The Emerging Artist and NERFA: The Myth and the Real Purpose

Next month I will be attending the North East Regional Folk Alliance or NERFA conference in the Catskills of New York. Other than the International Conference, it is among the largest gathering of musicians, booking agents and presenters (and others as well) on the “folk spectrum” in the U.S. This will be the third time I’ve attended NERFA and the ostensible focus of the conference is the presentation of both official and unofficial (known as “guerrilla”) showcases where presenters and booking agents get to see new (and not so new acts) that they might interest them in booking. To this end there is a HUGE amount of marketing that goes on with flyers, cards and other paper media advertising artists and their showcases all but littering the entire hotel where it takes place (NERFA literally takes over the hotel for the entire extended weekend). The primary focus of the vast majority of emerging artists like myself are the guerrilla showcases which can last late into the early morning hours. For folks like myself, it is the most fun you can have being sleep deprived!

The almost subliminal but clearly ostensible myth that I have observed at NERFA in the past is the nearly frenzied need to get gigs directly from a performance at NERFA. While it might be possible to get a gig this way for some artists, the REAL purpose of NERFA and conferences like it is very different.   I have made many strong friends in the “folk community” as a result of my being an emerging artist but they tend to live very far away, so I don’t see or hear them very often. NERFA and events like it draw many of my music friends in from far away, giving me a chance to spend some quality “music time” with them. So there is a real sense of something like a class reunion to these events that I love. Therein lies the real purpose of NERFA and it’s other regional siblings: to connect and re-connect with old and newly-discovered friends. Indeed, I’ve gotten paying gigs from referrals by other artists that I’ve made friends with at NERFA conferences. Sure, I’ve gotten direct a few direct gigs from performing at showcases at NERFA, but the real value of NERFA is  NETWORKING with those like you. 
Think creatively. Perhaps there’s a person with a following in another locale you’d like to try and he/she would like to have a gig in your area. Arrange to be an opener in his locale and he/she the opener for you at a gig in your locale. This “gig swapping” is just one way to get new gigs. Use a contact from NERFA as a “referral” to a venue you’ve not played before. I did this and now I am a regular at that venue. Play accompaniment to another artist at their gig and perhaps they will play at yours enhancing the sound of your own music. These are just a few examples of concrete positive outcomes from “investing” in the networking process at NERFA and similar events. Sure, all of the marketing materials everywhere make the experience more than a bit commercial, but everyone wants to put their best foot forward. And perhaps these marketing material are of some value. But the best return on your marketing time and money is making new friends and creating new contacts. Besides, it’s fun and stimulating! Who could ask for more from sleep deprivation?
Food for thought.
Yours in DADGAD
Rick Gottlieb