So You Want to Be Touring Band: A Guide to Touring, agents, and managers

  • By cvbizz
  • November 23, 2020
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Wes Gilliam

First off, I wanted to start this article with some good news: touring will return.
Now for the bad news: no one really knows when.

And no one knows what it’ll actually look like when it gets here.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the actual business side of touring. Touring is pretty much necessary to make a living as a musician in the 21st century. Touring takes many different forms: from basements and VFW halls to stadiums and arenas. No tour is ever exactly the same, and there are extreme highs as well as crushing lows along the way.

However, the one certainty is that in order to get to a specific level, or in order to continually function at that specific level, you’re going to need outside help. While there’s always uncertainty in which step to first take when acquiring members on your team, a quality booking agent is a must-have sooner rather than later. While at a smaller/micro level (locally and regionally), it can be best to do your own booking, but as anyone who’s ever done 100+ dates on the road in a year can attest, it takes a LOT of work. Sometimes, it’s simply worth it just to hand the reins to someone who can help with the booking side of things so you can concentrate on the actual performing and writing.

For this article I wanted to talk to several different people to get varied perspectives. From the musician side I’ve got local boys, Seven Year Witch, who just signed with their first booking agency (TKO). I’ve also got one of my good friends,and favorite songwriters, Justin Osborne from Susto. Justin has done it all, from self-booking at a micro-level, to working with paradigm and opening up stadium shows with The Lumineers; Susto has done a lot!

From the agency side, I’ve got Caleb Coker from Atlas Touring, who runs the agency with his business partner Matt Washburn. Atlas represents Stop Light Observations, Little Stranger, and Sam Burchfield (and many, many others). I’ve also got Alex Fang from New Frontier Touring, who represents Will Hoge, Dave Hause, Cory Branan and many others.

So without further adieu, let’s get into it.

Getting Started

The first thing I generally notice when I talk to bands/artists who haven’t been through the ringer yet is that some feel as if there is still some kind of magical “maybe we’ll get signed and all of our problems will go away” type mentality. Oh, young grasshopper, now if only that were true.

So not to crush anyone’s expectations, but this quote from Alex Fang of New Frontier Touring says so much, so succinctly for me: “We don’t generate demand, we work with demand”. Now let that sink in.

No, really, let that sink in.

How to Generate Demand for Your Band

So, now you need to generate demand. How do you do that?
Well luckily, Caleb Coker from Atlas Touring breaks it down pretty easily for us: “Tour hard and smart, package with good bands at good venues, maintain a steady stream of great content on socials and streaming platforms. If you’re doing all of these things, it won’t go unnoticed by agents or managers that could be a good addition to the artist’s team.”

If that sounds daunting to you, you’re not alone. Yes, that is a journey. However, not to sound super pseudo-psychological, but all journeys begin with the first step.

Caleb’s sentiment is also echoed by Justin From Susto. “I would say to not spend too much time looking for an agent. Instead, do everything you can on your own for as long as you can and then when it’s time, if you’ve generated a buzz, then an agent will come for you. You need to generate that buzz first anyway or the agents’ abilities aren’t going to be able to help you much. You both have to bring something to the table for the relationship to work.As long as you are able to book yourself, just do that. That’s what agents want to see, someone who is already meaningfully busy on their own who they can then take to the next level.”

For those who don’t know Justin’s background, he was also in a band called Sequoyah Prep School prior to Susto, who also had some breakout success. They were from the Florence area, and toured A LOT. Florence really had no venues or concrete music scene during this timeframe (roughly 2003-2011), so Justin and his boys did exactly what I said earlier, and just put one foot in front of the other. Repeatedly.

A local band that just recently took the step into booking representation is Seven Year Witch. From what it seems, they took the road that all of the previous speakers mentioned. When asked why they decided to work with an agent for the first time, they replied: “Over the years, we realized the importance of building a team of people you trust. Once the demand for the band grew, we knew we really wanted to focus in on finding an agent that could quite simply do the things we couldn’t. As most bands know, you carry a monstrous workload as musicians – you’re a van driver, gear loader, performer, you book the band, run a merch table, send emails, make calls, coordinate practices, market yourself, promote yourself.. the list goes on. You could break it down into a hundred different jobs you constantly need to stay on top of. Some months it felt like we dealt with the business side more than the music (that’s when you start to pull your hair out). As this workload grew, finding an agent became a priority. Once we recruited our first ever manager, James Striker, we tasked him with helping us bridge that gap and getting us a line with those guys. Luckily it wasn’t a long and drawn out process, the interest all the way around was there and everyone was on board with it”

Good First Steps From Bands That Have Taken this Journey

If you’re wondering about some of the first steps, Caleb from Atlas also offers some advice in this area: “ It’s good to keep track of all of the shows you play (venue, ticket price, number of people paid and walk amount) prior to working with representation. This will give you something to show for yourself.”

So if you noticed, Seven Year Witch actually brought in management to help with the booking agent process. Another thing I notice often at a micro-level is often bands confuse agents with managers. Often local bands see a manager as someone who has some booking connections, because they do not, and they realize the importance of just getting out there live. However, I personally would urge people to make sure they realize that they are often two different positions. And this is coming from someone who used to “manage” bands when he was 19-21 eye rolls at own self retroactively.

Justin from Susto was so DIY in his origins that he actually mentions “I think early on I didn’t even know what a booking agent was, much less that I needed one”.

Susto actually had a slightly different process, they brought a music lawyer on first, and then the ball started rolling slightly from there. Some other friends of mine who have had national success had their record deal first, then a lawyer to help go over the deal, then the label brought on booking and management. So not to muddy the water TOO much, but I did want to bring awareness to the fact that not all paths are exactly the same (hopefully that’s the takeaway).

I actually asked both Caleb and Alex from that exact question of what they preferred as far as an introductory pecking order (agent first? management first?), and the both had varied responses.

“I think this is a very case by case scenario.” says Caleb. “When we first started Atlas, we were acting as booking and management for some clients. As the artists have grown and we have grown with them, we began to fall into our roles with each artist. I think the most important thing is for the person you’re adding to the team to seriously care about the band on a professional and personal level.”

Alex also makes some great points: “In my spheres, whether it’s americana or punk or jam, the bedrock foundation of these models is fans latching onto the songs. When as a band, you’ve exhausted what you can do on your own and hit a plateau, that’s probably the best time to get an agent and frankly, as you approach that point, people probably reach out to you. If there’s a manager, great, but if a band is industry-savvy and knows their shit, that’s less important.”

View the Band and the Booking Side as a Team

Another factor that almost everyone I interviewed stressed was that it is a team effort when working on the booking side of things. A question I would ask myself is: “Would I/we make good teammates?”. Obviously it’s hard to be objective about one’s self, however, a little introspection often goes a long way.

Justin from Susto offers a little perspective here: “Choose wisely when assembling a team and make sure you work with people who believe in you.” he says. “Also, you have to honor those relationships by working your butt off as well! An agent is a team member and a tool to help you grow as an artist, but you can’t expect them to do everything for you. Ultimately you control your own destiny.”

Final Thoughts

So, while I started this article to hopefully help clarify some things for emerging artists, I realized early on, something I think I already knew: No two paths to success are the same. However, I hope that maybe you gained some insight into a little of the inner-workings from different perspectives.

If nothing else, now that you feel you know some of the artists/agents a bit from reading them, reach out to them saying you read the article. You don’t have to be false/skeezy about it, but it is an ice-breaker, and relationships really do form the foundation of the music world. So much so, I want to leave you with this quote/story from Caleb of Atlas Touring as well as one last quote from Alex Fang.

“Owning and operating my own agency became a dream of mine early on in my booking career.” reminisces Caleb. “Matt’s a great business partner and a lot of the reason I began booking shows in the first place. True story – Matt was my band’s booking agent while I was in college. The great debate of whether he dropped us or we fired him is still up in the air. Relationships are key and being on the road is a great opportunity to make them. Be kind and do your best to meet and get to know everyone you cross paths with, whether you’re an artist, manager, agent, promoter, publicist or still figuring out your role. These relationships typically turn into something good.”

“Bands have nothing to lose by reaching out” says Alex. “My peers may groan at that sentiment but it never hurts as long as they aren’t super annoying about it. Up until very recently, my boss who has been in the business for nearly four decades responds to everyone, even if it’s the conciliatory ‘Thanks, keep it up’ type bit. I’ve had many people tell me their first band reached out to Paul when The Avett Brothers were taking off and he was kind enough to respond and that really sticks with people, especially when they go on to do bigger and better things in music”.

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