As music lovers pour onto the Fair Grounds racetrack this weekend for the opening of one of the country’s biggest music festivals, some area aspiring recording artists will gather a short distance away to take up a more serious side of the music business that involves networking and sharing tips in hopes of jump-starting their careers.
The annual Sync Up entertainment industry conference — held at the New Orleans Museum of Art on April 25-26 and May 2-3 during the two weekends of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival — takes advantage of the festival’s drawing power and puts big-name booking agents, record producers and publicists onstage to offer career advice to artists and others in the business.
“We try to look at the industry from the perspective of independent artists who are trying to make a go of it playing gigs, releasing and selling their own records, and trying to get out to clubs around the country,” said conference organizer Scott Aiges, who terms Sync Up a “back to basics” event.
“A lot of (music business) conferences have lost sight of independent regional music,” he said.
Now in its seventh year, Sync Up is a project of the nonprofit New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, which uses revenue from Jazz Fest to support the careers of Louisiana artists through the free event, but space is limited and registration is required. The website is www.jazzandheritage.org/sync-up.
Aiges, who is the foundation’s programs director, said he has been able to enlist high-profile members of the international music industry to participate in the conference over the years, in part because many of them like to come to New Orleans for the fest.
This year’s conference lineup includes Blue Note Records President Don Was; booking agent Frank Riley, who represents such stars as Robert Plant, Wilco and Lucinda Williams; and publicist Ken Weinstein, who has helped shape public awareness of artists including T. Bone Burnett and Tom Petty.
In recent years, the conference has expanded to include cinema-focused events between the weekends to showcase Louisiana independent films. And this year, a new business startup segment called Launch Fest will bring local technology entrepreneurs together with potential investors.
Aiges said an increasingly popular feature of the conference is an analysis of key factors that have contributed to an artist’s success. This year’s case study looks at Hurray for the Riff Raff, which in a short time has risen from virtual obscurity to find a national audience.
Singer-songwriter Alynda Lee Segarra grew up in New York but found her artistic muse in New Orleans, where she formed the band and performs songs written for the common man.
Segarra’s manager, local attorney Andrew Bizer, has worked with her since 2007. He said her recent “breakout” year began with an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. That got the attention of an ATO Records agent, who signed a deal with Segarra and released her record “Small Town Heroes” in February.
Bizer, along with Segarra’s booking agent and publicist, will lead a Sync Up session that analyzes her sprint to a level of popularity that includes sold-out touring dates on the East and West coasts and an upcoming appearance on Conan O’Brien’s television show.
“The power and success of the band stems from Alynda’s songwriting,” Bizer said. But he adds that the management team’s strategy of simultaneously building both a local and a national profile has been crucial to her success.
“Since 2010, our whole approach was to be a national band from New Orleans as opposed to a local band,” he said.
A lot of New Orleans musicians don’t bother touring, Bizer said, because a talented artist “can play the clubs on Frenchmen Street at night and play on Royal Street during the day and make good money.”
But he said touring raises a band’s visibility and opens doors to bigger gigs. “We’ve gone from having 75 percent of our shows being walk-up sales to our shows being sold out a month in advance,” he said.
Aiges said the quick rise of a band like Riff Raff can make the climb look easy, but that’s an illusion. “It’s always a combination of raw talent, intelligence, work ethic, determination, timing and luck,” he said. “The stars just have to align.”
Because there is no single solution that will pave the way for an artist’s career, Aiges said the Sync Up conference aims to provide a range of advice and how-to information. Agendas cover the spectrum from booking tours and self-producing a record to marketing via social media, and converting people who access an artist’s music for free on YouTube into paying customers who buy a record or concert ticket or contribute to a crowdfunding campaign.
This year, Aiges said, two local artists will explain how they are using a smartphone app to increase their earning potential.
Overall, he said, the conference aims to deliver sound advice that can help independent artists achieve long-term viability through their music.
“This isn’t about getting rich and famous,” he said. “It’s about developing a sustainable livelihood by every means at their disposal.”
Such words are music to the ears of artists like Nancy Gros. The lead singer for the local group Lil Red and Big Bad, Gros said she performs regularly at a Frenchmen Street club and occasionally at festivals and other events. But as a working mother who holds two other jobs, she wishes she could earn a living doing the job she loves most.
“In New Orleans, there’s so much talent and so many musicians and bands, you really have to work hard to get noticed, and you really have to know what you’re doing,” she said.
Gros registered to attend Sync Up in hopes that she will pick up tips that will help her become better at managing her career.
“If I can get some ideas on how to market myself and my band and my music, maybe I could reach a bigger audience, be more successful here and also maybe do some touring and develop a CD,” she said.