Music Management Skills: Attend Conferences with a Bias for Learning, Not Promotion

I get a little worried when a new music manager writes up a goal sheet that includes “attend/work a music conference.”

Music conferences are fun, raucous affairs. But many bands treat them as little more than extensions of already overheated local scenes. Very few “civilians” attend, so it’s hard to try to convert locals into fans. Outside of major events, like SXSW and CMJ, very few high-level industry execs attend, so the folks you’re in the room with tend to be other novice managers or agency assistants.

This isn’t a bad thing, as long as you set your goals accordingly.

If you think you’re going to march into a music conference and convince Clive Davis to sign your band, forget it. (And yet, that’s the lament I hear from a lot of folks who save up thousands of dollars to attend conferences and festivals. They might as well have played the lottery.)

Likewise, I worry about bands that use music conferences as fantasy camps. Some conferences lock you up in a hotel ballroom and pretty much make you play in front of a hundred other musicians who are more nervous about the set they’re getting ready to play. It can be a good test for a not-too-distant time when your band plays a bigger room. Without the right preparation, the transition can tear bands apart. (I’ve seen it happen.)

Instead, use music conferences as an opportunity to learn more about the other people in your ecosystem. What other booking agents have been working the venues that you currently play? What challenges have promoters and publicists uncovered in the past year?

As someone who’s used to getting plenty of pitches when I attend a conference, I always remember the folks who ask me insightful questions than the folks who push yet another postcard and demo into my hands. When I was producing radio shows, these were the folks I wanted to bring back to my music director.

Think about the money you spent getting to the conference as tuition instead of as promotion, and you’ll radically change what you get from the event.