The Art of Booking

By: Edna Landau

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If you ask anyone in the artist management business how things are going these days, they will tell you that everything seems harder than it used to be. Some concert series have ceased to exist or have been significantly cut back, a number of orchestras have also disappeared or have been seriously challenged by budget shortfalls and labor difficulties, and an increasing number of presenters are reluctant to take risks, preferring to book artists who are familiar to their audiences and who are likely to generate a healthy amount of box office income.  In light of all this, what can a manager or self-managing artist do to enhance the chances of securing one of the highly sought after slots in a presenter’s season?

I recently consulted with a few longtime, highly regarded colleagues to see if they had any words of advice. My first call was to Marna Seltzer, currently Director of Princeton University Concerts, but formerly (at the start of her career) a manager and booking agent at Herbert Barrett Management. I felt that her having sat on both sides of the fence would give her a particularly insightful perspective on this subject. A glance at the Princeton University Concerts website revealed significant information about this presenter’s approach toward programming. A beautifully written announcement of the 2013-14 season speaks about the quest for a balanced season “that has the potential to leave the audience not just wanting to come back but feeling that they must come back to hear more”. Ms. Seltzer further writes: “One thing I am sure of is that we don’t want to become predictable. Even though we protect our legacy and try to deliver you the quality and mix that you have come to expect from us, we will never stop taking risks, trying new things.” (Would that there were many more presenters who adopted this approach.) How does Ms. Seltzer keep abreast of these new things and decide which to feature? She told me that recommendations from presenter colleagues carry tremendous weight. This poses a big challenge to managers who may have difficulty getting their artist(s) on the radar screens of major presenters. What are they to do? Ms. Seltzer spoke of the supreme importance of building relationships. Initial contacts might be made at industry conferences or by paying a personal visit to a presenter on their home turf. She loves the opportunity to show off the university’s beautiful and historic Richardson Auditorium and feels that familiarity with the hall can be of great benefit to a manager in deciding which artists to propose. A personal visit also makes a lasting impression on a presenter. What doesn’t make a favorable impression is a manager who launches into a conversation without having taken the time to see what type of artists she presents, or getting a sense of her immediate goals and needs. Their sole mission is to convince her that she must present their outstanding soloist or ensemble, irrespective of any other plans she may have for the season. This manager is less likely to enjoy a long term relationship with her that could lead to a productive booking collaboration in the future.

Evans Mirageas, Vice President for Artistic Planning at the Atlanta Symphony, The Harry T. Wilks Artistic Director of the Cincinnati Opera and a much in demand consultant, told me that he genuinely understands how difficult it is for an emerging artist to “get above the noise”.  He, too, places a lot of stock in what his colleagues have to say. While it is unlikely that he will return phone calls from people he doesn’t know about artists with whom he is not familiar, he does try to respond to written communications, even if only with a few cordial sentences acknowledging receipt of the material.  He encourages managers to organize auditions for their artists with artistic administrators (if they are trained musicians) when they are unable to arrange for the Music Director to hear them. Once he has heard a promising artist in concert or an audition, he adds them to an Excel list that he reviews regularly. He welcomes and values periodic news he may receive about those artists’ successes, either directly or via their managers, and updates the list accordingly. Still, he says, artists and managers must understand that music directors and conductors have their own wish list of artist/collaborators and it can take several  years before regular contact on the part of a manager might bear fruit. It was heartening to hear him say that in addition to the fact that no presenter can afford a season featuring only marquis names, it is important for a presenter to achieve balance in their offerings and to introduce their audience to new faces. They should also leave room for artists who may not have achieved superstardom  but who continue to offer rich artistic experiences while already a few decades into their careers. He responds most favorably to managers who invest time and effort to learn what might be of genuine interest to him and the music director, and whose dealings with him are direct, honest, concise, and “gently persistent”. Another artistic planner at a major orchestra also told me that when he is approached by a manager with whom he does not have an established relationship, he really appreciates if they start a conversation or meeting by asking about the orchestra’s priorities and plans, and then follow up by zeroing in on the two or three artists they think might be most appropriate for the orchestra, rather than running through a whole list of names. He stressed the importance of a businesslike approach in all booking-related communications. It should never get to the point where  a manager personally takes  umbrage when a booking doesn’t materialize right away. Each party has their own agenda at any given time, but managers should trust that proposals that are discussed and are of potential interest to the orchestra remain in their minds and may well result in bookings when the timing is right.

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© Edna Landau 2013

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