Music Blogs

Pearl Jam for £300: the agent v the promoter

  • By Trev@circlestudios
  • 1 February 2014

This week our resident record producer, Trev from Circle Recording Studios in Birmingham, considers the difference between booking agents and promoters and tells a story of a little known band...
So you'll remember back in an earlier blog I talked about promoters and how they make their money.  And more recently I talked about how you could take matters into your own hands by doing gig swaps and the like.  Well, today I'm going to talk about a way to get more gigs in cities and even countries you don't know.  Because funnily enough, bands at the top of their game, from Bastille to Iron Maiden, don't do gig swaps and, festivals aside, they rarely even deal directly with promoters. No. For the most part, the big boys book their gigs via a booking agent.
Now the booking agent is a very different animal from either the Big Fish or the Little Fish I mentioned back in this blog.
In simple terms the difference comes down to how they operate and how they get paid. You see, generally, the booking agent will be on a percentage of the guaranteed sum the band will get for every show booked by him. Usually around 10-15%. Which seems like a lot of money when you think that Wembley stadium has 90,000 seats and tickets generally cost upwards of £50 a head (let me do the maths for you: 15% of gross income would be £675,000). But on the other hand, this gives him a direct interest in negotiating a good deal on your behalf.  What's not to like? It follows that getting a good one on board and giving him the kind of information he needs to cut the best deal for you must be a priority (for the avoidance of doubt, I covered this stuff in my last blog).
Once you've got an agent on board he'll look at venues and on bills where he might book you profitably (if he doesn't think he can get a profitable gig out of you, he probably won't book the gig). If he thinks he can though, if asked, he'll also try to tie together gigs into a sensible route in which to do a tour for you.
At this point the booking agent calls those whose name can't be spoken (ya know, 'Promoters', oops I said it). The promoters then decide if they want to book local shows in each territory, gambling that the band can sell enough tickets to justify the gig and make them a profit.
Unlike the booking agent, who is on a set percentage of the band's fee, the promoter is on a cut of total income generated for the gig after costs.  In turn, the band get their guaranteed fee, plus any merch sales, and if they've got crowd pull, a bit more from extra ticket sales. All of which they need to cover their own overheads.
It should be noted that, in addition to him covering the costs of actually promoting the gig (posters, flyers, online campaign, street team etc) the promoter must also pay the venue costs (including PA, lights and staff) before he actually makes any money from the gig.   This means he is taking a gamble.  And the more he has to put into making the show a success, the bigger the gamble.  And the more he has to gamble the bigger cut he will want of the profits and the less of a guarantee the band (and therefore the booking agent) will get.
So you can see by now that the promoter is in a very different position from that of the booking agent. Because while both are on a percentage of profits, the promoter has to actually gamble his own money on a gig being successful.  Once the booking agent has done a bit of leg work negotiating the deal, he can just sit back and wait for his cheque to arrive.
As a little aside at this point, let me hammer home a message in case you missed it. While the best promoters will put a lot into making sure the show is a success, it's becoming rarer for music fans to turn out to a show on spec to hear a band that has no profile.  So, (and if you have read any of my previous rambles this will come as no surprise) unless you have been assiduous about cultivating your profile and fanbase and become ninjas at getting people out to see you gig, you have very little leverage to cut a good deal on either guarantees or ticket sales. It follows that both your profile and fanbase not only remain important but, if anything, become more important as you climb the greasy pole to stardom.
Now as any gambler's spouse will tell you, gambling is generally a bit of a mug's game because the odds are generally against you.  So this means that on the occasions you do win, you better make sure you win big! 
So imagine for a moment being a promoter booking a completely unknown American band to their first UK gig.  So, let's say this band had absolutely no profile in the UK at all.  And no fanbase. Sound like the kind of gig you'd put a lot of effort into if you were the promoter in question? Sound like the sort of gig where you'd offer the band a big guarantee? No.
But word has it that the promoter in our fictitious example had a long standing relationship with the booking agent and probably had his arm twisted up his back a bit.  And while he drove a hard bargain with the agent, (a £300 guarantee of which the agent's cut was a fixed 15% - which is £45 in real money) in most cases he would probably have been throwing his money away.  Only in this case the debut single of the unknown band, released to coincide with the UK tour, became an overnight hit, rocketing Pearl Jam into the spotlight and sending ticket sales through the roof.  And while the booking agent had agreed a lower percentage for the band on sales which exceeded the guarantee, everyone won in the end.
On this occasion, the promoter's gamble paid off. But chances are, he would never have booked the band in the first place if it weren't for the booking agent. The moral of this tale? When you are ready to take it to the next level, find yourself a good booking agent, look after him well, and give him all the ammo he needs to cut the best possible deal for you.
 Trev, is a record producer and Chief Engineer at one of the UK's top studios, Circle Recording Studios in Birmingham.  Check out his personal blog at www.circlestudios.co.uk/blog.  This week he owes a debt of gratitude to his old mate Chris Dale, whose idea he nicked to write this blog. Chris has his own blog over on www.metaltalk.net which, if you are of the metal persuasion, you should definitely check out!