It has to be a win-win situation…
Interview with Mike Drudge, bluegrass agent “Class Act Entertainment”
© Lilly Drumeva-O’Reilly.
On October 23rd 2013 I met with bluegrass agent Mike Drudge in his office on 3rd Avenue in Nashville. He works with some of the top bluegrass acts and has been in the business for many years. I have known Mike for a long time, but I never had a chance to talk to him in length. Here is part of what he shared with me during the interview:
Hello Mike! Thanks for your time. When did you hear bluegrass music first?
I heard it on the WSM radio in Indiana. My parents listened to it. I was exposed to Bill Monroe, Jim & Jesse, the Osborne Brothers. My brother, who is older than me went to a bluegrass festival and came home with a banjo. A couple of years later my mom and dad got me a guitar. I played electric bass for Jim & Jesse and sang harmony. I toured a lot for 4 years and played the Opry.
How did you become a booking agent?
Jim McReynolds did all the booking. He wanted me to take over. Eventually I ended up doing all of their bookings. When I left the band I started Class Act Entertainment. That was 20 years ago. The bluegrass industry relies on people they know and trust. So, being with Jim & Jesse opened many doors for me. I never considered myself a career musician. I thought I wasn’t good enough. I already had a circle of contacts and at the time there was a vacuum of agents representing bluegrass acts. So, upon encouragement of many people, I decided to start an agency and it took off very quickly. I booked Claire Lynch and the Lonesome River Band.
Who are some of the artists on your roster now?
Bluegrass wise: Balsam Range, the Box Cars, J D Crow, Bryan Sutton, the Whites, Chip Taylor. But we have also some Americana and gospel artists. We have about 8 to 10 artists, that’s the capacity. You have to leave also some headroom for opportunity. For example, when the Boxcars were formed, I got a phone call from Ron Stewart. He told me about this new band with him and Adam Steffy in it. I didn’t need to hear anymore.
What does an agent do exactly, how is your day?
Well, it’s a lot of phone and computer work. It changed since I started. You didn’t do so much email. It was faxing and phone. Going to shows in person more. Now it is mostly computer. Keeping up with Facebook and Twitter. I’m sending out 30 to 50 personal emails. I’m talking to 20-30 people on the phone. That’s my day.
How does an agent make money? Is it a percentage of the fees?
Yes. It’s a percentage of what the artist makes. The industry standard is 10 to 15%. If I book an act for $1000, I’m going to get a $100 or $150 for that.
Do you have a lot of “repeat business”?
Yes, especially in bluegrass. Artists get invited again each year. It is important for me to keep a positive dialog with the promoter. I am ethically and legally bound to represent the best interest of the artist. It’s kind of like a real estate transaction. When you sell your home you get a real estate agent. He is ethically bound to represent in an equal way the interests of the seller and the buyer. In the same way, I represent the interest of the artist. But if it is not a win-win situation between him and the festival, I won’t do it again. I want it to work for everyone.
How do you decide how much an artist is worth?
You feel your way into it. Most acts that come to us already have a tour history. It is directly linked to their ability to sell tickets.
How much time do you dedicate to each artist?
You have to imagine each artist as a plate on your finger. You have to keep them all spinning…
When is your busiest time?
September, October, November. That’s when most of the next year’s dates are booked.
Does your wife (Susan) help you?
Yes, that’s her desk. She does the accounting, deposits and itinerary. She logs into the system from home sometimes.
Do you book mostly festivals or do you organize your own concerts?
Both. Mostly festivals, but also art centers, theaters, coffee houses, clubs, fairs. The database is about 8000 contacts.
All of North America, United States and Canada. Some Asian countries and Europe, but not a lot.
What is your view on the future of bluegrass music? Is it going to grow or to shrink?
It’s not going to disappear. It is impossible. It may just sound a little bit different.
Are rock bands that use bluegrass instruments good for spreading the genre? I mean, acts like Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers?
Yes, definitely. When Nitty Gritty Dirt band recorded the “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” album, it opened a whole new audience to the music of Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe. Personally, I am for “Wide Open Bluegrass” and IBMA is heading in that direction. Generally, the festivals that are thriving are the ones that mix genres and offer a great variety of music.
What is the most exciting thing about bluegrass music?
It is participatory. You can learn a few chords and sing and be part of it. I also have a theory that this has threatened bluegrass. You can learn the three chords and go out on stage.
Bluegrass is original unplugged music.
Thanks Mike, hope to see you soon!