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Savvy booker masters preemptive strike

Music for Screens: Spring 2012

When organizers of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival announced the Indio, Calif., event would expand to two weekends this year with the same acts playing both weekends, some booking agencies foresaw routing issues.

But the Windish Agency’s founder Tom Windish saw opportunity.

“The first thing I did, 11 months in advance, was contact a bunch of venues that were outside of (Coachella’s) radius clause: venues and promoters in Las Vegas, Phoenix, San Francisco,” says the thirtysomething Chicago resident who spends chunks of time in L.A.

Even though he wasn’t yet sure which of his roster’s 550 acts would be playing the April 13-15/April 20-22 festival, he went ahead and locked up the clubs. “I got calls a few days later from the Coachella guys, saying, ‘You’ve held all the venues just outside the radius clause!’ I said, ‘Well, you told me what the dates were. What was I supposed to do? Sit on my hands?’?”

That’s the aggressive stance that has allowed the 38-person agency, named Pollstar’s 2012 independent booking agency of the year, to experience double digit growth every year since launching in 2004. Windish, with offices in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Toronto, touts approximately 20 acts playing Coachella, including Givers, M83, Miike Snow and Beirut. At the recent SXSW music fest, the L.A. Times called Windish “the busiest man in Austin, Texas,”

The bulk of Windish’s roster is made up of indie acts large and small like Animal Collective, Dengue Fever, Gotye, Pink Martini and the xx, as well as DJs like Diplo and A-Trak that the agency tries to grab before its competitors are aware of them: even if it means not watching the artist perform first.

In fact, Windish says it’s sometimes best not to see an act before signing it up. “I went to see TV on the Radio when they were brand new 10 years ago,” says Windish of his days as an agent at the Billions Corp. “It was their first show. They couldn’t play the songs. Because of that I decided not to sign them. I’ve been kicking myself for nine years …

“The reality is we hear about these bands at such an early age, we have to have faith they’re going to become great live. And if we don’t sign them, someone else is going to jump on them a week or two later.”

That faith has certainly paid off with Foster the People. The first time Windish saw them at a frat party, “they weren’t a great live band, but I listened to the songs, they rehearsed for the next couple hundred hours, played the next 50 shows, and now they’re great.”

“They sell more tickets than any band we’ve ever booked,” Windish says of the Grammy-nominated act that has quickly moved from fringe into the mainstream. Artists like Hot Chip have also grown from drawing 200 people a show to several thousand. The success of such acts “has raised us up a notch,” Windish says. “I can just tell people’s perception of us is shifting. It used to be we had these indie bands that had a little success. But this makes people look at the roster differently. It’s like ‘Who’s next?’?”

Such groups’ rising fortunes often means bigger agencies come looking to poach a growing act that Windish has invested in since the beginning. “If we can’t satisfy our artists’ needs and desires and they want to go elsewhere, we say, ‘all right, good luck with that,’ ” says Windish, who comes across as shrewdly driven even while projecting a zen-like calm that might have something to do with a fitness regimen seemingly at odds with his rough-and-tumble business.

But Windish adds that packaging a smaller act on a bill with a bigger artist is not something a big-name agency can leverage as a bargaining chip anymore. “I’m finding the (headliner) is generally finding who they want to play with them.”

Many of the huge issues facing the touring industry, such as overinflated ticket prices, shifting buying patterns for amphitheater shows and the monolithic merger of Live Nation and Ticketmaster don’t trickle down to the majority of the acts on Windish’s roster, most of whom are at the club or theater level. Plus, since he isn’t investing in an artist’s record career, Windish is not dogged by the problem of declining album sales.

“The reality is the bands I book make a significant amount of their revenue from touring. They make much more when they sell 1,000 tickets than when they sell 1,000 albums.”

If anything keeps Windish up at night, it’s the idea of exceeding his own expectations: “I’m trying to figure out where to take the company next. We have a lot of opportunities in front of us,” he says, although he adds there are no plans to merge his company with a bigger agency.

“I’m not trying to sign 5,000 acts. I’m not trying to figure out how to do business like the big agencies. I’m trying to figure out how to bring a business structure to these bands and help them to get to a bigger level.”

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