The booking agent as the main ally of the singer-songwriter? Whatever the case may be, there’s no doubt that over the past two decades, booking performers has become an increasingly influential activity in the musical ecosystem. Record sales are declining, nothing replaces live shows, and artists are earning most of their living by playing in person, for an audience. We talked about booking with Louis Carrière, founder of Preste, a booking agency that is turning 20 this year.
“Actually, I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years,” says Carrière, who, in a previous life, was the bassist for the punk band Tuniq’s, whose sole album was released in 1985. “Playing in a band and going on tour are learning experiences,” says Carrière. “Back then, I was the guy in charge of booking shows in school gymnasiums. I produced shows, mostly punk and metal – alternative, as we called it back then. I learned a lot: how to rent a venue, buying a show, selling tickets. It was an era when we worked with very little. The Internet wasn’t really big yet.”
The fun he had organizing concerts would quickly become a calling for Carrière, and he founded Preste in 1999 in order to provide a better structure for supporting the tours of his friends in Grimskunk. “There were only two of us at the office in the beginning, but that number grew, gradually,” he says. “[Preste] expanded, thanks to my association with [record label] Indica, which was taking off. Grimskunk attracted other bands, and that’s when I understood that there was a need for these services out there… because otherwise, someone else would’ve been doing it!”
Today, the company employs seven people, and is in charge of organizing shows and tours for a roster of at least 30 artists, mainly from Québec, including Klô Pelgag, Lydia Képinski, Half Moon Run, Voivod, Hubert Lenoir, Choses Sauvages, Sally Folk, and Roxane Bruneau. Preste grew by leaving its “alternative” roots behind in order to occupy the widest possible territory, both geographically and musically.
“Over time, you meet new people, work with new artists,” says Carrière. “Whether you want it or not, your roster widens to include artists of whom you’re not necessarily a fan… But then you realize that they, too, have a story, good potential. Plus you also grow to understand better and better the mechanics of a tour. Opening up to more popular musical projects also gave us credibility with venues and networks that attract a wider audience, and also with festivals.”
One thing makes Preste stand out within the industry: it manages tours, and nothing but tours. “I sometimes say that we’re a boutique agency, in a way,” says Carrière. “To each their trade, and others can go into publishing, album and show production, artist management. Even though, lately, album production organizations have increasingly taken the responsibility of bookings.”
When Preste started, this type of “360-degree” contract didn’t really exist, asCarrière recalls. The drop in revenue from selling recordings transformed the industry’s business model, and such contracts became more widespread. Labels increasingly produced and organized their artists’ tours, incentivized in part by subsidies available for the development of the live show for a musical project.
But times, they are a-changin’… again. “Artists are moving away from that type of contract,” says Carrière. “There was a peak, about 10 years ago, when a lot of artists wanted a ‘360.’ But lately, it’s more fluid: artists who had signed that type of contract are coming back to work with us.
“Nowadays, when I talk with younger artists, I see that that’s not necessarily what they’re after. To them, a record label is just one of many service providers. Signing to a label is not an end unto itself, but the beginning of something. And they know what they need: they choose to work with this or that organization for very specific reasons, and they seek out the service that is best suited to their needs. Business models have exploded, in other words.”
Carrière is in a good position to gauge how much the booking trade has evolved in the last few years. “Touring is even more essential now, but one of the main changes is the urgency,” he says. “What I mean by that is that as soon as an artist generates a buzz with a song, networks and venues want that artist on their stages right now. We used to have a little more leeway to develop an artist, but nowadays, if a song hits, the show has to happen quickly, even if the artist doesn’t really have much of a repertoire, or stage experience.
“Then there are artists who want to tour no matter what, but the impact of the web and the instant access to an artist’s work can have an opposite effect on the public. For some artists, we’ve noticed that tickets don’t sell well even when they’re played all over the web, or they’ve found an audience on YouTube. That complicates my job. I’m starting to wonder if the web means that touring is no longer the obvious answer to the decrease in record sales.”