LOS ANGELES, CA., August 29, 2013 – In a twist of fate, I’m attending this week’s Western Art Alliance (WAA) Conference in the role of artist representative for Scorpius Dance Theatre, a contemporary dance company from my home town of Phoenix, AZ. After a decade of running a statewide service organization and NOT playing favorites among a membership of 240 Arizona arts & cultural organizations, it’s revitalizing for me to focus on the national booking opportunities of just one organization that I’ve long admired.
So for the last 2 days (and with one more to go), I have been standing in a 5-foot wide booth in the “commons” of the WAA conference hoping to connect with presenters who might be interested in bringing Scorpius to their community and venue.
As you may know, my forte is selling arts experiences to audiences. Selling artists to presenters is a WHOLLY different experience – so With the joyous music of artist showcases spilling out of assorted hotel ballrooms, I’m dashing off this blog in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency – hoping to make quick sense of what I’m experiencing.
Overall, there’s a warm and friendly spirit to WAA. It’s a welcoming and well-organized conference. In case you’ve never been to a booking conference like this, you should know that this meeting forms a “market” in which presenters, artists and agents gather to present their services, align tour dates, and negotiate fees. This is very much a relationship business. Successful presenters don’t really “go shopping” here – they rely on their past experiences along with insights from artists, agents and peers to gain confidence in the shows that they will book for an upcoming season.
But here’s the bottom line, as shared by one agent with whom I’ve been kibitzing: “The formula here is pretty simple: the presenters are looking for a balance of shows that sell tickets, earn revenue and keep their Boards of Directors from getting aggravated.”
Now, in all fairness – the experience of my own discussions and what I’ve observed by eavesdropping on other booth discussions – is neither comprehensive nor definitive.
Still, I want to make an observation:
I’ve heard a lot of agents & artists ask about the presenter’s venue… How many seats? How long have you been there? What’s the closest airport? What do you present? What has been successful for you?
And I’ve heard presenters ask about artists: What’s their fee? Where else are they scheduled? How is this different from what they toured last time?
I understand the mechanics of presenting. These are all necessary questions.
But what I haven’t heard (and, I’m surprised by this) is discussion about the presenter’s artistic or audience-building mission. The artists and agents don’t ask and the presenters don’t offer.
- Perhaps it’s not necessary at this stage of their relationship?
- Perhaps such conversations take place elsewhere?
- Perhaps presenters already understand themselves so well that they don’t NEED to revisit that discussion in this forum?
I honestly don’t know. I’m sure there’s a good reason.
I can’t help but wonder if the reality is that for many, this booking process is really just a rote exercise of “filling in the blanks” for a calendar/budget that looks a lot like what preceded it.
But how would you change that? Quick thought: Rather than just a roster of presenting organizations & contacts, wouldn’t it be interesting if each included a brief statement of their “artistic mission” and/or their “community-service intentions” – so that an introduction and a “get acquainted” meeting could begin from an explicit understanding of how the artist might serve the presenters specific artistic and audience ambitions.
One presenter, upon seeing that I am representing a contemporary dance company, “waved me off” by saying that they had given up on presenting dance because having tried a local dance company, an “ethnic” dance group (his words), and a belly-dancing performance, they concluded that there’s no market for dance. I came away from that interaction feeling discouraged for his community because it’s in EVERYBODY’S interest to help that presenter build familiarity and appreciation of his community’s audiences over time. (Might there even be artists who would be interested in helping them get that ball rolling!?!)
Of course budgets need to be created, tech-riders exchanged, contracts signed and schedules arranged. And nobody wants an aggravated Board of Directors.
But let’s not allow the mechanics of our business to confine our ambitions.
Let’s embrace the opportunity to UNITE artists and the organizations that produce and present them in their shared purpose: It’s still all about engaging audiences.
If you happen to stop by my booth tomorrow morning, I’ll be starting the conversation from a different place than I did this morning.
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