ARTS IN THE SPOTLIGHT Small revolutions

How a small indie music agency made Animal Collective, Girl Talk, and the XX happen

Evening with an Entrepreneur

Berklee College of Music

October 27, 2010

On Wednesday, October 27, the Berklee College of Music celebrated its seventh annual Evening with an Entrepreneur with one of the premier agents of the indie scene: Tom Windish. Though the name may be unfamiliar to the most, the names of the bands that he represents are not. Since its founding in 2004, the Windish Agency has amassed a roster of over 400 bands, including Animal Collective, the XX, Royksopp, and Crystal Castles. As of now, Windish’s agency is still expanding.

However, to say that Tom Windish’s career had humble beginnings is an understatement. While growing up, Windish never entertained aspirations of joining the music industry; in fact, to the amusement of many Berklee students in the audience, he admitted not even being able to play an instrument. Windish entered college with only a small lawn-mowing business and a love of obscure music. Eventually, through a mix of hard work, luck, and intuition for business opportunities, he went on to direct the campus concert board and set up a small booking office in his apartment.

That one office has since evolved into a thriving business with branches in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto. Despite his success, Tom Windish doesn’t quite fit into the traditional image of a slippery, three-piece suit agent; in fact, he challenges the stereotypical image. “I saw good music being made and bad service [from booking agencies],” he says; the Windish Agency is his attempt to fill that spot. The premise of the company sounds utopic: performers are free to seek his services without having to sign a contract. Windish’s business strategy set the audience boiling with skepticism; one student asked whether it “has ever bit [him] in the ass.”

In fact, Windish’s business model doesn’t just work — it’s flourishing. While other booking agencies suffered a slump last summer, the Windish Agency reported a pleasant spike in sales, and its participation in festivals such as SXSW is growing steadily. Plans to create a festival and a music publishing company are also in the works, but — unlike most other agents — Windish plans to do so without enlisting the help of larger corporations. “I hear [merger propositions] out, just to see what they have to offer,” he explained, “but I like the satisfaction of having my own company.” The struggle for the company to remain independent is a modern tale of David versus Goliath: In a time where many boutique booking agencies have to undergo mergers to stay afloat, the Windish Agency has managed on its own without sacrificing solvency.

Less than a decade ago, Tom Windish’s success would have been borderline impossible; however, the birth of the “new media” has completely transformed the music industry; “walls have been broken,” he says. As blogs and social networks replace big networks and labels as the tastemakers of our time, independent musicians can present themselves to a wider audience without the traditional pains of selling oneself over to a label; this explosion of talent is the mainstay of small companies like the Windish Agency. It’s a beautiful paradox.