Showcasing for Success
By Art Menius
For performing artists, showcasing provides stations upon a long journey, means to career advancement, not ends in themselves. Often the true results of showcase performances appear months down the road. The showcase world stretches far beyond IBMA; bluegrass and old-time artists can take advantage of a rich assortment of different showcasing events and booking conferences that address different markets, segments by genre, type of presenter, or geography.
Often musicians, especially inside bluegrass, do not take advantage of these opportunities. Nor do they often use well the chance to showcase at IBMA or related events like Folk Alliance. This article will confront these issues and provide links to more showcasing opportunity information.
The Showcase and How To Use It
1. Before You Apply
Before applying to any showcase, you need to make a frank and honest evaluation of your performing unit. A formally written business plan for the band can really help in this process. Make sure that your ensemble can answer yes to all of the following questions: Are we prepared to travel to gigs throughout the majority of the geographic area covered by the showcase event? Has every member of the group made a complete and unambiguous long term commitment to the band? Will this showcase advance our agreed upon career goals? Is everyone ready to do what we need to do to take full advantage of this opportunity? Are we one of the very best groups performing today ready to take gigs away from the top established acts? Are our recorded products and media kit up to strong professional standards?
2. How to Apply
Each event has more or less specific instructions and procedures for how to apply to showcase. Follow these guidelines to the letter. Committees make showcase decisions, so you’re going to have to be picked by consensus. These folks have to sort through a lot of applications; everything you do to make it easy for them helps your chances. Some organizations forward applications to the committee members as they come in, so apply early rather than getting lost in the last minute rush. Show total commitment to your act and musical career in everything you present. This means a professional media kit and a professional recording. When I worked for IBMA and Folk Alliance I could predict at around 70% accuracy whom would get selected just by the external appearance of the application package. By applying you’re saying that you’re ready to be a nationally touring act. You’d better look and sound ready or else you’re better off not applying. A compact disc works better than a tape for this reason. Now that it’s affordable, the best thing to offer is a specially made 3 to 4 cut CD. Make sure the recording features the band members you plan to take to the showcase. Few things raise the suspicions of showcase committees quicker than a recording of an unknown artist with superstar supporting crew for they know the artist can’t get that band on the road. The media kit should be short enough to permit a complete perusal in the time one listens to 3 to 4 songs. Do not include missives to the committee members telling them how much it would mean to you to be selected.
3. Determine why you want to showcase: Establish specific goals
Showcasing is an unpaid gig, so you’d better have some very clear reasons why you want to do it. If you just go and play the set, you’re certain to be disappointed by the results no matter how great a show you present. The reasons to showcase prove manifold: to get new gigs, find an agent, recording company, publicist, or manager, to impress the industry media, or to augment your standing within the industry. Most folks have several of these purposes in mind, but to have a successful experience, you need clearly to prioritize them. Moreover, artists need to avoid showcasing for the wrong reasons which include ego building rather than career building, getting into the showcase event at low cost, or getting another notch in your gun belt. If those ideas form your rationale, then don’t showcase for you’re just stealing a slot from someone more deserving.
4. The advance work proves absolutely essential to showcasing success
Once you have your valid reasons to showcase ordered properly, you can begin laying the groundwork for a successful showcase. That work commences weeks before the event. The first step is to obtain the advance registration list in electronic form from the organization presenting the event. Compile all the email addresses and send announcement to that list. Make sure to be open that you’re sending unsolicited email, gladly remove anyone’s name who so requests, and do not spam to listservers and Usenet groups. Then work through the registrants list selecting the names of those you fit the targets you have selected for the event. When I did this as an agent, I usually ended up with somewhere between 1/5 to 1/7 of the attendees on my target list. The list will be longest for those targeting event producers and media, shortest for those pursuing agents or recording deals. Two weeks in advance of the event, send a postcard – not a letter or flyer – to those on your short list. Print out copies of the short target list for everyone on your team so they can plan whom to smooze. Buy an ad in the conference program.
5. Work the event from start to finish
Plan on attending the entire conference. How often are so many people you need altogether in one place? You need to build up to your showcase and follow-up afterwards. By all means secure exhibit space unless your act is represented by an agency, and in that case hang out at your agency’s booth. A lot of wonderful people attend these events, but you have to remain focused on your goals. Getting the right people at your showcase has to take priority over hanging and jamming with friends and fans. This is serious business; keep your eyes on the prize every waking minute. There is always someone to whom you should be speaking. Keep a notebook handy to record notes about to whom you spoke. Early on in a booking conference, it generally becomes clear who are the hot buzz acts slated to showcase and who aren’t. A lot of that results from the advance work described above. The number one information source for event producers is not charts, magazines, or radio. It is other presenters. Get event producers you like your act to encourage their peers to check out your showcase. Make yourselves one of the gotta hear groups.
6. On stage
Most showcases allow 15 to 20 minutes per act. Give the people a miniature version, therefore, of what you would offer at a regular gig. Rehearse the heck out of this short set and polish it until it glimmers, but keep it a genuine representation of your real act. By all means, do not bring in any outside guns for your showcase. Present what you can deliver. While you’re on stage, make sure that your agent or confederates are observing the audience making notes as to whom among your targets seem really into it.
Make yourselves available to the audience immediately after your showcase. Shake and howdy like crazy. Be present at the booth for every minute of exhibit time afterwards and keep careful written records of each conversation there. After the event develop a written follow-up plan summarizing encounters with your targets and spelling out what needs to be done. Then take care of business.
Privately sponsored showcases remain more common at Folk Alliance than IBMA, but they have certainly been growing at our conference. These do-it-yourself presentations can augment formal showcase appearances, including helping to build a buzz, or can serve as a substitute when you don’t get selected. Sometimes labels or agencies offer large scale productions, such as the Skaggs, McCoury, and Longview program Rounder presented at Louisville. Sometimes businesses or organizations, as IBMA has done at the past two Folk Alliance conference, offer private showcases. Other times 2 or 3 individual acts just throw in together to host a showcase in their hotel room. Find out who is doing them and see if your act can get involved. Otherwise, you can always DIY. In any case, follow pretty much the same steps as outlined above to ensure a successful experience.
Where to Showcase Besides IBMA Events
The world of music showcases has exploded over the past 15 years. You might be able to play a different one almost every week nowadays. Each serves a slightly different marketplace as far as types of presenters/venues, geography, or styles of music. Many of these events have showcased bluegrass acts.
The Folk Alliance offers the conference most similar to IBMA save that it draws from a bewildering variety of roots music forms from the USA, Canada, and western Europe. Presenters range from volunteer basket houses to the largest music festivals in the world. The February conference rotates around the USA and Canada (2/25-28/99 in Albuquerque) and offers a plethora of private showcases as well as the formal ones. Folk Alliance usually accepts showcase applications during March, April, and May. For more information call 202-835-3655 or visit www.folk.org. The Folk Alliance also offers regional booking conferences with the Northeast one in late Fall being the largest.
State and regional arts organizations offer some of the most effective showcases as far as getting actual work. These are usually arts council, college, children’s, and school gigs that don’t directly advance your bluegrass career, but they sure help pay the bills and keep the band tight. Truth to tell, there are artists out there in our field that you’ve probably never heard of grossing more than $100,000 a year playing these kinds of gigs full time. These showcases usually take place in fall or winter with applications accepted during the summer. For information about such events, contact your state arts council (the National Association of State Arts Agencies (202-347-6352) provides a contact list at www.nassa-arts.org/new/nassa/gateway/gateway.html). Arts Midwest provides a useful directory of the regionals at www.artsmidwest.org/rao.htm.
The Arts Presenters offer the oldest and most prestigious booking conference in New York City each winter including January 9-12, 1999. Showcasing, however, is a variant of the private showcase concept with talent agencies presenting their artists. Like the regional arts markets, this event emphasizes coming back year after year with tangible results often not appearing for three to five years. Arts presenters tend to prefer slowly developing long term relationships with agents. For info: 202-833-2787 or www.artspresenters.org.
The spectacular success of South By Southwest, which takes over Austin, Texas each March (3/17-21/99), has fueled the growth in showcase events. Now there are a number of licensed SxSW clones like Toronto’s North by Northeast and who knows how many imitators such as the January Nashville Entertainment Association showcase, which, although poorly organized, has proven quite receptive to bluegrass acts and includes the Station Inn among its venues. Unlike other events, SxSW is not primarily about getting gigs. Acts showcase there because the crème de la crème of the world’s music media attend and since it has a good system in place for connecting artists with infrastructure – agents, managers, publicists, recording companies, and the like. SxSW info can be found at www.sxsw.com or 512-467-7979.
The college market was important to bluegrass 25 years ago. Today it proves one of the more difficult markets. Even though some institutions maintain adult, professional presenters, all too often you encounter a different kid with a one year committee chair appointment obviating long term relationships. The older established organization is NACA, the National Association for Campus Activities (www.naca.org or 803-551-2452). The NACA national convention (there are also regionals) happens at Opryland Hotel on February 13-17, 1999. A newer group is APCA, the Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities (www.apca.com/99conference.htm or 800-681-5031). Their 1999 “Go Book It On the Mountain” showcase event happens in Knoxville on February 25-28.