Working for a Living
Drummer Turned Booking Agent, Davis McLarty
photographs by Todd V. Wolfson
Austin plays host to as many music conspiracy theories as it does guitar players, but this one's pretty intriguing: Local booking agent Davis McLarty moonlights as the music listings editor at both the Chronicle and XL-ent, using his editorial power to dole out gigs to acts he represents. The clubs don't even know his bands are playing there until they open up the listings every Thursday. Nice scam -- if it were true. Fortunately, it's not, but because the Davis McLarty Agency books 13 local artists -- from Kelly Willis and Ta Mère to Reckless Kelly and Darden Smith -- McLarty can indeed be relied upon as Austin's single biggest source for listings content. Even more impressive than McLarty's star-studded roster is the fact that his agency has only been operating as a full-time venture for less than a year. To most local music industry veterans this is old news, but there's an entire legion of Joe Ely fans who would never put McLarty's name with the face -- the sweaty face that's rocked behind Austin's singing-songwriting fireplug for the better part of the last decade. McLarty says that while the headaches of balancing two careers have finally forced his hand into the booking business full time, he also contends the reputation he built touring with Ely (1986-1996) hasn't hurt his efforts this year in bulking up his agency's local talent roster.
"Sure, being a musician helped," says McLarty. "Most agents don't have such a great reputation... they're such liars. So not only can I relate to most musicians as artists, they also know I'm not out to bullshit them as a businessman. And it's hard to get an agent. It's even harder than getting a record deal. Yet a lot of the artists I work with had been with major agencies before and hadn't been priorities. Now, they'd rather have the attention of a smaller company. For me to book someone a $2,500 date is a big deal, but unless you're making $2,000-$3,000 on every gig, you're nothing to a major agency. They don't care, they have 200 artists."
If McLarty's roster of 13 local acts is still a long way from 200 clients, it nonetheless makes McLarty's enterprise Austin's biggest booking agency -- in a town notorious for its lack of music industry infrastructure. Generally, small agencies like McLarty's tend to specialize in genre-specific musical acts (country, alternative, etc.), because dealing with a corresponding set of specialized clubs makes repeat bookings much easier. From the looks of McLarty's current roster, however, Emo's may be the only major club in town his clientele doesn't generally fit.
While longtime clients like Doyle Bramhall and Lou Ann Barton fit nicely into the blues circuit, the rooms played by agency artists like the Bad Livers, Darden Smith, Sara Hickman, Terry Allen, and Jo Carol Pierce are a bit less defined. And for real diversity, take a look at the four recent additions to what McLarty calls his "Class of 98/99": Ana Egge, Jon Dee Graham, Reckless Kelly, and Ta Mère.
"I have the luxury of only working with artists I like and believe in," says McLarty. "Otherwise, I'd be booking everyone. Even for the artists you love, selling shows gets really tedious and tired, so it's much more trouble than it's worth working with artists you don't like or a band that has a prick for bandleader or a jerk for a manager.
"But the approach of similar bands that play similar rooms just doesn't work for me, because I like Terry Allen, I like Kelly Willis, and I like David Garza. They're all different, so I'm all over the place. And it ultimately makes my job harder and more daunting, because I'm not going to the same venues in each town. It's always an uphill battle."
Like Ely and Allen, McLarty, 43, is a Lubbock native who chose music as a career early on, and was "always trying to figure out a way to get down to Austin to make it happen." In 1984, after brief stops in Denver and Albuquerque, McLarty convinced his band the Planets that they needed to start over in Austin. "We moved and immediately broke up," he says. "By that time, I hated everyone in it anyway. We'd been together seven years, and I'd done all the booking and management, so I was more than ready for it to end."
Almost as immediately, McLarty fell into part-time work as an agent for Rock Arts, local manager Joe Priesnitz's mid-Eighties music business conglomerate. McLarty started booking Eric Johnson, Barton, and Pressure, but quickly turned his attention towards Ely's booking after Ely called in 1985 looking for help finding Texas dates. "Joe had this weird, tiered deal with a major agency that for some reason allowed him to handle his own stuff in Texas," says McLarty, who knew Ely from Lubbock.
A year later, bassist Roscoe Beck and guitarist Mitch Watkins left Ely's touring outfit, as did drummer Steve Medder. During a conversation about booking, McLarty agreed to fill in for Medder until Ely could find a replacement, and it wasn't long before McLarty became his own agency's client -- both booking and performing with Ely.
"Joe Priesnitz made it easy for me, because he knew I'd be in some days and traveling others," explains McLarty. "I'd found a real musician's job, and [the rest] was all telephone work. Even when I got on the road with Ely, as long as I returned calls it was okay. I was on the phone constantly, which was sort of a drag. I'd finish soundcheck and run back to the hotel to check messages. It got kind of hectic, but never out of control."
Maybe so, but McLarty also wasn't terribly disappointed when Ely signed a national booking deal in 1990.
"The new agency told Joe, `We can't leave your most lucrative market to Rock Arts. What are you, nuts?' By then, I'd heard, `Who booked this gig?' from the other guys so often I didn't mind much. It was a relief to finally not be responsible for booking the band I was performing in. All along there was a certain anxiety when things weren't going well. Did we sell enough tickets to make the guarantee? Did I work out the right back end? That shit floating around in your brain is not good onstage. That's the rare case where I was relieved to lose an account."
Although McLarty continued to play with Ely until last year -- alongside a less demanding schedule of gigs with Terry Allen and the Boozeweasels -- Rock Art's closure in 1993 left McLarty in a precarious position career-wise. Rather than find additional work as a drummer to make up the difference, McLarty opted to book two of his Rock Arts clients, David Garza and Mason Ruffner, from his home. A year later, Sara Hickman and Kelly Willis joined the homespun Davis McLarty Agency as well.
"I had to make a living [since] playing with Ely was, in essence, a part-time job," says McLarty plainly. "I had these skills, and I thought, why don't I create my own business, be my own boss, and see what happens there. I never knew anyway, because Joe is a wild guy. It wouldn't have surprised me if Joe came in one day to tell me he'd bought some land, moved to Taos, and was going to live in an Airstream to write songs instead of touring. I never really depended on or looked to Joe Ely to pay for my retirement. And in a way, I just really liked the idea of working with artists that I believed in. I was flattered when somebody like Sara Hickman or Kelly Willis called me up. I said, `You want to trust me with your career? And I can make a commission off your dates?'
"I was as surprised as anybody."
For somebody splitting his time as evenly as McLarty, the question then becomes whether he ultimately began considering himself a better drummer or booking agent. "I'm pretty good at both and not great at either one," he answers diplomatically. "That's what I realized and why I had to leave Joe's band last year. I'm trying to really focus on becoming a great agent. If I was producing a record around town, I wouldn't hire myself to play drums. There are like five other guys I'd call first.
"But I'm good at booking, because I'm good at delivering an artist the facts. That's one thing I like about booking. It's pretty cut-and-dry: `This is the gig, this is the money, these are the hours. Do you want it or not?' If they say, `Yes,' you confirm it with the buyer and issue the contract. Then it's the bandleader or the manager that have to take care of advancing the date and coordinating with the record company. The only problem is that more than half of my artists don't have managers, so I do a lot of that myself anyway."
On the other hand, McLarty says finding national touring opportunities for Austin artists, and just as importantly, making money from them, isn't really all that cut-and-dry. By his own admission, McLarty's only client that can cover the entire country with relatively few low-paying "connection" dates are the Bad Livers -- a band that's toured so long and hard that they have developed a fairly regular circuit of clubs willing to buy shows as often as they'll appear. Otherwise, McLarty has to plow through what he calls a "shell game" that involves making offers and routing tours around the first promoters that agree to host dates. As such, McLarty's become a big proponent of regional opportunities.
"The reality is that Jon Dee Graham doesn't mean a whole lot out there nationwide yet, and that for as successful as Kelly Willis is, there are places she has trouble going," says McLarty. "But I also like to consider Texas a nation in itself. There's 18 million people here and I'm always telling the Reckless Kelly's and Ta Mère's about the regional opportunities. David [Garza] did this great. He built up the regional thing. He could play Waco, Denton, San Antonio, San Marcos, Houston, College Station, Lubbock, and El Paso and make a living off that alone.
"That's basically my M.O. with every artist -- to get the ball rolling regionally first."
In theory, enough repeat visits to any one city should draw a crowd. The larger problem, however -- even for an agency whose bands have already established a regional circuit -- lies in convincing new clubs in new cities that they should gamble on booking an unproven commodity a smaller agency like McLarty's is selling.
"My standing joke when I'm working with a new band is, `Look I don't have any leverage,'" he says. "I can't call Minneapolis and say, `If you don't take this artist, I'll give you this other artist -- one you don't want anyway.' So I just tell [my clients] it all depends on my bullshit, their label, and the quality of their act. I'm always telling bands every town has tons of bands that will play for $200 a night and do decent business for the club. Why should they give them that slot unless there's some kind of buzz? And I don't want to put bands on the road just so they can starve."
It's McLarty's belief that by quitting the Ely gig and by concentrating more time on the agency, he will be increasing the chances that one of his artists blossoms into a legitimate piece of leverage. Today, the relative success of Abra Moore would make her bookings a leverage opportunity, only McLarty let her go almost two years ago when he left town for a European Ely tour.
"In the beginning, I was relatively comfortable telling artists this is the best I can do... I'm going to be on the road for "X" amount of days staying on top of things, but I'm not going to be here 10 hours a day, five days a week making the calls," McLarty says. "Believe me, I hated the fact that I had to let both Charlie Robison and Abra go because I couldn't commit. Now, Abra's selling records. But at the time, I couldn't look her in the face and tell her I could handle her stuff knowing I'd be in and out of town."
If Moore is the one who got away, then David Garza and Jack Ingram are the ones that went away. McLarty booked Ingram for two years and Garza for five before both left the agency for opportunities with larger national agencies. Although it's not at all uncommon for young artists with an emerging national buzz to allow their labels to find either new managers or booking agencies, for McLarty, both departures forever changed the way he handles his business.
"What the whole thing boils down to with Jack and David is that they kind of sobered me up. Now that I've left the Ely band, it's not like, `I'm the part-timer, I'll do the best I can.' That's why I could rationalize saying, `Okay, I'm not going to stand in anybody's way if they want to leave.'
"But my deal is much different now. If these developing bands come to me and ask me to believe in them and book them, then they have to believe in me and this agency. They've got to sign a contract that makes them wait it out. If they want me to book all their $100 dates and be calling all over the country developing this, they can't just walk away when radio hits."
Currently, McLarty says his agency's norm is a three-year deal. That kind of commitment is a far cry from his deal with Ingram, who had a handshake deal, and Garza, who had a contract that gave him a rather blatant out. "It said if he got promised the moon by a big shit, major label agency I'd let him go," says McLarty. "So I did." McLarty says he bears no ill will towards either artist -- no hard feelings -- crediting them instead with forcing him to re-evaluate the way he looks at his growing business venture.
"I now look at my agency as a AAA ball team, to use a baseball analogy," he says. "But I have to figure out how to make it a major-league team -- signing players and letting the ones that hit bring it up. I never want to stand in anybody's way, and anybody that's legitimately unhappy isn't somebody I want to work with. But I've invested a lot of time and if I knew these artists were going to drop me as soon as they get the call from the majors, I'd rather be developing someone I have a chance to hang on to. It's just too much time and work to develop someone only to find you've been doing a large agency's grunt work for them."
In the meantime, McLarty says he's concentrating on grooming the roster he has, and carefully adding clients as time permits. And while his agency appears to be growing, especially after the Class of 1997's four new additions, since quitting Ely's band, McLarty has actually scaled down his operation. Whereas last year he employed two part-time employees for contract administration and general office assistance, his one employee now doubles as his wife, Kay Colvin.
"There are not many agencies in Austin because it's very hard to make any money," says McLarty. "And now that I'm off the road, I don`t have an employee, partially because Kay can do it, and partially because I don't have that Ely income. But we realized if we can make it a mom-and-pop for now, we'll eventually be able to get the money up to enable us to find another agent, a full-time contract person, and eventually an office for the agency outside the house. In our minds, we're scaling down to move up."
Although he admits that the move upwards may be just as much of an uphill battle as booking a full-fledged well-paying national tour for some of his younger clients, McLarty also says the ultimate payoff in what he does is that exclusive booking affords him more time with his wife and young daughter, Grace.
"There was a point just a few years ago where I flirted with giving booking up in favor of artist management," says McLarty. "But I wanted to have my weekends. I wanted to work 10-6 and be able to go downstairs to read The Cat in the Hat with Grace.
"Management is such a thankless, godless job and unless your artist is making a ton of money, you don't get paid. Plus, I'm pretty good at this. Why wouldn't I concentrate on becoming great? And more than anything, I like it. It makes me feel really good to call Kelly and say you're on a week's worth of Lilith dates or to call Sara and go, `You got Nanci Griffith's entire U.S. tour.' It makes me a hero to them, because I believe in their music and have pulled off something good for them.
|Editor's note: In the print version of this article, Davis McLarty's wife, Kay Colvin, was incorrectly identified as Kate McLarty. The Chronicle regrets the error.
The Davis McLarty Agency can be reached at 444-8750 or via the Internet at http://www.davismclarty.com