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What's Going On?

In my last column, I took a stab at exploring why reps may decide to quit and move on to something else. It is an issue that everyone in the music industry needs to be concerned about since there do not seem to be enough good reps out there to handle the population of good, working artists that are seeking representation. The quick answer is that the economics of the business model are, to say the least, challenging. Add an environment that is periodically disdainful, if not downright hostile, and it's not hard to figure out why this is not on the top of the list on Career Day. Where do these misconceptions and/or attitudes about artist reps come from?

My thanks to David Tamulevich (of Tamulevich Artist Management) who got me thinking about this when he pointed out that many of perceptions are based on a totally irrelevant model although it appears to have similarities on the surface. Some people think of the stereotypical Hollywood agent, representing the megastar (who is also, by the way, making megabucks). The rep is seen as a cog in the wheel of a large organization that is only interested in lining it's own pockets. This model can lead you astray in a myriad of fascinating ways. The first is economic. Artists are sometimes surprised to learn that, although there really isn't anything like an "industry standard", commissions are running at 15% and up. There is still a lingering feeling that 10% is sufficient. 10% is a fine percentage if you are working with Madonna's six figures per show. It gets a whole lot harder to crunch the numbers if you are looking at an annual gross of $30,000 rather than ten times that figure per event. If an artist is doing a hundred $300 dates a year, the rep would be working for about $58 a week. 15% of that same figure yields a whopping $86.50 weekly. As you take a cold, hard look at the numbers, it becomes clear that there needs to be a certain gross being realized to make this all work. The lower the gross, the higher the commission needs to be to make this work for everyone. If the gross is too low, it may be impossible to interest a rep at all or you may need to look at paying a monthly minimum against a percentage of the gross. In some cases, reps are moving in to taking a percentage of product sales to make the numbers work.

I suspect that the "Madonna model" is also the root of some of the contemptuous treatment aimed at reps. Rather than being seen as a partner in the equation, the rep is viewed as a barrier between the presenter and the artist. Fred Kaiser, longtime talent buyer for the Philadelphia Folk Festival, said that he is always surprised when venues don't want to deal with reps. For himself, he finds it is far easier to talk openly with a rep rather than the artist about his decision not to offer a booking at any given moment. Since they are oriented toward the business end of things, they are often more efficient in sending off paperwork and/or publicity materials.

So why would a presenter see the rep as a barrier rather than the partner in the team who is handling the business end of things so that the artist is free to pursue the artistic end? In some cases, the presenter started off dealing with the artist and doesn't want to make a switch to anyone else. They assume that dealing with a rep automatically means that the artist's fee is going to increase. That is hardly a given. It is, however, true that generally an artist getting a representative is an indication that their career is accelerating. If they are starting to move to another level, part of that move is going to be increasing fees. A fee increase may coincide with the rep's involvement but the rep is not necessarily the cause of the increase.

For some presenters, part of the payoff for what they are doing is interacting with the artist and they don't really want to deal with anyone else. While this is understandable, those presenters have to understand that the performer has, for whatever reason, made a business decision to remove him/herself from the booking process. One of my artists said that he truly liked doing bookings - he enjoyed the interaction with presenters and found the process rewarding in its own way. For him, the decision to get a rep involved was based solely on not having the time to do it anymore.

There are presenters who prefer to work with the artist because they feel - and often rightly so - that they can get a better deal that way. By in large, it is easier to go to the bargaining table for someone else (there's a reason why all those lawyers are so busy!) than it is for yourself. There's also no denying that there are some performers who will agree to almost anything to get on a stage. Getting a rep involved often moves things to a more business-like model and the venue may not welcome that.

There is a genuine concern on the part of presenters about whether artists are made aware of offers they make. Again, I suspect the culprit here is the "Madonna model". It is unlikely that her representatives are keeping her current on every offer that comes in and I doubt if she wants them to. However, our scale is far less grand. In general, I let my artists know about every offer that comes in, even when there is a scheduling conflict that makes the date not possible from the onset. I also keep them aware of ongoing discussions. It's their career. It's not too surprising that they would take an active interest in what's going on!

Sometimes this concern about whether an artist is kept informed is rooted in a reluctance to accept that it is the artist, not the rep, who is making the decisions about their career. Sure, I have opinions and anyone who knows me will tell you that most folks are rarely in doubt about what they are. I am a member of the team and I would like to think that the artists I am working with give some credence to my thoughts. However, make no mistake - in the end, it is the artist that decides whether or not to take the deal. Periodically, I get the feeling that the presenter is thinking, "Boy, if I could just talk to the artist directly, I know I could convince him/her to do this date for this money." And perhaps they are right - which may be exactly why the artist got the rep involved, having tired of agreeing to do dates that were too much work for too little recompense. At the end of the day, it is the artist who decides what to do relative to their career and justly so. Any presenter who thinks otherwise may be having a hard time accepting that people we like sometimes make decisions we don't like.

As always, I can be reached at 410.268.8232 or at mcshane@mcnote.com. If I am not in, I am likely off getting "Have You Hugged Your Rep Today?" bumper stickers printed.

© McShane Glover/Noteworthy Productions

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