On Wednesday, May 10th, Relix Magazine hosted the inaugural edition of the Relix Live Music Conference, a day-long meeting of the best and brightest in the live music industry that is sure to become an annual affair. The event hosted a variety of highly insightful panels and presentations on talent buying, festival planning, activism, technology, publicity, agenting, and artist management, as well as a truly memorable keynote conversation with highly successful promoters and live music tycoons Ron Delsener and Peter Shapiro moderated by longtime Rolling Stone rock and roll writer, critic, and historian David Fricke (you can see a full list of panels and speakers here).
While it would be impossible to recount all of the knowledge imparted by (and to) the attending music industry movers and shakers, we’ve boiled down a few of the most meaningful nuggets of wisdom we learned at the Relix Live Music Conference at Brooklyn Bowl:
1) Get off your email and pick up the phone.
As the experienced speakers on the “Talent Buying: Where It All Begins” panel explained, in today’s world it’s easy to relegate all of your communications to email, where things are neatly documented and responses are direct and curated. But while that may be convenient from an organizational standpoint, ideas flow more freely through conversation than through written correspondence. More often than not, a call with an agent, a band, a venue, etc. yields ideas for future projects, while an email only addresses specific topics. So unshackle yourself from your computer keyboard and pick up the phone. It makes a world of difference.
2) Don’t be afraid to take calculated risks.
As the seasoned artist managers on the afternoon’s “Management: Amplifiers and Emissaries” panel articulated, one of the most important traits you can have on the band/management end of the spectrum is a willingness to bet on yourself and your acts. There’s always uncertainty involved when deciding whether to take a guaranteed fee for a show or opt for a door deal, which nets you a percentage of the ticket sales. Door deals have more upside potential, but they also leave you vulnerable to make less money than expected if the show sells poorly. One of the most important parts of managing an artist is deciding when to take a calculated risk, and when to just take the money and run. At the end of the day, you can’t win ’em all, but you can certainly be a smart and disciplined gambler.
3) Don’t be afraid to turn down attractive opportunities in service of the big picture.
The flip-side of insight #2: Sometimes, success comes down to betting big on the merits of your work. But that doesn’t mean that you can–or should–bet on every play that comes your way. In both the “Festivals: Weathering The Storm” and “Agenting: Offering Alternative Routes,” a theme that frequently came up was knowing when to pass on an offer if it doesn’t fit into your master plan.
For example, chasing every festival lineup is a faulty management strategy. You have to use festival bookings in the right way, at the right times. Radius clauses for many festivals may prohibit you from playing your own hard ticket shows in surrounding markets. A lot of bands make their money in secondary and tertiary markets, building fan bases in smaller cities that are off the beaten path routing-wise. While being on a festival admat may be a good look for an artist, a festival gig equates to one single pay day. If you can play 5 sold-out shows in the surrounding markets, it’s likely that you’ll make more and benefit more in the long term from doing that than you would from playing a big-name festival set. If a festival play closes off opportunities that are more lucrative in terms of the big picture, it’s a deal you should probably pass on–no matter how exciting the prospect may seem.
4) Always be thinking about what’s next. Always be planning it way in advance.
The speakers on every panel were adamant about the importance of planning and foresight. Many of the most successful bands and venues are booked up several years into the future. That means that you can’t be too grounded in the “now”–you have to be focused on the “next.” Always be thinking about where you want to be in the future, and make plans for that future way in advance. That way, it’s easier to see the big picture with regard to bookings, routing, recording, and releases, and to make your plans accordingly.
5) Always be editing. Always be revising. Always be creating. Always be improving your product, whatever that may be.
For a band, everything the public sees and hears is part of your product–from your studio recordings, to your live shows, to your appearance and presence both on social media and in the real world. As the “Management” panelists stressed, editing is crucial. There’s no time to rest on your laurels. You should always be consciously and proactively looking to edit, revise, fine-tune, and perfect every facet of your product. You should always be creating, adding to your arsenal. You’re not gonna be lying on your deathbed regretting that you wrote too many songs.
6) When planning a festival, 1+1 should always equal 3.
A sentiment echoed by all of the panelists on the “Festivals: Weathering The Storm” panel was the importance of complimentary combinations. While there are various different factors that give certain festivals their “hook,” at the end of the day, people come for the bands. But the majority of the acts on every festival lineup also tour on their own, giving potential festival attendees an out: if they can see their favorite new band headline a theater in their home town for 20 bucks, they may decide it’s not worth it to shell out hundreds for a festival pass. The trick, therefore, is to win people over with the combinations, creating lineups that are greater than the sum of their parts (i.e. you can go see bands X, Y, and Z separately, but seeing them all in the same place makes the festival a uniquely appealing experience). Always strive for “1+1=3.”
7) Real estate, merch, bowling, chicken, whatever: Establish ancillary revenue streams so you can keep the music alive.
Concert tickets are a fickle product, and performance deals are often booked in a way that gives the band the lion’s share of the earning potential for a given show, leaving very small (and often nonexistent) margins for promoters to profit off the door. That’s why it’s important to establish revenue streams beyond the box office. From selling merchandise, to serving food, to putting a bowling alley in your venue, to buying up the buildings so you can control every aspect of the production, you should always be searching for other ways to earn. Help the bands reap the benefits they deserve without being forced to cut yourself and your financial needs out of the equation.
As Brooklyn Bowl owner Pete Shapiro explained during the keynote session with Delsener and Fricke, the first time Galactic played the Williamsburg, Brooklyn room, they pushed for a deal that would give them 100% of the door gross, leaving no margin for the promoter to make any money on ticket sales. People thought this was crazy–where’s the upside in throwing a show you can’t profit off of? But Shapiro chose to look at the situation as “glass half-full” instead of “glass half-empty.” Where other promoters may have seen it as a concert with a no-win deal, Pete saw it as Galactic serving as the house band for the evening at his restaurant/bowling alley–essentially free of charge.
8) It’s hard to do it right when your main focus is making money.
As Shapiro explained in the keynote discussion, the main reason he was able to successfully take over former NYC live music hotspot Wetlands Preserved as an inexperienced 23-year-old in the mid-1990’s–and the reason he’s been able to continue the unique vibes of the room with Brooklyn Bowl–is that he was never solely focused on the bottom line. He simply loved the scene and wanted to carry the torch. So he kept ticket prices down. He payed bands well. He curated the best possible experiences for both the fans and the artists, even if it meant taking a hit on his end…
9) To be successful in this industry, you have to be doing it for love.
…And the reason he was able to do that (and continues to do it to this day) is that, at the end of the day, he’s in it for the love of the music. Concert promotion and production can be lucrative in certain cases, but in general it’s a precarious business proposition at best. As Fricke noted during the keynote session, the promoter is at the nexus of the desires of all involved parties–the bands, the venues, the fans. If anything goes wrong, the buck tends to stop with the promoter, and often times, the promoter is the party that assumes both the greatest risk and smallest margins for profit. You have to be in it because you love it.
Shapiro illustrated this sentiment with an anecdote about his purchase of the historic Capitol Theatre several years ago which reads like a rock and roll adaptation of”Willy Wonka.” At the time Shapiro purchased the venue, the seller had been using the space for wedding and Bar Mitzvah rentals for years, but his wife was pushing him to sell. He had entertained several offers where the parties would put together a deal, get everything nearly settled, and at the 11th hour he would inform them that the price had gone up by $100,000. Most of the would-be buyers would get angry, storm out, and abandon the deal. But that didn’t bother him: he was waiting for the person who would recognize the upside and the magic of the Cap, and buy it anyway–that was the kind of person he wanted running this famous venue. After pulling the same move on Shapiro on multiple occasions, Pete finally succumbed and agreed to the last-minute price hike. He understood the potential of the room, and now one of the greatest venues in the history of rock and roll is back in business and once again hosting legendary musicians–all because he was driven by his love and vision for the music, rather than the weight of his wallet.
10) Don’t be a dick.
None of the day’s speakers said these words verbatim, but virtually all of them echoed their sentiments in one way or another. First and foremost, this business comes down to the relationships you make and maintain. Don’t get caught up in your ego, don’t burn your bridges, and make sure you keep up your relationships–you never know who you’ll end up working with or needing help from down the line. Be helpful. Be fair. Be understanding. Be conscientious. Be present. Be kind–and only good things will come from it.
We offer our sincere gratitude to all those who participated in the planning and production of the inaugural Relix Live Music Conference. Thank you for an insightful and educational gathering of the minds. We’re already looking forward to next year.
[Photos by Marc Millman]