Mike gave us some insights on the transition, as well as a few tips for both presenters and the artists longing to court them.
How does it feel to leave Chicago after being a central hub for the eclectic music scene there?
I’m a 100% Chicagoan. It feels incredibly strange, because I was born and raised in Chicago, and my professional life has been spent in Chicago. I’m excited that my wife and kids and I get to experience a new city together. And DC is such a fantastic city.
In terms of the professional side, I feel like this is a really great next step for me in my career. I have had an incredible run with the city and a great experience in the presenting world. It’s allowed me to meet and collaborate and brainstorm with so many amazing people locally, regionally, nationally internationally. The job I had with the Department of Cultural Affairs gave me the opportunity to make friendships all over the world. People I might never have met otherwise. I am incredibly grateful.
I feel like I’m still going to remain in the community, because the new job will allow me to stay very connected with everyone. As director of presenting and artist com I’ll obviously have the opportunity to stay connected w/ presenters all over the U.S. and that’s really exciting. I’m very much staying in the two fields I feel most passionate about: public service and the arts.
If you could share with your peers (concert presenters) one or two of your biggest lessons from running a large, urban, dispersed, free world music festival, what would they be?
One of the big lessons I learned—and one of the most cherished best practices—is the value of collaboration. I think you can never undervalue or underestimate the role collaboration plays, whether it’s a festival or concert series or marketing initiative. That’s something I learned a long time ago from my colleagues at the Department. Collaboration made the festival and the programs we created sustainable.
I couldn’t emphasize enough how important it is to initiate collaborations. The definitions can vary, finding another organization or individual, a consulate or cultural institution, a college or educational organization, a government entity. An essential part of working together is making these players feel like equal partners. It’s the power of numbers working as a team rather than as an individual.
Which leads to my next takeaway: sustainability. We didn’t master this, but we were trying to develop a sustainable model, whether concert or festival, in a growing, crowded market. Sustainability can have a number of aspects. Funding is a big issue, and you need to look at the long term and not simply the short term. To find long-term partners.
When you’re putting something together, think five to ten years down the line, rather than just figuring it out for the current year. Build it to last. You’re creating something that will have a life beyond just a couple years, and beyond your tenure. Something that you can envision existing for a long period of time.
I hope that the Chicago World Music Festival continues. It should be able to continue on without me and the others who were involved. If it doesn’t, perhaps the model wasn’t sustainable.
What are your top one or two tips for independent musicians hoping to pitch concert presenters and festivals?
I look back when I started, and it’s amazing how much has changed. I actually found box of correspondences with a presenter in Brazil from back in 1994. We corresponded by fax..by fax! It’s crazy to think about now.
Obviously, technology has changed dramatically. We’re living in an age when pitching someone is so incredibly easy. I’m still surprised, however, how poor the products are that some artists are pitching. I don’t need a glossy polished presentation, I simply want to see and hear the music. That’s easy to do now via the cloud; you can watch entire concerts online. You should provide that kind of material with relative ease. And if you can’t provide a quality representation of what your product sounds and looks like, then you’re not ready to be pitching people.
It’s important for artists to understand how to connect with presenters. Your product is either good, or it’s not. Quoting Duke Ellington there’s only two kinds of music…good music and bad music. But it’s also important to make your product comprehensible…intelligible.
The other point is also really basic. Everyone should have a great photo of their band. Not a headshot, but creative, interesting photos that immediately jump out. It’s the oldest rule in the book. To be considered for the cover of a brochure or website, you just need a good photo. It’s amazing how many great bands have terrible images.
Some immediate images I can think of who were excellent…Balkan Beat Box, BLK JKS, Meklit Hadero. They have great photos. And they get used everywhere. You send them to the press and they instantly get used. Those are two basic pieces of advice that seem obvious, but don’t seem to resonate. Gone are the days when you can say you don’t have enough money to do a photo shoot. You can take a kick-ass photo on your iPhone.
What emerging trend(s) in the music field do you think music industry professionals should track on to stay current and relevant in the shifting music field?
We, as presenters and consumers, as people working in the industry, still need to work at breaking boundaries in music. Labels and genres seem to be more barrier than guide now, and aren’t real helping to advance music. I see younger people embracing music in general, whether it falls into the “world” category or jazz or hip hop. Younger people have a better, more open ear to broad-based music. People like music because it stimulates them emotionally...at least that is an entry point
The bigger festivals now are not just about small circles of music, but are embracing music that wouldn’t have traditionally been part of their offerings. That’s encouraging to me. When I see Balkan Beat Box at Bonaroo, Boban Markovic at Pitchfork, or Seun Kuti at Coachella, I’m encouraged. We can continue to fight over how music is distributed, copyright control, and so on, but nothing will ever replace seeing/hearing music LIVE. The stage is still the best place to sell your music and GOOD music regardless of genre should have equal opportunity. That is the future.
And Africa-based, Dutch radio journalist Bram Posthumus shares his point of view, noting that all this agonizing about the colonialist music industry, Tinariwen, and rock rebellion is about as far from the real issues at hand as you can get.