booking agents place films in theaters.
Movie booking agents place films in theaters.
© Steve Mack/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Movie booking agents, also known as film bookers or film buyers, are the people responsible for getting movies from the Hollywood studios to your local theater. Film bookers are paid by theater owners to search out and lease films temporarily from distributors.

The main responsibility of a film booker is to negotiate an exhibition contract with the film distributor [source: Moxie Cinema] on behalf of the theater owner. One of the most important terms of the exhibition contract is the percentage of ticket sales that will go back to the studio. For a major Hollywood release, it’s common for the studio to take as much as 70, 80 or even 90 percent of the first week’s box office sales. In a typical exhibition contract, the studio’s percentage goes down every week that the film remains in the theaters.

Film bookers also negotiate the commitment that applies to each film. The commitment is the minimum number of weeks that a theater must screen the movie. In general, major Hollywood studios require longer commitments than independents [source: The Triplex]. Bookers can also negotiate for a clause in the exhibition contract that allows the theater to extend the commitment if the film is doing really well, or terminate the commitment if ticket sales are particularly lousy. 

The goal of the film booker is to advocate for his theater owners. The distribution company will always try to raise the percentage of its cut and demand longer commitments. The film booker needs to strike a deal that allows the theater owner to walk away with some cash in his pocket, although few movie theaters make money purely from ticket sales. Concessions -- popcorn, soda and candy -- and local advertisers are what keep most theaters afloat [source: Lobb]. 

A successful film booker needs to have a firm grasp of what films are successful in the local market. The booker needs to stay months ahead of the release schedule of upcoming movies. When the film "The Passion of the Christ" was about to be released, several smaller theaters in rural areas ordered multiple prints in advance since they knew that local moviegoers would be clamoring to see the powerfully religious film on its opening weekend.

A film booker needs to be able to spot sleeper hits that might not come with a lot of hype, but slowly build audiences over time. This is the best way for a theater to make money, since they get an increasingly larger percentage of the box office receipts as the weeks roll on. The 1988 movie "A Fish Called Wanda" ranked number 11 at the box office when it opened on July 29. A full 10 weeks later it had crept all the way to number one [source: Box Office Mojo].   

Once an exhibition contract has been signed, it’s the film booker’s job to oversee the shipment of the movie to the theater. The theater owner pays all shipping costs -- which can be substantial, since films are shipped as multiple large reels in heavy protective cases -- but the booker must keep tabs on the shipment to make sure it arrives on time and without any damage. When the commitment is over, the booker must make sure the reels get back to the distribution company safely.

Now let’s look at how much money you can expect to make as a booker for bands or movies.

Jessica Simpson, left, relies on her booking agent Gil Cunningham, right, to get her into movies. Jessica Simpson, left, relies on her booking agent Gil Cunningham, right, to get her into movies.
Jessica Simpson, left, relies on her booking agent Gil Cunningham, right, to get her into movies.
© Rick Diamond/WireImage/Getty Images

How much does a booking agent make?

Booking agents for music artists like Christina Aguilera typically earn a percentage from each performance.
Booking agents for music artists like Christina Aguilera typically earn a percentage from each performance.
© Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Booking agents for bands work on a strict commission basis. So if an agent books a gig, he'll get a percentage of whatever the band makes for that show. Depending on the contract, the booking agent's cut could include a portion of ticket sales as well as any merchandise and CDs sold at the show.

The typical booking agent commission for a band is between five and 10 percent, although some agents will charge more for radio, TV and film appearances [source: Salazar]. The same agent might charge very different commissions for different types of clients. For a well-known client that regularly plays concerts in large venues with huge ticket and merchandise sales, the agent can charge a lower commission while still getting a big paycheck. For a lesser-known band, the agent might start off with a higher commission to guarantee some income until the band can fill bigger venues.

Booking agents are entitled to a cut of all of the proceeds from a live performance, since that live performance wouldn't have happened without their help. That said, booking agents are not entitled to commissions or royalties from general record sales, songwriting or publishing [source: Salazar]. A band should never agree to sign over any of these rights to a booking agent.

In California, there are strict regulations concerning how money is handled by a booking agent. For example, it's common for a concert promoter to pay the band's cut of the ticket sales to the booking agent rather than the artists directly. In this case, the booking agent is required by California law to keep the money in a separate trust account and pay the band their cut in less than 30 days, and even faster for union artists [source: Agent Association].

Film bookers aren't required to have a license and work under many different professional arrangements with theater owners. It's uncommon for a film booker to work for a percentage of ticket sales, although such an arrangement could exist with smaller, independent theaters.

It's more common for a film booker to either be a salaried, in-house employee for a large movie theater chain or an independent booker who works for smaller theaters. Some independent bookers charge a flat retainer fee for their services while others charge per film.

Does booking for bands or movie theaters sound like an interesting line of work? Keep reading to find out how to break into this industry.

Becoming a Booking Agent

There are many ways to start a career as a booking agent. Drummer Scott Lips of Days of the Snakes also works as the band's booking agent.
There are many ways to start a career as a booking agent. Drummer Scott Lips of Days of the Snakes also works as the band's booking agent.
© Roger Kisby/Getty Images

Becoming a successful booking agent starts with a passion for the work. If you're going to be a booking agent for bands, it helps if you have a deep interest in music and the music business. You'll work much harder and be much more satisfied by your work if you feel that you're part of something important: bringing good music to the masses.

The same goes for movie booking. It's the perfect job for a film buff. You spend all day researching upcoming films, digging cinematic gems out of the archives and working with distribution companies to get them on your client's screens. You can play a central role in the programming of an independent cinema or help provide popular entertainment for the whole community.

Like many jobs in the entertainment industry, there's no straight path to a career as a booking agent. A college education is always a plus, but don't go looking for "booking agent" among the list of majors. The best way to a career as either a band or movie booker is by getting experience in related entry-level jobs.

In the music industry, you could start in the mailroom of a large talent agency. Over time, perhaps you can work up to a position as an agent's assistant or even a junior agent. Eventually, you will be given a few of your own clients, mostly likely young bands who are just starting out like yourself. With a lot of hard work and a little luck, you'll prove that you can handle bigger acts or even an entire territory.

Another way to break into the industry is to start working at a local club or concert hall. You might have to start by mopping floors or stamping hands at the door, but you'll get an inside look of how a music venue operates. You'll get to know the promoter and the criteria he uses to choose bands. You'll talk to bookers as they make their rounds and see how they sell their clients to the promoter. Also, you'll meet tons of musicians, maybe even finding a young band with a hot sound that's looking for a booking agent, even an inexperienced one like yourself.

For movie booking, there are also many options for getting practical experience. You could start with an entry-level job at a movie distribution company. This would give you an inside look at how the movie studios approach the booking process. As you work your way up, you'd come in contact with hundreds of bookers from all over the country and start to learn what works and what doesn't when it comes to negotiating a good deal on a film.

On the other hand, you could work directly for a small theater. Many theaters don't have the budget to hire a full-time film booker. By watching tons of movies and working your way up from the candy counter, you can win the confidence of your bosses. Pretty soon you'll be researching the best new movies and negotiating exhibition contracts. Then you can decide whether you want to stick with the theater or break out on your own.

In either booking career you choose, you'll need very strong communication skills and the ability to network with all types of people in all levels of an organization. You'll need to be able to speak the seemingly incompatible languages of art and business. At the end of the day, success in either of these careers depends a lot on relationships. If you can establish trusting relationships with both your clients and the people you work with, you'll go far.

For lots more information on the music and film business, see the links on the next page.

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More Great Links

Sources

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  • "Advice for Booking Agents." Nalpant, Jackie. Artists House Music.(http://www.artistshousemusic.org/videos/advice+for+booking+agents)
  • "CA Laws Related to Talent Agencies." Association of Talent Agencies. http://www.agentassociation.com/frontdoor/agency_licensing_detail.cfm?id=742
  • "FAQ." Triplex Cinema. http://www.thetriplex.com/faq.html
  • "Information." International Cinema Equipment. http://www.iceco.com/information.htm
  • "Interview: Booking Agent." Rehkop, Jason. MSU Entertainment Management Online. Feb. 6, 2002. http://www.entertainmentmanagementonline.com/vnews/display.v/ART/2002/02/06/3c19043e3e772
  • "Liverpool's Casbah Club, scene of The Beatles first-ever gig, is "listed" by Culture Minister David Lammy." DavidLammy.com. Sept. 15, 2006. http://www.davidlammy.co.uk/da/44577
  • "Talent Agency License Requirements by State." Association of Talent Agencies. Aug. 5, 2008. http://www.agentassociation.com/frontdoor/agency_licensing_detail.cfm?id=571
  • "What are the main deal points in an agency agreement?" Salazar, Ruben. FreeAdvice.com.(http://law.freeadvice.com/intellectual_property/music_law/agency_agreement.htm) 
  • "What does a booking agent do?" Wavra, Brad. Artists House Music. http://www.artistshousemusic.org/videos/what+does+a+booking+agent+do
  • "Where do you get films?" Moxie Cinema. May 31, 2004. http://blog.moxiecinema.com/post/6
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