There really there is no single answer to this age old question.
Each artist is on their own individual journey, and for some that journey may include representation, and for others it won’t. Also, for some the need and/or desire for representation changes along this journey. In my eyes, your approach to representation may (and probably should) remain fluid and morph throughout your career.
I am regularly asked by artists “Do I need an agent?” and my answer usually includes this analogy.
An acting agent is similar to a tax agent. In the same way that you can do your own taxes - you can represent yourself as an actor and have a successful career. However, you may choose to engage someone else to do some of the work for you and that person may have more specific expertise in certain areas.
As always, there are pros and cons. I hope that this article, along with potential others in this future, will guide you through these pros and cons and help you decide whether or not you need representation; identify red flags in an agent, and also empower you to take more control of your career.
As we delve into the pros and cons, we will explore and compare the following:
Access to briefs
Getting in the audition room
Online Casting Platforms
‘Behind the scenes’ work
‘Control’ of your career
Accessing casting briefs has and continues to be one of the toughest parts of the job for actors. Unfortunately, Casting Directors (CD’s) have become gatekeepers to the industry in the way that they choose who to share a casting brief with. This can be affected by a range of factors, but when talking of representation, one of the biggest factors is relationships.
Most agencies have established relationships with CD’s and Production Companies. This relationship and the reputation of an agency will have CD’s and Producers send most if not all their briefs to their trusted agencies. This may increase the briefs you have access to if represented by a trusted agency.
However, agents still decide which of their clients to forward briefs to and which clients to submit or pitch. Depending on the relationship with your representation and their knowledge and understanding of your work and abilities, you may still miss out on opportunities. In addition, they may have an agency quota which we will get to below. As a self represented artist, you can still develop strong relationships with CD’s and Production Companies yourself but this can be a slower process than joining an agency with an established relationship. You can also find opportunities yourself but you need to be a lot more proactive, develop a good network of friends who share casting opportunities, and keep your finger on the pulse.
This might be a great time to discuss Underground. The online platform managed by myself for Be You Group aims to level the playing field by providing direct access for artists to career building opportunities and casting briefs without the need for agency representation. You can access the Underground at www.beyouinc.org/underground
Getting in the audition room is not guaranteed whether you're self represented or with an agency. Linked to the above points regarding access to casting briefs, the established relationship an agency has with CD’s and Companies may help to increase your chances of getting in the room as certain companies will prioritise seeing represented talent over self represented. We saw this recently with the first casting process for Moulin Rouge in 2020 where there were two different processes of submission. One, represented talent only had to provide headshot and resumes whereas 2) self-represented talent had to include video submissions. It is assumed that this double standard of submission was down to the concept that “those with representation would have to have been of a certain standard to secure representation whereas self-represented artists need to prove to casting they’re of the standard to get into the room.” We also see audition processes that only invite represented talent for the same reason. The flip side of this however can be agency quotas. Certain casting processes will provide agencies with a quota of clients that they are able to submit. Take for example, Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC). MTC will only accept three actors per agency for their general auditions. These quotas can work in favour of self-represented artists as they can submit for projects that some of their represented counterparts won’t be able to put forward because their agency has decided to go with other clients. Having had experience as a performer who worked both self-represented and with an agent, I personally feel that I got into the room more when self-represented. And upon reflection, agency quotas and my relationship with my agent are likely to be the cause.
Agents take commission. It is just part of the relationship and is how you pay them for their service of not only marketing you, pitching you and submitting for roles (which most artists focus on), but also for negotiating your contracts and providing legal protection and general support during your contract (which I’ll elaborate on next). Commission should be taken from your wages from work booked through them and/or they represented you during negotiations.
A few things an agency shouldn’t charge you for include:
Joining the agency
Being added to their website
Setting up online casting platforms platforms (more on this below)
Taking Headshots through the agency or their specific photographer
Reputable agencies will not charge for these services. These things are part of an agent’s job that should be claimed back in commission. Charging up front for these can be a good red flag that the agency is a scam or that you are treated as a customer rather than their client.
It’s important to have a clear and ethical agreement on commission set up from when you first sign with an agency. Industry standards should match the Entertainment Industry Act 2013 (NSW), however as this is only NSW legislation many agencies based in other states have higher commission rates - which I find unethical.
“The Act prohibits performers being charged a fee merely for joining or auditioning to join or entering into a contract with a performer representative. The Act also prescribes the maximum fees and percentages performer representative may charge a performer in different situations:
in relation to work in the film, television or electronic media the cap is 10% of the total amount payable to the performer for the performance;
In relation to work in live theatre, or a live musical or variety performance, the cap is 10% for any period up to 5 weeks and 5% for any period after 5 weeks.”
Should you engage multiple representatives (e.g. an Australian Agent and an American Agent), then agreement will be made between you and your team of reps that may see this commission rate increase such as a 10% split per agency (20%) or a 10% & 5% split (15%).
Obviously, if you're self-represented you don’t pay commission so treat yourself - especially if you’re good at negotiating.
Online Casting Platforms are important in the modern industry. The two main platforms a Music Theatre performer in Australia can use are Showcast and Casting Network, however some companies use their own casting portals such as the Crossroads Live Portal.
Generally agencies will get better briefs through these platforms than someone who’s self-represented due to the way CD’s and Companies use them - refer back to the “accessing casting briefs” section. They will send these out to reputable agencies or only send the higher paid or higher tier work to certain people. As someone who’s self-rep, you are usually likely to get access to more general briefs through the platforms - however it’s good to have them as some castings will only accept submissions via the platform (which is a major accessibility problem - but that’s a rant for another blog post).
You may be charged by the agency to set up your Showcast or Casting Network. You shouldn’t have to do this through them. You can sign up for these platforms yourself (at a fee) and then have your existing profiles linked to the agency (which is a free service). You can also get membership discounts through your agency if represented - ask your agent about this!
Below are fees for Casting Network and Showcast - if your agency is setting it up for you they should only be charging for the below. Casting Network Fees: Free Basic Membership - Have to pay each time you add/update Headshot Premium: $179.90 (Annual) / $17.99 (Monthly). Agency Discount: $75.00
Base Fee: $130.00/year Basic Media Package $52.00 Plus Media Package $78.00 Pro Media Package $102.00
Hot Tip: I suggest you set up Casting Network and Showcast Profiles yourself for more control over showcasing your credits, training, and experience. If your agency sets it up you can request edit access.
This might be a great time to discuss Brand You. Run by myself for Be You Group, Brand You provides personalised feedback and advice on how to best showcase you and your branding materials (such as your online casting profiles). Find out more or book a free initial session at www.beyougroup.org/brandyou
Contract and pay negotiations can be easier and more successful when a representative does it on your behalf. In my opinion, negotiations are one of the biggest pros to having representation. An agent will not only have greater awareness of the way certain companies work and how much they usually pay, but they will also usually be able to push companies further when it comes to pay and terms of employment than a self-rep artist will. If you are self-represented, it's important to know your self worth when negotiating contracts and you need to really do your research into current MEAA minimums, what your peers are being paid, things to request be added to contracts in addition to the PCA agreement, and what rights you have as a performer.
Legal support is one of the biggest pros of representation. A good agent will be an expert on up-to-date performance law, LPA guidelines, MEAA minimums and the PCA agreement. Not only will this help with negotiations and protection for your contracts, but it also allows someone with expertise to take care of the legal side of your career so you can focus on being creative. If you are self-represented, then you can engage in legal consultation privately, with MEAA, or some agents will even provide legal services to you for contracts ad-hoc for a small fee even if you're not on their books.
‘Behind the scenes’ your agent might be doing things for you and your career that you weren’t aware of. This work might include things like managing a range of general enquiries on your behalf, working out your schedule to allow you to balance projects, or developing and presenting a pitch for you to CD’s, creatives, and producers.
If you’re self-represented then it would be good to consider how you are or could be doing the above for yourself.
‘Control’ of your career is a big thing that people take into account when considering representation. As an artist, you should always be in control of your career regardless - with your agent working as a contractor to your business.
Unfortunately, from the nature of engaging in someone external you will lose some of the control when working with an agent. You won’t know exactly what you’ve been submitted for or how you will be pitched for a project. Hopefully you can develop a good relationship with your agent in which you can work more collaboratively, they know what you want and what your brand is.
However, if you want absolute control on how you manage your career, you see yourself constantly emailing your agent and potentially micromanaging them, then maybe the self-rep route is going to be the option for you.
So as you can see, there is no one size fits all approach when it comes to whether to be self-represented or repped by an agency. Hopefully the exploration of pros and cons has answered some of your questions (and created some new ones too - stay inquisitive!).
Regardless of representation, you have a successful and sustainable career. Remember that your needs will change over the course of your career and as such your choice of representation may need to change as well.