Having done no scientific poll at all, I am prepared to say that the most frequent question any artist rep gets is "How do I find an agent?" or it's even more complicated variation, "Would you be my agent?" So, on behalf of all reps out there, I am going to endeavor to look at this question. The disclaimer is that we are all individuals and different agencies function differently but, hopefully, I will bring up some areas of agreement.
There is a question which any artist needs to ask themselves before they get to the previously cited one, i.e. "Am I ready for representation?" Basically, this means that you have to look at it from the agent's point of view rather than just your own.
There are certain basic tools that a rep needs to do anything for you and there isn't much point in seeking representation until you are able to supply these materials in quantity. (Some reps are willing to work with you to develop these materials but, by and large, you should be prepared to pay them a separate fee for this service.) You must have a well written, nicely presented biography. I hear you out there, muttering under your breath, "Well, of course!! How dumb does she think I am?!" Believe me, I wouldn't be mentioning this if I hadn't gotten bios that appeared to be xeroxed right before the toner breathed it's last or made you seasick to look at them because the type wasn't square on the page. It's tough to write about yourself and there is a tendency to either overstate your virtues to the point of absurdity or downplay your talents until the reader wonders why you are out there at all. A good bio is interesting to read quite apart from imparting information. Think of it as telling a story. Definitely use your Spell Check. if you can enlist qualified help, it might be a good idea. If nothing else, try it on some friends/family before letting it see the light of day.
Periodically, on the various Internet lists like FolkBiz or FolkVenu, the question comes up about what to include in a press kit besides a bio. This question always gleans a myriad of thoughtful but extremely divergent responses. Betty Booker wants to know where you have played before but couldn't care less about radio airplay. Vincent Venue loves press quotes but finds the venue list useless. Paula Presenter doesn't even look at the paper; she makes all her decisions based on the CD. The lessons here is that you need to have a bit of everything in your press kit because you never know what might interest any particular presenter. However, remembering that some people will want to discard or ignore parts of it completely, set it up in such a way that it is easy for them to find the particular piece that interests them.
Photos - you gotta have them and in quantity. A terrifying large number of people seeking representation send snapshots. Some say "please return" on the back! Some folks send xeroxes of pictures - those don't work either. No rep wants to go out there and find you a gig that can't be publicized because there is nothing to use. A really good picture is one of the nicest things you can do for your career. One well-planned photo shoot with a pro can yield fabulous pictures that you can use for years. Do a little research with fellow artists to find out who they liked and why. If possible, get both BXW and color slides. More and more, you need the latter to get an entertainment section cover or "Best Bets". Besides, fewer people have them so there is less competition. Duplication dilemma: lithographs vs. glossies. I've heard good arguments both ways. Best I can tell you is that, in my own experience, I've had no problem getting great coverage with lithographs as long as I was working from a good, clean shot initially.
Last but not least in the materials inventory: you need to have a CD. It's harder and harder to find people that are willing to listen to a tape, especially when it is clear it is "homegrown". Even the folks who say they will seem to take an inordinate amount of time to get to cassettes vs. CDs. Yes, I know it's not cheap to produce even a 4-5 song demo but, if you want to be taken seriously, it's a necessity. There is a nice fringe benefit: after you use the CD to get the gig, you can also use it at the local radio station to promote the show!
Okay, so now you have the basic materials together. The next question is a critical one: are you already working as an artist? In some circles, there is an unfortunate rumor that the appropriate time to seek representation is the second you decide to get out of your rehearsal room. The instinct is understandable. Finding venues and getting bookings can be a daunting task. However, from the rep's point of view, taking a totally untested act and getting them to the point where they are making a living in the music is an overwhelming project that few are going to wish to take on. The time investment is monumental and the risk of things going awry is extremely high. If you are working for a percentage of the artist's fee, it could be six months to a year before you see any cash flow. Not an attractive proposition.
So, let's assume we are talking about a working artist, out there playing gigs regularly and receiving payment for same. You now have some idea of what is involved in landing a gig. Before you pick up the phone to try and solicit an agent, ask yourself if you would be willing to go through what it took to get the gig for 10-15% of what you made at the gig. If the answer comes back something like, "Have you lost your mind?", you might want to put the receiver gently back in the cradle.
You will notice that, nowhere in here have I referred to the artist's musical talents or performance skills. Frankly, these are givens. Unless you have those, none of the above will make any difference at all. Making generalizations is a tricky business but, by and large, I find most artists concentrate more than enough of their time and effort on the musical end of things. This is both where their inclinations lie and it's also what they are going to need to survive on stage the night of the gig. Many of the issues I have raised here have to do with getting the gig, getting the people to the gig or re-booking the gig. All vital but often don't seem as critical to the artist who is staring down surviving the on-stage experience.
The good news is that everything you do that would make a rep interested in you are all the same things that you would do anyway to further your career. (Did I mention having a mailing list?) So, if you don't find someone to represent you right away, all you have to do is proceed a bit further down a path you were on anyway. Now that I have laid out some of the aspects that should be considered before even seeking representation, I'll tackle the issue of how to proceed on finding it in the next column. As always, you can reach me at 410.268.8232 or firstname.lastname@example.org© McShane Glover/Noteworthy Productions