Working as a music agent

 9 September 2011

Naomi Palmer works at the Elastic Artists agency and represents DJs Gilles Peterson and Theo Parrish. She spoke about getting into artist representation and building a career as a music agent.

Getting into artist representation

“As an agent, you are only as strong as your roster.”

I’d like to say that doing my present job was all part of a grand plan, but that wouldn’t be entirely honest. ‘Trial and error’ would be a more apposite description of my career in what has now been ten years of artist representation.

Having finished my degree  (Liverpool Uni, English Literature) and post-grad (Manchester Uni, 20th Century Studies), I headed for London with the idea that I would like to work in the film industry.

I gained work experience in bottom-rung jobs, such as runner and production assistant, in a variety of production companies. I did a lot of short-term and freelance work and found I most enjoyed working on location shoots for music promos.

The work was intensive but sporadic and, owing to the financial pressures of living in London, I had to make some compromises.

Working in a talent agency

After subsidising my income in a rather soulless call-centre (full of aspiring actors, musicians, film-makers, writers and artists) I was overjoyed to be called in for an interview at a large talent agency.

My CV had been passed on by one of the many production companies I’d worked for. After two interviews I got a job as Assistant to the Commercials Manager in the actor’s department at PFD – one of the two biggest talent/literary agencies in the country.

I spent three years at PFD representing a client list of 500 actors within the commercial sector - visual commercials, voiceovers and public appearances. From this experience, I learnt:

  • contract advice and negotiation
  • all aspects of invoicing and client account management
  • managing the diaries of clients and the Commercials Manager
  • how to obtain and distribute promotional material
  • liaison with casting directors, recording studios, advertising and PR agencies and clients on a daily basis.

The best thing about my job was my boss. She was so positive and encouraging, incredibly professional and capable and, above all, fantastically good fun. She remains my template for all that is good about women in business and the arts.

Becoming a music agent

After six months working in an agency in Melbourne , Australia, I returned to the UK. An agent from PFD had set up his own boutique agency and offered me a job as his second agent. He was a real maverick and very creative – a lateral-thinker and I was lucky to experience every aspect of running a small company and have the freedom to deliver a high-quality service to a small client-list.

“Since ‘music agent’ and ‘actor’s agent’ both end in ‘agent’, I had thought there would be more similarities than is the case...”

My passion has always been music and, as I had just drifted into actor’s representation rather than chosen it, I’d never found it entirely fulfilling. Once the deals were done and the red carpets trodden, I realised I had reached a personal ceiling in representing actors.

I finally took the plunge and took a job as a music agent’s assistant. I had to take a huge drop in salary and go back to being the MD’s assistant for some months while I learnt the ropes, so it was not without its sacrifices, but worth it.

Since ‘music agent’ and ‘actor’s agent’ both end in ‘agent’, I had thought there would be more similarities than is the case. The main difference is that you are the actor’s lifeline to their career and look after every aspect of their working life. A music agent only deals with live shows and touring and has little to do with publicity, recording contracts or releases.

The work of a music agent

I spend my days routing and booking worldwide and domestic tours and spot dates for leading national and international DJs and bands. The work involves:

  • liaising with artists, managers, record labels and promoters
  • contract negotiation
  • artist acquisitions
  • working with my assistant on the administrative side

I am now working in Elastic Artists, another boutique agency. So alongside actually booking shows we get involved with everything from production matters to travel arrangements (and DJs who forgot their flight details…).

I was not given much in the way of formal tuition. I would say my training here was largely by osmosis and learning on the job, using past experience and instinct. Having come from a job which I knew inside out, it was quite discombobulating for a while.

The reality of the job is that for every fantastic and rewarding musical moment in (sometimes) fabulous locations, we spend way more than 40 hours a week slogging it out on a laptop and phone. I never knew email traffic like this as an actor’s agent!

A very strong work ethic is required. Even though I often get told my job is ‘so cool’, it’s not for the faint-hearted as it can be very demanding on the nervous system. We are, after all, dealing with ‘artists’ and not stocks and shares.

Advice for a music agency career

For anyone considering a career as a live-booking agent, my advice would be: if you know you’d like to work in this field from a young age then look for full-time and part-time courses in music management. These give a broad idea of the structure and processes of representing DJs and artists.

However the most important thing is to get experience with a few different agencies and promoters. Working with a promoter would give you useful insight into the other side of booking artists.

Agencies and promoters often need interns to help them, but rarely can they pay, so it’s preferable to have some separate income. I didn’t ever intern in music, but even existing on a music industry wage has had a huge impact on lifestyle, not in a good way!.

“You need to keep an open mind and use a lot of initiative - formal training and good team leaders are in short supply.”

There are some good conferences to go to, where you can hear speakers from all areas of the industry such as Midem (Cannes), PopKomm (Berlin), In the City (Manchester) but it is not cheap to buy a pass for these. Urban Development run seminars called U-discuss which are more accessible if you're London-based.

You need to keep an open mind and use a lot of initiative as formal training and good team leaders are in short supply. While it is important to take lessons from agents in the industry who have been successful, it is a relationship-based job and you will need to develop your own style.

The most useful thing anyone ever said to me came from my first boss: "As an agent, you are only as strong as your roster." This has been proven time and time again so the ability to manage and maintain relationships with artists is crucial.

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