Tom Windish realized his love of music as a teen mowing lawns. While he was a college student at Binghamton University, he joined the campus radio station and scored an internship at William Morris only to be fired three weeks after his start date. The reason?
“They said I wasn’t William Morris material,” he remembers.
Several decades later, he would go on to become the founder of a concert-booking firm, Windish Agency. The company grew to be 850 bands and 80 employees. In 2017, he sold the agency to Paradigm. He is now a senior executive there.
Windish spoke to Crain’s about the sale as well as his passions for entrepreneurship and the music industry.
Q: How did you decide to sell your agency to Paradigm?
A: That was a very big decision for me. I started thinking about selling the company or having some sort of partnership about five years ago because the music business was changing a lot and and I really wanted to provide more services. We were pretty much just booking the shows for the bands. We booked about 20,000 shows a year during the last year that we were independent.
I had an employee that was going up to Silicon Valley and meeting with tech companies to tell them about us. We also did some other pretty funky things that had nothing to do with booking, but were dreams that musicians had that would help promote their band. All of this was going well but I wanted a lot more people to do those things. I also wanted to go global and Paradigm had a big office in London. That was something that would have been impossible for me to build on my own because of the way the market is set up over there.
Q: You've been in the industry for a while. What is the biggest mistake you made over the course of your career?
A: I think there were times when I tried to do too many things and grew a little faster than I should have. I rarely would stop and be happy with what I had. It was rare that I would think that way.
Q: What makes a good employee for you in this industry? What characteristics do you look out for?
A: I think of the employees more as my partners. I look for people who really hustle. They need to take any task that they are given and run with it, and get it done accurately and really well and quickly then come back and say, “Now what do you need help with?"
In our business, we are dealing with a lot of personalities and very unique people that are trying to go after a creative dream so you're tossed balls from every direction constantly. You need to be prepared for anything and be able to react quickly with really good ideas and then be able to go get it done.
One of my first employees still works with us and he's been with me for almost 20 years. He started out answering phones and he kept on asking me what else he could help with. I would give him more and more tasks and he would come back and ask for more. Each task would be a little more complicated until he was booking tours for bands and then he was finding artists and bands. He's done such a great job and now we have many people that are following in his footsteps in their own unique ways.
Of course, having good taste in music is also good but it's hard to quantify what that means. Just because I don't like it doesn't mean it's not something that can't be appreciated.
We had three principles at Windish: Only work with artists that you love, respond to every email immediately and be nice to people. It sounds simple and silly but we said that a lot and we really tried to do that. I think it's pretty amazing how far those principles got us.
Q: How have companies like Napster and Spotify changed your work?
A: Things really changed for us when Napster happened. I would go after all these bands that I loved, but often that meant they weren't signed to big labels and they certainly weren't hiring publicists or companies to get them on the radio. You wouldn't read about them in Rolling Stone or The New York Times. You wouldn't hear them on radio stations in your car. You wouldn't see them on MTV. It was hard to discover them, but they were out there. When Napster happened, all of a sudden everybody had all their music out there.
In the old days, bands would get record labels first and then they would hire a booking agent and go on tour. Now, it seems to be the reverse where a booking agent will get involved before there's a record company. They'll have music out on Spotify or SoundCloud or whatever and will help build up a physical fanbase of people that come to see them by playing shows and getting them in front of people. A little later on, they’ll get a record company behind them, but sometimes they don't even do that. Sometimes they just do it themselves now.
Q: What are your goals down the road as you start this new chapter with Paradigm?
A: I want to be the best at providing other types of opportunities to artists. We’re already great at booking the shows and getting them into festivals, but a lot of these artists have a lot of other ideas. Some of these ideas are really good things that should come to fruition, but they need help making it happen. At Paradigm, we employ a lot more people to help with that than I did at Windish. For example, There's a television show called What Would Diplo Do that I was instrumental in creating.
I am working on additional projects outside of music too.