BOOKING PROMOTION 101 - Hiring Your Own In-House Booking Agent
New for 2016: All serious entertainment companies have their own in-house staff: record labels have their own airplay promoters; book publishers have their own publicists; agencies have their own agents, etc. Most of you people reading this, however, are individuals and have no staff, and thus need to hire out for everything. Well of course you can hire out, which is how everyone starts, but at some point and under certain conditions, it will make more sense to hire your very own first staff member. And unless you already have so many payments from venues (income) coming in that you cannot do all the paid gigs that are offered to you, then your first staff should be: an agent! Don't make the mistake of thinking you need to hire a "better" music producer or a "more solid" studio engineer; these people won't make a single additional sale for you. An agent will. And although technically, an agent on your staff is not really an "agent" (is really just an employee), we'll still call them an agent so as to not introduce more new names.
For an artist/label, and for the purpose of this article, the main job of your new staff member will be to get in one-to-one communication with places/venues that can pay you at least $XXXX amount of money per gig. Here are some amounts that might apply to you in the USA:
Established tribute act: $3000 USD
New tribute act: $500
Established cover act: $1200
New cover act: $500 or splits
Established original act with some covers: $300 or splits
New original act with some covers: $200 or splits
Established original act without covers: $200 or splits
Established original act without covers: $100 or splits
Of course the genre is important too; blues and straight jazz will generally make the most, and the acoustics will generally make the least. Private shows/gigs will also pay more, and public gigs less. If you are new to this work, one of the biggest things to get used to is the fact that venues don't care how good the music is; they only care how many people will be paying at the door to see you, or, how many extra drinks and desserts customers will be buying because you are playing there. Customers usually don't go to places to hear new music; they go to eat, or to party, or to hear music they grew up with. And venues won't believe you when you tell them lots of people will show up, either. So the most powerful thing your agent will have is signed reference letters from the owners/managers of previously-played venues that say you did great and were paid well, and you brought in a lot of people. This information is then communicated, by your agent, to the venues and/or events.
Your new agent person must be good on the phone, but of course email is also needed. So the bare minimum you will need for this person to work is an office, a phone, and at least 20 hours a week. The one exception to a phone would be if you are promoting only to under-$300 gigs, which sometimes you can do with email only. But any seriously-paying gig is probably not going to take you seriously if only emailed is used, so we'll assume therefore you need a phone and a phone person.
The biggest cost is going to be hourly pay. In the larger cities, a person decent on the phone but with no promotion experience is about $15/hr, and in the small towns is about $12/hr. (An email-only person, such as a college student, can start at minimum wage). They will be mixing the job in with their other jobs in order to get a full income, so you need to be flexible in your hours and days, but 20 hours a week, over 3 to 5 days, should be enough to promote to a small gig panel of 50 to 100 places/contacts. Yes you could hire experienced agents that worked at agencies, or at labels, but for them to stay it's going to be at least $25/hr for someone with a few years of experience, and $35 to $45/hr for 10+ years experience who can really close deals.
The other obvious option is to have the phone person work on a commission basis only, or an hourly+commission basis, taking a percentage of each gig-payment the same way that outside agencies do. This is certainly possible, but will require a lot more searching and teaching on your part, and if you can't do enough searching and teaching then it's not going to work. So we'll just focus on straight hourly pay here.
Monday and Tuesday are probably mandatory, followed by Thursday. Morning hours are important for non-bar gigs: the people/places need to be called as early as 8am their time; if you are East Coast, this is easy, but if you are West Coast, prepare to be on the phones early. Bar gigs can be contacted with later schedules.
Most of the agent's time is going to be spent dialing the phone, waiting on hold (mostly for food places), and leaving messages, so you almost always need a second person to do the setup work: dialing and holding and messages. This "dialing and holding" job is actually a full time career at major labels! When the venue person gets on the line, the assistant gives the call to the agent. This keeps the agent in continuous conversations, and is the most effective use of their time. An assistant for this position is much easier to find, since they do not need a great phone voice or people skills like the agent does; just lots of patience. This assistant person is good for minimum wage, up to $10/hr. Without this assistant to help the agent, you are probably going to be shocked at how much time your $15/hr person spends just staring at the phone waiting for someone to talk to. Try it yourself if you don't believe it: talk to 100 of the correct booking people in just 20 hours.
Next up is your office. Larger cities and smaller towns are about the same: A small 100 square foot office is $200 to $500/mo, and is plenty of room for 4 people to work. Don't expect things to work out well if you try to have the agent work out of your house or apartment; you can try it for a few months, but the staff will probably be short lived unless there is an office to go to. It just feels to weird to them. And this is certainly not a job that can be done at a coffee shop, or at an open shared-workspace office; phone people need to be LOUD and FUNNY to make the best impression with venue people. Remember that venue people are used to being in customer-filled places with a lot of noise.
Now the good news: The phone system nowadays can just be a voip (internet phone), which compared to ten years ago is dirt cheap. Or of course, a cell. The phone system MUST be able to catch all incoming calls, so that NO venue person gets a recording. If a venue person calls back an unknown indie act/label (you) from a message they got, they expect a human to talk to and usually will not give you another chance, especially when their next call is probably to a real agent with acts that have an audience. If your agent cannot get the incoming call, the assistant must get it.
Once you get your office and agent (and hopefully an assistant) going, there will be about a month warm up time for them to get the hang of things, and this is with you showing them what to do. Another great thing is that the agent will always be asking you for more hours, so if your venue payments kick in and you need more help, they are right there ready to go. If however you add on the work of calling radio, or stores, or press, you might consider getting a different person because the type of calls (and databases and knowledge) are so different that your agent can get easily confused. Plus it's a good backup plan too, to have a different person for those jobs, because if your agent quits then you still have part of your operation running.
Next topic: Home Based Gigs, or Tours?
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