Brian Swanson is a 30 year veteran in the music business, having worked every corner, from college radio and retail while finishing undergrad work to sales for BMG and Capitol/EMI to talent buyer for nightclubs and finally, booking agent, which he has been for the last 25 years. Now at the esteemed Monterey International, he is the responsible agent for Great Big Sea, Imagination Movers, Choo Choo Soul, Celtic Tenors, Aaron Neville, Smash Mouth, Classic Albums Live, Trailer Park Boys, Jesse Cook, BeBe Winans, Fishermans Friends, Nellie McKay, Staff Benda Bilili and others. In addition, he oversees Monterey International’s Performing Arts division and all of their corporate bookings.
Dan Efram: Why and how did you end up in the talent agent / booking business? What was your road in?
I fell into this business much like a lot of people have. I was always a big music fan, going to lots of shows and buying dozens of albums almost every week. This ultimately let to getting a job in a bookstore on campus during my college days.
We slowly turned the bookstore into a music store that also sold books. The bookstore also functioned as the practice space for the band I was in at the time. I learned most of what I know about dealing with people during those music/book store days, that being that there’s pretty much no bad music and that people buying music and going to shows is better than sitting on the couch watching the tube any day of the week.
Once I finished college I took what I thought would be a quick stop kind of job working for Electric Fetus One Stop in Minneapolis. We sold wholesale to all the mom and pop record shops in Minneapolis, Saint Paul and the five state area including and surrounding Minnesota. I stayed longer than I expected, ended up managing the one stop before getting picked up by BMG Music who had a branch office in Minneapolis.
From there I went to Capitol / EMI doing the same kind of work (poster schlepping, small account sales, etc), before leaving the label side of the business and taking a job as talent buyer for Prince’s club “Glam Slam.” That was a quick and painful lesson in how to lose money and how to lose a job, but it also taught me survival. I had been booking my own band here and there and got a call from Kevin Daly who happened to have a small NACA based agency in Minneapolis. They had mostly college NACA style bands (i.e. a capella groups, solo male guitarists, speakers, piano players) but were branching out and needed a club booker and I needed a job. That worked better than I thought and after 3 and ½ years I struck out on my own, opening Hello! Booking.
Six years later I got the tap on the shoulder from Monterey Peninsula Artists (now Paradigm Agency). I did four and a half years there, worked thru the transition and buyout before it just didn’t feel good to work there any more and made the jump to Monterey International, which had been a sister company to Monterey Peninsula up until the Paradigm shift, so to speak. It’s been six-and-a-half years now at Monterey International, heading up their performing arts department and private dates nook and it’s never been anything but great.
DE: You ran your own company – Hello Booking – for many years, how does Monterey international operate differently?
My real entrée to Monterey International was via Kevin Daly, who I worked with in Minneapolis at his agency, Proton Productions. After I started my own agency, Kevin shuttered Proton and went to work here. He was always telling me how much he loved it and how great it would be for me, and if they ever needed someone he would make me come out for a meeting. I laughed, thinking nobody at Monterey Peninsula would hire two clowns from Minneapolis to work at the same place, but then I got the call and lo ad behold, I was wrong.
Monterey Peninsula was a good place for a long time, and the history speaks for itself (30 plus years of amazing artists). Dan Weiner and Fred Bohlander had a vision of what a boutique agency could and should be and they made it happen. But Paradigm was different. The goal seemed to be to compete with CAA and William Morris and that is not who I am. I want to make a difference in the lives and career tracks of the artists I work with and the other agents I work with. I strive to be a team player, which is not easy in this business. I’m not on stage. Nobody is paying to see me.
My day-to-day goal is to make decisions that serve the artist and the audience as best as possible. It sounds like a cliché but it is 100% true that if you do that, you will make money. I think that is how Monterey International is different. Yes, we make our artists great deals, but we’re not striving to be a volume business that has as much market share as possible. This is about artist and audience development. Every artist is a developing artist. Anyone who tells you different is either ignorant or arrogant, or both.
Fans are easy to distract, they die, they move on. If you’re not looking for ways to maintain and grow your artists fan base you’re not doing your job. If you are not striving to find the right promoter for every market, again, you are not doing your job. There is constant talk in the business about promoter loyalty, which is very, very important. That said, if you bring an artist into a market and can’t do as good of a job as another promoter, you better sharpen your axe and get good at your job or your history with that artist is going to go away.
DE: Would you outline a typical day for Booking Agent? Paint a picture of the process of booking a tour through the eyes of an agency.
A typical day is an unending onslaught of e-mails and phone calls. You try to set an agenda, but it’s really a tough balancing act. It’s herding chickens while your house is burning, and the phone is ringing and your IM is pinging and you’re getting a dozen text messages and you have to take a leak like you never had before. It’s fun! I share an assistant with John Lochen, our other Performing Arts Center agent. I am the Responsible Agent (RA) for a number of different artists but I also have my specific territory where I book shows for all the PAC’s in that region. It’s quite the balancing act. Somewhere in all that I find time to eat lunch.
DE: How has the role of Booking Agent for a musical touring act changed over the last decade? Do you find that you have to interact with managers, labels, promoters, venues and others in different ways than when you began?
Since there are pretty much no other revenue streams for artists these days the role of an agent has become more and more important. Our artists rely on us for income. Labels? They are necessary because they usually hire the publicist but in the grand scheme of things they are a shrinking part of the equation. Promoters have not changed a whole lot, though there are always new, hungry promoters out there eager to get in the game. I prefer to find the best ones out there rather than push to go with one company for an entire tour (Live Nation – AEG – etc). There are good people at AEG and I work with them when I can – same with Live Nation. I work well with Square Peg, too. But I would say 90% of the shows I book are directly with in-house buyers. That is unusual, but not rare. When you’re in the PAC world, this is where a lot of the buyers come from.
DE: What are the major differences between working at a mid-sized agency like Monterey International other sized agencies?
Like I said above, I think we are, as a smaller agency, more capable of giving a shit and doing the right thing for our artists. WME or CAA will beat the shit out of an endless stream of buyers and get you your money, but when you are done with them it is them telling you they are done with you, more often than not. They are a volume business. There are great people at those agencies, but you could not pay me enough to work there, nor would those companies ever want me to work there. I’m the antithesis of what they are looking for.
Long-term relationships are crucial and I have been doing this for nearly thirty years. There are people who will take a show based on my word. I don’t sign crap and I think people know that. What makes a successful tour? Not every show needs to be sold out, but I strive for market growth in every city. I try to avoid cities where I can’t see a venue path from small to large. In other words, if there is one mid sized room in a city but no “next step,” I am likely to avoid that city if at all possible. There are exceptions, as sometimes you just need to fill the date, but simply filling the date is something I try to avoid. Every show should have a purpose.
DE: What makes a successful, lasting business relationship? What are some of your favorite artists, programs, promoters and projects?
A lasting relationship comes from mutual respect. This is a tough business. Sometimes a promoter is going to lose money, which is a tough thing to see your friend, and I have a lot of promoter friends, suffer through, but it happens. You have to be able to get thru those times and the times that you don’t give someone a show, even if you have a lot of history together over other artists.
As for favorite artists, my record collection is a mecca to commercial failure and artistic brilliance. My fave artists from thru the years are The Floating Men from Nashville. They were perhaps the greatest band I ever worked with, but it never happened. I think I could do more for them now, but I was too young at the time and they gave up too soon.
Most fun project? The tour for A Mighty Wind was a dream come true though not everyone on that tour was a pleasure to be around. I love all the artists I work with, though for a variety of different reasons. It’s not always about the music. Sometimes it’s about working with an artist you like as a person. The artist still has to be great, and I can tell “great”, but it doesn’t always have to be “great for me”, personally.
DE: What are three specific things that may peak your interest about a potential client? How important is it that you have input into a production’s creative direction?
These days, I am hardly looking at all. I have too much to do and not enough time to do it. That probably means something great will come along. But it has to be incredible, so incredible that I am willing to go with an hour less sleep a night to make a difference. My girls are eight years old and nearly eleven, now. They are my priority. They take the top position. So that’s how high I have set the bar these days. If I were to sign a new artist it would need to feel important to me, desperately important. When you look at the artists for which I am the responsible agent (RA), I think it says it quite well. Nellie McKay, Aaron Neville, Buika, Jesse Cook, Imagination Movers, Choo Choo Soul, Trailer Park Boys, Great Big Sea and a few more, these are career artists, unique in their own right and just plain genuinely nice folks.
DE: The touring industry has seen many highs and based on some industry metrics, business is currently booming. To what do you attribute some of these left-field touring success stories?
Business is booming because people still need to go out and have fun. They need to identify with something and commune with a crowd of people who feel the same. Right or wrong, Bon Jovi is an act that a lot of people really love. It draws people together. That’s a good thing, right?
DE: What role does technology and social media play with your work? Do social media numbers assist you in choosing new clients? Routing tours?
I don’t tweet, I barley do Facebook and I only watch YouTube stuff to make sure my kids are not watching something vile. Were these things to go away I would not miss them. Utilizing these tools is something the artists needs to do with their management. Direct connections are time consuming, and fleeting.
DE: Would you estimate the amount of your business that involves contracting with performing arts centers? What is the value of conferences like APAP or Arts Northwest?
90% of what I do is with PAC’s. They take longer, from beginning to end and because some are city or state run, contractual issues can be pain in the ass, BUT they deliver a much better crowd and experience for the artists. It’s true APAP and the other conferences offer us all a chance to connect, but make no mistake about it, these organizations are in the conference business. Aside from creating a place to meet, these organizations are of little use. Western Arts Alliance and CAPACOA are a little different. They try harder and they generally deliver. But, that said, I have grown a little tired of spending the company’s money so that someone can hold a workshop or panel discussion on the benefits of Twitter or some other pointless conference filler material.
DE: Do you have any suggestions you have for artists or productions that are trying to make a go at this professionally?
It may sound trite or over simplified, but if you want to make it in this business there is no substitute for hard work. The hard work does not ever end. It may be easier to book Buddy Guy than The Floating Men, but it’s not really. The devil is in the details. And if you don’t get your details correct, you’re fired. Make too many mistakes and that artist you signed to the agency because you loved them so much is firing your lame ass. As for the future of PAC’s, I think it is pretty much the future of / for established acts. The club scene is thriving, and in twenty years I’ll be booking todays top club band for a PAC run of dates at five times the ticket they are charging now (give or take), as in all likelihood the audience that stuck with them over the years wants to sit down already.
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