The booker for some of Manhattan and Brooklyn’s most prestigious spaces talks about his journey, what sells tickets and being yourself.
*Welcome to our Industry Insiders series, where we talk to experts from all levels of the music biz to learn what they do, what they look for in artists, and what they advise as far as setting yourself up for success. *
Sebastian Freed hasn’t always booked the biggest venues in NYC, but over a steady period he has graduated from tiny rooms in Bushwick, Brooklyn to some of Manhattan’s most storied spaces. It’s all about understanding what works and where, and his knowledge has led him to working with the biggest names in indie rock. We reached out to Freed to discuss his journey from jam band die hard to talent buyer for one of the biggest venues in NYC.
Spotify for Artists: Describe what you do, and give us the short story of how you got there.
Sebastian Freed: I'm a Talent Buyer for The Bowery Presents, a promoter in NYC. I work with agents and managers to help their artists grow by choosing the right room to play at each stage of their career and make sure those shows are successful by identifying the right ticket price and promo strategy. Prior to Bowery, I worked for a nonprofit organization that focused on the music community for three years, so I got great insight on all aspects of how the music industry worked. I spent all my free time going to shows and talking about music, so I started managing bands and booking small shows at random rooms all over Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. Eventually I got to know some of the Bowery Presents people pretty well, and when a gig booking the Mercury Lounge became available I was on a short list and got super lucky. Since then I've booked Rough Trade and Music Hall of Williamsburg and recently shifted my focus to our larger clubs, theaters and outdoor concerts.
Is there an artist you were a fan of growing up, a story you heard, or an artist you crossed paths with at some point that sparked you to pursue this as a career?
Jerry Garcia died when I was 10, so I never got to see the [Grateful] Dead but I grew up listening to them and hearing stories about shows that went from midnight until dawn. I avoided working in the music industry for a while because I thought it would make me jaded. But when I was about 24, I read Bill Graham’s autobiography and I think that really helped bring me over. He was the original promoter, but he was so much more. He did literally everything for his shows, so hands on. I think that dedication and passion helped to create some of the most historic shows of all time, and reading about it made me realize concerts could be more than just a band on stage playing instruments to fans, it's a community.
What do you look for in an artist you want to work with? (And who are some of the artists you currently or recently worked with and how does that align?)
I've never really been able to describe what I like about an artist, and it’s the same thing with booking them. They've either got it or they don't. Ultimately any artist that takes their career and live show seriously is going to be fun to work with. At this level, I'm mostly dealing with agents on what shows I'm working on, though in the early days there was a lot of digging around the internet and clubs trying to find new acts I thought were interesting. In my experience when you start to hear about an artist from multiple sources; whether its blogs, radio, the industry, word of mouth etc., then you know something is happening. You're always trying to book artists you like, but also acknowledging everyone has different tastes so you're also trying to book artists that are popular and will sell tickets, the sweet spot is when it's both.
We work with bands at every level of their career from selling 100 tickets to 10,000 or more, you want to see them grow each time. I've seen bands play underwhelming shows their first 2-3 times but you can tell when they are trying, and without fail when they come back that 4th time, it’s amazing. I've been booking Hiss Golden Messenger just about every year since 2012 or so, in the beginning it was just him with an acoustic guitar on stage, you knew there was something happening but it had its limits. For the last 3-4 years he's been coming back with a full band and it’s become somewhat of an annual gathering, church-like. People keep coming back in bigger and bigger crowds expecting a special experience, and they get it.
What's the biggest tool at an artist's disposal in 2019 from your perspective and why do you see it that way?
I know I'm biased and anyone who isn't a promoter would probably disagree, but I honestly think an artist’s live show is their greatest tool. The internet has made it so easy to access recorded music that it's hard for a band to stand out. But if you can give people a great live experience they will continue to come back every time. I know there are hologram tours and live streaming, but in the end, none of that is going to replace a killer live show. It never gets old.
What's the best advice you have for any artist just starting out?
Don't try to sound like anyone else, but don't be afraid to embrace your influences. All music is derivative.