28 Days to Diva: Day 22 – Should You Have an Agent? (#28daystodiva)
Agents. Does it seem like every well-meaning soul is asking whether or not you have one? There must be some narrative circulating around the cocktail party circuit that suggests as soon as a singer has finished grad school, of course being a rising star of a major YAP during the same time, an agent magically appears ready to sign her. Unfortunately, it does not usually happen that way. Finding a manager is more sweat than supernatural. Even with the encouragement from those well-intentioned individuals, you most likely know whether or not you are ready to be operating at that level. That brings us to Day 22 in which we discuss not whether or not you are ready for a manager but what steps will prepare you for management.
“Elza van den Heever began as a mezzo and is now doing very well as a soprano in San Francisco. Meredith Arwady is a genuine contralto — a big, low, strong female voice, used with great artistry. There’s a tenor named Dimitri Pittas, a Greek-American from New York — good guy, beautiful voice. And then this past summer I heard a young mezzo at Santa Barbara named Isabel Leonard, and I started working with her. Will they all make it? I don’t know. All I can do is offer support and counseling and a strong right arm. After that, they need discipline, ambition, focus and their own inner sense of what they can be. An artist who sits back and waits for somebody else to figure everything out is an artist who is not going to make it. At no time when I was working with von Stade or Ramey or Malfitano or Battle was I dealing with people who didn’t have their own ideas. Renée Fleming had her own ideas. Susan Graham certainly did. You have to be chairman of your own board.” - Matthew Epstein (in an interview with Tim Page)
What if your situation is like the aforementioned singer who has finished grad school, is about to finish grad school, or has spent time in a top-tier YAP? What is needed to make it to the next level? Dona D. Vaughn, who served from 1998-2009 as the Stage Director/Acting Coach for The Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program suggests, “They must have some roles prepared to be hirable. A background of performing experience. Scene work. The ability to read music. Languages. Everyone in my classes must give me the English monologue equivalent of the aria and attach themselves emotionally to the character. What are you saying, to whom, and why? Management is absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, that’s the way the business works. Get into a Young Artists’ program. Agents go to Young Artists’ programs and summer festivals.”¹
Vaughn lays out some necessary criteria for getting an agent’s attention. Managers are not looking to build a career from the ground up. You must present solid technique first and foremost. But, beyond that there must be a level of professionalism, interpretation, acting skills, and personality. Also remember that a manager can only sell what is marketable. You must show them that you already have a budding career, even if it is a small one. Their goal is to scale-up your business so that they can take a paycheck home. They would not be doing their due diligence as a business person if they try to scale up your business without you being ready.
So, how do you get ready? I’m glad you asked. Knowledge is power, my little chickadees, and that means we do more research. Do you have friends or colleagues that work with an agent? Mine their online presence for information that will set your parameters. Reading the bios of other singers is highly informative. A) It will inspire you to better write your own bio. B) They are laying out their credits which helped them catch the eye of their current managers. Where are the managed singers in your fach singing and how often? Does your experience mirror theirs? If not, you may want to consider doing more open auditions and getting more experience – always trying to work into bigger houses. Also be detail-aware of the agency. You should find out how many singers they have on their roster. Determine the percentage of singers versus conductors, instrumentalists, directors, and even designers. If you are a singer previously without an agent, you will likely begin with a singer-heavy agency or a singer-only division of a larger agency. After agreeing to work with a manager, you are not off the hook. You must continue to pursue opportunities and work together. You can only benefit from elbow grease you expend on your career.
Just because your aunt has been goading you since high school about the need for an agent, do not believe that any manager is a good manager. A bad manager can wreak havoc with your career if they have a bad reputation with opera companies. While Michael Ching was the Artistic Director for Opera Memphis he wrote,”What happens when you have a bad, inexperienced, poorly networked agent is that somebody like me gets sent a large pile of resumes from singers with very little to offer. They appear to be making the agent money through retainers, not commissions. Even if you are a rose among thorns, you are very likely to get overlooked as I disgustedly throw the pile in the garbage after seeing that the agent has made very poor casting recommendations.” Know your value as an artist to not sell the farm to the first bidder.
“The training system is so good in the States,” she finally says. “It’s almost too good. There’s a very high standard of what’s expected, language-wise and technique-wise and all of that. However, what I see is the temptation for students to regurgitate what they’ve been told. They don’t know that they need to find out what’s unique about them, to do it their way. There needs to be a campaign put on not just perfect singing but expression. The technique has to be there — you have to have the ABC lined up. But that’s not the result you want.” For her, it all comes back to the ability to do the work. “There was no guarantee it was going to pay off,” she says. “But if there was a chance, I had to do the work. I wasn’t spoon-fed by anybody. No manager discovered me early on and walked me through the ropes. A lot of luck has come my way. But I really feel like, at the end of the day, I walked out there saying, ‘ I have to make this happen.’” - Joyce DiDonato (auth. Brian Kellow
If you have done all your research and you realize, Yes!, your experience does mirror those who are on the rosters it is time to approach. Managers are also not some very frightening entity, as they are sometimes portrayed. If you have been following the Day 20 advice, Win a Competition, it is also likely that an agent has contacted you. The most important step is to find an artist-agent relationship that is right for you right now. If you have not been approached and you would like to test the waters with management, Cindy Sadler has some fantastic advice (as usual):
“Write a terrific cover letter, including references, quotes from reviews, or mentions of your upcoming engagements. Keep it professional and brief, and ask for an audition. Send it along with your one-page resume, brief bio, headshot, and page of reviews. If you have a demo CD, mention that it is available on request but don’t send it unsolicited. If you have an upcoming performance that might interest a manager, include two tickets or mention that you will leave them under his name at the box office… You can choose to follow-up first with email or a fax, checking to see if your materials arrived, if anything further is required, and if they’d like to hear your CD. Email and faxes are less intrusive to a person’s workday than phone calls, which require immediate personal attention. You may be more likely to get a response with an email or fax, especially if you state in the communication that you will be calling the office in the next few days to make an appointment. If you don’t get a response, then you must call.”²
Divas, do not be too worried in your early career about having a manager find you. Be your own CEO and work hard at your small business. We have so many tools and resources to be our own agents at the moment. When the time is right, the opportunities to scale up will usually present themselves. This does not mean that you cannot give a little push when you feel the time is right. However, you must do the leg-work to know where you stand in the field. Do you look like a strong business decision? Many agencies pride themselves on providing top-notch strategic planning, promotion, and individualized attention. Try giving your career more attention than that before asking someone else to do it and you might find that you will start operating on the next level.