This article originally appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of Canadian Musician
By Samantha Everts
When it comes to the music industry, one of the best across-the-board crash courses is to attend a music conference or festival with an educational component. These typically include a mix of panels on a variety of topics, workshops, networking events, and live music showcases ranging from one to multiple days.
Whether you’re a solo emerging artist or established musician speaking on a panel yourself, there’s a wealth of knowledge available for those willing to learn. Canadian Musician spoke to leading experts on music conferences to help you with the next one you attend. And hey, if you’ve never attended, consider this your insider’s guide to how to make your first conference rock!
Set Realistic Goals
Whether you’ve spent a couple hundred dollars or several dozen hours perfecting your Sonicbids application to be invited to perform and the industry conference pass is an added bonus, you need to have an idea of what you’re getting into. Conferences like Canadian Music Week or Pop Montreal can be hectic, frenzied events with little sleep, so it’s important to outline goals ahead of attending.
“An artist should have a clear focus in mind for what they want to achieve,” says BreakOut West Conference Manager Roland Deschambault. “You want an idea of why you’re going, especially as an artist who is not showcasing that year.”These goals could be along the lines of learning how festival programmers book bands, understanding streaming revenues, or adding new team members.
If you’ve never attended a conference, Deschambault suggests attending smaller, one-off panels to give you confidence and a better understanding on how they work. “Music industry associations like Manitoba Music or Music Ontario are great places to start your conference prep,” he says.
Conferences are meant for artists and industry of all levels to learn together. Think of them as “opportunities to learn more about the music business and ways to empower yourself with knowledge to better understand what is necessary to make your career successful,” says label manager Sean Ramesbottom of Pirates Blend (A Tribe Called Red, Young Empires). That said, be realistic. “Not every word spoken is meant to cater to you or your specific career,” he adds. “And just meeting ‘industry professionals’ at conference events will not get you or your band signed.”
While you’re still at home, your advance preparation should include creating new cards or promotional materials printed with links to your music and accurate contact information. Book your rooms (or couches) at least two months in advance. Dig out a bag big enough to stash some granola bars and bottles of water and pack your pen and notebook.
Dedicate time to research the speakers and conference topics to determine which ones are most relevant to your pre-established goals, like finding a booking agent or inviting them to your showcase. “Make a hit list so you can maximize all of the amazing networking opportunities,” says Danya Dixon, VP of programming at Canadian Music Week. “CMW has a jam-packed schedule so make the most of your time by having an action plan.”
Conference schedules and details are usually released a few weeks to several months in advance. Jot down the times and locations of panels that are of interest to you as soon as the schedule is released as there may be RSVP requirements or extra fees for some.
If you’re from out of town, arrive a day early to scope out the areas surrounding the conference venue and familiarize yourself with the city. Note any nearby coffee shops or spaces for impromptu meetings. A lot of industry mixers and networking parties happen the day before the conference starts, so start following the hashtags the week of the conference.
Choosing panels depends on what you want to learn. “We have to keep up with the sizzling topics that everyone asks for, including ticketing, the economics of touring, how to get booked, funding, making your festival a safe space, and enhancing the live fan experience,” says Dixon.
So, if you plop yourself down for 45 minutes at a panel, you’ll learn everything about a certain subject from the experts, right? Wrong. “I’m amazed how little I know,” says publicist Eric Alper on what he learns attending conferences – even though he regularly moderates and speaks on panels himself. “I’ve always got my curious antenna up.”
At the Conference
Just walking into the conference can be intimidating. “You walk down the hallway and you run into everyone – old friends, colleagues… People stop you and all say, ‘Hey, come to my showcase! Come to my showcase!’” says Alper, describing how difficult it is to talk to people over people bombarding you with show flyers, live music blasting, and booth representatives calling to you with the latest music innovations.
Stick to your goals. “If you’re a band and you’ve got 500 of the biggest people in the music industry all in one room, you’ve got to really target who you want to go after or else it’s just like going to a supermarket hungry and you have no idea how much money you have to spend or what to buy,” says Alper.
Politeness goes a long way. If you’re pushy, inarticulate, or just not prepared, you’re not going to get much out of it. Keep your social media up to date with all the conference fun and don’t be bashful about talking to other attendees. A lot of them are in the same position as you!
Attend Panels You May Know Nothing About
Even with an effective plan, it’s impossible to go to everything or meet everyone so try to be flexible. This could mean attending a country-focused panel when you’re a hip-hop artist.
Discover how Taylor Swift or Our Lady Peace found success from the people that broke them. “Even if you don’t like those bands, think, ‘How did they get there? What did they do to stay around?’ I love getting into the details of, ‘How did that deal happen? How did that sponsorship happen?’” Alper offers.
Keynote speeches are a great way to gain insight into influential people and achievements. “Often we have festival headliners give intimate artist talks,” says Tao Fei of Pop Montreal. “John Cale was really well attended,” she says of last year’s edition of Pop. And hey, President Barack Obama was even the keynote at SXSW in 2016.
You could also end up at a panel you know nothing about that has a huge impact on your career. “One area I’m excited about is the interactive aspect, especially composing for video games,” says Deschambault. “That’s a big market a lot of artists haven’t explored and I believe they should know how to produce and engineer their own stuff… and make revenue from it.”
According to Fei, part of the joy of Pop Montreal’s Pop Symposium is that “you can spend the whole afternoon bouncing between rooms; you can get to everything.” Try double-teaming with another band member and update each other over a beer later that day about what you learned and any follow-up actions you should take immediately.
Showcase festivals and conferences can be exhausting both mentally and physically and often start early in the morning. If you want to get the most out of the conference experience, “Set an alarm, pour some coffee down your throat, and try to be at the panels that matter most to you,” says Dave Cool, director of artist and industry outreach at Bandzoogle.
Moderators Want to Help Learn
Alper loves coming up with what he thinks the people in the audience want to know and always makes an effort to find out the audience’s background. “I never forget what it’s like to be completely independent and not have a team around you,” he says.
It’s not all about people talking at you; speakers are just as eager to answer questions and offer targeted help to those in the audience.
“I really noticed in the last five years that industry [members] are just as engaged as the artists,” says Deschambault on people’s generosity with their time. “They’re not rushing off immediately after; these people are approachable and want to be the ones to discover the next big act and want to see you succeed.”
On the industry side, people are always sniffing around, explains Alper. “[Attending conferences] is a really good way to figure out who’s available for deals, who might be leaving their record label, who’s recording, who still has a band…” The industry is there to learn and discover new acts, and even if it’s not this year, the more you return to conferences, the stronger the relationships that develop and the more open people are to following your progress.
Opportunities abound. “All of the festival programmers from Western Canada are there [at BreakOut West],” says Deschambault. “That’s 20 potential big summer festival shows – roots, folk, country, it doesn’t matter. They all know each other. They travel in packs.” So if you impress one programmer, chances are they’ll talk to each other.
Just by speaking with someone beside you at a panel, you can be invited to an exclusive afterparty or networking event. But be responsible, advises Cool. “If you’ll be getting to bed at a reasonable hour, then sure, have a few drinks, [but] combining late nights with excessive drinking is a recipe for burnout.” You probably won’t be as approachable or attentive as you could be if you’re really hung over from late-night events the night before.
Know that many deals take place in the hotel lobbies or nearby coffee shops and bars. The lanyards hanging around peoples’ necks are dead giveaways and almost invitations to talk to strangers outside of the conference. Mind your manners though!
Following up with people you meet at conferences is something the vast majority of attendees don’t do, thereby losing out on invaluable connections. By the time you get home, chances are you have a pocket full of new cards so don’t idle any longer than two weeks after the conference. Remind them of where you met and any memorable thing you spoke about. And if you meet someone and want to connect immediately, there’s nothing wrong with emailing or tweeting them right away. Just don’t pester them the rest of the conference and expect to wait until after the event is over to get a proper reply.
All of this talk is fine and good, but what if you’re a cash-strapped musician or new to the industry and can’t afford to attend? Volunteer! Most conferences require volunteer support and it’s a great way to meet other people in similar positions. “Aside from learning valuable skills, you also get a lot of face time with organizers and other important industry people,” says Giuseppe Spartico.
As a volunteer at Canadian Music Week, Spartico learned about curating showcases, advancing bands, festival logistics, ticketing systems, and pretty much every other job he could sign himself up for, eventually getting hired as a festival assistant.
To sum it up, “Conferences set people off on the right direction,” says Deschambault – and that’s especially true if your plan and approach are effective.
Other Educational Opportunities
There are educational opportunities around every hotel or event space corner at most music conferences. Here are a few places where you can expand your knowledge outside of the panels.
Conferences often present things like songwriting workshops with influential artists or grant writing sessions to help you be successful with future funding opportunities.
These offer a chance for artists to learn from their idols and get hands-on in intimate settings. “You can basically hone your craft,” says Pop Montreal’s Fei. At this year’s edition, prominent DJ Hi-Klassified gave a Beat Making workshop. “Young beat makers [were able to] see how one of the leading Montreal DJs does his thing,” she says.
They also foster camaraderie and interest from the person leading the workshop. Make sure to sign up for workshops as soon as they are announced because class size is often limited!
You know how your friends and fans always praise your band, no matter what? This is your chance to get an honest and unbiased perspective on your music by experienced producers, songwriters, and other industry professionals. “It’s not about an ego trip,” says Damon de Szegheo, head producer at Oak Recording Studio in Toronto. Artists play one to three songs for feedback that they can directly apply to their development. “The primary focus should be to figure out what the audience wants from you and a good producer will be the voice for that audience,” says de Szegheo.
Go explore the booths and display areas. Sponsors and participants want to tell you about the newest technologies, services, funding opportunities, and much more. “Companies that have booths at music conferences are usually looking to help musicians,” says says Bandzoogle’s Cool. “Take the time to find out about the companies and services at the conference. You might find something that can help your career immediately, or in the long term.”
Many booths have wares like books or accessories for sale that are relevant to musicians and industry members. Others have some free swag or candy as your late-afternoon pick-me-up. And while you’re at it, make sure to sign up for sweepstakes and the like. The best education can be through experience and if you win a new guitar or trip to L.A., consider yourself learned.
Make Mentorship Sessions & One-on-Ones Work for You
So you’ve got your conference pass and ambition to learn from industry experts, but now you’re faced with the chance to sit down one-on-one with managers, label executives, music supervisors, and even celebrities. Here’s how you prepare to rock it:
– Find out who is available through the conference website and make note of who you’re interested in meeting, the times, and where the activities are taking place. If you’re feeling social, tweet at them to let them know how excited you are to meet them. Better yet, read their conference bio and find a bit of info that you connect with, like bonding over puppy memes or burritos.
– Don’t be intimidated. Know that you don’t need to be at the level of artists that they work with to talk to them. These people are here to meet with you and let you pick their brain.
– Have a list of a few key topics you want to touch on. It could be as simple as, “What does my band need to do to land a booking agent?” Or, “How do you scout bands you’re looking to sign to your label.”
– Find out which panels they are speaking on and attend them. A compliment or mention of a bio detail upon meeting a mentor goes a long way because it shows you’re actually interested in who they are. The worst thing you can do is say, “So what do you do?” That’s wasted time on both sides.
– Bring some sort of print collateral. This could be download cards, business cards, or handbills to your showcases. Just have something with your social and contact information that you can exchange with them.
– If one mentor session doesn’t go well, move on to the next. Conferences can be crazy and you’re not expected to be perfect in your pitch.
– Don’t overstay your time. Other people are eager to meet with the mentors as well. If the conversation is flowing, ask what they’re up to later in the day. A beer or coffee could be currency for some additional time.
– And if you sit down at the wrong table or mistake a mentor for someone else, like this writer once did with Taylor Swift’s former manager, remember, a sense of humour goes a long way!
This sounds very simple, but listen intently. You’re there to learn. Do your pitch and ask your questions but don’t just talk about yourself. Let the mentor talk to you and take notes in a notebook. Don’t be distracted. Conferences are loud places and you want to give this person your undivided attention. Make eye contact, ask questions, and be grateful and polite.
And remember to follow up. Be the star they remember from their mentorship sessions so you can continue to develop that relationship.
Bring the Event to You
No music conferences nearby? Want to get together and share some skills and knowledge with local musicians? As they say, a high tide floats all boats. Hosting your own music panel is a great way to help educate your music community.
Truthfully, planning a music panel isn’t that different from organizing a DIY show. Determining what your panel will be about should be your first step. Brainstorm potential topics and guest speakers you could involve. Some great first topics could include: funding, touring, recording, music rights, and licensing. The speakers should have some level of expertise or first-hand experience on the topic.
The second step is to secure a venue. Ideally, you could find a space that will let you use it for free (or in return for concession sales like coffee or beer). It shouldn’t be big enough that if only 20 people show up that it seems empty but not so small that people can’t stand or sit comfortably. You’d be surprised by how welcoming bar or club owners are to daytime events that support the arts.
That said, art galleries, music schools, book stores, rehearsal studios, community centres, libraries, and other spaces known to local artists are great. Even though musicians are used to lugging gear up stairs, avoid basements or anywhere that could be inaccessible so that anyone interested can attend.
A general rule of thumb is to keep a panel discussion to 45-60 minutes with time for audience questions. Try to hold your panel on “off-times” for musicians, like weekday evenings so that it doesn’t conflict with day jobs or gigs. Alternatively, weekend (late) mornings are great options. Make sure your panel begins at the time advertised and count on a few stragglers arriving late.
A moderator or host is required to introduce panelists (basically why they are relevant to the topic), ask questions, and moderate audience interaction. This moderator should be confident with public speaking and be able to interrupt the speakers to get them back on track. They need to keep the panel flowing no matter what. If you’re organizing, chances are that you’re passionate enough to lead it yourself.
Invite the speakers to the panel! A good guideline for speakers is to get one artist and one industry. More than three speakers can make it difficult to moderate and let people speak naturally. Also, you don’t need to have a budget; most people are honoured when they are requested to share their expertise and will contribute their time for free. Others may see it as a promotional opportunity.
In your initial email, give your speakers the basics – who, what, where, when, and why – and a deadline to confirm.
With speakers confirmed, start your promotion! You don’t need to be a graphic designer or even sink any money into posters. Request a photo and brief biography from each speaker so you can include that info in your Facebook event. Reach out to your own networks to invite people and ask them to share the event on their own channels. Add the link to any local event listing websites. Give people at least two weeks’ notice so that they can take time off work or get a babysitter.
A week or more in advance, create questions for the moderator. Think like an audience member – which questions would you ask as someone completely new to the topic? Consider the individual guest speakers’ backgrounds; maybe they have an experience that is exemplary of the topic. Share the questions with the speakers so that they can prepare. Ask the speakers to include any questions they were expecting to be asked in their reply so you can add them.
Create a feedback form for attendees with questions like. What other topics would you be interested in? Did you find the panel useful? Would you come back to another one? Make sure to have a space for an email address so you can contact them for future events.
Arrive early at the event and ask your guest speakers to be present no later than 15 minutes before showtime. Set up designated speaker chairs that are visible from any corner of the room. Test out any PA equipment if you are using it or advise people to speak loud enough for all to hear.
Showtime! Listen and learn from the panelists, ask questions, and applaud loudly.
Samantha Everts is a Toronto-based artist consultant and grant writer at YouRockRed with over 10 years of music industry experience. Her passion for music education and artist development services have led her to speak at a variety of events including Iceland Airwaves and Canadian Music Week and teach artist management at Trebas Institute. Let her help guide your career or project by visiting www.yourockred.com.
Tags: Bandzoogle, BreakOut West, Canadian Music Week, Canadian Musician, CMW, Damon de Szegheo, Danya Dixon, Dave Cool, East Coast Music Week, Eric Alper, Music career, Music conferences, Music Education, Oak Recording Studio, Pirates Blend, Pop Montreal, Samantha Everts, Sean Ramesbottom