Wednesday, January 5, 2011

How To Make IBMA Attendance Pay Off For You - An Essay

A couple of weeks ago, a piece was posted on the Banjo Hangout (a major online forum for banjo players) under the provocative heading “Would your band pay $925 to play at IBMA?” I posted on the topic on BHO, but thought I'd like to expand on what I said there in this blog entry. I'm retitling it “How Can the Value of IBMA Attendance Be Quantified?” I've corresponded with Dan Hays, Executive Director of IBMA, consulted the IBMA web site for details about the costs, and sought to assess the effect, both short term and long term, of showcasing as well as making the World of Bluegrass Convention work for you to help build a career. Here's the result of my current thinking, which I hope to evolve still further as responses to it accumulate. With application packets for Official Showcases due on January 14th, now seems to be a good time to write about this topic.

The International Bluegrass Music Association is a professional trade association focused on supporting all elements of what might be called (or derided by some, depending on their perspective) the bluegrass industry. Although Knecht's post focused primarily on the $925 cost that would be incurred by each band chosen to participate in “Official Showcases,” I'll try to revise and extend my remarks to include broader participation in the entire week of the IBMA, including both the trade conference and the annual Fan Fest.

Perhaps the highest profile events for bands at the World of Bluegrass are the Official Showcases. In 2010 these were held in the large space made more intimate by the use of round tables placed in what would later in the week be expanded for the Fan Fest audience into a festival setting. The large stage, excellent sound, and (to me) annoying lighting, provided the nineteen bands selected from 100 – 150 applications for showcasing with a fine opportunity to present twenty-five minutes of their very best for the people who buy, report on, and promote bluegrass talent. During the time periods set aside for Official Showcases, no other official convention activity competed. IBMA claims, with justification, that the actual benefits of being selected for an official showcase are significant, not including whatever future business might accrue to selected bands. Here's a link to the application process, which details the costs and the benefits provided to bands which showcase. Used properly, the opportunity to showcase at IBMA can be a springboard to increased bookings and expanded sales of recordings. A more important question than whether the costs are worthwhile is to examine how to use the showcase to expand a bluegrass career.

The question of whether IBMA is "worth" the cost depends very much on what you wish to obtain from attending this event. If you, as a performer, expect that appearing in an official showcase or an after hours event will automatically turn into improved bookings, then you have another think coming. Appearing at IBMA does not provide a magic carpet to bluegrass success. On the other hand, if you do your homework, you can both learn to become more professional, increase your visibility in the bluegrass world, and increase the amount of work you get as a performer. There's one problem. It takes hard work. As long as performers compare a week at IBMA with the fun of jamming at SPGBMA, they just don't get it. Performers who show up for their showcase or Fan Fest performance without spending quality time "working" the event and availing themselves of every opportunity to learn are wasting their money. What does this mean?
  1. Attend workshops and meetings during WOB. You might learn something and you certainly will be in contact with industry people who can help spread the word about you as a performer. The workshops and meetings are intended to allow people who have had successful experiences in a variety of areas to share their skills and knowledge. A six member band can, effectively, attend six different events at one time, take notes and ask questions in order to be able to meet later with band mates to try to extract usable ideas from what they've heard and seen.
  2. Go to the meals you've paid for anyway and sit with people you don't know. Many of the people we meet at IBMA are either media people (radio, print, electronic, film, and more) or talent buyers (festivals, arts centers, concert venues, and more). They need performers and want to meet new people. Establishing yourself as a face, a voice, and a personality may not yield a booking during IBMA week, but, with perseverance on your part, can lead to future bookings and sales. Keep notes of who you've met and follow up by e-mail, FB friendings, and mailings with each one.
  3. Work the hallways for the same reasons stated above. Chat with people you meet in the Exhibition Hall, the hotel and convention center hallways, at jams (yes, there are plenty of jams), in private suites, and elsewhere. Be available to talk about your work and to take an interest in theirs.

  4. Visit the private suites of talent buyers (Grey Fox, CBA, MACC, Bluegrass and others) and get to know the people who promote these high visibility events. Not only are they in a position to hire you, other people will see you in their suites and be impressed. If you're asked to perform (audition) in one of these suites, jump at the chance.
  5. Schedule taping sessions at the DJ Tapings event and make sure you meet as many dj's as possible. These tapings make it possible for you to tape a number of appearances on radio shows around the country and to establish a face-to-face relationship with many radio personalities.
  6. The Gig Fair, although it may seem like something of a meat market, gives performers an opportunity to create a first impression with dozens of festival bookers from across the country. While it may feel a little “speed dating,” you have a chance then, to follow up on each meeting. It's very bad form to interrupt other people having interviews by coming by the tables and merely dropping a CD and some information.

  7. Keep notes and follow up on every conversation and contact you make. I can't emphasize how important this is. As you work through the week, write down the name and function of every person you meet, collect their cards, and spend a few minutes chatting with them. What follows shouldn't be necessary, but shake hands, smile, make eye contact, repeat the other person's name to help cement it in your mind, and don't spend time looking over the person's shoulder for the next person you wish to talk to. Keep a written schedule of your obligations and the events you need to get to. As an aside: If you want to watch a real master of these skills, spend a little time at a festival observing Rhonda Vincent work her merchandise table. She treats every fan as if he or she were the only person in the world, get really excited at what they have to say, seems to remember them from the last time she saw them, and never rushes them off to get to the next person. She stays until the last fan leaves. All of us have a lot to learn from Rhonda's people skills.

  8. Stop whining about limited jamming opportunities. You're not at IBMA to jam; you're there to work. Maybe you can get some picking in, but attending seminars in the morning and afternoon, working the exhibits, staffing your own exhibit if you have an Official Showcase, and attending showcases in the afternoons and on into the night is hard work. One of your most important tasks is to network. That's time consuming and requires real concentration. Jam at festivals and around home. You're at IBMA to work to improve your bluegrass career, if that's what you're interested in. If you're attending IBMA because it's a good party, all well and good, but it's a pretty expensive one.

    People who say “It's all about the music” are mistaken. While the music may be the reason you've attended IBMA, the conference is about building your musical career. If you imagine yourself expanding beyond your present place in the business to a larger venue, you can accomplish this by doing the work for it at IBMA. The people we've watched over the past three years who've really made the World of Bluegrass work for them have seen the results in increased bookings and improved performance of their CD's. You can't ask more of an industry trade show which will turn into a successful investment in your career rather than a net cost.

    Finally, despite the fact that we have developed our love for bluegrass music and its people into a second, and very much unexpected, career, we find this week to be one of the most enjoyable of our bluegrass year.  I look forward to engaging in the discussion and seeing your responses to this piece.