A year or so ago, before anyone knew who Lorde was, before she sold a million copies of her debut album and before she emerged as a feminist icon for young women, Tom Windish had a hunch she was “going to become transformative.”
“The quality of [her] songs were undeniable when I heard them, her lyrics, the beats, the melody, the story; I could tell she was authentic,” he says.
So he campaigned to serve as her booking agent, and he’s introducing the star vocalist to audiences in North and South America on her inaugural tour.
But last year there was reason for caution: She hadn’t played a show. So he booked her two gigs in August, and immediately Windish, founder and president of Chicago’s Windish Agency, realized he was taking on a performer who was much different than many her age. “She was incredibly genuine, incredibly authentic, very sure of herself in an unpretentious way. She blew me away.”
After selling more than 1 million copies of her debut album and winning two Grammys in January, including song of the year for “Royals,” the New Zealand teenager born Ella Yelich O’Connor is a certified hit-maker and cultural phenomenon, with everyone from Taylor Swift to Bruce Springsteen singing her praises. Her portrait fills magazine covers, her commentary ignites social media.
Clearly, this is Lorde’s cultural moment, which means she would ably fill a sports stadium. But Windish is taking the slow-burn approach. She will play venues like Chicago’s Aragon, a 3,000-plus capacity ballroom. The strategy worked: 60,000 tickets to her March tour sold out in 30 minutes.
“Part of an agent’s role is what do we do once the world is paying attention? How do we nurture this and not squash it?” he says.
Windish knows his audience. The Windish Agency is in its 10th year of developing new artists, ushering them from clubs to theaters and, in the case of Lorde this summer, to destination festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza. There are about 600 artists and bands on the company’s roster, such as The XX, Warpaint and Low, but Windish tells the more than 60 agents who work under his banner they all must share a common denominator: “Book bands you love. That’s what turns your job into a passion. We’re in the arts business, so you need to have passion.”
This is an opportune time for booking agents. Record labels are selling less music, forcing artists to rely more on touring, merchandise and other ancillary revenue streams, so booking agents are emerging as pivotal figures in helping bands grow audiences in new markets and create digital media strategies from the ground up, even if artists don’t have a record deal or access to commercial radio.
“The music business is in the midst of a renaissance. The last three to five years have been an amazing time for musicians. They have so much power at their fingertips,” Windish says. “When I started, everything revolved around when the record is coming out, when the single is being played on the radio, but things have shifted 180 degrees to touring and shows. Awareness for a band is happening organically.”
Windish, 41, started booking bands as a student at the State University of New York at Binghamton. He later ran his own operation from his New York City apartment. The experience gave him a foot into the music industry, but it solidified why booking bands, as opposed to managing or promoting them, held the greatest appeal.
“I liked having a personal role directly with the band that lasts a long time. Opposed to a promoter who puts on a show, they come through one night and they’re out and you don’t see them for another year,” he says.
Chicago beckoned in 1995 after he booked a New Year’s Eve show at the Empty Bottle and realized the city was suddenly the epicenter of music at the time. While the strong community of club, label and studio owners were in competition with one another, they also helped foster a vibrant scene of bands that were garnering national acclaim.
“In Chicago, I felt I was part of something,” he says. Plus, it was affordable. He soon moved to the third floor above Lounge Ax, the late and beloved rock club in Lincoln Park, and never looked back.
Windish established himself quickly in Chicago because he shared a passion for the city’s music scene and had established a good reputation among many of the bands and club operators here.
“Back when the Chicago music scene was a big thing nationally, he fit into what was going on aesthetically,” Empty Bottle owner Bruce Finkelman says. “He was hard-working, you could tell he was earnest and trying to do the right thing. What else do you want out of somebody?”
While booking agents wield more influence than they may have in the past, the downside of what they do is dealing with new bands that may be viral sensations online but have no finished material and zero stage experience. “The gestation period of a band getting their legs has gone from years to sometimes days or weeks. I think that’s a problem,” Windish says. Instant exposure also means that media-obsessed young bands tend to get consumed with branding or visuals, “when they should be focused on having a great show and having a great relationship with fans.”
Windish agents will often book bands in small markets on off nights just to give them stage time to hone their craft. “I long for the days when bands would do some tours before they were exposed to the world and everyone is able to judge. It happens so quickly,” Windish says.
Windish’s relationship with Lorde started early last year when he approached Scott Maclachlan, her manager who had been working with her since 2008. One of the people Maclachlan called as a reference for Windish was Neil Harris, manager of Cut Copy and Dragonette, two Windish Agency artists.
“I knew Scott wanted her to be presented as a left-field artist who wasn’t shoved down everyone’s throat. Windish is probably better at that than anybody. They get ‘cool’ for lack of a better word,” Harris says. “I’ve had bands that were in that position and the temptation to take the money for the short term is incredibly strong. But they’re trying to set things up for the long term.”
That Maclachlan signed Lorde with Windish and not a mega-agency like William Morris or Creative Artists Agency, is in line with his goal of keeping things minimal for now.
“She’s been offered ridiculous sums of money, which would be very handy to commission on. But I want to be working with Ella for the next 20 years and don’t want her to turn around in two years and say, ‘You took me for everything you could.’ That’s completely not my style,” Maclachlan told Fairfax Media New Zealand last November.
Windish now spends only half the year in Chicago, and his operations have expanded to both coasts and Toronto. The company doesn’t just book tours, it also helps artists license their music to television and film, and develop digital branding strategies, which suggests the agency is becoming an all-encompassing operation to develop new artists, regardless if they are signed to a record label.
But playing live remains critical to what makes a band or artist special. “The live music experience is irreplaceable,” Windish says. “Watching it on YouTube will never be the same as being there.”