Be careful what you wish for.
“Our problem was we were with too big of an agent,” Tyrone Wells told Pollstar. “Our agent seemed to have graduated and was not concerned with the logistics, the right room, the right deals.”
Without going into too much detail, Wells has done the reverse of many artists: shifted from a big agency (one of the biggest) to a small one. And, he said, it has made all the difference. Sometimes people of Wells’ level do not get the attention desired on a roster that includes artists doing multimillion-dollar tours. He’s since joined Blackbird Artists Agency and is on the road year-round.
Wells, a singer/songwriter known for his engaging live show, has spent nine years building up his career from his base of Los Angeles. He would play everything from coffeehouses to funerals. Sometimes he would sing to couples on their anniversaries.
But someone with such a silky, soulful voice as Wells, whose original music has drawn critical acclaim, wasn’t going to remain a gun-for-hire forever. Right now, he says he and his band draw more than 1,000 in L.A., 700 in Spokane, 400 in San Diego and he’s quietly doubling room size in markets coast-to-coast.
Meanwhile, his music has been played on TV shows like “One Tree Hill” and “Rescue Me” and in movies. The recent single “Sink or Swim” was used to promo the sixth season of “Grey’s Anatomy.” Wells, who had been producing his own music before signing with Universal Records a few years ago, credits manager Tyler Bacon for getting his music on the small and big screens.
Wells has gotten to this place by, at one point or another, having to do it all himself. When he was languishing on the big agency’s roster, he didn’t wait around for return phone calls. Instead, he bought a table at the National Association of Campus Activities and did a showcase. He wound up booking 150 college shows on his own, becoming NACA’s most-booked artist in 2006.
Blackbird’s Brian Jonas said that’s exactly the kind of artist he likes on his roster.
“I like that they’ve booked their own shows because I think they appreciate what goes into the booking process a little more,” Jonas said. “Not just, ‘Here’s your whole tour’ – they’ve had some vested interest in booking their own shows so they appreciate what goes into putting them together.”
And Jonas noted that Wells recognizes his realistic draw and that’s what’s going to make him a career artist.
“Up until the summer of 2009 Tyrone had never had a larger tour support slot nor toured with any larger non-club act, so everything we have built to this point has been on a purely grassroots level,” Jonas said. “Just playing to 30, 40 people in a market one night and, three or four months later, playing to 60 people.”
But that’s not to say he doesn’t play to larger audiences. Jonas noted that Wells will play to “thousands of screaming 19-year-olds” at a college in addition to the intimate supper club filled with more mature listeners.
And Wells knows how to keep it in the budget.
“We’re still in a van,” Wells said. “I’ve decided I don’t want to graduate to a bus until it’s totally necessary. On the low end, it’s $1,000 to $1,500 daily for a bus. I’m trying to build a career here. And I want to take care of the band. I don’t want to jack up the expenses and come home with nothing.”
There’s something else he has done from time to time because of his experience with a big agency.
“Sometimes we’d get a guarantee that was in no way covered by ticket sales,” he said. “That would just drive me crazy – these people just lost a ton of money working with us. And I’m not interested in that. I’m one of the few guys out there who has given money back to the clubs – often – if I felt the guarantee was ridiculous.”
He said promoters told him that, in 20 years in the business, it was the first time anyone has ever given them money back.
“If traveling musicians are reading this, I think there’s some wisdom there,” he said. “I don’t think anybody would hold me to that if on a night we needed the money we kept it. We’re to a point now where, almost across the board, we’re making money everywhere. But when we were first starting out, some of those deal structures were off.”
Jonas was understanding.
“That’s who Tyrone is,” he said. “And I love him for those reasons but, from an agent’s perspective, I can see how it can be frustrating. But he’s the kind of guy who feels if he hasn’t earned the money, he’s not going to keep it.
“For me, being a younger agency, I think that attitude has fostered relationships with venues and promoters. And that’s why we’re in this business: to create relationships.”