Sean Simmons

Sean Simmons is a veteran of over 25 years in the music industry, he was a broadcaster at 3 PBS and 3 Triple R and DJ’ed at music festivals around the world.

He’s been a booking agent at Premier Artists in Albert Park since 2012 where his roster includes Mick Harvey, Tex Perkins, The Scientists, Blackeyed Susans and more.  He founded Press Play Promotions and worked with Kid Congo, Lydia Lunch, The Monkeywrench and Gemma Ray and he’s also the frontman for Melbourne band, The Spoils.

Sean Simmons, welcome to the show.

Hi, John. How you going? 

What lured you into arguable the hardest gig in town, being a booking agent?

Before I answer that, John, can I start all of this with a question back to you? Why do you say, arguably the hardest gig in town?

I’ve been playing in bands for over 30 years and have had plenty of booking agents, and I’ve always found that their position to be the meat in the sandwich. I felt like they’d have the band on one side, the label and the management on the other and there was deadlines and venues to deal with. 

To me, it looked like a really challenging position, keeping everybody happy, keeping money coming in. It just looked tough to me as an artist.

Have things changed? Maybe it’s a different world now?

Well, I don’t know. I’m not saying I’m the calmest cat in the industry at all. You reference that I play in a band before and I think, coming from experience of being in a band, that can really help. Because I feel I understand how bands think and their requirements.

Even though I’ve got a boss here, my boss really are the 40-odd acts that…  Look, it is hard, you know you’re somewhat the meat in the sandwich and you’ve got two sides to keep happy. But what I was saying before was that even though I’ve got a boss, I see my bosses as the 40-odd acts that I book.

They’re the ones that I have the responsibility towards and it’s important of course, keeping the venues happy and I’ve got to keep relationships with them. 

But I think having played in bands and knowing what bands need and also having dealt with a few egos and perhaps having one myself. I’ve got, maybe, sometimes a better insight to how the musician’s mind works than someone who hasn’t worked in that world before, of actually being a musician rather than coming into it from a music industry type person.

Regardless of how often I’m playing gigs, l always see myself as a musician before anything, whether it was a radio person or a booking agent. That helps with the empathy. It’s definitely a hard one. What got me into it was years after being in radio, I did Triple R, PBS, I also worked at 4ZZZ in Brisbane for a couple of years and that all amounted to about 17 years.

It got to a stage where I wasn’t even aware that I was perhaps in a comfortable rut.  The job that I was doing there, which was sponsorship, so the radio cards and community radio as well as being on air, I wasn’t really progressing. Until I got a phone call from someone who worked at Premier that I knew from my PBS days, saying, “Look, there’s a job going. 

Ever thought about entering the world of being a booking agent?” Having run my own show for my own band, I thought, “I reckon I could give that shot.” Turned up, did an interview and nearly 7 years later, I’m still here. It’s the longest job I’ve ever managed to hold down.

That’s interesting because the booking agent world always seemed competitive, hostile and very much like a male-dominated world with a relatively high turnover of staff. Have things in those 7 years improved at all? Are you seeing more women coming in as booking agents, because I don’t see many.

I’ve seen a shift. Seven years ago in 2012, I did see a certain hostility within the world. Not necessarily here, but just within the booking world. Coming in from a musician’s point of view, I saw how hard-arsed it could be. 

There’s definitely been a shift but I think with anything in the music industry, we’ve got a long way to go, and it’s only recently that the spotlight has been on gender diversity within line-ups and bills in venues and festivals and members in bands.  The same has got to be said for booking agencies as well. There’s a shift, but I think we’ve got a long way to go and I’d like to see a lot more of it.

It’s interesting you say that. I want people listening to this to know that I’m finding it incredibly difficult to get women onto the podcast. All my interviews have been with men so far. That’s fine, but there are some women out there who don’t want to commit to it, they feel uncomfortable or whatever it might be, and it made me ponder that thought about how some of the women in the industry are still feeling uncomfortable with that – which is a shame because we need more of it.

There are some great, female role models in the industry that perhaps give strength to other women and I guess we need more it. Someone that immediately comes to mind, who isn’t a musician and is more of an activist and volunteer is Helen Marcou who runs Bakehouse Studios in Richmond but was also the architect behind the SLAM rally. 

She’s gone around the world speaking at conferences like Canadian Music Week and SXSW on gender diversity, and sort of giving strength and power to women and making them feel more comfortable.  I think the more of those kinds of women give strength to the other women who feel a bit more comfortable doing it.

But it shouldn’t be left up to the women either, it needs to be the men too that create those pathways and are more accepting.

I’ve got a few of women I’m working to get onto the show and hopefully we’ll get the yes from them shortly.  I’m really interested in the relationship between booking agent and say label management team. The bands I played in who were booked by Premier Artists, the acts who had the record deals and the management seem to get the lion’s share of shows and tours. 

In saying that, can an act that’s blown up on say YouTube or Facebook, for example, can they get the support of Premier Artists?

Definitely. I see myself operating… I’ve always kind of operated on the fringe here at Premier Artists and that’s probably coming from that world of community radio. I’m sure you want to talk about Triple J, but my background’s Triple R and PBS and 4ZZZ, and so my roster kind of reflects that.

So I don’t necessarily have… some of them have major labels, but really those people are kind of people that have been doing it years before even I ever became a booking agent. A good example of someone who’s slowly blowing up is Cash Savage and the Last Drinks. When I book her on, she was just independent. Even now, her record label’s Mistletone, which is a really respectable record label, but no means an empire or anything like that. 

I don’t think so, I think the whole industry has had a shift and I don’t know if I’m being… But I reckon it’s happened when a band like Nirvana first hit the scene and there was this shift with suddenly these underground, independent bands had this stronghold. 

The shift started happening way back then. I wasn’t actually in the industry back then but I saw it from afar. I think that sort of fabricated, heavily-marketed act kind of started to move to the side.

They play to Australia’s Got Talent or whatever, and that sort of thing.  There’s definitely a spot for bands blowing up anywhere. Social media and online in particular because we didn’t have that years ago. That’s a whole new platform.

That’s what I’m angling towards because when I was playing a lot was really… it wasn’t that way – you had to get your band together, you had to rehearse your backside off, get out there network and play and get the attention of everybody.  But now we’ve got artists blowing up on YouTube. It’s kind of a different pecking order I suppose. They’re emerging in a different way than what we’ve seen before.

But would an institution like Premier Artists still consider those kinds of acts, regardless of where they’re blowing up?

Yeah, for sure. I should also say about the online thing is that it’s very easy to like a YouTube video or a Facebook page or whatever, a person doesn’t have to leave their bedroom. There’s a certain degree of commitment or lack of commitment when you are the consumer and your doing that.  People are not paying as much for records.

Whereas in the old days, you’d go to a record store more so and buy that, make an investment. So I guess what I’m saying is, people who have those big numbers online don’t necessarily command those numbers live at a gig. That’s the industry I work in. Record sales is another thing.  I’m in the business of getting bums on seats at gigs, you know, live performance.

That sort of fits into the rest of the musical landscape. But if you can have a million likes but you can’t pull more than 100 people, then you do need to get out there in front of people and they need to see you live. The live experience is not something… the record industry is something that has been tampered with and it’s changed over the years, but the live experience hasn’t. 

People still have the… you can’t steal a live gig, kind of thing, where you pirate a large gig.

It just seems to be a different environment that we’re in nowadays from what I was used to when we had the traditional rock band thing going on In Victoria and Melbourne in particular. A lot of the people reading this come from that new world and I guess for them to know that there still is an opportunity to get an agency like Premier Artists to book their shows.

Definitely. And they shouldn’t wait for someone to just find them. Still be proactive and send your stuff into booking agents or record labels or whatever. My day of booking gigs and dealing with them as a band but still trawl the internet and always on the look out for other things. Even just listening to my own band’s new music can point me in a different direction and find something else as well.

One of my bands in the 90’s fell into that unsigned “nurturing” category, where we had to often chase our agent for a line up they could squeeze us onto. Do you have a stable of unsigned acts that you nurture that you’re hoping will blow up as well?

Definitely. To be honest, I would probably start to look for some more. Cash Savage was someone like that two years ago. She’s at a completely stage these days. Freya Josephine Hollick, who’s a country artist, who’s starting to get some attention in her world and also outside that country world.  I could probably do with a couple of real unknowns.

But yeah, whether they’re signed or not signed is not a big deal to me. There’s an overseas act that I just toured called Jonathan Bree who has somewhat of a profile outside… He’s from New Zealand, he’s got a fairly good profile in Europe, but he came here last week and was relatively unknown before this.

He’s another one I’m working on but I probably need a few more to be honest.

A bit top-heavy!

We just touched on Triple J before and I’ve spoken in depth with Andrew Parisi on this, and for those who don’t know, Triple J is our national broadcast and has this unique power to enable a band to be heard in every part of the country.

No other network can really do this, and some of Australia’s greatest success stories have made their start through Triple J. How important is it having the backing of Triple J when putting together a national tour?

As I said before, I don’t tend to operate in that world as much. It is important, I’d say more important regionally, hitting those regional areas in Australia that might not be exposed to as much music as people in the cities. It’s a little different these days, community radio is also digital, so people can access that from anywhere in the world. 

A lot of people are consuming music online through YouTube or whatever. I think way people consume their music has changed. So Triple J is definitely important.  I do feel, perhaps a controversial statement but, I think they could provide a greater cross section of Australian music and sometimes I think that they only concentrate on a particular style of Australian music.

They are only a radio station with so many hours in the day to fill, so I understand it. I think they could be a bit more diverse. It’s important. I find it being a Melburnian, I find it more important when sending bands into state. Melbourne is very lucky in that we have two and really three super strong community radio stations. 

We’ve got a really healthy live music scene and the people who support it consume their music in different ways. Melburnians tend to be really hungry and they’re really out there looking for the next thing in whatever way they can get to it. I think in those areas where the consumer might digest their music a bit more passively, Triple J plays a greater role.

In Melbourne, I might be wrong with this, didn’t it just get voted again as the music capital of Australia, again, which it has been for so long hasn’t it? It’s always been that hub of energy and action. The venues have changed a lot over the years of course, but do you still see it that way?

Actually, I think it was the capital of the world, John. Pretty incredible! It’s an incredibly healthy city. I’m fortunate to be able to travel interstate a lot and also around the world to see different live music scenes. And Melbourne’s definitely healthy. 

It just has that uniqueness that you can go out seven days a week and take a punt on any venue almost, and walk into some real quality.

How then does an aspiring young act with a following online, get the attention of Sean Simmons? Is it something they need to be waving a red flag at, or is it that you’re out there looking all the time?

Yeah, I’m out there looking all the time. There are thousands of bands, so I can’t always find them. I guess my advice… it is important to get out there and play live gigs and be seen as being active and not just sitting online.  Having an online presence is really important, and more important than it ever has been. But to be out there being active and seen as working for your art is really important.

I always say to young bands, when I’m talking to them on panels and things like that, is that networking is super important and finding your tribe in a way, of when you end up on bills, starting those relationships with bands.  That just grows and grows and grows and eventually your reach becomes greater and then it can get to booking agents and record labels and other people like that.

The more people you know, the more people you’re going to meet through those connections, I guess. So networking is massive. I think I destroyed my liver when I first started playing in a band doing that kind of stuff. And it’s fun, you know?

I‘m still recovering myself, so I hear what you’re saying. Following on from that Melbourne thing, the landscape has changed with many more ’boutique’ booking agencies than ever before, some in fact headed up by former Premier agents. Is this a trend that you see continuing? And has this undermined this enormous powerbase that Premier Artists once enjoyed?

I think it’s really healthy. I think the agency that you’re referring to is really healthy for Premier and Harbour in particular because I think Premier looks at that agency and agencies similar to that and see where they can improve. 

Like any massive company that’s slowly seeing a shift in its industry, I think it needs to adapt. And the only way that a company like Mushroom or Premier or Harbour can continue to be a force, is to adapt to the music industry, because it’s totally different to what it was in 1975 when it started. 

Well, Premier was when it started, in 1975.

It’s been a monster for a long time hasn’t it? 

Totally. And the way you book is different. Back then, you could have your bands working every day of the week and still hitting people and still making money and still getting lots of people. But, you know, now there’s a strategy and playing less can actually do great things for your career as long as it’s plotted well.

So I think there are going to be more and more boutique agencies, I think there are going to be a lot people who think, “Yeah, I can do that for myself.” Having the infrastructure available to me at a company like this is really handy, but as I said, I think it’s…. Competition is only healthy. 

I think a company like Premier shouldn’t sit on its laurels and think that they’re never going to be knocked off.

You’ve gotta evolve, don’t you?

They have to. And I’ve seen it here done, in the greater Mushroom Group where Michael Gudinski’s been really instrumental in handing the reigns over to his son, Matt, who’s obviously a lot younger and he’s bringing in a different type of thought and a different way of approaching the music industry.  I think it’s really healthy, I think it’s been great to rebrand the company.

Back when I was playing a lot in the 90’s, Premier used to sign exclusive contracts with their acts. Do they still do that, or is it more of an open-door policy nowadays?

Firstly, I don’t know if they were actual contracts, because there’s no contracts signed between any act or agent these days. So it’s sort of like a handshake agreement.  I think all agencies prefer some sort of exclusivity. At the very least that you wouldn’t work with another agency. I think there’s a lot more collaboration between the act and the agency on what they want to do. 

For a lot of the part… I’ve got my own ideas and my own suggestions, but sometimes I’ll let an act guide me if I’m confident that they know what they’re doing, or the manager.  So it’s perhaps a little bit more collaborative rather than ‘this is what we’re doing’.

I certainly do have my certain ideas and it’s along the lines of, “Hey, you’ve got an album out now, you’ve got to go tour it, and you’ve got to stop playing for free in front bars.”

You need to pick it up.

When you’re on site sort of think about it that way. And if you really feel that you need some extra cash, well wait a little while to go and do those shows.  I only ever can suggest. Essentially, the band’s my boss. There have been arguments through that, but essentially, it’s got to be a two-way street. I think there’s a lot more collaboration.

There is a degree of exclusivity, but it’s perhaps relaxed a little.

I don’t think people understand what a booking agent’s work hours looks like. Can you explain to someone who don’t yet have one booking their shows, what a day in the life of a booking agent looks like?

Someone asked me that the other day. He’s actually a drummer but he’s a music teacher. And he asked me, “What does an average day look like for you?” and I just looked at him blankly and said, “Book gigs.” It’s really, unfortunately, a 24-hour kind of job and it sort of goes in flows.

My work hours, my clock-in hours are 9.30 to 5.30 and I actually find those early hours pretty handy because I can catch up on emails when everyone else is asleep and things haven’t really started kicking in.  But yeah, people start waking up and getting on to you as the day progresses. 

Frank [Stivala], my boss, he has traditional worked 2 til 10 plus. They’re the hours that he actually comes in on. But it’s kind of never ending, you know? I have to tell myself to stop looking at my phone.  I’ve got a family so when I get home… my wife only the other day, she saw my screen time on my phone and she said, “You need to reduce that.”

But it is really part of your job, though. Like you said before, if you’re not booking shows, speaking to venues, you’re actually, trolling the net and looking to see who’s blowing up at the moment. So really your device is a big part of your world, isn’t it?

Yeah, it is. Unfortunately. It’s not good for your eyes looking at a screen that much. Yeah, it is. If something comes in or I’m chasing something that comes in, I’ve got to act on it pretty quickly otherwise that opportunity’s going to go and they’re going to be at festival or whatever and go look for somebody else.

You’ve got someone who’s managing your work sheets and the accounts and everything, so you’re really just on the blower, you’re just negotiating. That’s your daily chore?

I’m lucky like that. So the smaller agencies might not have as much of that, but I’ve got someone sending out contracts, chasing worksheets, sending the band fee sheets, looking into the particulars after the deal’s done. 

Like saying, “Oh this band needs five separate rooms or there a couple.” You know? “Here are their Virgin Air frequent flier numbers.” I’ve got other people doing that. Making posters, accounts slips.

There always seemed to be a well-established hierarchy at Premier where one or two agents, without mentioning names, enjoy the lion’s share of the revenue touring acts. It might not apply to you, while the other, Let’s say, junior agents took the crumbs. Is that still the case? Do you bring your own stable of acts? 

I think it has to do with when you enter a company. Seven years ago, I was the new kid, so… There’s a degree of inheritance when people leave. And there was someone that left during that time and I picked up a few acts of his, which were helpful. But for the most part, my roster was completely built from, I guess, my days in radio.And connections and relationships that I had.

Mick Harvey, for example, who had some sort of relationship with Mushroom because of the Boys Next Door. He was booked by Premier for a little while but when I took him over, he hadn’t been with an agency for years.  It was a conversation that we had backstage at one of his gigs, and he said, “Oh, you book gigs don’t you? Could you book mine?” And my roster kind of came out from it that way.

Cash Savage the same. She knew I’d seen me around from playing gigs and suddenly these acts that knew that I’d started doing this came towards and got… I really think I’ve only had about 4 or 5 acts that I’ve inherited over the years.  Which I don’t have an issue with, I’m quite proud of it. I at least kind of feel like pretty much anyone who’s on my roster I’ve done something with them. 

Someone like Cash Savage I’m really proud of, of what we all have achieved over the last couple of years. Mick Harvey I can take any real credit for his fame. Mick came from the backseats.

You and I both have twins. I’ve always considered the overwhelming workload of having twins thrust upon me and in particular some kind of divine intervention, forcing me to step away from playing in a band, and I certainly did. How has it affected your work-life balance?

I didn’t know you had twins, how old are they?

12. It so happens that I haven’t played a lot in the last 12 years, oddly enough! It certainly put a full stop to all that. And that’s not a problem, I love being with the twins, but I did notice that you’re in the same boat, and I could imagine that you’re having a bit of a balance there too.

It’s interesting. Our band started recording in 2000 and our last recording was 2009, which is coincidentally a year before our first child was born.  He was born in 2010 and then the twins came along in 2014. So yeah, strangely enough, there hasn’t been an album recorded or released since children have come along.

Your priorities do have to shift a bit and sometimes, I get a bit upset about not being able to be creative as much. But the greater good of looking after children is pretty irreplaceable.

Yeah. It’s fantastic. It’s just a whole different chapter of your life. There’s an interview with Patti Smith around the time she had a child and she was interviewed by someone and said, “So, Patti, you have been rather inactive lately, what’s been going on?” and she just went ballistic on the interview. 

She just swore like a sailor and said, “I just haven’t been active within your eyes or within your world, I’ve been doing this, this, this, this and this. I’ve just been doing other things that are either more important or of equal importance to what you saw me as.” So that’s how life’s changed.

Over those years so, we’ve still somehow played live. We’ve probably taken a lot of the focus off that… touring is hard because my wife and I are in the same band, so that makes babysitters and things like that really difficult.  We’ve played less. But for us it’s not necessarily been the live performance, it’s been the creative process and the composition at home.

Actually, I was thinking leading up to this interview, because I’ve got all these funny little iPhone demos of me either at a piano or a guitar, bashing out some idea and in the background, you hear this, “Dad, Dad, Dad I need to go to the toilet, dad I’ve poo’ed my pants.  Dad do this. Isaac’s hitting me” or something like that.

And I thought it would be funny to release an album of all these demos and going, “This is what it’s like to try and be a creative mind with young children round you.”

I’m in my recording studio at the moment. There’s one child with his face up against the window and banging on the window to get me out. I’m quietly saying, “Go away! I’m doing an interview!” I think so many of us relate to that.

It takes me back to, I used to play guitar in Holocene and a band called Alcotomic in the 90’s and we were in a whirlwind of recording and touring and I thought I was really busy. I thought, “Jesus this is hard work.” It’s not until now that I realise that I was doing stuff all back then.

I was sitting around, watching TV, playing the guitar, and you don’t actually know workload until you’ve got to be a parent.

Yeah. Totally. I’m just having these conversations with my sister who’s first born was born on the 6th January, so 3 weeks ago. And she’s just, “I don’t know how you did it. How did you do it with twins?”  She’s just in that maelstrom of madness of those first 3 weeks.

It’s pretty full on. I remember with our first, once they hit four, things start to become a little easier. Toileting and things like that, once they’ve got that down, that can change everything.

So whatever happened to your band The Spoils? You got any plans for getting our and playing again? You’ve just answered that really haven’t you?

Bronwyn and I went on a little duo tour nationally at the end of last year between September and November like we did every weekend. So the kids were with my mum and we were interstate.  We were playing small venues like the Junk Bar in Brisbane, the Wheatsheaf in Adelaide. Sort of 60 to 100 cap rooms. So fairly small and somewhat under the radar. No releases. 

We are still continuing to write and that was probably… Since 2011, I reckon, where we probably really stopped writing altogether, we’ve probably got half an album sitting there. We always wonder… it doesn’t matter if it comes out under the old band name The Spoils, so much time has passed.

Does anyone care or remember, or will we just do it under a different name, which will perhaps reflect a shift in sound and influence.

Because in that time, I’ve probably listened to more music than I ever have in my life because of this job. So I’m always being influenced by things and exposed to different musc. Which is kind of the great thing about this job. It’s very healthy. Yeah, keeps me reeling.

I’ve got a couple of the obligatory questions for you. What will Sean Simmons be doing in 10 years’ time?

Hmmm. 10 years’ time? Look, in the short future I think I’ve been touring international bands more than I… when I first started here I was just booking local bands and that has turned into a little roster of international acts. I probably enjoy that more than booking the local bands.

There’s a lot more work.  There are visas and other sorts of things to deal with. But I kind of enjoy the satisfaction you get from putting a tour together. Especially when most of the acts that I’ve toured here, bar one, have never been here before.

You’re talking about Press Play?

Yeah.

And that’s a separate entity from Premier?

Yeah, so I started branding the international tours under Press Play. I just didn’t feel it sat under the Premier moniker. And Kid Congo and the Monkey Wrench were the first ones.  After that, came James Chance and The Contortions, who’s like a 1980s no-wave act – contempories of Lydia Lunch and people like that.

I just started seeing a shift and I was creating my own little thing. So I’ll probably head further towards international touring and promotion rather than just booking agent. I’ll still book acts, but yeah, more international touring, I think. I think.

10 years, God, I dunno. I’ll be in my 50s then, hopefully still alive!

This is the most interesting question for me because a lot of people offer some great advice here. If you could speak to the 18-year-old Sean Simmons, what would be the one piece of advice you’d give him?

Don’t talk so much.

There you go!

I was one of those over-confident kind of kids that shot my mouth off and probably said a lot of dumb shit when I was 18 years old. Very rarely short of confidence or ego and over those years, I think I’ve mellowed out. Yeah, I know a lot of teenagers are, but children have matured me. I think I was still a kid until the age of 37 when I had my first.

But I grew up in a lot of ways, even then at that age.

Absolutely.

At the same rate, also my advice… I don’t think I would change a thing. All those mistakes I made, all those bad things I did, I think I’d do them again. It’s part of what makes up people and it’s part of the learning process of life and what you are.

Perhaps listen more and talk less?

Listen more and talk less, that’s it. Floundering’s fine, you know? People say, “Oh, I wish I knew this and I would have achieved this a lot quicker in life.” I don’t have any of those kinds of regrets. I’m happy to have floundered for a bit in my 20s. I’d probably do it again. 

The challenge is that if my kids are doing that, not to give them pressure to make a decision on what they’re going to do for the rest of their lives, as soon as they come out of school and have a bit of fun.  Experience life.

In those years, I was lucky enough to experience a lot of life in all facets.

So yeah.

That’s great advice. Sean Simmons, thank you for being on the show.

Thank you very much, John.  

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The next episode of Indie Confidential i’m going to talk about the importance of planning and having goals. That can be a musical goals and a plan or even a life plan.

In all reality both are similar and if you’re the kind of person that likes goals and achievements, this is an episode for you. 

Don’t miss it.

I’ll catch you soon.

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