How to Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth

TEDxDetroit is less than two weeks away and I am still working on the music line-up for the big event. The coordination process has not been easy, considering how long I have been courting certain bands. Regardless of that, I am still excited about the line-up I have curated and confident that the TEDxDetroit audience will be delighted by the musical entertainment.

When I think about my dismal acceptance rate of my first round of bands that I asked to play, I find myself concerned with the state of Detroit’s music scene when TEDxDetroit does not have the cachet to draw the best up-and-coming acts. It is possible that the TEDxDetroit group has not done the best job in engaging the general arts community in a way that makes people feel like we are a worthy platform, but the fact of the matter is, this year will be the biggest yet and it may not get any bigger. In fact, it could get smaller.

Image by goingslo via Flickr

Of course, the town crier in me finds this an opportunity to teach. For those that are trying to get their music heard in the most opportunity-rich scenarios, it is time to review how we pick and choose which venues / shows to play. Why you ask? Simply put, it seems one too many band agents look a gift horse in the mouth and for some reason do not like what they see.

Before I go into lending any advice, I want to make clear that I do believe that bands and band managers should scrutinize every opportunity. It just makes sense, not to mention a good practice for the music business. If you are highly discerning at every point, you never have to worry about anyone taking it as a slight. As the Director of Music at TEDxDetroit, I appreciate artists that vet me and the opportunity that I present. It gives me confidence that they are looking to make sure that we are a good fit for each other. I do not profess to know everything and my work with business-minded music acts help me learn more about the business. That said, you have to know a gift horse when you see one and remember that you are just looking to admire it or see how you can improve its dental hygiene by looking at it in the mouth.

Consider the Source

As I stated earlier, I never take offense to people questioning who I am. No matter how famous I think I am in my head, I know there are many that do not know of me. Most of the acts that are on this year’s TEDxDetroit bill came from referrals from friends or new acquaintances.

When you get a show request, definitely get the person’s credentials. Figure out the person’s track record and history. Ask people in your music scene if the person delivers what he/she promises. If it is a show promoter, find out how the person publicizes their events. Are they strictly using social media? Do they invest any money of their own into the promotion of the event? The answers to these questions should dictate whether you work with this person or not. If they are lame at what they do, then do not bother getting on their bill. That is unless you know that you can take advantage of the situation anyway.

Consider the Audience

One of the things I notice in my local hip hop scene is that there are some of the same people that attend the shows around town. That makes me wonder, what is the point of playing so much to the same people? If anything, we should have more events that have DJs play the music of local acts, instead of the artists performing.

Artists should be strategic when picking what shows to play by considering the anticipated audience. If you are working on new material and just want to get the feedback from your peers, then play a regular local gig that your friends frequent. If you are trying to get out and build up to your 1000 true fans, then you need to play in places where you know you won’t see people you know. An event like TEDxDetroit is a perfect venue if you are looking to get in front of a new audience of generally open-minded individuals. That is not to say that your music is necessarily perfect for the audience, but that is the decision you need to make as a serious artist. Is your thrash metal going to scare an average Joe? Well then, you need to be particular about who you try to entertain.

Consider the Potential

Sometimes it is not enough to just dodge shady promoters or finding the right audience. Depending on where you live, you may not have that many opportunities. Then you need to hit the road and look to make opportunities happen. If the lessons I’ve learned from managing Progress Report, I know that you hit a stage where you just have to consistently work. Make music, tour and connect with fans, then do it again. The idea is that each time out, we should have a few more people into our products. It takes work, but you knew that, right?

Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth is NOT for Kids

It is hard out here. The music industry is cut-throat. Crabs in a barrel, depending on where you live. Bands throw shows simply to have a place to play. Hopefully, their fans / friends are open-minded and you can sell a few CDs. You might pick up another gig put on by another band. You grind your gears trying to make some distance on the same hamster wheel as thousands before you. It does not come as a surprise that you could miss a great opportunity, due to exhaustion. That is why you need to take the emotional triggers out of the equation and review each scenario by your contact, the gig’s anticipated audience and the real potential of the opportunity.

Am I missing something? What else do you think should be considered when trying to assess a gig?