One of the most renowned Dutch talent agencies in electronic music is Octopus Agents. They represent an impressive roster of international house and techno icons like Hunee, The Hacker, Donato Dozzy, I-F and San Proper. Octopus head honcho Dion Verbeek has been in the business for eight years now, and knows the industry like the back of his hand. He knows that being a facilitator is the most important task of any booker: “If you’d rather be in the spotlight, you should become an artist.”
The School of House: How did you get started?
Dion Verbeek: I started organizing parties in 2005. I was freelancing in B2B events for brands, but then my passion started to itch. In 2010, I started Octopus Agents, because I noticed most event organizers have a lot of knowledge of production and logistics, but artists were not represented very well. I came into contact with Serge from Clone and Marsel from Delsin. They were both looking for someone who could take care of bookings. I then merged their rosters. Before I knew it, I had an agency with forty names on the website.
TSOH: How did you take it from there?
DV: I quickly realized I had to take care of gigs and productions myself. Within half a year, I had an intern, who took care of sending out the contracts and invoices. It was more of a band-aid solution at first, through Excel. But within a year and a half, we grew to three people, simply because I still had that freelance thing for the business to business events still going. I was making enough with that to be able to do this as a fun thing on the side. As soon as I could live off the bookings – even though it was only a fifth of what I was making with the other stuff – I continued with Octopus. Even though it hadn’t been my intention in the beginning.
TSOH: Hadn’t been your intention?
DV: Well, I never intended to start a company contracting ten people at the same time. You suddenly have to worry about things like the work atmosphere, keeping employees happy instead of focusing on content-related issues and evolving artist careers.
TSOH: What was your vision when you started Octopus?
DV: At the time, I believed that artists like for example I-F and Legowelt could be appealing for a much wider audience than they were actually doing at the time. At first, we were regarded as the heads, the niche guys. That has definitely changed, people have more of an understanding of what we’re trying to do. We still work with people who are close to our hearts, but also people we see are trying to develop themselves. We are also trying to bring more niche names to a larger audience. Thanks to platforms like Dekmantel and Trouw, this sound has gained a much wider appeal. These days, I’ll run into my sister at festivals, even though she has no idea who’s playing there.
TSOH: You run a management as well as a booking agency. What’s the difference, and isn’t it somewhat of a grey area?
DV: Well, you definitely have a point there: it is kind of a grey area. Management is taking it one step further, you really have to breathe what an artist represents. And as a booker, you’re a bit closer to the heat. You’re busy generating business for artists, but also taking care of the career planning: registering with the Buma/Stemra, developing products with a brand, label management; an agent has nothing to do with that. And as an agent, you’re mostly involved in PR. But I must say, both management and bookings agency are based around shows, because that’s how artists generate the most income these days.
TSOH: What are the qualities you need as a booker?
DV: I think you need some social skills. You need to be very determined. And you need to enjoy working with people and doing sales. It can sometimes be a bumpy ride with ups-and-downs, and you need to keep seeing the bigger picture. Being into music is also very important. Personally, I prefer it when people aren’t deeply involved in the music scene, because it creates a bit of a healthy distance. Lately, I’ve noticed that when someone is a real head and is looking up to artists, that isn’t much of an advantage. Artists are all people. The most fantastic musician can still be the biggest prick. The interaction between artist and booker is key. If you can create a good synergy, you can come a long way.
TSOH: What are the biggest mistakes you can make as a booker?
DV: I’d say: stay in the background. You’re already working with people who are in the spotlight. I think it’s very important to know your role. And that’s the role of the facilitator, making things possible. And you’re doing that during office hours, but are also expected to check out gigs on the weekends, so you need to make sure you’re not constantly working.
Hunee & Antal
TSOH: What are the biggest traps for a booker?
DV: Stay honest. You’re dealing with different interests. You might be talking to two different promoters in one town. If you play one out against the other, and you do that in a very unpleasant way, it’s bound to blow up in your face. That’s why we work with a moral compass: do as you deem rightful, without aggrieving anyone. You need to be able to look at yourself in the mirror, and then nothing can go wrong, really. Of course, Octopus has had its differences with others, but we’ve never had a conflict that couldn’t be resolved.
TSOH: How do you maintain longevity for an artist’s career?
DV: By staying as close to someone’s personality as possible, and harboring their personal motivation. Some people have a harder time to get motivated than others. I think every artist has had a moment where they were panicking in the studio. At times like that, you need to start with: “Who are you as an artist, what do you represent?” And then artists say things like: “I’m a techno artist, I come from Berlin.” Then you say: “Sure, but I can name a thousand artists like that. WHO are you as an artist, what defines YOU?” Some people say: “I don’t represent anything, I’m like a brick wall.” Others will say: “I want to bring peace and love to the world.” Or “I want to entertain people.” All very literal examples but all of these things can be integrated in the music, the artwork and the bio, creating the artist brand. That’s how a new brand evolves. It becomes tangible.
TSOH: Are you proud of things? And do you have regrets?
DV: I’m not the type of person who is ‘proud’ of things. But yesterday, we had drinks with the entire office, and I was filled with happiness about us being able to follow our passion, and make our money with it. Things I regret? In the past, I sometimes reacted angry and frustrated when an artist left our agency. You end up doing things you regret, thinking: this wasn’t worth the negative energy. In these cases, it’s best not to react to your first impulse. Emailing can be a really tricky medium for this, by the way. It’s best to send a mail after you’ve walked around the block first.
TSOH: Is there anything I forgot to mention?
DV: Well, we’ve been talking about agents and bookings, but at least as important is the production; booking the right flights and hotels, making sure the timetables are communicated. You can have an agent who is great at generating bookings, but then you need to make sure all the agreements are met. You need a stable team to make that happen.
TSOH: What’s the best advice you can give aspiring bookers?
DV: If you want to do this by yourself, start part-time. Tap into stable networks, and combine existing networks. My luck was starting to work with Clone and Delsin, giving me a roster I could really work with. It definitely kickstarted my business. If it’s possible, make sure you have a job for two days a week, and drop it as soon as you’re making enough.
Also: think about what your ambitions are, before you start in this business. Music is not glamourous. It’s about working your ass off. There are enough people who love to be on stage. If that’s your true ambition, you need to focus on becoming an artist for example. When people want to work at Octopus, but I notice that they’re mostly interested in gear and in production techniques, I tell them they’re better off at becoming an artist. If you love music, working with people, facilitating things and staying in the background, a bookings agency is the place to be.