This is where a good booking agent comes in. Booking agents have the insight and experience to view your gigs through both strategic and economic lenses, with the contacts and reach to place you where you need to be. After all, where you play and who you play on the bill with might be more important than how much you make early on in your career. This is why a good booking agent can “make or break” an artist, as Darren James-Thomas says.
James-Thomas is a music industry veteran with 18 years of experience. Before he ran his own booking agency, he worked in marketing at EMI Records, Sony BMG and Live Nation. Eventually he became a junior booking agent at Elite Music Management, but left after four years to launch his own agency with his partner. And for the past eight years, he’s been director of the Brighton-based FMLY Agency, which handles management and booking duties for bands and DJs like CCL, Butch, Arctic Lake, Diamond Thug, DJ Koze, Lil Louis, Marquis Hawks, RALPH TV, and Matador.
While in the past, common sense dictated that an artist wouldn’t get signed until they were making enough money for their agent. This however is not necessarily true today as James-Thomas states. “I sign artists now that obviously don’t make us any money to begin with, but I believe in them as musicians and I think they are going to go and do something,” he says. This is partially because there are so many agents these days, and they’re all competing to scoop up hot talent before anyone else does. “You kind of have to pick them up early,” he says. But the difference between being a hot bedroom talent and an artist that booking agents are bidding for is a big one. And getting noticed for bands and DJs can mean different things.
For DJs, James-Thomas advises taking almost any gig early on. Your local pub, club or an opening slot at your mate’s festival will do — as long as you’re getting experience and meeting other, similar artists. “Make friends with other DJs who are coming through, and befriend them on social media,” James-Thomas says. “But don’t be a stalker,” he laughs. “Just be yourself.” Not only will befriending other DJs with more experience help land you more gigs, but they’ll probably have booking agent contacts, and be able to advise you on who you should speak to and when you should take your next step.
James-Thomas’ advice for bands is similar, but also very different. Like DJs, they also need to find a supportive network of like-minded musicians. “I’ve ended up with a collective of live artists from Brighton, but weirdly, most of them have come from Essex. One’s a jazz musician, another is a bedroom lo-fi band, and another is a punk band. So they all sound very different, but they’re all friends. They run in the same circles.” When there’s a buzz around a musician collective, word spreads. And eventually it reaches the keen ears of booking agents. Where James-Thomas’ advice for bands differs, however, is how often bands should take gigs. Where DJs want to take as many as they can — even if they play to several empty rooms — bad gigs are much more likely to hurt the reputation of certain bands.
“One thing you don’t want to do is play to 10 people in London, because word gets around that no one came and saw the show, so you have to be selective,” James-Thomas says. But that’s not necessarily the case for punk bands, because like DJs, “it’s all about people seeing the performance.”
Bands should also spend a lot of time practicing, and take every live show as seriously as possible. You never know who’ll be in the audience. “The Great Escape is obviously right on my doorstep, and it’s hundreds of bands — a full-on showcase. Sometimes you go see something you’d never have expected to watch and you’re absolutely blown away by them. And if you’re lucky enough to be that band, that’s amazing. Just be ready for anyone to see you.”
Bands and artists who are social media averse will be happy knowing that big numbers don’t necessarily mean what they used to. A large follower count doesn’t always translate into high ticket sales, nor does it mean an artist has a serious fanbase — Facebook fans often go as easily as they come. James-Thomas sees social media mostly as a “scrapbook” for a band or DJ’s biggest accomplishments — their high profile interviews, gigs, or releases. If booking agents want to know more about you after a show and they can’t quickly glean what you’ve been up to from your profile, they might assume you’ve been up to very little. Interactions with other artists, especially bigger artists, also show booking agents that you’re involved in the scene and know people. Though remember, keep it natural. “If they’ve got a rapport and banter with certain other artists online, that’s a good thing, because it means they obviously are connected,” James-Thomas says.
Where social media can also come in handy is helping to get an artist’s name out there. One of the artists James-Thomas is currently working with has millions of streams on Spotify. But because of the anonymous nature of Spotify — most streams came from playlists that listeners let play in the background — the artist is still largely unknown, and is difficult to book. Social media can help connect the dots. So if you’re a hot producer who’s looking for an agent to help get you gigs, increasing your social media presence is a great place to start.
Once your profile is big enough, or you’ve managed to get lucky and impress the right people, booking agents should come knocking. But until that point, you’ll still need gigs. And while it may be tempting to ask your closest friend to do your bookings for you, it’s not always advisable. “I’ve just seen so many people that have been managed by friends and they have no idea what they’re doing,” James-Thomas says. Remember, the agent takes 20 percent. For a struggling artist, that money needs to go a long way. And for a band, every gig is important. If things don’t go well and you need to let your friend go, suddenly your band has lost an agent, money, and valuable time, while the friendship is likely in tatters. That’s why James-Thomas and other agents recommend doing your own bookings early on. Not only will you save money, but it’s a great way to meet the right people who can eventually connect you with a qualified agent down the road.
“If the artist does it themselves, they’ll be more likely to form a relationship with the venue or promoter. And quite regularly, promoters and venues get in touch with us when an artist is looking.”
Once the booking agents do come knocking, James-Thomas says it’s good to know what to avoid. For instance, trustworthy agents won’t give you a contract. “If some guy is trying to put a contract in front of you, especially as a new artist, just steer clear,” James-Thomas says. Similarly, if an agent is making promises that sound too good to be true, they almost certainly are. “No one can promise you anything,” he says. “I can’t promise anyone anything.”
In a nutshell, finding a good agent is about finding someone you click with, and someone who’s honest. “We’re quite honest and upfront, which I think bodes well.” But it’s also a matter of timing. Once you’ve got some gigs (that you booked on your own) under your belt, you don’t have to sign with the first agent who comes along. Wait six months, until you get a little bit bigger or have done a little bit more. You’ll keep meeting new people, your music industry instincts will hone, and you’ll eventually find the right agent for you.
James-Thomas also recommends thinking about where you might like to go with your career in the future. A great booking agent will want to work closely with you on achieving your creative goals. So if techno is and will always be your thing, agencies that only deal with techno DJs will probably be able to better cater to your needs. They’ll have contacts at all the right clubs and festivals, and they’ll know how to strategically position you in front of the right audience at the right time while making sure you’re earning what you’re owed. So keep working hard. And when the right agent comes along, you’ll know exactly what you need to do.