When Your Agent Truly Works For You

This weekend, Drew McManus and I had a brief email exchange about the Chicago Tribune piece he discusses on Adaptistration today. My organization and most of my presenting partners don’t contract for orchestra related services. Chamber music groups are about it. However, we deal with many of the same agents. I mentioned in an email to Drew that we hadn’t really seen a reduction in fees this year. However, if the reduction in programming I have seen among my partners is echoed across the country, I thought perhaps we would see low fees in the following season. I also suggested that maybe the agents would boost the fees of the marquee artists to offset the loss of revenue from others and the A-list artists would only appear in the places that could bear the higher costs but suffer no significant loss of income.

I hoped that there might be a silver lining and the economic downturn might provide opportunities where the quality emerging artist finds success doing what they have always done–work their butts off providing a consistently great product for little money, make a reputation for said effort and gain employment at venues which may not have considered them a year or two ago.

Drew responded such a thing may not come to pass under the auspices of agents. He noted that a lot of the emerging and mid-level people had been increasingly marginalized by their agencies over the years in favor of names that sold themselves. (I am greatly paraphrasing.)

I wonder if agents really can hold all the cards anymore now that technology enables artists to to make direct appeals and handle inquiries online. I am not sure about the situation with classical music but from what I have heard, fewer presenters are attending the booking conferences in favor of researching prospective performances online. This from an agent whose artists seem pretty happy.

How long though before presenters move from following up with an agent after a visit to the agency website to corresponding with the artist directly? There have already been a couple events where I have worked so extensively with the artist, I wondered why I had spoken to the agent at all. It seemed all the agent did was assure the artist they weren’t being cheated.

That might be the type of model that emerges. If an artist is touring, it is difficult to field questions and make decisions about future dates. Some centralized source that manages information will likely be important. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be a formal agency anymore. It could be a cooperative effort by artists where employees located across the country work from home to respond to inquires. Artists would still be represented by an agent(s), but in this case, the artists retain much more power in choosing which people will represent them.

If the promotional information all resides on the artists’ websites, all that is needed is a well designed central web presence to differentiate the members from others of their genre in a web search and help move it to the top of the search. Obviously, there shouldn’t be too many artists listed on the central site lest the visitor get overwhelmed by the choices.

Actually, heck with one site. If the cooperative is smart, they have a lot of specialty sites to appeal to different niches. The one for bars and clubs positions the members with one type of image. The one for colleges gives another. If there are 40-50 groups in a cooperative maybe an individual group appears with 15 others on one site that appeals to colleges, with a slightly different mix on one for small venues, on another for clubs and another for folk festivals.

Personal contact with presenters and other probable buyers is likely to always retain some importance. So perhaps the cooperative arranges for one or more of their telecommuters living near a city with a high frequency of tours to attend their performances as each group passes through so their agent can speak intelligently at conferences.

Depending on the design of the cooperatives, there could still be a lot of inequities in the representation. The groups which bring more money to the cooperative either directly or by the frequency of their performances might demand more prominent placement on websites or aggressive pushes at conferences. The larger groups may insist on agents in places their tours frequent more often leaving the others more weakly represented. They may run into a Catch-22–the small groups insist their agents book them in Raleigh so the agent can see them. Unfortunately, because the agent hasn’t seen them, she can’t speak with enough conviction to get the group a booking in Raleigh. (The solution being, if the closest the group gets to the agent is Atlanta, buy a plane ticket to Atlanta.) Over time, a group might move from one cooperative to another that better represents their philosophies.

Maybe these sort of arrangements won’t emerge but I feel pretty confident in saying that the continued development and use of technology is going to change the agent-artist dynamic over the next few years. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the next five years brought a significant shift with agents either playing a much diminished role or being valuable for entirely different reasons than they are now.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


1 thought on “When Your Agent Truly Works For You”

  1. You’re so right about the agents or “middle men” of any type losing power. Perfect example . . . I just did an interview with someone for a paper. Frankly, I was the second choice, but the reporter got to me right away through my online presence, as opposed to the first choice. Last I heard, the reporter was still waiting for a call back from the Press Agent to even pitch the story to the first choice. And the reporter’s deadline has now passed. Access and availability in this ever quickening world is more important than ever.

    Ken Davenport


Leave a Comment