This site is a blog for musicians and music industry people. It is a free educational resource and it is also the way I advertise my music consulting services. I am an entertainment professional with deep roots in the music industry. Throughout my music career I have been a major label A&R representative, a music supervisor, an artist manager, a reality show producer, a bass player and the head of a digital record label.
Artist Booking and the College Market
This the 2nd part of a two part article. If you missed the first part you can check that out here.
Ari Nisman is the President/CEO of Degy Entertainment, a booking agency that specializes in booking artists in the college and military markets. In Part I of this interview, he talked about his history in the music industry, how he formed a niche booking company and the military entertainment market. I also got to talk to Ari about how artists can break into the college market and some tips he has for musicians that want to pursue niche opportunities.
As someone who now finds himself in the “aspirational” music business, working with musicians trying to forge careers, I’ve noticed that whenever I come across an artist that, while not a household name, has some traction and is doing impressive things, it’s you that has booked them into the college dates. What advice would you give a DIY artist that wants to get into the college circuit?
The college market is ruled by two entities in terms of getting a lot of dates: the National Association for Campus Activities (NACA); the Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities (APCA). These two organizations are working in a cohabitative nature, but I would say to some extent they are also competitors. They both set up the infrastructure for schools to come together and for their programming boards to come to one place and the agents and artists to attend on the other side of the fence and work to find a way to book the entertainment onto the campuses.
A lot of the reason our name is coming up a lot with the independent bands is because I think the club market continues to be strained and is so dependent upon ticket sales and on how much business you’re doing in the door. I think success there comes from building up a strong following and sometimes a lot of marketing dollars and radio play. In the college market you can be a no name and still be successful. Generally, we won’t sign an act that just wants to be stuck in the college market, because I don’t know that it’s any place that an act aspires to be in for a long time. But I think it’s a great starting ground and a great way for artists to really get their road legs underneath them in a much more comfortable atmosphere.
APCA and NACA conferences give you an opportunity to submit to showcases, which is no different than if you’re submitting to a CMJ or a SXSW, except that instead of having to jockey for attention and get the A&R guy out there, with 30 other showcases going on at the same time as is the case with CMJ or SXSW, the only thing going on at the time in the college conferences is your showcase. You’re on stage for 15 minutes in NACA and 10 minutes in APCA. You have 15 minutes on stage with a red clock counting down those 15 minutes. And the folks sitting in the audience are the buyers and the people that can immediately impact putting dates on your calendar. It’s unlike any other sort of booking scenario out there. Sitting in that crowd are programmers and college buyers, generally 17-22-years old with their budgets in their left hand and their calendars in their right hand and a booklet in front of them with your picture and your pricing, while they look with a little flashlight.
It’s a tremendously unique experience. These people watch the showcase, and if they like it, they work together collaboratively with other schools. You go into an exhibit hall – similar to at CMJ or SXSW – and there are booths set up. But instead of the booths with ticketing companies, etc., you have an agency representing music in one booth and in the next booth there might be a solo-represented comedian, a rock climbing wall or an oxygen bar you can rent during finals week; it’s a slew of all kinds of different entertainment. If the people watching you like what they see on stage, each school has one representative that can walk into your booth and ask to fill out a booking slip. And those booking slips are filled out in one of four different ways depending on the style of interest. And each morning, one person from each school wearing a purple tag – the contract buyer – sits in a room with all their counterparts from other schools, and it’s almost like an art auction, except it works with the opposite effect. For example, someone comes up that has a form filled out that says, “Degy Booking, International” and announces the artist’s name. And anybody from the college buyers that has interest puts their paddle up in the air with their school name. The agent steps to the front of the room if there are three or more paddles and starts to actually do the booking right there in the room on site. You build a tour right there. It’s a tremendously unique experience in the college world.
Are artists able to participate without an agent? A lot of them can’t get representation early on in their career.
They can. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a completely level playing field, just because they will be going up against agencies that have folks working there with ten plus years of experience who know the buyers. Obviously people like us have a competitive advantage just having familiarity with the schools and what they have and the people involved and the relationships. However, the nice thing about the market is that anybody can go in. All it takes is signing up for a membership fee and submitting your materials like I do for all my acts.
The only problem is that it can be expensive. Each conference requires you to buy a booth in advance in order to submit. To apply at all you have to buy an annual membership fee, which is pricey. You can submit to these conferences and not get accepted, which means you need to decide whether to still go or not go. All the travel is on your own, you have to work your own booth and create all your own marketing materials. It can be a costly experience, and there are many artists that try to do it one year or two years and don’t continue because they are not fiscally able to do it. Another reason the artists try to do it on their own is to hopefully get a sniff from an agency and meet some of the agents in the booths as their counterparts. We see a lot of artists that get snatched up by agencies after they do it well themselves once or twice. But it’s absolutely an opportunity for artists that do have the financial means to do so to jump right in.
Clearly they can’t accept everyone to play that has the financial means. Is it very competitive to win a slot at those conferences?
It is. And NACA and APCA operate differently. We’ll start with NACA. There is a panel of selected students and advisors from each region. NACA is divided into seven regions, plus they have a national conference. APCA has four regional conferences during the year plus a national conference. All the regional conferences for NACA have their own committees, and they sit in a room on a designated weekend and watch all the applications they get in to showcase for that conference. Currently for the larger conferences – like NACA Northeast, NACA South, NACA Mid-America – they get about 600-700 different submissions. For the smaller conferences – like NACA Central and NACA West – they get about 400-600 submissions. They choose about 30 or so slots. And that’s not just music. It’s a combination of music, comedy, poetry, magic, or maybe even a dance troupe. So whatever type of showcase you can see on stage in terms of entertainment comprises that series of showcases. And they are going to be tasked with picking a diversified lineup. So, it’s not just all white guys with a guitar or male singer songwriters. They have to pick a wide variety of entertainment – multi-culturally, genre-wise, etc. – in order to fit a wide variety of entertainment that might be booked for that region.
Other than, obviously, talent, or relationships someone like you might have, or the ability to present themselves well with a bio, photos and good recordings, are there any other specific qualities you’ve noticed that artists have or things they do that get them into NACA showcases?
I would say the most important piece or element that we use and that I feel is consistently used across the college market is a video, and more specifically, a three- minute video. The reason for this is that in the NACA application process, one of the key ingredients you include with your application is one type of media. And the type of media that is most approved now is a video/DVD of some sort. In the first round they watch 90 seconds. In the second round they watch three minutes. And if you pass all the way to the third round, they watch another three minutes. So the video is probably the end all, be all for artists in the college market.
And the best video is probably live, well-shot and also has crowd shots along with shots of the band to demonstrate it’s not just you and your mom who are into your band, right?
Yeah. No question that when you’re competing with 700 other videos, quality, slick editing, great audio and not having a bunch of people in a club walking past the camera with a beer will be really important if you want to be the best. You need to be unique and show yourself well. At the end of the day, I don’t think there’s one kind of video that gets selected to showcase more than others. I’ve seen it work with EPKs and with a combination of live shows. I’ve seen it work against a white wall. I’ve also seen standard music videos – whether it be MTV or VH-1 style – get people accepted. I think you can go with any style of video as long as the three minutes show you well, are well edited and have good audio and video. Most importantly, you shouldn’t provide too much involving interviewing or the background of your band. Most of these committees want you to jump right in and show what you can do musically. When they have 90 seconds to look at something, if you’re talking for the first 90 seconds being interviewed, they’re not seeing your music and they might just move onto the next one.
The old “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus” idea, as with radio. And what about with APCA? Is that different?
It is. NACA is a not-for-profit entity. APCA is owned by one person, a great individual named Eric Lambert who I consider a friend and I think has built a wonderful organization. Eric has his staff make the judgment calls on who gets selected to perform at an APCA conference. You hear of all these companies today that give priority membership, whether it be an airline or a hotel. And if you’ve been in the organization for years and continue to be a part of his organization, Eric gives some priority in terms of the initial slots and selection. But he wants to see the video, make sure it’s good for the college market and that the pricing is in line with things. It actually may be a little easier for an artist to get a showcase right away in the APCA market than the NACA market simply because if Eric and his staff like it, they may be able to slot you quickly. What I would say though is that some of the costs are a little bit more expensive with APCA vs. NACA. I like to consider APCA more of the “pay for play” method. If you pay the fee, generally, if you’re great, he’ll give you a showcase. But that’s one of the distinctions right off the bat between APCA and NACA: With APCA, you’re judged more by Eric and his staff than you are by a diversified group of folks in a room that you don’t know.
And by people who are more stable rather than change every few years because of the nature of college kids and college buyers, right?
No question, I think that’s the case in terms of booking. Because every year with NACA the selection committee changes. And we don’t even know the people that were in the room the year before. You never find out who it is. So, you’re absolutely right. Think about the college market as a completely transient business. The students are there one year and gone the next because they graduated or are off the board, or because someone came in and became the new president of the College Activities Board. You’re constantly working with a changing environment. And you’re also working with 17-22-year old students, whose core role at their school is not programming, rather education; they just do this on the side. Trying to track down these people and book shows can often be, if you can imagine, more difficult than tracking down a talent booker at a club. But the difference is, there is some staying power with the folks that are directors, advisors or grad students. It’s very important for you to go year after year and develop those relationships. And this goes back to why I think some of the agencies or the people that have been doing this for a while have a distinct advantage. If you can create relationships with the schools themselves and people that have staying power, even if the students themselves are transient, you still have a relationship with the school from having worked with them in the past.
Do you have any general advice for people that want to pursue these different niche opportunities? What is the experience of being a musician in the military and college markets like?
It’s a completely different world walking into a club and playing a 60-minute set at Bitter End or Arlene Grocery in New York than it is going into a college atmosphere. Firstly, you’re on a college campus where education is their main focus. And when you’re walking onto a military base, military operations and safety of the U.S. citizens around the world are their main obligations. You’re walking into places where their main role is not entertainment. You’re working with people a lot of the time that are experienced at what they do but are not necessarily fully professionals at doing it. Students who are 21-years old and who are programming on their student activities board are not professionals at being talent buyers and promoting shows. You have to go in knowing that and knowing the environment you’re walking into.
Also, you’re not paid in cash; you’re paid in checks. Fortunately, with the government and with schools, your checks always cash. But you’re not paid in cash or even that night. Sometimes your checks are sent after the fact. You have to have a W-9 filled out.
You also have to know how to act and how to do things right on a military base and on a college campus. Both have their own different rules. But if you’re walking onto a military base, you better know there are certain guidelines you need to understand. Walking onto a school campus is no different. Everyone is there to take care of students. The show may not be open to the public. It may be closed to everyone but the students. On a military base, the show might only be open to soldiers and sailors. You basically have to know the rules and regulations walking into these sides of the market. It’s different from the club world, from the Performing Arts Center world and from the festival world. Knowing the guidelines attached to your particular niche environment will really help you going into it.
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