A Case For Showcasing
by Mike Dawson, SaskMusic Executive Director
The conversation about showcasing as an artist development tool is long, convoluted and in some cases political. I’m going to attempt to collect my thoughts on what they are, how they work and how to prepare for them.
What is a showcase?
A showcase is a performance opportunity that typically takes place in conjunction with a music conference or awards celebration. In short, it’s an opportunity to perform at an event that is populated with music industry professionals. Some examples include SXSW, The Great Escape in Brighton, Reeperbahn in Hamburg and BreakOut West closer to home. Although formats vary from event to event, the most typical sees the daytime schedule full of panels and discussions on a variety of topics ranging from breaking into new markets to digital marketing strategies. Quite frequently there’s also an opportunity for you to schedule one-on-one meetings with delegates.
Are they for everyone? Absolutely not. But they can be a meaningful and effective tool to further your career if you are an artist that is a good fit for a particular event’s demographic/industry attendees.
Why do all of these festivals want me to play for free?
There’s a distinction to be made between a showcase and a public festival. I often see threads on social media concerned that showcase events want artists to play for free. Although this may technically be true, it is only part of the story. If you’ve never been to Germany and don’t have a record label or agent there, it wouldn’t be a very sound investment for a festival to offer you a pile of money to perform. (And if they did go that route, the festival most likely wouldn’t be around very long because they also have bills to pay.) A ‘showcase,’ by contrast, is designed in tandem with a conference that brings industry such as talent buyers, festival programmers, agents, labels, publishers, etc together and creates an opportunity for them to see you live. In other words, an audition. There may also be an opportunity for the general public to attend the showcase, but that is not the primary focus of your participation in the showcase.
Ultimately the decision to participate in showcase events depends on your personal philosophy about music. If your moral compass tells you that performing for free or a modest honorarium is never acceptable there is certainly nothing wrong with that; however, if you are looking to make new business connections and foster new relationships, then a showcase is worth considering. Additionally, in lieu of payment, artists generally receive a pass to attend the conference component of event, which can hold a dollar value of up to several hundred dollars. It’s important to remember that both provincial and federal governments recognize the commercial value of market export and showcase opportunities, and thus have funding available via grants through sources such as Creative Saskatchewan, FACTOR (the Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings), and Canada Council. Similar funding structures exist in most Canadian provinces and comparable music export programs exist in many different countries including Australia, Scotland, Switzerland, Iceland, etc.
Showcase opportunities require you to make an application and are typically juried based on that application, which will include not only your music but also your export/marketing plans and what you hope to get out of the event (as far as business opportunities go).
You’ve decided to apply and have been invited. Now what?
Do Your Homework
Find out who is going to be at the conference. This may take some sleuthing around but be resourceful. Some events will publish a complete list of registered delegates. If that’s the case, take the time to review the list and see who would be a match with your genre, vision, etc. If their contact info isn’t published it’s often as easy as Googling their name and company name to track them down. I personally like to reach out to people I’m particularly interested in meeting and ask if they have time to meet up for a quick coffee. This is your opportunity to play for a room full of industry who have traveled to the event with the hope of doing business.
Hone Your Pitch
Find the words to best describe your music and career in just a couple of short sentences. Be clever but be sincere. It’s your chance to draw people in. Think about genre, style, comparable artists, upcoming plans, etc and piece it all together into a succinct description. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and a journalist will describe your band in a way that does the work for you. For example, someone once described Surf Dads as ‘Weezer on speed,’ which has become part of their pitch and a major talking point. If you’re making the most of the opportunity you’re going to be talking about your music a lot, so be prepared.
Also, know your own facts. How many streams do you have on Spotify? How many followers do you have on Twitter? How many shows did you play last year? Which playlists have featured you? Has your album charted at radio? These stats matter. If you played 150 shows last year and have a million views of your latest video on YouTube, you need to tell people that. Although the narrative in the media is often that bands come out of nowhere and explode overnight, the truth is that in most cases they’ve been slogging away under the radar with industry keeping an eye on them before anyone makes the move to sign them.
I feel the most important advice I could give anyone about a showcase would be to ATTEND THE CONFERENCE. Don’t think of your showcase as just your usual concert – make a commitment to be present throughout the entire event. I promise you will leave with information you can immediately apply to your career. You will also come across panelists and speakers that you really connect with, and make new friends. I can’t count the number of friends I have who work in different facets of music that I can lean on with questions when I’m trying to figure something out for the first time. Many of my closest friends work in music and I don’t want or need anything from them on a business level, but much of our time hanging out is spent chatting about music and inadvertently helping each other out. Grow your network. You don’t have to be hyper-schmoozy or oversell yourself with every sentence out of your mouth, but you love music and are at an event literally surrounded by hundreds or thousands of people who feel the exact same way.
In most cases this will be a short set. Often only 20-30 minutes. The most important thing about a showcase performance is to put your best foot forward. It’s not the time or place to try out some rough half-finished material. It’s also not the show to break a string and then wander off stage for 20 minutes looking through your case for a new one. Be prepared for any possible scenario and just ‘play the hits.’ There are, of course, exceptions to this rule but just be certain that your performance is the best representation of your sound that you can put forward. Have your set timed and well-rehearsed. It’s also always better to play a minute short than to go over your allotted schedule time by a minute and risk cutting into someone else’s set. DON’T FORGET TO INTRODUCE YOURSELF. And do it often. I’ve been in the room where audiences have changed over 3 or 4 times during a single set as delegates run madly throughout the city trying to catch a couple songs by as many bands as possible. It’s nearly impossible when you’re on stage to know everyone who is in the audience, but the most important thing is that they know who YOU are so mention it casually every 2 or 3 songs. I can’t count the number of times someone in the audience has leaned over during a set and asked, “Do you know who this is?” After the set, it’s strongly advised to send one member of the band out into the crowd to make themselves accessible while the rest of the band packs up as quickly as humanly possible. (Try not to send out the member who isn’t even sure what city you are in or what the name of the event is.) People will want to talk to you, I’ve seen it time and time again. Showcasing may not be the most ideal means to perform from an artist standpoint, but it’s become an industry standard around the world and there’s a long list of Saskatchewan artists who have secured agents, managers, labels and distribution as a direct result of them. Speaking from personal experience, performing at showcases early on was the best investment my own band ever made.
Always ask for a business card when you meet someone. Chances are that if they don’t have a card on them they will just offer up their contact info to you.
Then, follow up! When you get home from the showcase send a polite personalized note to the people that you met. Just be sincere. As things progress in your career and you release a new single, book a big tour, or whatever, you can reach out again to invite them to a show or send a link to the new song. Admittedly, it’s quite rare that a deal happens on the spot at a showcase, but as mentioned above there’s a long list of success stories within our own province that stem from these shows.
I was asked to moderate a panel once about market export, and asked each of the panelists their opinions on showcase festivals. I received a lot of shrugs and uncertainty as a response, but when I asked my follow up question on where they first saw the artists they were working with today, they all replied that it was at a showcase event…every single one of them. I’m not going to tell you whether or not you should agree with and participate in the showcase model, but I will restate that if you are looking to release albums and tour in new markets it can serve as a very effective foot in the door.
It’s just important that you have an understanding of what you are participating in. With album sales down and streaming’s unpalatable royalties, many artists rely heavily on live performance as their major income generator, and finding success in multiple markets means more opportunities to make money. After more than 20 years of touring, promoting concerts, running venues, and managing artists, I can say with complete sincerity that the music industry, both nationally and globally, is a tight knit community of genuinely good people who love music as much as you do.