Some professions offer no easy or obvious entry point for pursuing a career in the field. If you wanted to be a booking agent for bands, for example, how would you proceed? Are there colleges or other schools that offer courses in this? The answer is not many, and those that do are no substitute for real experience. The way to learn the music business is to jump in and do it by trial and error.
Just ask Nancy Lewis-Pegel of Brilliant Productions, who left a full-time job in Atlanta’s busy post-production industry to pursue her dream of working with the music and musicians she loved.
Lewis-Pegel officially launched her one-woman operation in 2003, after having dabbled in musical bookings in her spare time since 1997, when she traveled to England and met British singer-songwriter Dave Sutherland through a friend, musician Bill Fleming. Sutherland wanted to broaden his exposure with an American tour, and Lewis-Pegel jumped at the chance, not realizing the many obstacles she would encounter. In some ways her naiveté may have helped, because she didn’t know any better. For example, she didn’t realize that a musical act unknown in this country couldn’t get a booking in New York City. But she managed to put together a successful tour for Sutherland along the Eastern seaboard. Looking back, she says, “If you have the energy to make something happen, you’d be surprised what you can do.”
Among the acts she has represented over the years are popular roots-music band Delta Moon and Atlanta-based Col. Bruce Hampton, an eccentric pop visionary whose cult following extends far beyond the borders of Georgia. Currently she represents Australian guitarist Geoff Achison, drummer Yonrico Scott (now touring with Royal Southern Brotherhood), raucous rocker Webb Wilder, guitar-playing duo Peter Karp and Sue Foley, and Randall Bramblett, a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist bandleader (guitar, saxophones, keyboards and harmonica) who’s been called “one of the South’s most lyrical and literate songwriters” by Rolling Stone.
ArtsATL interviewed Lewis-Pegel at her home in Decatur, where she lives with her husband Rob. While she addresses the pros and cons of being a talent booker and the unpredictable nature of the musical world, it’s her love for music that resonates.
ArtsATL: How would you define your profession?
Nancy Lewis-Pegel: It started as a booking agent and still is. It’s the most important person to a musician, the booking agent. The one who gets the gigs. And as time passed, I learned management, radio promotion, the whole bit, because they [bands] don’t have anybody else. And I do different things for different groups. Some I just manage; some I just book. Some I do part-time publicity, marketing, the whole social media. Keeping your name out there. Keeping the interest high.
ArtsATL: When you first started, were you making cold calls to clubs?
Lewis-Pegel: Yep. We didn’t even hardly have the Internet. At that point you waited until Musician magazine came out with their quarterly issue and a listing of all the clubs with the phone numbers and the genres they accepted and the times for business calls. And then you would call and call and call. I had email, of course, but not a lot of people did then. And you didn’t have electronic press kits to send out.
ArtsATL: How do you determine what to charge for bands — trial and error?
Lewis-Pegel: Yes. And it used to be — and this is what has changed — there were more clubs in 1997 that would pay you money to go in and play. They wouldn’t charge a cover. I remember getting $500 a night for a band to play in Key West in the ‘80’s, $500 a night, rooms provided. This was for a Grateful Dead cover band. Today, you are lucky if you get $500 guaranteed for a gig. Even for established artists. There’s been no growth. You know, recording studios, their fees have tripled since the ‘80s. And all the things that go with it — pressing your CDs, the press kits, publicists, the whole bit, everything has gone up. But not musician pay. It’s gone down.
ArtsATL: Who were the musical acts you represented in the beginning?
Lewis-Pegel: Dave Sutherland was the first, and then I added Geoff Achison [from Australia]. I soon realized that I would not take on another foreign act again, because it’s too hard. America has its own rules, and you’ve gotta keep hitting the circuit. If you don’t, we forget all about you.
With Geoff, we definitely got a lot of traction, but even so it’s still difficult. He’s got to make the commitment, which he has, to keep coming. It’s been one or two tours a year. He will come over and spend maybe four to eight weeks in the country. He’s coming again at the end of August through September.
ArtsATL: How did your relationship with Webb Wilder begin?
Lewis-Pegel: The record label Landslide Records. I started helping them on publicity. Michael Rothschild [Landslide’s founder] lived in Atlanta and he knew I did publicity and he asked me for help with certain projects. He kept saying, “Webb Wilder, he’d be really great on your roster.” I had not heard of him, and I cannot believe I did not know. He had done some short films as well, and that’s what hooked me.
Now it’s the next phase of his career, after the major-label days. But the band is hot and he lives in Nashville. That’s been a whole lot of fun. He still records with Landslide and was on Blind Pig Records for a few years. Landslide has now moved to Florida, the Jacksonville area.
Michael has always had his finger on the pulse of what is going to be huge. He released Widespread Panic. He did Derek Trucks’ first CD. He did Col. Bruce Hampton way back when he was with the Late Bronze Age. And Sean Costello and Tinsley Ellis.
Lewis-Pegel: He was the drummer for the Derek Trucks Band for 16 years, until that transformed into the Tedeschi-Trucks Band where they combined the two bands. Yonrico’s got his own band, with a new CD, which is really good and much more jazzy. He’s played with Stevie Wonder, a lot of the Motown people, most rock and jazz legends. But drummers have a hard time being the frontman in a band, or at least being known as the frontman. Yonrico is Atlanta-based, and now he’s in the Royal Southern Brotherhood. It’s Cyril Neville, Devon Allman (Gregg’s son) and Mike Zito from St. Louis. Those three are the main frontmen, with Yonrico on drums and bassist Charlie Wooton from Zydefunk. They were up for a Grammy this year.
ArtsATL: What about Randall Bramblett? When did you start booking him?
Lewis-Pegel: 2007. A mutual friend said, “You know, I think he would like some help in getting some more solo gigs,” because getting gigs for the band is hard. Without guarantees, how do you bring a five-piece band around the country? But to keep his name and music out there, we could do solo shows. So I was able to book some great shows. He just did Steve’s Live Music [in Sandy Springs] — sold out. He’s done a lot of work these past few years. That, combined with a stunning new CD, has made the band much more in demand. And it’s very satisfying to see him back on the charts again.
ArtsATL: Why has it taken so long for the rest of the country to finally catch up with Randall’s music?
Lewis-Pegel: It’s that genre thing. If you really want to hit the public, you have to go all out into a genre for the best chance at success. If you don’t have a clear identity, it’s a tougher road because, as Webb Wilder says, “you’ll be loved by dozens.” [Laughs.] You know, in any city in America you can probably find a dozen people who know and love your music. But is it enough to tour with? Most of my bands are just to the left of a genre, so I get the “well, they aren’t really blues, are they?” kind of answers from bookers.
ArtsATL: Is there any downtime during the year in terms of booking musicians?
Lewis-Pegel: Clubs will generally say they don’t do well in the summertime, but that’s because festivals are big in summertime. In fall in the South, you have to watch damn football! And you have the same problem with basketball in March. You can’t go up against these things. I’ve tried. You can’t. Sports rules. And in the South it rules hard. You can get away with it in the Northeast and the West; you cannot get away with it in the South. So you’re booking for festivals the previous winter. That’s when you go all out, making a million phone calls. I want festivals primarily, and then I fill in gigs around them.
ArtsATL: Are there many women doing what you’re doing?
Lewis-Pegel: It used to be all men, and that’s changing; as the money exits the field, the women enter. [Laughs.] There are more jobs available because right now there are not enough agents. I’m offering agent training because nobody can find an agent. It’s really, really dire right now. Mostly because there are only a few bands that can earn a sizable income on the road. You don’t get an agent when you first start out, and I think a lot of bands are clueless on that part. You have to have earned yourself the ability to have an agent.
ArtsATL: How has the digital age changed what you do?
Lewis-Pegel: I’m curious where everything is going, because the major labels are saying they are going to stop pressing CDs. Everything’s digital. On one hand, it’s going to save the artist a lot of money in manufacturing and shipping. But on the other hand, it’s going to be a sea change when that happens.
And the big deal is that artists sell merchandise at shows. It’s now a huge part of your income. The fans are respectful and they get it — that you’re supporting the artist. The fans want that CD, whether they want it as a souvenir or whatever. T-shirts do well too, but nothing sells as well as a CD, and they get to have it signed by the artist. Nothing replaces that. So far, I have not seen people taking to the digital cards, although that might be all there’s going to be in the future.
ArtsATL: What are the biggest challenges of your job?
Lewis-Pegel: Making enough money. Hoping that the venues will be there and keeping up with the ones that close and the new ones that open. It’s rapid. The Internet is my research. So I’ve got all my databases with the festivals and clubs in each city. If somebody is actively touring with a current CD, I might then compare that to radio airplay and what cities are getting heavier play.
House concerts are great. Those things have really filled the void, because it’s selfless. The house concert host says, “I usually get 30 to 50 people at my concerts and I pay $20 a person and it all goes to you.” Every once in a while they already have a PA system. So it’s a good payday and fun. And usually they buy more CDs than the average bar crowd. So it’s just win, win, win.
ArtsATL: As a huge music fan, who are some of your favorite musicians?
Lewis-Pegel: The Grateful Dead. I first heard the Grateful Dead in high school and flipped out. I just had no idea. My parents wouldn’t let me go see the Englishtown concert [in 1977] that was happening in New Jersey when I lived there, because they said I was too young. I’ve never forgotten that. [Laughs.] And of course it turned out to be a legendary show. I could have been there, but I saw a bunch of shows later.
People often make fun of the Dead, but they gave a business model to the music world. They did it intelligently, that whole bit about letting the live show go. Let your fans [record shows]. Let them trade it. Unless you’re a big pop artist who plays the exact same notes in the exact same order at shows, this is a good thing. Let folks get inspired by the shows and you might get more people.
But the Dead drew a really big red line for any fan who made any attempt to sell their recorded music. They weren’t fans of trading “American Beauty.” Buy “American Beauty.” And they’d go out into the parking lot at shows, and if vendors had copyright infringement on a T-shirt, they were shut down.
ArtsATL: What keeps you in the game?
Lewis-Pegel: It’s a calling, like so many jobs — the film industry, for example. So many of those things are a calling. You couldn’t be convinced to do them by the salary. I do it because I love music so much. When all things are working and you get to see your band play a full house and everybody is having a great time, there’s nothing better than that. And at festivals, getting to meet other bands that you love. When it’s working, it’s more fun than you’ll ever have at work.