Sometimes, you don’t need to shout to be heard. Sometimes, you can be a beyond-impactful force by resolutely sticking to your guns and powering through. Tom Windish is one such king-maker.
In 2004, he founded The Windish Agency, a globally esteemed independent booking agency whose clients included the likes of world-moving artists such as Diplo, Lorde, The xx, The 1975 and Flume, to name just some. Subsequently, in 2015, the company merged into the larger auspices of the Paradigm Talent Agency. He was also crucially involved in charting the trajectory of one of the most cutting-edge figures in mainstream pop, Bille Eilish, having co-discovered her along with Paradigm agent, Sara Bollwinkel.
In the following interview, he shares with us his personal philosophy that has guided the development of The Windish Agency and his thoughts on the blurring of lines between the mainstream and indie worlds.
Firstly, what do you think about the idea that local people won't emotionally invest in an act?
I mean, look at The Sam Willows – they're not popular abroad, but they're popular here. To me, it has to do more with the music. If it's great music, I feel like all the rules will be ignored. Lorde became huge because her songs are great; the local audience did not deem it successful because it was successful overseas. It was just great.
And I think the rules these days should be less relevant because of streaming platforms – how easy it is to just hear things. A lot of artists spend a lot of time pointing fingers about why they're not successful. But they're not pointing fingers at themselves. It really has to do with your music – it's just not good enough.
Is A$AP Rocky huge because he played a festival or got on a New Music Friday playlist? No! He's a genius musician – and that's it! That's what the world has room for and will pay attention to, and there's more music than ever being made because it's easier to do it. You do it on your laptop, on your phone, and you've got something that you can put on the Internet that everyone can listen to. That doesn't mean that that music should be made, or that it should be popular, just because it can be made. So, yeah, I would tell people to just make great songs, and stop complaining.
It's not about having one person that opens all these doors for you, because they're so powerful. I think that's a myth. There are a lot of myths in the music business about what creates success, but reality is that it's not so much about opening doors – to have songs that connect with people in a big way, there's some magic there.
It's why people want to create myths about it, because they don't know how to explain it. Talent and genius are real – some people have it, some people have more of it, and then there's others. But, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find true stars in the world that are just there for long periods of time, because someone else is always topping them.
What counts as potential to you?
I think great music is a big thing. When I hear something, I'll also play it for other people and see what they think. I don't think I know everything and I can "hear a hit" any better than anybody else. If I play something for ten people and none of them really care about it, then I'll look at myself and be like, "Okay, maybe that didn't sound as good as I thought."
But that doesn't mean that I won't still go for it, though. But, I'll see what other people are thinking because it helps a lot. If an artist that I thought is good, and a lot of people like them in this one place, it means that it's not just me.
I like if there's also someone involved, like a manager or a label or someone who knows what they're doing. If the artist doesn't have that, they should be savvy enough to find people that can help them beyond just me. I can help with the live stuff, but there's a lot of things that I can't help with. I think it takes a certain type of person to go outside and ask for help with things that you don't know, and who can actually get it. But fundamentally, if there's some other people to develop this thing, besides just me, that means a lot. I mean, I can't create stars by myself. Often I'll find a great artist, and a lot of people jump on the bandwagon too. That's a good sign – other people are feeling this genius.
When I found Lorde, a lot of people had played 'Royals' on SoundCloud already. And when I played it for people, they thought it was awesome! Same thing with Billie Eilish – 'Ocean Eyes' was already a SoundCloud hit, and a lot of people were telling me how great she was. That's a good sign, too. If none of that's happening, then maybe I'm wrong! [laughs] Maybe it's not good enough!
How sensitive are you to risk in terms of signing artists?
There are a few things: I will get involved earlier than a lot of people that are my competitors or my peers. I've always gotten involved early and taken that risk. I will take the risk if it's something that I really, really love. It takes a long time to develop these things – it takes three to four years just to get out of the gates. I signed a guy two-and-a-half years ago that blew me away – I cried the first time I heard him. His name is J.S. Ondara, he's from Africa but moved to the United States, and he sounds like Bob Dylan! I love the music so much! With them, there wasn't really a manager or label – and I helped find all those people. Now, he's got a great manager and a great label, and the record's coming out – that's my point; it's just the beginning.
When you see a prospective talent, what's your thought process like?
I've never had any artists go straight to arenas. There's this myth that's like, "This one person's going to do this, and then they're famous."
I've had artists open for big artists on whole tours that are not much further ahead when they're done than when they started. It doesn't really mean much. Same with being on a New Music Friday playlist, that doesn't mean you're going to be big. Those things are just things that help develop, and you'll need more and more and more.
I talk about it like a snowball – each one of those is part of building a snowball, and you need to keep finding them. I've worked crazy hard to find tours for artists where they open for someone. I'll finally get them, and as soon as that, I go and find another one. And still, part of the point of getting a big tour is to have something to talk about. You also hope that people are going to see them and think that it's great.
I feel like that connection that people get when they love the artist happens more through more by hearing them on Spotify or on the radio than by them randomly opening for their favourite band and they happened to be there. But, it sure is nice to say, "Oh, we're touring with so and so”.
We live in a world where the boundaries are blurred between indie and mainstream music. Does that affect how you do your job?
Well, it's great for me because, in the old days, I only had the underground indie artists. But now, a bunch of them are mainstream. However, it doesn't really change how I do it, I don't think. I still use the same principles that I did in the beginning; book bands I love, work my butt off, get them good gigs – really just working on artists I love. But the difference now is that I'm not alone anymore.
Back in the old days, I would tell people about the indie acts, and a lot of those conversations didn't really go anywhere. Now, people are hearing about the same bands and they like it – it spreads like wildfire. I'm not really responsible for them blowing up; it's happening on its own. There are a lot more people that are aware of this stuff.
There's also this shift in the industry where big-name artists such as Kanye West are pretty much doing things on their own terms. What do you think of that?
I think it's hard to compare the top level artists with the others. What Kanye does, the majority of artists can't really replicate. But I think it's interesting, I think Chance The Rapper is interesting and I think it's great that they can do it however they want.
What an artist needs to be successful, I feel, is a team of people, depending on how big you are, where each of the people are really, really good at their job and whatever roles they've been given. That might mean they've been in the business forever and they know everyone in that lane or that they have a great vision for what makes a great live show. Someone like Kanye has a core group of great, talented people, and then he is delivering the music. You can do a lot.
But you see, a lot of those people might work at major record companies, just like they used to – they might be booking agents, they might be managers, or they might not. There's more ways to do things now than there used to be, that's for sure.
So yeah, I think more people will do it, I still think there's going to be an exception to that rule for quite a long time.
How do you manage an artist's ego?
I'm not really in a position where I can do that so much – I'm in more of a service position. I provide a service to the artist and the manager; I'm supposed to book tours and basically have the shows sell out and the artist make as much money as possible. I don't find myself checking their ego or something. I try to avoid being in that situation – their manager does it; the manager has to deal with their ego and their minds.
One of the things that a lot of people don't understand about the music business and music in general is how much emotion that there is and that psychology is involved with dealing with artists. I think it's really challenging for artists and for people that work with them to deal with this psychology. I mean, artists are living different lives than people that are, say, doing business or going to a normal job everyday.
There are great things about it, and there are very challenging things about it. When people write a bad review or tweet that you stink or whatever, that's hard! And when a show isn't sold out, that's hard, too! When you write a song that you love and it doesn't get any streams, that's hard too. It must be challenging to do what you think is right, and have people not react to it. And then, it's like, "Now what? I'm confused. I'm lost." So yeah, psychology is really a big part of it – and ego is part of the psychology.
Finally, you’ve said that your competition pays a lot of attention to big acts but you chose to focus on the smaller acts. Why is that important to you?
That's just kind of the way I've always done it. I mean, I would love it if big arena acts came to me and wanted me to book them, and sometimes I do get that; not necessarily arena acts but successful ones. And I love it when that happens, it's great – I get to skip a whole bunch of the steps and it's easier for me because they're selling lots of tickets, y'know?
But, I haven't found loads of those types of opportunities – the phone's not ringing off the hook with established artists wanting to come to me; other people that are doing this job are good at it, too. People aren't changing often, and I'm not out there trying to get people to leave, especially if they're doing a good job.
So, what do I do? Nothing? Or do I go and find other artists that I love and help them get to that place? So that's what I do – what I've always done. And it's worked out really well. Some of those bands went from 100 people a night to tens of thousands. The way I've done it, it's worked out really well.
And once in awhile, somebody successful already comes to me, and that's good! But, I don't know, I kind of found that often, if they're already successful and want to change, there's actually something going wrong – and it might be them. Often, it's not the other agent who's doing a bad job, it's them, such as them being progressively less and less popular over the years. So, I'd rather develop talent that I think is great.
Really, that just means I do my job, like book great shows for them. That means playing cool clubs that sell out, having other good bands open or have them open for other good bands. I've done that for a really, really long time. I know how to do it, and I'm good at it, and a bunch of them blow up.