Interview by Camden Cassels
With over 20 years of experience in the music industry, Todd Erickson is now a partner at Babco Entertainment, a premier East Coast booking agency. Todd, alongside company founder Melissa Boyle Aronson, books concerts all over the country with some of the largest artists in the world. The Babco roster spans various genres and decades. Todd has worked with acts from Kanye West, Maroon 5, and Jason Derulo to The Goo Goo Dolls, Earth Wind and Fire, and Ke$ha. With extensive booking experience, Todd shared his insight into entering the industry as a college student, how music genres affect show production, the effect of streaming on live music, and more.
Auxoro: You were involved with the campus activities board when you were in college correct?
Todd Erickson: Yes, that’s correct. I started out by getting elected to the board the spring semester of my freshman year at West Virginia University. I actually spent four years on the board out there and basically did a little bit of everything. In my senior year, the person in charge of campus activities, Eric Andrews, let me book the bands, which was probably the most valuable thing that I learned in college.
As a college student you don't have that many opportunities to get a start in music. For someone entering college, is the Campus Activities Board the best way to get involved in music?
I think so. In high school, I was in an entrepreneurship class. As part of that class, I interviewed a guy named Dave Williams. At the time, he was the Vice President of Cellar Door Productions, the largest concert promoter in the country. I remember sitting there as a high-school student asking, “How do I get into what you're doing?” His advice was, “If you're not going to college, I would get in with a venue and start as a stagehand or production assistant. Get your foot in the door any way you can and work your way up.”
When he learned that I was going to West Virginia University, he told me to get involved with the campus activities board. You can't be totally prepared to enter the music business, but the board was as close as I could get. I at least had a basic knowledge of how things worked, and it was definitely an invaluable experience.
Did you have an internship between your years at school?
One spring break, I went down to New Mexico State University and worked with a woman named Barbara Hubbard, the Executive Director of The American Collegiate Talent Showcase (ACTWS). This organization raises scholarships for students who seek a career in the performing arts. At New Mexico, I worked a couple shows for her over break. I actually just sponsored a student to go to a conference that Barbara runs, which helps college students who want to get into music. Barbara was a reference for me when I was applying to jobs, and she was instrumental in me getting into this business. She’s the most well-known woman involved in college concerts.
After school, I landed a job with the booking agency Cellar Door Productions. I had previously met the Vice President, Dave Williams, who I interviewed in high school. The owner of Cellar Door, Jack Boyle, was like the Bill Gates of concert promotion. He took me under his wing and I worked my way up. While still in school, I spent a summer working 20 hours a week at Cellar Door doing whatever they asked me to do at the amphitheater. Once that was over, I ended up getting a full-time position with the company.
What's the best way for someone who doesn't have an industry connection to find a mentor to start a relationship and get their foot in the door?
I would say, for me, it took persistence and the guts to reach out to people. The worst anybody can do is say “no.” Find somebody involved in what you want to do, or somebody who’s work that you respect, and put yourself in a position to learn from them. It's a fine line between being persistent and being a pest; where you're just bugging them. I kept asking. The first few times I didn't get a response, but after a while these people were like, “Wow, this kid really wants to do this.” That’s how I got an interview with the VP of Cellar Door, which led me to build a relationship with the owner as well. You need to be persistent at the expense of seeming like a bother.
What are the differences between putting on a concert at a college versus a traditional venue?
If the concert is for a corporate event, it could be similar to a college setup. The people involved don't do this on a day-to-day basis, so there's a lot more responsibility for me to oversee everything. Whether the venue is a corporation, a college, or even a festival, you may be working with people who aren’t full time producers. At events run by people who aren't your typical promoters or even at a typical venue, there's a lot more teaching involved. You need to show them how a show should run.
I've also worked with large venues and full-time promoters who hired me to book the talent. One of these venues, a 4400 cap space in Baltimore, I worked with for eight years. In that situation, I mostly cut deals and negotiated contracts. Once the the advance, production, and other details were handled, I would hand it off to a team of professionals who were more capable than me at running those type of events. From that aspect, things get a lot easier once the show was set up. Then, you’re there to answer any questions and greet people, not a lot of teaching going on.
When you’re putting on a college show or a corporate event, there's a lot more that you have to teach to make it run smoothly. For a bigger show, what's a challenge you face that typical fans may not realize is transpiring right in front of their eyes?
Keeping the show running on time. At a recent event we had five acts on the bill, a house DJ in-between those acts, and hosts trying to ramp up the crowd with the DJ on stage. We had so many moving pieces. It’s difficult to keep all of that in line, including the technical aspects, and not have the show run over or have too much down time. Trying to round everyone up and make sure everything is working, that was a huge challenge. The headliner went on only three minutes late, a huge feat.
What genres pose the biggest challenge to pulling off a successful show?
Well, when you’re setting up a band it’s always harder than a DJ or a comic. All the drums have to be mic’d up and all the amps that have to be moved on stage. For a bill with multiple bands not sharing backline (equipment), you have to bring gear on and off the stage; a band is definitely a lot more time consuming than a DJ or a hip hop setup.
What makes a venue type more or less challenging to run a good show?
A setup that is meant to be a concert space is always easier. On the other hand, there are times when you’ll go to a college and actually build the stage because nothing is set up. Often, you’re limited on dressing rooms and the type of production space.
You have spent 20 years in the industry, what are the most prominent differences in booking a show at the start of your career versus now?
When I first started, the internet wasn’t nearly as predominant. At that time, some bands had websites, but that wasn’t nearly the same standard as it is now. The internet has changed the the booking process. Now, there’s a lot more interaction between the artist and the fans.
People can reach out to their favorite artists and possibly get a response. Before, contacting artists felt like this hidden secret. You needed connections. Back then, the artist was not nearly as accessible to their fans as they are today. [The internet] changed the way artists are booked, the way shows are promoted, it changed everything.
With streaming, people have a lot more access to music. For a monthly fee, you can stream seemingly infinite amounts of songs. Do you think that streaming has propelled the live music scene to an unprecedented peak in popularity?
Yeah, I would say that. When I was growing up, ages ago, you had albums and record companies controlling what you were able to listen to. They decided what was out there. And, if you weren’t signed, it was a long shot that anybody was ever going to hear your music. You had a handful of people at the top of record labels deciding who everybody was going to hear, who they were going to push to the radio stations, and that was it.
Now, independent artists can create their own site, promote themselves, and seize more opportunity. The industry used to be set up so that you would release an album, then tour in support that album, really promote it. Now, it’s almost the opposite. There’s a lot of money in touring, and this is a debate for another day, but artists probably don’t make as much as they should from streaming services.
The goal now is to get popular, you get your music heard, and sell tickets and merch. Making money off of physical copies of music just isn’t the same. The biggest revenue stream nowadays is touring. The reach [of streaming] is infinite, and this propels the touring mechanism. Streaming allows the fan to have more choices, and it allows the artist greater access to potential fans.
What’s the most important trait of a successful booker in the music industry?
Work ethic number one. Really getting to it and enjoying what you do. Work hard every day. I enjoy what I do and I have fun doing it. I take this game seriously, but I don’t take myself seriously. Develop relationships with people, and be fair and honest. I want to build trust. I have a lot of clients that I’ve worked with for a majority of my career, and the reason is that I always try to do the right thing on their behalf. Whether that’s something they agree with or not, my intentions are always good.
Sometimes you have to say, “I think we should do this” or “We shouldn’t do that.” I hope that no matter the action, I always have my client’s best interest at heart. I’m always trying to look out for them. I don’t take it lightly that the people I work with trust me enough to let me handle their business.
‘OffStage Spotlight’ is a new installment of the Hustle Series that will feature interviews with executives and professionals across the industry. These conversations will not be with those who step on stage, but rather with the people who work behind the scenes in the music business. Highlighting the complexity of the industry, this series serves as a peak behind the curtain. Interviews will feature agents, bookers, artist managers, VPs, CEO’s, light technicians, festival organizers and other roles that hold a heavy responsibility in the music world. Join us as we pass the mic those who spend their careers outside of the spotlight.