In the days of yore, the legendary comedy agent Billy Marsh would appear in stars' dressing rooms, sucking a Senior Service cigarette and saying "Hey, you're kinda funny. I'm gonna make you a star". It was this approach that bagged him Laurel and Hardy and Norman Wisdom and made him one of the most respected and successful agents.
But times have changed and agents no longer loiter in changing rooms with pound signs for eyes. They have career paths, trade bodies and training events. Degree modules are available in music and entertainment promotion and 21st-century agents are a media-savvy breed.
Jon Briley is 25. He's run Brighton-based Good Sense Of Humour Comedy for the last three years and now represents nine stand-up comedians including the TV star and stand-up Robin Ince and the radio and circuit favourite Howard Read. Briley studied media and communications at London's Goldsmiths College. He specialised in radio production and one of his projects covered stand-up comedy in London. From this, a love of comedy sprang and a desire to work in the industry. Briley says his degree also stood him in good stead for self-employment. "I prefer to work on my own than for someone else, I'm rubbish at taking orders or being told what to do," he says. "But, as with any sort of education, it ultimately just comes down to motivation and a desire to learn."
Briley admits it was quite tough to get started. "I was lucky in that my first client, comedian Steve Day, was willing to take a chance on me and it worked out nicely from there. But when you're new and you don't really know anyone, it can be hard to get people to take you seriously."
Typical mistakes new agents make, says Briley, are taking on clients who you don't have belief in and being too eager in your desire to please bookers. In this industry, says Briley, "People are usually willing to forgive one error but not more than that."
Before starting out on your own as an agent, says Briley, "Think about it, carefully and seriously. You have to have the dedication, the patience and a thick skin. It's not for everyone, certainly. People starting up as agents who don't really know what they're doing, and then packing it in a few months later, do no one any favours, not least those acts who have taken a chance and signed with them, only to be left out in the cold."
There's no such thing as a broad "entertainment" agent any more. In fact the world of a classical music agent couldn't be more different, says Lucy Rice. She works for the Hazard Chase agency in London, looking after artists such as the cellist Julian Bream and the harpist Catrin Finch.
Rice graduated from the University of York in 1994 with a degree in music. After graduating she spent a year as a spotlight operator at Chichester Festival Theatre before working as a tour manager, concert manager and fixer and then artist manager. She says that her degree in music was essential to her career progression. "It prepared me well for working in the areas of early and contemporary music, which then gave me some direction when I left university. At least I knew what areas interested me."
Her path wasn't clear cut though. "I'm not sure I even knew that one could work as an agent," she says. "If I remember correctly, like a lot of music graduates, I just decided that I wanted to work in arts administration." Hazard Chase has started to realise the lack of awareness of the role of an agent and is beginning to target soon-to-be graduates about the various different options there are for them.
Rice believes the role of an agent has certainly changed over the years. "I feel that it's become less about selling and more about working with promoters to achieve something that they and the artist are looking for," she says. "Hence we now tend to use the term 'artist manager'."
As Briley concludes, the main thing to remember these days is that "an agent is an adviser, a friend, a straight-talker, a believer"