“How do I get in the game?”

Probably the most asked question I’ve ever received from fellow artists trying to make it into this heaven and hell we call “The Music Industry.”

But what is the game exactly? The game is the ever-turning roulette table at a casino, inhabited by egomaniacs and insecure men (and women) with a lot of money and power. Based on that description, why would one want to voluntarily enter into a relationship with these types of people? Because regardless of what actually drives those at the helm of the game, there’s a possibility that they can help you get closer to your dream of releasing your art to the public, in a BIG way.

“The game will change you.”

I’ve been spinning in the roulette wheel for many years and have found myself skipping over different slots that may end up being my final destination. Anything from chance interaction with my childhood musical heroes to full-on studio sessions and collaborations with the world’s most beautiful and talented people. The game entices the most strong willed… and if you play it right, it can provide for you and/or your family, while giving you the chance to get those words and melodies out of your head and into someone’s MP3 or streaming player.

Imagine knowing a 15-year-old Rihanna and being a part of her demo tape before she signs with Jay-Z two weeks later!? Imagine meeting Jay-Z for the first time six months later, and him bringing you onstage as his special guest in your home town?! Getting to know LL Cool J in a private back room of Phillipe’s, with Raekwon present, and LL telling you about the profound respect he has for founding CANADIAN hip-hop artists. Touring Australia with Pitbull, Sean Paul, Kelly Rowland, Akon and… man. The game can be the best thing in the world. It’s almost like finding yourself in the middle of a real-life movie where you are a co-star amongst the best actors (that happen to be musicians).

My advice to any artist seeking to “get into the game” is to make sure you take note of who you are before you enter. It will change you (anyone who says otherwise is a liar). The challenge is to let it change you for the better. Learn from it and take every obstacle as a lesson that you can springboard from to become more savvy, while you maneuver through the snakes and ladders.

How do you get in the game? Very carefully.

As a professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas for nearly 15 years and, currently as a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, Nancy Baym has published extensive research and provided media commentary covering social communication, new media, and fandom.

When discussing the use of social media by songwriters, Baym prefers to present a big-picture view rather than focusing on a ‘Top Ten Tips” approach, or on one platform or means of engagement. Practicality is key: “I’d love for 2016 to be the year of people getting realistic about what social media can and can’t do for you, of understanding that it’s a mode of relationship building, not a mode of broadcast,” says Baym.

Many of the documents detailing her research, available at www.nancybaym.com, are highly detailed academic papers. But when it comes to offering advice to songwriters looking to focus and capitalize on their social media presence in the year ahead, Baym says, bluntly: “Write good songs in 2016. I know that sounds facetious, but I’ve spent years paying close attention to social media and music. I’m not convinced a songwriter’s time is best spent finding a way to build an audience on social media, because I’m not convinced that translates into an audience for your songs, unless you’re really conscious of who you’re communicating with.”

“Social media is a mode of relationship building, not a mode of broadcast.”

Depending on whether you’re writing with the assumption others will record your material, or are more focused on writing/recording your own, the people you’re trying to reach will differ. “It’s different for those two sets,” says Baym. “People might be writing songs that have lots of fans and yet not have fans themselves, because listeners don’t realize they wrote these songs that they love.”

For emerging songwriters, who aren’t performing their own material, for example, “I would focus on making sure I had a consistent identity and presence across a number of platforms, and pay attention online to other songwriters and musicians who might be interested in recording my material,” says Baym. “I think a really underplayed piece of engaging your audience on line is listening and following.”

Rather than fret over what, where and how much you post, Baym suggests first considering how to get people to actually care about you, your music, and your output online. “None of us gets to ‘make’ anybody pay attention to anything, anymore,” she says. “That idea of making people pay attention was based on limited broadcast media.”

Consequently, you have to demonstrate that you have something to offer to the conversation between members of your target audience. Ask yourself who you want to engage and converse with, what platforms they’re actually active on, and what they do there. It’s important, from the start, to identify who you hope to reach, find those people, then listen to and engage them – while taking into account the norms of their community – in order contribute meaningfully to their conversation.

“It’s about finding people who you can foster genuine connection with, instead of trying to ramp up your numbers.”

“Think about going to a party,” says Baym. “Somebody shows up and all they do is talk at you. So you’re not very interested in hanging out with them. You’re much more interested in people who’ve expressed an interest in you. As a best practice, I think it’s important – particularly for people who aren’t already in the spotlight – to think about connecting with people online as a way of listening to, learning from and finding people who they can foster genuine connection with, instead of trying to ramp up their numbers.”

Metrics are important, but numbers don’t matter if they’re not leading to someone licensing/recording your song, and your efforts on social media don’t translate to making your career sustainable.

Regardless of whether you focus purely on songwriting, or work in multiple disciplines, Baym passionately advocates for people to have their own domain name and website at that domain.

Increasingly, Baym continues, “we’re more visual.” But everyone, songwriter or otherwise, engages in a different way. “And until there’s really compelling evidence that people who do A, B and C have more professional success than people who do D, E and F, I don’t feel comfortable saying, ‘This is a smarter thing to do’ than in terms of ‘use this application or post this kind of thing.’ If you hate taking pictures and feel like, ‘Well, everybody’s posting pictures – I have to do that.’ What are the odds you’re going to create pictures people gravitate to?

“The best things that come out of social media come because you spend time there and find the tool that works for you,” Baym says. She suggests that you begin by responding to people, asking questions, and determining when it’s appropriate to contribute.

Again, it’s like being at a party. “There are six people standing in a circle having a conversation,” says Baym. “You want to break into it, so you stand between or just behind them, and nod along. Eventually, if they expand the circle, you get to talk, too. If you saw those six people and went, ‘Hi, I’m working on a song,’ they wouldn’t want to talk to you, and understandably, because they’re having a conversation already.”

No matter what your gig is, what tools you use, what genre(s) you work in, Baym says, “you really need to think about [which] ongoing conversations you want to insert yourself into.” And how to do that politely, in a way people find appealing, and consistent with their conversation.

Over a period of ten years, the M for Montréal festival has become a must-participate showcase for Montréal artists wanting to make it internationally. But beyond those four days in November, how do we export local music year-round? Where will the next Arcade Fire, Grimes, Coeur de Pirate or Half Moon Run come from? 

Sebastien Nasra

Sébastien Nasra, founder of M for Montreal. (Photo: Susan Moss)

In a recent edition of the British weekly New Musical Express, Luke Morgan Britton proposed a list of “Five Acts Spearheading the Canadian Music Scene Right Now”.  It comes as no surprise that his Top Five – which included Nicole Dollanganger, Charlotte Cardin, She Devils, Jazz Cartier and Dilly Dally – was exclusively made up of artists he’d just seen at the tenth edition of M for Montréal. Founded by Avalanche Productions’ Sébastien Nasra in collaboration with Martin Elbourne (of Glastonbury and Great Escape fame), M is a showcase for artists based in Montréal (and elsewhere in Canada), which invites journalists, concert promoters, festival bookers and record label representatives from around the world to spend a few days in what is arguably North America’s coolest city.

The number of contacts established between local artists and the rest of the world during those four days is incalculable. Besides the obvious success of acts like Grimes, Mac de Marco or Half Moon Run, who have all swooned delegates in the past decade, dozens of bands have signed official agreements, or simply built a solid Rolodex for the years to come. So much so that nowadays, M is an obligatory part of any local band’s strategy to conquer the world.

“I think that any artist who wants to make it internationally has to participate in a few key events,” says Sébastien Nasra. “Great Escape is one of those, and, of course, South by Southwest, and, humbly, I think M is now one of those.”

“Sometimes, it’s more profitable to invite a few record label execs to see your band in Montréal in front of a full house than doing some anonymous showcase at 2:00 in the afternoon during a huge international event”­ – Sandy Boutin

Kyria Kilakos

Kyria Kilakos, Indica

Kyria Kilakos, the general manager and artistic director of the Indica imprint (Half Moon Run, The Franklin Electric, Caracol), agrees, and also adds Canadian Music Week and Iceland Airwaves to her list of crucial events. “What Sébastien has been doing with M for 10 years now is amazing, but the fact of the matter is, you just can’t invite the whole world’s music industry to Montréal at once. It’s important to take the first steps and not expect a world tour to be handed to you on a silver platter.”

Regardless, Montréal’s location, which, according to the cliché, is halfway between Paris and New York, is a major advantage. Geography, however, can’t explain it all: it’s possible to be far from major centres and still be the centre of the music universe. To wit: the incredible success of the Festival de Musique émergente en Abitibi-Témiscamingue I rural Québec, an event that hosts a sizeable international delegation year after year.

Sandy Boutin, cofounder of the Festival de Musique émergente (FME) and head honcho of Simone Records, believes that the intimate aspect of his event allows artists to establish or reinforce their international contacts, but that trips abroad should not be neglected. “There are major events that will immediately give you a boost. The very fact of being selected for a major event such as the TransMusicales de Rennes or the Printemps de Bourges places you in a new category. But, honestly, if I had to choose between spending my money on exploring other territories of hosting people at the FME or M for Montreal, I would pick the second option. Sometimes, it’s more profitable to invite a few record label execs to see your band in Montréal in front of a full house, than doing some anonymous showcase at 2:00 in the afternoon during a huge international event.”

Sandy Boutin

Sandy Boutin, FME and Simone Records (Photo: Maryse Boyce)

But despite the increasing importance of that type of showcase event, you need more than a few showcases to launch your international career. Government subsidies for development and exportation are also an essential part of the process. This is what prompted Sébastien Nasra to organize a small think tank entitled “Francos à bord” (Francos on Board) during the last edition of his event. This committee was composed of delegates from all over the Francophonie and representatives from the various funding agencies.

Their conclusion? Without going as far as creating a Canadian or Québec musical export bureau – as is the case pretty much everywhere else in the world – the attendees agreed unanimously that an improved pooling of resources would benefit everyone. There was also talk of an improved reciprocity within the realm of the Francophonie and everyone agreed that actions should be better focused in order to avoid sending an artist out there alone to do one concert with no follow-up tour.

Kilakos and Boutin both admit that the existing programs, whether they are SODEC or Musicaction subsidies, are good at what they do. “The existing programs are sufficient,” says Kyria, “and I even think we’re lucky compared to other countries. But if I had only one suggestion for those agencies, it would be to invest in promotion as well. Sending artists abroad is nice and fine, but once they make it there, you need to make sure they’ll be seen!”

SOCAN Dinner

SOCAN-sponsored delegates’ dinner at M pour Montréal, on Nov. 18, 2015.

And no matter where you’re from, it’s never easy to break a new market. “Take Louis-Jean Cormier: we’re launching his second album in France in the spring,” says Boutin. “Yet, it’s not because he’s currently one of the most popular artists in Québec and that he garnered an immense critical acclaim with his band Karkwa that he’s automatically going to make it over there. You have to start from scratch every time, modestly and diligently, and, above all, you need to know the subtleties of the market you’re trying to break into, which requires having a solid network of contacts.”

The song remains the same at Indica where, despite having become experts in subsidy applications, they aren’t exactly the type to depend only on the government. True to its DIY punk roots, the label has always relied on live performances. “When we sign a band, we let them know right from that start that signing with us means touring a lot,” says Kilakos. “They must be willing to go out and win fans one by one, and that means a lot of time away from home.”

One way or another, to do this, the main resource is a solid network of partners. Whether you meet them at the FME, M for Montreal, or South by Southwest, local agents are the linchpin of ay international success. “Each market has its own challenges,” says Kilakos, who recently opened an Indica office in Australia. “Some genres are more successful in certain territories, and the locals know much better than you do when that’s the case!”

Which brings us back to the importance of showcases and festivals. Say what you want, even in our hyper-connected era, nothing beats meeting face to face. “Despite what some might think, the music industry is still a ‘people business’”, explains Kilakos. “We build business relationships over years and years, and people who started out as allies become friends. That’s how you open doors: with great tunes and great contacts.”