Making the Best of Music Conferences

Making the Best of Music Conferences

Vikki Walls  is the Executive Director of the Dewey Beach Music Conference & Festival, held annually in Dewey Beach, Delaware. A lifelong music fan, Vikki got her start in the music industry when she decided to start her own band t-shirt business and then started booking night clubs and managing bands. She eventually stepped out of her management role when she decided that she could help more bands succeed by setting up her own music conferences and festivals, where she could bring her industry contacts together with talented artists. Together with John Harris, she started the Millennium Music Conference in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and then eventually started the Dewey Music Conference & Festival. She has been running and participating in music festivals and conferences for over 15 years. She has also worked as co-editor of the artist resource The Musician’s Atlas and was the music expert for eBay for five years.

 


Vikki spoke with me about her experience in the music industry, qualities she looks for when booking bands for her festival and how artists can use music festivals and conferences to forge relationships with industry decision makers and find opportunities to build their careers.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Thanks so much for taking some time to talk to me, Vikki. How did you get into the music business, and how did it lead you to run conferences and festivals?

 

VW:

 

I was a legal secretary. And I decided I didn’t want to do that anymore. I thought I wasn’t doing what I was really meant to do. I followed a band I really liked and noticed they had no t-shirts or merchandising. So, I started a t-shirt company and did t-shirts for them. Finally, I was making more money there than I was being a legal secretary, so I quit and decided to run the t-shirt company full time.

 

Then, I started booking night clubs. Then I started managing bands, and I did that for quite some time. After that, I decided to focus on my career. Managing bands is a lot of hard work, and you can only take a band so far. I worked really hard. So, I said, “I’m going to work as hard on my career as I did on theirs.” I decided I really just needed to step out of the management scene.

 

I started the Millennium Music conference in Harrisburg with John Harris. And that was because bands kept asking me to manage them and for advice and help. So, I thought, why not set up a little conference and bring in a bunch of my contacts for these artists to meet, as opposed to just handling one band at a time? I felt I could help more bands that way. I worked on getting tradeshow exhibitors, sponsors and the panelists. I worked on the bands and organized it with John. That all came about because I had a compilation CD of central PA bands that I put out for free. And the Crossroads Music conference in Memphis got a hold of it and really liked all the bands. They gave me my own showcase at Crossroads. And from that, we took six bands from central PA. One was a band that John managed called The Martini Brothers.

 

So, we all went down and did the conference and hung out. At that time, John was booking several night clubs and was a banquet manager at the Best Western in Harrisburg. So, he had the venue. And we got back, and he said, “We could probably do this.” And I said I knew enough people. That’s when we decided to join forces. I decided I would bring in my contacts, and he would organize the rest. We started from scratch, not really knowing what we were doing. But because I had been to South by Southwest a minimum of 15 years, and I had done the conference circuit. Paul Sacksman from Musician Magazine was always taking me around the country and putting me on panels about do it yourself for bands. So, we decided that information was what bands really wanted. And since I wasn’t managing anymore, I started that.

 

I was still working for The Musician’s Atlas. Paul left Musician Magazine and started working on that. I became co-editor and helped put it together with him and Martin Feldman. And one year, I was at South by Southwest. I met the people from eBay across the booth from me and struck up a really good relationship with them. A couple months later, they stole me and made me the music expert for eBay for five years. In the meantime, I was still doing Millennium because it was just a once-per-year thing, so I could do both.
Then, I was really good friends with the owner of the Bottle & Cork in Dewey Beach. The Bottle & Cork is also a venue where the bands I used to manage played. And I even took the owner to South by Southwest many times because he’s such a music fan. He called me right after I left eBay, when they got rid of me and their other independent consultants. I had actually called him to see if he would come to Millennium to speak. And he said, “I just bought the whole Rusty Rudder complex. This might be a really cool place to have a  conference. I know about your one in Harrisburg, which is well respected in the community.” So, I went down and met with him and looked at everything. And I said, “You’re right. Bands at the beach. It’s beautiful, and has a really cool vibe. Let’s try it.”

 

We did it there the first year, ten years ago. And after that, I realized it was a lot of work. And he had a lot more work for me to do and wanted me to do more here, including becoming the Talent Buyer for the Bottle & Cork. So, I left Millennium and figured I would concentrate on Dewey and use my contacts and do what I had to do to make Dewey the conference I wanted it to be. I just really liked everything about it. And the owner is wonderful. He will say, “I have all these restaurants. Let’s throw parties and feed the musicians.” He comes up with great ideas. As far as the organizing of it, that’s me selecting all the bands and getting the paperwork together, getting sponsors, and about a thousand other little details it takes to pull off even a small conference like ours, along with some very good friends from my Harrisburg days who have come to help me every year during the event and are now the core staff.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Obviously with the conference, you’re looking for people who are talented, people who have the capability for commercial success and that are really running their careers as businesses. What advice would you for artists as someone that has run music conferences for many years?

 

VW:

 

We take submissions through Sonicbids and  ReverbNation. And my first advice to bands is to make sure their EPKs or whatever they send me in the mail are as up to date as possible. I can’t tell you how many times I go to an EPK, and a band will submit, but there will be no photograph, or there won’t be a bio, or they won’t list their gigs. Some of them, believe it or not, don’t even give me music.

 

I really read everything, study every band, listen to every band. I actually even try to Google a band if they don’t give me anything to go on. But that’s really a lot of work to ask me to do when I’m listening to so many bands. And it does get very frustrating. They need to keep up their site and make it as current as they can, list the clubs that book them and the festivals they’ve played, any kind of film or TV placement they’ve had, bands that they’ve opened for. These are key things that people like me are looking for. And, I feel that if the 9:30 Club is booking you, I should be booking you.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Sure. And you want to know a band is active, which means a list of current show dates. This is better than if the last show you played was two months ago.

 

VW:

 

Yeah. And I want to see that you’re not just playing two clubs in your hometown and that you’re actually getting a fan base from other places. Because of where I’m at in my career, I have to bring in a lot of really good bands. And I think I’ve built up that reputation. People that come to my event and any festival with a good reputation know they’re going to see good bands. But the bands are not the draw – the festival is. And the locals will come because they know they will see really good bands and not be disappointed. That’s why I am really hard on who I select. And I only have 120-125 slots.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

If you are a band, does it help to have  your industry contacts’ help to get into festivals? Does knowing someone in the industry or connected to you or the festival improve their chances and speed up the process?

 

VW:

 

Definitely. The industry folks that have attended have such a good time, they pass it on to other people and tell other bands about it. And people from other festivals come to ours and will pass me information about bands they think would be good for the festival. And some of my agents from William Morris and other places will turn me on to baby bands that they’re trying to work on getting booked. They’ll get all those bands to submit. It makes for a nice cross section of all kinds of music from all different levels, from singer/songwriters, to bands from Canada. I get it from all ways. And the goal is really just to keep the quality really good.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

If you were a band coming into Dewey or Millenium what are some of the things you should be doing to promote yourself, get attention and build relationships before, during and after the festival? I can’t even compare it to South by Southwest, because that’s so huge it doesn’t work the same way.

 

VW:

 

Oh, yes. That’s so big. That’s one benefit of a smaller festival like ours. We’re small, and you see the same people all weekend. The reason I throw these VIP parties – and these are for all the bands – is to get everyone all under one roof so that everyone can network in a relaxed atmosphere. You’re having a few drinks and eating great food. And you’re in the same room with the producers, talent buyers, label executives and all the sponsors and tradeshow people. We’re all there together.

 

It’s the same thing I did as a manager when I would go to a music conference. I tell bands when they get accepted to try to come for the whole three days. There’s really no reason not to, because it’s free. We don’t even charge a badge fee to the bands that submit or the bands that play. Even the bands that don’t get selected get badges.

 

Musician Coaching:


That’s pretty common I think. If you get accepted, you get a badge for the event.

 

VW:

 

Probably now. But, I don’t know if it was that way ten years ago. I always remember having to buy badges for the bands I managed. But I’ve always offered them free to bands. And I am not sure if other events in the country give free badges to all bands that submit for consideration, regardless if they are selected to showcase or not.  This is our way of giving back to them to still give them a chance to schmooze, network, and participate in the panels, mentoring, etc.

 

Generally, if you’re coming to any festival, you should plan to go for all the days – in the case of my festival, all three days. And you go to the first VIP party, where everybody is schmoozing. You can tell the bands that work it, because they’re at every panel, they’re walking the floor of the tradeshow, they’re doing the mentoring sessions and the clinics. They get there at 10:30 in the morning, and they’re still doing business at 7 p.m. They really work it. They walk around and hand out literature. But, the biggest thing is, they’re taking every bit of advice and putting stuff in the goodie bags, etc.

 

At our conference, we give every band a half-page ad in the conference directory. So, as a band, you need to make your ad look really good, tell people where you’re playing and help promote yourselves. It’s like the band Halestorm from Harrisburg. They always knew how to work the conference. They would do everything. They would get up and do open mics, jump up on stage with other people, do the afternoon acoustic performance. They would even bring cookies, coffee and food to myself and staff in the mornings because they knew what our days were like running this event.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

And they were subsequently signed to Atlantic.

 

VW:

 

And a lot of it was attributable to their participation in a music festival. The producer found them at the festival, there were a couple showcases with industry people that came to, and ultimately Atlantic took them on.

 

As a band, if you want to make  the most out of going to a festival, you should attend all days of the conference, go to as many panels as you can instead of just showing up to do your 40-minute set. There are a lot of business-related things going on during the day that you need to participate in, including clinics, workshops, mentoring sessions, panels and tradeshow events. You also need to walk the street and hand out fliers.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

It seems obvious to those that have gone, but a lot of artists forget how important doing all these activities at festivals is.

 

VW:

 

I know. And we still get people that don’t understand the importance of doing the whole event. It’s the festival part they want to do. They don’t realize that the conference part is what is really going to make a difference for them with their careers.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

And I would imagine they need to research potential people they want to meet beforehand. There’s really no excuse now that we have LinkedIn and all the other social networking sites. When you find out someone’s participating, you use the information you can find online and find an excuse to reach out to them at the event. Have  you found this type of research and networking to be helpful?

 

VW:

 

Yes. Because we do list the panelists, and we do provide information about them before the event, and so do many of the other festivals. And musicians should take advantage of that. As a musician, you should also check out the trade show exhibitors. If you go to any conference, you will see all that information at your fingertips, so you can do your advance work before you even set foot in town.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

I found, especially in my experience as an A&R guy going to festivals, I would feel so assaulted by artists. Which guidelines would you give artists for approaching music industry gatekeepers at a festival?

 

VW:

 

I’ve been guilty of the same thing. When I first started managing bands, I would go to conferences and just after the panel, approach people saying, “Take my CD, take my bio.” And that’s your first natural instinct – to just keep passing stuff on. But I realized it was better to make the introduction, take a business card, make a connection and send the CD, bio and other materials later. Because, you know how many CDs they go home with.

 

I think bands learn not  to be that way that after a few times. They’re just so happy to be someplace where there are industry people. So, they’re very aggressive at it. Once you learn a better way to approach people – by not hounding them, things get better. Also, you shouldn’t do things like fax them or email them every day about your showcase. I used to see bands do that all the time.

Just be smart about it. Don’t get in people’s faces. And realize that everybody’s really busy. Your appearance, your show and the way you handle yourself will get the right person interested.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Can you give some examples of people that were really successful at showing up at the conference and creating a buzz about their show?

 

VW:

 

A few come to mind. The band The Kin from Australia/New York City is one example. They played the festival numerous times. They did everything it took:  put stuff in the goodie bag; put a song on the compilation CD; walked around and did things right; did the acoustic daytime stage. They would go out in the middle of the audience and sing without instruments. They handled themselves very well and were very professional. You could tell they had worked it from the time they got there Thursday, to the time their show was Saturday, because everybody was there – not only the locals, but all the industry and tradeshow guys had to see this band, because they just fell in love with them.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Obviously one of the major connectors at any small festival would be the person who plays your role – the person booking the talent. So, I would guess that somebody effectively working you and getting you as a supporter is a pretty big key to that as well.

 

VW:

 

Yes; because when I hear something I’m really into, I will tell people. I get really excited to see that band. And the one this year that struck me was a band from Pittsburgh called Lovebettie. She has star quality, an amazing image and she stayed in image the entire time. She was so friendly, and they just really worked it. And they were still selling CDs for 90 minutes after their set. That’s really amazing.

 

Musician Coaching:


Clearly, for anyone looking for empirical evidence of interest, there it is.

 

VW:

 

There are certain bands that just really know how to work it. Unfortunately, while I try to pay attention to as much as I can, there are so many things going on with trying to put together the weekend that I’m everywhere. I don’t really get a lot of time to spend with a lot of people. But I do see at night how it comes together and works. And I do hear from the industry that is there about who impressed them during the day that made them want to come see them at night.

 

For example, Paul Sacksman from Musician still comes every year. He’s an independent consultant now. He goes and sees every band he mentors. He doesn’t care where they are or what they’re doing. If he mentored them over the weekend, he goes to their gig. And that means a lot to those kids that he mentored. That shows that attending the mentoring events works. I don’t know if everybody does that, but I think it’s very cool that he does.

 

To learn more about Vikki Walls, visit the Dewey Beach Music Conference & Festival website.