The concert-booking firm the Windish Agency has a new office, where Los Angeles State Historic Park gives way to the concrete-lined course of the L.A. River. At the moment, there's not much inside the gutted brick building on the fringes of Chinatown save for reams of scaffolding and dusty concrete floors. Outside, the surrounding area is mostly industrial warehouses for Chinese food and import businesses.
But firm founder Tom Windish's new home will be one of the best hopes for bands to make a living today.
"The role an agency plays in an artist's career is shifting," Windish said. "We provide more services than ever before. Musicians will increasingly rely on agencies to further their careers. We hired people to help bands get into film, to start fashion lines. Everyone's figuring out how to add value."
As record sales have evaporated over the last decade and a half, and streaming-service revenue has thus far failed to make up the difference, musicians (especially up-and-coming acts full of buzz and potential but no star power) have to make their living on the road. Music-biz optimists like to cite touring as a perpetually reliable revenue source, but navigating the path from tiny clubs to the theaters and festivals that genuinely pay the bills is more complex and competitive than ever.
For a little over a decade, Windish has been a fixture in helping bands find their way to sustainability. His eponymous booking firm has specialized in discovering acts and cutting deals to put them in spaces where something major can happen. The 42-year-old Windish counts Lorde, Alt-J, the xx and Diplo among the arena-caliber acts he's helped steer through the rough waters of live music in the Internet era. Today, a significant portion of the acts on the bills at key U.S. festivals such as Coachella, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza get there by way of the Windish Agency.
This year, the company began a new joint arrangement with Paradigm, a multi-faceted booking and talent agency that counts Coldplay, Ed Sheeran and the Dave Matthews Band among its marquee clients. The move opens up whole new avenues for Windish to create spaces for his acts to thrive. But can he grow while staying true to the edgy, aspirant bands that have made his reputation?
On a September afternoon, Windish walked around his new offices and riffed on his plans for a mini-community of bars, restaurants and music venues that he hopes will one day fill this sleepy corner of Chinatown near Lincoln Heights and Frogtown. "Nothing too big," he promises — just a small space for mainly electronic acts that don't work in traditional live venues.
The future-minded, off-the-beaten-path nature of the space mirrors what he's done throughout his career. Windish began booking bands as a teenage student at Binghamton University — State University of New York, and then established his eponymous company in 2004 in Chicago. The city was removed from the Los Angeles-New York entertainment axis but still an essential touring hub, especially for the electronic dance music scene just starting to take hold in America. Windish found his niche — small, progressive bands that could command attention onstage while growing at a slow, deliberate pace.
"I didn't want to undo what we were good at," he said. "We book in cool places, and we're careful with prices and openers. The right place to play is the place that sells out."
Over the years, the company has grown to 26 agents, booking shows for hundreds of acts and becoming an essential part of the live music ecosystem in North America (the agency moved into its L.A. offices in 2011 and has agents based in Chicago, New York and Toronto). Windish has become a lifeline for nurturing new bands, as management companies and booking firms are taking on many of the jobs once performed by budget-slashing record labels.
"What has shifted is the responsibility for developing artists, with managers and agents being the first partners," said Jake Friedman, an artist manager and partner at We Are Free, an agency that handles popular indie acts such as Purity Ring and Health, which are booked by Windish. "When I'm working with Tom, I know that I have access to the resources I need and, most importantly, the time and sensitivity to get the first phase of the career right."
That eye for spotting ascending talent is a big part of what attracted Paradigm to Windish. Neither Windish nor Paradigm would elaborate on the financial terms of the deal, which was announced in July (Windish described it as "a partnership," saying that it wasn't an outright acquisition and that he maintained control of operations). Paradigm in recent years has partnered with several other boutique booking firms, like the dance-centric AM Only, which handles Disclosure and Skrillex, and the Coda Music Agency, which handles many rising artists in Britain.
Paradigm's music division chief, Chip Hooper, said that Windish filled a particular niche in its roster of agencies and that it could open up whole areas of cooperation and invention.
"Tom has always been very adventurous and open-minded in choosing his clients, and that's one of the reasons he fit in so well with us. He has always signed what he was passionate about," Hooper said. "Tom can tap into various departments of our agency and give his clients the ability to pursue anything they can possibly imagine."
Diplo, for instance, has used his raucous live shows to grow into an EDM and pop cultural mainstay, a fashion model for Alexander Wang, a budding film and TV producer and a festival mogul in his own right with his Mad Decent Block Party. The Paradigm deal could now include easy access to similar film, TV and marketing relationships that could fill the gaps left behind by the record industry's contraction, and help re-define the role of the live musician in pop culture. Windish said that so far, the partnership had exceeded expectations, but he added that it had necessitated a hard look at some past missteps.
Windish admitted that in the company's big growth years, he overextended himself and earned a reputation for signing scores of bands that he and his agents didn't have time to nurture.
"People would say, 'Oh, Windish, they'll pick up anything and drop it if it doesn't work out,'" he said, acknowledging some truth in that assessment. Now, however, "We want to take on fewer things. We've been reducing our roster for years, and our work has improved."
At Paradigm, he'll have to balance his new resources with a sharper focus on acts that can survive and thrive in this tumultuous environment. That could mean taking fewer chances on start-up bands with uncertain prospects for long-term growth. But it could also mean a whole new way of thinking about how live performances, international festival culture and artists' aesthetic visions could play out on stages and elsewhere.
After touring the new offices, Windish left for his firm's current Echo Park location. Contractors hummed away, sawing and drilling in the new Chinatown space. When his agency's new home is finished, it will be a testament to a rare corner of the music industry that's growing and paying off for artists. Who knows what kind of future that entails? But it might be enough to keep them viable.
"I remember when Napster happened and hearing that the music industry was falling apart," Windish said. "But my bands just sold more tickets. The democracy of it has expanded our audience, and it's the responsibility of the agency to help achieve that potential.
"We love record labels, and we're not more important than them, but we're going to be a big part of what's next."