Festie Talent Searches: Opportunity or Sham?

For starters, everybody agreed that these talent searches do in fact provide a great means to exposure for new audiences, publicity and real advertising by way of inclusion on the posters, print and internet ads for each festival. Let’s face it, many of these bands do not have festival promoters banging down their doorstep quite yet, so nobody is looking the gift horse in the mouth.

Still, the complaints were plentiful and seemingly justified as certain elements of the contests do not properly align the interests of all the parties. Far and away, the biggest complaint was the process which determines the winner of each contest. The band crowned victorious of the vast majority of these battle of the bands is essentially the one who sells the most tickets. The decision is totally based on draw. Thus, whoever gets the most friends to come out (invariably on a weeknight) and vote for their buddies, wins the contest.

Sure, one could argue that the most popular band should in fact win, but there are to glaring issues with this method. For one, how is a band based in a different town than the location of the actual performance ever going emerge? These are small regional bands. Even bigger established bands have issues with dragging their fans out on weeknights. Thus, it is highly unlikely that a band located say an hour away from the location of the show stands a minimal chance of winning.

What’s worse, this method does not award the most talented band. A popularity contest and a talent contest are two vastly different things. These talent searches should not emphasize the drawing power, but the musical ability. To a promoter, the draw may seem more important, because ultimately that is the agenda of a promoter – to draw people to the festival. Still, this is a fan base of people who want to see new music that they do not already know and would undoubtedly prefer the best musicians possible get exposure. Jeopardizing the credibility of the festival by trying to reel in fans with their drawing power is ultimately bad for fans as well.

Furthermore, the financial makeup of the talent search did not go unnoticed. These contests generally operate as a tour through musical hotspots across the country, typically college towns, where there are a number of burgeoning young bands. The tours are spearheaded by a group of people associated with the festie who pick roughly four acts in each town to compete. These individuals book a show in each town with a cover charge of five to ten bucks a head. Then, they travel from town to town hosting the shows. And guess who takes the door money? Yep, the promoters take it all home.

Now, I understand these guys need to live on the road and pay their expenses, but bands usually take home the door, so essentially all the bands are playing shows for free where they normally would make (or at least supplement) their living. Just to put it in perspective, the searches average about ten cities, so at five dollars a head and 300 people per city, these folks are taking home $15,000. Does it really cost $15,000 for a couple friends to go on tour for two weeks?

Furthermore, winning the contest gets the band a slot on the side stage for a couple hours, but other than that, it’s just a ticket to the festival. They do not get paid, so the net gain/loss is probably a loss of a couple thousand dollars down the drain when you consider that the band has to drive all their gear across country and pay all of their own expenses. Publicity is one thing, but for a group of musicians, this racks up a hefty tab.

Finally, several of the bands I spoke with mentioned having to go through the frustration of registering with a promotional website, signing up their band, posting music and essentially loading these websites up with an entire electronic press kit and free content. Most stated that they otherwise would have limited interest in visiting these sites and would likely will not visit them in the future.

So what is the solution?

At first, the logical approach to improve these talent battles would be what some of these contests already do, which is allow internet voting. That way fans who cannot make it to the show can place their vote without being subjected to a cover charge. Still this is just a popularity contest of who has the biggest email distribution list.

The ideal process should use judges, not draw, to determine the winning band. This way, it does not matter who shows up or spams the most friends, but rather a knowledgeable group of musicians, critics, and industry professionals could assess the music based on skill, creativity, and potential. The band with the most talent wins. Simple.

As for the money, the reality is that nobody is forcing the bands to participate and they have every right to pass on the opportunity, so while it is not ideal to play the freebie, in my opinion these promoters have the right to make a little moolah in exchange for giving the opportunity. So, taking the door cover charge is not a big deal.

The one element I might suggest altering is that the winner should get paid for performing at the festival. At this point, the bands are no longer just playing a local show, but traveling with their gear to perform. These groups are just like the rest of the acts in the festival in that it takes money for food, gas and general living expenses to attend, so this part is relatively unfair. Just because they are smaller bands, doesn’t mean they are willing to play anywhere free of charge. Conversely, they probably need the money even more than the bigger acts.

When all is said and done, nobody is suggesting that the idea behind the talent search is not legitimate, nor that it should go away. On the contrary, the contest really provides an unparalleled opportunity for exposure to an up-and-coming band. The point is that the process simply need a few tweaks.

There is potential to not only make this process more fair to musicians, but also fun and interesting for music fans. The music scene thrives on creativity, so why not take this to the next level? With a few adjustments, these talent searches could become a really entertaining addition to an already great music scene, while aligning the interests of everybody involved.

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3 Responses

  1. nice analysis of the talent search. I’d heard about the contests in the past and always saw the band getting the opening day slot on the side stage but never really knew what went into it. well researched all around!

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