Differences Between Concert Promoters, Bookers and Agents
Booking and promoting concerts involves a lot of moving parts, so it's pretty easy for confusion to enter the picture. If you're new to playing live, just starting to cut your teeth on the live music circuit, then that confusion can go through the roof for a lot of reasons. In fact, this can be a tough time for a lot of musicians, not only because the whole process is new and more than a little intimidating, but also because musicians at this stage are the perfect targets for getting hustled.
When you get to the stage where you're booking your own shows, you can make better decisions if you understand the role of everyone involved. Now, there can be some overlap in these positions, but here is the general idea to keep in mind:
On the indie circuit, the most typical way for a promoter to work with a musician is to decide they want to work with the musician on a show, make a deal with the musician (or the musician's reps) and then go out and do the work of putting on the show. That means booking the venue, contacting the local press, marketing (running ads, printing posters, etc, as appropriate), making sure everything is in place for the night of the show (tickets, sound/tech requirements, booking the opening bands, buying the rider and so on) and then generally making sure the show runs smoothly. When a promoter makes a deal with a musician, the deal usually (really, should) take into account the expenses associated with the show so that when the musician sees the deal, they know how much they stand to make.
For instance, a promoter might offer a flat rate for a show or they may offer a door split deal in which they pay the musician a percentage of the ticket sales money after the costs associated with the show are met. The real defining thing about the deal structure is that the promoter does assume some of the risks and makes a decision about that risk before they decide to run the show.
Sometimes, venues have someone in charge of booking the shows for the club - but it is really very important to not confuse these people with promoters. SOMETIMES, venues have in-house promoters that book the shows and fulfill the traditional role of the promoter, but venues often have someone who just books. They may include your name in their standing run of advertising and monthly calendar things, but the onus for promoting the show - and meeting the venue's financial requirements - falls on you. They may have a bar minimum that you have to meet or they may require a certain number of ticket pre-sales or they may have some other financial guideline you have to satisfy.
As a musician, it is REALLY important for you to understand these rules. Of course, venues can't have losing nights all the time, but weigh up what they're offering you versus what they're demanding from you. Are they throwing you on a bill with four other bands who sound nothing like you (or each other) and requiring a huge number of "ticket pre-sales" - which really translate into you paying hundreds to play there? In other words, are they setting you up for some crap gig that no one wants to come to and getting you to pay them for the privilege?
If you are acting as a promoter for your own show, it makes sense that you would have to assure the venue that they aren't going to lose money on the night, but don't be too intimidated to speak up to find out what you're getting when you book a show at that club and definitely don't be too afraid to look for another venue who wants to make sure you BOTH have a winning night.
An agent books shows for you. In other words, the agent calls the promoter, works out the deal and brings the offer back to you with all the details ironed out (in accordance with what you've agreed in advance, such as "must have a stage large enough for 7 cellos" or "will only play Albuquerque on Tuesdays.")
As you can see, your real danger zone as an up and coming musician lies in the difference between working with a promoter and simply booking a show with someone in charge of a venue calendar.
Make sure you understand the set-up any time you book. And note, someone who pencils you in on a certain date, contributes nothing in the run-up to the show and then sits at a door collecting money and asking people what band they came to see is NOT a promoter - pure and simple. Don't pay for services undelivered.
Get tons more advice on playing live in Playing Live 101.