Tips for Buying Talent: Interview with Scott Emslie, Wet Ape Productions

Buying talent can be a challenge for event organizers. There are countless agencies out there, and a variety of metrics to consider. Besides that, the sheer amount of money some artists cost can be overwhelming in itself.

Hence, we sat down with Scott Emslie, Owner of Wet Ape Productions, for some tips on how to simplify the process of booking talent for an event.

Scott has been in the industry for over eight years. He followed his passion for live music and sports by creating Center of Gravity, a festival which grew from being mainly focused on hosting beach volleyball tournaments into one of Canada’s biggest beach festivals, drawing over 30,000 guests each year and showcasing some huge headliners, including Calvin Harris, Diplo, and Flo Rida.

Scott’s company, Wet Ape Productions, is also responsible for the Keloha Music and Arts Festival, which drew over 15,000 guests over the last three years, and Harvest Haus, a Bavarian-style food and drink festival in Vancouver, which hosted over 5,000 guests in its inaugural year in 2014. The company also produces and promotes over 50 concerts each year.

With such a strong track record, we asked Scott to fill us in on how to go about booking talent for an event. Here’s what he had to say:

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us Scott. At what stage of the event planning process do you suggest an event promoter should consider buying talent?

It really depends on the size of the event and the venue. If you’re buying talent for one of the midsize rooms in Vancouver, for example, the talent is the first thing you should be focusing on.

You should obviously start by seeing when that talent is available in the area, and then look for an available venue that seems like a good fit for that artist. Before you submit an offer to book the talent, you’ll need to make sure you have a venue that fits well and makes sense for that artist.

If you’re planning a festival, however, it’s quite a little bit different. With a festival the size of Center of Gravity, as soon as it wraps, we will debrief with all the related parties and then roughly two or three weeks later we’ll already be planning and working on next year’s event.

We usually buy talent about six months out from the date of the festival, but we’ll start working out our top picks and researching what genres will be popular at the time of the event a lot earlier. For Center of Gravity, for example, we usually have a good idea of the artists/genres we’re looking for by December, and then starting buying talent around February and March.

You mentioned that you try to gauge what artists and genres will be popular at the time of the show you’re planning. How do you do that, and how do you suggest other event promoters do that? 

There are a number of different ways in which we do this. Firstly, we’ll use all of the major social media networks to see what artists and genres are trending. Pollstar is a great resource, and we use it to see how well a specific artist is doing on tour. That can give you a pretty good indication on how big they are and how many tickets they’re likely to sell.

In all of our big markets we’ll also have a promotional team (our “street team”), who are swell connected in that market. I think whenever you are planning an event it is important that you’re in touch with a reliable group of people who fit the demographic of your target audience.

For example, I have been in the industry for a few years, but at this point in time, although I still go to shows, I am not as up-to-speed on the scene as someone who is younger and has a younger group of friends. I think that a big part of gauging what kind of artists will be popular in your target market is staying connected with the audience that are attending shows and festivals.

Finally, we’ll also use our own social media networks and databases to reach out to our fans and interact with them to see what artists/genres they are particularly interested in.

Great. Could you take me through the options out there for event organizers interested in booking talent for an event? Do they always have to work with an agency?

Yes. Basically, for any artist that is going to be able to sell more than 100 tickets, you’ll need to go through an agency. That artist will also have a manager who will work with both the agent and the artist.

If you have never booked talent and you don’t have a relationship with an agent, it is a smart move to work with a company that offers event booking/promoting services to ensure you get good pricing on artists. Often times, if you are booking an artist for the first time, the price of that artist may be inflated. A company that has connections in this field may be able to help you secure a better rate because they already have relationships in place with certain agents.

What should event promoters keep in mind when they are approaching agencies? Is there anything to keep an eye out for?

Yeah, there are a bunch of different agents out there, and some will be more realistic about what their artist is worth in a certain market and how many tickets that artist can sell, while others are always trying to get the most money for their artist and will try to over sell them.

You have to make sure you’re diligent, do your own research, and have a good understanding of how many tickets the particular artist you’re interested in will realistically be able to sell in your target market before you approach the agent.

Information on how many tickets that artist has sold in your market (or a similar market) the last time they performed there will help you gauge how many they will sell this time around. When you do this, it is also important to consider whether that artist is releasing or has recently released a new album or single, and how well that record is ranked online or on social media.

Again, Pollstar can be a really helpful tool here because it allows you to see how many tickets that artist has sold in previous shows in different markets, and will help you gauge the demand for that artist.

In your last two answers you touched on the benefits of having existing relationships with agents. How important is this, and how can event promoters keep and maintain these kinds of relationships? 

Sure. Agents generally have a pretty large roster of artists that they are representing. For example, one agent may represent about 20 artists. They are always really busy, so it is really important that you keep in contact with them on a regular basis to make sure you know what tours are being planned and who is playing in what market.

One other thing I’d like to mention is this; if an agent is bringing a specific act to a specific target market, they will generally reach out to the LAST promoter with whom they worked with in that market the last time that the artist performed there. For example, if an agent is bringing Calvin Harris to Vancouver, they’ll give first preference to the last promoter they worked with last time they brought Calvin Harris to play there. For the promoter this is called having ‘history’ on that artist.

This is kind of an unwritten rule when it comes to talent buying, and it highlights the importance of investing time and effort into building and maintaining relationships with agencies. Like I said, these people are really busy, so you can’t sit around and wait for them to come to you to tell you who will be playing where. You need to actively maintain these relationships yourself.

Great. Are there any other tips you have for event organizers looking at booking talent for an event? 

Sure, I think this last point is really important to remember: If you are booking an artist for a one-off show who is not already physically in your market, things are going to be a lot more expensive because that artist will need to be flown in and out to make the show.

Artist rooting is always really important, simply because it is a lot easier logistically to book talent that is performing nearby. If you’re looking at booking an American artist for a show in Vancouver, for example, and they are playing in Calgary, Edmonton, or even Seattle, it will be a lot easier to book them, and the price will also be significantly lower than if you had to fly them in especially for the show.

Finally, is there anyone that inspires you within the industry?

I saw a documentary recently about Arthur Fogel called Who The F*** Is Arthur Fogel. I think that is a really cool story, and it is pretty amazing what he has done. I like the fact that most people don’t actually know his name, yet he has produced seven of the top ten grossing tours in the world. He is the man behind the scenes, making it happen, and bringing these crazy productions to life. I like how he is focused on bringing the artist’s artist’s dream to life and engaging fans with the experience.

Awesome. It’s been a pleasure talking to you Scott. Thanks for your time. 

Not a problem, thank you for speaking with me.

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