Getting your act in front of the right people at the right time is everything, as Cai Trefor explains
Cai Trefor
21:35 30th November 2018

If you’re in a band, or you're a band manager worth your salt, you’ll already know everything about the crucial role showcase festivals play in the present industry ecosystem. If you don’t, well, you’d better start mugging up.

The opportunity showcases present for up-and-coming artists to ply their trade in a room packed with industry professionals (or, if you prefer, ‘canny fans who worked out how to monetise their hobby’), is actually one of the best ways to plug your project. Even if you make fuck-all cash for your trouble, most of the crowd is pissed, and the soundcheck is as perfunctory as they come, it’s still the best bang-for-your-buck route to success.

Don’t believe me? It’s no coincidence most names on the tips of everyone’s tongues right now, from Idles and Shame, to the popstastic Blossoms and Dua Lipa, via experimental acts like metalheads Zeal & Ardor, to Ukrainian folksy DhakhaBrakha, were all pretty much unknown until they played showcases. Think the Great Escape in Brighton, Netherlands’ Eurosonic, or most famously SXSW in Texas. They play, they get press, and they gain a very significant number of bookings for bigger festivals and proper shows in the process.

Take Shame, for instance. They picked up the most festival bookings at Eurosonic in 2016 – 17 of their 47 festival bookings that summer, just from the one festival – and became, relatively organically, household names among the music cognoscenti. Their music has therefore spread far more quickly than if they'd gone down the old fashioned ‘book-loads-of-random-gigs-and-fingers-crossed-lads’ path. Charlie Steen from Shame told Gigwise this about showcases: “They enable you to play to so many more people than you probably otherwise would be able to.”

Done properly, "reaching more people" like Steen suggests, sets off a domino effect. First, acts are exposed to a key concentration of influential club and festival bookers. Not regular joes, who might follow your on Twitter but otherwise never come to another gig. Bookers are the lanyard-clad heart of the showcase scene: they’ll be buzzing around, popping heads in venues with the childlike excitement of a kid on Christmas eve. It’s they’re preferred mode of building line-ups, nowadays. “Showcase festival are key” says Haldern Pop’s Stefan Reichmann – and he's been booking acts for 35 years.

“I think they're fantastic – some of them have fantastic programming” gushes Pohoda’s Michal Kaščák.

From here, exposure builds when these footsoldiers pluck acts from showcases – only those who smash it, needless to say – to the big festivals or big clubs, where the impact of reaching more people really gets into gear. You go from being an industry 'buzz band' at a showcase festival, to having a buzz show at a big fan-orientated festival. And this is significant. Just ask Bas Jansen from Lowlands festival in Holland who says – whilst arguing a festival is more influential than TV and Radio – “You can truly break an act on a festival. You see that every year. If you have that one show at Lowlands that everyone is talking about. There are a thousand people at a 60,000 cap-plus festival it feels like 50, 000 people were there, as word spreads on site.”

But let's not be reductive and suggest rampant commercial success is what it’s all about. It’s worth noticing the current political impact of showcases – and how that fosters a progressive international community, with a powerful voice that can, maybe, help subvert the scourge of divisive international politics.

We’ll use Eurosonic Noorderslag, the festival held mid-January in Groningen, Netherlands, which, in the words of FOCUS Wales co-founder Andy Jones “is encouraging festivals to internationalise” as an example.

One of the oldest showcases, and renowned for its tight curation, Eurosonic does progressive work to create mobility within the music industry, not dissimilar to what Erasmus does in education; in the sense that there is some funding available for artists to offset production costs when festivals, who are members of ETEP (The European Talent Exchange Programme; a federation of festivals with a large uptake form Primavera and Lowlands, to Tallinn Music Week and Mad Cool), book bands recommended by Eurosonic. That said, whether festivals are ETEP members or not, any agent at the festival in architecturally sublime Groningen – a festival with plethora of great venues such as Vera, walking around to see bands – will see stuff from all over. Meaning Eurosonic's philosophy spreads its seed regardless. Not such a bad thing in light of Brexit; the music industry may yet keep us all together.

For governments that don’t currently prioritise arts funding – such as Portugal - there are independent organisations set up (Portugal’s is called 'Why Portugal') which strive to show with hard numbers what the return on investment could be if more money was pumped into the arts. For the initial money put in, there’s often an exponentially bigger output. ‘Why Portugal’s’ printed figure in their recent conference booklet prints points to profits of 15 times what they put in for the Eurosonic focus year in 2017 - they invested 70K and made a return of 1 million Euros. Government Ministers were stunned by the outcome, and recognized the work they did at a press conference in Leiria, an hour and half out of Lisbon. Portugal still has some way to go, but it’s great to see 'Why Portugal' doing what artists from, say, Canada and Australia take for granted in terms of state investment in their trade.

So the genius of showcases is multi-faceted. From the clear benefits of exposure for individual bands, to fostering cross-border goodwill and cooperation in a time of geopolitical uncertainty, to plain hard-nosed GDP growth, the philosophy of our European showcase circuit and its all-important bookers help spread great music, happiness, and an upbeat approach to life. All good stuff, we reckon.

If you’re not currently involved and if you're interested in getting involved in showcases. Feel free to tweet @caitrefor with any questions, and we can share some advice that we’ve learned through attending and talking to veterens in recent weeks.

Photo: Eurosonic Noorderslag press