Stephen Wade spent part of December accompanying one of his artists, electronic music trio RÜFÜS DU SOL, on their record-breaking Australian run. Sitting in the Sydney offices of Select Music – the booking agency he co-founded in 2005 – a few days after the tour wrapped in Perth, he’s still buzzing.
“The last month of being at these RÜFÜS shows was just really uplifting for my spirit and for everybody involved,” he offers. “Sold out shows, happy crowds, the best people on the crew [and] everyone working behind the scenes, seeing positivity, money flowing through the industry, and realizing that we love doing that.
“The more people go to those shows and go to festivals and have a great time," he adds, "that COVID period becomes a little less relevant in our brains and a little less traumatic.”
Here, Wade discusses his booking strategy coming out of the COVID lockdowns, ticketing trends in 2023 and preserving the mental health of his artists. But he begins by reflecting on the RÜFÜS DU SOL run…
You booked multiple dates at big outdoor venues like the Domain in Sydney and Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne for RÜFÜS DU SOL. As a booking agent how do you know your act is ready to go to that level?
It really comes down to experience. There are patterns and different markers that, as you're going along, give you a fairly good gauge. Our previous tour, we'd probably sold about 24,000 tickets in Melbourne, for example. So we knew that we were good for one of those larger type venues. But the new album [2021’s Surrender] was just so successful that it drove a much bigger volume of people through and we ended up selling 156,000 tickets.
Is there anything to that success beyond the legwork that's been done throughout their career? And the success of the album?
The management, the team, the boys in RÜFÜS DU SOL. They always had a vision of what they wanted to be. They’re in the RÜFÜS DU SOL business, not the music business. There’s no one who does what they do. There might be acts since that have fallen into the same kind of genres and demographics, but they've created a following of people that are so connected to them that it defies logic.
There's no commercial hit single. There's none of those markers that you would normally associate with a band selling that many tickets. It's evidenced by one of their biggest songs being a nine-minute epic, “Innerbloom”.
Have you seen them do anything specific to build that fan loyalty?
They’ve never wavered from who they are. They always put their money into the show. Back when they were doing Enmore size venues [2500 capacity], there was no one putting more effort that I saw in Australia into the lighting, into the performance, into the presentation of the show. And as they've grown, and the team has grown around them, they've stayed committed to those same principles.
So, there's a great consistency to what they do. And I think there's just a joy to their music. You make that many people happy every time they come and see you, I think that's probably their biggest weapon – word of mouth.
"You make that many people happy every time they come and see you, I think that's probably their biggest weapon – word of mouth."
In general, what was your booking strategy coming out of the COVID lockdowns?
The first thing that we had to deal with realistically was just getting back into a rhythm of touring.
Before COVID, everyone in the industry hummed along to a rhythm. You were so in touch with ticket patterns, and you could see the growth in an artist, and you could use that trajectory and look for moments for a year ahead, 18 months, six months, when you were in the planning stages.
You would plan your strategy and look for a momentum spike that would further accelerate your opportunity to have more people in front of you the next time you do a show. We were able to really understand those ticketing patterns, there was a real rhythm to them.
Most importantly, the punter was in a rhythm. So if one of their favourite artists put up a tour, they came bang out of the gates and bought their ticket, because you don't want to miss out.
COVID wiped all those rhythms out. So how I felt my way through it was to come back into the marketplace, not as big as we were, so that we weren't just assuming that everybody who was there before COVID is still there for us. And taking a little bit less risk.
"COVID wiped all those rhythms out."
But I still came back with those principles of wanting to do headline shows, and to see how much of our audience was still there. If I had placed our acts with other acts or groups of acts, or double bills or only on festivals, it would further extend that period of not knowing how many people we lost or gained during the two years of COVID inactivity.
So that's been a really good kind of scenario for me and my artists and the managers. Because where we have done tours, [on some shows where] we didn't think we'd do 800 people, we did 1000, which was amazing. Or we thought we'd do 1000 and we did 700, which is still pretty good. We didn't have any where we thought, we're gonna do 1000 and we did 200.
So more keeping to the traditional kind of strategies and patterns that I would do, just to find our feet. And then we move forward going into 2023.
When you book a tour you're using multiple ticketing outlets across different venues. What are the biggest issues with that, and solutions?
The biggest issue is consistency, they all do it differently. Some can turn around shows very quickly when we need to get them up on sale, others have a bit more of a struggle doing that. We might have 20 dates on an Australian tour, and it's spread across four or five ticketing companies, but we can't get them all up at the same time. So it's a little bit fragmented in that regard.
As far as what can you do about any of those things in ticketing? Absolutely nothing. They're all individual businesses with their own ways of doing things, and you just have to understand how they do things, and work within those parameters.
Are you seeing any particular trends in ticket-buying at the moment?
We’re seeing less people buying them at the beginning, unless you are a super-hot ticket – if Taylor Swift went on sale, or Harry Styles. But that tier below, you're not getting that pick up early as much as you did.
And there is a larger portion of people buying tickets in the last week of shows. And I believe that will change as we get into ’23, and we get further away from COVID.
"There is a larger portion of people buying tickets in the last week of shows. And I believe that will change as we get into ’23..."
How does an artist’s mental health influence your booking strategy?
It's the number one consideration for Select Music as an agency. Our industry is well documented with its issues with public health.
I've worked in the industry for 30 years, I've had two serious bouts of bad mental health, built around anxiety, panic attacks, depression – very big struggles. Most of the people I know in this industry have had poor mental health and have had to deal with the fallout of that.
So a lot of the times it does get centered or factored on the artists themselves. I take a bigger approach, that it's a whole industry wide thing that no one can or should be available 24/7 for any reason. Even though our artists do their work in the night, the majority of us – managers, agents, promoters – do all of our work in the day, Monday to Friday, like an office job. But then we're out sometimes two, three, four nights. And that can be pretty debilitating, if you don't know how to look after yourself.
So we aim to plan for no longer than a three-hour drive between shows for our artists. When I played in bands 30 odd years ago, we would drive 17 hours to get to a show. There was no issue back then, no one cared. No one talked about it, everyone did it. You just had to get there, do the gig and perform and move on.
If the one thing that I can hang my hat on when I leave this industry is that maybe we've had more conversations and it's a better place to work in for your mental health, then I'd feel really good about myself.
"When we first meet with young artists, and we're going to be representing them, we spend a good bit of time talking about the actuality of the music industry, and the pressures that you can find yourself under and the temptations."
Beyond the length of the drives, are there other things that you take into account?
When we first meet with young artists, and we're going to be representing them, we spend a good bit of time talking about the actuality of the music industry, and the pressures that you can find yourself under and the temptations.
You’re on the road, it's a little bit like Peter Pan in that you're in Neverland, and you're not working nine to five, and there's no boundaries and you're surrounded by alcohol. And there's a drug culture as well. And you're a creative mind, and it can easily go off course.
So, getting that into people's heads really early, and explaining to creatives and young creatives that you're putting yourself out into the world, you're going to be criticized, and you may not be prepared for that public scrutiny.
So we think it's incredibly important to talk up the reasons why you got into music, which is to create and share your creative passions. But you've also got to realize that the second you put it out there, it's not yours anymore. We have to work with artists through their careers, the highs and lows, and we have to continually encourage them that their journey should still be as it was when they were putting out music for the first time.
They’re conversations that probably wouldn't have been had 20 years ago, but they're forefront for us now. People realize that if they're struggling mentally, or if they're feeling uncomfortable, or they're feeling burnt out, they need to tell us straight away and we work with them to help them get through the next phase.