Executive Profile: Robin Taylor, ICM

Robin’s Inland Empire Touring agency was recently acquired by ICM. She tells Pollstar about how she got here and where she’s headed.

Click here to read the interview in PDF format.

Some people spend their lives floating from job to job, never finding that one vocation that just seems to click. Others are practically born knowing what they were meant to do.

Robin Taylor is definitely the latter.

Taylor was bitten by the rock ’n’ roll bug early, in “probably like the fifth grade,” she told Pollstar. While her attempts to make beautiful music (she played clarinet as a kid and claims to play the guitar badly) may have never scored her a spot in a band or a killer record deal, she says she always knew she’d find her own place in the music biz.

It probably didn’t hurt that she grew up in a city with such an active music community – Seattle.

Taylor came of age as the thriving local hardcore scene was giving way to the beginnings of grunge and indie rock. While she rattled off her first concerts – Cheap Trick and Michael Schenker, followed by The Clash opening for The Who – it was the Seattle scene that really got under her skin.

“I started going to small clubs and saw X, U-Men, and various punk rock shows,” she said. “Those shows got me interested in going to more local shows … I was always seeing shows as a kid.”

A couple semesters at a community college only made things clearer to Taylor – music was where she wanted to be. So she took a job as a door girl at the Vogue, a nightclub that hosted early shows by bands including Nirvana, Alice in Chains and the Melvins, for some “immediate work experience.”

Fast forward some years later and Taylor opened the door to her own Brooklyn, N.Y., booking agency, Inland Empire Touring. There she oversaw a roster of chart-topping indie acts including The Shins, Modest Mouse, Band of Horses, The Hold Steady and Wolf Parade, along with comedians including Fred Armisen, Eugene Mirman, Andy Kindler, Hannibal Buress and God’s Pottery.

Inland Empire was recently acquired by International Creative Management. Taylor, joined by her staff of Daniel Traci and Joe Price, now reports to Marsha Vlasic as an agent in the company’s contemporary rock division.

Let’s rewind a bit. There must be hundreds of steps up the ladder to go from door girl to super agent. Where did you head after the Vogue?

From 1988 to about 1992, I booked the 500-capacity OK Hotel, which was the only all-ages room in the city that was presenting indie and alternative rock at that time.

The first show that I booked there was Beat Happening, The Fastbacks and Mecca Normal. I worked there for about five years and booked bands like Green Day – several times. They even played on my birthday once. I also booked No Doubt, Nation of Ulysses and Superchunk.

The OK also hosted a lot of local bands and early Sub Pop bands in those days. Here’s an interesting little fact: In 1991, Nirvana called and asked me to book a show for them because they needed money to go record Nevermind in L.A.

Krist Novoselic called me up and wanted to do it the very next day so I did the show for them – but begged him for two days so I could at least promote the show for a day. I remember there was a line around the block at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. They debuted “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at that show.

And how did you make the leap from promoting shows to being an agent?

I enjoyed booking shows and I enjoyed the bands that would come through. Oftentimes, they ended up staying at my house and they’d be like ‘Dude! You’re so cool! Why don’t you book us down the coast?’ It just kind of fell into step that way.

After doing that, I started booking West Coast tours for my friends’ bands. I booked West Coast tours for The Gits and 7 Year Bitch and Jawbreaker, and after I gained some experience doing the West Coast, I started thinking about booking nationally.

But before I did that I’d also tour-managed 7 Year Bitch on a three-month U.S. and Canadian tour. It gave me a feel as to what I’d be doing as an agent – actually making the drives that I’d be making bands drive under my booking.

After I tour-managed I went right into booking nationally in Seattle. Jawbreaker was probably my largest client at the time. I did that for about five years until I moved out to New York in January of 1997 to start working with a woman by the name of Lisa Miller, who was also an independent agent at that time. She and I worked together as CPG – Creative Performance Group – for about two years until I started Inland Empire, which was the fall of 1998.

Do you think your background promoting shows gave you an edge when learning the ins and outs of the agency business?

I think being a promoter first was an integral part of me being able to talk to promoters in other cities. I mean, this is before the Internet and things were very segmented regionally.

But I would talk to them about the shows I’d booked – you know, I had that band play – and it was kind of like a way to communicate, like a little network before cell phones and Internet. I could talk to them about bands that I had brought through my club that they were having through their club.

The concert industry has a rep for being largely dominated by men. Is it something you’ve ever encountered? Do you think it helps women in the business to develop strong relationships with other women?

You know, when I was working and living in Seattle, it was dominated by lots of ladies at that time – lady club talent buyers, lady managers, lady label heads. I didn’t realize or see a boys club of any kind there at all so I tend not to notice those things now. I’m an equal opportunist when it comes to working fairly with both men and women, I suppose!

What’s the story behind Inland Empire Touring? When did you decide to really step out on your own?

Inland Empire grew over time. I was doing it in Seattle, just on a much smaller scale, and I knew I had to be in New York or L.A. to grow, so I moved across the country to New York. Working with Lisa Miller taught me a lot of things – and a lot of things not to do. But I had been booking in Seattle. I knew the way I wanted to structure the agency.

I was sharing office space at that time with a woman named Sue Jacobs. She runs her own music supervising company called Supervision and she really encouraged me. I’d told her I was thinking about starting my own company and she had an integral part in convincing me that I could do it.

I thought that once I quit working with Lisa I’d go off to Brooklyn and move the business into my home. That’s sort of how the name Inland Empire was created in my head because the agency was going to be situated inland from New York and Manhattan.

But Sue talked me into staying in the office and even helped cover my rent for a couple months until I could get my feet on the ground.

So how did you end up structuring the agency?

It’s me, along with Daniel Traci, who started working as an intern while attending NYU. He’s spent his entire adult life working for me – about eight and a half years. And Joe Price started working for me part-time in 2006 and went full-time in 2007. I couldn’t have done it without them.

We don’t do territories. Luckily all the bands don’t tour at once or else my head would explode. I’ve given Daniel some bands to take care of and oversee. We all handle contracts but I think Joe does the bulk of them now, along with ticket counts and more administrative stuff. And then Daniel and I do the bookings, although I’ll throw Joe some occasionally.

Going back to Sue Jacobs, it sounds like she was a mentor to you. Can you think of anyone else along the way who’s helped shape your career?

Steve Freeborn gave me my job at the OK Hotel – he was a great first boss in the music scene and taught me the inner workings of a small club. And Isaac Brock, the lead singer of Modest Mouse, has really helped my career by staying with me as long as he has. And he’s brought in other bands and friends of ours. I jokingly refer to Megan Jasper, the general manager of Sub Pop, as my spiritual counselor. Also, I think Marsha Vlasic has definitely been an inspiration. I’m excited I’ll be working with her shortly!

That’s right. It was big news that you sold Inland Empire to ICM. Can you discuss what prompted you to make that move?

Sure. The reasons were twofold. I’m excited for the change and to learn and grow, which I think is important as an agent to do. I’m super excited to work with Marsha Vlasic and everyone at ICM. I’ll now be able to book clients that want to play larger arena-sized venues and I’m excited about the ability to book internationally.

That’s something I’ve been asked to do by certain clients in the past, but now with the support of ICM I can confidently book into countries I’ve never done before.

The other reason is that while I clearly know how to book tours and take smaller bands to that proverbial next level kind of thing, I’ll be able to do more for them at ICM.

Now, if clients are interested in more than just performing the live show, I can bring them opportunities within the different arms of the company that I wouldn’t have been able to provide them independently, such as licensing, branding, etc.

Touring and licensing seem to be like the last bastions for artists to make money, so if I can bring them other opportunities – ones that potentially raise their profile so they draw bigger on their next tour – it’s a win-win for the client and the agent. I’m excited to make that move big time!

You’ve got a pretty impressive roster of indie acts. How’d you start working with those bands?

As far as Modest Mouse goes, Chris Takino, the head of the label they were on at the time – Up Records – invited me down to see their first show. I kept watching them – they played probably four or five shows locally – before they were booked one night at the Crocodile Café with another band but they had flipped their van coming across the pass. So Modest Mouse ended up playing the entire night and put on something around a two-hour set. After that, I knew immediately. I was like, ‘Oh my god! They’re amazing!’ We sat down that night and talked about working together.

Over the years, do you think you’ve helped break any bands from the ground up?

That’s a tough one. The Shins had been around for quite some time before I started booking them, although they were still a smaller band at that point. I’ve worked with The Hold Steady from the ground up. The day I moved to New York I met Les Savy Fav, and I’ve been working with them for more than 10 years now. We’ve also seen a lot of growth with Wolf Parade.

Is there a strategy behind it?

When I first started booking it was really important to develop bands territorially – that’s how I started with the West Coast and the little mountain loops and just kept doing that and expanded from there until I was booking the whole country.

Now, with the Internet and blogs, it’s a lot easier for smaller bands to just explode onto the scene nationally, but still, it’s important to just keep going out there continuously. When you’re starting from scratch, you’ve got to build the fan base organically, touring over and over.

In the old days, it was to go out and support the record, but its obviously changed from being a small cottage industry to a major business in the time that I’ve been doing it. Obviously now it’s an integral part of any band’s growth – going out there and touring.

With the economy these days, have you noticed any sort of downturn in the touring biz?

As far as the economy goes – this the second time I’ve gone through a period like this – it’s a smart move to lower ticket prices and play more conservative venues than you would during the salad days.

Maybe we’ve seen advance ticket sales slow down during this time, but people are still purchasing tickets – they’re just not doing it ahead of time. I think people are still going out and paying to see the bands they want to see. They still need to be entertained as long as they can afford it.

Unfortunately, the ones that really take a hit during a time like this are the smaller bands. When clubs are booking four, five or six shows a week, the lesser known bands have a harder time competing when there may be a bigger band that people are saving their money to see.

Ticket prices are getting a lot of press lately. What’s your take on the whole secondary ticketing market? Have your acts been affected by it?

As far as the whole TicketsNow thing goes, when a Band of Horses or a Shins show sells out, you can’t stop people from putting tickets up on Craigslist because there’s always someone who’s willing to buy tickets for ridiculous amounts of money. We really try to protect the fans, though, by using a lot of ticket companies that cut the service charges for fan clubs and whatnot, and by giving them an advance window to purchase the tickets for less money.

I noticed you’ve got a handful of comedians on your roster. How did that happen?

That was something that happened kind of randomly. I started going to a Sunday night series that was curated by David Cross, Jon Benjamin and Todd Barry called Tinkle. They’d perform every Sunday night and brought comics on board, and I started seeing this really unique parallel between indie rock fans and comedy fans that I hadn’t seen previously at indie shows.

It’s not anything new to put comics and rock bands together, but I think for me at that time it was more exciting to have a comic open a show than to have two opening bands that sounded similar to the headliner. It mixed things up. And the comics loved playing to the rock fans in the rock rooms.

I just kind of fell into it and it’s turned out pretty well. It was different enough than booking bands and it kept things interesting for me rather than doing the same thing over and over and over. Introducing comedians to the rock audience has been really fun.

Do you have to take a different approach to book tours for comedians?

Not really. The tours that I’ve booked for comedians are generally into the rock rooms versus the comedy clubs of the world, which I do randomly. But most of the comics that I work with really want to play to the rock audiences in the rock rooms, which I work with all the time for the bands. So I’m dealing with the same people, but it’s just a different show. It’s one guy instead of four.

Have there been any comedian / band packages that you sent on the road?

Sure, quite a few. Eugene Mirman did a Modest Mouse and Helio Sequence tour of Florida. That was probably the first one I booked. He’s since done big Cake tours. I’ve had Fred Armisen play with Les Savy Fav quite a bit.

Everyone involved loves it. The bands want to have the comics, the comics want to play with the bands. It’s a perfect match. The crowds are similar yet different enough to where it’s bringing new people into the fold. It’s more exciting than your regular rock show and it’s something different.

Of course, it can also be hard for the comic when they’re playing to 1,000 people and there’s one dude on stage trying to be funny. They get heckled sometimes. It can get challenging with crowds of more than 600 to 700 people.

With all the noise in the blogosphere and on the Internet these days, how do you seek out new bands to book?

I find a lot of my artists will tell me about bands they’ve seen or played with on tour. As far as blog bands go, I’m not a real fan – I don’t believe the hype so to speak. I have to see them live first.

It’s so much easier now with the Internet to bust out onto the scene versus when I was stuffing packages with press photos and CDs and mailing them to five different people in the city. So it’s easier to know about a band, which is great, but they’re not all necessarily good.

These days, I listen to satellite radio, I listen to what Daniel and Joe talk about and what other friends of mine talk about and I always try and stay current, rather than just believing the hype on the Internet.

Again, I usually don’t pick up bands unless I see them play live. That’s sort of a rule of thumb. Anyone can sound good on a record, anyone can get a positive review on a blog but whether or not they can cut the mustard live is what you have to see to believe.

Any of your artists that you’re particularly excited about right now?

Oh yeah! Helio Sequence and The Thermals are doing really, really well right now. Stardeath and White Dwarfs and Zee Avi are brand new acts. Adrianne Verhoeven from Kansas – she used to be the singer for The Anniversary and she’s doing solo stuff now. Then there’s Besnard Lakes from Montreal and Handsome Furs, which is Dan from Wolf Parade and his wife. They’re all doing really well.

Any lessons learned over your career? Times when things went wrong?

Well, I’ve had bands ask me to book them and I’ve said, ‘I’ll wait until I see you live,’ and then they picked other agents. But I’ve never really regretted those decisions. It’s still something that I believe – you’re promoting, you’re booking and you’re selling in essence the live show, so you have to know exactly what you’re delivering to someone.

While I’m bummed that some have picked other agents because I just couldn’t get a chance to see them live, that’s just how the cookie crumbles sometimes.
Besides the random band canceling a show, which is a drag, there was one time when I really had to scramble.

Modest Mouse was about to head out on the Lollapalooza tour when Lollapalooza canceled the entire outing, so I had to completely book a U.S. tour in five weeks’ time. At that point, it was their biggest tour to date – supporting their now-platinum Good News for the People Who Love Bad News album. I’m not quite sure how I pulled it off, but when all was said and done, it went off really well and the tour was quite successful!

Sounds stressful!

Yeah, but I enjoy what I do and I never bite off more than I can chew. I knew what I wanted to do at an early age – I started collecting 45s back in the fifth grade (I still to this day have a killer record collection of ’70s music) and I remember hearing David Bowie and I was like, ‘OK, this is it!’ Things just went from there.

I’ve always enjoyed what I do. It’s really exciting to be able to wake up every day and be excited about what you do, because I know a lot of people aren’t. I guess I’ve just been blessed with a good ear and great bands to work with.