Music Insight Series // Brad Strouse

As the music industry continues to change, booking live shows continues to be in style.

We had the opportunity to sit down with booking agent, Brad Strouse, who has seen many sides of booking agencies throughout his career. His experience, wisdom and candid advice was helpful, and enlightening.

Whether you're just beginning your music career, or if you've been in the industry for a while, we hope this interview offers you perspective for your journey!

How did you get into the music industry?

I’ve always been passionate about music, ever since I was a kid. I was always sneaking “forbidden” CD’s and cassettes - my parents were pretty strict on the type of music they would allow in the house. I would listen to it on my walkman (I’m dating myself!). I didn’t realize it was a business of any sort until I was in college. I went to college at Auburn University in Alabama, and had friends who were in signed bands. 3 different bands signed to labels, and touring the country, and kind of making a go at it. As I began to spend more time (even hitting the road for a summer) I heard them talk about agents, managers, business managers and those type of things. They started filling me in on different roles even in the bands they played: one guy was the driver, one guy handled the finances, one guy designed the t-shirts. It really evolved in my mind, the different varieties of things available.

How did you music career grow from there?

I was lucky enough to have a spectacular mentor who taught me the foundations of business, ethics, sales and the work ethic it takes to make it in this business. After college, I got an internship at Gotee Records in Nashville, a Christian label with a lot of my favorite bands on it. I learned a bit more about the label side of things (it was an indie label, at its core) and that transferred into an internship at a boutique booking agency called Current Talent Agency. It was a small 1-man operation when I joined. It grew quickly, I think we had 15 artists at one time. That was Nashville and then when I moved back to Richmond for my wife’s job, I got connected to ECE (formerly East Coast Entertainment). They emailed me about a band I represented called Jars of a Clay for a festival booking. I saw their address in the email signature, it was right down the street from my house… so I kind of beat down the door until they let me in, and that brings us to present day.

What was the process like for finding and booking indie bands?

In Nashville, we started off with a core of 4-5 bands from a major agency - they’d phased out their Christian division and my boss brought them over to his new agency. A majority of them were self-released artists or on smaller indie labels. A lot of times it was a label relationship, management relationship or band-to-band, which is really common. Say one band opens for another band in Ohio, and then they fall in love and tell their agent, “You have to check this band out - they’re really good.”

Would you say it’s about ‘who you know?’

Yeah, it’s definitely about who you know and then how you leverage those relationships. Just because you say you know somebody doesn’t mean you actually know somebody, and just because you name drop doesn’t mean you actually would be recommended by someone. By doing a good job and putting out quality music, those relationships will speak for you. A lot of times our band’s managers would call us, as agents, saying, “I’m thinking about signing this band and I think you should check these guys out.” A lot of times it’s the weight of those words alongside a great live performance that helps those relationships solidify.

Is it more credible for an artist to send an email, or for someone to send one for them?

Locally, it’s more about the artist-to-venue relationship. Here in Richmond, The Broadberry is a very popular mid-level venue for bands. The owner is incredibly involved in the local music scene. So for an artist to get on a show with a bigger headliner, it’s most of the time about how many tickets they’re worth locally, and then also how easy they’ll make it for that venue owner, on the actual show day. If you say you’re worth 25 tickets, you’d better bring at least 25 people. And then you need to show up on time, load in quickly and efficiently, you need to keep your soundcheck short, and then you need to get off stage for that headliner. All of that is important, if not more important, than the actual show itself. That’ll turn into repeat bookings. A lot of headliners appreciate those things because they have to deal with unprofessional bands frequently. Maybe they draw 100 people in Richmond, and you can pad that with 25-50 people - that’s adding to their bottom line, and they’ll appreciate that sort of thing.

What role does an EPK play in the booking process?

It goes hand in hand with ticket worth, especially for larger, national tours and even local venues. You need a proven history in the market. No matter how great your music is or how great your Facebook page looks, at the bottom line, a venue owner or national booking agent wants to know how many tickets you’ll bring to the show. An EPK with numbers, and then also with Facebook links, social media presence (Facebook followers, Instagram followers) - all of that translates into your reach. If you promote a show locally, how many people are going to see that and, in turn, how many people will come out to the show?

Do you find it helpful to see “venues played?” Definitely. I would curate that if I was an artist or a manger. Just because you’ve played at a local bar every Thursday, if it’s the kind of venue where it’s a built-in following, it doesn’t mean much. It’s more applicable if you’re a rock band that’s played the Broadberry in Richmond and can say, “The last 3 times we played, we brought out 50 people.” Make sure it fits the style of music and that it’s a meaningful venue. Festivals are great, because you can list bands you’ve “opened” for. We’ve got Friday cheers that my company, ECE, actually books. We bring in large national, up-and-coming acts, like the Alabama Shakes. This past year, we had Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes and Carseat Headrest to name a few. A lot of times, we put local openers on the bill that are up-and-coming in Richmond. Those kind of things mean a lot. “We opened for Conor Oberst” or “We played in front of 3,000 people at Friday Cheers.”

How do you feel about touring?

You know, a lot of things have suffered in the industry, but touring is not one of them. For someone that wants attention, those things matter - great music, ticket history, social media outreach, tour history… “We’ve been on the road for 2 years now, these are the bands we’ve played with…”

Do you have any advice about booking festivals?

Festivals focus less on ticket history. If you’re talking about Bonnaroo, or Friday Cheers… Festivals care less about a band’s prior ticket sales and more about the headliners. With large festival booking it’s 99% manager/agent relationship with the producer. The gist of it is, if Bonnaroo wants U2 for a slot, U2’s agent will leverage that headlining slot to get 5 of his baby bands on the bill. For an indie agency, it’s all about indie festivals. Depending on the style of music, there are a lot of good ones, even here in Virginia. A lot of times, it’s just a matter of luck and hard work.

If you’re an indie band and you’re trying to get into festivals, how do you get in touch?

A lot of festivals take submissions. If there’s a deadline, make sure to hit it because they take those seriously. If it’s been around a few years, reach out to bands who have played it in the past. If you have friends or touring buddies in bands, reach out and say, “What’d you think about the festival? Would you recommend it? Did they treat you well? How did you guys get the gig? What do you think is the easiest way to get in?” If they’re playing it again, see if they’ll recommend your band to the producer.

Does it help to have a live video in your EPK for when you’re booking?

There are 2 things: a well-produced live video, or an iPhone video. An iPhone video is not a live video. You need to pay someone to come out and shoot you live. They should come with multiple cameras. They should take an audio feed from your board. They should get some b-roll of the band loading in and interacting with fans afterwards, hanging out backstage. That should go hand-in-hand with your music video, but you need to present yourself with the best possible quality. iPhones will make any band sound really, really bad. It’s worth the investment in your band. You edit down a full show to 2-3 minutes. A live video is helpful if you’re trying to get on a festival or a tour.

Describe a band that stands out to you.

Rainbow Kitten Surprise… it’s the craziest name I’ve ever heard. They were really popular in the college/indie scene, and they were recommended by a fraternity we work with at ECE. Between us booking them for the fraternity and them playing Friday Cheers, they got picked up by a major agency. They toured with several big bands, they’ve done Audio Tree sessions… they were so great live. The front man was extremely energetic and personable. He was all over the stage, up and down, running all over. The band had big personalities. You can’t hear that on the record. Having music online, on Spotify or Soundcloud, is great but a great live video shows the personality of the band. If I had $1500, I’d rather spend it on a live video over a studio video. The era of a produced storyboard video is gone unless you are doing something crazy like OK Go. A live video is a better version of what you’ll be like live… that’s what people want to know.

What do you enjoy enjoy most about the artists you encounter through your job?

I love bragging on our ECE artists. Many have/currently tour with historic artists like Prince, Outkast, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, and many more.

What job titles have you held in the industry?

I've been a college radio DJ, merch seller/gear hauler for a metal band, label intern, booking agency intern, and an agent in several different roles; technically, I’m now a booking agent and I produce events.

As an agent what are some of your day-to-day tasks?

On a daily basis I field incoming calls about potential events for our artists, check in on existing clients/relationships, strategize about promotion on social media, and network within the local professional community to create opportunities for artists out of thin air.

What advice do you have for artists who are interested in having an agent or manager?

Understand the business yourself first and work hard until it reaches a point where someone chases you or the workload justifies handing over a % of your income.

How is your job now different from what you used to do?

At ECE, it’s really interesting because I now have to worry less about the ups and downs of the industry. I work solely with non-original artists. It’s all cover bands. We book bands for weddings, private parties (pool party, graduation party, anniversary party), corporate events, festivals like Friday Cheers and we do festival buying. For corporate events, we book our exclusive bands, but we also book national headliners. Previously I worked with bands that sold anywhere from 100-1500 tickets a night. Now I’ve booked artists that have platinum records, multiple grammys, and are known around the world . We do 200 national headliners a year for corporate clients. It’s anyone from classic bands like Foreigner and Journey to artists like Eric Church - literally anyone that can be booked can be booked by ECE. Now I don’t have to rely on ticket sales or a single to connect business.

Where have you gotten to travel?

Last year I booked a big country duo for a wedding rehearsal dinner on a mountain in Beaver Creek, CO. The next day we had a 13-piece party band from Atlanta called Simply Irresistible perform at the wedding. Just a few months ago, I was at the Rock Hall of Fame for an event where they shut down the hall. This client came in with 300 of their employees, and we had Simply Irresistible with a famous 90’s rock singer as a surprise guest. Every single weekend, I’ve got 3 or 4 bands playing weddings and ECE has 50+ artists performing on any given Saturday. It’s a lot of fun because now, I get to deal with bands who are really passionate about the client experience. I also love getting to work with local/regional clients 1 on 1. It’s mostly brides and event planners. It’s fun because the bands are playing songs that have been hits across the decades. It’s less pressure for the band to write music and rely on ticket sales to get paid, and the relatively higher money doesn’t hurt either. I’d love for your artists to know it’s an option. We have a lot of bands that are in cover bands and play weddings and private events on the weekends, and then play original music throughout the week.

What’s a normal set list like?

The bands are expected to play 3 hours over a 4-hour period. If you think about a normal wedding reception, let’s just say it’s 8-midnight, the bands usually play something like 2 75-minute sets. You still take breaks throughout the night. It goes with the normal flow of the events… toasts, cake cutting, flower toss, garter toss. No repeat songs. Bands can still specialize in a style they’re passionate about. We don’t represent any cheesy wedding bands. You can still be a rock and roll band playing your version of Elton John, Billy Joel, Bruno Mars, Earth Wind and Fire. Every client wants something different. Funk, Jazz, Classic Rock, Country - anything goes.

If an artist wants to get involved, what’s the best way for them to find you guys? is the best way - you can submit your band there. It’s great because there’s no commitment. Really, we’re all just looking for great bands. It’s a much different set of criteria for bands that are appealing to us vs. a booking agency in Nashville. For us there is no original music needed. It’s a quality promo video that matters - at the core, it’s sales. You’re selling a client on a specific genre. We send them several different bands to consider. A great picture, a great video, and then a song list that’s appealing.

Do you guys use EPK’s? Definitely. It’ll have a picture, a song list and a video. Quality promo sells! Every band has talented musicians but compared to the touring world… if you think about a normal bride, she cares about someone who’s going to create an unforgettable night. They just want a band that’s well-dressed, tons of fun and professional. Customer service is involved. They want to know the band will show up on time and their band can handle things on the fly. Going with the flow. It’s about the client on our end, making sure they’re happy.

What advice do you have for indie bands that want to book?

For touring bands, I recommend starting out regionally. You need to build a core audience within 3-4 hours of your home base. It’s always sexy to hop in a van and head for CA and call yourself a touring band. But if you want to do it consistently, you need to start regionally. So once you’re worth 100 tickets in Richmond, move on to Fredericksburg, Charlottesville, Ashville… hit those markets every few months. Expand your circle until you hop on a bigger tour as an opener. You can make $1-200 a night, then you’re using that artist’s fan base to build your own. For someone looking to team up with ECE, it’s much simpler. It’s a more consistent model to be a full-time musician. The money is consistent, someone is getting married or engaged every weekend. Beyond that, it’s accessible. You don’t have to play every night of the week. You can play in country clubs every single weekend, and still have a full-time job during the week. You can play nicer venues, and clients appreciate you. You’re like family and you get to be part of the most important days in people’s lives.

If an indie musician wanting to be with a booking agency, what should they know?

Quality promo sells and hard work pays off. It’s not a quick process most of the time. Be consistent and persistent.

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