The Art Of Artist Development: Knowing When To Play The Long Game Versus Skipping Steps

Pure Heroine:
Nicholas Hunt / Getty Images
– Pure Heroine:
In the past four years Lorde has moved up from playing theatres to selling out venues like the 13,270-cap Barclays Center. She’s seen performing at the Brooklyn, N.Y., arena in this April 4, 2018, photo.
For the past three decades that Pollstar has featured rising artists as Hotstars, one constant when talking to agents or managers seems to be a philosophy of taking time to diligently build careers and fanbases through calculated room sequences, rather than fast-tracking acts to bigger stages. 
Paradigm Talent Agency’s Tom Windish, whose clients include Lorde, Alt-J, and Billie Eilish, recently spoke to Pollstar about artist development and anomalies where acts have skipped steps, beginning the conversation by saying, “The thing that I’ve tried to stick to when artists are blowing up quickly is not to skip steps and not to go too big too fast.”

He pointed to Eilish – who was featured in a recent issue of Pollstar as a 2019 Festival Hotstar and who just wrapped a U.S. tour that included stops at Seattle’s Showbox and two nights at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., which grossed $60,000. 

Billie Eilish
JB Lacroix / Getty Images
– Billie Eilish
Paradigm agent Tom Windish points to client Billie Eilish, pictured performing at Apple’s holiday campaign launch party Nov. 20 in Santa Monica, as an example of an artist who could play larger venues but is not skipping steps in artist development.
“She could have played places that were much larger but we thought that it was important she went and played those iconic clubs right now,” Windish said. “I think playing those places and the limited number of tickets that were available contributed to a fervor of just being in the room.” 
He added that resisting the urge to move up to bigger venues gives artists a chance to have a closer connection with fans “because they’re literally closer to you. There’s not that big of a barricade separating you from the audience. … Just participating in the magic that fills the venue that night is something that both sides should engage in. And I think it helps develop an artist.” 
On the flip side, while it can seem risky for an artist to be a flash in the pan or potentially do damage to the long-term success of their careers by graduating to larger venues too quickly, for some acts it makes sense to accelerate their career paths. After all, plenty of artists have successfully moved on to bigger stages in an exceptionally short amount of time. 
One can’t talk numbers without discussing Ed Sheeran, who ruled Pollstar’s Mid Year Top Worldwide Tours with a gross of $213.9 million for 52 shows in 21 cities (an average gross per show of more than $4.1 million) and is sure to figure high on Year End. He went from playing venues like New York’s 250-capacity Mercury Lounge in 2013 to headlining stadiums in 2018. 
Or look at Post Malone, whose career quickly shot up from playing clubs in 2015 to playing an April-June shed tour with fellow United Talent Agency client 21 Savage and Paradigm client SOB X RBE.  
That run grossed $22.4 million on 31 shows, good for No. 18 on the Mid Year Top 100 North American Tours. Posty will close out 2018 with two nights at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and is set to continue his world domination by heading to arenas in Europe in early 2019, including multiple nights at London’s The O2.
Juice WRLD is one artist who hopes to follow in Post’s footsteps. MAC Agency’s Andrew Lieber told Pollstar, “Things are exploding too much to make a long-term plan. Post Malone is at the top of the game and the feedback I’m getting from these promoters and buyers is that Juice WRLD is gonna have a Post Malone-esque comeup. 2019 is gonna be a big, big year.”
But while it may look like Post’s career shot up out of nowhere, UTA’s Cheryl Paglierani told Pollstar in a July interview, “Every show we book has a purpose and is a building block to get us to the next level. Three years ago, Post was playing the Skate Stage at Made in America and this year he’s headlining. Everything in between has been about growth and taking the necessary steps to ensure longevity.”  
How can you know when the time is right to make the move to bigger venues? In short, it can be summed up as, it’s the data, stupid.  
As Windish explained, “Well, nowadays you can use a lot of data for one, and you can also use the ticket history. If you sold 3,600 tickets in a market and the streaming and consumption keeps going up, you can sell more.” 
Sometimes you just have to go for it and shock the rest of the music industry. 
“I have a band that’s playing moderately sized venues right now and we’re about to announce some really, really big shows for next fall in really big venues, where they’re definitely going to be skipping steps,” Windish said. “And in skipping those steps they’re going to be making a statement that sort of wakes everybody up. A lot of people will say, ‘Whoa. I can’t believe they’re doing that.’ And they’re going to sell it out. And the fact that people were in such a doubt and they successfully do it, will be even better.”
When Windish booked Alt-J at Madison Square Garden in 2015 a lot of people expressed doubt because the band had never done anything that size. But he noted that he had a sense for how much demand there was, with a lot of inquiries coming in, combined with their second album doing really well – and the band sold out MSG, grossing more than $606,000. 
As for artists who have supposedly blown up really quickly, Windish explained that if you pull back the curtain you’ll often find that their careers have actually been building for a significant amount of time. It just wasn’t on people’s radars when it was developing. 
Most acts who seem to have fast-tracked their careers have gotten a boost from supporting other artists, from Sheeran touring with Taylor Swift in 2013 to Post Malone’s support slot on Justin Bieber’s 2016 “Purpose” arena run. 
Although Lorde seemingly has had a meteoric rise, selling out her first tour in the U.S. in 2013 and moving up in the past four years from playing theatres to selling out venues like the 13,270-cap Barclays Center (her April show at the arena grossed more than $1M), Windish signed her a few years before he booked a show.
“And in that time, she wasn’t touring the world extensively. But she was doing stuff down in New Zealand and Australia,” Windish said. “And she was working on music feverishly, like every day. So in that time it wasn’t like she was doing nothing.” 
Along with the data, it really comes down to fantastic music.   
“I think a lot of struggling musicians are looking for some sort of silver bullet, like a festival or a certain person on their team,” Windish said. “And I don’t really think it’s about that. I think it’s about great music that connects with people. And then great performances where it connects with people. 
“Fans want to feel engaged. Consuming music and art is an emotional thing and they’re searching for stuff they connect with. And it’s hard to quantify how you make something that connects. How do you know when something connects? You just know.”