Finding An Audience In The College Market [INTERVIEW]
In this interview Lee Mayer, the president and founder of Houla Entertainment discusses the beginning of her career as an entertainment coordinator and offers artists some advice when it comes the challenge of successfully breaking into the college market.
Guest Post by Rick Goetz on Music Consultant
Lee Mayer is the President and Founder of Houla Entertainment, an entertainment promotions and booking company. Lee launched Houla Entertainment after founding the animal rescue organization Cause for Paws, which brought her love of music and animals together after she had spent many years working in the medical sales industry. Through Cause for Paws, she recruited artists to perform at benefits to raise money for rescues and to bring awareness for animal rights and education. Once she had been working with artists for several years, she decided to officially leave the corporate world and work full time in the music business. Houla Entertainment coordinates artists for the college/university markets, fairs, festivals, concerts, performing arts centers, cruise lines, corporate, and private event markets.
I talked to Lee about how she started a career as an agent and promoter. She also outlined some challenges artists face when trying to break into the college market and offered up some tips about how they can navigate the process and find an audience for their music.
Thanks so much for taking some time to talk, Lee. How did you get into the music business, and what led you to start Houla Entertainment?
I was working for a medical company and I was also doing fundraisers for shelters and animal rescues, and I would use my love of live music to bring in to help animals – save their lives and educate. I have two stages built in my backyard, and I would have musicians and sound people come and put on shows as part of the fundraisers. I was told so many times at these events that I’d missed my calling. So, one day I decided I was going to leave the corporate world and start Houla Entertainment.
When I started Houla, I had no idea how fast we were going to grow. We’ve been in business less than five years and now work with both national and international artists. It’s been quite a jump from loving music into understanding all the aspects of the music business.
And what was that learning curve like for you? A lot of people reading this are trying to get into the college market, and it sounds like you experienced a learning curve that was similar to what they might experience.
I started out doing local venues, and after about a year of that, I decided there had to be something more. I went to the college market, and it is a whole different animal. When I was first getting started, I talked to a lot of people in the college market at NACA and APCA, and they told me, “You don’t have to have a showcase. You’ll do fine.” What they meant to say was, “You’ll do fine once they know you.”
I went in without showcases and spent tens of thousands of dollars. The first year I went in, I got a real education. At the end of it, I felt like I got my PhD in the college market, because I learned what it really took. I scrapped all my ideas about the music industry and that marketplace and started new.
When I went back the next year with showcases, my experience was so much better. But it took me a year to figure it out. Most agents aren’t open to giving new agents ideas, because they’ve worked for what they have. They’re not going to give up information for free about how you should submit music, etc.
Submitting for showcases was difficult, because you don’t know exactly what to submit, and if you submit something that doesn’t fit, you don’t get anywhere. It’s challenging finding out what college students want to see. But I did find out that younger musical artists were what sold. If you are a musician and are 50-years old, you’re not necessarily going to do well in the college market, because college students don’t want to hang out with their parents. It’s different if you’re 50 and a comedian or a speaker. It took me a year and a big investment to figure out the type of artists I should work with and then working with for the right ones.
It seems like if showcases are important for you as an agent, they must be an important first step for artists. A lot of people struggle with paying fees to NACA and APCA, but it seems like that is a good investment for artists who want to succeed in the college market.
It is quite an investment. But an artist has to understand that spending the money is part of having a business venture. You have to go into it knowing that paying those fees is investing in your business, because your craft and your music is your business. As soon as you understand that as an artist, everything changes.
I break down how much it actually costs to showcase with all my artists. APCA and NACA are two different costs, so that has to go into it. But you also have to figure in travel expenses – hotel, airfare, gas, etc. – showcase fees, plus how much money it will cost for you to be away from another job and any other expenses you will incur. Let’s say you discover the showcase is going to cost you $2,000. Then you have to figure out how many shows you have to book in order to make that money back. If you go in as a totally independent artist, it’s hard. Buyers usually look at you more favorably if you are with a well-respected agent. Even if you sign a contract with a campus, they don’t necessarily know if you’re going to show up or fulfill your obligation.
Regardless, it is a big investment for any artist to jump right into the college market. And as an artist, you really need someone who can guide you and give you realistic expectations about what will happen there.
Getting an agent is not an easy thing to do. What are you looking for when you look at artists to work with?
I look for unique artists. For example, I have an acapella group out of Canada that is like no other. When you can put a beatboxer together with a soulful singer with an unbelievable voice who can also rap along with three other super talented artists in the group, you have unique. If you are a solo, acoustic artist or an everyday singer/songwriter you better bring something different to the table. Everybody out there who plays guitar and sings think they are different, but in the college market, there are so many solo acoustic artists that you really need to stand apart from the crowd.
I watch different shows like The Voice and America’s Got Talent to see who’s out there. And then I ask myself if it is someone that we can bring into the college market. Are they able to perform but also interact? If you go out and are meeting and greeting people, you need to be outgoing and able to socialize with people. In the college market, they’re not only buying your music or your act; they’re also buying you, because they want to know they can have fun hanging out with you. That’s a big part of it.
Despite being in the music business for as long as I have, I’ve actually never been to a NACA or APCA conference. What can artists expect walking into one of these events?
At NACA Nationals, there are probably 2,000 students. A lot of artists think they’re selling to these students’ advisors and bosses, but they’re actually selling to the students. If the students don’t like an artist, the advisor is not going to bring that artist in. It’s all about what the student wants to buy.
When you walk in as an artist, you’re going to be up against some challenges when you’re trying to showcase. First of all, you’re walking into a room with a ton of other artists, and all of them want to be on that stage. I think there were around 85 showcases at National NACAs this past year. I don’t have the stats on how many artists apply to these showcases, but that 85 is a fraction of the actual number of applicants.
It’s pretty intimidating to walk into it as an artist. You’re getting up on a stage, and 2,000 people are watching you. We just got back from the APCA conference, which was smaller than the NACA conference. But it was one of the best crowds my artists have ever performed in front of. Kristen Merlin got on stage, and she got a standing ovation after she finished. She was on The Voice and finished fourth overall on Season 6. She’s been doing solo acoustic shows for the college conferences. At this particular show, she finished off with an acapella Whitney Houston song and walked out into the audience while she was singing it. People went crazy. That crowd is there to find that perfect act, and she was it. She just really hit a chord.
When artists go into these conferences, I prepare them to have reasonable expectations. If they’re expecting people to get up and dance while they’re performing, they have to be careful, because if no one comes up and dances, they’re failing in front of everyone, and it can screw up the whole momentum of the set. And this has happened many times. If you want to get people on their feet, you have to go above and beyond and figure out the best way to do that.
For a lot of people, performing at these college events is about overcoming their fear. Don’t think, “I’ve got to sell this” when you’re up on stage. Just go up and perform. And if you don’t get a showcase, go out and meet people while you’re there and learn who people are. They don’t know you, so you have to market yourself. I do a lot of marketing way before the conference ever starts. I have a lot of people in the college market following me on Facebook, so they know the new people I’ve found before I even officially tell announce them. So, I have the advantage there.
What’s the difference between APCA and NACA? I feel like I’ve heard more about NACA over the years.
APCA has been in business for 22 years, and I personally love it. I love the people I work with. When you go into their area, it’s like it’s a family. Executive Director Eric Lambert actually greets the artists at conferences and makes himself accessible. He sets up an atmosphere that feels very comfortable and personalized. The students will tell you that’s the real difference between NACA and APCA; APCA feels more personal.
At NACA, they do things a bit differently. You showcase and you’re done. APCA has a late-night jam. So, after you showcase, you can go to the jam and there’s another chance to be heard. On top of that, students gather in different areas throughout the conference, and there is an opportunity for artists to get up and do acapella music or recite poetry. The students can even get involved and perform. The students get an opportunity to hang out with the artists and find out what they’re really like in an informal setting.
It seems like everyone I work with sees booking as the Achilles heel. Are you mainly booking artists in the college market, or do you book in other markets as well?
I book a lot of artists in the college market, but I do like to set it up so that they can also perform in other markets. We also work with performing arts centers, casinos, cruise lines, fairs, festival, private, and corporate events, etc. For instance, we booked an artist to perform at Sea World for five days. We have a lot of other connections beyond the college market.
I have a lot of artists on my roster that fit perfectly in the college market, like my acapella group Eh440 and The Voice artists that also work at all the other venues. But there are other artists that aren’t exactly right for the college market but might be right for other venues. The only thing we don’t do is traditional music venues like clubs or bars, unless they are large clubs that do specialty music. And then I book those venues because the artist wants to perform there.
I’ve often heard a major critique of the college booking circuit: Booking and playing colleges is a good way to make money, but a tough way to build a fan base. I hear stories about artists ending up in out-of-the-way lounges that don’t provide an opportunity to really meet people or have their music heard. Clearly, with someone like you on their side, artists wouldn’t have that experience. But I am wondering if you had any thoughts on this challenge.
You can end up in an out-of-the-way place, but how challenging that place is really depends on who you are. For example, if you are a comedian, you’re not going to do well in a cafeteria. This is especially true if you are performing during meals, because as people are passing through, they may not catch your jokes. But a lot of artists don’t start out in theaters. Where you end up performing usually ends up on the style of music you play and how many people are likely to attend your show.
As an artist, you have to have reasonable expectations about the college market. You may have 30 people show up to hear you play, or you may have 100. You might sell a lot of merch, or you might sell none. You should still take everything you have for sale everywhere you go. You never know when you’re going to find an audience that really responds well to you and wants to buy your merch. You also have to remember that these are college students, and they may not have the money to buy anything from you.
Sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason to where you end up performing. It just depends on where they have room for you and whether your performance is part of a series. For example, sometimes a school will say, “This is our monthly series where we have shows in our atrium and allow people from outside the college to come too.” And that will be your audience. Whenever I’m booking, I find out as much information as possible for my artists about how many people might be in the audience and who that audience will be. It’s one thing if they are performing for college students, but if they are performing for members of the outside community, it’s different.
I do middle buying as well. I see situations where I have artists in big theaters, and others where they are playing much smaller venues. I work with national touring artists, but also with other artists who are just starting out.
If someone is not able to get the attention of a booking agent, is it worth the investment to go to college conferences, shake hands and network?
I do think it’s worth it, because that’s where you’re going to be able to see the agencies and also see the other talent. Maybe you’ve been looking into working with a specific agent or wondering about the NACA or the APCA side. If you go to the conferences, you may meet the agent you were wondering about and decide that person just isn’t right for you.
Obviously, when you go meet an agent while they’re working with their own artists, they’re not going to have time to talk at length. But you can still give them your EPK and say, “I’d love to talk to you” and then follow up.
And you’re going to learn so much from watching showcases and learning how these conferences and market works. It’s really invaluable. I tell my artists that if they’re near any conference before they showcase, they should go and watch the showcases and be in the booths so they don’t come in blind. I think it’s important as a learning tool. It took me a full year of going to different conferences to figure out how the market works.
You mentioned marketing and how you need to market to college students. Given that most college students are there for four years, you probably have to be very persistent with marketing. How do you create enduring relationships with a group of people who aren’t going to be around for very long?
First of all, once you make friends with a college student and get them into your music, that student will follow you forever. They’ll stay with you once they graduate. They’ll still be buying your music because they met you and love you. And they will share your music with college students and other people.
A lot of times, when a college student is leaving, that person will tell other students who are still there to look out for an artist they really like. And the advisors will remember that artist too. Of course, you always have new students. It’s a continuous cycle of getting to know people. It’s always sad for me when students I’ve worked with for several years come to me and tell me it’s the last conference they’re attending. It’s like saying good-bye to family. They’re leaving, and they may not stay in the area. You have to be on your toes and know the market is always changing. You have to continuously market yourself and improve your craft and your networking skills, because the process is never ending. That actually applies to anything you do in music, because you’re always growing as an artist.
Are there any common mistakes you see artists making in the college market?
I think some artists are so eager to see a return on their investment. I often have to sit artists down and explain to them how I do business as an agent. My job is sales, and I don’t do pressure sales. If you’re so anxious that you can’t wait for things to formalize and turn into a gig, can’t wait for the school to take time to decide whether or not to bring you in, and you call so often that it becomes harassment, they’re going to stop taking your calls and answering your emails. People just don’t respond to that. I’ve been on the other side of it, and I know what it’s like to get blasted with emails and phone calls. That being said, there’s a fine line between too much contact and not enough contact or follow-up.
Do you have any other parting words of advice?
When you go out and want to get into the college market, don’t go in with the misconception that it’s an easy market. You can’t go in expecting to get 30 gigs the first time. Realistically, you may walk away with zero gigs. You just have to learn from everything you do. And even if you do walk away with 30 gigs the first time you showcase at a conference, the next time you go to that conference, you may not even get to showcase. The most important thing you can do as an artist is to not give up and to learn from every single thing you do. Whether you’ve played one time or 20 times, you need to keep adapting to your audience.
To learn more about Lee Mayer and the work she does with artists in the college market and beyond, visit the Houla Entertainment website. You can also connect to Houla via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.