At a time when many boutique booking agencies have folded their operations into those of larger, acquisitive rivals, Tom Windish has been intent on forging his own path.
Windish opened the Windish Agency in 2004 following a seven-year stint as an agent at independent booking agency Billions Corp. Since then, his company has built an impressive roster of more than 300 acts including Animal Collective, Hot Chip, Justice, Cut Copy, Deerhunter, Friendly Fires, Girl Talk, the xx, Miike Snow and Crystal Castles.
Now the Windish Agency is expanding into New York, with the opening in early February of an office in Manhattan's SoHo district, its first outside of Chicago. To help establish the agency's presence in the Big Apple, Windish recently hired agent Mike Mori, formerly of the Agency Group, who brings with him such clients as Ra Ra Riot, the Antlers, Cloud Cult, Lenka, Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, Jedi Mind Tricks and We Are Scientists. Joining Mori in the New York office will be agent Steve Goodgold, who has been with Windish since August 2008 after coming from Chaotica/Vital Talent in New York.
In an interview with Billboard, Windish shares his take on the Live Nation-Ticketmaster merger and discusses what's ahead for the festival market and his agency.
Why did you decide to open an office in New York?
We've got enough of a presence [in New York] with four people that it's logical to have an actual office. With an office, I'm confident that we're going to be able to attract some other creative talented people in the business, ideally agents who'll be interested in joining the company.
Beyond the logic, New York is a good place for music. We book a lot of artists from Europe and the first place they play is New York. It makes sense for me to have agents there so they can see people. Personally, I can't be traveling to New York every week. There are a lot of people in the music business who come through New York a lot more often than they visit Chicago. It's a natural place for us to have an office.
Does the opening of the New York office mean you'll be more aggressive in signing new acts?
We're already very aggressive about signing acts. I need to expand so that we can take advantage of the great music being made. We have a cutting-edge roster, with a lot of younger artists. If we're going to keep adding them to the company, we will need to have more agents.
Are there plans to open a West Coast office?
Yeah, it's in the back of my mind.
You've had offers through the years to join larger talent agencies. Why have you remained independent?
I feel very good about the level of service I'm providing with the agency I have now. I don't think there's much that a larger agency could do that I'm not doing. I enjoy the fact that when I want to hire someone, I can hire and not go through the bureaucracy of a corporation to get it done.
I realize that bigger agencies are pitching artists on film opportunities and books and speaking [engagements], and various extra services. Some of our clients employ different companies to work on those opportunities, and they do a good job delivering those services. If a manager is willing to pick up a phone twice in a day, they can have those services provided by two companies. Often, I think an artist can benefit from having more than one company deliver those services.
What are the advantages of signing with you instead of a larger agency?
We have so many different types of relationships beyond the main people who put on the majority of concerts in various markets. We can book a tour for a new artist, where they're actually getting paid decently and playing in front of a lot of people who are open-minded to the music they're playing. I don't think the larger agencies have the depth of those types of relationships.
Have you ruled out the possibility of joining a larger agency?
I suppose one should never say never, but I'm happy with the place that my company is at.
What are some innovative approaches you've been taking to booking tours?
For a new and developing artist that is attending South by Southwest or CMJ [Music Marathon], we try to get them as much attention as possible by booking many different types of shows. We are open-minded to building strong bills, often paying openers more than the industry standard of $100, $250 or $500 per show. We talk to the artists about giving up more of the money for talent to put together special shows so that consumers feel like they're getting a good value for the ticket price. We also spend a lot of time booking shows at colleges, performing arts centers and smaller regional festivals.
Will the Live Nation-Ticketmaster merger affect your roster?
When Clear Channel started buying up [promoters], it didn't really change my business that much. When Live Nation was spun off from Clear Channel, it still didn't really change my business that much. And when Ticketmaster purchased TicketWeb, again, it didn't change things for me. So I don't think the [merger] will change what I do or the decisions I make in a very big way. We will still do business with them and their competitors. I don't see ticket fees going down, but I suppose there could be more all-in pricing.
In recent years, Live Nation has signed multirights deals with superstars like Jay-Z and Madonna. Are you concerned that the newly merged company could target indie acts and remove boutique agencies from the equation?
No, it doesn't concern me, personally. We have a fairly successful agency. But I don't think we have many artists that are on the radar of the huge promoters. We don't have that many artists selling 3,000-5,000 tickets per night. The majority of our roster sells 500-1,500 tickets per night. So are they going to try and book directly with some of the artists we're interested in? Maybe. But we've worked with our artists for a long time and brought them unique, diverse opportunities.
I could see us working more closely with Live Nation to put on a national tour. I'm interested in that and less concerned about being cut out of the equation. I don't think a company like Live Nation could bring enough varied opportunities that would be beneficial for an artist's long-term career. This industry is most successful with healthy and diverse promoters.
The economy affected some music festivals last year, and it's been announced that Rothbury and Pemberton won't happen in 2010. Where do you see the festival business headed?
If you put together a strong bill and deliver a great experience to concertgoers, then I believe you can build something that's successful. But it seems like there are less headliners out there. Festivals shouldn't have to be huge to make investors happy. The Pitchfork Festival draws about 18,000 people per day, which is nothing compared to something like Coachella. But Pitchfork is making money off of it, and it's great for the bands. There are a lot of opportunities, particularly in building smaller festivals.
How important is a large-scale festival appearance to a developing act?
If it can happen, that's great. We work hard to get as many of our artists as we can booked on major festivals. But I don't think it's make or break. In the old days you had to get played by certain radio stations if you were going to be "successful." These days, you could transfer that same mentality to playing large festivals, but I think that mentality is wrong. Just because you get on Lollapalooza doesn't mean you're going to be big. It doesn't mean you'll have a career for the next year or three.
Do you feel there more opportunities for booking now than there were 10 years ago?
Artists are booked by many agencies the same way today as they were 20 years ago. You call up one or two promoters in each city, tell them how much money you need, give a range of the ticket price, and have them send you the offer. We try to book our artists with those promoters a lot of the time, but also throw in unique opportunities.
Oftentimes, we use unique opportunities to get an artist in front of a lot of people who wouldn't want to pay the ticket price that we set as the value that the market will bear. For example, a lot of people would be up for paying $20 to see the xx, but others have only heard one or two songs, and don't want to pay $20. They might want to pay $5 or $10. We want artists to play in front of those people as well so they can become bigger fans of the artist. There are a lot of different ways to do that, like playing museums, city parks, parties that various organizations put on, and all types of festivals.
Have any new touring markets recently surprised you with good business?
Mexico in general had been very good for the last five years. It hasn't been great in the last couple years because of economic problems and the h1n1 virus. Mexico City was surprisingly strong -- almost as strong as New York City and Los Angeles, in terms of attendance. Not for record sales, but for the amount of people attending the shows and the amount of money artists were making. Mexico City, Monterrey and Guadalajara are all strong markets. When I started the agency, I wasn't booking many artists into Mexico. But about three years ago, we were doing a considerable number of shows there. We've pulled back a little bit, but I expect we'll do more there as the market recovers.
Are you opposed to signing acts that you haven't seen perform live?
I've been signing acts that I haven't seen live for close to 13 years. Bands would approach me from Europe -- like Autechre or Coldcut -- that had really good reputations and people who I trusted told me they were very good, whether it's managers, labels or promoters. And I really liked the music. If those things are in place, and I really like the music, I'm willing to take it on. If I didn't have that attitude, I'd probably be traveling every weekend of the year.
What do you look for when signing a new client?
First and foremost I need to like the music a lot. Beyond that, it's nice to have a good relationship with the artist and a good team in place - a good manager or label with a long-term vision that we agree with, a strong publicist, and a good online presence.
Are there any general concern you repeatedly hear from promoters?
I'm not getting a lot of promoters complaining about stuff. It depends on the market. Some markets have gotten oversaturated. They're smaller markets, but geographically touring hubs. So it's easy for those places to get inundated with shows. In general, it seems like the live side of the business is very healthy.
What's one of the bigger challenges you're facing today as a booking agent?
It's getting harder to get artists onto festivals, because there are so many artists out there that are successful and worthy of being booked. As time goes on, it's not going to get any easier. We're going to continue seeing a lot of amazing music being made. I don't think it's going to go in the other direction.
How has your role in developing artists changed over the 16 years you've been booking acts?
In many cases, the record company used to have a bigger role than it does now. These days, an artist is looking to develop their brand and market themselves more so than selling a record. And the live side of things is such a key component to helping an artist develop their brand.