The ‘showcasing’ conundrum

Here is the big conundrum of any career in the music business: you need to be known to perform and the only way to become known is by performing (which follows beautifully in the grand tradition of “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”) And from this cute bit of ironic cruelty flows all the rest.

There isn’t an agreed upon, verifiable, scientifically quantifiable way of measuring artistic talent. It’s all quite subjective. Just imagine if during the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, after Usain Bolt won the 100 meter race breaking a new world record, instead of declaring him the winner because he ran faster than everyone else, there was a long discussion on his style, temperament and artistic flair.

“So, Usain, technically you ran faster than everyone else, but I don’t know, your running felt somehow superficial, it just didn’t hit us at the gut level.” That is exactly what happens in the arts. Every day. It is no surprise that who you know, what connections you have, and even who your parents are is tremendously important. Yet, despite all this, there seems to be a reasonable way to get work as an artist these days. It is called “showcasing”.

Biggest agencies

Showcasing, simply put, is playing a shortened version (15-20min) of your “show” for an audience of “presenters”. Presenters are the people who book artists for their venue. You can showcase on your own or have an agent present you. The idea is to have as many presenters hear you as possible, and this is why it is important to have an agent, as she can ensure there will be a room full of people when you play.

I recently got back from the Midwest Arts Conference in Minneapolis. I was surprised to see in the booth right next to my agent’s were the people who represent the comedian Louie CK, and a bit further down, the violinist Itzhak Perlman.

Walking among the different booths I saw all of the biggest agencies and names being represented, right there beside mine. This made me feel like I was definitely in the right company. If I can be heard by the same people who are booking the major talent, well, at least there is some hope.

The amazing thing about these conferences is that all those people you have desperately been trying to meet for such a long time, are right there, in front of you. Beside you. All around you. The ones who never returned your calls. Or emails. Who would have typically crossed the street to avoid making eye contact. Just one “greeting” away, so to speak. (note: While stalking is generally frowned upon, I do recommend a healthy dose of friendliness.)

At the bar

Later in the evening after the Minneapolis showcase I’m at the hotel bar surrounded by more presenters than I’ve seen all in one place since, well, ever. I have the feeling that just by virtue of my location I’m becoming more established by the minute. As luck would have it, I start talking with one of the major presenters at the conference and he reminds me of how the industry really works. “At the end of the day we book people who can sell tickets.” And there it is once again. You need to be known for people to book you, because you need to be known to sell tickets. He tells me of a violinist they’ve been presenting with a lot of success because she plays the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto suspended 30 feet above the orchestra, hanging by a harness.

This doesn’t seem fair as I rationalise the cost of suspending a grand piano 30 feet off the ground would send any production way over budget. He smiles. But then, hands me his card and says, “Never know when I’m going to need a pianist with a sense of humour.”

Julian Gargiulo is a pianist and composer who divides his time between wishing sabre-toothed tigers weren’t extinct and making paper pirate hats out of his old bios. In between his involvement as fundraiser for and friend of, he also finds time for touring with his new album mostlyjulian, working on his nonprofit, curating the Water Island Music Festival in the US Virgin Islands and Crossing Borders of Hunter College in NY, and endlessly walking the streets of New York in search of people to add as Facebook friends.

You can contact him on [email protected]

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  1. Very informative on what artists go through behind the scenes. I was finally able to understand, through a short article spiced with humour, how the booking process works. Thanks.

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