In each issue of Sports & Entertainment Nashville we try to cover the ins-and-outs of an artist’s career. We’ve covered songwriting and pitching songs, how publishing and performing rights work, the importance of networking, and the role of a publicist. For this issue, we share who advocates for the artist and keeps the artist working on a regular basis. Enter the agent.
What is an agent?
To answer that question, we solicited the help of Steve Lassiter and JoAnn Berry.
Steve Lassiter is senior vice president of APA, one of the largest diversified talent agencies with offices in Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Nashville and New York. They work at all levels in the industry and have a reputation for getting things done, keeping them at the helm of many an artist’s career, representing over 50 name brand artists, from Travis Tritt to Dolly Parton.
JoAnn Berry is one you might call an iconic agent, now turned manager and consultant. For many years, Berry was the agent for artists including Tony Bennett, Barbara Mandrell, Reba McEntire, Dwight Yoakam and Blake Shelton. Through her company World Class Talent, she works with artists of many genres.
What is the job of the agent?
“We procure income for our artists,” relates Lassiter. “We basically sell their show to promoters and buyers. There’s a whole lot more that goes into it than that, but that’s the basis of it.”
Berry concurs. “You find clubs, venues and places that want your artist, and if they don’t, you try to convince them that this is the artist they should have. You’re a salesperson for the artist. That’s the main thing,” describes Berry. “What I love about our business is that it’s so diverse and not just cookie cutter. There are different ways to do things, and that keeps it exciting!”
What does it take to become an agent?
“There’s a certain quality or aspect that one has to possess,” says Lassiter. “You can call it salesmanship, hustle, personality, a knack for sales. Whatever that is, it’s something you have to be born with—it’s not something you can learn. … I can’t put one word on it, but I know it when I see it.”
“The normal path of the up-and-comer today is: they go to school, become an intern, then an assistant for an agent, then hopefully at some point become an agent. Today, 99 percent have a degree in music business. But prior to that, you would just work your way in. It was based on who you knew and who gave you a shot.”
“It is different today,” Berry adds. “I got started because I had a deep desire to help the artist, and someone gave me the opportunity. I loved country music, but I knew I couldn’t sing. So I examined other options. I didn’t have any experience, but I knew I could do it. I loved it from the very start. But today, though many go to school for music business, become interns and work their way in that way, they still need the right opportunities and the desire to keep it going.”
How does it all work?
“Agencies are broken down in certain ways,” describes Lassiter. “We have a sales territory wherein agents book artists only in that territory. We have ‘responsible agents’ who handle offers only for a particular artist and have no particular territory. Most responsible agents can have anywhere from one to a dozen clients, depending on their experience.
“The first show I booked as an agent was Ricky Skaggs. He had just made the transition from bluegrass to country. He was just having his first big record. I’ll never forget it—I’d booked him on a show with Willie, Waylon, Marshall Tucker and Leon Russell. I was thinking ‘Wow!’”
Berry agrees. “It works based on relationships. As agents, we create relationships on behalf of the artist. The relationship an agent has with the buyers is vital. The buyers can make a lot of choices. They have to know you’re being honest with them and not feeding them a line. Your reputation is all you have in this business, and it follows you. You have to represent the artist to the best of your ability – and with integrity.”
How does an artist know when it is time for an AGENT?
According to Lassiter, the answer has changed through the years. “These days, an artist starts out with everyone else – but when it gets to the point where they’re generating high value shows, Facebook and Twitter numbers are going up, ticket sales at clubs are going up—then they get to a point where they just KNOW it’s time for an agent because they can’t keep it going alone.”
Berry concurs. “If you have a big-name artist, the calls come in. But you do have to have a demand and a product that people know. So they probably need to have had at least one single – or they’ve got a strong following somehow. You have to have excitement stirring where people know the name. Nobody will pay for a ticket to see someone they’ve never heard of.”
How do you balance being an agent with being a confidante to the artist?
Berry says she’s been blessed to have been a friend and confidante of her artists. “You have to have that time with an artist to feel like you have the right to tell them something that might be constructive but that won’t be particularly popular. You have to be a good friend to someone to say, ‘Hey, that’s not working on stage’ or ‘That doesn’t look good,’ or whatever. But, gosh, if it ends tomorrow, I’ve been so blessed to be with all these artists, and I’ve made some lasting friendships.”
What is the number one complaint you hear as an agent?
According to Lassiter, there are three. “‘I need more dates,’ ‘Don’t ever book me back at that place again,’ and the third, ‘The catering sucked,’” he chuckles. “But a lot of our artists say we’re booking them too much, which is always nice to hear.”
Berry agrees. “That’s just the nature of it. An artist asks for more dates, you get them for them, they say ‘Okay!’ but then add, ‘So-and-so got a date over here for X amount of dollars. Why didn’t I get that?’ It’s just like having children,” she laughingly concludes.
What is your favorite thing about being an AGENT?
Berry reflects, “I’ve been to the White House, spent the night at Camp David, had great private events in Hawaii…I got to come to Nashville and work with Minnie Pearl, the Statler Brothers and Merle Haggard. I’ve managed Don Williams, Lorrie Morgan… I was once a DJ and worked on a radio show that I loved. We promoted Dolly’s first solo show after she left Porter. When it came time for the show, Dolly dedicated ‘I Will Always Love You’ to me, and I’ll never forget it. That’s just a few highlights. It’s where the music takes you, and you never know where it’s going to be.”
“For me,” Lassiter states, “I had this desire, affinity, drive – call it what you will – because I want to help an artist. I want to help them on every level – help them feed their families and help them get work. When you get right down to it – I just had a great desire to help artists and guide their careers. And that’s what I get to wake up and do every day.”
What is your advice to someone wanting to be an agent?
“Use your connections,” encourages Berry. “Do whatever job you can get to get in the door. Go to that label or wherever your heart takes you and ask for a chance. Work in the mailroom just to show what you’re capable of. And follow your dream, because when you’re passionate about something it never seems like work. For me, it was about the work. It was not a ‘fun and games’ thing. I looked at it as my life—I wanted to succeed. You cannot lose that integrity, and you cannot lose that passion. This business has been great for me, and it can be great for anyone who really wants it! All it takes is a true desire to help others.”