After our recent articles on gigs and using social media to your best advantage (i.e. getting the word out), we were recently asked a question that seems to come up often: but what else can I do in the mean time? Meaning, yes I know that I must play, practice, and actively engage with my fans, but is there anything further I can do while trudging through the daily dirge of spreading my art one “add friend” at a time? Well, the answer is yes-sort of. There are a variety of festivals built specifically to introduce new and emerging artists that encourage international participation; though it can be a bit of a long shot, as such magic pills often are.
So, what does that mean locally? It is first important to note what type of music we are talking about here. While everybody will tell you they will accept any band from anywhere, any time—as they quickly accept your application fee—bands with the highest likelihood of getting chosen to play are ones that are unique, interesting, hip, and sellable-regardless of genre. So, while it might not be the place for an artist doing traditional Arab music, a band like Mashrou3 Leila (from Lebanon) would be an easy fit even when considering most of their songs are in Arabic (I only note this to illustrate the subtle difference between the two intersections and interests of these bands). So, much like Arab Idol tends to feature primarily vocalists who sing in Arabic by the final rounds, whilst the voice might have a more contemporary and international feel, such is the same with these festivals. That said, if you can get in, it could literally make your career. True to form, even just attending one of these conferences as a non-performer would teach you more about the actual business of music than you are likely to learn anywhere else; proceed accordingly.
SXSW- Austin, TX
For over 20 years now, the South by Southwest festival has been the single best festival to play as an unsigned, up and coming, old but returning in a hip way, or just want to “see and be seen” artist. Each year, more than 1000 bands play over a weeks worth of festivities at a handful of venues across the city. More importantly, every A&R rep for record labels (that still have a job-RIP to too many as the industry phases these jobs out) will be there and they will be looking for what they haven’t heard of. Or they will be looking for what they have heard of, but cannot make it to your lil’ hometown of Kuwait City to see. They not only encourage international entrants, but also feel their overall mix is improved by it. To this point, SXSW now has offices in Ireland, Germany, Australia and Japan who help bring SXSW registrants to Austin every year. The deadline to apply to play in March of next year is this October 11.
CMJ- NYC, NY
The College Music Journal conference is held every year in September and serves as the calendared opposite to the aforementioned SXSW festival. It takes place over the span of approximately one week at a variety of clubs and venues throughout the city. In addition, there are conferences and speakers by some of the best all-time musicians that discuss everything from the latest royalty rates, to the rise of the 360 record deal (a deal that entitles the record label to a percentage of literally everything you do: from shows, to merchandise, and of course-records) that has popped up in recent years due to dwindling profits from physical record sales. What is most notable here is the pivotal role that college radio stations play in breaking bands in the broader U.S. music market: generally speaking, if you want to launch a new record, you first pitch to the college radio markets to try and get plays. Ones that are played a lot, eventually chart. Finally, the best of the CMJ radio charts tend to be a great indicator for what bands will be hitting mainstream radio by the following year. It is really that simple. So, if you can manage to snag one of the slots in their festival, by extension you are playing at the event where all the industry folks are at- not to mention, you will again see a bunch of great bands play. CMJ takes place October 15 – 19 this year; dates for next year TBA.
Obviously the above is a short list and skews embarrassingly American. The reason for this is three-fold: 1) the above two are so Iconic that nothing else comes close, 2) the American music market is still largely considered the Holy Grail for artists due to the size of the market and potential for global influence, and 3) as an American musician, this is the market I can speak to best-if you know of a Europe/Asia/Mid-East/Australian equivalent—let us know!
Keep in mind that the above mentioned “ways in” to the industry use an old school model of “gate keepers” that act as “taste makers” for what is hot and what is not. While I personally feel that most are better off taking matters into their own hands and not asking for permission to do their thing, whatever that thing is, there is certainly no denying the tangible benefits that playing at the above festivals can offer. They are not, in themselves a guarantee to the ever-elusive record deal (or more specifically these days – distribution deals-we can get into that more later); however, they are as close as people are coming these days.
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