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Money-Grubbing Agent Myth

Today I want to take on a favorite myth: Artist Reps cause the performer's fees to be higher. On the face of it, it all seems so straightforward. In general, performers with agents receive higher fees for their talents than those without a rep. After all, now the performance fee is being asked to carry the costs of not only the performer(s) but also to pay for the services of a third party. It is also a part of that "money-grubbing agent" headset which I find particularly annoying, especially since I believe it to have almost no basis in fact. We need to take a closer look at these thoughts to see how they hold up under scrutiny.

When I begin working with an artist, the last thing I want to do is jump in and start raising their fees. It is always a delicate balance when booking shifts from the artist doing it him/herself to having someone do it for them. For some presenters, the interaction with the artist him/herself is part of the payoff for their work and they do not transition easily to working with anyone else. If the presenter is not someone I have worked with before, then I need to build a relationship with that presenter so we can work comfortably together. They are already feeling unhappy about having to work with a rep instead of with the artist directly. I am not going to exacerbate an already tenuous situation by trying to raise the fees.

It is the artist that pays the rep, not the presenters. The artist who has decided to work with a rep usually understands that their asking price is not suddenly going to take a radical upward leap as a result of involving an agent. The artist is gambling that the percentage of their income that will now go to the rep will be compensated for by an increased volume of bookings (i.e. income). Usually by the time the artist is successful in gaining representation, s/he knows that their own time commitment to the booking process is pretty much maxed out and that they may be losing gigs because they have not got the time and/or inclination to respond to inquiries. There's a myriad of reasons for an artist not being able to tend to booking details: they are out on the road so much; they need to be in the studio to record; they may fear the creative side of their talent is getting lost in the business details of their career.

However, it is true that often artists with representation do better financially than their unrepresented counterparts. Under the best of circumstances, it is difficult to advocate for ourselves. (Ask any lawyer.) We are raised in a society where to extol our own virtues is frowned upon. It is difficult for most artists to say, "You really want to hire me and here's why.." On the other side of the coin, the rep is often the artist's biggest fan and has no trouble sharing that enthusiasm with any and all that will listen. Our society also has its share of taboos about discussing money. The artist may be reluctant and uncomfortable negotiating a fee; the artist rep spends a high percentage of their time structuring deals. The more you do it, the more comfortable - and, hopefully, the more competent - you become at it.

With all that said, I think it is important to acknowledge that often obtaining an artist rep is an indicator that an artist's fees are likely to increase in the future. The error here is in thinking that the primary causal factor for the fee increase is the hiring of the artist rep and I would argue that that is not the case. An artist who is able to obtain representation is one who has demonstrated an ability to get out there and generate income by touring. Presumably, both the artist and the rep perceive the situation as one which has potential to grow and improve. If they are right and are now both working toward that end, the artist's fee will increase as his/her popularity does.

When all is said and done, the laws of economics are alive and well in folk music as in any business (a fact that isn't necessary good news to all presenters or artists). An artist's fee is going to be determined by the market. If an artist gets a $500 guarantee v. %age of door to appear at a venue, that night is going to have to provide $500 worth of revenue plus expenses for the presenter. If it doesn't, the artist may be able to return but it likely will be for a lesser guarantee. On the other side of the coin, if they are hanging from the rafters and the venue realizes $1200 plus expenses for the night, the next time the artist comes through, the deal is likely going to be for more than a $500 guarantee. Hopefully, artists that are able to obtain representation are having more of the latter experiences than the former and that is one of the reasons that they are able to interest an artist rep in working with them. If this pattern continues, then the artist fees will continue to grow but having an artist rep in the picture is not the primary causal factor. The rep may know the market and be able to negotiate a reasonable deal but there isn't a rep on the planet who can obtain higher fees for an artist if the market does not justify it. An increase in fees and finding an artist rep to work with can be coinciding events for an artist. Rather than one causing the other, they are both evidence of the same phenomena: the artist's career is going along well and is growing and expanding. Certainly, I would like to think that introducing an artist rep into the equation helps the artist to obtain a better deal than might have occurred otherwise but to suggest that the automatic result of an artist gaining representation is that performance fees will rise precipitately is an overly simplistic view.

© McShane Glover/Noteworthy Productions

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