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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 6, No. 5

Agents: a World of Operatic Proportions

by Anaïk Bernèche / February 1, 2001

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What does an agent really do? Is it better to be with a small or a big agency? Does a singer need an agent? These are some of the questions that La Scena Musicale will try to clarify for its readers.

Fresh out of college or the conservatory, a Canadian music student is confronted with one of the most enduring myths concerning agents: namely, that all the good ones are in New York. "Not so,"says Mary Ingraham, founder of Ingraham Cultural Resources Management Corporation (I.C.R.M. Corp.), an agency based in Vancouver. There are many in Canada, including a few that specialize in singers, such as Dean Artists Management in Toronto, Colwell Arts Management in New Hamburg (just outside Toronto), Gossage Artists Management in Ottawa, Mulè Agency in Montreal and I.C.R.M. Corp. in Vancouver. "It doesn't matter where the agent lives, so long as his or her office is equipped with a telephone, fax, answering machine, and e-mail. What does matter, however, is where the artist lives."Though the artist does not have to live in a major city, he or she should have easy access to an airport and also have the means to finance a frequent-flyer lifestyle. Travelling itself need not cost an arm a¨d a leg. Affordable fares can be found on several airlines, such as Canada 3000, Royal Airlines, and WestJet Airlines — not to mention seat sales by larger companies.

Big or small?

Is a big agency truly better than a small one? "That really depends on the singer,"says Ingraham. "Some [singers] actually needy´the individualized, focused attention, especially at the start of their careers, since it can take up to three years to build an artist's profile."However, for more experienced artists who have already appeared in principal roles in regional opera houses and are ready for more aggressive marketing, it may be time to look into joining one of the big agencies.

When an artist signs a contract with an agency, one of the first items on the agenda is assembling materials for the agent to distribute to opera companies, orchestras, and other groups. These materials usually include a resumé and biography, press clippings, reviews, an 8x10 black and white glossy photo, a cassette, CD, or video demo. The artist pays for these materials. They can cost several hundred dollars for a demo and photos, and even as much as $10,000 USD up front the first year, as is the case with one of the most famous New York agencies. These expenses are not included in either the retainer fee (ranging from $100 a month to several thousand a year), which most agencies now charge, or the 10% to 20% fee usually charged for engagements.

When is it time to start looking for an agent? "The when is the same as the why,"quips Ingraham. When the engagements start rolling in, when auditions are lined up for a whole season, the artist no longer has the time to fill out application forms. Few artists possess the marketing skills necessary to advance their careers, and fewer still have the contacts needed to open doors that remain closed to all but managed singers. In fact, most singers are immensely relieved to hand over this work to an agent, and many consider it a badge of honour to have one.

Pros and cons

When used in the clients' best interests, the agents' knowledge and skill ensure that artists are properly paid for their time and protected from unscrupulous practices and unfair demands (such as an opera company selling tickets to a dress rehearsal, thereby hoodwinking singers into giving an extra performance for free).

Still, this same business savvy can act as a double-edged sword: after all, agents are in the business of artist representation in order to make money. As Mary Jane, a mezzo-soprano from the Midwest currently residing in New York, is quick to point out, "You really have to watch out. In the three years with [agency name withheld], I gave them over $5,000 [US] in retainer fees and all the important jobs I have obtained were through my own efforts—nothing to do with my agents—yet they collected their 15% on every job I did!"Ironically, despite her disillusionment with the system, she has resigned herself to staying with the agency because it is "better than having no agent at all."

Öf course, performers can take matters into their own hands and do the work themselves, but it is a daunting task, as they have difficulty finding enough time to tend to business outside of their musical pursuits.

Should you plan to represent yourself, whether by choice or necessity, you'll need the tools professional agents use. A good place to start is Musical America, a comprehensive directory of singers, instrumentalists, agents, competitions, opera houses, orchestras, dance companies, music schools, festivals, and so on, published every year in December (over $100 USD a copy). It is available at Patelson's (a music store in New York, tel.: (212) 582-5840) and in most music libraries. Another excellent reference is a book entitled Making Music in Looking Glass Land ($17.95 USD), published by the Concert Artists Guild (tel.: (212) 333-5200). Magazines and newsletters catering to singers, such as the Classical Singer, Opera News, Opera, and La Scena Musicale, are all good sources of information for getting your career started.

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