Welcome to our Industry Insiders series, where we talk to music biz experts at all levels to find out what they do, what they look for in artists, and what they suggest to set themselves up for success.
Sebastian Fried has not always booked the largest venue in NYC, but in the meantime he has graduated from the smallest room in Bushwick, Brooklyn, to one of Manhattan’s most popular two-story venues. His understanding of what it does and where it works and his knowledge has led him to work with some of the biggest names in indie rock. We reached out to Fred to discuss his journey from jam band to talent buyer at one of NYC’s largest venues.
Spotify for Artists: Describe what you do and give an overview of how you got there.
Sebastian Free: I’m a talent buyer at The Bawari Presents, a promoter at NYC. I work with agents and managers to help their artists choose the right house to play at every stage of their careers and to ensure those shows are successful by identifying the right ticket prices and promo strategies. Prior to Bawari, I worked for a non-profit organization that focused on the music community for three years, so I got great insights into all aspects of how the music industry works. I spent all my free time going to shows and talking about music, so I started managing bands in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan and booking small shows in random rooms. Eventually I got to know some Bawari Presents people quite well, and when a Gig Mercury Lounge booking was found I was on a short list and was very lucky. Since then I have booked the Rough Trade and Music Hall in Williamsburg and recently shifted my focus to our big clubs, theaters and outdoor concerts.
Were you an artist fan of growing up, the story you heard, or an artist you crossed paths with that inspired you to build this profession as a profession?
Jerry Garcia died when I was 10, so I never saw him [Grateful] Dead But I grew up listening to them and hearing stories about shows that run from midnight to dawn. I avoided working in the music industry for a while because I thought it would bother me. But when I was about 24, I read Bill Graham’s autobiography and I think it really helped bring me up. He was the original promoter, but he was much more. He did literally everything for his show, so hands on. I think the dedication and passion helped create some of the most historic historical shows of all time, and reading about it I realized that concerts can be more than a band playing a stage to fans, it’s a community.
What are you looking for in the artist you want to work with? (And who among the artists you have worked with now or recently and how is it aligned?)
I can’t really describe what I like about an artist and it’s the same thing when it comes to booking them. They got it or they don’t. Ultimately it’s going to be fun to work with any artist who takes their careers and live shows seriously. At this level, I work with most of the agents I work with, although in the early days there was a lot of digging around the internet and clubs that I think new jobs were interesting. In my experience when you start listening to an artist from multiple sources; Whether it’s his blog, radio, art, word of mouth, etc., you know something is happening. You’re always trying to book your favorite artists, but admitting that everyone has different tastes so you’re also trying to book artists who will be popular and sell tickets, both when the sweet spot.
We work from selling 100 tickets at each level of their career to 10,000 or more levels, you want them to grow every time. I’ve seen bands show their first 2-3 times but you can tell when they’re trying, and when they fail when they come back for the fourth time, it’s amazing. I made the booking His Golden Messenger Almost every year 2012 or so, in the beginning it was an acoustic guitar on stage, you knew something was happening but it has its limitations. For the last 3-4 years he has been coming back with a whole band and it has turned into a somewhat annual gathering, like a church. People come back in bigger and bigger crowds in anticipation of a particular experience and they get it.
What is the biggest tool for an artist in 2019 from your point of view and why are you looking at it that way?
I know I’m biased and anyone who isn’t a promoter will probably disagree, but I honestly think an artist’s live show is their biggest tool. The Internet has made it so easy to access recorded music that it’s hard for a band to stand up. But if you can give people a great live experience, they will keep coming back every time. I know there are hologram tours and live streaming, but in the end, none of that is going to replace a killer live show. It never gets old.
What is the best advice for you at the beginning of any artist?
Don’t try to sound like anyone else, but don’t be afraid to embrace your influence. All music is derivative.
– Fred Pesaro