Conferences can be completely overwhelming and scary, especially when you’ve never been to that particular tradeshow — aka “conferences” in the US! — before. Especially when attending large-scale conferences like Midem, SXSW or Folk Alliance, it can feel hard to know if you’re “doing the right thing”. There is no right thing, but here are a few tricks I’ve learned over the years that have helped me feel successful at the conferences I’ve participated in.
1. MAKE A SCHEDULE
Take some time before the conference (or on downtime during the conference itself, maybe while you’re winding down before you go to bed) to make a daily schedule of people you want to see perform or speak, by time, preferably in some kind of Notes App on your phone (I use Evernote). Of course, your showcases and appearances and business meetings come first. Then have a list of things that are happening during your “downtime”. When you have time in between your own performances, you can look at your list and have options for where you can go. It doesn’t mean you have to make it to every thing — you might go to none of the things you listed and take a nap instead — but having something in front of you can cut through the daunting task of where to turn next. As you meet people at the conference, put their showcases into your schedule and try to fit them in. It won’t always be easy and it won’t be possible to do everything — during this year’s FAI I had a 20 minute period with 25 people I wanted to see perform in it — but it beats looking around and saying “hmm, where should I head?” and then not going to anything because it’s so overwhelming, or missing seeing someone perform that you were hoping to see. If you’re at SXSW, RSVP for everything you might want to go to. No harm if you skip all of them, but good news if you decide to go, and the line is outside around the block.
Similarly, if there are industry people you know will be at the conference you want to meet but can’t set a meeting with before, try to see them speak & introduce yourself afterward. Make a running list of all the people you’d like to say hello to.
2. HAVE SOMETHING WITH YOUR FACE ON IT
Especially at performance-based conferences, you should have a flier with your showcases and panel appearances printed up. I’ve found it super helpful if that flier also has your face on it – when I meet new people at a conference and go through my cards to make a schedule, I’m much more likely to go to a showcase of someone I can remember. Similarly, when you give someone a flier with your photo, they’ll be able to put a face with the name when they’re following up. This usually takes the place of the business card for me, but I bring both just in case. On the schedule flier, I also include my city, contact information of my team, my website, and any other pertinent info (new album out in May!) so that people will have a context for when they’re following up.
PS: SAVE YOUR CDs!
At my first Folk Alliance, my friend and folk mellowness guru Drew said, “give away as few of these as possible,” about my shiny, brand new record. That might seem counterintuitive, but the likelihood is that your record will end up in the trash, or in a very tall, unopened stack of CDs in someone’s office. Your schedule flier should suffice when making a connection with someone. If they ask for the album specifically, of course give it to them. If they are a DJ or a promoter that you’re talking about a specific date with, or someone who needs to listen to the album in order to move forward, by all means. But treat your CDs like precious cargo. Don’t hand one to every musician you meet. If you want to, you can always send them a stream or download link in your follow up email.
3. KEEP TRACK
On that same running, flexible schedule in your phone, have an area or related note of people you’ve talked to and connected with – add folks to this list *after* you’ve said goodbye to them. Don’t try to type things into your phone while you’re talking (unless they offer to give you an email address), since you won’t be able to make a genuine connection that way. When I started keeping track of people at conferences this way, it felt almost slimy at first, but festivals are overwhelming to say the least, and even with the best memory it’s going to be hard to remember what small quip you had with all 40 people you talked to for two minutes in a hallway or on the way to a showcase. Ask for their card to make sure you have their contact info, and then later make a note to yourself for when you follow up with them. I try to jot down what we talked about – a venue in their town, their record coming out next year, a festival they help organise – and that way I can reference that when I follow up. I actually attended a conference where a guy asked me to take a selfie at the end of our conversation – and then he sent me that selfie in an email when he followed up. Whatever works.
4. FOLLOW UP
When you get home, go through the milieu of business cards, schedules, and the list on your phone and reach out to the people you connected with. This will be different in method depending on the connection you made – add them as a friend on Facebook, follow them on Twitter and send them a quick “hello” tweet, shoot them a text if you exchanged numbers, or write them a proper email. Cross reference the cards with your phone list if you can’t recall a conversation. Include where you’re from or how you met if it was a quick meeting. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just go through your lists sometime within that first week of the conference and say it was nice to meet the new people you encountered so that you can continue to keep tabs on each other.
5. BE PRESENT
It’s taken me years to get through the bullshit of FOMO and self-doubt, but I feel like I’ve finally found my stride at conferences – mostly because I’ve worked really hard on how to be present and enjoy the moment, and what that means for me. Enjoying the music you’re watching or the person you’re getting a coffee with or the weird circle of people you’ve ended up in a hallway with is what making the most of the conference is about. If you’re worried about being in the right place at the right time, you’ll miss what’s in front of you. Similarly, be brave! Say hello to people, introduce yourself to someone if you want to chat with them. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, but the worst that can happen is you’re slightly embarrassed. If you are too shy to introduce yourself to someone, see if you have any mutual friends in common.
6. SUPPORT YOUR PEERS / PAY IT FORWARD
Go see your friends play or talk on panels. If you connected with someone in passing, make an effort to go hear them perform. This will only come back to you in spades. To me, conferences feel like a running, breathing example of karma. Similarly, introduce people who don’t know each other. Maybe you know a promoter and you’re catching up, and your musician friend is standing in the same circle. Make sure they know one another, and introduce them if they don’t. If you’re with friends and they are talking to someone “fancy”, ask them subtly to introduce you, or just introduce yourself and most likely your friends will jump in from there. Having the endorsement of a fellow musician often means more than any other cred you could have. Surround yourself with good people, lift them up, and ask them to help lift you up, too. We’re all in this together.
7. TAKE CARE OF YOUR BODY
Pay attention to what your body needs. Hydrate. Exercise. Eat well. Sleep, even if it means missing a few shows. I spent my first few years at conferences without a voice and always coming home sick. Try to be as kind to yourself as possible, and find out what your body needs to be in its best shape. You can’t represent who you are as an artist if you’re running on empty.
8. FIND YOUR PEOPLE / HAVE FUN
It might seem like you’re only there for work, but if you’re not having fun at a conference, it’s going to be hard to feel like it was a success. Find your tribe. This can take a while and there’s no real way to “do” it, but find the people whose music you admire, whose work you admire in the field, and stick together. Having a buddy or a wingman at a conference can make the whole thing more enjoyable, to say the least; it can help your confidence, it can help you navigate the entire conference, it can introduce you to people you wouldn’t have otherwise met. Stick with people you enjoy, and widen the circle, too. Include other musicians or peers if they look like they need a group. It will make the whole thing that much more fun.