It’s becoming more and more common today to see underground DJs working with booking agents, even though these DJs may play less than 1–2 gigs a month. At first, this may not seem to make sense. Although booking agents really become valuable once an artist is busy touring and needs help to manage everything from fee negotiations to travel dates, agents can be the start to an upcoming DJ’s career.
Actually, it’s quite often that booking agents are the first people in the music industry to discover unsigned artists — even before record labels have heard them. Here are a few of the ways in which booking agents can help an upcoming DJ to get that vital kick, and how you might find a booking agent to suit your style.
Huge contact networks
A successful booking agent’s contact network can include every valuable player in a scene: from labels to managers and promoters, chances are they have a direct contact to anyone who is anyone. Because of the importance of bookings for an artist’s income today, it could be that agents have more control over an artist’s career than anyone else.
It goes without saying that an agent will know all the relevant promoters in a scene. In addition to this, agents will also have direct contact with any record labels that have been involved with their previous artists, and will of course be in touch any artist’s management team. This huge phonebook is one of the main things that makes booking agents incredibly valuable for any upcoming artist. If, for example, promoters trust an agent, the agent will be able to recommend your music to the people they have previously worked with in the hopes of getting you a warm-up gig.
More than any industry, the music industry is about connections, and with their huge network, booking agents can help to introduce you to the people who have the power to bring your music to the masses. Once the insiders have heard how good your music is, chances are that things will go very quickly for you.
Although you might not care too much about your fee yet, agents can be very useful in negotiating early bookings and helping to avoid any unpleasant surprises. All any artist truly cares about is getting their music heard, and in the beginning, they will often be willing to play for free or even (!) pay to play.
The stories of promoters taking advantage of musician’s eagerness to play are literally endless: talk to anyone with some experience and they will tell you about unpaid fees, self-funded travel and cancelled gigs. Don’t get me wrong: it’s really important while starting out as a DJ to just get out there and play gigs, regardless of the fee involved. But what you do want to avoid is paying €200 for a flight to play a small gig in Hamburg, only to find out that the promoter had forgotten to book any accommodation for you, and didn’t have enough money to pay for your food during your stay. As an agent will be familiar with contracts and negotiations, they generally demand verification of every aspect of an agreement, making sure that you stay warm, well-traveled and well fed. Over time, this becomes increasingly important.
Of course with only small fees involved at the beginning, you might be asking why an agent would be willing to work with you? The answer is that a huge part of an agent’s work today can be considered investment, not profit. It may well be that only one in five artists an agent works with genuinely becomes profitable, but when they are, there is a lot of money to be made for the agent. As such, the profits from one successful artist generally outweigh the development of the other four. So how can an agent find you and be willing to take you on?
How agents look for upcoming artists
Most agents, like labels, have a certain type of sound they work with, and promoters will know the agents as the representative of a certain type of artist. (This means that when an established promoter needs, for example, a downtempo house artist, there are certain agencies they will have a connection to, and who they may contact for bookings first.) Leading on from this, it goes without saying that your sound should suit their other artists. At its best, your sound should be slightly different and unique, but similar enough that the agent will find a strong common connection with their existing roster. In addition to this, an agent will want to get a sense that a DJ is completely committed to their work, and will strive as hard as possible to further their career — while this can often be heard in their music, agents will also want to get a strong sense of this in their first conversation.
Just like everyone else, agents mostly use the internet today to find upcoming artists. Although many people like to think that the most important thing is the number of followers they have and their number of plays, I actually know of quite a few artists that got signed to booking agencies with less than 500 followers! Agents have a great ear for upcoming sounds, and they know how quickly 500 followers can turn into 5000. For them, the most important aspects will be to hear a certain professionalism and individual but identifiable sound — does your music with 200 plays sound more like it should have 20k? Agents love discovering and getting in touch with the newest unsigned thing. If you think an agent would love your sound, feel free to get in touch with them. However, don’t be too eager — the right people will come at the right time.
Lastly, most agents I talk to have said that their most important criteria for great DJs is one thing: original compositions. You might become a great, well-known DJ in your hometown, but if you don’t have your own original tracks for other DJs to play out on the circuit and for others to enjoy at home, the chances are slim that you will be able to pick up a booking agent and start playing around other cities will all the benefits that brings. However, if you can get your production skills up to speed with your mixes, it’s quite possible that you will have a winning formula to bring you into the inner circle of the music industry. The sky’s the limit.
In our next article, we’ll be talking about the things bookings agents and promoters look out for when doing business with DJs.