APA’s Adam Brill On Building Careers

Adam Brill of the APA talent agency talks with Pollstar about discovering new acts, nurturing talent and why booking agents must always think about the future.

Experienced at working with up-and-coming artists, Brill’s history includes booking Imagine Dragons during the band’s early club years, and plotting strategic touring for Awolnation when the band was supporting its now double-platinum Sail album. Brill also worked on taking Capital Cities to the next level as the band played for thousands at festivals and scored a support slot on Katy Perry’s summer tour.

Along with Capital Cities, Brill’s current roster includes Sleeper Agent, The Kin, Miriam Bryant, Zak Waters, Finish Ticket, The Young Wild, and SirenXX. As passionate about music as he is about booking his artists, Brill says that at the end of the day his business is still about the “personal touch.”

Adam Brill (center) with The Kin.

What led you to APA?

I’m originally from Chicago. I went to school at University Of Iowa in Iowa City [2002-2006]. They have a program there called “Scope Productions,” which is a student-run concert promoter where the school basically gives a huge organization a large size budget to book and promote concerts on campus. I didn’t go to school for this. I went to school, originally, for communications and journalism. But I ultimately joined the organization and started becoming involved with booking and promoting shows on campus, anywhere from club-size rooms of 200 capacity up to arena-size shows. I did that for all four years I was in college.

Ultimately, once I graduated college, I was so into it I popped into my car and caravanned with one of my college buddies and drove from Chicago to Los Angeles. Once I got there I took meetings with a lot of people that I networked with when I was working … at Scope. My first job here in L.A. was at United Talent Agency in 2006.

Were you the music geek among your friends before you went to college?

Yeah. I was really into going to Tower Records or Barnes & Noble or Borders, whatever … always going to listen to records. The big thing I was into was following tour schedules. So I’d always be seeing what was coming through Chicago, and bands that [I liked], I was into seeing what other venues they were playing around the country. Ultimately becoming very familiar with all these different size venues and names. Not just Chicago but pretty much everywhere in the country.

When you were going to shows while in high school, did you ever think about working behind the scenes?

At that time, probably not. It was more about being an enthused fan. It really wasn’t until I became involved, hands-on, at Scope that really led me to say, “Hey, this is maybe an opportunity to work behind the scenes.” So it was Scope that fueled that fire.

What was the first show you booked?

Modest Mouse. We also did comedy as well. I booked Dave Attell and Pauly Shore to do a co-headlining comedy show at the university. Give you a span of what we did, we did Bob Dylan in our arena, we did Brooks & Dunn in our arena, and in our medium-size venues we did My Morning Jacket, 311 and stuff like that.

When you landed your first booking agency gig, you move from college promoter to selling shows to promoters. What was the first thing you learned about being an agent?

The big difference is being more hands-on with the artist vs promotions and being involved with making sure the show goes smoothly with advertising, selling tickets and everything [associated] with that. Whereas being an agent is more about planning the steps of touring and being one step ahead of what your next move is going to be. So if you’re booking a show now, right before you book that show in a specific market, what is your next step going to be in that market down the road? It’s almost like you’re planning forward … It’s more about the long-term picture. [That’s] one of the first things I learned coming into that agent role.

Photo: Scott Legato / RockStarProPhotography.com
89X "Chill On The Hill," Freedom Hill Amphitheatre, Sterling Heights, Mich.

Was there a more experienced agent during your years at United Talent that acted as your mentor?

When I started working my way up, I was working with an agent, John Pantle, who now works here at APA. I was assisting him for my first two and half, three years. When I came to APA – that was the transition that brought me up to become an agent. I’ve been here at APA for about four-plus years now. UTA was kind of paving the path [with] building blocks.

Is the phone still important for an agent in the internet age?

I personally think the phone is more important than any other form of communication for an agent. There’s something about being direct and personal when doing business as an agent – whether it’s dealing with promoters, buyers, or anything involved in that world. There’s more of a relationship that you can build one-on-one [versus] just shooting an email [or text] to somebody. I feel that doesn’t get the job done as easily as picking up the phone. I think with new technology – email, texting – you lose that personal touch.

When people contact you, is it usually via a phone call or email?

I’d say it’s split. There’s a lot of people, if they go to a [band’s] Facebook page or website, and see contact info and see my email there, they might think it’s easier to click and send a note. Ultimately, that might end up in a phone call in a few days but I’d say it’s split between someone doing a cold-call right off the bat and sending an email that might end up in a phone call.

How do you scout new talent?

A big component of mine is getting in with acts early on, going to shows. That is our business instead of just listening to music and saying, “Oh, this is good. This is something I should be involved in.” I’m pretty big on needing to see the act live because that’s a pretty big indicator on where the band is and if there’s growth and where that can go. Whether it’s going [to a show] here in L.A., the Satellite, the Echo or the Viper Room and seeing a band that only has 50 or 100 people in there, but there’s a buzz on the street, people are talking, or I get an incoming note saying, “Hey, you need to check this band out.” It’s important to see bands at this time to see if there is potential. It doesn’t have to be a slam-dunk at that time. It’s all about having the ears and eyes to know … if they tour for a good amount of time, really work at it and hone in on their craft, within a year or two they could be playing for 100 people up to 5,000 people.

Is it really representative to see a show in the Los Angeles area as opposed to seeing the act play in Fargo, N.D., or any smaller market that’s somewhat isolated from glamour and glitz?

Sometimes, if you do travel to … a Fargo or Wichita or something like that and see a band play in front of a crowd from a different part of the country, you could see a different side of that band hatching out of its shell. Even with my bands, when I travel with them to certain markets and not a L.A. or major market, you can definitely tell there is a difference based on the market situation.

When you’re scouting the act in the Los Angeles area, you’re probably not the only agent doing so. Do you ever try to sneak in, perhaps go incognito to a show so your competitors don’t know you’re interested in the act?

Our business, even though it seems large, it’s not. There are a lot of familiar faces. So when you’re going to shows that are maybe in smaller rooms, the handful of major agencies are going to check out the market and I think it’s somewhat difficult [to be incognito] unless you’re hiding out in the corner. But it’s one thing to do something like that and it’s another thing when you’re at a show and there are other agents. Obviously you all see each other. … In terms of scouting talent it’s about trying to get there as early as you can and being maybe one of two [agents] instead of one in 10 in the room. And ultimately building up a dialogue and rapport with the manager or even the band early on. I think bands take that a little deeper in meaning when they see enthusiasm from an agent in the early days versus when there are plenty [of agents] swarming around.

We’ve been talking about new talent, but how about when you hear that an experienced act is thinking of changing agents. How do you approach a situation such as that?

The appropriate way I deal with things like that is, if someone is unhappy and the manager or band wants to meet with people, that’s a decision the band is making at that point in terms of wanting to start other dialogues. … If that is not the case I ultimately assume the band is happy and doing OK with the camp they already have on board. If the dialogue is there, it’s worth having a conversation to see what the issues are. If there’s something that needs to be done or [something] they want that they’re not seeing, that’s what we try to find out. But only if the conversation is there.

How did your relationship with Imagine Dragons start?

Going back to … scouting talent, [Imagine Dragons] was a band I saw at the Viper Room very early on. A very light room, so to speak … maybe 100 people. That goes back to seeing a band for the first time. That was one of them where I thought the music was really good already and the live show was already on a great track. All it was going to take was touring and working out the live show. That’s where it started … early days of playing clubs, not just in L.A. but up and down the West Coast.

When you’re seeing a band at that level, are you already sizing up their potential and how far the music can take them? For example do you look at a band and think that they’ll have a large career but never move past theatres while another band will be in theatres in five years?

It’s all about thinking of the long term. Everybody would love to have arena acts, and when they’re building acts, every agent would say they are able to get [them] to arenas. Even like Capital Cities … they were playing clubs on the first tour and then getting up to theatres – I look at it as a step-by-step basis. Obviously the end goal is getting the band to play to thousands and thousands of people. But it’s really taking it step-by-step.

Do you ever see bands that have great music and presentation on stage but it’s just not the time for them? Perhaps they would be monstrous, say in 1995 but not by today’s trends and tastes?

There are definitely a handful of bands you see in your life – “Wow! This live show is fantastic. The songs are really good.” But it comes with being aware with what the times are now and what is hitting radio and the blogs. Unfortunately it’s not going as far as you wish it could. There are definitely a lot of bands out there that, I think, if they get to that point, they realize they probably have to change their tune and their craft a little bit if they want to see a little more success because ultimately they’re fighting this uphill battle of not getting to where they want to be just because the music isn’t connecting.

Honestly, a lot of the bands that are huge right now – whether it’s Dragons, Macklemore, fun., or Lumineers – is that those songs are connecting with people. You can tell when you’re selling 8,000 to 10,000 tickets in a market. It’s song connection.

When were you able to separate the business from the art and appraise a band in terms of growth and business potential versus loving the group for its music?

Not all agents, but a handful of agents will fall into a certain line of music and then go after certain acts that fall into that wheelhouse. I try to be as opened minded as possible. Obviously, there are some acts that are a little bit outside, not just my personal taste, but also my knowledge of what would make the most sense. But at the same time I think it is important to keep the doors open. … If I’m going after acts and it’s not something that falls in my wheelhouse of personal taste but there is some crossover and I see a lot of potential, and with the expertise I already have, it could actually cross over to [fans] as well. A lot of bands I’m seeing these days are benefitting of playing in different spaces that wouldn’t necessarily work for them. But there’s so much crossover and kids are so much more open minded.

Different agencies have different methods of booking tours. At APA does one agent book an entire tour or do various agents represent regions?

We work on a territory system. We have a team of agents [that] go out and book the tour in the sense of grabbing the avails, grabbing the offers, but … if I’m the responsible agent for the act, it all feeds back to my office. In which case I’ll gather everything and then have a conversation with the manager and then go from there. We do work as a team here. It’s not a per office, per agent situation of booking a coast to coast tour.

So in the course of a day you’re handling your own bands’ tours, while also booking bands represented by other APA agents.

Correct. I have a territory as well. Not only do I R.A. [responsible agent] my own clients and have a team work for my acts but at the same time if somebody else’s acts go into my territory, then I will be doing the same on the other side. I do the Pacific Northwest from arenas all the way down to clubs.

When one of your acts is on tour, how many shows will you see?

Usually when they go out on the road I’ll try to hit, maybe four to five shows on the tour, not necessarily including L.A. … It’s not just flying to New York and seeing them it’s also about going to the first show on the tour to see how things are starting out, also about going to a market where you wouldn’t necessarily consider going to … but it actually might be a good opportunity because you’re meeting with the promoter and you’re seeing your acts playing in a different vibe, different audience, a different room.

In those instances, a market you’ve never visited before, what do you watch for?

Something that’s interesting is watching the audience or the fan to band connection in the sense of the energy and how every audience is per market. For instance, the audience in Richmond, Va., is going to be a little bit different than in New York and New York is going to be a little bit different than in Chicago. It’s kind of seeing … how explosive do the crowds get?

With Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets, is radio as important for promoting an artist as it was before the internet?

I think, and I’ve told a lot of people this recently, that radio has had a little bit of a rebirth in the sense of what Sirius [and] Alt Nation are doing as tastemakers. Some of these alternative stations have filled their own taste-maker shows on their stations. When I’ve had bands play radio festivals where it’s just five or six hard-hitting bands in certain markets, the tickets are still selling very well. It’s ultimately speaking volumes in what radio still can do. With that being said, I’m sure … radio is definitely not the end-all, be-all in the sense of what it was, because of Facebook, social media, and blogs. But I think radio – and I would speak more so on the alternative Top 40 formats because that’s really what a lot of my bands crossover to – still pushing eyeballs, single sales and ticket sales as well.

Reflecting on your own experience and what you’ve seen over the years, do you believe that it takes a certain amount of luck to be successful?

I’ve put a lot of my blood, sweat and tears and heart and soul into building a lot of acts, touring … playing so many shows to 50 people, 200 people per market – but at the same time I think there is a little luck. What is the all-encompassing thing that takes the band, overall, to that next level? I think there is a little piece of [luck] in that.

Are all agents nursing secret desires to become artist managers some day?

(laughs) I don’t know. I think most agents that I know, ones I keep in touch with and do business with, are still very turned on, so to speak, in the sense of booking shows, building acts on the road and dealing with the live element to it, more so than anything else.

How do you see the agent’s role in today’s world of mega promoters such as Live Nation or AEG Live where they may do the entire tour?

I think the agent still plays a really big piece. Obviously, what AEG Live and Live Nation is starting to do … not just on the arena level, but they’re sending tour offers for acts to play exclusively all of their rooms. At one point one could say, “If they’re sending tour offers, why can’t they handle the whole tour themselves?” But at the same time, when you are working on a large tour – 15, 20, 30 dates of that nature – I think it’s really important to have a point person who could be the mediator between Live Nation and AEG and artist management. That’s kind of our expertise in the sense of building a show from the bottom up when it comes to scaling ticket prices, expenses and making sure the numbers are all in line. I think having somebody with that knowledge and expertise is really important just to make sure there isn’t any kind of fallout or issue when it comes down to booking shows.

So you don’t necessarily see large promoters as being a threat to the business of being an agent?

I think when it could set a little bit of a precedent is when there are large acts like a U2, Madonna or No Doubt, something like that, where you’re doing amphitheatres or arenas, where they [Live Nation or AEG Live] could come in and say, “We’ll handle this whole tour for you.” And whether management thinks that’s easier to do something like that, obviously that is a per-camp situation. But that could ultimately set a precedent of saying, “Do we still need an agent’s role in this thing?” Which I hope, ultimately wouldn’t be the case [or else] we would all be out of jobs.

For your own entertainment, what kind of room do you prefer to see a show?

I like the intimate shows. That doesn’t mean it needs to be, like, 50 people. I love seeing shows in clubs. I think it’s more personal, more in your face.

Is there anything you like to do for fun that isn’t music related?

I’m really big on personal traveling … going up to wine country and taking trips to Mexico and Southeast Asia and really trying to explore outside of Los Angeles.

What kind of advice could you give a college student who is contemplating a career as a booking agent?

Honestly, I think what helped me the most was the experience at the ground level, up. Not necessarily just in booking, but whether it’s promoting artists, management, booking, or even doing it on your own. If you find a few bands you’re enthused about and you want to promote your own shows or book your own bands on a smaller level — anything like that where you can get your feet wet in an early stage is pretty beneficial. So ultimately when you’re graduating college and you want to enter the industry, having that experience behind you is going to give you a leg up versus someone who might have a passion for it but hasn’t done anything up to that point.

“I’m pretty big on needing to see the act live because that’s a pretty big indicator on where the band is and if there’s growth and where that can go.”

This is the latest in a series of interviews with concert industry professionals. For more encounters with booking agents, click here for Pollstar’s conversation with Tim Borror, here for Peter Schwartz and Joshua Dick and here for our interview with Dave Shapiro, all with The Agency Group.