How often do you have the chance to sit face-to-face with a whole bunch of jazz promoters, agents, record labels & journalists and talk about your project?
Or better still, perform for them?!
The jazzahead! conference is one of the biggest jazz-focused conferences in the world and takes place each Spring in Bremen, Germany.
I’ve been going for the last 10 years – along with more than THREE THOUSAND promoters, agents, journalists, musicians and record labels from around the world.
As an agent and manager, I’ve seen direct ‘wins’ from attending this conference every year. I’ve literally sat with a promoter, gone through my roster and had an offer the following week.
And whilst the results might not always be as instant as that – especially if you are an independent musician pushing a new project – I still feel it’s the most important jazz industry event of the year, anywhere in the world.
So whether you’re a Jazzahead regular or a musician thinking of coming for the first time, I’d like to share some ideas – with the help of a few guests – on how you can get the most out of the weekend.
More contacts and more gigs!
(By the way, even if you can’t make it this year – non-Europeans, I’m looking at you! – some of the advice shared in this article is relevant for any occasion when you are trying to make contacts, pitch for a gig or apply for a showcase anywhere in the world…)
Jazzahead: what’s the story?
For those of you that haven’t been, Jazzahead is basically a massive conference hall full of promoters, journalists, musicians, record labels, agents, PRs, distributors & managers, all working in the world of jazz.
And it really is worldwide.
Aside from the Europeans, I’ve met plenty of promoters from as far afield as America, Canada, Indonesia, Japan, South Africa, Australia and Brazil…and there seem to be more coming each year!
Some people have booths where you can go and check out their festival, company or project. Others jump from meeting to meeting in one of the on-site cafes.
And alongside all of this, you have showcasing venues which host a ton of performances throughout the day and a festival-style series of concerts around the city each night. Not to mention the opportunity for late night ‘meetings’ at the various late night jazzahead! events…
Whilst the conference stretches over 4 days now, Friday and Saturday are the key days where most people are there and the majority of business is done.
“you can meet a lot of people you don’t get to see at all throughout the year and make a first impression, drop off your demo and try make something happen…”
It’s so valuable to be able to sit down with people who are usually only accessible by email and explain, quickly, what you are working on.
Sybille Kornitschky, who has been organising the event since it began in 2006, highlighted one super important thing: “we see ourselves primarily as working for the artists, so each year we think about how can we make it more valuable for them.”
And, with more networking events and showcasing opportunities each year, they have seen the real way that you, the musician, is benefitting from the conference: meeting industry people and showing them what you do.
As Sean Foran, pianist in Australian trio Trichotomy highlighted…
“it’s a great place to make the face to face connection…
SO much better than email or phone calls!”
If you don’t have an agent or manager, the single most important thing to get jazz gigs is to be able to reach promoters.
Of course, you can (and should!) reach them via social media, word of mouth and good PR, but being able to call them up or send your latest video to them by email is vital.
One of THE most valuable tools which jazzahead! provides is access to a database of everyone who is registered to attend. Once you’re signed up, you can log in and see the name and contact details for all these people, as well as search and filter by type (promoter, press, record label) and country.
For me, this alone is pretty much worth registering for, even before you set foot in the conference; even without turning up, you have a whole bunch of email address and contacts to reach out to all-year round!
Now I’m honestly not suggesting you grab every contact on this database and add them to your mailing list – that’s a sure way to waste your time and annoy promoters – but you should make a list of every relevant person who is attending so you can reach out to them in the future – one-to-one – when you have something specific and of-interest to share with them.
Whilst many promoters are at the conference to meet colleagues and watch showcases, they do also take meetings if it’s something they’re interested in.
But to get a meeting you need to grab their attention in the same way as when you are pitching for gigs by email.
There are a lot of meetings to fit into a couple of days, so unless you can show you have something relevant that they need to consider right now, they’ll probably pass.
“Make sure you work out in advance who you want to meet; it’s pretty overwhelming once you are there and people are busy!”
What I’d suggest is that you go through the entire database of promoters and highlight the ones who fit with this criteria:
- They book artists in a similar style to you
- They book artists on a similar level to you
- You have some history, or at least plans, in their territory
Once you’ve got your target list, drop them a short, concise email, with an opening sentence that shows you are relevant to what they are working on.
I’d also suggest asking for a specific amount of time (short, 5/10 minutes) – with a specific goal (“find out more about what you are booking and quickly explain my new album which is coming out XXX date on XXX Records”).
Also try namechecking any industry supporters you have who they might know. For example, if you’ve played at London Jazz Festival, mention the promoter’s name. Same if you’ve played North Sea, Berlin, Jazz a la Villette, etc, etc, etc…
Or, even better, ask these supporters to introduce you by email to one or two key promoters in advance (or hang around with them a bit at the conference and see who they can introduce you too..!)
Remember: if you are still relatively unknown outside of your home territory, they might not reply. But at least you have made first contact and the next time (or time after that) when you contact them with a killer review or a new album, your name is somehow familiar…
And, regardless of what you manage to get booked in advance, there are plenty of free drinks receptions and events where you can bump into promoters.
Traditionally, every booth hosts drinks at a specific time over the weekend.
Check when all these are and make sure you are there chatting to people you don’t know. You can then casually mention that they ignored your mail and suggest they check it out when they get home 😉
Chatting with a promoter shouldn’t much different from sending them an email: you need to have one or two well-thought-out key points that you want to get across.
The goal is not to get them to book you right there and then – because they almost certainly won’t – but to leave enough of an impression that they will go away and check out some more of your stuff.
‘Social proof’ is important.
Most people have an aversion to being the first person to do something.
Standing up – all alone – and putting your reputation behind something is not easy. However, if people you know have already joined the party, less so.
You’ll probably have better luck with promoters where you’ve performed in their country or region before, so they at least know the promoters you’ve worked with.
Once you’ve had a meeting, make a note to follow up with them in a couple of weeks and send them your music to stream, even if they’ve got a CD.
Whilst a CD is a great ‘business card’ – especially if it has an eye-catching design – I’m not convinced every CD that’s dished out at the conference is listened to…
It’s maybe also worth mentioning that out of all the hundreds of musicians who’ve attended the conference, there are a few who I’ve kept in touch with ever since meeting them.
Not because I necessarily heard them play or signed them, but because they were positive, friendly and made an impression as enthusiastic, dedicated musicians who were already making things happen themselves.
The other big part of the jazzahead! conference is the showcasing.
Whilst the main area of the conference centre is full of booths – national jazz organisations, record labels, festivals – and space for meetings, there are showcase venues dotted around the site which show near-continuous music throughout the day.
If you visit jazzahead! without a performance slot:
1. Go to see some showcases. Enjoy the music, of course, but really consider what makes the best performances so good. Can you use this to improve the way you present your project on stage?
2. Use the info I’m about to share on the judging process to boost your chances of getting a showcase next year and, more importantly, learning how to appeal to any promoter in the world, all year round.
The conference is so compact that that news travels fast and each year there seem to be one or two showcasing artists who cause a real buzz; an artist that is not really well known suddenly keeps being mentioned as something ‘not to be missed’ the next day.
Whilst there is no science to this, making use of industry contacts at the event is a good idea. Even if you don’t have representation, you should know enough people attending the conference who you can reach out to with the message:
“Hi [jazz promoter/supporter from my home country],
I’m showcasing at [x] time on [x]day in [x] venue. We’ve spent weeks rehearsing this one and it’s going to be a killer set. If you could mention this to any relevant promoters you know, that would be amazing. This short video [link] gives the best representation of what it will be like and can be forwarded on!”
German agent Matthias Wendl talked about showcasing during a recent Q&A he did…
“artists really have to prepare such events upfront. It’s quite easy to create a little buzz on such a showcase festival if you have people with a certain influence who help you to spread the word on site.
Within the little cosmos of a festival a good performance can go viral pretty fast – and on these festivals you of course have the labels, festivals, journalists and agents“
As people on my mailing list know, I was recently on the selection panel for an upcoming jazz series. We listened to more than 30 bands to decide and it really highlighted something: playing great music is most important, but when you are considering booking a band, you want them to be great PERFORMERS too.
For an audience, a gig needs to be an experience. So don’t use a showcase to show off just what you can do. Create a memorable occasion for the promoters, journalists & labels who are there.
German jazz journalist Hans Hielscher, who is a long-time attendee of jazzahead!, who highlighted that – for journalists at least – the showcases are the key “for keeping informed” with what’s going on.
And, whilst he tries to see everything, sometimes clashes mean this is not possible so he will check out the bands in advance and pick the ones that he is most interested in.
Hans also highlighted how sometimes he sent a CD for reviewing and realises that he has already seen them showcase. I guess the key here is to make sure that he, and the other journalists, have a good memory of it!
Each year there are 4 showcasing platforms judged, mainly, by jazz promoters from around the world.
Previous year’s judges have included festival promoters from Pori, Copenhagen, Jarasum, Enjoy Jazz, Vancouver, April Jazz, Montréal, North Sea, London, San Sebastián & more.
So whether or not you got a slot, a lot of influencial people have checked out your music!
These judges were sent links (audio, video, website…) of every artist who applied and had to mark each one as a simple YES or NO to get through to the next round.
The judging deadline is usually 2-3 weeks after registration closes, which means a LOT of music to listen to in a relatively short amount of time.
Whilst the judges focus is on musical quality, they also considered “international tour readiness” – this is something you can be thinking about now for the future, showcases or not!
Once the YES list is complete, the jazzahead! organisers host a telephone conference where they focus on finalising a balanced line up, in terms of country of origin, line up and style.
“Bands who provide the right (and convincing) promo materials are more likely to have a chance because, subconsciously, the judges will be able to get a better impression of what they do.”
– Sybille Kornitschky
These judges are professionals.
They know jazz and they know what will engage an audience.
But they don’t know your project as well as you do and they don’t have the time to dig through every live show and press cutting you send. So the overwhelming advice – which applies exactly to sending promoters emails in general – is to keep it concise, relevant and to send them your BEST media.
I spoke to one of this year’s judges, who is a promoter for the Sage Gateshead (UK) and head of Europe Jazz Network:
As well as great music, the following are very important:
A really up-to-date and lively website with both video and audio clips and a useful bio – not too long but giving any information that will show that others have liked your work- awards won, great reviews etc…
A statement of how you would use a showcase opportunity to maximum effect at that particular point in your career
– Ros Rigby, promoter
This first point can be copied and pasted as advice for contacting any promoter for any club or festival in the world!
Sybille Kornitschky made an interesting observation; each year the organisers ask for feedback from the musicians. Whilst there is no reward for doing this, the musicians who keep in touch and feedback their success stories from the conference tend to unwittingly get extra publicity and support from jazzahead!, as they of course love to share news.
So don’t be a stranger!
A perfect example of this is the musicians they recommended I speak to for this article.
So, some final advice from previous showcaser and attendee John-Dennis Renken (who, in the spirit of getting extra benefits from keeping in touch with jazzahead!, you can check out here)…
“As a musician playing there I landed a record deal for my Zodiak Trio. I was trying to seal the deal before, but us playing at jazzahead! and them listening to us playing live made the decision for them much easier.
We got a couple of gigs at clubs and festivals out of playing there. For example, we were invited to a nice festival in Caracas in Venezuela and gave a workshop there. We also played at the Nuejazz Festival in Nürnberg, Germany. I made connections with several clubs in Germany.
It’s great to meet bookers from all the important festivals and clubs in Germany and Europe and even from overseas. It makes networking much easier and definitely paid off for me and my bands.
I was a juror for the European Jazz Meeting once and got free entrance and accommodation for jazzahead! that year, which I used for networking without playing there. That experience was a bit different, because I got nothing out of it except meetings, handing out promo packages and meeting colleagues. It’s obvious that it’s easier to close a deal when you are actually playing there, but you can meet a lot of people you don’t get see at all throughout the year or throughout your life as a musician and you can make a first impression, drop off your demo and try make something happen. And you can meet a lot of friends and colleague, that you don’t get to see and listen to a lot.
It’s a big family happening including doing some serious business and push your career!”
– John-Dennis Renken
As I said, I’ll be at the conference on the Friday and Saturday so please say hi if you are there!
DISCLAIMER: jazzahead! has been one of the key industry dates in my diary for some years now. In fact, my April 2018 wedding was planned so I wouldn’t miss it!
I’m normally a paid up delegate but over the last couple of years, as I wrote this guide to the conference, hosted a ticket giveaway and am generally sharing my opinion on it with you guys, the organisers have been giving me a press pass.