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That other thing you should do at this time of year: those festival applications you put off

Brock Zeman performing at the RBC Bluesfest in Ottawa on Saturday, July 7 2018.

If you’re a musician, you know it’s time to have a panic attack.

It’s mid-winter, and you suddenly realize that now is the time you should be reminding festivals that you exist, are good at whatever you do, and would like to be considered to play next summer.

That said, you already know that you may be too late — most festival artistic directors almost certainly started thinking about summer 2019 the minute their events ended in 2018. In fact, some of them already had certain artists booked (“No,” said the agent 16 months back. “You can’t have artist XYZ this year, but I can guarantee we’ll have ‘em ready for you in 2019.”)

For all that, the festival gatekeepers still have room for artists and bands for next summer — and you’d better get on their case. Now.

It’s not easy.

Fact is, most artistic directors (I prefer the word “programmers” myself) have already been working though their wish lists of the artists they want to present next summer. They’ve chosen them for all sorts of reasons, but the paramount desire is to select artists they’ve already heard and seen (or heard of from their peers), and whom they think will work for their audiences.

I’ll get personal for a moment. A thousand years ago (well, back around he time the ‘80s turned into the ‘90s) I booked the Mariposa Folk Festival. I knew exactly who I wanted, and I totally ignored the dozens and dozens of applications from performers I did not know. After a year or two, the directors sternly — and correctly — told me I had an obligation to check the growing pile of (then) cassette tapes and press kits.

And so I did, going through some 400 unsolicited applications. Eventually, I chose two. One was an African-American acoustic blues player who was also a policeman in upstate New York (this was at a time that the only black artist doing this repertoire was Taj Mahal). The other was a 19-year-old girl from Buffalo, NY, called Ani DiFranco — I was astonished that someone so young knew so much.

You can guess which of these artists stole the festival and was booked the following year at every major folk event in Canada – and which artist came with a bossy manager and was an undistinguished performer.

So dealing with artists “unknown” to festival programmers is a crapshoot. Programmers may find a winner, and they may book an embarrassment.

Even though it’s late (you should have been doing this in September, and I should have written this two months ago), there’s still time now to get yourself considered.

How can you do that? Well, even though you know the deck may be stacked against you, consider the fact that your application may work for 2020 if it doesn’t make the cut in 2019.

To start with, you have to be on festival programmers’ radars. How? First, make sure you have a good website, complete with well-shot performance videos, striking photographs, an informative, factual bio, and complimentary quotes from print and on-line media.

Secondly, become a presence, and a force, on social media — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, even Snapchat. Participate in discussions on Maplepost. Have opinions, be occasionally bloody-minded, be generous about your fellow performers, and keep your readers informed about your activities and your achievements. Make sure your calendar of gigs is up to date.

Thirdly, meet artistic directors. This ain’t easy — but one place you might be able to do that is to attend (regardless of the continually growing cost) gatherings like Folk Music Ontario, the Blues Summit and Folk Alliance International. Play at as many showcases as you can — I still remember Ember Swift appearing at more than 20 of them at FAI in San Diego a few years back.

And if you don’t get an “official” showcase, and can’t get the guerrilla showcases you wanted, just play in the hall, or even the elevator — the Carolina Chocolate Drops did that at Folk Alliance in Memphis seven or eight years ago, and look how that worked for them …

Fourthly, make sure you are part of the roots music milieu. Once, at a speech I was asked to give at NERFA, I pointed out that folkies are part of a “gang” — there is strength in numbers, and competition dilutes this. It’s better to support your peers and fellow performers than ignore them or advance the theory that you’re better than them.

If you are a member of this gang, if you’re part of the scene, remember that word of mouth is the very best promotion there is. Speak well of others, and others will speak well of you — and festival programmers have sharp ears.

And, fifth, the application itself. Please include a brief bio, your website, at least one link to a performance video, and include some workshop suggestions that you might be able to participate in.  A phone call to apologise for the lateness of the application you’re submitting will help ensure that your package is at least opened.

And always add a pleasant cover letter to the artistic director — by now, you will have learned his or her name, and (if you’re clever/devious) his or her personal e-mail address.

Finally, some cautionary notes. Be prepared to be ignored and/or rejected — and disappointed. Many programmers still adopt the principles I did 25 years ago — they don’t want to be bothered by people they don’t know, or of whom they’ve not heard.

Some festivals hide behind SonicBids and insist you pay a fee to apply — put them on your (pardon the expression) shit list and ignore them. Others demand you fill in an online form, which is time consuming and almost always a dead end.

If you’re totally unknown, or at the early stages of your career, apply to the smaller festivals first, especially if they have “youth” programmes. Once you have a couple of smaller festivals under your belt, you’re in a position to get the larger ones in the future.

But, most of all, keep trying.

Good luck. And I’m looking forward to seeing you next summer.


Richard Flohil is a veteran Toronto-based publicist, writer, and occasional concert presenter. Last summer he attended six festivals in five weeks, and survived.






  1. Excellent advice…wish I had this advice a couple of years ago. But conferences, promo etc costs $ I don’t have, and bookers tend to not go to open mics. But maybe I’ll try again anyway!
    – Jack Eppington


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