Working towards a fairer music industry

In Conversation With : Marlon Burton

With early starts, long office hours, late nights at shows and multiple acts to juggle, the role of a booking agent is a demanding one.

Before landing his first booking role for Roots Manuva, Marlon Burton got his foot in the door by saying yes to jobs he didn’t know he could do. Four years later, he managed to turn his love of music into a full time role at one of the UK’s largest agencies ATC Live. His roster now includes the likes of Lord Apex, Eliza Shaddad and Oscar #Worldpeace.

We spoke to him about his unusual start, the personality traits that make a good agent, and why the hectic schedule is all worth it.

Booking Agent

Firstly, can you tell us a bit about how you came to work in the music industry?

I went to university at Leeds Metropolitan to study event management because that’s what I originally thought I wanted to do and I tried to be a promoter but it felt like a bit of a long game. Then when I graduated the problem was that the recession hit, so everything caved in and went from there being loads of jobs available to no jobs available, so I had to have a bar job and spend whatever spare time I had working for free at festivals like Bestival in the Summer.

I eventually got a day job in the charity sector and continued to push my events on the side. Fast-forward a few years and I got an internship at BBC Radio 1Xtra as an assistant producer because I knew someone working there. They asked if I could edit audio and I was like “yeah of course” but I had no idea.

And how did that lead to you becoming a booking agent?

One day I was having dinner with my uncle and Roots Manuva walked in with his manager who knows my uncle, so they started talking and my uncle introduced me and mentioned that I work in events. The manager said that they’re looking for a new agent and asked if I wanted to help book some shows. I’m the sort of person that never says no, so I did it.

By this point, I’d been working the festival circuit for so long that I knew everyone - promoters, artists, DJs and became a familiar face in the scene. So I literally went online and emailed a few promoters that I knew: Noah Ball who books Dimensions and Outlook Festival, and Rob Waller who’s a promoter for Soundcrash amongst others, and within ten days I had a couple hundred thousand pounds worth of festival offers on the table. They were impressed that I’d managed to deliver it and after that said I could be their agent. I got an accountant, registered as a Ltd company and set up my own business account with Barclays. This all happened three years ago.

While I was doing the shows on my own I really enjoyed it but I was still new to the game so would email one of the guys at ATC Management a couple times a day to ask questions about contracts and deals — general stuff that I didn’t know yet. He put me in contact with Alex Bruford who runs ATC Live and eventually I asked to work there. I was still doing my day job alongside all of this, so I would go to ATC one day a week and then four days a week at my day job. I’d be sat at work with two laptops — one for my day job and the other for ATC, and I’d be working on them both at the same time. After a few months it was too much so I handed in my notice and became an agent full time.

I became an agent out of pure luck, opportunity and not being afraid to say yes. But it also happened by getting to know people who could help me. If I was asked to book shows for Roots Manuva and I didn’t know anyone, it wouldn’t have worked. The fact that I’d got to know certain people over the years of working around the industry really helped. I was always prepared but didn’t realise until I was given the chance.

Ezra Collective crowd at KOKO

Do you think going to university was important to your journey?

I think it gave me the time to learn more, but I don’t think it was the be all and end all of me becoming an agent. When I was there, I met people who then went on to do big things: one of my friends became head of bookings at Ministry of Sound, and another the booker of Broadwick Live. Knowing those people because we went to uni and grew up together means that now I’m 35 I can rely on them. I think if you’re doing something creative then going to uni and being amongst these types of people helps, but I don’t think it’s essential.

What does the day-to-day role of a booking agent entail?

A typical week would involve lots of phone calls and meetings with artists, management and promoters, and maybe seeing my music solicitor. Then the rest is booking shows and finding new music. If I sign a new act and they’re about to drop an album in six months time, I’d be planning their live career based around them releasing that music. Festival season is Summer and Autumn but the main time for touring is the Autumn or Spring because that’s when artists tend to release music.

The job involves lots of early starts and late nights, so it is demanding. I typically get up at 5am, go to the gym for 6am and am in the office for around 8:30am. Then I’ll be working until 5/6pm and go to a show three or four nights of the week.

What personal qualities do you think make for a successful agent?

I think you’ve got to be quite sociable and have good attention to detail because it involves looking through deals and finding ways to make money for your clients. You’ve also got to have a good ear and eye for talent. When I first started I was trying to sign new acts all the time, but then I slowed down and became a bit more patient because I realised that if you sign too much and nothing happens with those artists then it’s quite difficult to drop them. So it’s important to decide if an artist is actually ready for an agent.

Some artists have loads of potential so you might sign them early and sit on it, and other times there’ll be acts that are super hot and you’ve got to be prepared to go hard on it.

I’ve pitched for so many artists and haven’t got them, so you’ve got to be thick skinned but never hold a grudge. If you always leave the conversation in a good place and that artist doesn’t end up having a good time with the agency they went with, they might come back to you.

Being a booking agent involves a lot of financial negotiating for artist fees. Would you say it’s a necessity to be good at numbers in this line of work?

I’m not the most maths savvy person. You get an offer, and you compare it with the other offers you’re getting, so it’s all pretty straightforward. You can only get as much money as you can put in a venue. So if a venue holds 500 people and a ticket is £10 then your offer will be based on that - you take away the cost of PRS, venue hire, marketing, and promotion there’s a number at the end of it. Festival fees are typically based on how many tickets an artist is worth. If you’re worth 10k tickets then your festival offer is going to be £100k, then it just comes down to negotiation and your relationship with the festival. If you’ve got a really good relationship with a promoter then you could argue that your artist is worth more and maybe try to get a bit more money.

Ezra Collective at KOKO

Did you receive any training when you joined a booking agency or were you expected to learn on the job?

There isn’t really any formal training as an agent because there’s no real structure to how you do things. It’s not like being an accountant or lawyer where there’s certain protocols, and it’s not massively difficult. It’s mostly about not being an arse-hole, building good relationships with people and trying to do the best you can for your client.

The way that I came into the role was really different — my first show was 3000 tickets at the Troxy and then I did Ezra Collective at KOKO. Most people would start off as an assistant, doing admin work for someone else and then slowly build their own roster so they can learn the ropes. Whereas I did all these massive shows but had never booked an artist for a one hundred capacity room, so I had to learn backwards.

I think the one thing I have learned over the years, is that promoters come and go. You get a lot of club promoters and student uni promoters that say they want to book your act and then disappear, then you’ve got a client that’s upset because you’ve told them you’ve got them a massive show and then you look like an idiot. You can get away with those kinds of mistakes when you’re new and a bit green, but I’m three years in now so I can’t make those kinds of mistakes anymore.

What does a typical deal look like in terms of artist/agent split?

An agent would typically take 10% + VAT commission. So I would send an artist I want to work with an offer and I take my commission over the top, and as an artist they have to work out if it’s something they can afford. So a lot of artists are touring at a loss to begin with because there’s not much money to make, but they have to prove they’re worth more tickets. Then as they begin to sell more tickets they make more money.

What do you look for when considering artists for your roster?

For me, it just had to be good credible music. I’ve got a daughter, so something she would listen to and something that will sell tickets and go places. I’m an ambitious agent, I don’t want to be sat around with artists who will only play one hundred capacity venues in their career. I want to be doing Ally Pally, Brixton and big international venues.

What’s been a career highlight so far?

In the first year of being an agent I had Roots Manuva at Troxy, Skrapz at Kentish Town, Ezra Collective at KOKO, and Yazmin Lacey sold out Jazz Cafe. So it started on a real high and I came into the scene under the radar because I wasn’t an established agent but was suddenly doing these massive shows.

Finally, what advice would you give to those just starting out in the field?

I think you’ve got to think about what you want to do — for me I really love music and becoming an agent was a way in for me. I love being an agent, if I didn’t then I wouldn’t be doing it, but ultimately it’s a hustle and a sales job. How many artists have you listened to in the last year that have broken through to the mainstream? It is cut-throat, but some people love that and some people don’t.

I’d say to anyone who’s trying to be an agent to go out and find some young new musicians you really like and then try to book some shows for them. It’s really rare that an agency is going to give you a job with no experience, because if you’re not making any money for them then they’re not going to be able to pay you. But if you’re able to say “I’ve been doing x, y and z” then they can see what you’re capable of.