How to Survive Festival Season

BY Scott HonsbergerPublished Feb 27, 2012

Growing up as one of two sons, both over 6 feet tall, March meant only one thing: The NCAA basketball tournament, better known as March Madness. Brackets were hung on the fridge, rivalries were proclaimed, and our TVs got quite the workout. Those of us in the music industry in Canada, of course, come face to face with another kind of madness when March comes around. Yes, it's that time again: music festival and conference season is kicking off.

Canadian Music Week, SXSW, and JUNOFest all happen in an insanely crazy two-and-a-half-week period this year. Before you know it, NXNE will be here, and we'll also be prepping for the fall festivals like OCFF, Halifax Pop Explosion, Breakout West, Pop Montreal, Indie Week, and more.

Amongst all of the music, fun, and games of participating in a festival, there's actually quite a bit of business that can be done. So how do you get the most out of attending such a festival or conference? Here are some tips:

Set up meetings. Many of the attendees at conferences & festivals are there on behalf of their companies. These "delegates" are there to do business, meaning they want to discover new acts, meet other industry people, find out who their competition is, etc. Most of the festivals can provide a list of who the delegates are, so you know ahead of time who'll be there. Been looking connect with someone from that label? Now may be your chance! Email them well in advance, tell them you'll be attending, and ask for 15 minutes of their time. It's not a guarantee that they'll be available, but if you don't ask, the answer's always no.

Go to the panels. Workshops are a great way to learn everything from the basics of the industry to the newest trends in technology. You get to hear straight from the experts what they think about the current and future states of the industry. More than that, though, panels are a way to introduce yourself to people who are experts in their fields. The point isn't to do business right then and there, but simply to get on their radar. A quick hello and a business card swap with the promise of a follow-up conversation later is typically the best way to go about this. (Note: slipping someone a CD is optional, but be aware that many industry people won't get around to listening to it, and some may downright refuse.) If you can, come up with a question to ask during the panel. Afterwards, you can break the ice by saying 'Thanks for answering my question during the session, my name's…." Most importantly, of course, is that if you meet and say you'll follow up, then follow up!

Go to parties. A big part of these festivals are the parties that various companies throw throughout the week. It's true, some are exclusive invite-only events, but many of them aren't. For some of them, all you have to do is like them on Facebook or sign up to their newsletter, and you're in! You'll get to meet industry people, see some great bands, eat their free food and drink their free beer. Tough life, right?

Go to other shows. Obviously, if you're a musician, you'll probably be focusing the most on your own show. But remember, it's a festival, and there are dozens (hundreds) of other bands playing, too. If you're a newish band looking to tour in other markets, chances are a gig-swap or an opening slot will work best. So, here's your chance to see bands from other parts of the country (and the world), meet them, and start talking about playing together. Way easier and more effective than searching randomly on the web.

Second (and third) plays. Chances are good that you'll eventually play a festival outside your own city, which means that travel expenses will be significant. To get the most out of the money you'll be spending, try setting up second, third, fourth plays during the fest. These can be acoustic performances in parks, private parties, or even something you put together yourself. Of course, the ideal is to set up shows in surrounding cities.

Kick ass. While it may be true that the days of artists getting discovered and signed on the spot are gone, this is still an opportunity to play in front of some folks that could potentially help you in your career. Make sure you're ready, both musically and performance-wise, to blow people away.

Be professional. It's important to be professional at all times. This doesn't mean being stuffy, because after all, it's a festival. Just be prepared, be on time, be respectful of other people's time and priorities, and you'll probably really impress people.

As you've probably noticed, most of these tips revolve around meeting other people and developing relationships. The music industry, like many industries, partially revolves around who you know, but that doesn't mean that you have to have an uncle who works at a label or a best friend who's the guitar tech for an internationally acclaimed act. Relationships can be developed from scratch, and conferences and festivals are the perfect place to do so.

It's also important to note that even if you apply and don't get in to these festivals, you can, and should, still go! It's amazing how often artists won't attend these festivals, even if they're in their hometowns, simply out of spite. Go, learn, and connect with other artists and industry. You'll still reap many of the rewards, when you do get in, you'll be an old pro. Finally, don't forget the reason you got into music in the first place (hopefully): to have fun and do what you love doing. Bring on the madness!

Scott Honsberger is the President and founder of the Toronto Music Industry Association.

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