The DJ Booking Industry: An insider's perspective

In the grand scheme of things the DJ booking industry is young, fresh and expanding exponentially. The rate of growth over the past few years has been phenomenal for many reasons and without booking agents we would stand less of a chance of being able to see our favourite DJ at our local nightspot. Even more importantly, DJs would have a bigger task of making ends meet with the current problem of dwindling record sales. Serving such a vital function for the music business, booking agencies are still widely misunderstood, with varying misconceptions about what they actually do.

To get a better insight as to how the industry operates, how it’s grown and where it will end up, we spoke to three leading agents in the field: Ned Beckett, current agent to Aphex Twin and others, Talida Wegener now head of TW Artist Management and once agent to the mighty Sven Väth and Andrea Wünsche who heads up the Magnet Musik agency, home to John Talabot, Pantha du Prince and more.

In addition to these particulars we spoke to Dutch DJ Benny Rodrigues who has been very vocal with his opinions towards agents and management. He is part of a rare  breed who nowadays functions without either. And for good reason, as an artist he prides himself on having ultimate control over his business aspects. “If you wanna get things done properly, do it yourself,” he states. He recently left Kinetic Artist Management, who managed the bookings for his techno alter-ego, ROD. “I was happy and proud to be represented by the same agency that works with my techno-heroes Jeff Mills, Robert Hood and Luke Slater.”

"...Back then people could
make decent money from
releasing music..."

Even though leaving the agency had a mildly detrimental effect on his international bookings, the relationships that he built domestically meant that his career was’t massively impacted by his decision. With that in mind, it has to be questioned whether or not anyone needs an agent - or more importantly, why artists need them in the first place. His decisions to self-govern reflect the growing problems of the booking industry as a whole. “Luckily there are agencies, such as Kinetic, who work passionately with artists they connect with on a musical level.”

Even though DJing has been around for decades, it didn’t turn into an international, multi-million dollar industry until the 90s. Growing global levels of demand, combined with decreasing plane fares and changing technology caused the international-touring DJ scene to become prolific. Around this time sales within the music market began to dwindle, but what came first, the touring industry or the drop in sales? “In general people used to play less,” comments Beckett, “there wasn't so much emphasis on live shows and back then people could make decent money from releasing music.”

Ned Beckett set up the LittleBig agency just over ten years ago which is now home to Clark, Jimmy Edgar, Battles and other internationally established artists. His introduction into the industry was unintentional. “I was working at Warp Records and without realising, I sort of stepped into that space between the artist, the promoters and the festivals, and became a natural middle man.”

Back when Beckett started up his agency the industry had less in the way of competition. “It was completely different,” he stated, “only the really big, actively touring acts had agents.” The other thing that was different back then was the technology. “The process of actually getting an artist to do a show would be quite slow,” he explains, “trying to make a phone call, sending a deal memo by fax, not hearing back for a couple of weeks etc.”

The changing face of the industry
No-one comes more experienced in the DJ booking field than Talida Wegener. With over 20 years of history she is responsible for helping the mighty German techno legend Sven Väth achieve global success. Her story begain in 1994 as a receptionist for Eye Q and booker for Sven. In 1996 Sven Väth founded Cocoon as his new plattform. With Wegener’s help Cocoon restructured and developed incrementally into a functioning global, organisation. “First came the booking agency, followed by the events and recordings. Thereafter cocoon went to Ibiza and the whole Cocoon empire, like we know it today, was born.“

“Booking is creative,” she says about the job, “for me, I was born to be a booker.” She describes her relationship with Sven and Cocoon similar to that of a family. After 17 years she decided to set up her own company, TW Artist Management, that looks after Anthony Rother, Basti Grub, Butch, Just Be, Pig&Dan, as well as other popular, contemporary acts. “I wanted to be my own boss,” she said, “and the experience I had before was helping build up the new path.”

“...It's a simple transaction between
someone who wants to play and
someone who wants
to pay...”

Andrea Wünsche, another German agent who’s also had a couple of decades experience, heads up Magnet Musik. After the club she worked in closed, Wünsche fell into the booking scene through the now defunct Delirium Booking agency. Along the way she’s helped establish the touring careers of Ellen Allien, Alter Ego and Modeselektor and others.

One of the biggest factors that has changed the booking landscape over time has been the development of technology she concurs. “In the beginning we even didn’t work with emails, we did’t have any programmes, just big calendars on the walls.”

What Agents Do
There are many misconceptions as to what roles an agent actually performs, and this is partly because different agents do different tasks, and that the actual agent paradigm has evolved over time. As Beckett initially outlined, his role grew from acting as a middle man between separate parties to performing a basic bureaucratic, legislative function; managing contracts, negotiating fees, issuing contracts, making payments, checking flights, booking visas etc.

“It's a simple transaction between someone who wants to play and someone who wants to pay,” he describes. “There are two main points: One, is that when an artist becomes in demand, it becomes a job in itself just managing the communication and admin. If an artist is playing once a week, that's almost 50 shows a year; that's quite a lot of just really boring, basic communication, administration, managing money and making other transfers.”

“The other side of that, which a lot of people don't really understand, is how it operates on a higher level, and the leverage that the agents have in the industry and in the festivals, which is where the big money is. There's absolutely no way that a DJ, even if he was becoming successful, would have the same level of opportunities to access bigger markets if they didn't have a good agent who had those connections. And I mean, at the highest level.”

As the DJing industry bolsters it’s grip on the global landscape at the same time the music sector matures then the booking industry needs to adapt. “You really need to have an agency that does promotion, to contact people and sells things,” Wegener explains. “It’s not just going around and asking bookers to get them to play. It’s the back work, doing press and checking all the internet adverts. When you have a product and it’s outstanding you need to show people.”

For Rodrigues it was one of the reasons he decided to not work with an agent. For him he prefers the direct man management approach, and to focus on what’s important; the music. “It seems to be all about marketing, image, branding and PR these days,” he gripes.

What’s changing
The fact of the matter is, DJing has become a full time profession for more and more individuals. Spurned on by growing global demand, the ability to be able to make a living by playing music has caused a cataclysmic growth of people wanting to DJ. The ease of entry into the agency market is equally causing a saturation of average and under-performing companies, as Beckett describes.

“It's one of the few things that you can just step right into. Just set up a website and tell a couple of DJs that you wanna be their booking agent, and you've got yourself a booking agency.”

The rise of so many agencies is also spurned on by another attribute. Money.

“I think there are too many agencies out there with too many people thinking that it’s quick money,” Wegener says. “There are too many DJs out there, but you only have several platforms of really good events and promoters.”

SFX is just one example of how the growing nature of the electronic music community is attracting big business. The influence of bigger organisations can have a massive effect on the industry as Wünsche describes. “There are too many big companies and the business people took over the festivals, agencies and ticket sales.”

"...It's big business that's
extremely lucrative..."

Something which Beckett agrees on. He infers that several large organisations have attempted to turn the industry into an oligopoly using market forces to block out other competitors. Ever wondered why it’s always the same acts playing at different festivals across the summer?

“It's very obvious how companies like William Morris or Live Nation work together to run the venues and festivals and manage the biggest acts,” he states. “It's hard to get your head around it all, but it's no secret that William Morris are a very very powerful global agency who have strong ties to the biggest promoters in the world. It's big business that's extremely lucrative. When you look at different festivals and you know where the money's coming from and who the agent is for those artists, you start to see that all of the main stages are all being controlled by one agency.”

The Role of Management
One of the more interesting developments within the scene is the role of management. As with the increasing quantity of booking agents, so have the amount of artist managers increased. This creates an additional level of bureaucracy between the artist and the agent.

“...People will want to change
manager, change agent, and
that happens a lot
these days...”

“As soon as you've done one or two tracks that are hot, you'll get snapped up by management. I wouldn't say it's right or wrong but it has an effect on the artist ,” Beckett states.

More interestingly he notes that this also has a detrimental effect on the artist’s creativity.

“I've sort of got a theory that's why a lot of artists just end up getting dull quickly.  A lot of the new people that I was really excited by three or four years ago are now playing what I would consider really dull sets because they've just been put into clubs straight away where it makes no sense to play, instead of them having this slow development of finding more interesting things.”

     - Spinal Tap's Manager

Beckett finds that it’s very rare nowadays to take an artist onto his roster who doesn’t already have at least one manager. A lot of times these managers are as young and as equally inexperienced as their counterpart artist. “By the time we start speaking to them, we're dealing with some 21 year old manager who's only got a years experience.” Beckett’s agency is built on trust and nurturing relationships with artists; managers add an additional level of communication to this relationship

“Problems arise when someone somewhere in the chain is very determined for the artist to be doing better than they are,” he states. “People will want to change manager, change agent, and that happens a lot these days.” Not always with successful results. Changing the system is not always the route to success, especially if your music isn’t talking to your audience.

When is the time right to get an agent and who should you choose?
One of the problems Rodrigues is most vocal about, is that managers and agents are snapping up artists at a point too early within their career.

“These days I see new kids barely gigging enough to charge EUR 50,- but they’re being represented by an agency and management and it just makes me sad. I guess most of those kids just wanna act pro for the sake of acting pro these days.”

Wünsche also agrees. “Artists don’t need a manager in the beginning. There are lots of artists who would like to be booked and the scene is exploding but moreover there are some very vicious agents out there.”

An agent should be mainly taking the administrative side of booking out of an artist’s workload. The important thing then is to find someone who’ll actually represent the artist’s needs, as well as securing bookings. “I think the world would be a much better place if every artist would get his own personal ‘one-to-one’ booker: keep things personal,” states Rodrigues.

“...I think we’re at the peak time
now and you know how peak
times always end...”

This personal relationship is something Wegener achieved in her 17 year relationship with Sven Väth. She sees that booking agents are vital to an artist’s career, yet in today's world with there being so many labels, records, artists and agents, it’s getting harder to find the real quality.

“You can really see when someones doing a good job, but it’s still so hard because there are so many newcomers and good DJs.” And in finding the right agent? “If you’re a young and good DJ, it’s sad if you get managed by someone who is also young and doesn’t have contacts. You can try it this way but I doubt that it would work.”

The Future
With growing levels of DJs, artists, managers and evolving responsibilities of the agents, what then does the future hold for the industry?

Wegener views the industry currently operating at maximum output and that at some point, when it declines, only the most professional and adaptable businesses will survive. A real dog-eat-dog mentality. “I think we’re at the peak time now and you know how peak times always end,” she states. “But if you’re professional and know what you’re doing then you will survive.”

“...Stay independent,
fuck politics and
just do music..."

It’s a proposal that Beckett also agrees upon. He believes that a good agency is built on two factors: strong rosters and long, lasting relationships. “There are agencies floating around that don't have either and it's pretty worrying.” In the future, as competition becomes more rife and the larger agencies gain more market share, a lot of the new agencies will struggle to survive.

“It's an incredibly transient industry, which is why all agents are really paranoid and twitchy, because they could just go back to the office and get the email saying that the top two acts have decided to leave.”

A comment reflected in Wünsche’s views. “Normally there was a code of honour that other agencies don’t grab other agents’ artists.”
Levelling the Relationship
“Stay independent, fuck politics and just do music; the rest will sort out itself at some point,” says Rodrigues. For him, he’s managed to succeed in nurturing his own relationships and manage his own career. It may help that he’s a an established, in-demand star, but if you’re willing to put the work in, he’s a shining example of how things can be done. That’s not to say that as an artist with certain goals, an agent such as Beckett, Wünsche or Wegener couldn’t help achieve those goals.

"...I just wouldn't be able
to do it for people who
just wanna make as
much money
as possible..."

Ned Beckett has been managing Aphex Twin’s bookings for over ten years now. “It's unusual,” he says, “because an act that big would have like three managers and then their role would be to make more money. Then you get back to everything being boring, because I don't think operating in that way makes things better. I just think it's really standard. It's like what Skrillex has done. He felicitates himself to every release and marketing opportunity around. It’s pretty horrendous.”

“You can't knock people for it, but it's a very different path from someone like Aphex, or even Squarepusher. They have that anti-industry edge to what they're doing. But that's my background. That's what I do, and what I have a lot of respect for, and why I spent a lot of time working for people like that. I just wouldn't be able to do it for people who just wanna make as much money as possible and take all the obvious options. It would be really boring. And they wouldn't wanna work with me, they'd wanna work with some big businessman.”

The booking industry. A ceaseless battle between finding the balance between creativity and financial merit. So, pretty much like any other industry then?