How Becoming a Music Agent Works

Day of the Snakes' drummer acts as the band's talent agent.
Day of the Snakes' drummer acts as the band's talent agent.
© Roger Kisby/Getty Images

The band was ready for its gig in a southeast concert hall with the music practiced, the flight and hotel booked, the equipment leased and the stage arrangements set. But two weeks out, the music agent discovered that tickets hadn't been sold, and he didn't have a signed contract or the deposit from the concert promoter. Three days out, the contract and deposit still hadn't appeared.

After a conference call with the music agent, the promoter and the band's manager, the concert was canceled, with the deposit still due to the agency. "Send me the money, or you'll never get a show from this agency again," the music agent told the promoter. Seven months later, the money unexpectedly showed up.

That's one reason why a band needs a music booking agent, says Max McAndrew, a former music agent with International Creative Management who is now a talent buyer and concert promoter for The House of Blues. McAndrew describes a music agent, or booking agent, as an extra member of the band -- someone who opens doors of opportunity but also fixes booking problems for a band while it's on the road [source: StarPolish].

Music agents, sometimes also called talent agents, can open doors that a band can't on its own. That's because an agent spends time building the necessary contacts with concert promoters, sponsors and others who play a part in bringing musicians together with their audiences. And an agent knows the ins and outs of complicated contracts in ways that bands don't.

Being a music agent combines responsibility with the chance to help talented musicians gain the notice they deserve. Becoming a successful agent takes passion, contacts, hard work, people skills, sales expertise and a talent for hard-headed negotiations combined with a thorough knowledge of the legal complexities of the music industry.

What is a music agent? And how does an agent spend his or her day? How do music agents break into the business? Read on to find out.

What is a Music Agent?

Musician Brody Dalle of The Distillers, music agent Robbie Fraser and musician Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age attend a party.
Musician Brody Dalle of The Distillers, music agent Robbie Fraser and musician Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age attend a party.
© David Livingston/Getty Images

The simplest definition of a music agent is probably "a person who books live personal appearances for musicians or bands" [source: FreeAdvice.com]. But there's a lot more to being a music booking agent than just that. For example, they also can negotiate contracts to bring the band other types of work, such as radio or television appearances, or appearances in commercials and finding sponsors for tours.

Even booking a club or concert performance takes more than a phone call and a signed contract. An agent becomes familiar with concert venues and builds relationships with concert promoters to book bands into the places that'll best showcase their talents. Agents know the ins and outs of negotiating contracts and work to secure the best deal for their bands. In addition, agents work on tour routes, planning schedules that make sense physically and financially.

Music agents receive a percentage of the band's revenue from a performance. Because of that, they usually want to work with groups that they know will bring in an audience or have a recording company's support. Sometimes, though, a music agency will take a risk on a group that they think has the potential to become popular [source: American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP)].

Because music agencies act like employment agencies, they're heavily regulated, with guidelines set by state labor laws and unions. In California, for example, a music agency or other talent agency has to submit a detailed license application and file a $10,000 bond. Agencies may also be members of a music union, such as the American Federation of Musicians or the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, or be franchised by one of these unions. These agencies have to follow union rules on setting fees and how long contracts last [source: The Musician's Guide through the Legal Jungle].

What's a typical day like for a music agent? Here's a look at one agent's daily routine at International Creative Management, one of the largest talent agencies in the United States:

  • Clear voice mails and e-mails, starting about 10 a.m.
  • Make calls to concert promoters in a specific geographic region to give a band's available dates for shows.
  • Create a route for the tour and place holds on venues in the markets you want.
  • Gather offers from promoters, which include the money for the band and performance details.
  • Review the offers with the band's manager and the regional booking agent.
  • Decide which deals to accept, which to pass on and which to accept after working out details.
  • Continue until all tours are booked or the workday ends.
  • Spend most evenings attending client performances or checking out new bands. Talk to new bands' managers and record company contacts.

[source: StarPolish]

With those kind of hours, you need to have a real passion for music to be a successful music agent. Next, let's look at the other skills you'll need and how to break into the business.

Breaking into the Music Agent Business

Music agents inspect venues like the Hard Rock in Hollywood, Fla., where Chicago is performing.
Music agents inspect venues like the Hard Rock in Hollywood, Fla., where Chicago is performing.
© Larry Marano/Getty Images

Start in the mailroom. That may seem like odd advice, but many a successful music agent started out working in the mailroom of a large talent agency like Creative Arts Agency, International Creative Management or the William Morris Agency. There they gained experience, showed enthusiasm and worked their way up to music booking agent.

Billionaire David Geffen, founder of Asylum Records, for example, started in the mailroom at William Morris and then moved up to the agency's talent agent trainee program. He became one of the first agents representing music groups only, and he was one of the first to see the big-business potential of rock. From there, he went on to run his own record labels, Asylum, with artists like the Eagles and Joni Mitchell, and Geffen Records with groups like Aerosmith and Guns N' Roses [source: Media Now].

Booking agent Max McAndrew started in International Creative Management's mailroom, or agent training program, after earning a college degree. He stocked refrigerators, made coffee, sorted mail and delivered packages. His break came when an assistant music agent who had also served in the mailroom was promoted to agent. The agent gave McAndrew a spot as assistant music agent, and he was later promoted to music agent for club department bookings in the southeast [source: StarPolish].

Getting a college degree in music management or a related field is valuable but not totally necessary to becoming a music agent. Having some background in business, particularly sales, can be valuable, as can a solid understanding of the music industry, including the complexities of legal contracts and copyright issues.

What counts more is your passion for music and ability to make and keep relationships within the industry. You'll also want to be skilled in:

  • communications and marketing
  • negotiations and bargaining
  • research to keep up with industry developments
  • patience and listening
  • organization and administration
  • good judgment, both of bands' talent and people's character

[source: Skillset.org]

If you're looking for an agency where you can hone your skills, a college degree may be an advantage. Often schools can give you access to career centers and even internships or industry mentors. Also check out Pollstar, the trade publication for the concert industry. Besides listing classifieds in its publications, Pollstar sells annual directories,such as the one featuring booking agencies that includes agents' contact information.

Certain kinds of music probably attracts you more than others -- alternative, pop, classic, rock, hip hop, jazz or R&B. When you're looking for a place to start your career, search for agencies -- and agents -- who share your enthusiasm. Booking aging rockers probably won't help you make the contacts you need, if you're envisioning a career in hip hop.

While on the job, don't pass up opportunities to show what you can do or make contacts with assistant agents or agents who can help give you a hand in the industry. As they move up in their careers, they can bring you along, too.

Once you've soaked up all the knowledge you can from an agency, you may be ready to go out on your own. Let's see what it takes.

Starting Your Own Music Agency

Richard Kraft, left, and Laura Engel, center, of Kraft-Engel Management pose with their client, composer Philip Glass, right.
Richard Kraft, left, and Laura Engel, center, of Kraft-Engel Management pose with their client, composer Philip Glass, right.
© Evan Agostini/Getty Images

You've earned your stripes at a music agency and made a lot of contracts with musicians, concert promoters, venue managers and other booking agents. You have some clients lined up. And you'd like to call your shots about how you represent your talent. It's time, you think, to start your own agency.

Maybe it is, but before you make the leap, consider that being a music booking agent and running an agency require different skills. You'll gain freedom as an independent booking agent, or talent agent, but you'll also have the responsibility of running a small business. Particularly if you plan to have more than one agent and manage multiple clients, you'll need time, cash and determination.

To be successful, you'll need to be able to give positive answers to questions like these:

  • Are you a self-starter?
  • Can you get along well with different personalities?
  • Can you deal with a demanding client or an unreliable vendor if your business interests demand it?
  • Are you good at making decisions quickly under pressure?
  • Do you have the physical and emotional stamina to run a business?
  • Can you face six or seven 12 -hour workdays every week?
  • Do you plan and organize well?
  • Can you manage the financial and administrative details of a business?

[source: U.S. Small Business Administration]

If your answer is, "I'm ready!" think about how you're going to start. Do you want to work out of your home as a solo agent? Do you want to start like that, gain experience and capital and then build a bigger agency that can attract bigger clients? Or, do you want to get a loan and move right into the agency business with several employees?

Before you go after business capital, you'll need a clear idea of what's required to get your business running -- equipment and supplies, an office, staff and hired consultants, like an accountant and an attorney. Think about how much you can provide from your savings or other resources, and think conservatively so that you don't put your mortgage or your family at risk.

Then consider the options of where you can get a loan. You can go to a bank, of course, but you also might want to consider small business guaranteed loans, venture capital firms, commercial finance companies or a partnership with someone. Make sure you understand how your application will be evaluated and the terms of paying back the loan.

You can't start your own business without taking risks, but you'll also have the advantages of being your own boss, with greater earning potential and all of your hard work going to benefit yourself. And that may make the risk well worth taking.

For lots more information about music agents and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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