John Harris is a music industry consultant with over 30 years of experience and the founder and director of the Millennium Music Conference (MMC), a showcase event in Harrisburg, PA in its 21st year that has become one of the premier music events on the East Coast. John got his start in music as a promoter and booking agent, running the Metron, a 1,000-capacity music club in Harrisburg for nearly two decades. He started the MMC in 1997, and since then, it has educated and showcased thousands of independent acts and artists. John has turned the conference as an opportunity for music industry professionals to attend as panelists, speakers, mentors, exhibitors and talent scouts to network, do business and share their experience with musicians, registrants and attendees. This year’s conference will feature over 300 original showcasing acts and artists and will take place February 23-25th at the Best Western Premier, the Central Hotel & Conference Center in Harrisburg, PA and at 30 local live music venues. John also runs John Harris Group, a consultancy that offers event planning, management, production, marketing and promotional services to musicians and others in the entertainment industry.
John talked to me about why he started the Millennium Music Conference and how it and other conferences can help artists looking to expand their music careers. He also shared some tips for artists looking to reach new fans so they can break into new markets and find success in the industry.
Thanks for taking some time to chat, John. The Millennium Music Conference is coming right up, so let’s start there. You started the conference with Vicki Walls 20-plus years ago. What sparked the idea?
I first came up with the idea for the Millennium Music Conference in about 1996. I had been to other music seminars and some Billboard events and events for other magazines, and I knew I wanted to do something like that in the Harrisburg, PA area. We had some big-name bands coming from out of here at the time, like Poison, Live, Fuel, Jeffrey Gains, The Ocean Blue.
I initially came to Harrisburg because I was working in politics, for the governor, at a college. I somehow took a wrong turn and wound up in the entertainment business. I started managing a nightclub called The Metron in Harrisburg – which changed names at some point so it was called Metropolis – with a 1,000-person capacity. I worked as a booker and also started managing bands.
My first show was an Edgar Winter show with Electric Factory Concerts in the early ‘80s. And all through the ‘80s and into the middle ‘90s, these big clubs were thriving. When I couldn’t get shows in, I would rent the club out to bands for practice. The last night of their practice would be a show, and that was their rent. Bands like Hall & Oates, Wang Chung and others would play there, but we also had smaller-name bands.
The music conference came about in part because I was at a point where I had my friends and kids’ parents calling me asking me if I could host their bands or generally help them. So, I figured I would start this music conference to bring music industry people to them and help these kids learn for themselves. My thought was, “I’ll set the table, and you guys eat.” I approached Vicky to be my partner because I realized I wasn’t always the most people-friendly person, and I really needed someone with a soft touch. We started planning the first Millennium Music Conference in 1996.
So, before you started the conference, you had really established yourself as one of the largest promoters in town and even in your region. As someone with experience in that area, what would you advise artists who are looking to approach promoters? How does an act get through?
When I started out, the best way to introduce yourself as an artist was by sending a press kit. Nowadays, an email containing all your links – social media, website, music page – is what works. After I review those links, I can usually tell a band, “Here’s what I think you need to do in this market. These are the clubs you should play. And these are the bands like you that you should reach out to in order to play shows with them.”
The main point is, as an artist, you want to start in the center and build out, just like most things. I’m not saying that Harrisburg, PA is some place like Austin or that the Millennium Music Conference is exactly like SXSW, but my point is that things can happen no matter where you are in the country. And in a band, not every member is going to be a great businessperson, so I recommend having one person taking control to figure out the direction the band is going to take.
You’re not always going to get a manager or an agent right away. You have to build up to that point.
You brought up different markets. Different-sized markets and also different-sized conferences are obviously going to bring an artist different results. The last four or five times I’ve been to SXSW, I’ve been completely overwhelmed, and I’m someone who actually knows quite a few people just because ‘ve been alive and around the business for a long time.
What are the advantages to an artist of being in a smaller market and the advantage of playing a smaller music conference?
I think Harrisburg in particular is unique because we are a tertiary market. We’re in South Central PA, which is actually closer to Baltimore than it is to Philadelphia. However, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore are all driving distance, so you can be in Harrisburg and easily build out, then go from there.
We’ve seen some great success stories of people who have done just that. And living in Harrisburg can be great because the cost of living is low. In the ‘80s, Harrisburg was the state capital and had that big club, so at one point, we were a real go-to spot for music.
Unfortunately, Lancaster has taken that spot from us in the marketplace. York, PA is a close third. Lancaster is a very artsy place that also now has the LAUNCH music festival in April, started by someone from a band I managed and the head of CI Records.
I think we’re kind of spoiled in the Northeast because within a five-hour drive, there are dozens of cities with millions of people. Out west, you have to drive a minimum of eight hours sometimes just to get to the next music town.
You’ve worked with some of the biggest artists out of your area, so you have a solid perspective on what it takes to make it in the business. What did artists do right that led to them being able to build a local following and then gain popularity regionally?
Number one, they were good and they brought it. Every night they went on stage, whether it was ten people or a hundred people or five hundred people, they brought it. And they were always trying to write new music and new songs and trying to build that market so that they could get out of town.
I have been a soccer coach for many years, so I often compare the dynamics of a band to the dynamics of a soccer team, even though a soccer team is technically bigger than your average band. However, with both a band and a team, sometimes you’re only as good as your weakest link.
A lot of times bands come together as friends, and they can only go so far because maybe one or two people really aren’t into it and just want to be in the band on the weekends. The average lifespan of a band is about nine months. So, to get past that and extend the life of it, you really need to have a good chemistry with the band and have your individuals working as a team whether they’re on stage or off stage.
Bands that make it divide up the work. The first band I really managed was The Sharks, and we got lucky because of the MTV basement tapes. But that kind of petered out. Other bands I managed gave each band member a job, and it worked really well.
For example, two guys were in charge of the merchandise and the fan club and one guy was in charge of the money. Then two guys were tasked with writing all the songs and doing all the interviews. The point was, they always worked as a team. And even when these bands “went out of business,” they found they could always get back in. Once you have a fan base and the ability to get back into business even when you fall out, you can really have a career.
So, as you said, the most important thing for a band to be able to do in order to be successful is to “bring it.” Are there tactics to making that happen? How do you hustle to bring people to shows?
The paradigm has changed since I first got into the business. Social media can now break a band, but it can also start a war.
As a band, you have to use all the tools in the toolbox. And when you’re starting out, you can’t depend on anybody but yourself. Everyone thinks they want a big agent or manager to bail them out. But really, you have to get to the point where these people come to you. In the old days, there could be a frenzy over a great band after one label started looking at them. It led to all the other labels following suit. Now the paradigm is different because you don’t have so many labels, so you have to do a lot yourself. There are only three major labels left, and as an artist, good luck with that.
How about promotion? In the current market, does offline promotion matter as much as online promotion?
It definitely does. There’s nothing that is ever going to be as helpful as word of mouth, especially when it comes to the local scene. You need to have a lot of friends … and look like you have a lot of friends when you get up on stage.
I think the day of hanging posters and doing flyers might be gone. But it’s still important to build a buzz about your band offline. It can lead you to get gigs as support acts for national acts that come through town and to a lot of other opportunities.
It sounds like people need to have great social skills in order to be successful in the current climate.
Yes, and it’s not easy for all musicians. Some musicians are monsters onstage, but then get off and are sticks in the mud. That’s where delegating comes into play. You need to have at least one or two people in the band who have great social skills and can play that role.
We’ve touched on this a bit, but one of the biggest problems I’ve encountered with my clients, and truthfully, that I encountered back in the Bronze Age in my band, was getting to that next town over. The jump from local band to regional band can be really enormous. But anyone who has six or seven markets is all of a sudden in the top ten percent of all bands. What advice do you have for those looking to successfully cross over to new markets?
It’s like I always tell the bands that come to the Millennium Music Conference: “You don’t want to miss networking with other musicians and industry professionals.” Sometimes it can take just one music industry guy to help you take your career to the next level.
Hooking up with other bands who are similar to you from other towns is also important. You trade gigs, reach out to their fans and give them access to their fans. This is key. Also, if you know and become friendly with a band that has a really great bass player or drummer, maybe someday you might steal them.
In all seriousness though, building relationships with other musicians is just as important as anything else these days. For example, as a band from Harrisburg, you might meet another band from Baltimore. You say, “Come up and play our big show, and we’ll come down and play your big show.”
And as a promoter and someone who is a gatekeeper in the music industry, how do you weed out the bands that are serious from those who are not? What gets your attention and makes you respond?
To be honest, it’s about persistence. As a band, you don’t want to go overboard and do too much, but a little persistence is a good thing. Also, using some old-school communication tactics – like phone calls instead of just emails – gets my attention. I’m not saying every member of a band has to reach out, but especially in the beginning, the person representing the band should definitely be someone who is actually a musician and in the band.
A person like you or me who has been in the industry for a while and has contacts is obviously not going to take on a band unless we know we can do well by them and they seem like they’re worth taking care of and worth introducing to the people we trust.
But you do really pick and choose your battles as a promoter, manager or agent. So, you hate to turn anyone down, but I think the best thing you can do is be honest with a band and tell them what you think. Tell them what mistakes they’re making and what they need to do to get to that next level.
And speaking of mistakes, in your experience, what is the most common mistake artists and bands make? What trips them up more than anything else?
I think one of the biggest mistakes artists make is trying to do more than they can successfully do on stage. Another one is getting on social media and complaining all the time.
To speak to the second mistake, I feel that as a musician, you always have to project a positive attitude. And it’s tough to do that. There are a lot of bands out there, and everyone is trying to find that hit song formula. But through it all, having a positive attitude so you don’t take two steps back is critical.
You need to be steadily inching forward and doing the best you can, which means playing regularly and continuing to work on your music. At the same time, you don’t want to overplay. Sometimes bands think they have to play every weekend. These bands that play too much risk being thought of as not special anymore. They burn out the market.
Let’s talk a little bit about the Millennium Music Conference. Why should musicians come to this event?
I think that going into a music conference environment like the Millennium Music Conference is one of the most important things a musician can do. It’s an environment where everybody is there to meet and learn, and that opportunity is rare in this business.
I’ve seen bands come to this event with their eyes wide open and they leave totally ready to go out and slay the dragon. I’ve seen other bands come and realize, “Wow, we don’t have the get-up-and-go that these other guys do, but it’s really easy to do it nowadays.”
As soon as bands started giving their music away, I started making the Millennium Music Conference free. We used to have a $20 submission fee and registration fee, but we started having a few months in the summer where we waived that fee so any musician can go and get to our conference for very little money.
This past summer, we ended up getting over 3,000 submissions through ReverbNation and Sonicbids. We took close to 200 acts. All they have to do is pay their own expenses to come to the event, which means a hotel for $99 per night. That’s a pretty good deal.
If you go to the submission page of our website, you can see the different ways there are to submit to a showcase. The best way to come to our event each year is to get selected to showcase. But any act or artist that pays to submit automatically gets free registration credentials for them and their whole team to come to the event. That way, even if they are not selected to showcase, they are still welcome to come. A lot of other music conferences are doing the same thing now, and I think it’s a genius idea.
That being said, getting out there and meeting other bands and getting in on the mentoring sessions, going to the panels and walking up to people and handing out your CDs and pressing the flesh is important for those who want to get the most out of the Millennium Music Conference or any other conference. It can really jumpstart a career.