Thursday, September 6, 2007

Suzanne On Working With Agents

Here's another post from Suzanne. This one concerns itself with the business side of the game, and she makes some great points as usual.

Working With Agents
Buy/Sells vs. Straight Commission.

Twenty years ago it was common practice for agents to work on commission. They‘d sell an act for as much as they could and then the act would pay the agent a previously agreed upon commission, usually 15 to 20 percent. This was fair because how much the agent was paid was in direct proportion to what the act was being paid and everyone knew how much everyone else was making in the deal. Somewhere down the line though, agents changed the balance of power. Now most agents, at least here in Minneapolis, do Buy/Sells.

How Buy/Sells work: Agents sell a show for as much as they can. Then they find an entertainer who will do the show for way less than the sell price. When this happens the agent ends up cutting corners; he won’t be able to get a great entertainer and still leave a big enough profit margin so he has to lower his standards. This in turn, lowers the quality of entertainment because the more talented entertainers can't/won't work for what the agents are willing to pay. Only the hungry entertainers end up being available and they will work for way below what they’re worth.

Buy/Sell contracts: Agents used to have one contract signed by the agent, the client and the entertainer. Everything was above board. Clients knew the break down of what the entertainer was getting and what the agent's fee was. A Buy/Sell contract is usually not signed by all three parties. There are usually two different contracts, one for the client/agent agreement and one for the entertainer/agent agreement. The client doesn't know how much they’re actually paying for the entertainer and the entertainer doesn't know how much total is being paid for the show. The agent’s fee is lost in there somewhere and no one really knows how much he’s making from the deal except him.

Let’s say you’re a magician just getting into magic and you charge $75 an hour for walk around magic. That’s what you get when you book yourself and that feels like a fair price for what you know how to do. You don’t feel like you’re cheating the client and you also feel like you’re getting enough so you want to do the work. You get a call from an agent and he wants you to work for 3 hours. Wow! That’s the biggest gig you’ve ever had and you’re going to make $225. That’s cool! You take the gig!! You sign a contract between you and the agent and do the gig. Then you find out that the client paid $500 to the agent. We don’t need to go into how you found out for this exercise, let’s just say you do and leave it at that. Do you think, "Well that’s fair that the agent made more than I did because I still made $225 and that’s the biggest gig I ever had. Anyway I wouldn’t have even been able to do that gig if I didn’t get it through the agent." Or do you say, "Hey, wait a sec… "?

Looking at the above scenario, let’s see what really happened. Either the client got ripped off because he had an entertainer who was really worth half of what he paid for or the entertainer got ripped off because he doesn’t know how much he’s worth and he needs to start charging more when he books himself, or a combination of the two.

Personally I don't think Buy/Sells are a good idea because it means the agent is working only for the agent. Part of the problem is agents don't have to really care that much about whether the price is fair to the client or the entertainer because the actual price is hidden. The way it is now makes a bad name for entertainment because they are buying poorer quality entertainers and selling them at a much higher price than they are worth. People who hire through agents don’t know that this is how it works so they don’t even think to find out how much the entertainer is being paid. I have a hard time believing that the client would not care if they found out they were paying $500 for a magician who is only worth $225. I’m sure they know that a fee is tacked on top of the magician’s fee for the agent, but I bet they have no idea how much that fee is.

Sadly the Buy/Sell mentality is running rampant in our society. The entertainment industry has been raping entertainers for decades. Just see this article. This is about the music industry but it's a good example of how skewed the balance of power is. Everyone is out to make the biggest dollar they can, and they don’t care whether it’s right or wrong.

What do I think would be a good solution? I can only speak for novelty entertainment like magicians, comedians, jugglers, etc. I think this entire problem would be eliminated if entertainers would stop acting so hungry and didn’t sign contracts unless they knew the whole score. The contracts need to be between three parties, the entertainer, the buyer (client) and the agent. All dollar amounts need to be in the contract. This way the entertainer is working with full knowledge of who is getting what. If the entertainer wants to do a gig where the agent is getting $275 and the entertainer is getting $225 then that’s OK because it’s above board. If the client wants to pay an agent fee that is more than 50% of the total sell price then that’s OK because it’s above board. I’m certainly not opposed to agents making what they deserve. What I want is for everything to be out in the open so no one is being taken advantage of. The only way we as entertainers can stop this trend is to not let agents scare us. They should be working for us. We can get gigs without agents, but agents can’t get gigs without entertainers.

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