COVID-19 and Surviving as an Independent Artist

May 4, 2020 / Diana Chittester 

COVID-19 and Surviving as an Independent Artist

A few years back, I made the decision to move from Cleveland, OH to Portland, OR. I had been working as a performing solo singer/songwriter in the Northeast Ohio area for roughly seven years and I was beginning to wonder if a city with a stronger economy and art community could provide a better career path for an independent artist. I sold anything I wasn’t able to fit in my Prius and drove across the country to reside in Portland for a year. 

Immediately I started to run into major hurdles as a working musician, which included no financial guarantees for performances, stacked bills with high percentages of door deals going to sound and door people, and driving long distances between shows due to the West coast cities being much further apart than the East. Quickly, I felt that all I had worked to build as a working musician was beginning to go down the drain and would result in what most professional artists try to avoid: working a day job. 

When I first made the decision to work as a touring musician, I picked up a book titled “Be Your Own Booking Agent,” by Jeri Goldstein. She turned her book into a weekly newsletter which focused on music business and strategies for building a career as an independent artist. I had been following her newsletters for some time and I decided to reach out to Jeri directly to inquire about hiring her as a consultant to help rescue what was left of my career. During our first phone conversation Jeri asked which music conferences I had attended. I replied, “None.” That answer led to a research project that would transform my career from a bar/gig artist making roughly $100-300 a night, to performing PAC’s (Performing Arts Centers), prestigious venues, and opening for and touring with national acts making much higher guarantees. It would also lead to an additional job title (and income) as a music educator. So what did Jeri mean when she asked, “What conferences do you attend?” 

Music Conferences and their Benefits 

Music conferences refer to networking events that help connect performing artists of various backgrounds (musicians, comedians, dance groups, magicians, etc.) to venue bookers and owners, referred to as Presenters, that can hire working artists for an upcoming performance season. Conferences range from state-focused, to regional, national and international. Some focus on college markets and some on Performing Arts Centers. Some are meant to help you find work and some are meant to help artists connect to industry professionals (such as labels and agents) that can help career development. The general format is that performers apply to showcase. This means the artist will perform an example of their set which can range from a 12-minute sample to a 30-minute short set. The audience you perform in front of can be made up of festival promoters, venue owners, agents, label executives, other working artists, and producers/engineers. 

Booking Performances and Compensation 

Presenters attend conferences to find new artists and connect with colleagues to fill their upcoming season. Who is booked for a calendar year can range from emerging artists to mainstream headliners. These Presenters often have access to grant money and additional funding specifically for the performing arts. This can result in compensation that is greater than what a standard door deal at a club can offer artists. How much greater? Artist fees generally range from $1,000-$25,000 at the conferences I have attended. Not to mention, there is occasionally access to additional funding for artists who offer an education option to teach a workshop before a concert performance. Lastly, Presenters can also help block book. If you are a touring artist that is routing through an area, venues can work together to book a string of performances so traveling acts don’t run a risk of a “one-off.” The tricky part, however, can be knowing where to begin! 

Getting Started 

After my consultation with Jeri Goldstein, I realized a move to Portland was not in my best interest. She encouraged me to head back to Cleveland where I had worked to build relationships and had access to resources. Because I was moving back to Ohio, she stressed the importance of starting with a smaller conference that would focus on venues and opportunities specifically in Ohio. The first conference I attended was OAPN (Ohio Arts Professionals Network) in 2015. I was warned from a few friends (and even Jeri herself) that in my first year attending I should not expect much. I needed to start somewhere, however, so I purchased a booth in the exhibit hall of OAPN and headed to Sandusky, Ohio to attend my first music conference. As soon as I walked through the doors for registration I was greeted by name by another artist/agent that knew of me from performing around Ohio but we had never met in person. I was also assigned a mentor that happened to have already booked me for an opening performance at her venue prior to the conference and was familiar with my performing style. As my mentor, she helped introduce me to people around the conference. She was also able to provide testimony on my performance. Therefore, though I did not personally showcase in my first year, I was able to book a handful of performances ranging from $600-$1200 for a solo performance. Starting with a smaller conference that focuses on performing opportunities in your state or region might be your best starting place. Having a few contacts going in will help you better connect to new resources to expand your network. 

What to Expect 

What may have been more important than the financial incentive to the conferences was that I finally found a world of working artists! As I mentioned, the conferences are networking events. Therefore, between the performances and negotiations there are many conversations to have and new friends to make. I personally talked with Ani DiFranco’s first booking agent who also represented some of my favorite songwriters such as Dar Williams and Melissa Ferrick. I learned what agents are looking for when considering artists for their roster. I met management companies that represented artists such as Kaki King and Maceo Parker that helped me understand what national acts look for when considering an artist as an opener or support. I also met a touring artist from Canada who was planning to tour America in the upcoming year.  His manager wanted to connect his artist with a touring solo songwriter from the states to add as support for the tour. He thought our performance styles complimented each other well.  Therefore, I had my first official international tour that not only provided opportunities to perform in Canada, but also some of my dream venues such as The Ark, World Cafe Live, Rockwood Music Hall, and Club Passim. 

Since attending OAPN in 2015, I have ventured to a few additional music conferences including Arts Midwest and Folk Alliance International. Attending conferences does have a financial commitment. There are membership and registration fees, a booth rental fee, a fee to submit to showcase, and a production fee if you’re selected to showcase. There are also lodging, food, and drink expenses. Therefore, it’s important to be selective about which and how many conferences you attend. I personally only do one a year. Though they can be an investment, one show booked can often cover the costs of attending a conference. It’s not uncommon to book five to ten performances from showcasing at a music conference. 

Do Your Research 

Because these business endeavors can be a financial risk, I wanted to provide a brief description of a few different types of music conferences. I am an Ohio-based artist, therefore most of my personal experience is with conferences that are held in the Midwest. However, most conferences have a regionally-based version across the country. For example, The Folk Alliance has an international conference which artists from all over the world attend, but they also provide a smaller regional conference such as FARM, NERFA, and SERFA. When attending for the first time, start small! Small does not mean little, it means manageable. Find the regional option for the conference that best caters to your interest and start there. You will most likely have a few contacts attending your regional option that will help introduce you to more resources which will help you create a network you’ll be able to utilize when you finally work up to international conferences. You will have your hands full trying to maintain your connections following a conference and managing details for new performances booked. 

There’a a lot to look into and to discover but it’s important that artists take the time to understand where these conferences and organizations are focused. If you’re a new young rock/rap band, NACA (a college focused conference) might be more worth your time and financial investment than ArtsMidwest (a Performing Arts Center focused conference). We all know this job can become discouraging quickly. Take the time to do your research before making a financial move. Research each conference online, check out past showcasing artists, sign up for their email lists and consider becoming a member. Memberships are a lesser financial commitment that can give members access to databases consisting of Presenters and artists that can be the best resources to have in your network. 

In this Together 

The impact of the Coronavirus has many of us feeling similar to how I did during my escapade to Portland. We are nervous that what took years to build might be slowly slipping down the drain and we’re uncertain what opportunities will be available in the future. I wanted to write this article to help provide a resource for working artists that could make the difference between surviving or calling it quits. As artists, we thrive on the ability to create and discover something new; however, sometimes we need the inspiration to spark the creativity. Connecting to music conferences may be your inspiration to help focus your creativity to generate a sustainable career in music. 

List of Conferences 

OAPN (Ohio Arts Professionals Network): My personal favorite because it focuses on Ohio artists and is a very manageable conference for those entering into the conference world. OAPN helps connect performing artists of various backgrounds to presenting organizations, local and regional booking agencies, management, and more. 

NACA (National Association for Campus Activities): NACA focuses on college markets and has many regional conferences throughout the year. 

FAI (Folk Alliance International, NERFA, FARM, SERFA): A folk and cultural music-focused conference, FAI can help connect artists with industry professionals, festivals, venues, house concerts, and promotional experts such as radio and PR. 

APAP (Association of Performing Arts): A conference for performing artists, this conference offers connections to presenting organizations; regional, state and local arts agencies, service organizations, producing companies, artist management, booking agencies, and individual artists among other performing arts professionals. 

ARTS MIDWEST/WAA: A strong focus of this conference are PAC’s, some colleges and universities, and regional festivals, as well as many of the same connections as APAP. 

SXSW: Everything from labels executives to agencies to film producers, SXSW is among the largest conferences in the US. 

SYNC SUMMIT: SYNC SUMMIT helps songwriters, producers, and those creating music for film and TV get connected with Music Directors and professionals that can help sync your music. 

DIY MUSICIAN: Learn to book, distribute music, self-manage, tour, grow fan bases, and more, all on your own. DIY is for artists looking to work independent from labels and agencies. 

AMERICANA FEST: Americana is a broad category covering everything from country to blues to folk. If your music includes some sort of twang, this might be the right choice for you. 

MONDO: The relationship between music and technology is important for working musicians in today’s world. MONDO helps artists understand and utilize technology to grow their careers while highlighting emerging artists. 

WOMEN IN MUSIC: An organization focused on helping women in music succeed in the industry. From workshops to consultations, this conference focuses on the unique challenges women face in the music biz. 

I WANT TO SHOWCASE: This site can help you find more conferences in your area and allow you to submit to showcase. 

Diana Chittester is a Cleveland-based folk rock singer-songwriter known for her percussive rhythmic acoustic guitar styles and lyrical testimonies. Chittester founded Fighting Chance Records, an artist-run record label/agency, in 2011 and has since been touring and distributing music independently. She has opened for music greats such as Lyle Lovett and Colin Hay, toured with songwriters Chris Trapper and Royal Wood, and has headlined at prestigious venues including The Ark, Club Passim, World Cafe Live, House of Blues, and Performing Arts Centers across Ohio.