Our series on COVID-19's impact on dance music continues with Carin Abdulá, who runs OUTER, a booking agency located in London and Berlin.
I run OUTER Agency, the agency started by the same team behind Berlin Atonal, though we operate independently. Our team is a small team; I'm in London, the rest are in Berlin. As head agent, I do artist bookings and some management, which kind of comes with the territory when you work with smaller artists.
This past month has been full-on crisis management. As an agent, I work with time. The concept of time is key to what I do. As is geography, moving around. All these things we had taken for granted from a professional point of view. This nightmare scenario has taken the carpet from under us and it has shown us how fragile it all is, but also how connected we all are.
As with most booking agents, we've been dealing with the COVID-19 crisis since earlier this year when we had to cancel tours in Asia. It was clear that this was a worrying situation and that there was the potential for it to get worse, but I don't think any of us actually considered the scale it would eventually reach. By the time it got to us in the UK and Europe, we'd already been having conversations with artists, trying to prepare them for the possibility of disruption. Work wise, it started to become very real when Italy went into lockdown, which I believe was a pivotal moment for the arrogant West. That's when we understood the enormity of what was coming.
I've long been quite vocal about the unsustainability of the music scene. I also work with smaller artists, so I'm permanently aware of the precariousness of it and the power inequalities within, but also had experienced this as a promoter prior to entering the agency world. Now with this crisis, everyone's exposed, everyone's doors are open. Every single aspect of the musical ecosystem has been revealed. We are now having the conversations we should have been having a while back, and while these are changes that should have happened gradually, because we're in this now, the shift required is immediate and urgent.
At the moment, when I am being positive about it, I see this as a golden opportunity. We can acknowledge that everything fell so quickly because it was built on flimsy foundations. We should fix those foundations and not just continue to build and build and build under some unrealistic concept of infinite growth. I see an opportunity to seriously discuss unionising, because why not? I see an opportunity to prioritise local scenes. Maybe we will have to do that, because we don't know what restrictions on movement there will be in the coming months and years—so even when venues reopen, maybe artists won't be able to get there as easily. Simultaneously, there's serious climate change action that we'll need to take into account which will happen sooner rather than later.
I force myself to believe that when the restrictions eventually lift, people will want to be out regardless of what the party is—so long as they can afford it. That people will be craving that togetherness, after not being able to congregate for so long.
I also see this as an opportunity to debunk the myth of the agent. People are finally getting to see how nuanced the agency world is. You can't really put them all in the same box—you've got small, independent agencies, you've got major, major agencies, and you've got worlds in between. Because of that diversity it's impossible to deal with the current fallback in a blanket way.
There are many misconceptions about what a booking agent actually does. There is the myth that agents are ruthless, money-grabbing people; some kind of outdated, 1970s idea. Really, agenting starts with A&R. As an agent you consume music but you have to see what and who has potential to stand out in the current landscape, and how you can work with them to achieve their goals. Then there is artist relationship building. A key thing I do is try to find opportunities for artists outside shows, linking them to other artists, help develop concepts and ideas into reality... the list goes on and includes a lot of interpersonal work and support. I try to represent them outside of the show itself and that is the case with most independent booking agencies: it's much more than a transactional relationship. We nurture our relationships with artists and feel a responsibility for not only their income but also their accomplishments, wellbeing and ultimately their success.
At an agency level, we currently feel the pressure to justify our jobs to the world at large. This is a key moment to create understanding across the different parts of the ecosystem, because the tendency has always been to scoff at promoters or agents and, trust me, we don't need that right now. As an agency, our work is only paid for via a booking fee when a show happens—whether it's a big show or a small show, there's a lot of unseen work that goes into it which long precedes the day of performance. It involves sourcing the contacts, pitching the artists, developing long-term relationships with promoters, putting in the groundwork, negotiating a fee, and then all the admin, logistics and so on if the show actually gets booked.
We don't get paid if a show doesn't get booked but the same amount of effort goes into that—sometimes more. We employ people, rent offices and have ongoing costs in terms of software, accountants, various work tools—all costs which have not stopped despite the immediate pause in our activity. So the struggle right now is for us to survive when there is effectively no income for the foreseeable future. We are aiming to reschedule shows to a new date, which effectively means we are doing the same work again for less income, or none at all. We are being forced to have difficult conversations on a case by case basis to justify, in some situations, keeping our booking fees for lost shows (which is a tough pill to swallow for promoters who are losing money).
We need to have these conversations where we are putting ourselves in each other's shoes constantly. Personally, it has helped me realise that a lot of the time and effort we put into building these relationships over the years is now paying off as most have been understanding. We will stand by our promoters and they know it.
But then my negative brain kicks in. Will there be a tendency to hold onto the status quo as everyone quickly scrambles to simply move shows to a later date, hoping for the best in a world that we simply have no concept of? That comfort will be easiest to relate to. Regardless of how flimsy the foundations were, it is undeniable that they were working for a few. That worries me, and I already see it happening in some ways through promoters who can't reschedule my artists, who are smaller in profile, because they are spending all their efforts trying to secure big headliners. If everyone is doing this, are we just going to go back to the way things were? I understand that as a promoter, you want to go back to some version of normality as soon as possible. But it means those people who were already fighting for a place will be fighting even harder.
One of the many elephants in the room is headliner culture. While conversations on the subject have been happening over the years, the fact is that little has really changed. There's far too much at risk at the top. This isn't to say that headliner culture should disappear, because that's never going to happen—it's always been there and absolutely isn't exclusive to the electronic music world. But perhaps it's time to find practical ways to approach all these conversations over who gets booked and who doesn't, the fee discrepancies between the big and small artists, caps on fees, DJ fees supplementing producers' incomes. Should there be an agreement across the board that promoters will have local talent on lineups if they're bringing international artists in? Should agents continue the practice of leveraging the bigger names on their rosters to push other artists they work with? These are the questions we need to not only ask but really address. Now is the time.
As an industry, as a scene, we all fundamentally depend on each other. We cannot exist independently—a promoter needs an artist; an artist depends on the promoter. For us agents, we're in between everyone and ultimately that's really what the chunky part of the job is: to mediate relationships.
I see a togetherness between agencies that I haven't seen before. We instantly knew that we needed to be in touch with one other, for primarily practical reasons (to share knowledge and information) but also for emotional support. There's been a real sense of unity as we all found ourselves on this sinking ship together.
When it comes to the general public, I feel like this will be an ongoing difficult conversation as our crowds are finding themselves in scary, uncertain situations. Saving a music scene won't be a natural response to most. There is a stereotype involved with working in music but the truth of the matter is that it is a business that employs people everywhere, from bar staff to tech engineers, to promoters and artists. It is a culture that moves people and that's got to count for something.
The impact that this crisis is having isn't some mystical, whimsical thing. It's real jobs and people's livelihoods at risk. Now, since the curtains are open for everyone to see inside, it's important for us to say: This is what I actually do, here's how I contribute. This is my job and it's no more and no less than other jobs in other industries. It's my job and I'm trying my best to do it well.
The coronavirus and electronic music /
Save Our Scene
Save Our Scene: An Open Letter
How To Set Up A Livestream
Self-Isolation 101: Artists Tips For Spending Time At Home
The Coronavirus And Electronic Music: Perspectives From The Scene
Guide: Offer and receive help
Guide: Attend virtual events
Guide: Buy music and merch