Janice Gaffney's panties read "Diddle my skittle." Gaffney, the manager for singer Peaches, is sitting on the floor of the Emeryville office space shared by music merchandisers Astropitch and indie tour bookers The Kork Agency. She's wearing the promotional panties on her head.
Across the room, Kork owner and booking agent Christian Bernhardt, 32, sprawls on one of the office's beat-up couches. Bernhardt is from Hamburg, and with his gangly limbs, scraggly beard, and unwashed hair, he looks like a European League basketball star fallen on hard times. He also looks like he hasn't slept in three days. Black parabolas darken the space beneath his eyes, and his movements have the exhausted languor of someone twice his age. Still, seeing Janice with the skittle-diddling underwear on her head raises a short-lived smile.
Ask any indie musician about booking a tour, and they'll take on Bernhardt's pallor. Without a proven track record of drawing large crowds, a band's chances of getting on a good bill in an unfamiliar city are dismal. Securing an opening slot in a third-rate town can take months of planning and dozens of faxes, e-mails, and phone calls. Even then, nothing is certain. Show promoters regularly cancel concerts and short bands on payments, knowing musicians can ill afford to make waves at desirable venues.
The hostile touring conditions make the services of companies like the Kork Agency invaluable. If you can get them to take you on, the agency will plan your itinerary, book all your shows, negotiate your fees, and be a compassionate voice on the phone when the tour van explodes. In exchange, they take a ten to fifteen percent commission on each show's earnings.
Some of Bernhardt's roster, like ... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead and Peaches play the country's larger, more profitable halls and theaters. Most of Bernhardt's stable, though, couldn't sell out a walk-in closet. The math is bad all around: If a band only makes $300 on a show, the Kork Agency can look forward to netting a cool $45 for booking it.
Which raises the obvious question: "Why are you doing this to yourself?"
"There is a lot of great things about it," he says, his English bearing faint traces of a German accent. "You interact with artists that you love, with music that you love. You get to meet interesting people. You get to see amazing shows. You're on the inside of it. And there are so many tasks beyond just booking."
One of those tasks is psychological. Because he negotiates fees with club promoters, Bernhardt is often the first to register a band's declining popularity. Breaking that news to the performers requires the tact of a diplomat and steady nerves of a minesweeper.
"They see the numbers and say, 'Why the hell are we playing this smaller venue? Why the hell aren't we making a thousand dollars a night anymore?' And you get blamed. It's just a lot harder to deal with someone who has been up there and all of a sudden is down here."
The Kork client list also includes two of the alternative world's legendarily disturbed personalities -- Austin's Daniel Johnston and Chicago's Wesley Willis -- musicians who require more than just a list of club addresses and a map.
"It's not easy," Bernhardt says. "Wesley calls here seven or eight times a day sometimes when he's not out on tour. Because he's schizophrenic, he has some bad attacks, and then he calls us."
Life at the Kork Agency isn't all tender reassurances, though. Inevitably one of his bands will get ripped off by a promoter while on tour, and Bernhardt has to enter the melee with fangs bared. Bernhardt's days of showing up unannounced on the doorsteps of slimy promoters are over, though. Now he deals with unethical bookers electronically, threatening to pillory them on the Kork Agency Web site unless the promised funds are delivered.
Sometimes it's up to the tour booker to lean on his own clients as well. Rock star stunts like smashing microphones and breaking speakers go over well with the crowd, but when the band disappears, Bernhardt's the one who gets the bill.
"The biggest things always came with Trail of Dead," Bernhardt says, "because they tended to wreck the clubs or take the equipment apart. I got so many calls from promoters complaining, saying they couldn't pay them, and that we owed them $200 because they destroyed the entire PA."
Bernhardt, though, isn't always the best at playing the stern authority figure. When asked whether he badgered ...Trail of Dead to change their ways after all the complaints from promoters, Bernhardt shakes his head, his answer revealing why so many rockers feel they've found a kindred spirit in the Kork Agency.
"No," he says, his face brightening. "I love it. That was the reason I started working with them. Some promoter told me if you like it when someone smashes their guitar, then you should book them. That was it for me."
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