Laura Thomas Dishes Combo Plate Booking

A socially conscious booking agent

Fifteen years ago, Laura Thomas left her job in hospice care to start Combo Plate Booking. Since then, her chief passions – music, tea, and travel – have defined the Austin native. Longest client Michael Fracasso anchors a local roster that includes Matt the Electrician, Betty Soo, Curtis McMurtry, Beaver Nelson, and Nathan Hamilton.

Three for the road: Laura Thomas, center, with clients BettySoo and Curtis McMurtry (Photo by Tiffany Walker)

Born to the live music capital, Thomas began her life path early, playing clarinet at Crocket High School.

”I used to volunteer at Aqua Fest when I was a teen,” she laughs.

Separating Thomas from the pack is her devotion to the charitable aspects of music. Since 2001, she’s booked a series at Carita’s Soup Kitchen. Her anniversary party tomorrow at Maria’s Taco Xpress doubles as a canned food drive, one sponsored by Austin’s new International Folk Alliance Gaslight Troubadour Series.

Headliners for Combo Plate’s 15th Anniversary Party – Saturday, Aug. 9, 6-9pm – include Michael Fracasso, Nathan Hamilton, and Beaver Nelson.

Austin Chronicle: Describe the bridge between social worker and booking agent.

Laura Thomas: Social work and booking use the same skills: good communication, orientation to details, empathy, and good information gathering. Because of this, it didn’t seem like too much of a stretch to me. My overall goal is create and nurture community.

AC: How’d you come up with name, Combo Plate?

LT: I was just starting my business, and I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be an agent, manager, or both. It was suggested that maybe I could do a little of several things, kind of like a combo plate.

AC: What do you like most about booking?

LT: It’s fulfilling to me when I make genuine connections with people, both artists and presenters alike. For me, booking is most pleasurable when I get one of the artists I’m working with a great gig, either in a room they’ve been really, really wanting to play or maybe opening for a big name act. And I get to work from home.

AC: In 15 years what’s changed the most about booking?

LT: I do more work by email, less on the phone. I mail less promo that I used to. And venues are offering more door deals versus guarantees plus back end.

AC: How would you say Austin’s changed in the last 15 years?

LT: As a native, Austin is crazy different – more people, more money, more restaurants, more traffic, more high rises, and lots and lots of development. It does seem sad that for a town with such an image of supporting the arts that artists can’t even afford to live here.

AC: How has social media changed what you do?

LT: Social media has actually given me a lot more work. I feel like I have to post everything everywhere. And honestly, it’s kind of distracting and far too time consuming. I’ve always understood the news feed function of Twitter and have been on it for years, but Facebook was something I was trying to avoid. Eventually I was forced to sign up because some venues only have a Facebook presence.

AC: What do you think the biggest challenges of the business are?

LT: Staying relevant and trying to help my musicians make a living with their art. That’s really, really hard.

AC: A lot of artists are playing more and more house concerts, and loving it. Have you seen an dramatic increase in house concerts?

LT: House concerts have always been a part of the shows I book since my roster is singer-songwriter focused. I guess maybe I have seen a slight increase in organic and informal house concerts, and they do seem to be becoming more important on each tour, oftentimes being the anchor date on a tour.

AC: What do you think makes an artist most bookable?

LT: An artist with buzz. I feel as an agent, I can’t create buzz. I just respond to it. If an artist has a buzz, then people call me – and I love that!

AC: What part of the job is a drag?

LT: The volumes of email, especially when they are unanswered. Unanswered inquiries, phone calls, or emails are the absolute worst. Personally I find that unbelievably rude.

AC: In that same vein, what makes an artist easy to work with? What makes an artist difficult?

LT: First and foremost I have to love their music, and I have to like them as a person. Next, good communicators and artists with a career plan are great to work with. I find it really difficult to work with artists who have unrealistic perceptions of where they are in their career.

AC: What advice would you give to bands?

LT Stay professional. Always. Play every show like you’re playing in front of a huge crowd even it it’s not.  Treat people the way you want to be treated. Be realistic. Booking agents aren’t miracle workers. Just because you have an agent, it doesn’t mean they can book you at the ACL festival.  Most agents are going to want you to have some solid tour history before they can work with you.

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Laura Thomas, Nathan Hamilton, Beaver Nelson, Curtis McMurtry, Betty Soo, Matt the Electrician, International Alliance Gaslight Troubadour Series

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