FIG. 1: Mark Willis is the founder of the Atlantis Music Conference and Festival, which is held annually in Atlanta. Credit: Courtesy Mark Willis
Music-business conferences offer the opportunity to learn about the inner workings of the recording industry. These forums, which occur all over the country, also provide valuable ways for bands and artists to network and showcase their talents. Conferences provide building blocks for career-oriented artists, and do so in a consolidated, fun, and interactive environment. Regrettably, only a small percentage of musicians take advantage of such opportunities. Too many believe that their talent alone will spawn success, but learning to market that talent and having access to movers and shakers is a major part of the equation.
So how do you make the most of a music conference? I asked the founders of two of my favorite events (both of which I also speak at each year): Mark Willis (see Fig. 1) of the Atlantis Music Conference and Festival held in Atlanta (www.atlantismusic.com), and Angie DeVore-Green (see Fig. 2) of Diversafest, usually referred to as Dfest (www.dfest.com), which is held every year in Tulsa.
Why should artists attend conferences?
Willis: Education, networking, and shared experience.
DeVore-Green: The music industry is a business, and if you want to be successful, you must treat it as such, while maintaining your artistic vision. This industry is largely based on relationships. Conferences are great for networking. [As a musical artist] it's also easy to get sidetracked, frustrated, and discouraged. At conferences, you can see that you're not alone.
When is it that artists are ready to start investing in conferences?
Willis: When they average more hours a week practicing than socializing!
DeVore-Green: As soon as they are serious about their careers. Many don't know much about the industry. Conferences are places to learn, gain insight, and figure out where one should focus.
Some conferences boast about opportunities for musicians to be discovered and signed. Is that realistic?
Willis: That's most likely not going to happen until you have a well-connected team to draw the industry to your show. If your only motivation to play a conference is that you hope that an A&R person “happens” upon your showcase and signs you, you're gambling on a penny stock rather than making a wise investment.
DeVore-Green: It's probably the worst reason to attend. You might get on someone's radar, but don't kid yourself into thinking that it will lead to a record deal. I've seen artists signed shortly after attending and showcasing at a conference, but they were already on someone's radar. I've also seen bands from nowhere attend and put the ideas they learned at the conference into motion, which led to real interest and a management deal, a booking-agency deal, and ultimately a record deal. It certainly wasn't an “add-water-and-become-a-rock-star” scenario.
Should artists who are rejected for a showcase performance attend anyway?
Willis: More so than anyone else. Through the education, networking, and shared experience, they will have the tools needed to reach the next level. At Atlantis, any artist who is rejected receives one complimentary registration.
FIG. 2: Angie DeVore-Green founded Dfest, a music conference and festival that''s going into its seventh year in Tulsa. Credit: Courtesy Angie DeVore-Green
Taking all expenses into consideration, how much does it cost to attend?
Willis: A four-piece local band showcasing would spend around $120: [approximately] $35 for the submission fee, $24 for parking, and $60 for food. For out-of-towners staying overnight, it's between $500 and $600: $35 for the submission fee, $129 for a one-bedroom suite, $12 for parking overnight, $100 for gas, and $240 for food. Accepted artists receive one complimentary conference registration, and all other members get free entrance to four days of showcases.
DeVore-Green: For us, it's a $15 submission fee, and all performing musicians accepted can attend the conference for free. Additional nonperformer artist badges are available to them at $50. For artists not selected, one member can attend for free [like at Atlantis] if registered within a limited time frame, and additional artist badges are $50 each until one week prior to the event, and then it's a $150 walk-up rate. Our hotel ranges from $79 to $109 per night. There are cheaper options, but staying at the host hotel is worth it because that's where panelists stay, and you can actually hang out with them. Also, remember that it's entirely a business expense!
What topics do panels typically cover?
Willis: Songwriting, producing, A&R, touring, promotion, distribution, legal, management, marketing, recording, Internet, and DIY and major-label options. There are also keynote speakers and high-profile interviews.
DeVore-Green: Our panels cover everything from promotion, marketing, booking, and touring to more-complex issues like record deals, digital and traditional distribution, licensing, publishing, and songwriting. We also have several clinics for drums, bass, and guitar; keynote speakers and well-known-musician interviews covering a variety of topics; and both demo-listening sessions and one-on-one mentoring. Dfest is geared toward finding success without a label. If you can be successful as an artist, then you can be successful with a label, have more leverage, and be more attractive to indie and major labels.
What are the biggest mistakes that conference-attending artists make in terms of missing opportunities?
DeVore-Green: They don't participate actively. I see artists bellied up to the bar doing too many shots trying to look like rock stars, rather than sitting in front rows of panels asking questions. Some show up literally a few hours before their showcase — just in time to grab their credentials and head to the club for load-in, and never spending a minute at the conference. Later they complain that no “industry” showed up and that if someone “important” had, they'd be signed right now. The successful bands are learning, networking, promoting, and so on. The ones that bitch [usually] slept in, hung out at the pool, and sat at the bar whining about how the music industry sucks, their town's scene sucks, and nobody cares about original music. This past year, I had Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips with his manager. It was a hugely unique opportunity to ask some real questions about the music business. However, people asked, “What inspired you to write ‘The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song’?” and “Thanks for giving back, Wayne.” Is that even a question? Why weren't people asking, “What were major obstacles in negotiating your first deal with Warner Brothers?” or “If you had to do it all again, is there anything you would have done differently?” or “Do you think that you passed up an opportunity to reach cult status faster, or do you think you did it exactly right?”
Is it better to attend multiple conferences, or try to develop a buzz at one annually?
Willis: I'm biased and think everyone should come here every year. But if you can afford it, it's best to do both. Go to the industry wherever they are regionally congregated in one place. Their jobs are to research, investigate, and discover new talent. Spending money searching them out in their own respective markets could be futile, [especially] when you can potentially reach them at closer-to-home events.
DeVore-Green: If you're taking the things you learn and actively putting that information to action, then keep coming back until you don't have the time because you're too busy successfully touring and selling records. I don't think it's necessary to run around the country unless you have a plan to tour between the events. If touring includes conferences, take a couple days off to actually attend the conference. If you're unable to tour and attend a conference where you can return in six months, focus on closer events and try to develop a buzz there. Also, if your band can't all attend, budget so that one person can go and network and learn. Some of my best networking was achieved when I wasn't playing a showcase. Arm yourself with business cards and follow up with everyone, because you don't know who you don't know — and you never know when someone you meet could be the huge link to something or someone that could change your career path.
Ravi (www.HeyRavi.com), former guitarist of three-time Grammy nominee Hanson, tours the country performing, lecturing, and conducting guitar clinics. He writes for several magazines, and Simon & Schuster published his tour journal.