If ever you’ve set up a tour for your band, you know what a logistical nightmare it can be just to make sure your bandmates actually show up to the van, let alone finding venues willing to book you and somehow breaking even each night. Imagine doing that shit. This is the domain of the booking agent, the air traffic controllers of the touring world. I interviewed Nanotear Booking’s Nathan Carson and The Agency Group’s Dave Shapiro for the Killing Is My Business column in Decibel issue 114. Here is the unabridged Testimony of the Agents:
How did you first start booking tours?
Dave: My first job in booking was about 10 years ago. Equal Vision Records hired me to be their in-house booking agent. It was essentially my job to get the bands on the label, that did not have agents, on the road.
Nathan: I have been the “string-puller” in pretty much every band I’ve ever been in. In the ‘90s, I was the guy who would bring a demo tape to the door guy at a club and then call the booker a week later.
By 2001, my band Witch Mountain had our first album out and we’d been making our name online. We had also been supporting pretty much every single doom-oriented band that passed through Oregon. When we got an invitation to play the Emissions from the Monolith II festival in Ohio, I booked the tour for us, DIY-style.
I had been on tours before with other bands as a merch guy (a great experience which will let you know if you can handle the lifestyle), or playing in my own band while supporting bigger groups. And I had been the webmaster for the Billions Corporation—a really high-end, boutique booking agency from Chicago that is still one of the best in the business. So I’d had a chance to study the routes they posted for their acts.
In those days, there was basically one stoner rock/doom metal band in each state. We all knew each other, and we were all connected via Stonerrock.com, which was in its heyday at the time, along with Man’s Ruin records.
Over e-mail I booked several tours for us, which got better each time around. Eventually, a newer group of friends of ours called YOB started picking up steam and asked me to book tours for them. I did two, and they were doing better than breaking even. At that point I realized that, for better or worse, this is something that I’m good at. I made the decision in late 2003, and within a week I had about a dozen artists for my roster. Ten years later, I work with nearly 30 groups, and have to turn down others on a daily basis.
Where do you find most of the bands on your roster?
Dave: All from different places. Sometimes people pass them on to me…managers, label people, other bands I work with. Other times I just find the band, whether it be through searching the internet or keeping track of different labels and regularly checking who they’ve signed.
Nathan: Most of the bands I work with are people I’ve known for years, or are international acts that have contacted me, or been referred by a friend. I like that almost all the bands from the early days of Nanotear were people who had slept on my floor, or who had put me up when I was in their town. Though no two Nanotear acts sound the same, I have tried to make a community of it.
Do you have legal contracts you draw up with your bands?
Dave: As agents we do not have contracts with our artists.
Nathan: [At Nanotear] there are no contractual obligations (though other agencies often have them, in order to keep bands they don’t trust, I presume). If a band or the agency is unhappy at the end of a tour, we are free to part ways. This has rarely ever happened and, I’m happy to say, never on bad terms.
After you’ve agreed to take on a band, when is the first time that money changes hands?
Nathan: It generally takes me 3-6 months to get paid for any work I do. It’s all on a percentage basis with the bands. They pay me when the tour is over—though sometimes a tour passes through Portland at a mid-point, and I’ll get paid half then and half when they’re done.
Do bookers tend to charge the same to every band they represent, or do some offer tiers of service?
Dave: Standard agent fee is 10%. This is only from the band’s show fee, not merch or record royalties, etc.
Nathan: I always charge bands a reduced fee for the first tour. I see it as the learning curve, and the chance for us to build mutual trust. It is generally more work for both parties and less rewarding than subsequent tours. So after the first trip, we discuss how things can be improved on both sides, and then, provided we continue working together, the normal rate is invoked for all subsequent tours.
The only way the service is really tiered is that once bands start making significantly higher guarantees, I offer a reduction in my percentage, as a gesture of good faith that our hard work has paid off. That’s a blanket deal for all the bands I work with that earn at that level.
Where does the venue usually make the most money from a show?
Dave: Venues make money from ticket sales, alcohol sales, parking, ticket fees that are added on top of tickets (ticket rebates), etc. I think where they make the most money is circumstantial. For example, their bar probably does better off of a Social Distortion show than off of an All-American Rejects show.
Talk about guarantees. What are they, how difficult are they to get, and are they always a good thing to get?
Nathan: A guarantee is good for two reasons: one, it is insurance that a band will be paid at a show that they presumably drove hours to reach. With gas at nearly $4/gallon, the cost of renting or maintaining a vehicle, and feeding, drinking and housing a group of people traveling together, it’s really important for bands to be paid enough to break even on these expenses, and hopefully to profit.
With the pressure of covering that guarantee, promoters are more likely to do their job well. With no duress or possibility of losing money, it’s often just another heartbreaking night at work for them. Promoters all too often let the advertising go slack on the cheaper shows.
I think there’s an important balance that agents and promoters should strike that is a fair market value for the band in question, dependent on the day of the week and many other key factors, and that allows the band to earn a bonus if the show does well. And unless you’re playing real hellholes, or being booked by some shrewd, uncaring asshole, then that’s what we are all trying to do every night.
Guarantees are not always necessary, though. Most of the time, if an agent is willing to reduce the risk to the club and work on a percentage basis, the venue will offer a much greater split of the door proceeds. And confident agents and bands can often gamble and win in such scenarios, which is always good for everyone. Clubs LOVE to pay out bonuses because it’s a reflection of success and good will to all involved.
Is it part of your job to negotiate with venues to secure the best deals for your bands?
Dave: Yes, indeed. It is our job to negotiate on behalf of the artist and work to get the most advantageous deal for the artist that we can.
If a band on your roster goes on tour with another band that you don’t book, how does that affect the work you do – and how you get paid?
Nathan: There are tiers to this service. As the agent, I’m still entitled to a reduced cut of the band’s earnings. If I issue professional contracts for the tour on behalf of my client, I charge a bit more. If that’s not necessary or desired, I charge less. The reason I charge for tours I don’t book is to help offset the amount I generally lose during the earlier phases of a band’s career. It’s a close relationship and has to stay close for it to work.
How does the accounting usually work – i.e. do you rely on bands to accurately report door sales and such?
Nathan: I trust every band I’ve ever worked with 100%. I’ll check up if there’s missing data or a discrepancy, but only to make sure we all have the right amounts. I wish I kept better records of these histories but I’m usually too busy booking the next tour to sit around drafting spreadsheets and final accounts. Someday! Having said that, I know exactly how everyone’s doing. I can’t control the weather or fix your transmission, but otherwise I’ve got it all pretty dialed in.
What kind of show tends to be the most lucrative for the band? What about for the booking agent?
Dave: This is also circumstantial. Some artists do really well with college gigs, others make more of their money from club gigs, etc. Wherever the artist makes more money, the agent makes more, with the exception of certain festivals [that] might not pay a band a large fee but [where] the band has very large merch sales. In that scenario the agent may not make as much, but the artist could have a very lucrative day
What’s your approach when you book a show in a city or venue where you’ve never been?
Nathan: I’ll pay attention to the routing other bands have used, and I also ask for local recommendations over social networks like Facebook. I have a few thousand friends and even more that follow me. So if I ask for leads on Billings, Montana, I’ll probably have a couple of good suggestions of promoters, bands, clubs, or at least scenesters who live there, within a matter of hours.
Agents are connectors, the nexus of personal and professional networks. You can’t underestimate how many pulses we have to keep our fingers on at once, or how quickly we can find a new one in some uncharted area. We are resourceful by nature, but we are constantly battling the sparsely cultured vastness of the North American territory. It’s tricky fucking business.
Say you’re booking an early tour for a new band on your roster. What kind of information do you need from the band to book the most successful tour possible?
Dave: If the band toured prior to being with us we will ask where their best markets were to get a gauge on where we should play. We will also ask where some of the weaker shows were to maybe try and avoid them. We also might look at different stats, radio play in each market, record sales in each market, etc. This can help us figure out how best to route a tour based on how we believe it will perform in certain markets.
Describe the relationship between booking shows and promoting them. Do the same people often do them both?
Nathan: I certainly used to do both more often. Now I try to promote less, as it’s a riskier position to be in, and requires you (most times) to be at the show. The promoter has to help curate the bill, negotiate, sign a contract, advertise, PROMOTE, and then usually help manage the show and settle the funds at the end of the night. Don’t underestimate what a tough job it is to be a promoter. When I meet one who really cares and does a good job, I really value that person.
Booking shows is the flipside of the coin. The agent represents one or more of the artists on the bill, and negotiates the best guarantee and/or percentage on behalf of the client. It may take a while to get paid, but unless you’re getting 10% of 0, you will eventually get something.
I do still put on the annual Fall into Darkness festival, and promote assorted shows throughout the year. I am particularly likely to get involved if one of my clients is passing through Portland on tour. If I’m the promoter, I know the show will be handled properly, advertised well, and that the band will have a good experience. They often stay at my house afterward as well. It’s a bit of personal touch that I try to provide. Often the good will tends to come back around with force when I’m out on my own tours. And that’s always really nice.
A lot of the bands you rep are signed to reputable labels. How closely do you work with the record label when you’re putting together a tour?
Dave: Very closely. More closely with the managers than the labels, but the labels are surely involved in the discussion from a strategizing side of things and also marketing.
At a large firm like The Agency Group, is there any mandate to package together multiple bands on your roster when it makes sense genre-wise?
Dave: No. Our first goal is to do whatever is best for our artist. If touring with artists represented by a different agency than our own is a good situation, we will do it just as quickly as putting them with artists of our own. The goal is always to put the artist in the best situation possible, regardless of who their tour-mates are represented by.
What’s the advantage of working with an experienced booker as opposed to booking a tour yourself?
Nathan: With a professional agent, the routing will be smarter, the money will be better, and you will experience this thing called “hospitality,” which means you will be fed a hot meal, and provided with enough beer, water and towels to enjoy the whole show experience, and not just your time on stage.
Also, most artists are very good at music, and not very good at keeping track of fine details or handling their own business. I think most bands dream of the day that they can focus purely on their music, and leave the rest of their affairs to the able hands of a great and trusted team that includes a manager, publicist, booking agent, lawyer and accountant.
Of course, I am also a DIY booker that still handles my own personal band after 16 years. I’m not about to hand over the reins to someone else. So I’m definitely not saying people shouldn’t book their own tours. I will say that bands should be consistently drawing at least fifty people in their hometown before they decide to start touring regionally. The arteries are clogged with bands that have no business being out on the road yet. Please don’t feel entitled to tour if you haven’t done a bit of hard work first.
What would you say distinguishes a great booker from a sucky one?
Nathan: A great booker cares about the band and the promoter and tries to ensure that both have a great show experience. A sucky booker treats bands like racehorses, overcharges promoters, and generally makes promises that may not be kept. You can tell a lot about an agent by its roster. Bands that take music seriously as art work with one kind of agent, and bands that are purely focused on success work with another.
Is there anything unique about booking metal or “extreme” bands, as distinct from any other type of act?
Dave: The unique thing about this is finding promoters that understand the bands. Some of the bigger promoters may not know who they are or understand what it’s about. So we have to dig deep to find the right ones. Sometimes they’re the right promoters in terms of promoting the shows in the right ways, but they’re the wrong promoters on a professional level. It can make doing what we do difficult at times.
What’s one thing that you’ve learned from being in Witch Mountain that you’ve used in your booking career?
Nathan: Witch Mountain has turned down a lot of offers and contracts over the years. We still own everything we’ve done and never compromised for money. I try to keep the same ethic at Nanotear—if there’s a question between doing something right or making a little more money, I’m never motivated by the dough. Money comes and goes, but integrity is forever.
What’s the kookiest tour or show you remember booking?
Dave: I’m actually replying to this e-mail while on the flight home from it. One of my artists is Hanson, and with Hanson we rent out a whole resort in Jamaica once a year and sell the rooms to the fans. The band then plays each night on the beach and does activities during the day with the fans. Pretty unique idea, and not like any other shows I’ve ever booked. Super fun though. This was our second year doing it.
What’s the most stressful tour or show that you’ve ever booked?
Nathan: The Nanotear SXSW 2011 showcase would be hard to beat. From the audience perspective, it was a smash success–amazing performances and a great crowd. But for me, the day began with an overnight drive from Las Cruces, NM to Austin, TX. We picked up YOB from the airport mid-afternoon then dropped them downtown at their Brooklyn Vegan showcase day show. The rest of us were en route to YOB’s hotel to shower and nap after an excruciating haul when the rental van died in rush hour traffic, with a trailer full of gear attached.
I stood in the street, sweaty and tired, talking to cops and waving honking cars past. Eventually, a tow truck that could handle a van and trailer arrived and took us as close to the venue as the festival allowed. Many streets are closed during SXSW, and this tow truck + van + trailer was quite a monstrosity to maneuver through those crowded streets. We all ended up loading the gear from the trailer off the back of the tow truck and carried it three city blocks to the stage. Once the trailer was empty, we sent our truck to off to be repaired, right around 5:59PM, just as the shop was closing for the night.
We’d made it to the club on time and all the bands had arrived. We set up our backline to share, and found that our ace soundman had missed his flight. So we were stuck with some kid who had already been running the venue’s board since noon. He was tired and cranky when we got there. Imagine working with him for the next six hours, while also trying to appease eight bands/clients, shake hands with hundreds of industry folks and fans, and sort out vehicles and hotels over the phone.
Oh yeah, I also had to perform with Witch Mountain as main support to YOB and Agalloch that night. Luckily, we killed it. I just had to shut everything else off and think only about the drums for 30 minutes. Best 30 minutes of that day by far. It was the first time Chris Bruni from Profound Lore saw us live, and we were signed by him the same year.
Catching a cab at 2am on a Saturday night at SXSW is a good trick. And while we waited, I got the call from YOB that their rooms had been given away because we never made it to check-in earlier. Because we’d broken down on the way there in the first place. I raised hell with the hotel but it didn’t do much good since the place was literally bursting with people on the busiest night of the year. So YOB ended up sleeping on benches in the lobby of the hotel until a room opened at 9am the next morning.
Agalloch on the other hand was not going to find rooms in Austin that night. Besides which, we were already on the hook for three of them many miles away.
It took at least an hour (and by now it was 3am or later) to even find a mini-van taxi that would fit all those Agalloch bodies. Once we flagged one down, the Ethiopian cab driver became somewhat terrified of us, and revealed that by law, Austin cabs can only carry four people at a time, regardless if it’s a mini-van.
I am a Jedi, and I used the Force like never before, telling the driver that he was going to make an exception for us. I never blinked or broke eye contact with him while I physically pushed the members of Agalloch and crew into the van and promised the guy a big tip. He made them huddle down like refugees until they were out of the city. By the time he dropped them off some 60 miles away, he’d decided it was a great story and adventure. And yes, he was paid a big tip.
I stayed in town, three to a bed in the lovely Fred Pessaro’s room (thank you Fred!). Aesop Dekker and Uta Plotkin were the stalwart champions who stayed with me. Later that morning, on three hours sleep, we collected the van from the service station with a new starter, loaded all of the equipment into the trailer, and drove out to meet with Agalloch.
By this time, I’d had three hours sleep in 40+ hours. All I could think about was the rendezvous with Agalloch and their driver. I picked them up at their hotel, climbed into the passenger seat and prepared to descend into a coma. Within five minutes, it was horrifyingly clear that the driver we hired had never pulled a trailer before. He had our van rocking back and forth at freeway speed and was panicking. I talked him down and got him to try the pedal on the left called the “brake.” Once safely stopped, I climbed into the driver’s seat and drove most of the rest of the day, which blissfully ended at a hotel in Louisiana where we sadly missed our New Orleans show, but thankfully lived to tell about it.
I still recall that show and experience as a big success though. It was rough, and I did have one moment where the overwhelming urge to just pick a direction and run that way for as long as I could struck me. But in the end, I handled all of it, took care of everyone. And the show went on.
Nathan Carson is owner of Nanotear Booking Agency, which currently books Agalloch, Corrupted, Primordial and 25 others. He’s also the drummer of Witch Mountain.
Dave Shapiro is Vice President at The Agency Group and co-owner of the Scream It Like You Mean It tour. Dave personally represents Godflesh, Jesu, Whitechapel and many others. He also co-owns an excellent grilled cheese joint in Los Angeles.