The agent's perspective...up close and personal with Gary Berg, of GL Berg Entertainment Part I
Updated: Aug 22, 2019
One of the more successful entertainment agencies in the country, GL Berg has built and is building a legacy of matching clients and acts successfully for the past 30 years.
Gary Berg, founder and CEO has built a business model based on honesty and integrity in an entertainment world too often fraught with unethical behavior. The old adage that a booking agent is the guy who is sore because you're getting 80% of HIS salary does NOT apply to GL Berg Entertainment. In this installment, Gary Berg talks about his career and what it takes to be a successful performer in today's entertainment business. Listen up vents, there is valuable information in what follows. Gary knows from whence he speaks. And now, Vent-O-Gram proudly presents the interview.
You started GL Berg in 1989. What did you do before that?
I was a college administrator for about a decade prior to that. After high school I went to college and got an English degree, then I went on to graduate school and got a Master’s in higher education administration.
Then I made that enormous step and started an entertainment agency.
Well, it seems that you were on a pretty solid career track. As unstable as it can be, why in the world would you go into the entertainment business?
(laughs) It sounds like the question my parents and in-laws asked me! I was on a solid career path, but the thing was, I wasn’t enjoying it. While I was working in college administration, I had the chance to work with a musical group called the Memories.
I would road manage for them and I really enjoyed that. I enjoyed the whole concept of people coming together and having a positive, shared experience. I thought I could be happy facilitating that for a long time.
Was it an uphill climb?
Right about 30 years ago, most entertainment was bands, a lot of drinking and lawsuits… that sort of thing. A lot of businesses were tiring of that and saying we’re not going to have any more events. I basically said, well, you don’t need to have the kind of event. So, I took this concept of putting events together where people could have fun by booking a comedian, or variety acts such as ventriloquists, magicians or jugglers. Basically having performers do that 45 minute after dinner show that everybody could all really enjoy and yet not having it go to two in the morning creating problems. So I really started hammering away at that concept. And today, those kinds of shows still represent over half of what we contract. Of course, over time we entered into different areas as well…fairs, theaters, cruise ships, colleges, post proms, and that sort of thing.
When you were at this point thirty years ago, did you have this kind of analysis like you just spoke of?
I didn’t have a lot of formal research, but my experience managing the Memories gave me an understanding about how the process worked and where the needs were in entertainment. I felt pretty strongly that I had a good grasp on opportunities that existed in some of these markets. I didn’t have any formal training but I did a lot of learning and research.
I hit it pretty hard on any material I could get my hands on. You know things like starting a business and doing business plans, mentoring programs, things like that. I wanted to get a handle on it so I could be as successful as possible. I was fortunate. It was a risk. You know, I had a mortgage and a three year old son, but luckily my wife was working. So I thought I would give this a try realizing I could always go back into education.
When you look back, is there anything you would have done differently?
Obviously, there are little tweeks here and there. But, I think the main thing was I under capitalized it at the beginning. My growth has been slow and steady. But had I taken out a business loan early, I think the company would have grown faster. It is a reality that it takes money to make money.
These concepts are of course true for anyone going into business for themselves, variety acts included. What do you think is more important though, talent or ambition?
Ambition. I’ve seen way to many talented people fail. I think if you have the ambition, it will drive you to get good, and that you will eventually be good at what you do. In other words you will be willing to put in the work to get where you want to be. If you are ambitious and committed the possibilities of being successful are greatly enhanced versus the person who is really talented and is either disinterested, too lazy or not having enough self discipline to put in the work to get where you want to go.
When an act come’s to see you, how long does it take to get that read in terms of ambition?
Probably five minutes. I’ve done this long enough and talked to enough people. You can tell the one’s who are coming in and trying to find an easy way to get more money and more shows, versus the one’s who are trying to build a career. There is a very clear difference between the two. The one’s that have a long term approach and want to do the work that is needed, well, we love to work with those people and help them to be successful. As you very well know it is a rewarding career, but it is also hard and risky with no guarantees. It is what it is. You have to love it.
What is the difference between being talented and being an entertainer?
There is truly a difference. You need to be both to be long term and sustainably successful. The best example I can give would be this: Let’s take a juggler. I may have a juggler say, “I’m a better juggler than so and so. I can juggle seven clubs where they only juggle five.” Well, the fact that you can juggle seven balls is interesting for maybe 90 seconds. Unfortunately, you have another 45 minutes to fill. The ability to engage an audience, to make them laugh, to connect with you and have fun, that is the entertainment piece. The people that can do that, do so well. When I see a ventriloquist that can engage, they are really successful.
Do you think the ability to engage is innate?
There was a time when I would have thought so. Certainly there are people that can naturally do that and they are blessed with that. But I also think it can be a learned behavior. I know there are a lot of introverted entertainers who once they hit the stage can engage people beautifully. They are really successful as entertainers even though you wouldn’t think so to meet them off stage.
How important is originality for an entertainer?
If you have original material it is better. It is kind of funny. For a variety act yes, but for a musical act, well, most people don’t want to hear original music, they want to hear things they are aware of and know. Original music, on the entertainment side of things, at least for what we do, is almost a hindrance. On the other hand, when I see something that is really new and really fun presented by a ventriloquist, or magician or juggler, I love it. So, I do look for purpose and originality. It is not easy to do, but when it is done, and done well, it is a real plus.
Let's shift gears for a moment and talk about different markets. Can I get by doing one act, or do I need to have different shows for different markets?
In the entertainment world, you do. For instance, there are fairs, which happen predominantly in the summer. That is three or four months of work. Even if you’re busy it is not enough to sustain you. Then you have winter or holiday shows which fills in another void in your calendar. Then comes June where there really aren’t any fairs, but there are library shows and kid shows. These are multiple markets and they do a number of things. Number one, you can maintain cash flow as well as possible. Number two, if one of the markets goes soft you have the others to sustain you. Back in 2008 when the recession hit, we lost so many corporate shows. But the fairs, colleges and libraries held up. So the acts were able to maintain. So I think multiple markets is like buying a money market account versus putting all your money into one stock. The more markets you can do effectively the more opportunity you have to make money and be successful the year round.
What about pricing. Some people talk about ‘price integrity’ meaning charging the same price regardless of circumstances. Are you a proponent of that or no?
I’m a proponent of price integrity, but I wouldn’t define it that way at all. I think there are too many factors that affect pricing. Obviously location. If you live in Minneapolis and are going to do a show in Chicago it should cost more than doing a show four blocks from your house. There is so much more involved in time, getting there and getting back etc. Another aspect is the date. If you want to contract an act on the first Saturday in December, it is incredibly popular and you should pay more for that then if you want to have the same act on a Tuesday in June when there is no work. Then, that might be a third of the price. It is simply supply and demand. The other thing, to a point, is the type of event. The reality is that certain events are set up to pay more or less because of the nature of the beast. So, yes, those things will affect pricing but not integrity. The real issue is with people under pricing and over pricing themselves. I think one of the biggest enemies that variety acts have is that they under price themselves. By doing that they screw up the whole market. Plus, they want the agent to sell them for one price, but when they book something on their own, it is another price…usually significantly less. You’re either a cheap act or you’re not. We have integrity too.
I’m hearing you define a gradient scale on pricing. At what point is something cheap or expensive?
Every opportunity is unique to itself. We have a whole process that we go through. When we talk with a client we have a number of things we ask: Tell us about your audience, tell us about the event, your location, what you have done in the past, what are you trying to accomplish? What is your budget range? We may have a perfect act but they can’t afford it. Then we waste their time by giving that act as an option.
Let’s say a client says, “we want a comic ventriloquist and we want it on the first Saturday in December.” Well, for your budget that is not going to happen. We can fill those dates at a higher price. But, if you could move your party to a Thursday or Sunday instead of a Friday or Saturday we can make this work. So, we will give and take if you give and take to fill that date, does that work for you? And if they say no, then we say, that’s perfect but you need a bigger budget. It’s a way to work with people to be realistic.
It is like going to a car dealership and saying, “I want that BMW and I want to spend $15,000 for it.” Well I’m sure you do want it but it is $75,000. For $15,000 you can buy this, “yeah, but I don’t want this.” Well, there is a reality factor here. I think any product or service has a value that should be real and fair. When we know those things we are real comfortable working with clients to make sure that it works for the act, the client and for us.
One of the things that drives me crazy is when an act is booking themselves and says, “well, I’m normally $5000 but I’ll do if for you for $1000. That kind of used car salesman’s approach drives me crazy because, ‘no you’re not normally 5000, you’re normally 800 and you’re trying to sell if for a 1000.’ Agents do that too. There is a legitimate reality here of what makes sense for this act, on this date. We always have the opportunity to negotiate. But some times we simply have to pass . It is a process. Pricing is the most difficult thing for clients, acts and for us.
You have a reputation for doing business ethically. Why is that important to you and do you think that your ethics have contributed to your success?
Yes. It is important to me. I would like to think that character matters. I only want to work with people with good character, I only want to work with people that are ethical and honest. I only want to have people on our staff that are the same. I only want clients that are the same. It doesn’t have to be some crappy schmaltzy game.
What I love is that we are a 20% agency. If we sell an act say for a $1000 the act knows they are getting $800.00. The client knows the act is getting $800 and the client and act knows the agency is getting $200 dollars. We do that with everything. What has gotten really sleazy in this business is the buy and sell contract. I’ve never been comfortable with that. I feel you are cheating two sides for your own personal gain. We have always taken this road and it has been extremely successful. Every entertainer that works with us respects it because they have all been virtually screwed by some agent at some point. And then the client knows it because they know they are getting this amazing service they couldn’t get on their own. They are getting a one-stop shop where they are receiving good consulting advice, the contract is clean and organized, everything is legit, the acts are talented, they’re nice people and professional. So the client wins on all this. The client feels like , “this is such a good service to pay for,” the acts are like, “I’m getting 80% and I know it and I’ve accepted all this and this is fabulous, and I’m getting dates I would never have gotten” and we are happy because we are representing really good acts, with really good clients and we are making enough money to make a living ourselves. Now, are we getting rich like some other agents? No, but we are doing fine. We are just like the acts who have chosen to do this. This is what we do.
To find out more about GLBerg Entertainment visit: glberg.com
Next installment, Gary Berg talks about approaching an agency, representation agreements, promotion and marketing and his new book:
Entertainers Who Work
© 2019 Swampsong, LLC