Career Fuel: How to get paid like a DJ

I don’t charge for DJing, I charge for flying to get there now.

The traveling is the aspect I charge for; the DJing is free.

John Digweed, Magnetic Magazine, 2012

John Digweed is a British DJ.

He’s never had a breakout hit song, never been voted the number 1 DJ in the world, and never been on the cover of Billboard magazine.

But he’s been a constant in the upper echelons of the electronic music world for over two decades. He has a hugely passionate fanbase across the world. He makes an excellent living and has made very few creative compromises in his career.

His fans would wholeheartedly agree he is a master of what he does, and despite championing pretty niche underground music and being closer to 50 than 30, in what we keep being told is a young person’s world he’s as in demand as ever.

And the DJing, the craft, is still free.

He charges for the travel time. Or rather, he charges for everything involved to get him to the DJ gig: the travel, the practice, the developing of the craft, the preparation.

Here are just some of the skills creative professionals have to invest in on an ongoing basis:

  • Professional development
  • Equipment and Tools
  • Planning
  • Editing
  • Filtering
  • Trashing
  • Drafting
  • Rehearsing

These are expensive – either in time, money or effort. They are all things most people don’t want to go through the hardship or cost of. They don’t offer instant gratification. They send us down difficult paths.

That’s why true professionals can charge what they do.

Charging for the travel (or any of these other things) also removes time from the equation. John Digweed doesn’t get paid per hour of travel time, he charges based on the market and his value within it. That value has been built over time by his investment in what he does.

The good news is that a true professional can charge a lot of money – far from the ties of the hourly rate. And over time that can compound.

The bad news is that it’s hard. It takes time, it takes effort and it takes trust. The results don’t appear quickly. In fact they appear slowly, and once you’ve had some good results you can’t expect tomorrow to be better or even the same as today – you have to keep reinvesting.

Which route would you like to take?

Music Business: How to choose an agent

I recently met with an artist manager who was looking for a new agent for his client, an electronic music producer and DJ.

This manager isn’t a music industry lifer, in fact he’s spent more of his career in adjacent fields. So whilst he brings a lot of very useful skills, experiences and questions to the table, he also has a few blind spots. One of those is knowing what to look for in agents. There are some obvious traits of course , but his curiosity and diligence made him want to dig deeper so we got chatting.

I thought it could be useful to collate and share some of what we discussed for other people going through the same process either now or in the future [1].

This article refers to electronic music – if there’s sufficient interest I’ll aim to put together a follow up that takes some of these ideas and maps them to other spaces in the business of talent representation.


Typically your choice of agent/agency boils down to 3 options,:

1. Go for broke on big roster (in terms of quantity, profile or both)

2. Be a high priority on a small roster

3. Hedge your bets and find somewhere in the middle

You can make a choice based on this alone, but it’s probably not enough. So how can you make a more informed decision?

When it comes to electronic music, the touring side is built more on soft tickets [2] than hard tickets; 95%+ of events in this world are delivered in this way.

Assuming you are/working with an electronic artist and you’re doing soft tickets, there are a few key areas to analyse when choosing an agent to represent you, and they’re all inter-connected [3], [4].

  • Tribe
  • Relationships
  • Leverage
  • Strategy
  • Operations

These areas are all very important in hard tickets too, but with soft tickets they’re crucial.

This is especially relevant when an artist is focused on having the right positioning and also wants enough revenue to sustain (most of) their living from touring.

There are exceptions, but these two factors of positioning and revenue are very important to most artists I know in the electronic world.

So what does all this mean?


Tribe

photo-1469571486292-0ba58a3f068b

(For a primer, I wrote about Tribes here. Also check out Seth Godin’s work if you’re interested in Tribes more broadly.)

The electronic world can be surprisingly nuanced and is very tribal. The more niche you go, the more nuanced it tends to get in terms of tribe and positioning around that.

You want to look closely at the agent (or agency) roster alignment with what you want to do (i.e. your strategy). The agent’s own tribe alignment is generally more powerful than agency alignment. However, if the agency and their roster are at the centre of a tribe and the agent is close enough to this (a la the mafia saying of ‘he’s a friend of ours’), that agency alignment may outweigh that of a singular agent elsewhere.

Tribes are everywhere in electronic music: some interconnect and play nice together; others repel, sometimes to the surprise of the uninitiated.

As a manager you should know which tribe(s) you are a member of, and which you’d like to become a member of in the future.

Being in and around relevant tribes gives you understanding. It’s the way to build relationships, devise strategies and ultimately gain leverage.

Outside the tribe and not sure how to get in? Provide them with something valuable.

 

Relationships

relationships

To get right into the tribe you need relationships. It’s possible for to be in the tribe without relationships (i.e. through artists on an agent’s roster that are catapulted into the centre of the tribe) but without the relationships being built on top of this, it probably won’t last.

Relationships also come from time (this can’t be understated; a lot of success comes just from staying in the game long enough).

Agency size doesn’t necessarily matter that much here, although an agent at a larger agency has the chance to build far more relationships than an agent at a smaller agency – as long as they have the autonomy to do so. It may be worth querying the autonomy and authority of an agent who doesn’t have their own name in their company email address for example.

Aside from the tribe, relationships with key venues are also crucial. Promoters are of course important but if you’re looking to stay off multi-act club bills (ignoring festivals here) the in-house booker at a top venue is an important person to know.

Not sure what the key venues are in a market? Look at where the agent’s roster are playing regularly – as an artist/manager it’s worth you knowing the top 3 clubs in each main city in a territory for your (desired) tribe so you can test the agent on it. They should be able to rattle these off without hesitation. See the ‘Miscellaneous Tips’ at the bottom for more tactical suggestions.

 

Leverage

lev

Leverage usually comes from roster members being part of a tribe. This leverage is usually directly from an agent but also can come from an agency. Again it’s usually preferable to optimise for agent leverage vs agency leverage but both is best. Leverage increases your fees, billing, and maybe even sex appeal.

For instance, if an agent has a very hot artist, the leverage they gain from that can enable them to raise prices for other artists they represent. If a promoter is desperate to secure a hot act for say $100k (why they are desperate is a topic for another post), it’s relatively easy for the agent to utilise their leverage to get the promoter to book another act for $20k who may be worth $10k in normal circumstances.

Additionally, a promoter will often (subconsciously) see an agent with a hot act worth $100k+ as someone who operates at that level, thus paying an additional $20k doesn’t feel unusual, even if the agent isn’t a ‘big player’.* This leverage is why you’ll see some festival bills spread with acts from the same agent or agency roster.

* I’m sure there’s a succinct economic theory that can sum this up better – any economists reading please let me know.

The leverage point is generally best when the agent represents an artist who is your ‘desired peer’ – someone in or near your tribe, who you want to emulate and is 2-3 levels above where you currently are. An artist 5+ levels above you can be useful too, but if you start pestering the agent for support slots here you’re going to build an unwelcome reputation.

 

It’s also worth noting some agents have a great knack of knowing when and how to push (whether that’s on billing, money or something else), and frankly a fair part of the job is really a type of pushing* (an inconvenient truth alas). While not easy to gauge, it’s worth setting up another question around this to try and figure out their ability to push.

The best advice on to take on leverage would probably be this:

Find the person who wants to be number 1 but isn’t.

OR

Find the person who wants to be number 1 but isn’t. Their boss currently is, and they really want their boss’s job.

 

* A word about Hustle. Similar to Pushing, but a little more nuanced and broader reaching. Hustle is effective, but only if the tribe and relationships are in place. Without it, it’s actually pretty useless. If you want to know more about hustle, read up on Gary Vaynerchuk.

 

Strategy

strategy

This is an agent’s understanding of what the artist/manager wants to do, ideally blended with the agent’s blueprint for something they have done successfully in the recent past.

The agent’s strategy should be roadworthy for the next 12-18 months; with agents it’s actually equally important to pick for where you are now as well as where you want to be.

Thinking short seems counter-intuitive, but a) things can change quickly, b) it’s very hard to predict outcomes far into the future, and c) you can fire an agent whenever you like 🙂

Agent strategy usually comes from being part of a tribe. Most strategies are built on what’s worked for other members of the tribe. Building a strategy isn’t that difficult, but executing successfully on it requires relationships and at least some leverage. It’s worth finding out which agents have alternative strategies – great strategy with decent execution may be able to beat poor strategy with great execution…

How do you test an agent’s strategy? Here are a couple of questions you can ask:

  • Imagine things aren’t working out in a particular city. What do you do?
  • Which festival plays this year and next year in territory X sum up the strategy and growth of the artist?

 

And remember the words of Mike Tyson:

Everyone has a strategy until they get punched in the face.

 

Operations 

ops

Operations should come from a good agency structure, and doesn’t need to be a big company to be able to do this – in fact the lean setup can work better if done well.

Operational excellence (being organised, chasing the money, etc.) is of paramount importance in electronic music. Like it or not the history of how the business was built means there’s a heavy degree of opacity and a lot of savvy, cash-driven people. Most of these people are legit but within the supply chain there’s a lot that can go wrong, from lack of licenses and money laundering to stoned drivers and incorrect airport codes. People dancing, drinking and doing drugs late at night attracts a few interesting sorts, after all.

If you don’t have a tour manager and are relying on the agency to do your logistics (flights, hotels, visas etc), make sure the agent’s assistant is solid, and that the agency have proper financial management in place. Get to know who these people are. I’ve seen too many horror stories of enormous tax bills, miscalculated withholding and incorrect visas, often from naive ignorance rather than malicious malpractice.

This is far from the glamorous end of things, but it’s important and will cause you pain if it’s not done well.

The further up the ladder you climb, you’ll need the agency day to day operations less, but their support on wider reaching financial affairs as well as more complex  promotion details will be crucial.

 

Miscellaneous Tips

  • Don’t get confused with live agents who have acts that look like DJs; if you’re a DJ doing soft tickets it’s a different world. Many electronic artists yearn for the ‘cool’ factor of being on a trendy live roster but they often end up a) cut adrift from their core tribe and b) learning the hard way how hard ticket guarantees work at the lower end of the scale.
  • The economics of hard tickets are…well, hard, at least at the beginning. It can be galling for an artist to realise that their fee for a support slot on a hard ticket show is $100, or that on that for their headline gigs they’re paying for their own flights, hotels and ground transport. Fees for hard ticket shows will typically only outstrip DJ fees at 1000 tickets (if not more). All that glitters is not gold.
  • Make sure you get clarity of what the agent defines ‘landed’ and ‘delivered’ to mean. Not knowing this can be very expensive.
  • Before you start talking to agents, make sure you know the following:
    • Your reference artists – peers and desired peers
    • Where they are playing
    • How much they overlap with where the agent’s roster are playing
    • The key 10 cities you want to make an impact in
    • The ladder of venues/promoters in each of those cities

There’s a bunch more I could add but this is already a long post so I’m leaving it here for now.

Hopefully this helps – now get out there, find a great agent, and play some shows 🙂

Want to know more? Or think I’ve got it all wrong? Give me a shout

 

thanks to Murray Gray for reviewing drafts of this article.

 


Footnotes

[1] For brevity I’ve omitted some of the more obvious character traits to look for.

 

[2] Soft tickets are where the tickets can’t be tied specifically to one artist, and thus artists (very) rarely share in the percentage of the sales. The majority of festivals work this way, and most night clubs too.

It’s worth noting there’s a grey area in night club world where the headline Artist could be considered to be the singular draw to the venue. Here you’ll often see set fee bonuses rather than percentage splits; this is for a few reasons depending on how cynical you are 🙂

A ‘hard ticket’ is for a gig where the tickets are being sold primarily on the draw of one artist. That headline artist will see a percentage of sales, usually alongside a guarantee. Rule of thumb – if the headliner’s name is at least 2x bigger than any other acts on the lineup, it’s a hard ticket gig.

 

[3] I was an agent for a fairly long time, and moderately successful, but I’m now two years out of the game. Some of my thoughts may not have dated well but I hope that’s not the case 🙂

 

[4] The basic agent playbook reads something like this:

  • Forge relationships.
  • Get into a tribe.
  • Build leverage in the tribe.
  • Learn strategies.
  • Refine operations.
  • Forge new relationships.
  • Get into a new tribe.
  • Repeat.

or alternatively;

  • Decide on a niche
  • Get leverage in that niche
  • Spend time and effort working that leverage
  • Have the operations to deliver it
  • More onto the next niche

 

Video stream: The Future of Human Attendance (panel session, 1/3/17, London)


With the emergence of VR and live streaming, how long is it going to be before people are attending events via a headpiece, watching gigs from their front rooms and disappearing down the digital rabbit hole?

On 1st March I hosted a panel session exploring this topic at the Interchange venue in London.

The panel was represented from three different angles of consumer participation: live streaming, virtual reality and immersive event experiences.

  • Deborah Armstrong — Creator of Glastonbury’s Shangri-La and Director of Strong and Co
  • Mazdak Sanii — COO Boiler Room
  • Dave Haynes — Investment team — Seedcamp

Click the link below to watch the video from the event which was streamed live via The British Council’s Facebook page and via Supreme Factory on Youtube. We discuss early investments in VR, how AI could enable the curators of the future, and how to engage audiences through blended physical and digital experiences.

7 lessons from the story of CAA

CAA’s founding team in the mid 1970s

A few months ago, James Andrew Miller released his new book telling the tale of Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of Hollywood’s most renowned and powerful companies.

Coming in at 707 pages, it’s a pretty hefty read. There are definitely a few flaws and some sections feel like a slog, but the snappy talking heads style works well and plenty of juicy anecdotes can be found.

If you don’t want to work your way through the whole thing, here are seven key lessons from the company’s 40 year history.

1. Think Long

One of the best passages in the book describes how CAA founder Ron Meyer began working with Sylvester Stallone. It’s a great example of the benefits of forgoing the short term gain for the longer term opportunity.

At the time, Stallone was on the cusp of becoming one of the biggest movie stars in the world but didn’t have an agent, only management.

The management company were very wary of their client being wooed by a talent agency and strongly advised him to keep Meyer at bay as they felt he’d just be looking for cash, even when he hadn’t earned it.

Whilst not (yet) his agent, Meyer had been informally advising Stallone on script matters around ‘Rambo: First Blood’, and upon a deal being closed for Stallone to star in the film for $5m, the star decided to test his would-be representative.

Knowing that the then-fledgling CAA was in need of cash, Stallone called Meyer to offer him 10% of his fee as a commission. Without Meyer being aware, Stallone had one of his management team listen in on the call so they could both gauge the reaction.

Meyer declined, feeling he hadn’t done enough to earn the $500k, and that he wished Stallone the best of luck and hoped they’d work together down the road.

With his manager red-faced, Stallone knew he had his man and signed with Meyer and CAA, knowing the long game would always be front of mind.

2. Get in the centre of the action

There are many examples of this throughout the book, and a few cases that veer into nepotism territory, but either way the chances of success increase hugely if you’re in the middle of the industry you want to be in.

In the late 80s a young writer moved to LA to study at UCLA and write movie scripts. Via a friend who knew someone at CAA, the writer got a meeting with a CAA agent and one of these scripts (which had been left in a bin for the previous 6 weeks) piqued the agent’s interest.

Within a few days it had sold to Warner Brothers for $250,000 and became one of the biggest hits of the decade — Lethal Weapon. The writer, Shane Black, went on to write some of the biggest action and adventure movies of the last 20 years.

Without being in the middle of an industry, that kind of rapid breakthrough is far more difficult.

Marc Andreessen also talks about this in his Guide to Career Planning

Once you have picked an industry, get right to the center of it as fast as you possibly can.
Your target is the core of change and opportunity — figure out where the action is and head there, and do not delay your progress for extraneous opportunities, no matter how lucrative they might be.

3. Know the numbers; data can make deals

Kevin Huvane and his quartet of fellow ‘Young Turks’ rapidly rose to take over the running of the agency in 1995. However, whilst they were very capable agents, they realised running the business was a completely different proposition and that the numbers were key.

Huvane admitted to having never looked at a spreadsheet before. The realisation of how much the company was spending on fruit was the wakeup call that he needed to get a proper handle on the numbers if he was going to be able to lead the agency.

A deal where data modelling helped persuade the doubters and make its principals rich was for the Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito film ‘Twins’.

Sandy Climan (aka ‘The Briefcase’) and his team modelled out how the deal could take shape, persuaded the studio to run with it, and also convinced the stars to give up their usual advance fees in exchange for a big chunk of the back end. The result was the biggest pay day Arnie & Danny had ever had.

As a footnote, several sources quotes on the book allude that one of the reasons CAA founder Michael Ovitz’s AMG venture crashed after he departed the agency may have been because he didn’t have a strong enough handle on the numbers, particularly in the TV business.

4. Client service should go beyond the direct field of expertise

Throughout the book, Michael Ovitz gets a pretty rough ride from a range of people (seemingly justifiably on more than one occasion), but one of the things he excelled at was knowing when and how to go above and beyond the expected level of service.

Ovitz understood that client service goes past core expertise; an example of his all-seeing eye being very much in the interest of his clients was that he made a point of knowing all the best physicians, schools, architects and other service providers across LA.

Calculating it may have been, but connecting his clients with these people was all part of the service. By getting them what they needed when they needed it, the perception of him being at the very centre of their universe only increased. Very quickly he became the man who could make things happen.

5. Put together packages

CAA arguably built their entire business around packages. The concept certainly isn’t new, but they were the company to make it their calling card and turn it into a huge operation.


In the case of the Dustin Hoffman movie Tootsie, all the casting was done within the CAA office rather than at a casting agency office or studio. CAA agents outside the deal were able to easily get wind of a casting opportunity for their clients, while agents outside the building had a hard time getting anyone in. Michael Ovitz pushed for Sydney Pollack, another client, to direct despite the animosity between the two men, and then shoehorned Bill Murray into the cast at the last minute.

The agency were able to position themselves as a purveyor of through-the-line talent, able to put together directors, producers, lead roles and small supports all under one roof.

The package CAA put together for Jurassic Park in 1992 included a piece of the action on any by-products created off the back of the movie. The movie itself did very well, but Jurassic Park was a real winner because of the sheer breadth of the franchise spin-off package. CAA got paid every step of the way.

6. Know when you’re a principal and when you’re not

Michael Ovitz was the trailblazer who shocked Hollywood in the 80s and 90s by expanding into investment banking and advertising. Quoted from a recent article on arch rivals WME’s entry into other sectors, Ovitz says;

“I had a slogan I used: ‘No conflict, no interest.’ We were constantly getting the back of our hand slapped with a ruler and told, ‘Hey, you can’t be a principal. You can’t produce commercials.’ But we did. We got around it. I don’t believe that today’s environment is hostile to that. Creating jobs is all anyone cares about.”

Conversely, CAA’s long-time head of music Tom Ross recalls an incident when he was in rehab for weight loss and met a famous rock star. Ross knew his job wasn’t to be the principal, it was to be their representative and by default be at least one step back in the shadows.

Tom Ross: “I was there a month, and one day I ran into Steven Tyler, who was there for drug rehab and sexual addiction. They arranged for us to spend an afternoon together and Steven said to me ‘Man, I don’t know if I can do this. I just can’t imagine going to a gig and not getting laid or not getting a few blow jobs.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Try being an agent for a few years. You get used to it.’”

Agent Paula Wagner realised that the role of the agent was to be the representative of the principal, not the principal themselves. She left CAA to become a principal — in this case Tom Cruise’s movie production partner.

Trying to become the principal when not it’s the part you were originally supposed to play can be dangerous territory — although in recent times the boundaries have become far more fluid.

It’s going to be interested to see the progress of WME’s moves into new spaces.

7. The power of 3

A group known as the Young Turks made moves to take over the running of CAA in the mid 90s. There were 5 in the group, but 3 of them stood out as the leaders and are still at the top of the company to this day.

There’s a lot to be said for the power of a tribe, and also for the power of a trinity. In the Young Turks’ case the trio at the centre started a tribe that was able to change the culture of the business and quickly build a power base.

They did it through the combination of Byran Lourd’s charm, Richard Lovett’s ego and relentless nature, plus Kevin Huvane simply being a great agent. A trio with this blend of skills is not an uncommon sight at successful companies, particularly those in the creative industries.

And with the Young Turks having been together for over 20 years, CAA co-founder Bill Haber’s words also ring true;

“In any business on earth — I always say to people — nobody will leave you for the money, and nobody will leave you over titles. People will only leave if they have no loyalty to you.”