Music Conferences: The Good, the Bad, and Mostly the Ugly
Writer’s note: This piece is mostly disparaging of the small time music conferences that I feel only exist to feed off ambitious, starving artists and dreamers; however, there are nuggets of positive things woven in.
What is a music conference? It can be described as a one- to few-day event, usually held at a hotel or event space where music industry and artists gather to listen to guest speakers during the day and to performances by showcased artists at night. Unless you are selected as a performing artist, you must pay daily to attend.
Sounds like a great networking opportunity where you might meet some folks who, if they like your stuff, could help take your music career to the next level, right? Unfortunately I have found that these conferences seem to be little more than chance for the oftentimes amateur “music industry” speakers to pedal their services* – as well as to bring some much needed business to a town or hotel during their slow season.
I have been to a good number of these conferences, usually in the form of a showcased performer. The last one I performed at, which will remain unnamed, exemplified the reason I will never go to another one (unless they are paying a good amount to do so!)
Unnamed Town invited around 40 performers to attend their conference for free as long as they play at designated “venues” around the town, unpaid. The old “exposure” lure. Well, first off it ain’t good exposure if there’s no one living in your town, as is the case with most of these conferences. Honestly, look at some of the ones listed on the opportunities section of Reverbnation and Sonicbids. Have you ever heard of the towns they are being held in? Maybe, but most the time, I haven’t, and I get around (add sexual inference here, then punch yourself in the face.)
The assaults to intelligence continue when they offer great hotel deals—there is usually only one hotel in the town, it’s usually pretty expensive. As in the case of Unnamed Town, the conference was held in a beach community … but in the winter, where nothing was open in walking distance of the hotel.** So you are stuck eating super expensive hotel food, paying for an expensive room, while not being paid to perform.
This wouldn’t be THAT bad if the event you were invited to attend was worth it. Which leads me to the speakers. Oh god, I have no idea where they find these people. These are the usual suspects:
Social Media Experts
Varying in usefulness, although most of the time I have found them to be one step behind. You wanna know which social platform has the most reach? Go to the source and ask a couple of 16-year-olds. Want to know strategy? Google that ish. (JOEY, NOT SURE WHAT GOOGLE THAT ISH MEANS) There are so many useful articles and forums. Although generally not as offensive as other speakers, I have never walked away with nearly the amount of revelations on strategy that I have read online—for free.
The producers are generally puffed up and holier-than-thou-I-once-worked-with-Cat-Stevens-but-he-probably-doesn’t-remember types. Now they just scrounge for the desperate start-ups that we musicians usually are.
The touring artists
These men and women usually have the most value. They are the ones living the life and fighting the good fight. This usually are the most up to date on all facets of the industry because of necessity to survive and continue what they are doing. This necessity weeds out what works and what doesn’t quick.
Can also be very valuable and break down and answers specific issues.
The Songwriting Expert
THE WORST. This hit close to home because as a songwriter myself, I would never tell anyone what “right” or “wrong” to do. These people are of a strange outdated Nashville formulaic songwriting world and are quick to apply set-in-stone rules. Every time I have checked out their creds and listened to their songs, I am incredibly underwhelmed. But here they are, trying to sell you their books about how to write the hits. I always give them a chance and find myself walking out a quarter way in as they begin talking about what doesn’t work for songwriting (in my head I am always thinking of ten critically or financially successful songs that defy each one of their rules).
In terms of the performances, it can be really hit or miss. Although I have heard good shows every once in awhile, most people play to empty rooms or rooms full of people talking. It’s a damn shame ‘cause I have seen a lot of really disappointed artists who traveled a great distance to play for “exposure.” If you hear a ringing tone of resentment in my writing of this article it’s because I am thinking of them as well remembering personal instances of feeling like my passion was being taken advantage of.
So in conclusion, although I generally would advise people to save their time, money, and dignity and skip these things, I’d like to also include the potential positives.
Like music schools, the best thing about the conferences are the other musicians. Meeting awesome new friends, talking about what strategies work for them, show swapping, jamming. All awesome hints which, if not available in your local community, might be worth shelling out and throwing down for. Also, there are occasionally panelists who more readily admit that no one knows what they are doing, and are willing to lead group discussions about thinking outside the box.
If you get accepted to play at a local conference, I’d say try it for yourself. But ones where you have to travel and spend a lot of money for not much knowledge, no new fans, or meaningful musical experiences will leave you with a sour taste in your mouth.
*While I am never one to knock the hustle, the lack of enthusiasm generally encountered leads one to feel that ALL they are there for.
**And a lot of us came from New York and didn’t have cars.