Industry Profile: Tim Drake
By Larry LeBlanc
This Week In The Hot Seat With Larry LeBlanc: Tim Drake
Tim Drake, president of The Roots Agency in Westwood, New Jersey, started his career at 14 booking bands into his high school.
At 18, he promoted his first major concert--with Mountain.
Working as Tim Drake Presents for over 15 years, he followed up with shows by Billy Joel, Aerosmith, the Kinks, the Charlie Daniels Band, the Marshall Tucker Band, Eddie Rabbit, Squeeze, Richard Pryor, BeBe and CeCe Winans, and Take 6
Drake promoted primarily in the suburbs of New York City, in venues such as Newark Symphony Hall, Westchester Premier Theater, Westchester County Center and The John Harms Theater.
In 1995, Drake and former Premier Talent agent Sean LaRoche, co-founded the folk-based booking firm Drake & LaRoche initially representing five acts, including Tony Bird and Vance Gilbert (who remains with Drake today).
LaRoche departed within a year, and the renamed agency, Drake & Associates, grew to include four staffers, and to represent 17 artists, including the Burns Sisters, the Saw Doctors, Jane Siberry, Richie Havens, Janis Ian and Celia Cruz.
In 2002, Drake & Associates merged with Tamulevich Artists Management to become The Roots Agency. In 2003, this company formed an alliance with Boston-based MusicAmador. More recently, it teamed up with former ICM Artists booking agent Mark Smith to facilitate festival booking for Arlo Guthrie.
Today, The Roots Agency, with offices also in Ann Arbor and Nashville, represents over 35 acts, including: Richie Havens, the Chieftains Lesley Gore, Arlo Guthrie, Graham Parker, John Gorka, Ronnie Spector, Ronny Cox, Sara Hickman, Susan Werner, Harry Manx, HotHouse Flowers, Luka Bloom and Amanda Shaw.
The Roots Agency's staff consists of four agents and four booking assistants, as well as a contract manager and financial manager.
Can a boutique booking agency flourish in today's era of consolidation?
The bigger the major agencies get the more opportunity there is for a boutique agency. We hear all of the time from presenters who are not well serviced by the major agencies. They are happy to deal with us. While we don't have a large roster, part of this business is (building) relationships. Certainly in the arts and festival communities, you have to pick up a phone and talk to them. They will book your acts because you deal straight with them.
Are there problems in balancing the expectations of your roster against marketplace reality?
It is sometimes a struggle. In August, for example, I called each of our clients and told them that if they wanted to work, we needed to restructure their deals and that we needed to lower guarantees. I told them, "Your fee is X, we need to lower it." "How about the places we are doing well?" "We still need to do it. We need to do it pretty well across the board." Make the show go on but lower guarantees. We can make it up on the back end. Instead of 70%, we can get 95% of the back end.
What was your argument based on?
The economy. Ticket sales are off. In six months, I had done over a hundred reductions, more than I had done in the 14 years prior. If our promoters start hurting or start losing money or go out of business this whole wheel stops turning.
All but one client agreed with me. That client has since come around. Many old school artists have a viewpoint that the promoter/artist relationship is adversarial.
Well, there was a time, you had to have someone with a gun at the box office to be paid or have your own ticket counter.
The notion of a partnership with presenters with some artists was, "Are you gullible Tim? They are going to fuck us." But we can't let [presenters] suffer like this otherwise we are all dead. We are in this together.
In folk music, the promoter is usually not a profit motive presenter. They are more into presenting the folk art. So we're are dealing with a promoter who really isn't there to screw us or screw the artist. They may do it out of incompetence or because they are part-time volunteers and things like that. But you don't have the profit motive usually as part of a negotiation.
Folk acts have traditionally been the low person on the music industry's totem pole. At the same they can't appear to be mercenary. It is supposed to be all about the music and community.
Just making money in folk music is (considered) being successful. There has long been an attitude that success and the folk business don't go hand in hand. But some of that has shaken off in recent years.
The indie artist thing is in full swing right now (throughout the music industry). But 10 to 15 years ago, the folkies were already doing that. There was no radio or retail for them. They were the early adapters with the Internet and email, well before the more commercial artists. Selling the albums or CDs at gigs was a normal routine whereas commercial artists, signed to major labels, couldn't because it was frowned upon by the label which felt it would hurt retail.
You began booking bands in New Jersey at 14. What would you book at that age?
At 14, I'd rent out my high school's auditorium and book local bands. I wanted to be a concert promoter. I looked at what John Scher, Ron Delsener and Howard Stein were doing. Those are the guys I wanted to be. I was a promoter for 15 years [working as Tim Drake Presents]. I put off finishing college to do concert promotions. My father has his doctorate; my mom's got her masters. They expected me to go to college.
How did you figure out the concert business?
I'd to the library and read Variety from cover to cover. I'd hang out in Phil Citron's office at William Morris, just listen to him wheel and deal. That was my education. And people like Ed Micone at ICM [International Creative Management] took me under their wing and told me what I should do.
With John Scher and Ron Delsner controlling the local marketplace, did you get any breaks in booking acts?
I would try to get shows in between Ron Delsner and John Scher. I had no idea the titans I was dealing with. It was tough getting shows. I would book whatever [booking agents] gave me. But I got acts like the Kinks and the Marshall Tucker Band.
I would also go to where (Delsner and Scher) wouldn't. I'd do shows up in Westchester, do shows at Newark Symphony Hall, do black shows like BeBe and CeCe Winans, Take 6 and Richard Pryor that they didn't need to or want to do. I was a one man operation trying to do what I wanted to do.
I remember saying to Phil Citron that I wanted a James Taylor date. And Phil said he'd give me a James Taylor date but I had to take his crap too. Then he needed an Eddie Rabbit date on a Tuesday in August (in the '70s). He told me I'd lose money (playing a country act in New Jersey), but he'd give me a James Taylor date in return. I did the Eddie Rabbit date, and I didn't lose money. It turned out Eddie is from [East Orange] New Jersey. We played up that angle and I broke even. I never got my James Taylor date by the way, but Phil gave me other acts.
Back then promoters would scream at agents like bloody murder. I remember being up at F.B.I. (Frontier Booking International) sitting in John Huie's office in the early '80s and hearing Ian Copeland screaming from across the way. He slams down the phone and comes into Huie's office swearing about John Scher. He said, "Drake do you want a date with Squeeze in New Jersey?" Squeeze were then big enough that they were playing Madison Square Garden. I asked, "Will it piss off John Scher?" He said, "Absolutely." I answered, "I'm there." I had to come up with $40,000. That was a lot of money back then. [Ian Copeland died in 2006 from cancer at the age of 57]
Did you take many financial baths in the early days?
I didn't for a while. But I was only doing a couple of shows a month. I remember being 21 and telling my father after a Billy Joel show, "I plan to be a multimillionaire by the time I am 30." I had done maybe 10 shows at that point
I had just done Billy Joel at Rockland Community College Field House [in Suffern, NY] and sold out 6,000 seats. (Joel's agent) Dennis Arfa [later the founder of Artist Group International] told me that it was the most tickets that Billy Joel had ever sold. He walked away with $20,000 which, with it being a $6 ticket, was a lot of money. I got a lesson from Dennis Arfa too. We changed the ticket price by 25 cents, and he wanted a hundred percent of that money.
I had not lost money on a show yet. It wasn't long after that. It was when Southern country rock was very hot. I was doing Charlie Daniels and Marshall Tucker Band dates and doing great business. Rob Light called me from ICM for a date with Marshall Tucker. The year before the band had sold out two shows for me in two days at the Westchester Premier Theatre. So I said I'd take a date. The show died a death. I lost $14,000. That was my first loss and it was big. I was probably 22. A very sobering moment. (Until then) I just thought that my ear was so close to the ground that I couldn't miss.
You stopped being a promoter for several years. You were going to become a lawyer. Instead, you got a degree in management and ran an advertising agency.
I got married and I thought I needed more stability in my life. I thought I'd finish my undergrad (degree) and go to law school. I got a job working for a judge who referred me to a law firm. I then got a job working in the litigation department of a law firm as I applied to law school.
But you were promoting shows again after a few months?
I got bored. I just could not get [promoting concerts] out of my system. On a lunch break, I walked by the Newark Symphony Hall and I went in. A union house? Yes. What's the rent? Seating? I called a buddy at William Morris who hooked me up with a Take 6 date. By the time they played Newark they had broken nationally with their [self-titled debut] album. The show sold out. My wife looked at me and said, "So are you back in the business?" I said, "No no no. I am just doing this for fun." I was bored to tears with the law stuff. But I got a Bachelor's Degree in Management from Pace University [in Westchester County, New York] while working at the law firm.
Didn't you manage an advertising agency for a while?
A friend of mine owned a pharmaceutical advertising agency called Calandrillo & Associates (now Metaphor). They had some nice accounts. I took care of the administrative side, paid the bills, and did the financial projections. On key client presentations, I would put on a suit and go. I still had a pony tail but I had that kind of education to run a business.
When did you go over to the "dark side" of being a booking agent with Sean LaRoche?
Sean and I hatched this plan in 1992 to start an agency. He suggested we do a folk music agency. I would do anything to get back in the business so even this sounded appealing to me, as stupid as it really was.
Because you can't make money in folk music. Also I had never been an agent before. Sean came from Premier Talent with all of their rock stuff. He knew folk because he was a fan.
What kind of research did you do?
Sean gave me folk music tapes to listen to, including (singer/songwriter) Greg Brown. I liked all of the stuff he was sending. I also listened to some music shows on WNEW-FM, like Pete Fornatale's "Mixed Bag" program and Vince Scelsa who used to play a lot of folk. I always liked folk. But folk music to me was Tom Paxton and that kind of stuff. I was a guy who would put on Led Zeppelin and then play the Byrds next.
So we picked up a couple of folk artists and started booking them. We started with Tony Bird and we worked closely with Rounder Records. We had Vance Gilbert and the Burns Sisters, all on Rounder. At one point we had eight acts, five of them were from Rounder. The agency was kinda built on a singer/songwriter model.
You continued as Drake and Associates after Sean left to join Fleming Tamulevich & Associates in 1995.
I did it all by myself as Drake and Associates. I wasn't taking a salary. My wife was working. I was determined to do this; I was so damn stubborn. I stuck it out. This was a time when you booked a singer/songwriter for $300 or $400, and you took $50 as commission.
What kind of folk circuit was there then?
To Jim Fleming and Dave Tamulevich's credit, they had carved out a touring circuit (for folk acts). There was a Great Lakes swing, a north east swing, a south east swing and the west coast run. Then some mountain state dates that were a bit scattered.
Most folk acts in the '90s didn't receive airplay on U.S. radio other than with National Public Radio.
But soon after triple A [adult album alternative radio] emerged as a radio format and these artists started getting airplay. There was definitely a folk and singer/songwriter upswing. People like Dar Williams and Martin Sexton started to come into their own. Business improved and I took on a couple of agents. Then 10 years ago when we were adopting a baby girl, I thought to myself "I have to stop running this as a non-profit agency. I have a responsibility now." I let a couple of people go and I pursued Richie Havens and Janis Ian for representation.
Why those two?
I felt comfortable with both of them and I thought they could make money. They aren't really folkies. They each have one foot in folk and one foot in the commercial side (of the music business). We did good things for both of them. Richie is still with me, but Janis left after eight years.
Jane Siberry was the first act you signed who had a deal with a major label?
Jane Siberry was great learning experience for me. I was thrilled because I had signed an act that was signed to Warner Brothers. I didn't have any major label clients. Her manager Bob Blumer [currently the host of Food Network's The Surreal Gourmet and Glutton for Punishment] had just left, however. One of the first things Jane said to me was that she was getting out of the Warner Brothers contract. She wanted to work independently. She was way ahead of everybody. She's an artist with a capital A.
What was the strategy behind the merger with Tamulevich Artists Management in 2002 and the alliance with Rosi Amador and her Boston-based agency MusicAmador that followed in 2003?
I wanted another agent and Dave Tamulevich's partnership with Jim Fleming had earlier fallen apart. I offered to work with him. He wasn't comfortable running a business. So I made him a partner. We wanted someone for the arts field so we brought in Rosi Amador and for a short time, we booked Celia Cruz and got a taste of the Latin scene. Rosi was a real asset but she's now a very busy mom with two little kids. Sean LaRoche is in semi retirement in Florida but he has started booking for us again. It's nice to work with people you love.
Today, you have a small but eclectic roster of about 35 acts.
The agency has found its place in this world. It sounds crass but I just wish we could make a little more money. But we are thriving and extremely busy. We're happy where we are.
Other than folk and Celtic, the agency also works in such musical niches as blues, Cajun and Zydeco, and even bluegrass.
We are building niche by niche. We've got the folk and Celtic niches down pretty well. We recently signed Claire Lynch so we now have a bluegrass act on the roster. We have Amanda Shaw in Cajun and Zydeco and we're building in blues with Guy Davis, Harry Manx and Ann Rabson. It's a slower there. But this way we get to know the blues, jazz, and the Cajun and Zydeco festivals and all of the buyers. These are separate parallel little worlds.
There aren't that many major independent labels around anymore for folk or roots acts.
Many is the time I have been on the phone with a record company asking if I was going to sign an act. "If you sign the act, we'll sign the act." It was one of those things where we'd be deciding whether or not the act would be signed or not. Who's going to be the first one to move?
We don't even think about the record company anymore because the record company is irrelevant in my world. It's a matter of having a publicist in most cases. Will the record company pay for the publicist for the tour? That's critical to us. The record company is going to do what it does or doesn't do.
John Scher told me recently that one of the music industry's current problems is that while record companies aren't involved in artist development anymore that no one has picked up artist development in a big way since.
That's totally fair. For many years, the record labels were the big bank, the people with the investment. As a small booking agency, we invest in developing new acts. It takes years. It takes a huge amount of resources. We only take on a couple of developing acts at a time. The reason is that they take far more time to book then to book a commercial act, an act we can easily book. It's easier to book Richie Haven than Gandalf Murphy & the Slambovian Circus of Dreams. But the future is developing those new acts. We need to get them in front of all of the big festivals.
Do you spend a great deal of time mentoring a new act?
Mentoring the act and mentoring the manager, for those acts who have them. And mentoring developing promoters. I can't tell you how many times I've said, "This is a spread sheet and this is deal structure. You don't know how to get to a split point? Here's the way you do it." Many presenters in the folk realm, or the arts people, don't know anything other than a flat deal. We have to talk them through this stuff. They really need a hand."
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess 2008, Larry was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.