Industry Profile: David "Boche" Viecelli
By Larry LeBlanc
This week In the Hot Seat: David ďBocheĒ Viecelli, founder/president of The Billions Corporation
Canadian David (ďBocheĒ) Viecelli is the founder/president of The Billions Corporation, a formidable independent booking agency headquartered in Chicago.
Among the 240 acts the agency exclusively represents are: The Arcade Fire, Neko Case, Basia Bulat, Death Cab For Cutie, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, the Jesus Lizard, Calexico, Jah Wobble, St. Vincent, Southern Culture On Skids, Great Lake Swimmers, Tokyo Police Club, Vampire Weekend, the Swell Season, Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, and Sufjan Stevens
In 1999, Viecelli co-founded Billions Australia with Paul Sloan as a local promoter of international acts. Among the acts it has overseen tours for have been Antony & the Johnsons, the Black Keys, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Death Cab For Cutie, Lily Allen, Neko Case, and Calexico. Last year, the company broadened its mandate to also include full agency representation.
In 2008, The Billions Corporation brought decade-old Seattle-based Aero Booking, operated by Trey Many, into the fold. Many brought with him Death Cab For Cutie, the Postal Service, David Bazan, Midlake, and Beach House among others.
Last year Viecelli, who has managed Southern Culture on the Skids since 1995, teamed with Alex Kadvan of Kadvan Entertainment, to form Lever and Beam, a personal artist management firm based in New York. The company handles Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, Antibalas, St. Vincent, the Budos Band, Menahan Street Band, and Naomi Shelton & The Gospel Queens.
Viecelli first became involved in the music business as a promoter in his hometown of Windsor, Ontario. Along the way, he played in such bands as the Bunny Game, and the Palindromes. He also was tour manager of Negative Approach, one of the first punk rock bands on Touch and Go Records, then based in Detroit.
After Touch and Go moved its operations to Chicago, Viecelli, working as a dispatcher and cab driver at a Windsor taxi company, followed. He oversaw the labelís retail business until founding his booking companyóinitially called Billions and Billions--in 1989.
You are hardly a boutique agency anymore.
Well, there are 9 agents here. In terms of operation and origination, I think that we and High Road (Touring) kind of sit alone. In the sense that there is an infrastructure of this size. It is well out of the world of the one and two man shops. It is nowhere near a major agency. It is a dedicated music-only agency that has even developed its own provider software.
There are people in the company that have been doing it (booking) for 15 or 20 years and there are others that have been round for one to five years. There are different strata of people doing different things. It is just not an agent or two with a couple of assistants or something like that. This is a real organization.
When did you hire your first staffer?
I think it was in 1994
How many acts are now on the roster?
Overall, itís about 240 acts. I have about 20 active clients myself.
Billions has had increased competition of late from companies like CAA (Creative Artists Agency) and William Morris Endeavor Entertainment (WME). Neither would have looked at an emerging alternative act 5 years ago Then thereís Paradigm Talent purchasing Little Big Man and Ellis Industries. Your turf is more crowded.
Thereís no question that there is more competition, but I have always perceived that CAA and WME were capable of being there at any given time. You could argue that (previously) there were a couple of agents at each of those companies that I would perceive as being in my back yard. Now, thereís six at each of the companies.
And thereís ICM.
Yes, thereís ICM.
And we donít know if Paradigm is through picking up smaller agencies.
No. Who knows what the story is there? But all that stuff doesnít interest me much. To me, as other companies get bigger or more companies consolidate, that just makes us look better. The whole idea that we are supposed to be struggling trying to maintain a size advantage with anybody is nonsense. It has never been what this business is about. If Paradigm picks up a couple more independent agencies or ICM does, I donít care. To me, thatís an advantage for us without us having done anything.
Do you have a growth strategy?
I donít have a 10 year plan. I donít have some growth strategy. This company might never grow anymore. It might continue to grow very slowly as it always has done. Maybe, it will double in size overnight. Who knows? Everything we do is driven by two things. One, how do we best serve the needs of our clients? And two, how do we do that with me staying sane? With me being able to run a business according to the ethical guidebook that I have put together in my head over the years. I donít want to be in this business if I have to behave differently. This has never been a bottom line agency. We are not a commission mill. We donít do anything that is simply designed to maximize commissions. Thatís not what we do. We build careers. We want long-term relationships. We want to feel good about who we work with, and we want to feel good about ourselves, and the way we work with people.
How did the merger with Aero Booking and its owner/founder Trey Many come about in 2008?
Ali Hedrick had moved to Seattle, and we set her up there. We integrated her with the voice and networks here. Sheís been with us for over 15 years. She was working out there for several years. Certainly her presence in that marketplace partly helped. Also Adam (Voith) was working for Trey at Aero for awhile. Then he wanted to go out on his own, and I started having conversations with him. The more we talked the more it seemed like he wanted to try his own thing. He later decided he liked being an agent, but he didnít want to be an employer responsible for the infrastructure side of the business. So he came on board here.
With Trey it was similar. He and I just started having conversations. It was at a time when Trey had started thinking about, maybe, doing something different. Unbeknownst to me at the time, he had talked with William Morris as well as with Monterey Peninsula (Artists).
Trey was very reliant on one major client, Death Cab For Cutie. They have been extraordinarily loyal to him.
For several years, I was representing the band for Asia and Australia
Why did you open up Billions Australia?
Billions Australia started in 1999. It wasnít something that was planned. I met Sarah Longhurst the first time I went to Australia in 1996 when Jesus Lizard did The Big Day Out. We developed this relationship, and I learned about the Australian market from her. She introduced me to Paul Sloan who was then a young promoter in western Australia. He was doing some of the western legs of tours for national promoters, and doing tours of his own. The three of us developed this plan for a company that would be two-headed. It would present international acts as a promoter, but it would also be a domestic agency for Australian bands, providing full-service agency representation. Then Sarah got sick. What we decided to do then was not to worry about the domestic agency but to focus on promoting international tours. So we did. We did, maybe, four tours a year at first. Then it grew to six tours a year and then to 10 and 12. Some were for Billionsí clients and some were not. We did (tours with) the Horrors, and Lily Allen. Up until a year ago, thatís what we were doing.
Billions Australia then changed?
A year ago, we decided, for a variety of reasons, to move to an agency model instead of a promoter model. Changes in the business there suggested that we could make a much better case now for a manager or an act to consider us (for bookings) instead of going to their U.K. or U.S. agent. Why not have a third agent?
Australia has become a viable music market for many acts. American bands, in particular, like touring there.
They can have their UK agent gobble up the territory and send them down there every five years to play The Big Day Out or they can have an agent right there who knows the business. That is active as a promoter, works with five or six national promoters and works directly with festivals. Someone who can handle tour budgets and costs and help with settlements. They can do all of that with a view to developing (the market) for a long time. So thatís what weíre doing there now.
Does Paul handle Southeast Asia, China or India?
When we do things in China, Singapore or Malaysia, it is from here. We just did a couple of St. Vincent shows in Beijing and Shanghai (in March). I have a relationship in China with this English ex-pat, Archie Hamilton in Beijing that is new. Someone like St. Vincent can now go into China and, perhaps, not make a lot of money but still make money playing two shows. I had done some shows in China previously, but they were probably 8 or 10 years ago.
[Promoter Archie Hamilton of Split Works, operating with offices in Beijing and Shanghai, has put on concerts featuring such international bands as Sonic Youth, Maximo Park, the Go! Team, Dandi Wind, and Jens Lekman. His firmís services range from tour booking, tour managing, promotions, consulting. Basically, anything involved with getting a band from point A to point B in China.]
The theory behind developing China as a music market is that thereís a society starting to open up. As they become dominant economically I think that, with cultural influences coming in, it is just hard to believe that (the country) will go backwards rather than forward.
If things open up there due to an arts infiltration and other factors, you think thereís a market in China for Western acts? Just by the virtue of the sheer number of people there?
Do I think (the market is) going to blow up? Or acts will be touring there in three years like they tour Europe? No I donít. But St. Vincent played to a few hundred people in each city (Beijing and Shanghai), and the audiences were about 60 or 70 percent Chinese. That surprised me. I wouldnít have been shocked if there had been 20 percent Chinese.
Last year, you and Alex Kadvan launched the management firm Lever and Beam. You have been involved with management for years.
I had done it a little in the past but only with a minimal infrastructure. The way the agency has always grown has been when we found the right people. The management situations have been the same. When Jesus Lizard decided that they needed management as they moved to a major label relationship with Capitol (in 1995), they asked me to do it. The same with Southern Culture on Skids. When they went to Geffen (in 1995), they asked me to do it.
I decided at some point not long ago that if I was ever going to take on another management client I would do it in the context of an actual company. When I met Alex Kadvan, I had been working with Antibalas for about six months. Phil Ballman, the drummer, was handling the bandís business. He called me one day and said that they were going to hire a manager; a friend of theirs (Alex) who had never managed anyone else before. I was rolling my eyes thinking that my job just got three times more labor intensive.
But Alex was an incredibly hard worker, a quick study and we hit it off. We have done a lot of great work on Antibalas and Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. So we started talking about increasing the size of the business a bit and going into partnership. First, I felt we needed to identify a new client that we were both enthusiastic about. Somebody new and up and coming that would bring some energy to the roster. Someone that was different than anything else he was already working with.
St. Vincent was that person.
I had been working with her for awhile as an agent. I saw the potential and knew she was going to start talking soon about being managed. I really believed in her, and liked her a lot. Alex also got turned on by the idea of working with her. So we moved (his office) to a different office in the building, and we renamed the company. and brought in (administrative manager) Todd Harty who had been working with (senior programming manager) Johanna Rees and Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and Presentations with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He came in as our day-to-day guy. Weíre about to add somebody new there shortly. We are now also working with Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens and a couple of related things like the Menahan Street Band (featuring members of the Dap-Kings, Antibalas, and the Budos Band).
How is the festival season shaping up?
I am the wrong guy to ask about that because I am not a fan of festivals.
First off, I suppose the obvious thing. I am not in the target demographic, so it makes sense that I might not be thrilled about festivals. I am not in the 16 to 30-year-old window. I completely understand the value that (a festival) represents to people in being able to see a lot of music for a pretty reasonable price. From year to year, it is going to vary from fan to fan as to how much value they perceive in any given festivalís lineup. But, if there are 10 bands playing that you are really excited about seeing, and another 10 that you are, maybe, curious about, then a $200 ticket seems like pretty great value.
So I get it.
I get why festivals work but the music smorgasbord thing doesnít appeal to me. I tend to focus on music. I like to go see a band, maybe two bands, in a night. The whole idea of spending the whole day running around, trying to keep hydrated, eating crappy food and trying to catch 10 minutes of this, and 15 minutes of that, it doesnít appeal to me.
Festivals are said to be great for exposing new bands. In reality, these bands arenít in front of the dedicated fans they might attract in a club. They are playing to a smorgasbord of fans that may or may not like them.
Itís true. In terms of exposure itís great but thereís the bad side of that when a band comes out of nowhere and generates a buzz internet wise, and makes it onto a festival. They might have been a band for 10 months, and there they are on a big festival stage.
With a great review in Pitchfork.
Exactly. That band has barely mastered the small club shit. It probably hasnít mastered the small club shit, and now you are throwing them in daylight onto the big stage in front of 5 to 20 thousand people. Thereís usually an under card at every festival of bands that may have a buzz right then, but they just arenít seasoned for those kinds of stages. You donít see them at their best.
The buzz that got them onto that stage wasnít likely fan buzz either. It was probably music industry buzz.
I agree with that. It is an interesting dynamic. Unfortunately, it has become like late night network television. You want your client doing David Letterman and SNL (Saturday Night Live) if you can get it, but the fact is that most of those night TV showsóSNL being the exceptionódonít sell records. You can have a band play on Letterman, and you may only see a Soundscan (sales) bump smaller than 100 pieces. That is routine. It has to do with the fact that people are used to seeing a lot of bands that they consider ďout thereĒ or unknown on those shows. So they donít really consider those shows arbiters of music that they should buy.
It is possible that people might be impressed by a bandís performance at a festival and then further check them out.
Yes, itís possible. Is it possible that they are at the tipping point with that artist already, and seeing them play on a show is what pushes them over the edge to buy a record or buy a ticket? Sure, itís possible. But, in general, itís more of an industry thing. It is more about positioning the artist within the industry so that people take the artist seriouslyóas in that creditably serious national artists get on TV and get on festivals.
Often managers and label marketing departments overemphasize the importance of being on festivals.
As an agency, we have a problem whereby in any given year we might have 60 or 70 clients that want to play Coachella. We canít effectively pitch 70 clients to Coachella. Itís crazy. So you have to choose. You say to artist A: ďWhy do you want to go after Coachella this year? You havenít had a record out for two years. You are going to have a record out in 6 months. That will be the time that we should be pitching to Coachella. Itís a great time to get a better slot for you. There will be a better chance that the press at the festival might focus on you as one of the better artists to pay attention to because it will be in the flush of excitement over the new record.Ē
So you have to pick and choose because very few of these festivals will book a band in successive years. It happens only once in a blue moon.
While Coachella, and Bonnaroo are considered proving grounds for young acts, the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee features an eclectic mix of independent acts. This is its second year.
Big Ears, despite Ashley Capps' (president of Knoxville-based AC Entertainment, and co-founder of Bonnaroo) connection, is unlike any of those (in size). But, itís a cool event. Heís off to a good start. I love (the festival) because heís booking a lot of our clients. But I do like that kind of a festival. It is more attuned to really good, challenging, interesting music and trying to expand a base for it in an area that could use some opening up.
Knoxville has never been one of the great live music markets for our clients but it can be improved. The way (markets) get improved is by someone doing something like this. Somebody starts a new weekly newspaper. Somebody opens up a great record store or coffee shop. Something happens that shakes the culture and starts to pull new people in into new experiences and new sounds. Thatís why itís terrific that Big Ears is happening in some place like Knoxville rather than someplace like Atlanta.
How is the one-nighter business holding up? Kids are holding off buying tickets for shows. Meanwhile, ticket prices are being lowered down to $8 to $10 advance.
Yeah. It seems like (the market) is in constant flux to me. It is very, very hard to identify one overriding trend over the course of a six month period. Right now, Iíd say, yeah, people are waiting longer. It seems like that there are only a few shows each month that people jump onto the moment they go on sale--even if itís six months in advance. Our Pavement in Central Park (Summerstage) shows, I put them on a year in advance with no advertising, and they sold out within a day. There are obvious exceptions like that. Bands that are really, really hot; that are well-regarded; and that have established a little something over a couple of years. Those people are still selling tickets fine in advance. Not the guys who just popped up yesterday.
There are too many bands and too many agents working the same ground. You can only run so many acts through a market. So many markets are saturated today with live entertainment.
Thatís true. New York would have always been the exception. But today, if you look at Chicago, San Francisco or Los Angeles, on any given nights, the (same) kind of bands are there. There never could have been more than two (similar shows) going on at the same time. Now there are 8.
With more discounting in advance, are there are more percentage deals rather than flat rates being offered to bands?
It is pretty rare that we do a flat deal. Flat deals come at festivals or for private and corporate events. Once in awhile, we will do a flat deal for a show when there is a particular set of circumstances that it makes sense from the artistís perspective. But, most of the time, Iím all for the flat deal. I like to look at the show budget. I like to have a say of what gets spent where. (On a percentage deal) Iíd like to find a way, even if the split is going to be past what appears to be the gross potential, Iíd still like to set it so that we have a transparency with the budget and that we know if things donít get spent that, maybe, we do end up creating some kind of a back end.
You are interested in a true partnership with the promoter.
Well, exactly. There are plenty of times when I will do a door deal. If I feel that the promoter just doesnít see the act the way that I do in the market, and we are far apart on the offer. I will say, ďSince you feel that the risk here is big, I will indemnify you for the risk. Why donít you just give me 70% of the gross from dollar one? Or give me 85% of the gross after you cover the first $500 of your expenses?Ē I rarely lose doing that.
If I am truly confident, then Iím happy to get paid for indemnifying the promoter for a big chunk of his risk. The artist usually comes out ahead. It surprises me when I can go back and do that same deal with certain buyers with this repeatedly. Itís like, ďCanít you see what happens? Every time we do this, you end up just covering your expenses, and giving all of the rest to me.Ē
Is the recession hurting promoters?
Yeah, I think so. But I donítí think thereís anything really dramatic going on. Are we down in a bit of a trough? Yes. Are there some markets that are much worse off than others? Absolutely.
Are people going to fewer shows?
I think so. But it varies from market to market and, in some of the markets, where it might have been true two or three months ago, it might not be true now. Itís really hard to pinpoint why people buy in advance or why they donít. It is so difficult to identify micro trendsóa few months at a time. How do you quantify and analyze them where there is such a regional difference? For example, San Francisco has always been a very outsized supporter of a lot of acts that we represent. Many of our clients can do twice the business in San Francisco than they can in LA. Admittedly, San Francisco wouldnít necessarily be one of the hardest hit (cities) with the recession, but I think San Francisco is also a bit more supportive of the arts.
At what point in its career should a band take on an agent? We have an industry that quickly jumps to represent buzz bands, often too early.
Absolutely. It has happened as the internet has become such a huge force in the music industry over the past 5 to 8 years. Now some band that nobodyís ever heard of suddenly pops up on Pitchfork with an 8.2 (rating) and nobody knows anything about who put this record out; and nobody knows anything about the band. Nobody has seen them play live. They may not have played a live show, period. I can write you a list of the 8 agents that are probably calling the band at this moment. Not saying ďHey, letís start a conversation. Letís talk for a few months, see where we get to, and I will come and see you play.Ē But offering to represent them right now.
Label A&R personnel, radio, MTV and even fanzines used to be industry gatekeepers. We have lost these filters with new recording technology and the popularity of the internet.
Yes, thatís true. But I donít think that radio was ever an effective filter. You certainly had a big share of the public that felt like radio was. It was like ďIf they (the band) were any good, I would have already heard them on the radio.Ē
If Iím not hearing them on the radio, the band might then be cool. Those were the bands many people gravitated to.
Well, me too. Radio has had incredibly little to do with my musical taste.
Everything is blended together today
From a purely artistic expression point of view, I embrace the fact that new technology allows people to record with fewer hurdles. There are fewer industry gatekeepers, and there is less of a financial commitment to get something recorded. Thatís terrific, but I think that also ultimately means the other filters become a lot more important.
In other words, somebody now can have a reasonably professional recording very quickly, very easily in their basement before they have ever played a live show. That doesnít mean that band is ready to play. I have said all the live long day, and as part of the conversation with the agents here, that it used to be that you would fight to have someone notice your band. Now, I know how to generate buzz for a band in my sleep. It is very easy to duplicate and recreate that environment. More often than not, you are going to be successful. The challenge is in finding a way to have that band become a real band--a credible live act--and to generate the desire and the ability in them to think in live terms, and to maintain a career.
Thatís what's tough, when thereís that big buzz (with them) and they are out playing shows when they donít know how to play shows; and the shows arenít good. So people move on to other bands that sound better live. (Their career) is over with. They could be huge six months after theyíve formed; and 18 months later they can be dead.
Itís better to work with a band that has booked two or three tours on their own.
Oh, thatís absolutely right. Iím afraid that is a thing of the past. Iíve always said that a well informed client is my best client because an agency like us, we are so artist centric. We work so hard that anybody who has gone out and done this (booked show) themselves is certainly going to appreciate what we do more than somebody who has never done it. But hereís the problem. Itís used to be that bands could figure that out for themselves. It was, ďWe canít get an agent. We want to play shows.Ē And, by default, they would just go out and do it. Most of the younger bands coming up donít know what the business was like even 10 years ago. This current (business) model, this thing that seem so new to you and I, is all that they have ever seen. They donít know why they shouldnít be on a tour bus 8 months after recording their first song. They donít know why they shouldnít have a manager or an agent. They donít know why there could be any pitfalls in any of this.
So many bands expect to happen as quickly as the Arcade Fire. But what happened was their story.
It was their story and there was that big buzz and it was as this whole new world was getting cranked up. But that was a perfect example of a band that delivered from the get go. I still remember clear as a bell when I first saw them. People ask me, ďHow did you get the Arcade Fire?Ē (Their success) was just so big and so fast that everybody wanted them. How I got them was so old-fashioned. I heard about the band because a promoter I knew in Toronto, Amy Hersenhoren, said I should check out this band. I donít know if you know but Iím Canadian. Iím from Windsor, Ontario. I have lived in Chicago for about 22 years now.
How good of a singer were you in Big Fish in the late Ď70s?
You also played in the Bunny Game, and the Palindromes and you were tour manager for Negative Approach, one of the first punk rock bands on Touch and Go.
Who have you been talking to?
How good of a singer were you in Big Fish?
Terrible. Some of those bands were more entertaining than others. I was never a good musician. None of those bands were ever any good. None of them had ambition or were going to do anything. But they gave me a root in the artistic community in a relatively short order. I became involved in setting up the bandís shows and put on some punk rock shows for D.O.A. or whoever was coming to Windsor.
Would you play places like the Coronation Tavern or The Old Miami?
Yes, the Coronation Tavern and the Old Miami. With The Old Miami, the name kept alternating between that and The New Miami. There was also a hard core place called The Freezer Theatre where a lot of the Touch and Go punk acts would play. The Coronation was pivotal. I remember every inch of that place.
There were couple of good local bands then, like DOS and Rat Pack.
DOS. Thatísí going deep. There were several (punk) incarnations. In the earliest days, there were more new wavy, power punk things. There were The Spys. DOS were definitely more part of an American hardcore and metal type of thing.
[In 1980, the Spys released the fine 7-inch single ďUndergroundĒ b/w ĒMachine ShopĒ on a label that read ďManufactured by CBS Special Products.]
There was strong music community in Windsor in those days?
There was a small community there but it was a creative one. It wasnít huge by any means. I think we put on our first show in 1979. I was also one of the two guys that brought Gang of Four to the Palace Theatre in Windsor, presented by (college radio station) CJAM in Ď82 or í83. We did Violent Femmes at the University of Windsor.
You were also a cab driver, and later a dispatcher.
Yes, I was a dispatcher as well. I was mostly working dispatch. I would drive over the weekends. One of the independent (taxi) owners wouldnít work on the weekends so I would take the cab.
When they asked me to be a dispatcher, I said that the one problem I had with the job was that I go out on tour with the band (Negative Approach) some times. Being a cab driver was a perfect thing because I could walk away at will. I asked if they would let me schedule vacation time around a few tours in the year. They were agreeable to that. I came back from one of those tours, and another cab company had bought us. So I got laid off from the dispatch job. I started to collect unemployment but I would still drive on the weekends under the table. I had a lifestyle where I was playing poker all of the time, and going to the racetrack. It was salad days for me. I didnít need much money to get by
Did you come to Chicago to work for Touch and Go?
Yes. When Touch and Go was basically (Necros bassist) Corey Rusk and his then wife Lisa. They had moved the label from Detroit to Chicago in 1986. They asked me if I would work for the label.
At Touch and Go, you handled direct retail accounts. How do you sell Rapeman into an account? You worked the first single ("Hated ChineeĒ b/w ďMarmoset") in 1988.
Thatís true. It wasn't long that I started working there that Corey wanted to sell direct to retail. There were a couple of hundred stores that we recognized as Touch and Go people. I slowly built up those accounts. The Rapeman single was sold totally blind. I figured I could sell it without telling (retailers) anything about it. At the end of my sales call, I said, ďI have 2,000 copies of a 7-inch. I am not going to tell you anything about it. I am not going to tell you who it is or what it is. You have one shot to buy it. You can buy up to 10. I suggest you buy all 10. Your call.Ē I didnít tell them anything about it. And they all took it. The label had that kind of credibility.
You started Billions (briefly called Billions and Billions) in 1989.
It was kind of a hobby run wild in absence of any defined career ambition. Basically, I never knew what I wanted to do with my life. I just kept stumbling forward in the music business, including doing bookings. Somehow, after I moved to Chicago that (booking) became full time. It was never a plan. I had a desk in the corner of my bedroom in a house I rented. My monthly nut was $600. I never thought I would be doing it 20 years later.
Larry LeBlanc 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.