How booking agents use (and don't use) data

For all the buzz about the live music industry — from its multibillion-dollar market size, to its increasingly influential role in artists’ careers — there’s surprisingly little discussion about the people who make sure artists get to play these shows in the first place: booking agents. 

As a quick primer: In music, booking agents work on behalf of artists to find and negotiate deals for live performances and appearances, and often play a hands-on role in building said artists’ long-term touring careers. Increasingly, they also help secure crossover partnerships between music and other entertainment industries, such as Marshmello’s show in Fortnite.

Typically, artists pay their agents a 10% to 15% commission on gross revenue from each show or appearance they book. The legal fine print of these arrangements is beyond the scope of this article, and has already been covered on the blogs of Heroic Academy, AWAL, Sonicbids and other music companies.

For this article specifically, I want to hone in on something that hasn’t been examined in depth yet: How has data changed — or, more importantly, not changed — the business of being a booking agent?

I was interested in exploring this question because the media has spilled ample ink on how data transformed the recording business. Moneyball-type streaming analytics tools have helped major-label A&Rs surface artists on the cusp of breaking into the mainstream, igniting the perennial debate around whether “gut or data” should inform artist signings.

From my experience, that same scrutiny hasn’t yet been applied to the booking side — which might be because the underlying “technology” of a live show hasn’t changed much at all.

Yes, there are exciting innovations in stage design; yes, there are hologram tours; yes, there are multiple startups like MelodyVR and Qello that are attempting to provide virtual, on-demand versions of the real thing that feel just as exciting.

But if you think about it, the product that booking agents still engage the most with every day is still the live, face-to-face show — an irreplicable, scarce and even primal experience that has maintained the same fundamental format, value proposition and business model throughout recent history.

“Live concerts and tours are unique in the sense that you can’t really recreate or reproduce them in the same way that vinyl records can be reproduced into CDs, then MP3s, then tracks on streaming services,” Jeremy Berkin, co-founder of artist-management firm and booking agency Lost + Found, tells me. In fact, if revenue is any indication, the brick-and-mortar live show has only become more relevant in the wake of technological change.

This isn’t to say agents aren’t plugged into data-driven music trends. My agency sources tell me that they regularly monitor much of the same data that label A&Rs do — from the standard day-to-day streaming dashboards and social-media platforms, to music-specific analytics tools like Chartmetric, Instrumental, Soundcharts and Indify. Agents are also especially astute with measuring actual fan engagement on these platforms, not just surface-level consumption metrics, as their end goal is a ticket purchase rather than just a stream, like or follow.

But because live shows by nature are more intimate and intangible means of experiencing music, it seems to me that agents also rely even more on their gut and intuition than label A&Rs do, even if they both have access to the same data.

“Our agents aren’t typically hearing about artists through some sort of data tool — they’re having their ear to the ground in a more traditional way,” Tom Windish, founder of The Windish Agency and now a senior executive at Paradigm who works with the likes of Billie Eilish and Vulfpeck, tells me. “They’re talking constantly with A&Rs and artist managers. I go back to the same radar I’ve always used: Do I like these artists as people? Can I hear some of their music that’s not out yet so I can judge how much I like it? Have they played shows before? Does their manager have experience in the business, and if not, is their head screwed on straight?”

That said, touring can still be an unpredictable business, especially if you’re not a superstar artist, so agents do welcome any tools or resources that might help mitigate financial risk.

By far the most crucial kind of data that agents reference in their day-to-day decision-making is an artist’s touring history — i.e. how many tickets an artist has sold over time, broken down by show, market, time of year, venue, headline vs. opener and other variables. Unlike with, say, how artists can easily inflate their listener counts on streaming services, “the language around booking is usually very straightforward, because it’s off a hard ticket value,” says Berkin. “The typical question is, ‘How many tickets is so-and-so band worth?’ Agents will send around emails like, ‘So-and-so band is headlining this tour, and we’re looking for an opener who’s worth 500 tickets.’”

This information doesn’t come cheaply or easily to the general public. Independent touring databases like Pollstar will set you back nearly $600 a year, and up to $25 per individual tour-history report if you’re interested in comparing multiple artists at once. A few of the major agencies, including UTA and CAA, have their own internal, proprietary analytics dashboards, and/or access wider audience data via third-party partnerships. Other agencies have been relatively later to the game; for instance, Paradigm only launched its first dedicated data-analytics department last year.

Importantly, only the larger agencies even have enough scale on their rosters to make these kinds of historical databases useful enough in the first place, let alone to make meaningful predictions about future sales.

For emerging artists with little to no tour history, they and their agents instead have to resort to educated guesses about market demand based on triangulating streaming and social data, often several months in advance of their shows actually taking place. In fact, sources tell me that agencies of all sizes are signing artists earlier on in their careers than ever — often before the artists have a label deal or even have any experience on the road.

“There are more and more artists blowing up on streaming platforms who have never played a show, or never even thought about playing a show,” says Windish. “We’re still at the beginning of that part of the business, of artists existing in that lane. Agents will have to judge what the numbers around those artists really mean for demand, what size rooms they should book and how much they can charge. I don’t think there are any obvious tools out there right now that can tell you that.”

In the current industry landscape, it’s cliché-but-true that there’s often little correlation between streaming consumption and live demand (lo-fi hip-hop being a prime example). What’s more, while several artists in the past have expedited the path to a major-label deal via high-profile playlist placements or memey virality on apps like TikTok and Triller, it’s much riskier — and nearly impossible — to do the same kind of short-circuiting with live shows.

“Even if you take an artist like Lil Nas X who blows up and makes history on the charts, they shouldn’t necessarily jump straight into a three-month world tour in 5,000-cap venues six months later,” says Windish. “It would be risky to do that for lots of different reasons. First off, you likely wouldn’t be able to get those venues in time. Or you might get the venue, but then the artist who was once this viral sensation might drop off into oblivion the next week. Then all of a sudden, you have this three-month world tour that gets canceled, because no one is buying tickets. There are lots of examples of that.”

In addition, good shows require weeks of proper practice and rehearsals for artists and their on-stage collaborators, as well as the cultivation of a captivating, memorable stage presence. Hence the timeline varies quite differently between streaming and live: Whereas an artist could potentially scale their streaming audience to millions of listeners within weeks or even days, the same artist will likely spend their first full year of touring playing only ~200-cap venues to practice their on-stage skills and test the water first.

It’s a much more methodical approach that also has an important strategic motivation: if you’re able to sell out many smaller shows in a row early on, “not only are you gauging demand, you’re creating demand,” as Diana Gremore, a business intelligence analyst at Paradigm Agency who is spearheading their internal data initiatives, tells me. “You’re creating a sense of FOMO, a phenomenon that people want to be at and could be missing out on.”

Phil Quist, an agent at CAA who signed the likes of The Chainsmokers and Elephante, agrees. “Especially if you’re going on tour for the first time, it’s really important to create a moment that feels special, that not everyone can access,” he tells me. “If a fan thinks they like you and your music, but then they turn up to your show in a 500-cap venue with only 300 people there, that fan might second-guess themselves and might not even buy a ticket to your next show in town. As a touring artist, repeat customers are the ideal goal.”

Even mainstream artists will often intentionally play venues with capacities far below their known market demand, a tactic known as an “underplay.” Imagine if an artist tried to underplay their streaming audience — i.e. intentionally pitching a playlist with 50 followers instead of one with 5,000 followers and even more engagement. That would seem like somewhat ridiculous, backwards thinking, and drives home how the streaming and live games are totally different. It’s one thing to cultivate a repeat streaming customer who can come back to your catalog tomorrow; it’s another matter entirely to cultivate a repeat live customer who might not be able to come back to your product (i.e. the show) until next year. In the latter case, it doesn’t necessarily hurt to start small and think several years ahead.

Not only does touring strategy tend to pan out on a longer, more methodical schedule than streaming strategy, but the former is also cutthroat due to relatively low supply of real estate.

A streaming service like Spotify can easily accommodate the fast-growing wave of songs being uploaded to its platform (40,000 tracks a day, to be precise); while there may be an issue of editorial curation bandwidth, there’s no underlying issue of storage bandwidth.

In contrast, the number of venues around the world has not grown at nearly the same rate as the number of artists who have cultivated enough of an audience to fill those venues. As a result, booking is more competitive than ever, with many agents reaching out even to 250-cap rooms half a year or longer in advance.

For instance, in the process of booking indie pop artist John-Allison Weiss’ tour in fall 2019, Berkin reached out five months early to try securing a 300-cap room at The Masquerade in Atlanta, but was told that “there were seven people in front of me who had already requested the same date,” says Berkin. (Weiss ended up performing at 529, another venue in Atlanta with a similar capacity.)

The key challenge here is that the demand for and momentum around an artist can change drastically — for better or for worse — within just a few months’ time. Hence the job of an agent is increasingly not just to book events, but also to collaborate directly with labels, PR reps, managers and others to make sure the media and marketing machine around a given artist is well-oiled when it matters most.

“If we’re setting up a tour that’s going to start a year from now, there needs to be a plan to keep the artist relevant,” says Quist. “What are we going to do from now until then to keep the artist relevant and convince people to keep buying tickets? Is it dropping a single every few months, or dropping a single and then an EP or album right as the tour goes on sale? What creative and social-media content are we putting out? The plan doesn’t necessarily even need to include music; an artist could go be a host or guest on a T.V. show, which could help a lot with exposure.”

This is especially consequential for newer and emerging artists. If they announce, say, a 250-cap show a few months out, but do little to no marketing or promotional activity leading up to the show, most potential audience members will likely forget about the show and move on.

“Newer artists with good streaming numbers should start getting live dates on the books especially in places like New York, where there’s a concentration of press and promo opportunities,” Wilson Zheng, a booking agent at High Road Touring who works with the likes of Mitski and Kate Bollinger, tells me. “If people on social media are seeing multiple outlets like Pitchfork or NPR cover the artist, there’s a better chance that they’ll go check out the show.”

So, in summary: Data has given agents more insight into how fans are consuming and talking about their current and potential artist-clients online. And in general, data has also allowed artists to reach streaming audiences with unprecedented speed. But this also presents a challenge for agents who need to book said artists’ shows without any significant touring history behind them, and on a relatively volatile time scale. And amidst all this, much of the job of an agent is still defined by intuition, patience and long-term planning, more so than many of its non-live counterparts in the industry, because there’s no way to shortcut putting on a good show.

Building analytics tools and prediction models for this specific kind of work can be difficult, and usually turn out imperfect. That said, a growing crop of startups are addressing problems specific to agents’ jobs. For instance, tools like RoadNation and Seated can help agents gauge presale demand more effectively for their shows, reducing the risk around investing in certain markets. And just yesterday, Pollstar and Google’s Area 120 incubator launched DEMAND — a free tool that centralizes both historical and current data around demand and pricing for shows and artists, based on a combination of Google Trends, Google and YouTube search data and primary and secondary ticketing data from Google and Pollstar. The tool also allows users to compare several artists at once, in over 200 specific markets.

One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that there are several external, often intangible factors that can significantly affect an artist’s tour performance, such as weather or market oversaturation, that are almost never incorporated into these kinds of tools (because doing so would be hard). For instance, “the busiest time of the year for a market like NYC is coming up in March and April, especially two weeks before and after SXSW, when a lot of artists are half on-cycle or we’re dealing with international bands who have only one shot to perform in America,” says Zheng. “In contrast, it’s pretty easy to get a date in August if you want it, but most bands shouldn’t be touring in August. It’s a terrible time to be stuck in a club indoors, and you’re competing with bigger festivals and with people simply wanting to enjoy their summer.” (This is similar to how cultural moments and holidays often have a negative impact on album release performance.)

How do you memorize and factor in all of this kind of knowledge as an agent? You build up the intuition through experience. In Gremore’s eyes, that intuition is just data that hasn’t yet been unlocked and operationalized in a way that’s more accessible to others.

“I think data in the music industry needs a bit of a rebrand,” says Gremore. “A lot of agents don’t like it when you just say ‘let’s look at the data’ — but then when you start talking about things like ‘charts’ or ‘touring history,’ they become a lot more keen on listening and taking part in the discussion. And for everyone who says, ‘Screw the data, I just want to listen to my gut’ — I think that’s amazing and they should keep doing that, because their gut is a combination of hundreds of internalized pieces of data built up over years of experience that allowed them to hone their expertise. Their gut is their experience talking.”  🌊

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