Music Conferences: The Good, the Bad, and Mostly the Ugly

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Music conferences: are they worth it?Why one indie artist thinks many small music conferences aren’t worth the price of registration

[This article was written by performing songwriter Joe Marson. It originally appeared on his blog.]

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 people in the 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.

Producers/Engineers

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.

Legal speakers

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’s ALL they are there for.

 **And a lot of us came from New York and didn’t have cars.

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Which music conferences (both big and small) have you attended? Was it worth it? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.

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[Image of conference room from Shutterstock.]

In this article

Join the Conversation

  • ontheforum

    Music conferences seem to provide opportunities for those who are open to finding them. Perhaps the number one benefit to attending a music conference is networking. Meeting the producers, musicians, A&R folks, promoters, and others on the panels has been valuable. For example, I attended a conference last year and met almost everyone on each panel, and every musician attending the conference I possibly could connect with. Besides having a great time, I was able to save business cards, take home other CDs (free), and learn more about the music business. Checking out other musicians who performed (some were amazing) was also really enjoyable. Is that at least worth the price of admission? In addition, I even met and got a photo with Dez Dickerson (the former lead guitarist for Prince). I have been looking forward to the next chance I have to attend a music conference!

    Warm Regards,

    Terrance
    3000 Records

    http://www.3000records.com

  • Stani Steinbock

    This article reinforces the impression I’ve already had for some time: If you want to earn money, it’s probably better to write a book about how to earn money with your music than to write music! On the other hand: Writing/playing/singing music is something you don’t do mainly for the money, is it?

  • Oldnewbie

    I attended conferences and meets held by a single organization, now gone, back in the 1990’s. While I met a lot of people who used to work in the business or once worked for Warners but now were freelancing and a genuine celeb or two (Roger Daltry for example); I never met anyone who had the power to sign. Many were not even remotely interested in hearing new acts. But as you said, meeting other players, writers, etc was the best thing about the whole experience. Rather, the lasting one. But just as I was getting “in” I got scooped up by a country western artist to play on their tour and never made my way back… when I sought them out, they were gone.

  • Oldnewbie

    I attended conferences and meets held by a single organization, now gone, back in the 1990’s. While I met a lot of people who used to work in the business or once worked for Warners but now were freelancing and a genuine celeb or two (Roger Daltry for example); I never met anyone who had the power to sign. Many were not even remotely interested in hearing new acts. But as you said, meeting other players, writers, etc was the best thing about the whole experience. Rather, the lasting one. But just as I was getting “in” I got scooped up by a country western artist to play on their tour and never made my way back… when I sought them out, they were gone.

  • This article absolutely reflects my experience, thanks for articulating it. I’ve done three or four of these small festivals, and each time it’s been the same deal. I play a late-night set in a venue that’s not used to live music to a small handful of disinterested locals who have no idea a “festival” is happening. I attend some seminars, where the only people who know what they’re talking about are mainly there to shill their own products/consultations (I tried to talk to one presenter afterward, and he said he’d have to limit our conversation to five minutes before he’d charge me). I meet a few other musicians, generally the ones suffering the same dismal gig experience as I. For these things, I spend a substantial amount of money on the application process, the transportation, the hotel and limited local food options.

    In the end, I’ve come away with a few contacts, a few helpful jots on a notepad, and a warm fuzzy on the resume. Worth it? For me, it became clear the answer was no.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences, Daryl. If it’s ok to ask: which festivals/conferences were these? (Just to help other readers think twice before registering).

      @ChrisRobley

      • hey Chris, you know, I feel kind of weird for singling out any one conference, as other people may have a different experience. But for sure, I’m just going to underscore your main point, that every artist should think long and hard before attending a small conference, particularly one in a small town (and especially in an off season).

  • This is so true, and something I’ve been seeing and thinking for awhile now.

  • ontheforum

    Music conferences can provide a great opportunity for networking. However, I have found that being prepared makes all the difference. During the last conference attended, I was able to meet some great A&R staff, and musicians who shared about their experiences in the music business.

    Since this is a business, paying to attend a music conference makes sense. If you are really low on funds but want to attend, consider contacting the event coordinator and asking to volunteer in exchange for admission, and accomodations. Considering the cost of many events out there (business conferences, motivational speakers, etc.) can charge upwards of $750 for a weekend, paying between $30 to $150 to attend a music conference is cheap. That even usually covers getting to see the many great performances!

    Warm Regards,

    Terrance
    3000 Records
    http://www.3000records.com


  • ontheforum

    Music conferences can provide a great opportunity for networking. However, I have found that being prepared makes all the difference. During the last conference attended, I was able to meet some great A&R staff, and musicians who shared about their experiences in the music business.

    Since this is a business, paying to attend a music conference makes sense. If you are really low on funds but want to attend, consider contacting the event coordinator and asking to volunteer in exchange for admission, and accomodations. Considering the cost of many events out there (business conferences, motivational speakers, etc.) can charge upwards of $750 for a weekend, paying between $30 to $150 to attend a music conference is cheap. That even usually covers getting to see the many great performances!

    Warm Regards,

    Terrance
    3000 Records
    http://www.3000records.com


  • ontheforum

    Music conferences can provide a great opportunity for networking. However, I have found that being prepared makes all the difference. During the last conference attended, I was able to meet some great A&R staff, and musicians who shared about their experiences in the music business.

    Since this is a business, paying to attend a music conference makes sense. If you are really low on funds but want to attend, consider contacting the event coordinator and asking to volunteer in exchange for admission, and accomodations. Considering the cost of many events out there (business conferences, motivational speakers, etc.) can charge upwards of $750 for a weekend, paying between $30 to $150 to attend a music conference is cheap. That even usually covers getting to see the many great performances!

    Warm Regards,

    Terrance
    3000 Records
    http://www.3000records.com


  • Bill Hudson

    I will have to say so far the only one I dig is The Future of Music Conference. They made someone like me feel at home and would answer any of my question. They have an online scholarship that really work, I know because I did it for a few years.
    But yes there is a cottage industry out there that will get you to the moon as long as you pay for the ride.
    But at the end of the day its all about the music and that sound!

  • Sabrina Pena Young

    Great article! I am a composer, so it’s more about my pieces being performed than me performing the drums, but a lot of conferences charge a lot for the privilege of having a piece performed by an ensemble or a chance to talk about your work. Not too bad if there’s a ton of exposure or a university is footing the bill, but one cost me a few hundred dollars and there were maybe twenty people in attendance. On the other hand I’ve been part of organizations that might be small, but have great positive impact in my career. You really have to do your homework . Thanks for the tips, as usual! – Sabrina Pena Young (Composer Libertaria: The Virtual Opera) @dalatindiva

  • showcase festivals with music conferences are a big thing now in europe. every country has or creates it’s own showcase festival and bands/labels/festivals hope to establish a second market. until now everybody invests his own money and effort, only hotels, airlines, … make money.

    what I like bhind is the creation of nodes in back to create a second market behind the high commericial music markets.