Nialler9's How Music Works: getting the band on tour
Eleanor McGuinness, booking agent with Pitch & Smith, talks to Niall Byrne
Eleanor McGuinness: How can you sell a band if you don’t love the music?
It’s often suggested to budding music industry, that if you want to work in the music industry, you must go to London, the epicentre much of what happens around music. Or do you?
Eleanor McGuinness is one of the few booking agents who has rejected that view by booking European and UK tour dates for her artists while being based in Dublin. For McGuinness, who works with European booking agency Pitch & Smith, it was a simple decision based on a work/life balance. Working in event management in London, working 12 hour days with little time for anything else had McGuinness feeling consumed by work and unable to take advantage of living in a large metropolis.
“For me, you’re at your most productive when you’re happy in life,” she elaborates. “A large part of this job is about your personality. You go to meetings with bands to pitch to start working with them, and it comes down to how you get along with them. You need to be in the right place personally to be able to do that.”
McGuinness compensates by scheduling her London meetings for the one day a month she’s there and simply, rerouting her London office number to a Dublin office.
“Some artists think that if you’re not London-based, then you’re not on it,” McGuinness says. “I couldn’t be further from that thinking, so why would I want to work with artists that think that way?”
Many of the artists that Pitch & Smith represent are the kind of artists who think a bit differently themselves and forge their own path, including Caribou, Ólöf Arnalds, Jessy Lanza, Brandt Brauer Frick, Gang Of Four, Jape and Dengue Fever.
As an agency, Pitch & Smith largely represents independent artists, mostly in the field of indie, rock and electronica, on a roster which McGuinness characterises as “boutique”.
“There will always be the big guys, the Live Nations of the world. But there’s also a lot of other people too. It takes all sorts and each can have their success in their own way. No one is right, they’re just different. You have to decide which you want to be.”
McGuinness got into the music industry herself after college in 2002 while working in IT. She met people who worked in music like John McCallion who introduced her to people in the industry. Soon after, she started working with Rubyworks when it was just being set up as a label. McGuinness quickly realised she enjoyed the live booking and touring aspects of the job the most.
A promoter job with POD Concerts followed which allowed her to explore that part of the business more.
“POD was a small team so we were involved in everything from production to marketing. Those years with POD were quite the era, I think everyone involved back then will remember it fondly, when POD had all its weekly clubs and Electric Picnic was just getting going.”
McGuinness gained valuable experience working in Toronto’s V Festival across multiple events and dipping into the agent side of the business.
“I made so many great contacts there, people that I still consider some of my closest friends in the industry,” says McGuinness. “I can honestly say I wouldn’t have the same success now in this role if it wasn’t for my experience there. I never quite understood why Ireland didn’t have more agents, and I liked the idea of the agent role, promoting felt like the last link in the chain in the artists career and development.”
McGuinness had met Kalle Lundgren Smith and Stefan Juhlin of Pitch & Smith, a Sweden-based agency, while promoting at POD. Indeed, her first sold-show was one of their artists: Peter, Bjorn and John in Crawdaddy. They had kept in touch but when it came to it, McGuinness’ job took a year-and-a-half of negotiations.
“I had promoted long enough to know how it can be and if you’re going to work as an agent you need to be supported firstly to allow you space and time to develop a roster and there has to be trust, without that you get lost in the foray.”
McGuinness currently has 35 artists on her Pitch & Smith roster including Girls Names, Olga Bell, Son Lux, The Soft Moon, Hilary Woods, Fujiya & Miyagi, Gang of Four, Merchandise and most recently, the podcast-turned theatre show Welcome To Nightvale. The decision to add an artist to the roster is based on multiple considerations.
“We add bands to the roster because we love their music first – how can you sell a band if you don’t love the music? Some bands have a great set-up, they have an international label involved, a manager and a US agent. Some bands don’t have any of this, but they just make great music that you feel passion about. It comes down to two things really in the end; it how you feel about their music and do you have the time to work on it?”
If an artist has demonstrated they are well-organised, that can help.
“One of our most successful artists is Caribou and he’s always been self-managed. It’s all about the artist, if they’re capable of dealing with all the roles in the industry while still making great music and being creative.”
McGuinness doesn’t consider online plays and record sales. She does look at social media numbers but doesn’t take that into account in her decision.
“I generally work off a buzz, it’s really hard to quantify this. What is a buzz? I guess its general talk in the industry or a vibe. You hear people talking about them or you just get a feeling this is going to take off. It’s starting out right, the right triggers are going off.”
A typical day means McGuinness sending an eye-watering 500-plus emails, talking to managers, artists and labels; and negotiating with promoters.
State of the industry
While the recorded music industry has been in flux, the live sector has become the main source of income for many, but McGuinness observes that big earning gigs only come after investing time, having a strategy and tending to all aspects of an artist’s career. Things change quickly.
“We’ve just come off the back of a summer in Ireland where all the bigger capacity festivals sold out, compared to a market like Austria and Germany that just had its worse summer in years,” she says. “You always have to change and react to the business, that’s life. Ireland did that a few years ago and now the festivals are at a stage where they’re doing well. Germany hasn’t done that in years and now their strategy needs to change.”
Despite this, McGuinness believes the Irish music industry needs more investment.
“It sounds obvious but it’s not happening. It still blows my mind to think that artists like Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran can play in Ireland and not pay any tax here. Honestly, I shouldn’t say these things as it beneficial to smaller artists not to have to pay tax, but just think if the major artists actually paid their tax here instead of their home country, that money could be redirected back into the industry.
“We’re not talking about thousands of euro here, we’re talking millions. It’s a socialist answer, maybe that’s the Swedish influence on me!”