Being the head of a small, somewhat unorthodox booking agency was my life from 1995 to 2000. Many things transpired over that period that would make a big difference as my career continued to unfold.
It’s pretty hard to believe as of this writing when musicians are literally begging to find booking agents — 20 years ago, many people owned small booking agencies, and the number of performing/recording artists was easily ten times less than we experience today.
Performing arts centers were popping up everywhere in the Pacific Northwest. The northwest is mostly rural and musicians with even minimal name recognition could bring audiences to venues who were taking advantage of regional talent. It seemed a perfect and level playing field where everyone was working to build community from one small town to the next.
After a time, the venues discovered if they could attract much bigger names to their small town, they would sell out performances. Venues were taking a risk paying considerably higher fees potentially netting handsome profits.
It didn’t take long and bigger names were filling halls all over the region. Top-name regional artists were left with fewer dates when it was their influence that helped build the arts scene in every regional little hamlet, town, and city.
Booking agents began disappearing in the late 1990s because their artists weren’t a big enough draw to keep venues interested.
My little agency wasn’t doing badly, but it could have been better. I knew that the venues weren’t promoting artists as well as they could. And they didn’t really have to when they had big names on their season series.
From the start I had looked for a PR agent in the Seattle area to work with. There were tons of publicists but they were all working for Microsoft, Amazon, and companies with a technical slant. I had media contacts from my stint in the rock scene, but my clients weren’t of interest to pop and rock journalists.
Doing what I could, being booking agent and publicist was pushing the envelope pretty hard. The media contacts who would work with me couldn’t possibly write about every performance we had locally or regionally.
Even still, it was obvious PR held more potential than booking. Though they’re pretty similar, the big difference was music journalists had years of experience, while venues were run by people who knew very little about music.
Part of what colored my opinion about booking was I’d joined forces with the small town where I lived helping to establish their first-ever outdoor concert series in a beautiful park. The city employee I worked with decided to quit her job midway into the process, so the whole thing was handed over to me to administer under the tutelage of the city administrator who was convinced a summer series of six shows should cost $500.
At the time I had adequate funds to cover the balance for what the city budgeted. Under that agreement, I held the city’s feet to the fire and told them if they wanted to start an annual series they had to book quality artists and pay them accordingly, which they agreed to.
Gathering a bunch of civic-minded people, we all met to select our first series from a small group of submissions. In that group of artists were some really great shows and the first contract issued went to Japanese taiko drummers.
There was a flurry of preparations, checks and balances with the city. The park was situated right beside a train rail which was going to be a problem. Amtrak and Burlington Northern had several runs daily, but I didn’t know when or exactly how many. So I called Burlington Northern thinking I could somehow find a solution.
“All I want to know is what the train schedule is so we can plan an outdoor concert series around it, ” I explained. “Ma’am we’re Burlington Northern and we come through that town several times a day.”
“All I need is a general schedule to avoid the train whistles disrupting performances.”
“Ma’am, 60 trains a day come through your area. We cannot say with any accuracy when train whistles will blow at that crossing.”
Sixty a day? We’d just have to deal with it.
Another obvious obstacle in Washington state — the weather is highly unpredictable. An old joke truthfully reflects summer starts on July 5 in the northwest. Six concerts were planned for every Friday night after July 5. Posters were designed and distributed for storefronts, press releases went out on a regular basis to communities within a 50-mile radius, and local businesses were contacted to participate. It was a virtual firestorm of PR, launching a new series with a diverse lineup of family entertainment. Much harder to achieve than an arena show.
Though centuries old, taiko emerged after the second World War. Taiko has mythological origins in Japanese folklore whose purpose was ceremonial in religious rituals or events calling the community together. It’s important to note after World War II, a Japanese internment camp existed just 10 minutes away from where the concert was being held.
The taiko drummers would be an excellent opener. A 12-member ensemble with traditional hand-crafted instruments intolerant of rain. As a precaution a large tent was erected, and just a few hours before the concert began, a torrential downpour jeopardized the beginning of an annual series that continues to this day.
The drummers were at my house trying to decide if they should play or not. They’d travelled quite a distance and if they didn’t play they wouldn’t get paid according to the contract. I was certain no one would come to an outdoor show in sloppy weather, and secretly hoped we might cancel with an agreement to reschedule. But no. They decided the show would go on.
As the taiko performance began, a crowd silently gathered around the fringe of the park under a mass of umbrellas. With rain pounding all around me I was amazed to see dozens of Japanese Americans respectfully stand, listening to instruments native to their heritage calling the community together.
Honestly, it was something like a religious experience. And thankfully, not one train whistle blew disrupting the moment.