Agents - Fact or Fiction?
Where do we start? The road to procuring an agent can be long, hard, and full of disappointment. That being said, it is an important topic to explore and get perspective on! We hope this article helps.
Fact or Fiction?
You need an agent to have a professional career!
Many, many, (really MOST) professional conductors have wonderful careers without the help of an agency. Most start their careers without one and many take a break from agencies for a variety of reasons in the middle of their careers. Of course agents can sometimes open doors and connect you to people, but that is your job as well - more on all of this below…
Yes!! I have an agent now and can finally focus on the music and let them deal with all of the career stuff!
Agents can be great connectors who take the work you have done on your craft and also the work building relationships, then packaging all of that and connecting that work to those who make the hiring decisions at orchestras. Ideally, they have great relationships with those decision makers.
That being said, you are still your best salesperson, promoter, and storyteller. The work you do to make your story more compelling is the biggest driver to guest conducting opportunities. Additionally, I have found that orchestras only begin to consider you after hearing your name a few times from different people in the industry - an agent is just one of those people. However, since they are sales people, their pitch is universally taken with a grain of salt and needs to be reinforced by what the decision makers hear among orchestra musicians and orchestra administrators. Therefore you can not stop working on your musicianship and relationships just because you have an agent! Obviously you need to continue to be respected by those orchestras and administrators, so don’t stop working HARD!
All agents are created equal.
At best, agents use the hard work you have done in your training and career to form a compelling story that they can pitch to orchestras that don’t already know who you are. At worst, they take a commission out of the gigs you get yourself and do very little except put your bio and photo on their website. There are some agents who may, perhaps, mention your name in passing to orchestras, but ultimately are unable to differentiate you from the rest of the conductors out there.
When you meet with an agent, the interview should go both ways! You have to make sure that they see a path for you and can clearly outline that path. They have to be able to explain why they are interested in you, so that you can be sure that they can convince others to be interested in you! Additionally, not all agents at an agency are equally good. Be sure to meet with several managers within a company, if possible.
Agents are worth the high percentages I pay them on EVERY GIG.
The industry standard commission for agents is 20% and yes, they are worth it. Think about it: if they connect you to one or two performances that you would not have had otherwise, then (in most cases) they have already paid for themselves. And of course, if they are negotiating your fee higher, then that 20 percent may effectively be reduced substantially. Aside from the individual gigs they may get you, having an agent is (usually) a signal to the rest of the world that you have been vetted and are championed by someone in the industry. That someone is taking a chance on you and taking the time to support and represent you. That is meaningful and is another ‘positive’ when people see your face or name.
I don’t want an agent because they will take 20 percent of everything I do, even if they didn’t help get that gig/job!
All of this is negotiable when you sign on with an agent. Places where they may take a smaller or no fees include: master-classes or all-states, community orchestra concerts, teaching jobs, and cover conducting. Additionally, they may only take a small administrative fee on gigs that you get yourself (perhaps 5%) or on work that another agent gets for you (perhaps because that agent is prominent in a small market like Scandinavia or Asia). Finally, any Music Director position contracts and guest conducting engagements you have prior to signing with an agency are potentially protected from their usual fee. It is worth asking. However, do know that any projects that you take (and aren’t paying commissions for) are completely in your hands. The agent has no incentive to logistically support or promote any part of it. Also, those projects may block out a week that otherwise the agent could try to sell you for a guest conducting week or a last minute cancellation. Finally, I do believe that ideally you get to the point where your agent is commissioning all of your income, because it means that everyone is working together on all parts of your career and doing a great job!
Agents are the best people to represent me and negotiate my guest conducting weeks and contracts.
I can’t stress this enough - it is very important that the artist is protected by all negotiations and similar conversations. The fact that there is a buffer between you and any hard conversations is important for all parties. It deflects any ill will that can result from a tough negotiation, it allows for a more free flowing dialogue with regards to feedback (after the concerts), and in general, it protects you from being seen as anything less than the artist they are paying good money to either join their organization or share a wonderful week of music making together. It is always best to keep the musical relationships free and unencumbered.
If an agent reaches out to me, I am probably doing something right!
FACT - with a caveat
Of course this means that you have achieved something that catches their attention - which is great! These types of things include: a new Music Director position, winning an assistant conductor audition, doing well in a masterclass, doing well in a competition, or perhaps they heard about you through word of mouth - either from other conductors, administrators, or other clients on their roster. This is good news but know that this process is still long. Just because they take or ask for a meeting, it does not mean they are ready to sign you, or that you should be ready to sign with them!
The Caveat: Be wary about agents who ask for a retainer (or at least a large one). A retainer could be a monthly or quarterly amount of money that you send to them outside of any commissions from concert fees. This is often explained to help pay for travel, staffing, mailings, advertisements in industry publications, etc. This is tricky because, while there aren’t many out there, there are some agencies who seek young artists to charge fees before they earn any commissions. Other agencies may be well meaning managers who believe in you, but just need help with overhead. So, if you are going to be paying any fees for a service, you should be sure that you understand those services and have a high level of confidence that this expenditure will have a material impact on your career. If you are unsure, ask around! Please proceed with caution. Make sure that your manager is signing you because they believe in you and have a plan!
That agent I talked to at the league conference is now totally blowing me off. They must have heard something bad about me or my conducting…
Agents are busy. VERY BUSY. While they might actually enjoy hearing from you on occasion (not too much) and may casually follow your progress, they don’t really have time to write you back every time you write or want to chat. Don’t take it personally. When you have a meaningful reason or time to talk, trust that you will connect!
They will never meet with me, so what is the point?
FICTION err… possibly true… both? IT DEPENDS!
As I just pointed out, agents are busy and get a lot of attention from a lot of artists. This is tough for them and automatically makes them have a little bit of a wall when interacting with an artist or receiving an email, or unsolicited materials, from people they don’t know. (About that, don’t send unsolicited materials to agencies… THEY DON”T LOOK AT THEM.) That being said, part of their job is to research artists and meet new people. So, it doesn’t hurt to just ask. I find that they are most likely to agree to a meeting if:
You make it easy for them to meet.
At their offices, at a league conference, for a quick coffee at the break of a rehearsal that you are also attending, etc.. (Who doesn’t have 15 minutes for a quick hello? And yes, 15 minutes is a good amount of time).
You are there to learn and/or ask them questions.
You have something of material interest to discuss or tell them (an upcoming job, guest week, audition, or competition).
You have no expectations.
This last one is important. Think of it like dating, no really! Use opportunities to get to know agents and let them get to know you but don’t go into every conversation desperate and anxious. Exude confidence in your conducting ability and (musical) attractiveness, but also realize that it may take some time for them to see it as well (if ever).
Whether or not you are able to get meetings, you have to ultimately be objective about where you are in your career and what an agent can realistically do for you. At the earliest stages of a career, some of the best work an agent can do for you is be an advisor and offer advice while you put in the work to become a better conductor. If you are mid-career, think objectively about what an agent can do to change the direction of your career that you aren’t already doing yourself. That question needs to have an answer because that is exactly what they are asking themselves after they speak to you! Finally, there are logistics and barriers to signing you even if they really want to. Their roster may actually be full (this is not always a lie) and no matter how exciting you might be on paper, they can’t honestly sign you without seeing you work in person. So, if you don’t have concerts or rehearsals that they can come to in the near future, then that timeline is extended even further. Of course I realize that this is a frustrating catch-22, but it is a barrier to entry that has existed for some time and those who work the hardest (and get a little lucky) find ways to overcome it!
Like I said at the top, it is a long and difficult road, so keep your expectations in check and be okay with whatever the outcome. Agents don’t magically make your career a success and not having one is not a career killer, so just trust that when it makes sense for you to have one, a solution will present itself! In the meantime, do your best to stay relevant in our field, have them see your name out there, continue to make these important connections, and work on your ‘story’ so that when the time comes, you can easily express what differentiates you from the crowd!
June 5, 2020