Tom Windish’s acts are all over Coachella

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Tom Windish and his Windish Agency have grown with Coachella. The agency represents 20 of the 143 acts at this year’s festival.

The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival would get along just fine without booking agent Tom Windish. Yet strike the artists from the Windish Agency off the Coachella bill, and the desert festival would suffer a direct hit.

Since its start in 2004, the Chicago-based Windish Agency — which has more than 550, mostly club-level acts on its roster — has supplied a steady stream of artists to Coachella.

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This year alone the Windish Agency reps 20 acts on Coachella’s bill of 143 artists, including headliner dance and electronic acts such as Justice and Amon Tobin, as well as buzz artist of the moment Gotye.

At the recent South by Southwest Music Festival and Conference in Austin, Texas, Windish suggested meeting up to see some of his artists. One didn’t have to go far to hear one of his agency’s acts, as they were featured in more than 700 performances over the five-day event.

The act settled upon was Brooklyn electronic duo Tanlines, and on the walk to the venue Windish, 39, stopped numerous times to offer up concert promotion tips. “Look at this poster,” Windish said, pointing at an advertisement for a multi-act punk show headlined by veteran O.C. punk band Social Distortion. “No one is going to go to this,” he said, pointing out that the poster failed to provide such basic, fan-focused information as set times.

As for Tanlines, it was slated to play second on a five-act bill. Windish smiled when he saw the full lineup on a flier at the venue where the band was to perform. “Actually,” he said, “it turns out I book all these acts.”

The democratization of the music business brought on by the rise of file-sharing and downloads has helped the Windish Agency soar while record labels have struggled.

Windish now employs 15 agents, and recently opened an office in Los Angeles to further expand into marketing and licensing. The agency has increasingly taken on the look of a label without becoming a label, reflecting a music business in which acts can thrive outside of the mainstream by surviving largely on touring income.

Windish, who is soft-spoken and appears far more straight-laced than the bands he represents, is also a major risk taker. He has never forgotten passing on Brooklyn’s TV on the Radio, and today will take on acts in the hopes they will become good — even if they’re not already. “In the old days, there would be a label, a lawyer and a manager in place before we got involved,” Windish said. “Nowadays, a booking agent and publicist are sometimes the first to get involved.”

When Windish said “old” he was referring to the mid-to-late ’90s, when he was learning his trade at Chicago’s the Billions Corporation and living above the now-defunct club Lounge Ax. He explained the thrill of booking an unknown band and then watching it grow from playing 200- to 800-capacity venues.

“It used to be nice to play the Echo, and then the Troubadour and the El Rey and then the Fonda,” said Windish, who is still an Illinois resident but now splits his time between Chicago and Los Angeles. “These days, if an artist has 15 million views of a YouTube video, where do you start? Do you start at the Greek? Or do you start at the El Rey when you know you’re going to turn away thousands of people?”

Local promoter Goldenvoice took a gamble this year on trying to accommodate the tens of thousands who couldn’t get into Coachella in 2011. It cloned Coachella into twin festivals, with identical lineups, spread over consecutive three-day weekends.

On the day the dates were announced last May, Windish began calling clubs in cities such as San Francisco and Phoenix, locations that were beyond the contractual restrictions placed upon Coachella artists, and put holds on venues for the week between the two fests.

“I said I didn’t know what I’d have, but I knew I would have something,” Windish said.

Windish’s growth runs on a parallel path as that of Coachella. The festival has relied heavily on dance and electronic culture. Windish recalled attending the first Coachella in 1999, and parking himself in one of the dance tents. He watched electronic artists such as Autechre, and resolved himself to booking them.

“I remember really wishing I had represented more electronic artists,” Windish said. “As I started to book them, my relationship with Goldenvoice got better and better.”

Focusing on electronic and dance accomplished numerous goals. One, it gave Windish a foothold into a genre that was largely being ignored by other club bookers. Two, it prepared him for the music business of today, where album sales are no longer a measure of success.

“For those original electronic shows.... they ultimately did better than I or the promoter thought, but record sales did not correlate with ticket sales. That’s something we see a lot today.”

How, then, does Windish measure how many tickets an artist will sell? Is there a “Moneyball”-like theory behind his methods?

“I don’t do anything to measure it,” he said. “I go on hunches.”


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Images: The Coachella stage set-up for electronic artist Amon Tobin. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times; Tom Windish. Credit: Cooper Reynolds Gross