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#WomenToTheFore 11: Malwina Witkowska

Can you tell us a little about yourself - how would you describe what you do?
First and foremost, I'm an agent. I work with musicians and book and organise tours, mostly in Europe, but I don't want to limit myself and already have plans for reaching other markets. I set up my own company called No Earplugs in 2020 to book concerts and promote bands, whether they're up and coming or more established.

What was your journey to becoming a booking agent?
It all started at home in Poland where I grew up. My dad is very excited about music and  plays all different kinds of music at home. At first I had my own musical interests and he never pushed anything on me. Gradually I became more aware of the music he's into and eventually something shifted for me.

The main starting point for this shift was after high school. I wanted to study something different, something exciting and he suggested Scandinavian languages, influenced by the Nordic jazz he loved, including Mats Gustafsson, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Paal Nilssen-Love. I knew nothing about Scandinavia at all. But just at this time, the first Norwegian philology bachelor studies in Warsaw opened, so I applied and got in. I loved the language and culture and I travelled to Norway a lot. Plus I went to see Norwegian artists playing in Poland.
I moved to Oslo at the end of my masters degree as part of an Erasmus exchange. I planned to go for a semester, but decided to stay. Moving to Oslo was life changing. From day one I was a volunteer at Nasjonal Jazzscene - Victoria, my favourite place. I also volunteered at the Blow Out concert series and Oslo Jazzfestival. I met musicians, immersed myself in the jazz and improv scene, and went to concerts all the time. Something clicked - I was fascinated by it and it was exciting to listen to all these artists, discovering the music in Oslo on my own terms.

In 2019 I studied for a year-long course in Cultural Management. It was quite theoretical so I got my practical knowledge from volunteering. I was still a volunteer at Victoria, but applied to be a venue host - where you’re responsible for the audience, volunteers, artists, and hospitality - so I could learn how concert production works. I got the job in early 2020 and only had a couple of shifts before the pandemic came. Then when things started to open up again I was full-time.

And how did you go from there to setting up your own company?
I established my company in 2020, alongside the job at Nasjonal Jazzscene. I didn't book any concerts in 2020 of course and it was difficult because no one knew me in the industry and I couldn't travel or meet people.

I’d met a lot of musicians in 2019 and before, and many said that jazz and adventurous music needed someone to book concerts, be their agent and representative especially on the European market.

The idea also came from my dad’s 50th birthday party. I had already met Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, and together with my family we wanted  to do something special so I  invited him, together with a Swedish saxophone player, Fredrik Ljunqvist, to play at the party. It was my very first booking. I booked and organised travel, and with the help of my family, we set up the venue, which was a wine cellar with amazing acoustics. They played an intimate and very special concert and it gave me the motivation that I can do this. 

Also in 2019, I met Otomo Yoshihide, the Japanese guitar legend and suggested I could organise some concerts for him. There's a connection to my dad - he used to organise concerts in Poland in the early 2000s, including for Otomo. When I followed up and emailed Otomo about his plans for 2020,  he told me that he was looking for a European agent. He asked me and at first I was terrified - I wasn’t established at all. But I thought if I don’t try then I will never know if I can do it. So I said yes. Otomo was the first musician I took on.

Now, four years later, we just finished a 15 concert tour I organised for his New Jazz Quintet. If you told me that two years ago I would probably not have believed it. Most of the venues were sold out. Otomo told me that he almost gave up touring with his own projects in Europe due to lack of representation, after his previous agent passed away around 2009. I feel honoured to bring Otomo and his bands back to Europe. New Jazz Quintet will be touring the EU again in spring 2025, and right now I am working on a tour for Otomo's Special Big Band to the EU in October this year. So it's all happening!


What connects the artists you represent? How would you describe your roster?
I'm working with Norwegian, American and Japanese artists - some up-and-coming, some more established. What connects them is the music. I'm super passionate about their music, it's what I listen to myself.  It's adventurous, free jazz, avant-garde...It's hard to describe in one genre - very fluid, a great mix. I'm never bored and there's a lot of improvisation but also connections to folk music like with Marthe Lea Band.

There are different influences in all of the bands. That's what I’m excited about - their music, but also their ideas, what kind of people they are. Most of them are activists, which really opened my mind to discover new sounds but also question things politically and societally.

For example Motvind is a record label and a festival  started by Andreas Røysum, who I work with. Their message is very clear and beautiful - pro-peace, pro-equality for everyone, for freedom. It started as a movement, in response to arms companies supporting arts and cultural events and many of these partnerships have now ended because of the conversations that Motvind started. I stand by their music, but also their values which are connected. 
Another band I work with, Elder Ones, their music and lyrics by vocalist Amirtha Kidambi really challenge society’s structures. Their upcoming album New Monuments on We Jazz Records is an ode to the martyrs of struggle and people’s movements for liberation for all forms of oppression, including apartheid, occupation and genocide, as Amirtha puts it. It's amazing music and it’s really moving things forward.

To know what you stand for and the artists represent, that's really important for me. It's all connected. 


What does a typical day look like? 
It involves a lot of travelling. Either I'm on tour, which is intense - concerts in the evenings, all the production work and making sure everything goes well.  Or I’m working at home - lots of emails, making calls, meetings on Zoom or in person for a coffee and a chat.

Basically you are working with other people all the time - making connections, exchanging ideas, figuring things out like booking concerts, sending requests, then doing all the production once booked.

I also travel for festivals, whether my bands are playing or not, to meet people, promoters I know already, new ones, journalists, audiences. I love going to festivals, listening to new music, discovering new stuff and meeting new people and drawing inspiration from those encounters. It's pleasure and business mixed together.

Festivals are also good for networking and to talk about projects. This can be more efficient than sending emails.

Attending conferences like Europe Jazz Network or Jazzahead is also really important, they’re these meeting points for all the people in the music sector. It’s inspiring as it all feels connected. It's not only about the relationship between me and promoters but also with other agents, with journalists. 

What qualities do you need to succeed in a role like yours?
I remember very early on a journalist told me, in the beginning you need very little practical knowledge in this business and a huge amount of passion and motivation for the music.

That's true - the skills and knowledge come gradually as you do it. There's no degree that teaches you to become a booking agent. You learn along the way, from people, from mentors who you look up to.

That's how I did it, by talking to people and asking for help and advice. At first I had few skills in how it works, but I had motivation and passion for the music. Then the skills come afterwards. My motivation is the music and artists I work with, rather than the business. Of course making a living is important and I need to make it financially sustainable for myself and my artists, but I often remind myself where my motivation comes from and it is from the heart and passion for this music!

You also have to be resilient. As a booking agent you rarely get instant replies to your emails and it takes time to build your network. When I first met organisers in person it started to click - ideas flowed, networks grew.

You never know who will help you. Someone you meet as a volunteer may become head of a festival one day. Have good relationships with everyone, don't think someone is above or below you. Be kind with everyone  - you can’t do this work by yourself, it's work with people, collaborations, mutual connections.

And be patient - you won't always get quick answers and things won’t always fall into place right away. Keep motivated to push towards your goals. Of course being organised is very helpful too. You’ll have huge numbers of contacts and you have to note down when and where you met them, who you’ve sent emails to, when you need to follow up. 

What are the challenges of the job and how do you approach them?
There's a lot of uncertainty in this work. You never know 100% if a project will work out when you start. It's really important to be passionate - people might not know the band, but if there’s a good connection, my passion for the music will help convince them.

When you know what you want to work towards, it starts coming together even with uncertainty along the way. The uncertainty can be difficult to handle. But you kind of start going with the flow and living with it. There are techniques to work with anxiety and stress, which there are a lot of in this job. And if you work hard for something it will eventually work out.

When you see first results it's really satisfying and motivating to work further. Everyone has to answer for themselves why they're doing this, what their "why" is. If you don't have a strong reason why, you shouldn't do it.

Collaboration and networking are crucial in roles like yours. How do you approach building relationships with artists, venues and festivals?
I’ve talked about how important networking is already. Relationships are so important in this role, as I'm in between the artists and the promoters. But  it shouldn't be us against them.

We're on the same boat, both want to present the artist. So we should collaborate more than deal with each other as opposites. We're actually on the same side. Being open, having a connection, having a good relationship and just talking if there's an important issue to sort out.
You have worked very hard and managed to establish yourself as a booking agent at a young age. What advice would you give to other young people interested in becoming an agent? 
My advice: Just got for it. Try it out and don't be afraid to fail. I failed a lot and I’m still learning. That's how you learn best, along the way. There are no degree studies for agents, you learn by doing it. If you have enough motivation and passion, you will stick with it and learn from other people.

I draw inspiration from lots of different people in the industry by talking to them and seeking advice. One mentor is Jan Ole Otnæs, former director of  Nasjonal Jazzscene and Molde Jazz Festival. I admire his approach and wisdom very much, so I asked him to be my mentor. There are other agents I look up to like Danielle Oosterop - we have similar music tastes and projects. Connecting with her was really important for inspiration.

I'm inspired by so many women in the industry - artistic directors like Nadin Deventer from the legendary Berlin Jazzfest. Her journey wasn't easy but she revolutionised the festival and her programming shows this. Finding relevant development programmes is useful too - I applied for the Music Norway master programme in 2020/21 to gain industry skills, though it had a more mainstream music industry focus. I was also selected for the Footprints Europe 2021/22 programme, and this became a turning point to leave my part-time day job and fully establish my company and myself as an agent.

Find all the programmes, talk to people, make connections and friendships. And ask for advice, it's crucial to learn from more experienced people

Have you encountered any specific challenges as a woman working in this sector? What would you like to see change in the sector?
It’s been challenging as a young woman in this sector dealing with experienced industry people. Sometimes I feel underestimated, not taken seriously.

Some organisations and venues think that to do business you must be overly serious. That's not my approach, I don't want to become some serious, male-shaped agent. I want to work from my heart.

So it's challenging when people don't value my ideas like they might from a male agent. But once they understand my values and passion for these artists, I think that changes their perspective.

I’m trying to be myself in an industry that’s been shaped in a certain way for years. And I came along with my own ideas and new approaches. I want to stay true to myself and do things how I want to do them, while respecting the way other people work.

I think we should see everyone as equals, no matter their background or experience. At a conference with my boss once, when I was working at Nasjonal Jazzscene, we were talking to other people and he said we're all equal. I was a venue host and he was managing director, but he didn’t see a dividing line between us. I want more of that for everyone.

Let’s see each other as equal parts of an ecosystem - tech crews, volunteers, organisers, agents, musicians, everybody - we are all working hard.

I’ve had a few bad experiences and I learnt a lot from them. It’s an important part of the process. 

What are your hopes for the creative music sector over the next decade?
When booking bands, I don’t want money to be the first question. Instead why not ask:  What's the music like? What’s their story and what are their values? Do I like it? Am I passionate about it? What do they represent and what can they bring to the audience? This is what I want to see more of in programming.

It shouldn't just be about the business -  the question at the heart of it all should be what kind of value can we bring to the audiences with this music and this artist? Music is powerful, the artists that I represent have a lot to say and their music is changing people's lives, as it changed mine. 

Of course there’s a lot of risk in this business, so some people will want immediate sell-outs, but it takes time to build an audience and this is also the promoters’ responsibility. When clubs and festivals build a dedicated audience it’s beautiful. The audience is the most important factor, and without them there would be no concerts.

There are some cases of artists who are being silenced for speaking up about Palestine - for example having their exhibitions cancelled. It’s horrifying to lose your work for standing up for your values. So if an artist is speaking up, let’s not cancel them. Let’s support them, let’s talk to each other - artists, bookers, promoters - let’s find a way through it, we want to work together.

I want to see more flexibility and effort from everyone to make touring more sustainable - not only on the environmental level but economically, socially too. We should all be working together towards that. 

And also bringing more younger people to this music, including people from minorities, and people who’ve never been to a venue before. Let’s present artists in a way that feels welcoming and safe, and young people will come and check it out again. Culture is about inclusion and diversity - we cannot just create a bubble that’s only for a certain group of people. So I’d love to see more people from diverse backgrounds at gigs and on stage.

What are your ambitions for the future?
I want to find new ways of collaborating with festivals, and more ways of understanding audiences, what they want to see, what they need, how we can make it feel inclusive. 

My other ambitions are to book artists beyond Europe. My focus right now is to start establishing my network in Japan and to bring my artists over there, and then eventually the United States. At the back of my mind is a wish to start a record label too. 

So I’ve got lots of ideas but need to do it step by step. I need to grow my company, my team and my roster. I already have two amazing women working with me. It’s really nice to be supported by other women and to be collaborating with them. There’s a lot to do but it’s exciting!

Image credits:
1. Klara Weiss
2. Norbert Burkowski



Case studies

An interview with Nadin Deventer, artistic director of Jazzfest Berlin
An interview with Amélie Salembier, manager and booking agent and founder of Molpe Music
An interview with Sunna Gunnlaugs, pianist, composer and teacher