Getting the gig

I was invited to participate in last weekend's Music Business seminar at JAZZ.FM91 and, because it's summer and the humidity has drastically reduced my synapse firing speed, I thought I would post my talk here rather than come up with a new blog topic. It was a great weekend featuring presentations by Ralph Benmergui, Jaymz Bee, Brad Barker, Richard Underhill, David Basskin, Mike Denny and me, covering topics ranging from getting your music on the radio to being media savvy to learning about grants and record labels. I spoke about getting a gig at a jazz festival. It's targeted primarily to those musicians who are starting to make submissions, so seasoned veterans probably won't find too much new here, but I encourage you to take a look and let me know if I've missed anything!

Getting the Festival Gig

Good afternoon! Before I launch into my perspectives on how to best go for a gig at a major jazz festival, I thought I would give you a bit more information about me – my background and experiences in the music business – in the hopes that it will illuminate how I approach my job as Artistic Director of Toronto Downtown Jazz.

I’m a trumpet player and graduate of the University of Toronto’s Jazz Performance Program where I studied privately with Chase Sanborn and Kevin Turcotte, and played in big bands under the direction of Paul Read, Phil Nimmons and Ron Collier. While still in school I put together a big band called the Toronto Jazz Orchestra – a band I still lead today and which has served as a platform for many exciting projects including three full-length CDs and collaborations with Phil Nimmons, Seamus Blake, Kurt Elling, Ingrid Jensen and Geoffrey Keezer, among others.

When I graduated, I had dreams of making it big gigging in smoky jazz bars and playing third trumpet in local big bands. As you can tell, they did not offer a “business of jazz” course as part of my bachelor of music...otherwise I might have realized that I was not going to make it big playing in smoky jazz bars with bands of any size. So when I realized that a full-time career in performance was perhaps not for me, I thought I would try out some other aspects of the business. My first day gig was in retail at Harknett Music in Markham; from there I moved to The Royal Conservatory of Music as Performance Manager for The Glenn Gould School, where I was responsible for producing the school’s orchestra and faculty chamber concerts and organizing their master class program, which frequently featured the top classical musicians in North America.

While working at The Royal Conservatory of Music the mother of one of the musicians in my big band mentioned that the Markham Jazz Festival was looking for a new Artistic Director, and that I should submit an application. I knew a bit about the festival – the big band had played there a couple of times – so I applied and was awarded the position, which I held for four years before stepping down following the 2009 festival. My work at the Markham Jazz Festival got me noticed by a fledgling organization called the Jazz Performance and Education Centre; I’m now a board member and continue to volunteer my time with them today.

Meanwhile, in 2007 I left The Royal Conservatory of Music and took over both as Administrator for Continuum Contemporary Music – one of Canada’s top contemporary classical chamber ensembles – and Manager for The High Park Choirs of Toronto, a children’s choir in High Park which has been around for over 25 years. And, when I was offered the position of Artistic Director of Toronto Downtown Jazz this past December, I stepped down from my job with the High Park Choirs, but stayed on with Continuum – so I maintain a full schedule of activity which combines music administration with performance.

You might ask how all of these different jobs apply to my role as Artistic Director for Toronto Downtown Jazz...and for me, the answer is simple: in each job I learned new skills and met a ton of people, many of whom I still frequently contact for input, advice or to collaborate with on projects. When working at Harknett I met some of the musicians I would later book at the Markham Jazz Festival and started to understand the business of music; while at The Conservatory I learned about producing concerts in 1000-seat concert halls and was given the opportunity to program and produce concerts in a variety of genres; through the Markham Jazz Festival and the Toronto Jazz Orchestra I established relationships with some of the media, musicians and agents I speak with regularly for the Toronto festival; and with Continuum and the High Park Choirs I learned what it’s like to be solely in charge of the administration for a medium-sized arts organization. In fact, you could say that everything I did up to this past December was leading me to my job as Artistic Director for Toronto Downtown Jazz. And it’s my combined experience in the administration and performance of jazz that has shaped the perspective I’m about to unleash on you today.

So enough about me.

What I thought I would do this afternoon is go through what I think are the main steps between putting together a festival submission and stepping off the stage following your performance. I’ll spend some time on what goes into a package; what I’m listening for; how selections are made; how to negotiate a fee; and how to come off as a professional throughout the process. Though I’ll be discussing the Toronto Jazz Festival in particular, these pointers can be used when preparing packages for any festival. I encourage you to take to heart what I will say, but I do want to make a disclaimer: there are many factors that go in to getting a festival gig. Even if you follow every suggestion to the letter, I can’t guarantee that you’ll get the gig!

About the Festival
The TD Toronto Jazz Festival, produced by Toronto Downtown Jazz, has been around for 24 years and runs for ten days starting on the Friday one week before the Canada Day long weekend. We’re one of the biggest festivals in Canada and each year feature over 300 concerts in a combination of official festival venues and clubs throughout the city. The lineup regularly includes the top names in international, national and local jazz talent in a mix of free and ticketed shows. Over the past 24 years, Toronto Downtown Jazz has:

Presented over 23,000 artists
Presented over 1,700 free public events
Contributed over $339 million to the GTA economy
Had over 54,000 hours contributed by volunteers
Welcomed over 7.5 million people to the Festival

When you submit to the TD Toronto Jazz Festival, you could be considered for any number of stages: you might play one of our free shows at noon or at 5 pm; be part of a series of club shows; or open up for a mainstage headliner. If you’re offered a gig, we’ll place you where we think you’ll fit best.

One thing I’d like to stress – and this will sound familiar to anyone who has ever applied for a grant (and I’m thinking about the Canada Council’s former specialized music recording grant in particular): competition for an official festival spot is intense. This year we presented about 60 official concerts (by official I mean festival-funded) and of those 60 concerts, about half were hand-picked. That is, we booked those acts without submissions. That means when you make a submission, you’re competing for one of about 30 available spots (I’m not counting the various club shows – you should get in touch with club owners directly for those). This year, for those 30 or so spots, we received about 350 submissions by mail and at least half that many by email.

So – what makes one submission stand out over another?

Making the Cut
As Artistic Director, it’s my responsibility to assemble a high-quality lineup, so the first thing I’ll say is that the music must sound great. Performers on festival stages represent the best in international, national and local performers – you must feel confident that your music can perform at that level. Before you submit, I encourage you to do some research on the festival. Check out the lineups from previous years. Examine the kind of music being presented. If your music seems to fit the model, make a submission. The definition of “jazz” may be expanding and can always be challenged, but we’re still a jazz festival...so if you’re a rock cover band or – and this one I got just recently – a pianist playing note-for-note transcriptions of Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans, you’re not likely to get the gig. And, just as with grant applications, if you have any questions before making a submission – if you’re unsure if your music is a good fit – drop me a line ([email protected] or 416-928-2033, ext. 27). A quick conversation by phone or email in advance might save you time and money later on.

In addition to ensuring that the lineup is of the highest artistic quality, it is my goal to put together an interesting and varied lineup. I’d like to spend a minute on this word – “interesting” – because I think it’s an important one. I say this for two reasons.

First of all, if I don’t find your music to be interesting, I’m not going to book it. That may sound unfair, but I’m the Artistic Director, and that’s my job! For example – if you’re a piano trio, playing standard arrangements of standard tunes, I can guarantee that – unless you’re Keith Jarrett – there’s going to be much more interesting music for me to choose from. Or – and I hate to pick on vocalists – if you’re a jazz vocalist singing standard tunes without interpretation and without improvisation, unless you’re Diana Krall, you probably won’t get the gig.

The other side of the interesting coin is this: even I do find your music to be interesting, and even if I think it’s sounding great, if I don’t think it will fly with the audience, I won’t book it. It’s vital that everyone remembers that the festival depends on its audience...and so it’s not enough that the music is interesting to me: it’s got to be interesting for the audience too, and, depending on the venue, has to create enough interest to sell tickets. I say this based on my experience with both free and ticketed shows: I’ve lost money on shows that I thought were interesting but couldn’t generate ticket sales, and I’ve seen the energy at an outdoor, free festival flag because the audience wasn’t digging the act on stage. I absolutely want to make sure that the audience is being challenged, that we’re presenting exciting and innovative music on our stages. But that’s a tricky balance to find, and without an interested audience, we’d have no festival!

Making the Pitch
So – you’ve done your research, you feel like your music will make a great contribution to the lineup, and you’re ready to make a submission. Now what? Although ultimately it’s about the music, there are a few things I’d like you to consider as you put together your package.

First of all, let’s clear up what it is exactly that you should include in your submission. Here’s what I want to know: who you are; how you sound; who’s in your band; a brief history (your major accomplishments, maybe where you went to school and your influential teachers); how to find out more about you (like a website or MySpace); and how to get in touch with you. That’s it. I don’t need press clippings, or photos, or quotes from your mom – I can find all that online. So that means, if you’re mailing in your submission, your package should include a cover page with contact info, a bio page, and an audio recording (and, preferably, a CD – not a DVD). If you’re sending in your submission by email, put the cover letter in the body of the email, attach the bio, and include a LINK to your music – please DO NOT attach large music files!

You might be tempted to include extra goodies in your submission package. Like nine glossy photos of your quintet in various boy band poses. Or copies of the playlist for that radio station that played your tune at 3 am that one time. Don’t do it. It will not help your case. If I want to know what you look like, or where you’ve been played, or your favourite colour, I’ll find it online.

Remember too that I have only a few minutes to spend with each submission, so help me make the most of my time. Unwrap your CDs in advance. If there is a particular track you think I should hear, include that in your cover letter. If you’ve got a website, make sure the link is included in your letter. It’s not necessarily going to improve your chances of getting booked, but I’ll like you a little bit more as a person.

Finally, before you drop your package in the mail or press send, remember – you are your own brand. What exactly do I mean by that?

Let’s use an everyday example. Like WestJet. (Note: I have no connection whatsoever to WestJet. They're just the first company that came to mind.) A WestJet advertisement is fairly recognizable – it’ll have the cool blue and green font thing on it. But the font thing is just the logo. The WestJet brand encompasses every aspect of their business: the quality of their flights and aircraft; their customer service; how they treat their employees; their advertising campaigns; whether or not their destroy your instrument. Every part of WestJet’s business reflects their overall brand...and so you can bet they spend a lot of time ensuring that their planes are of the highest quality; that their employees are treated fairly; that their customers are as comfortable as possible; that their advertising campaigns are professionally produced; and that your instrument will make it in one piece.

So what does that have to do with jazz?

When you make a submission to the festival, you’re essentially saying, “I’m a professional musician and I deserve a gig at your festival.” So, it’s vital that everything and anything associated with you as a musician has a professional look and feel. Your recording may sound fantastic...but if there’s a coffee stain on your cover letter, your website won’t load, and you don’t return phone calls, I’m likely to start to think that the recording was a fluke and that you don’t really have your act together.

Let’s take the cover letter, for example. You are, essentially, applying for a job, so the tone and quality of the submission should be similar to that of a job application. For example, when applying for a job, I bet you carefully research the name and address of the company’s contact and check the spelling three times before sealing the envelope. The same should apply here. Personalize your letter – if you’re not going to take the time to find out who you should be addressing, why should I spend the time on your submission?

A few other examples:

  • Make sure the tracks you send, whether on CD or online, are well-recorded and properly mastered or, if you’re sending video, make sure it’s well filmed with a good sound feed. I won’t be able to tell if you’re any good from an unmastered bootleg or a grainy, shaky video on YouTube.
  • If you’ve got a website, make sure it’s easy to navigate and the information is easy to find. And I would encourage you to keep it simple. Remember – I’m looking for certain specific information...and I don’t want to have to sit through a three minute flash intro only to land on a site that automatically starts playing music with no visible off button and which features symbols instead of words (like an image of a bird instead of the word “bio”).
  • If you’re using MySpace, make sure the sound clips work. Although it may be tempting to make all kinds of design modifications, don’t pimp your site to such an extent that it takes five minutes to properly load. And, for the love of all that is good, monitor your wall postings. I don’t want to spend the time figuring out which of the 300 people on your wall, all who have written “thanks for the add...check out my new record which drops next week”, have included a music player which automatically starts playing some sub-standard track once the page is loaded.

The bottom line is this: it should be as easy as possible for me to find the information I need.

Now What?
Okay – you’ve put together a clean, succinct, professional package and have dropped it in the mail or sent it in by email. Now what? The short answer is...wait. And remember – my schedule is probably different than what you would like it to be. As a bandleader, I know how it feels to make a festival submission. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve got a big band called the Toronto Jazz Orchestra which I think is pretty good. We’ve recorded three CDs which have earned some nice reviews from not just my family. And I’ve made submissions to festivals fully expecting the artistic director to open the package, listen to the CD, instantly recognize the unmistakable brilliance of the artistry, and immediately book us for the main stage at twice our usual fee. I can assure you that it doesn’t work that way.

Our submission deadline is December 31st, which means you won’t likely hear from me until at least six weeks after that deadline. I’ll need time to check out your submission, listen to your recording, do some extra research online, and assess whether it will fit with the lineup. Leave it with me. Follow up phone calls and emails will not convince me to listen to your CD any sooner...and neither will calls from you agent. In order to properly assess the fit of your music, I have to listen to the full range of submissions...and that takes time.

A quick word about working with an agent. I don’t have much experience working with an agent as an artist, but here’s what I can tell you from an Artistic Director’s perspective: agents can be your greatest asset or your worst enemy. Some agents make the booking process much smoother – quickly taking care of details, negotiating in good faith, communicating regularly with their artists – while with some agents it’s just the opposite: unrealistic demands, poor communication with the festival, poor communication with their artists, etc. If you’re working with an agent, make sure you’re communicating with them regularly so that they understand what kinds of gigs you’re looking for, how much you’re willing to be paid – things like that – and every once in a while have a quick look at the riders they’re sending out on your behalf. You know, just in case you actually DO want those red smarties...

So what process do I use to actually put together the lineup? Well, see, there’s this hat, and all of the names go in...Just kidding. In a nutshell, here’s what happens: I spend a few minutes with each submission, listening to CDs and doing the online research. If I think your submission has potential, it goes into the maybe pile. I then take the maybe pile and, along with my wish list – the list of musicians I know I want to book regardless of whether or not they’ve made a submission – assemble a tentative lineup. I then spend more time with the submissions from the maybe pile to make sure the selected artists will be a good fit and, when I feel confident that it will all work, the negotiating begins.

Making the Sale
The last part of the process I wanted to touch on is fee negotiation. I think there’s a feeling out there that the festival is this behemoth with an enormous, bottomless pit of money. I wish that were true. When people ask me about this year’s festival, I say that artistically I think it was great (because I do); but it’s the ticket sales that ultimately indicate the success of the festival. We do, unfortunately, have a bottom line to meet. That said, our artist budget is significant...but we need to pay a lot of artists out of that budget and there’s only so far it all spreads.

Whether or not you get offered a gig at the festival, I encourage you to educate yourself about performer fees. Look into the standard union fees for festival performances. Talk to other musicians. This information will help you to price yourself accordingly. The fee you set has to be reflective of the quality of the music you’re presenting, where you are in your career, the size of your group...this all comes into play. And it’s a bit tricky – if you ask for too much, you’ll find negotiations don’t get very far.

I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting you undervalue your services – just be realistic. Think it through. For example: if you’re playing a free, outdoor show, there aren’t any ticket revenues being generated...and so the festival’s budget is going to be fairly inflexible, and you should be prepared to play for a bit less. Similarly, if your show is in a soft-seated theatre, ticket prices can be adjusted somewhat to cover your fee, so you can ask for a bit more. Some other things to consider: Can you walk to the gig or do you have to spend four hours in the car? What other gigs have you been doing recently and what have you been paid for those gigs?

Finally, make sure you always ask for everything up front. Again, think it through: does one of your musicians need some cash to cover an out-of-town flight to get to the gig? Do you need money for food? Do you refuse to go on without a massage? If so, ask for a bit of extra cash up front. Once the fee is agreed to, it’s nearly impossible to revisit that fee down the road.

Making the Grade
Okay – the negotiating is done, the contract’s been signed...now all you have to do is show up on time, right? Well, not exactly. There are a couple of things I encourage you to keep in mind leading up to your festival gig.

First of all, whether you’re playing a festival gig or a battle of the bands, the gig’s producer (in the festival’s case, us) wants to see that you’re promoting the show. Although this is particularly important for ticketed shows, it holds true for free shows too: we want your show to be full. We’ll certainly do our best to promote the show – it will be listed in our printed materials, on our website, and maybe even in our e-newsletter or my blog – but if we feel like we’re the only ones trying to get people out, we’ll be less inclined to work with you in the future. Plus, it’s good practice for all of the shows you’ll inevitably self-produce down the road.

The second point is this: if you’ve got a gig at the festival, don’t book the same band for gigs at The Rex, the Tranzac and Gate 403 the week before. We understand the need to make a living as a performing musician, but we also want people to be in the audience for your show. If your fans can come see you three times in the week before you play at the festival, why would they come again a fourth time? This especially holds true for ticketed concerts. We try to be reasonable when setting out exclusivity clauses – a clause in the contract excluding you from performing locally in a certain time period leading up to and following your festival show – but we also need to sell tickets to your show. If you have any questions or concerns – if a great gig comes up last-minute that you feel you can’t turn down – give us a call. It’s better to have everything on the table.

The third point refers back to the earlier discussion about branding. Once the contract is signed, the need to carry yourself professionally continues. All correspondence you might have with the festival leading up to your show – and that could be with the Artistic Director, the publicist, the sound technicians, etc. – must be professional. Believe me when I say that we remember which artists are easy to deal with and which are not...and those in the latter category do not often get invited back. The same applies to your actual performance too: show up on time, do a great show, be courteous – you want to be remembered for all of the right reasons.

Get in the Game
I wanted to end today with a bit of a plea. As Artistic Director for Toronto Downtown Jazz, it’s my job to stay informed about what’s going on jazz-wise in the city. But it’s impossible to keep track of everything. If you’ve got a new project on the go, let me know. Don’t assume that because you think it’s awesome, I’ll somehow hear about it. Keep me informed. Drop me an email at [email protected], find me on Facebook, and let me know what you’re up to. I’m always happy to get out and hear new and interesting music. And finally, make a submission to the festival. Even if you don’t get a gig, the experience of putting together a professional quality package will serve you well.

Have you got hints for preparing for a festival submission? Leave a comment here or send them along to [email protected]!

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