Q’s With: Wasserman Music’s Rae Grabowski On The College Market, Next Gen & Billie Eilish’s Campus Plays

Rachel Grabowski credit Michelle Findlay 1
Photo credit: Michelle Findlay

Wasserman Music’s Rae Grabowski got her feet wet in the industry the same way a lot of others did: working with student activities in college. Now, she’s on the other side, hooking artists up with campus gigs. The music agent talked to Pollstar about working with students and how the campus market led the livestreaming revolution.

Pollstar: What do college students want?

Rae Grabowski: Right now, we are doing a lot of pop bookings. Hip-hop has always been pretty strong. Jesse McCartney, he’s still strong in the college market. A lot of success with Yung Gravy, bbno$, Waka Flocka is an old favorite …  We’re also building up smaller acts like Ella Jane, Maude Latour. So it’s kind of all over the place. It really depends on the school and their budget, how they figure out who they are bringing to campus. … We’ve booked over 100 different acts this year, whether it’s a one-off or multiple shows for one client.

This market is led a lot by the buyer. So we can send out information about our clients and try to get interest. It’s less cold-calling and more about them coming to us knowing who they want and whether we can make that show happen for them.

Would you consider that the biggest difference in booking that market and the traditional market?

With the smaller club shows, you’re trying to build an act. You’re selling it to the promoter … to get this artist out there and build them up. A lot of the acts I’m working with already have some kind of word-of-mouth, usually in that demographic, so it’s easier for us to get the buyer on board because they already know what they want, whereas a promoter in the club, it’s a little more sales-pitchy.

Every segment of the business had challenges in the last two years. Is there anything specific you’ve been able to do in that market in this weird time?

In 2020 we were probably one of the only departments that was able to still bring income. A lot of the schools still had students who were attending classes, although virtually, they were still paying their dues and their tuition and entertainment is included in that, so they had to figure out ways to accommodate. We did quite a bit of virtual shows and that became the new bread and butter for us, so we had to get acclimated pretty quickly as to what all that entailed: licensing, whether it was live or pre-recorded, fees for a scenario where you’re not investing a ton in production and travel. So it was definitely a learning situation.

The whole business went to livestreaming, but your sector was really on the forefront.

We had to be. There’s still income coming in for entertainment and student activities. They had to figure out where that money goes, they had to provide that for their students, that’s when we started exploring the livestream. Granted, it wasn’t that the numbers were amazing; there weren’t a ton of schools who were able to do this, but it was still a way to provide entertainment.

What do you like about working in the college market?

I started out in that market. I was a buyer for my university. It really brought me into the music industry. I really like working with students. They bring in a new energy. They’re not the same person every year. It’s a lot of turnover, so you’re getting to meet new people every year, you’re getting to share with them ways for them to grow and expand in their career and to see if they want to go into this industry. And it’s a lot of investment in the future, not to sound too fluffy. It’s cool to see me, back when I was in college, but now, and providing some kind of mentorship also in a sense. I like the fact we are helping build the careers of our clients. College shows can be a starting point for a lot of artists, where they can start out and grow from there. Like Tai Verdes became really popular in the college market to the point where he’s kind of grown out of it, but we’ve got so many shows for him, and I think that really helps with his career. It’s cool to see these acts [grow], like I did a couple of Billie Eilish shows before she blew up.

Was there a sense at those Billie Eilish shows that you were on to something?

There was an energy in the air, you could tell that this artist is going to take off. The same goes for Tai, Quinn XCII, Lauv. They did a lot of college shows and all of a sudden, they’re doing arena shows now.