The Big Names in Booking Bands for Television Share Their Secrets

When ABC late-night host Jimmy Kimmel playfully admonished his show’s music booker Scott Igoe on-air on Oct. 23 for refusing to let a 14-year-old Taylor Swift audition for him 10 years earlier, it was a rare moment of public recognition for a behind-the-scenes job.

The gig is hard to come by. As Igoe’s equivalent at TBS’ Conan show, Jim Pitt, explained during Billboard’s first music bookers roundtable, “we don’t leave because it’s the best job in the world.” Pitt, 54, has spent 21 years as Conan O’Brien’s music segment producer and before that did the same for Saturday Night Live (SNL). The other participants have had similarly long runs: Monica Escobedo, 37, of Good Morning America (GMA), has been producing music and other entertainment segments at the ABC morning show for 17 years; Igoe, 46, has held the position of music executive at Jimmy Kimmel Live! for 12 years; and Julie Gurovitsch, 32, who was named Today‘s coordinating music producer in January, has been booking entertainment for the show since 2008.

Combined, these four TV veterans provide invaluable exposure for artists — from bands on the rise to heritage acts — while navigating the tricky terrain of management and record-label priorities, pressure from their networks, shrinking budgets and fierce competition. They gathered in New York on Oct. 25 to discuss the lures and traps of the exclusive world in which they work.

What’s important to you in a booking? How do you strike a balance with what the host wants, what the network wants and what you want?

Monica Escobedo: To me, it’s keeping the genres diverse, so it’s not just the latest pop star. I want to book the alternative act that is going to become the next Green Day or The Killers. And I want to know the next big country act that should be on Today.

Scott Igoe: Jimmy — and ABC as well — like to have that one big name a week that he can say is coming up this week or next. And peppered in are acts from different genres of music — names that maybe Jimmy doesn’t know or the audience doesn’t know but that they can look forward to [discovering] on the show.

There are obviously different considerations for morning and late-night audiences. Julie, we were talking earlier about Tove Lo and how a song like “Stay High” doesn’t work so well at 8 in the morning.

Julie Gurovitsch: Or “Not on Drugs,” even though she’s not on drugs. Sometimes, it’s a challenge to put your personal tastes aside and do what’s right for your audience, but I really try to keep our viewers in mind [by asking myself], “Who are they? What do they like? What do I think they will like in an act that’s not yet established?”

There are times when bookings can go wrong. Jim, you worked at SNL when Sinéad O’Connor tore up the picture of the pope. What was going on behind the scenes?

Jim Pitt: Yes, that was my booking. It was 10 minutes to 1 a.m., and I’m standing by the page desk outside Studio 8H, and, mentally, I’m already thinking, “Who am I going to ride to the [afterparty] with?” The song ends and all of a sudden she pulls out the photo and rips it up. The most credit for that night goes to Dave Wilson, who was the director. He yelled out, “Don’t cue applause,” so the segment just faded out. That made it even more dramatic because songs never go out with silence. It was a stunning moment. The next thing you know, people are scurrying around, and I’m thinking, “Did that actually just happen?” At the time, it seemed like, “Oh, boy, we’re really in for it.” I think it made for an uncomfortable Sunday, but by Monday, the headlines were already attacking her. It’s sad. It really ended her career in the States.

When something like that happens, is there concern over your next booking or another layer of approval that it has to go through?

Pitt: No, because people knew that I wasn’t involved. Look, things go wrong. There was a band called Goldfinger that did Late Night With Conan O’Brien in the mid-’90s. After a song, Conan always goes over and thanks the guest, and one of the bandmembers grabbed him in a bear hug and lifted him up. Conan literally flipped over this guy’s back and landed on his head. It could have crippled him, but Conan sprang right up.

Gurovitsch: I feel like morning TV is so tame. Will Ferrell accidentally dropped Meredith Vieira on the skating rink once.

What are the expectations of the ­musical performances you book ­beyond the show’s airing?

Igoe: We put a lot of emphasis on getting content on our YouTube page, and it has paid off. The Jimmy Kimmel Live! page has gotten over a billion views, and, yeah, it started with music. If you come on the show, you get two songs, and, occasionally, a band will do four or five songs, and we’ll put that content up. We typically have a 90-day license to keep it up on the page, and the more we can the better.

What does it do for the show?

Igoe: With a younger demographic, that’s where they’re learning about the music. For those who don’t stay up late to watch the show — or the music, which airs about 12:30 to 12:45 a.m., they can get it the next day. If it becomes a watercooler moment, people will look for it online. Also, I don’t watch late-night TV at night. I watch it the next day online. At night, I’m usually out at a club seeing a band so I can book for the future.

How often do you watch your ­competition’s musical performances?

Igoe: When someone’s pitching an act that I haven’t seen, I will say, “Send me the performance from Today, GMA or Conan.” Live performances are great but there’s nothing better than watching a band on another late-night or morning show as a reference, because it’s the closest thing to what it’ll look like on our show.

Escobedo [to Igoe]: I’ll watch your show and think, “I want to tweak that [performance] for morning.” We’re always looking for ways to create that one special moment that people remember, whether it’s Lady Gaga coming in on a zip line or Jason Derulo on a Jet Ski. You want to create that moment where everybody’s buzzing.

So one booking can lead to another?

Gurovitsch: Absolutely. I booked Echosmith after watching them on Conan, and then after they appeared on Today, their record-label rep told me that our booking led to other bookings.

Igoe: Yeah, Ellen had booked them, and I think The Tonight Show has them.

And now the band’s music is being used for a Bravo cable show campaign.

Pitt: I don’t think it’s as common now as it was 20 years ago that a TV appearance leads to a huge bump in sales the next day, but I always say, “We help build the story.” Echosmith’s performance on our show didn’t sell a ton of records, but it led to Julie booking them.

In addition to seeing live shows, you all use such data as the Billboard charts, YouTube views, Nielsen SoundScan and Spotify to make informed decisions on which acts to invite onto your shows. Has there been a time when the numbers didn’t tell the whole story?

Igoe: Clean Bandit is a perfect example. They were at 93 million YouTube views when I was considering them. And every week, they were moving up on the Billboard Hot 100. I’ve never seen the band live, but I’m like, “OK, let’s do this.” And that band is going to be great once they get a hundred shows under their belt. But right now, they’re still figuring themselves out. I won’t say they were camera-shy, but their presence in front of a TV audience needs to be cultivated a little bit more.

Do publicists or managers ever say, “We’ll give you this major artist down the road if you take this lesser band now?”

Escobedo: I remember who has been loyal to me and who has helped me out along the way. So if you give me One Direction, tell me what you want next.

Gurovitsch: I prefer not to work favor to favor. You have to do right by the people who are good to you, but if there’s a booking that’s going to hurt your credibility or your show’s credibility as a place to watch really good music, you can’t say yes.

Pitt: In the late ’90s, I got a call from a guy named John Henry Williams, [baseball great] Ted Williams’ son. He said, “If I could get my dad to do the show, would you book my band?” And I was like well, Conan grew up in Boston, Ted Williams played for the Red Sox. How bad can the band be? So I talked to Conan, and he said yes. We booked the band and they were fine. As my producer Jeff Ross likes to say, nobody got hurt. Ted Williams does the show, and he’s amazing. So now I have a great answer for anybody who wants [a favor]. I always say, “If you can deliver a better hitter than Ted Williams, I’ll book your band.”

Scott and Monica, how did Jimmy ­Kimmel Live! and GMA partner to host Taylor Swift on your respective shows?

Igoe: It’s a case of “The star pool is shrinking, we don’t have the money we used to 10 years ago, stars cost twice as much as they did 10 years ago — what kind of package deals can we get?” So network shows get together and say, “Let’s do the rollout for Taylor. Let’s do the rollout for Ne-Yo.” Monica and I have talked more this year than ever before.

Escobedo: Back in the day, we’d probably compete more for who gets [a performer] first. And now it’s cool to have the viewers go to bed with Miley Cyrus on Kimmel and wake up with her on GMA, after she flies to New York overnight.

Does it help to land big bookings, like One Direction, when you can say, “We’ll give you GMA and Kimmel?”

Igoe: It can help, but [an act’s representation] can also say, “We’re going to see what SNL offers,” and it shuts everyone down.

Scott and Monica, do you get together and say, “This is our wish list for team ­bookings?”

Igoe: Yes, we do, and we may also bring in Dancing With the Stars and The View…

Escobedo: And Live With Kelly and Michael or Nightline and see what combination works. I love when we can arrange for an artist to get a two-­minute chat on GMA and then a longer profile on Nightline. We can really get in-depth with their story. We also have a partnership with Yahoo so we can do something extra there, too.

Igoe: It’s not as easy as it sounds. Bicoastal appearances are difficult. There are a lot of factors that play into it. You really have to think it out, and the label and the artist have to be on board.

Escobedo: And only a select group gets this plan.

Igoe: Yeah, because it’s expensive and you don’t want a GMA-Jimmy Kimmel Live! rollout every week. When it happens, you want it to be special.

Julie, do you have similar ­conversations with The Tonight Show Starring ­Jimmy Fallon and SNL as part of a rollout ­package or a group package?

Gurovitsch: All three of our shows have very different audiences, but I love that The Tonight Show is in New York. There are a lot of artists that come to do that show that are then available to us.

Talk about a nail-biting moment that took place when you were close to air or actually on the air?

Escobedo: Growing up, I was a big fan of Green Day. So when they came to the show, it was a surreal moment. Green Day initially wasn’t interested in doing the morning show, so that was years and years of asking. And when they finally showed up, the crowd was singing over Billie Joe Armstrong’s vocals. We were in Central Park, where you can only go up to a certain decibel level, and the police said, “Sorry, we have these rules.” And then Billie Joe said, “Well, I’m not coming out until you fix it.” So it became a balancing act: Do you have a riot because the concert is canceled, or do you make an adjustment? The police decided to make the adjustment, and we had our first mosh pit.

What’s a music-booking lesson you learned the hard way?

Igoe: How about when an artist comes on the show and says, “Oh, you know this is on a track, right?” And you say, “Well, I figured you’d sing a little bit.” And they do sing a little bit, but sometimes they don’t

Tell us more.

Igoe: Jimmy leans over and goes, “They’re not singing.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I learned that at rehearsal. Was I going to bother you while you were writing the monologue to tell you that the band isn’t singing tonight?” It’s worth mentioning that occasionally having an artist perform live to track, which is different than lip-syncing, is to our benefit. When you’ve got a track that’s very complicated and the audio needs to be perfect, or we need to go one time only, then it’s OK to have them fake it.

Gurovitsch: We require all of our acts to sing live.

Escobedo: Lead vocals [must] be live. I had a situation in rehearsal where the artist was dancing extensively and thought they could just slide it by me [that they were lip-syncing] because there would be a lot of movement and “oohs” and “ahhs” in the back. We had to say, “No, you have to sing. You have to figure it out.” I’ve also booked two artists who’ve recorded a great duet and found that when they get to the show, they don’t actually know each other or, perhaps, get along. And I’m the middleman. I had to pull someone out of a dressing room who was in tears.

What’s the big get that everyone wants to see?

Gurovitsch: I want to see Steve Perry back with Journey so bad. Earlier this year, when he showed up in Minneapolis with the Eels, it renewed my excitement.

Igoe: I think it is going to happen.

EscobedoMadonna would be huge; the Rolling Stones; Beyoncé and Jay Z together on a TV show.

Igoe: Why would they do that when they just had a big HBO special?

Escobedo: That doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying to get them on the show.

Pitt: I don’t think you can say about anyone now, “They’ll never be on TV.” Everyone these days does TV.

Igoe: Eventually. Except for maybe Led Zeppelin.

How important is exclusivity to you?

Gurovitsch: Sometimes there’s loyalty, but the people who are watching the Today show aren’t watching GMA the same day.

Escobedo: Within that actual promotional period, yes, it has to be exclusive, but not for the rest of your life necessarily. But yeah, if an artist were talking to both Today and GMA, they would have to pick one show or another.

Gurovitsch: I like to get in on things early. “Hey, I just saw this great performer. I hear you rep him. Is he playing in the city anytime soon? Please keep me posted.” And then as those things grow, you hop on them early.

Escobedo: And they remember who had them on first.

Igoe: That can be a double-edged sword too, because you might call and say, “Keep me informed,” and then you find out it’s not what you want. And then the publicist says, “It’s all you, baby. Just say the word ‘yes’ and you can have it.” And then I say, “I’m booked that day.”

Pitt: That’s why you don’t have those conversations at their show when you’ve had a drink or two.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 8 issue of Billboard.