Working towards a fairer music industry

In Conversation With :Sarah Joy

We caught up with on-the-rise booking agent Sarah Joy to hear about her journey to working for revered agency ATC Live. She talks about how wanting to be a radio DJ eventually led her down the path of bookings, and what it feels like to work with a band from their first shows to filling 5,000 capacity rooms. We also hear about the day-to-day role of a booking agent, the importance of communication in such a relationship-led job, and tips for anyone trying to get a foot in the door.

Booking Agent

Firstly, tell us a bit about how you got started in the music industry.

I always wanted to be a radio DJ so I started out in journalism first off, writing for any music blog that would have me and eventually landed an internship at BBC 6 Music on Tom Robinson's show. It was super hard to make it work financially in music journalism in London though so I took a job working on the PR for Station Sessions, which was a live music series at St Pancras International, as I had links to those blogs. There I met a lot of people in the music industry, learnt what the different roles were and got a little more insight into where to go next.

I knew I was interested in working artist side rather than being a promoter so I managed to hustle two freelance jobs working in both management with Neneh Cherry and her record producer husband Cameron McVey as well as a part time booking assistant role at This Is Now Agency. After a few years, I moved over to ATC Live as a full time booking assistant and worked my way up the ranks there. First working with Will Church and Chris Meredith on their roster's and now I am a full time agent with my own stable of artists.

What was your understanding of the role of an ‘agent’ before you started pursuing that career option?

Before I worked at Station Sessions, I had absolutely no idea what roles existed in the music industry past being a journalist. No one ever told me the music business was a viable career path or what the teams were around artists. When I met a few agents via my work as a PR, I was instantly interested in their role as I loved live shows and was going to gigs all the time. I saw the connection they had with their artists, their knowledge of festivals and venues, the way they were involved in artists development and strong-headedly thought "I can do that!".

What led you down the path of becoming a booking agent?

Once I knew it was a job and that you could make live shows your career, I set about researching every band I liked and what agencies and promoters they were working with and started building my knowledge of how it all connected. I was in my early 20s in London and spent a lot of time knocking about Shacklewell Arms, Lock Tavern etc meeting people and building on the networks I had via Station Sessions. I managed to get a foot in at a small agency via a band that was on it and loved being so involved in the plotting of artists live shows and festivals and I got more ambitious with wanting my own roster one day on a bigger agency. If you are into live music specifically, it really is the best job you can get in my opinion and seeing an artist go from 100 cap to Brixton Academy is about the most satisfying journey there is!

What does your day-to-day work entail?

My day to day work consists of a lot of emails and phone calls. My job is to work with artist managers and plan the steps each band needs to take to grow their live careers. I do this by relying on my network of promoters / bookers and getting my bands onto the right bills, picking the right venues at each stage of their careers and aligning this alongside their release campaigns. I negotiate fees, secure festival bookings, set the deals between promoter and artist as well as where the band needs to play across Europe, Asia and Australia to hit the right audiences. There is also a lot of competition in terms of signing new artists so pitching and keeping in touch with labels and managers on what they are taking on is important too. In pre-covid times, my job also involved being at a lot of live shows! Right now, I am doing a lot of rescheduling and moving shows about as covid drags on.

Many booking agents start off as assistants. Can you talk us through that process / the career trajectory of a booking agent? (and how does being an assistant first help?)

I think it really helps to be an assistant first. As an assistant you are very involved in the day to day running of artists' live business and shadow everything your agent does. You get a really good grounding in what contracts look like, how tours come together, the types of deals, how to put tours on-sale and ticketing, taxes and visa requirements etc but most importantly you get a great start in building your own relationships with promoters, managers and labels, which is absolutely key to being a successful agent. Assisting the agents I did was invaluable and I owe a lot to all of them. It is sometimes hard to then be promoted up to agent as it's a big step and investment for an agency as rosters take time to build into being financially buoyant. ATC Live however have a great culture of investing in their assistants and bringing them up to full agent positions. They allowed me to take on some acts whilst still an assistant and once I had proved myself they promoted me.

What are some of the personality traits you think make for a successful agent?

Traditionally agents are notoriously cutthroat. It has been a boys club for a very long time and it can attract quite bullish types. However, I am super lucky that I am at an agency where fairness, being nice and level headedness are key values. I think organisation and people skills are the two key attributes you need to have. Organisation in terms of being able to juggling multiple artist calendars at the same time and know what each act is up to when and what dates you have held where. People skills are super important as you are continuously conversing with promoters, managers and labels and those relationships are the bread and butter of what we do.

Are there any skills new starters should brush up on if they’re wanting to become a booking agent?

I think the most important thing is just arming yourself with a lot of knowledge of the live circuit in terms of venues and festivals. Spend time learning what promoters there are out there via listings and Facebook event pages, looking at your local scene and who the key players are, knowing the genre you are wanting to work in inside out, study what bands are playing where and why they might be and just generally immerse yourself in live shows. The terminology and semantics can be learnt as you go but you can't fake having an intuitive sense of what steps certain bands need to take to break and carry on being successful for years to come. That only comes from knowing your genre inside out and what events are key and who are behind those events.

How do you think the industry as a whole could be more supportive of young people in the early stages of their careers?

I think there is a lot of work to do within the music industry in terms of diversity and that needs to be addressed at the entry level. Encouraging people of different races, classes and geographical backgrounds to get into music business is really important. Historically there is a lot of nepotism and not everyone has access to that. I think changes are being made on that front especially in terms of gender but I think there is a long way to go on race and class diversity. Not everyone lives near London and can afford to do the internships that are often a foot in the door so there needs to be much more effort from employers to ensure the workforce is diverse and paid enough to support change from the bottom up.

How has COVID affected your work and do you think there will be many changes to the industry once live music starts up again?

Covid sadly has decimated the live industry for the moment. Agents and promoters make money by commissioning on live shows and with no live shows, there is no money! We have mostly been reliant on support packages from the Government and finding new ways to make ends meet. I am in no doubt that when shows return, it's going to be entirely profitable again as everyone will want to be out at shows but we also face issues now concerning Brexit as well as many venues and promoters going out of business. It's a rocky road out of this but the light at the end of the tunnel is appearing hopefully.

What’s been your proudest moment so far?

Signing Squid early and seeing them go from The Windmill to Printworks in two years has been something very special. I am especially proud of working on a mostly female team with them; the managers are all amazing strong women and it's great to be a part of that every day. My first bookings at my favourite festivals have also been great moments; there is a real sense of achievement in getting that dream Park Stage slot I always swore I'd get someone one day!

Also just simply being promoted to full agent; ATC Live really is a special place to work and the confidence Alex Bruford our CEO put in me is enough to make me proud! That and being part of the puzzle around bands I love everyday.

Finally, what advice can you give to young people who are interested in becoming a booking agent?

I would encourage people wanting to get into music to have something of their own going on no matter what it is - run some local shows, do the merch at your local venue, try managing a friend's band, set up a DIY label, a blog etc. All this really helps when applying for jobs at more established places. The more you are hands on, the more you learn and the more people you meet. Get out there, get stuck in and absorb it all then apply far and wide once you have a foot in.

Also be nice to everyone, you never know whether that person you crossed paths with two years ago is going to end up managing an act that can make your career so try to keep connections, treat people with respect and don't be a dick. It'll get you much further.