Why Even Bother??? (with contests, conferences, and music festivals)

by AlanRowoth on May 10, 2018

Folk Alliance International Conference attendees gathered in Kansas City in February.

This is a conversation I have had innumerable times with my musician friends, but I don’t think I have ever blogged it. i commented on a Facebook post today by my friend Neale Eckstein and got a resonant response to it, so I decided maybe I should flesh it out a little.

I get it, contests, conferences, and music festivals are expensive. They don’t usually pay for themselves instantaneously. It’s an investment. Some contests offer cash prizes, festival placements, gear, studio time or other incentives, but many primarily yield bragging rights and newsworthiness. I don’t have to tell you that there are a glut of performers competing for a far too small pool of gigs and committed audience members. Taken one by one, they may not always look like much, but in 2018, this is how we build audiences and mailing lists. One listener at a time.

There are any number of conferences out there. I’m particularly partial to the Folk Alliance conferences. This year, my calendar includes all of the regionals as well as the International Conference. I find them very worthwhile. They give you access to people in all sides of the live music business from venue operators and Deejays to Agents, Managers, and Radio Promoters. We haven’t been properly courting the mainstream news media, but occasionally one of those will wander curiously into our domain as well. I dream of the day when NPR and PBS always have a reporter covering the events. There’s South by Southwest, the Americana Music Conference. NACA, APAP, and others. There are tangential conferences like VIdcon, Playlist Live, and E3 aimed more squarely at content creators, but still very interested in Music. Film Festivals, like Sundance, Cannes, and others. Our insatiable need for more, new, different content only seems to grow and grow and grow. We are constantly finding new ways to exploit music. You might also find a way to infiltrate your music into gatherings of a nonmusical focus. Arts and Crafts fairs, cooking events, goat yoga weekends, domestic abuse survivors, 12 step gatherings, or parents of twins and triplets (Yeah, that’s a thing. I just met some in Pittsburgh) Whenever you have a group of people cut off from their normal day to day lives, you have a better chance of making connections with them.

And then there are the music festivals, many of which have showcases or even contests that offer exposure at the festival level to an audience that had no intention of coming out to see you this weekend. Most of the festival goers are listeners, there for fun, but you will also find other musicians and industry people mixed into that group as well.

The common thread here is Networking, getting to know a bunch of people who didn’t know you existed and making a favorable impression (sometimes even lifelong friendships.) It’s not enough just to be good any more. That might have cut it back in the day when the Big 6 record distributors controlled radio and retail, but those days have long since passed. There is an absurd amount of music being created every single week, both in audio and video form. Finding your audience (or them finding you) is more difficult than ever. Even worse, with the disappearance of the physical media for music, the product is no longer your recording, but YOU. You are the thing that has to be exposed and branded. You are the vehicle that can give your art wings.

This is as good a time as any to say that there is no substitute for quality.If you are hoping to make your mark in the business, You need skills, You need to play well and (if you sing) sing well.Your recordings have to sound good and your videos have to look good AND sound good. Most of all, you should be performing and recording great songs. Whether written by you or somebody else, the songs have to measure up. Without these elements in place, no amount of PR and Marketing is going to make you the next big thing.

The curse of the WhiGWAG.

If you are part of my immediate community, You may suffer from another handicap. I call it the curse of the WhiGWAG. (White Guy/Gal With A Guitar) The cheapest, easiest, most practical way to function as a solo singer/songwriter is to play the guitar. it’s a fantastic instrument, with a broad range. It plays a bunch of notes all at once, unlike your oboe, clarinet, or saxophone.The learning curve starts out really really easy. Learn to strum 4 chords and you can play 40.000 songs. Many artists focus on their songs to the exclusion of their performance skills and they can still swim thru a whole night on stage.

Unfortunately, this has lulled thousands of them into a false sense of security. At your local corner bar, you might miss it, but at a festival or music conference, if the program features an endless stream of WhiGWAGs, there is little way to differentiate yourself from the performers before and after you. You and your music get lost. As a programmer, I do my best to alleviate this by sequencing performers who each bring something a little different to the sonic salad, Still it’s a good idea to be really great at something at the very least.You may find that the thing your audiences like best about you is not the thing you think is the best. Hear what they have to say. Great singers can make an impression. Especially if they have a “Signature Voice” like Joe Cocker, Michael McDonald, or Joni Mitchell. If you are blessed with that, use it, don’t suppress it. Brilliant instrumentalists like Jack Williams, David Glaser, Molly Tuttle, Pat Donohue. Jerry Douglas, and others may find that’s enough to lift them above the pack, but don’t kid yourself, all of these artists have thousands of hours invested in their instrument. If you have that kind of self discipline, god bless you.

For the rest of us, you just have to find the thing about you that touches the hearts of your audience. It might be your folksy charm or your Minnesota accent. It could be your tattoos, your quirky hairstyle, or even your hippy dippy wardrobe style. You are looking for the hook, the thing that makes you different. I believe it’s better for musicians to have a sonic hook. but that may not be an option for you. Find out what works for you. Listen to your audience. Respect them and see what you have to offer that brings them back over and over again. Once you establish that personal connection with your listeners, it will be much easier for them to lock into your musical message.

A Little Science

Something often overlooked in career development is the most basic of human traits. Pattern Matching. We all do it, dozens of times each minute. Everything that we taste, touch, hear, smell, or see is constantly evaluated and compared with the sum total of your life experience. Most people don’t even realize they are doing it, but its this very thing that gives context to everything in our lives.This can be a very powerful tool, but our experiences can also trick us into faulty assumptions. Parents do that a lot. Thinking that this kid is going to be just like the last one. (fat chance…)

We are all basically apes with cell phones, careening thru life trying to make sense of it all. Our inner ape is a slave to recognition. The moment you template new data against your old knowledge and determine you have a match, a bunch of things happen. You get excited. Generally you get happier (not always, some input evokes feeling of fear or uneasiness, sadness, even disgust, depending on the life events you associate, but the recognition usually starts you on a journey.)

I’m initially attracted to every woman I meet who has the Polish nose of my first great love. It’s probably not the BEST nose in the world, but you couldn’t prove that by me. I similarly have noted an instant attraction and intrigue around any woman I see reading a book in a public place. That gets my attention like almost nothing else.

This pattern matching is basic human nature. Everyone you have even met does it. This is why branding works, why songs have choruses, why McDonalds has sold Billions of crappy hamburgers, and it’s why you make the same mistakes over and over and over again. We just can’t stop, even if we aren’t paying attention to doing it.

This can be a powerful tool for the singer songwriter. The individuals who jury the Showcases, song contests, and other performance opportunities are generally drawn from a relatively small pool of arbiters of the community taste. These same people are called upon again and again to make these selections for these events. DJs, Presenters, Agents and Managers, others who have demonstrated leadership or a Midas Touch in picking artists for these events. People who hear lots of good music and have a strong frame of reference as to the state of the art in their arts community. These are smart, discerning listeners. And if they are very, very good, they can escape their preconceptions, listen critically, and give a truly unbiased read of the field of applicants. And (hopefully) actually single out the best of the best.

But not entirely, because they are, in fact, only human. And human beings are wired for pattern matching and recognition. If they recognize your voice, or your playing, or a clever turn of phrase, even just subliminally, it’s going to subtly tilt the deck in your favor. The judge may not have any idea. I know because it happened to me.

The simple fact is that you want these opinion makers to see and hear you as often as possible. You want them to learn your voice and appreciate your ironic sensibility

I used to dislike flamenco music. I didn’t understand it. It had the avalanche of notes that bluegrass has but made even less musical sense to me. So I went out and bought a dozen flamenco CDS off the dollar rack and listened to them for a year. Now I love flamenco music, but I had to power thru it in the beginning. Now that it makes sense to me, it’s much easier to enjoy. Even if you “Never Win these things”, there is a subtle, cumulative effect to showing up and participating. If your music actually sucks, this strategy is unlikely to be helpful to you, but if you are firmly in the mainstream of averageness with your musical skill set. This knowledge could make all the difference for you.

But what’s in it for me?

What every contest or showcase entrant hopes for is the brass ring of course, To have your song selected as the best of 20,000 entries, Cash prizes, to win the shiny set of matching Taylor Guitars, to be offered a MainStage set next year at Madison Square Garden. (Hey, it COULD happen…) But most of the participants are going to reap less obvious benefits. Most music presenters are up to their ears in acts that they already want to present. For you to claw your way to the top of that squirming pile, they are almost certainly going to have to see you perform. But these people LOVE to surprise and delight their listeners, so even if they don’t think they are looking for another act to book, they actually can’t help it. Maybe an agent or a manager will see in you an act they can sell to their customers. Record deals are largely an artifact of the last century, but some people still get signed (albeit usually to mediocre deals.) Maybe you’ll catch a sponsorship from a sportswear company or specialty food brand.

Perhaps surprisingly, often the best business connections to come out of these events is collaboration with other musicians. and you never know just when or where it will strike. Last year at the end of the Falcon Ridge festival, one of the headliners had come back over to the Big Orange Tarp to share some songs in our circle. The majority of the festival goers had packed up and headed home, but we had a healthy group of people who weren’t quite ready for the fun to end and it was a spirited get together. Rod MacDonald was playing a bunch of songs from his soon to be recorded new album (he had released a dozen albums or so already, dating back as far as 1983.) Sitting next to him in the circle was one of the bright new stars of folkdom, Kirsten Maxwell, who was not yet born when Rod started selling records. With her beautiful voice and unerring sense of harmony, Kirsten was chiming in on Rod’s songs as fast as he could pull them out. And they sounded amazing together. Fast forward 9 months and Rod’s latest album “Beginning Again” was released on May 1. Kirsten is singing all over that record.

Our cellist from the Big Orange Tarp house band Dirje Childs has been recording cello parts for some of the people working with our bass player, renown record producer and session musician Mark Dann. She records the parts down at Blue Rock Studios in Texas and sends them up to Mark in New York who mixes them onto the albums. A number of people I have put together on stage are now writing or touring together.

Maybe the single most common and beneficial result of attending these things is audience sharing. Simply splitting gigs with other performers that you meet and make a connection with. You play for their audience. They play for yours. And new fans are found on both sides.

It’s a complex calculus deciding whether a weekend at Falcon Ridge trumps a 3 night engagement at the Dinosaur Barbecue . But if the Dinosaur already wants to book you, chances are that they could do it on a different weekend. Are you ready to take the next step? Are your repertoire and skills honed enough to make the most of this opportunity? Only you can say. But think about it. At the very least, you’ll hear a bunch of songs and meet some cool people.

The deadline to submit for this year’s Falcon Ridge Grassy Hill Emerging Artists Showcase is May 15, 2018. Showcase applications for the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance Conference are Open until June 1.

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