What to do if you want a booker or a manager

I’ve just spent the day at #widedays2014, the annual music industry conference get-together organised by Olaf Furniss and Michael Lambert of Born to be Wide. I also managed to get a chat with one or two of the panellists after, and it was really good to get their good vibes and hear their perspectives. Scott Cohen, of The Orchard, (global distribution company) who has experience in many different parts of the music industry sat down and gave me some great pointers. I asked him what makes a manager want to work with an artist; and whether artists should ‘look’ for management (I’ve always shied away from doing this; as I felt if you had to try to persuade someone to be into what you were doing, you’d be better off doing things yourself-whereas someone who approaches you is going to have a greater stake/interest in what you’re doing). I know a bunch of great, accomplished artists in Edinburgh who delight the audiences they play to, but aren’t really building their audiences or taking off.

I’m going to summarise his main general advice and then develop them below:

1. If an artist isn’t building their audience over time, something is wrong. It might not be talent that’s the problem, but something’s a problem-because while one artist is not really progressing, there are other artists who are.

2. How can artists provide value? What can you give other people? (Aside from your genius, obvs.)
Rather than framing your career as trying to ‘get’ things from people in order to progress (opportunities from people higher up than you, contacts, favours, good gigs, getting people to turn up to shows), think about what you can give.

3. Be excellent. Seems kinda obvious, but unpack this and it’s actually not. (If it were, we’d all be excellent.)

4. You need a clear, specific idea of where you want to be and how you want your career to look. This allows you to set interim targets, and develop a strategy. Once you have an overall strategy, you can work out what tactics/actions to take. Again, sounds straightforward, actually implies a lot of work.

5. There already needs to be a buzz and some people assembled around an artist before a manager will want to get involved. You gotta light the fire.

6. No-one who really developed their career did it on their own. You need to do a lot of legwork yourself and you have to know how to do things; you can’t expect to hand a cd to someone and have them turn round and wave a wand and lead you to a halcyon land of cool shows and happy, merch-buying audiences. But there comes a point when things can’t go any further unless people with experience in other parts of the industry get involved. So you need to be working out how to create a situation where people hear about you and want to find out more.

Going back to point one, the first thing that strikes me is that artists are usually at least sometimes visited by self-doubt. So the first thought that might occur as to what that wrong thing could be is – maybe the artists are fine, but not outstanding enough. Maybe the wrong thing is lack of talent.
Out of the bands/artists I know who are are getting attention or not getting attention, the ones I rate the most highly (and here we get into potentially problematic areas of subjective taste) aren’t the ones getting the attention, necessarily. We can instantly think, well, maybe I’m just not good enough, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that.

Talent is a necessary pre-requisite but it’s not sufficient. A lot of other pieces of the puzzle have to be in place too. I think artists sometimes assume that they’d be doing better if they WERE better, and so they kind of avoid addressing the whole situation of what their audience actually is and where they’d like to be in six months, in 12 months; because if they are specific that creates a scarily quantifiable, measurable yardstick. (Also it doesn’t ‘feel’ very groovy to be writing targets down in a spreadsheet…). It might force them into questions that are very uncomfortable as to where they are at in reality in relation to their aspiration and potential. It’s easier to avoid those questions altogether, but the downside of that is that things don’t really progress, and eventually discouragement sets in. It might be more useful to talk not about talent but about development. There are a few geniuses out there, but mostly there are people who’ve had the self-belief to give themselves the chance and the support to develop to a really high level, and there are the people who only gave themselves a meagre chance to have a bit of a go.

If you can at least try to be objective about your strengths and weakness, you can identify any discrepancies that exist in the quality of your output, and seek to develop your talent and burnish it. There’s a world of difference between ‘pretty good’ and ‘awesome’. Far greater than between ‘pretty average’ and ‘pretty good’. No-one just emerges awesome straight away – it’s years of work. So how do you motivate yourself to continue developing? What is going to need to happen for you to enjoy the process? How are you going to be resilient in your mind so that you have a framework within which you can continue taking the necessary actions even if you have a down day? If there is any doubt in your mind about your potential as an artist, it’s going to be very hard indeed to be consistent in taking those right actions in the right order to deliver the excellence that’s going to make people want to work with you. I don’t think there is any way of shirking this type of exploration. I have definitely had periods of doubting my potential. But I know for sure that having explored all of these things/doubting voices/unpleasing possibilities, my resolve is a thousand times stronger now. Maybe it’s going to take months of reflection, but sooner or later you’re going to have to go there.

What other things might be wrong? You’re maybe not in front of the right audience. Perhaps you’re in a really saturated environment for gigs and all your time is focused on writing and gigging (the fun bit) but in an overall sense you’re going round in circles, and you ‘do stuff’ randomly when you’re feeling buzzed, but not when you feel down. That’s too haphazard. Without an overall, specific idea of what you want to achieve bother longer and shorter term, actions you take are going to be very hit or miss. Being specific takes things from the realm of the dream and into reality.

Long term, if you’re a taker, it’s not going to work either. People who are smart enough to be in a position to advance your career are going to be able to tell a mile off. Also, you end up spending a fair bit of time with people you work with – but out of two equally developed artists, it’s obvious that managers and bookers will prefer to work with someone who’s pleasant to deal with and professional. It’s a huge pile of guff that creativity goes with chaos/means you can be slack/can expect other people to do the stuff for you, or be a diva or whatever. People can tell if you’re insincere, but find and nurture your giving side. A simple start would be to throw a party, lay on the booze, play a few tunes, and give people a good time rather than hassling folk to come gigs and buy tickets.

So there we are – work out by watching and listening back or by asking for evaluations from people more experienced than you what things need more development in order to become more awesome; invest the time in repeatedly working out your aims and what you want your career to look like; develop a strategy; get whatever you need in place to keep developing artistically. You might not be able to put all the things in place, but you WILL be able to put some of them in place (even if it’s as simply as taking some singing lessons to keep improving. I waited about 8 years before doing this. The improvement in my range, the music I can now perform and my confidence have been well worth the investment. Should’ve given myself that opportunity years ago).

There’s a part of most artists that wants to ‘share the loooove!’ Connect to that and develop a giving, value-adding outlook. This will grow the kind of proper relationships where people will in turn reciprocate in ways that help you. Go forth and prosper creatively and musically!

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