BY KAREN BLISS
Stefanie Purificati is called “a fantastic agent who has great instincts,” by Tom Kemp, senior vice president and co-owner of The Feldman Agency (TFA) with Jeff Craib. Reflecting on 2023, he cites hiring the veteran Toronto-based booking agent as one of his personal accomplishments of the year.
After more than six years with the now-defunct APA Agency and 15 in total with the same leadership, Purificati — who is the responsible agent for Aysanabee, Jamie Fine, Jesse Cook, JJ Wilde, iskwē, Digging Roots, Shawnee Kish, Tynomi Banks, and others — says she was drawn to TFA’s “very strong team” and “amazing roster of top tier talent.”
Purificati got her start in the live side of the music business almost 20 years ago. After earning her B.A. from York University, she enrolled in Harris Institute for the Arts, after which she landed a job in 2005 as production coordinator and live music programmer for The Drake Hotel. In 2008, she was hired by The Agency Group’s senior vice president Jack Ross as his assistant, but she made it very clear at the outset that she wanted to book bands.
Under Ross’ mentorship and guidance in 2012, she was a full-fledged R.A. She remained with the agency when TAG was acquired by American juggernaut United Talent Agency in 2015, then when the Canadian office was shuttered, and Ross and Ralph James opened APA Canada in 2017. There, Purificati became a top 3 earner.
Last summer, she was asked by Canadian Music Week president Neill Dixon to interview a pioneer in the live music sector for a keynote conversation, one of the highest-ranking women in the live business, Debra Rathwell, the executive vice president of global touring and talent at AEG Presents, who has been in the business over 40 years. But now, Purificati is a veteran, a role model herself.
She talked to Karen Bliss about paying her dues, what a discussion with a prospective client entails, if going viral with a song on TikTok matters in the live industry, why she went to Feldman, and, yes, that question.
Can we get that elephant in the room out of the way? I want to know if you were or are treated differently because you’re a woman working in the live sector dominated by men?
That’s a big question. The short answer is yes. I feel really fortunate to have come up through the team at The Agency Group back when I started with them, and all the different incarnations of that team, never feeling like I was being treated like the token female in the room. Within the four walls of that office and the team of people I was working with, I never felt like I was treated differently. I was treated the same as all the male agents in the office. I was reprimanded as harshly, as any of the guys would be [laughs], and I was spoken to as respectfully as the guys were spoken to, so I never felt that internally. But of course, I felt it in other parts of the live world, especially in different genres within the industry. Different sectors of the live world treat women a lot differently and I feel that is tied to a lot of different genres. But this really is a loaded question. I feel I could talk about my experiences forever [laughs].
The reality is that there are very few females working as booking agents in Canada. Why do think that is?
It’s definitely a much different landscape now than it was when I was getting started 15 years ago. There are a few more women working in this part of the industry, in the agency world. I actually don’t know the answer to that question. As far as I could tell within at the company that I was working for, it definitely wasn’t a lack of opportunities being offered. Everyone, as far as I could tell, was being offered the same opportunity that I was, where it was like, ‘Look, you can be an assistant and you can excel at that, or you can be an assistant that’s on track to becoming an agent.’
When you took the job at The Agency Group after booking The Drake Hotel, how did you demonstrate to them that you wanted to be a responsible agent and not an assistant or was that what you were hired for?
I was hired as an assistant. However, part of the interview process was I was asked, ‘Do you have aspirations to becoming an agent?’ And back then, when I got started, I had no idea what that meant. I was coming from the club buying side. I was young as well. I didn’t really have quite a grasp of what an agent and the responsibilities were. So, when I was asked that question, in my young mid-20-something mind, there were only two answers to that question. Either you want to be an agent or you want to be an assistant and I certainly did not want to be an assistant for the rest of my life. So, I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to be an agent.’ And like I said it with as much conviction as I could [laughs], not knowing what that entails.
But having worked at The Drake, you are at an advantage, more than many agents who have not been on that side. It’s not dissimilar than mine with an editor. You battle, but you have to work together, and understand each other’s position. What did you learn in that particular job about what agents do and how to communicate with the bookers?
I learned the basics of what an agent does. Oh, you represent artists for live engagements and you negotiate deals. Obviously, there’s way more to the job than that. But as someone on the other side, on the buying side versus the selling side, the agent helps navigate the artist’s career through live. One of the coolest things that I noticed the most about the people at The Agency Group specifically, they sort of traveled in packs. A bunch of people from the office would come out to a show that I booked at The Drake. I thought that was really cool. Everyone supported each other. I realized later on, as I moved into my career as an agent, that that’s a very deliberate thing. The artists want to know that not that not just are they supported by their agent at the office, but they’re supported by the rest of the people on the team. And the more people you have come out from your team, the bigger of a show of support. That’s really important.
When were you told, ‘Okay, you are now an agent’?
It was a bit of a slow process. Jack and I would talk a lot about the new artist that he was looking at, that he was thinking of signing and at a certain point he was like, ‘I want to sign this, but I think you should do the work on it.’ That was all baby smaller bands. And it was really like a testing ground for me where it was like, ‘This artist is going to be under my name [Jack Ross], under my responsible agent, but you’re gonna communicate with the manager and you’re gonna route a tour and get the deals and we’re gonna look at this together, and I’m gonna coach you through the next steps of how to get what you want, et cetera, et cetera.’ And that’s very common in agencies, where an assistant will partner up with an agent that’s already more established and more successful to develop their career. It’s a bit of a mentorship.
So, there was that part of it. And there’s also the part where Jack would get me to do certain things for his bigger clients, like, ‘Hey, I’m routing a tour for Matt Mays, or whoever, and I need you to go and get some holds at these venues.’ So it was a bit of a two-pronged thing, where I was given artists that I was responsible for under Jack’s mentorship, and also being given tasks to accomplish for some of his bigger clients as well.
And, as our relationship progressed, and as my skillset developed, it started becoming more and more things were handed to me that were less administrative and more agent related. And after about five years, we decided that I was no longer going to be his assistant. I would be promoted to an agent position, and we would share an assistant, so there was someone new in that role. And, then I was, not like cut loose, obviously, because I was still working very closely with him and other agents in the office on things that I was signing, but I was very much responsible now for my own clients and I have to look after them.
How did you end up going to Feldman? That’s a big deal.
It’s a very long story. I’ll give you the condensed version. Essentially, APA wasn’t renewing our employment contracts in early 2023 and I sort of got tired of waiting for a contract to come my way. And at a certain point, it became apparent that that wasn’t going to happen. And I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know that APA was talking to another agency to sell. I didn’t know any of that. I was just like, ‘Hmm, something is fishy.’ [Laughs]. And Feldman was a company that as an outsider looking in back then, it was like, ‘Wow, they have such an amazing roster. They are signing all these incredible acts that I wanna work with, like Allison Russell and Canada’s Drag Race, and some stuff that I saw them announcing that I was like, ‘That’s what I want be doing. I wanna be working with these artists. I wanna be booking drag tours.’
So I just picked up the phone and called Tom one day and I was like, ‘Hey, I don’t have an employment contract. Do you wanna talk?’ And he was like, ‘Absolutely.’ And so, we had a meeting and it all happened pretty quickly. I knew — and not just because we didn’t have contracts, but I had been with the same group of people for 15 years and it was time for a change basically is what that boiled down to. I think that good things come from big seismic shift changes in your life like that. So I had a couple of meetings with Tom and it was all pretty quick the way it happened. I just decided to take the leap.
Feldman has gone through a lot of changes as well. What’s your vision for yourself within the company or what did you say to them?
Just that I wanted to excel. I wanted to sign bigger artists. Get on teams with bigger management teams, U.S. artists, U.S. teams, that kind of thing. I wanted to expand beyond the borders of Canada, essentially. Feldman has very deep and good relationships with a lot of American management companies and American agents obviously. I’ve got good relationships as well. But it’s really the managers that you need to get in with. And that’s what Feldman has. Feldman has very deep relationships with a lot of major U.S. management companies, and that’s what I wanted. So that was a big part of the discussion.
Being an R.A. is so much more than being a fan of an artist and wanting to book them. When you sit down with them, what are some of the points of discussion, so you know you’re on the same page and can work together towards the same goals?
Well, first and foremost, it’s all about art. It’s all about the songs or the show that they’re putting on because I do work with drag artists as well, not just music artists. The art that they’re putting out there is something that I have to feel moved by on whatever level. I have to be excited about it. From there, before I even start talking to an artist, I’m looking at what they’re doing already, looking at it really critically. Can I bring value to this? Are they already working a lot? Are they not working a lot? Where do I see the opportunities for me to jump in and be of value to the artist? Because at the end of the day, I need to justify my 10%. So when I start having meetings with new potential new clients, I’m asking them what some of their goals are, what they want to do, and then it’s a conversation of ‘Here’s what I think I can bring to the table. Are our goals lining up? Is this something that we both feel is gonna work?’ At the end of the day, we’re agents; we just have to be able to work really hard for our clients and represent them passionately. You can put down the most well laid plan and set your set goals, establish all that stuff, and then, a song goes viral and everything goes out the window because you have to change the plan immediately, and there’s a huge amount of demand for the band. You have to be able to move really quickly. So a lot of what I do is having to be fluid and flexible as things change, because things change very quickly in the music industry now.
Artists don’t always come up through the clubs anymore. There was a time where it was easy to gauge a following. An act would play the Horseshoe on a Tuesday then sell it out on a weekend, and then sell out a bigger venue. It was undeniable, and agents would flock to see them. But now an artist can have a huge hit via TikTok and never have played a show. Where does development fit now with someone who has never stepped on a stage? Do you have to get there early so that a competitor doesn’t swoop in?
Yeah, this whole like TikTok phenomenon is really interesting because the only true metric we have to gauge how big your fan base is or how devoted they are is if they’re willing to part ways with their money for an experience or for merch or something. Streams, views, that’s all great, but that’s not real. That’s not a real metric. I saw it a lot over the course of the pandemic because that’s when TikTok really exploded. There was this mad rush to sign all of these artists or these performers that were creating stuff on TikTok and I was just sitting back going, ‘This is kind of crazy because we don’t even know if these people can put on a show.’
There’s a certain level of rolling the dice on that that was going on. And I tried to stay out of it for the most part because I’m like, this isn’t real [laughs]. These are people writing songs in their bedrooms and having it go viral. That’s real on a certain level, but it’s not a real metric of success. So the artists that are coming out of that, that are seeing some success, lie we work with an artist, Devon Cole, who is very much a TikTok artist, and he is starting to develop a live career. Talk is another great example of someone that blew up over on TikTok and is translating into hard ticket sales. Another great example is my personal client, Jamie Fine, had the start of a career before the pandemic as part of a duo. And now she’s doing the solo thing now. It was all progressing rather slowly and that’s fine; things need to grow and develop. And then she released a song last year called, ‘If Anything Left’ that literally blew up and it went viral in South Africa. And I have like promoters in South Africa reaching out and festival buyers trying to put on a show. You have to go where the demand is.
It’s really hard to pinpoint what’s gonna do well because you never know until you put your artist on the road and see how much they can sell. You’re sort of rolling the dice. And I signed some clients during the pandemic that their streaming numbers are not great at all, but there’s a huge demand for them in a live capacity. So where does that come from? If the streaming numbers aren’t there, obviously they’re putting on an amazing show.
You are routing a tour and there’s been so many venues closing and opening, or even an El Mocambo that used to be a gritty dirty rock ‘n’ roll club but then rebuilt into something clean and neon and state of the art. How do you keep tabs across the country on the right venue to put your artist when there’s so many changes?
We rely a lot on local promoters and the national promoters who are the ones in those rooms seven nights a week. We get a lot of information from them. Obviously, it’s easy in Toronto because we can go and tour different venues and see what they’re doing. But we rely a lot on our partners who are on the ground as promoters to keep us up to speed on the new venues that are opening up and what they’re like. We just have to keep in touch with our partners on the other side of it.
Mental health is also top of mind these days and people are very comfortable about talking about it. We see Justin Bieber and Shawn Mendes taking time for themselves and cutting tours. There was a time when that would not be the case. Artists would have to play on, through exhaustion, drug and alcohol problems, grief. Is there a policy or personal view on that?
The same way I’ve always handled it. I have to look out for the best interest of my client first and foremost. And if an artist that I’m working with is feeling terrible, physically, mentally, whatever, that is enough. Artists don’t create art so that they can stop creating art, if that makes sense. Touring musicians wanna tour, they wanna work, they wanna be on the road. So if one of my clients is coming to me and it’s so bad that they’re like ‘Stef…’ — and I’ve had to do it myself. I’ve had to cancel tours or take artists off of support spots because they were just in a really bad place. And, course, that’s fine. ‘Your physical and mental health are the most important things to me and whatever you need to do to get yourself better, we’re gonna do it. And when you’re better, when you’re ready to work again, I’m still gonna be here.’
Being that you are one of the few female agents in Canada, do you mentor girls or young women wanting to become agents?
I’m always open. I want to help as many young women come up through the live sector as possible. That’s a weird question and I’m kind of struggling with it because 10, 15 years ago, there used to be so many people knocking down the doors of agencies to be an agent, just get through the door. And what we’ve noticed is that’s a very rare thing now. There’s no young hotshot people coming up asking for a job or asking how they can get their foot in the door in the in the agency world at least. It’s a very entrepreneurial-based job. I’ve had people come up to me and want help pursuing a career in live, and I’m like, ‘Sure. I can chat with you.’ Every time I’m asked to be part of a mentorship program, of course I will do it.