My experience at the CMA conference this year was…interesting, to say the least. Fruitful. Educational. A good time, overall.

This was, I should mention, my very first conference ever, so despite the fact that I didn’t get the whole three-day experience, I am no longer a conference virgin.

My day at the conference started at 8:30, when I arrived at the Westin, and signed up for a one-day registration. I’m not (yet) a member of CMA, and couldn’t make it to the previous two days of panels and networking, so I ponied up the $200 for admittance to the conference’s last day. (Admittedly, I borrowed the money from my parents since I’m a little cash-poor after the holidays and a hellish three visits to the dentist.)

I had a few minutes to kill before the panel that I was most interested in sitting in on started: composer Judd Greenstein, Zach Layton of The Issue Project Room, and Justin Kantor of Le Poisson Rouge on “Young Composers, Young Audiences”. Much to my chagrin, the description of the panel had changed in the program from what was originally listed on CMA’s website, and I very nearly decided to attend another discussion on fundraising, but I decided to stick with it – at the very least, I’d get to introduce myself to Judd, and maybe pick up something new in the discussion.

The panel was quite good. Judd pointed out that the topic had changed somewhat, but he was going to mostly ignore the change, and talk about marketing in broader terms before narrowing in on the “new” focus of social networking. Whew!

I don’t know that there were any major revelations for me in the discussion, but it was nice to have certain ideas reinforced: social networking shouldn’t be forced or fake, but should instead be natural and actually social; there should be a sense of reciprocity between artists and their followers on Twitter/FB; arts organizations are more successful when they collaborate and help one another than when they compete.

As the panel ended, and people started queuing up to ask individual questions of the panelists, I was suddenly struck with one of the dangers of conference-going: shyness. I hung back, desperately trying to think up a follow-up question for one of the panelists, and considered just slinking out the door. Fortunately, the objective part of my brain stepped in and said, “Just say hi, introduce yourself, say you enjoyed the discussion, and give someone your card. What’s the worst that will happen? You’ll get a polite smile and a ‘thank you’, and the world will keep revolving.”

So that’s what I did. I got in line, introduced myself to Judd, said that I agreed with his take on social networking and that I follow him on the Twitters, and handed him my card (making sure to get in a little mention of NewMusicShelf). Then I went on my merry way.

I tell this particular story because I knew that I was going to fall prey to shyness at some point (and I continued to on and off throughout the day), but I also knew that I had to power through it and actually talk to people I don’t know. It’s a very easy trap to fall into, so, Dear Reader, just know that if you happen to be in a similar situation, let your rational mind take the lead. No one’s going to throw your business card back at you, laugh in your face, and tell you to get lost, loser. This is a time specifically set up to network, and it should be taken advantage of.


Onward to the CMA/ASCAP award breakfast, which was short and sweet. Alas, gluten-free me couldn’t really eat anything at the tables, so a glass of orange juice had to suffice for my morning meal. After the awards were given out came the requisite chitchat and networking – an important part of the event. I was able to reconnect with a few people who I’ve known for years, but stupidly haven’t kept in as close contact with as I’d like to have (slash should have) done.

Then came the exhibit wandering. This was the longest part of the day, both literally and emotionally. There were fewer booths than I expected, but my experience with such things comes from the Illinois Music Educators Association conventions from when I was in the All-State Choirs and Orchestra in high school, where the exhibit area was massive and packed. This was much more intimate. And, unfortunately for me, most of the booths were for artist management companies. To be expected, really – this is more for instrumentalists than composers – but a little surprising.

Here, my biggest challenge was again to engage, and not slouch around the periphery, which I did a fair amount. But, in my defense, most of the booths weren’t aimed at me, and one management booth attendant who struck up a conversation ended it VERY quickly (but politely) shortly after she learned that I was a composer/vocalist, which her company doesn’t manage.

I did, however, strike up several interesting conversations with folk at the publisher booths. My interest, obviously, wasn’t in finding a publisher for my works (I doubt that I’d ever want one), but in researching the way publishers operate for the Composer’s Guide, so I was able to make some good connections by asking to have coffee in the coming weeks and talk about how X publishing house works with composers. My advantage here, as I see it, was that I was looking for information and conversation, not for someone to Do Something for me.

Lessons learned in the exhibits:
1) It’s easier if you attend the conference with somebody.
I know that I would have had a much easier time approaching strangers if I had a conference-buddy there to help push me in their direction. I spent a little too much time checking my phone and sitting with my tablet in the Cyber Room (where, it seemed to me, the WiFi signal was fairly poor compared to other areas of the floor). While I used these times to psych myself up to approach someone new and to recharge, having someone there for support would have been better.

2) The last day of the conference is always the one with the poorest attendance
As I was told later in the day, all of the ensembles – the people I would have been most likely to press scores on – had been there the day before. A number of things kept me from making it on Saturday, so there’s little I could have done to rectify the situation. So, lesson learned for next year, when I plan on being in attendance for the whole thing.

3) Next year I’m not going as a “composer/vocalist”
There are a number of reasons for this. The biggest one is perception of agendas. Everyone has their affiliation printed on their name badge, which is worn around the neck (people tend to look at the badge on your chest before they look at your face, which I’m aware is completely expected at conferences). Someone with the name of a management company on their badge is seen as having X agenda, while those with publisher names have Y agenda. These are the people – from the perspective of the performer/ensemble member – that either can do something for you or want something from you. Management companies can offer you greater opportunities if you met their criteria, and publishers want to sell you music. Publishers may also want to create a relationship between you and one or more of their composers, which is to everyone’s advantage.

But a composer is there because they want something from you: “Will you play my music?” Now, while we’re the content providers in the equation, we’re also generally pretty pathetic about pitching our music, so we’re generally more of a nuisance.

So had I gone as, say, the NewMusicShelf, I still have the agenda of wanting you to play my music, but I’m also representing 19 other composers and their music.

I did plug the NewMusicShelf a LOT. I had more NMS cards on me than I had of my own (time to reorder!). And I unveiled a new thingie (which I’ll explain in a later post – it’s friggin’ cool!) that centered around NMS, and one of its cool new features.

After an hour lunch break, most of the attendants reconvened at St Luke’s Lutheran Church on W 46th for a concert of CMA commissioned works. I’m not the right person to review the concert, so I’ll just say: it happened, it was good, everybody enjoyed it.

Another hour break to breathe, then a cocktail reception prior to the final awards banquet.

I wasn’t invited to the banquet, but I was damned if I wasn’t going to get some free booze and make a few connections while everyone else was getting sauced. Being a musician, I know how awkward musicians can be – it’s not just composers – so a little social lubricant can go a long way. And did it ever!

It would be highly impolitic of me to go on about who I talked to, or what we talked about – you understand, Dear Reader – but the highlight of my day was that cocktail reception.

Just being a human being with other human beings, the tension and professional boundaries melted away by a glass of (free) wine, opened the doors for real things to happen. And those real things are: friendships. I’m honestly much more interested in becoming friends with people in the music world. Not because I expect that they’ll Do Something for me at some point. But because these are the people I’ll be working with for the rest of my career. The rest of my life. My colleagues.

And that’s how I view networking – not as trying to get someone to play my music. If it speaks to them, they’ll try to make it happen. If not, not. Instead, I see it as an opportunity to start a new friendship.