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Communication Issues

First, some thoughts on communication in general. Perhaps one of the most important things to remember about communication is that it is two-way. In verbal communication, it is not only what you say but also what the other person hears. I once had a conversation with a presenter with whom I have had repeated dealings where we were tossing around several possible dates for an artist. We finally settled on a date, worked out the details and I followed up with a contract. Good thing I sent it and good thing she read it because I thought we had agreed on Friday, January 8th and she thought we had settled on Friday, February 12th. Nobody was at fault here. We just got our wires crossed at some point in the conversation and they never got uncrossed. There is a phrase out there that goes something to the effect of "I know you believe that you understand what I said but what you heard is not what I meant." Happens to the best of us.

There are also different levels of distance in communication. Face-to-face verbal communication probably gives you the most information the fastest since, in addition to the words, you can hear intonations and see facial and body cues. The drawback is, of course, that it is verbal and therefore may be remembered differently later by all concerned. (See Contracts handout). Talking on the phone adds a level of distance since you no longer have the visual cues. Written (Letter, fax and e-mail) add even more distance since now you have no visual or verbal cues and response is not immediate. But adding distance is not necessarily a negative. Different types of communication lend themselves to different tasks. Often people are able to approach something in a fax that they are uncomfortable bringing up face-to-face. Sending something to a person in an e-mail before you call them to discuss it can give them time to sort out their reply before get together on the phone.

I will tell you upfront that I avoid e-mail for more complicated communications such as fee negotiations or artist/rep relations. That's not to say that I don't do a great deal of communicating by e-mail because I do. However, I am cautious in its use. I see e-mail as similar to post-its or memos. Good for short messages; can be inadequate in conveying more complex issues. There is a difference between communication and data transmission. E-mail seems to me to be a great vehicle for conveying information. I feel it has some dangers when you try and use it to really communicate, especially on more complex topics. I suspect that we tend to overuse e-mail because it is both cheap and convenient. After all, we can take care of our correspondence at 2:14 AM if we wish. However, I think we have to look at each situation and decide what method of communication will best serve our ends and is most likely to give us a positive outcome, not which costs the least. Another consideration is what you feel most comfortable with; some people prefer a fax to a phone.

Bear in mind that we are often the worst at communicating in areas that we know best. Since we are extremely conversant on the subject, we tend to overlook the basics that we take for granted when talking to someone else. If the person we are talking with is not as familiar with the topic as we are, they are liable to end up either confused or, worse yet, under a false impression because they are not getting the whole picture. Every rep has a horror story about asking if a venue has a sound system and being told yes only to have the artist discover upon their arrival that the sound system is actually a public address system. Same word (sound system); different definition. Figuring out how to play a guitar from behind a podium is not the best start to a gig.

In looking at specific areas of concern, obviously the area where I have the most experience is artist rep/presenter. As an artist rep, one of the biggest communication issues is getting a hold of a presenter at all. Sadly, most presenters are not sitting by the phone waiting for me to get in touch about my artists. With each press kit, I send out a stamped, self-addressed postcard which asks the presenter to give me a time frame for getting in touch (a week, a month, six months or what?), a preferred method of communication and a "best time to reach them" block. Return of this postcard not only tells me that they got the material but also allows them to communicate their preferences regarding my getting in touch with them.

Interestingly enough, my return rate on these postcards is lower than 35% which I think is surprisingly low considering the postage is paid and filling it out takes about a minute. My guess is that we may have to learn to live with the fact that certain presenters do not really want you to communicate with them. If interested, they will get in touch and, other than that, they don't want to hear from you. There seems to be another group which, while they don't mind receiving phone calls if you catch them in, feel they are too busy to return postcards, phone calls, etc. Not always true but more often than not, these are volunteers for an organization or coffeehouse. Just bear in mind that there are a wide variety of levels of comfort with communication and attempt to fit your communication to what the other person wants, if possible. If I am getting nowhere with whatever method of communication I am currently trying, I will switch to another.

All the usual rules of courtesy apply. I try and remember to ask if I have called at a convenient time. If I haven't, then I make an appointment to call back at a time that is better for the person I am trying to reach. I'm not much for the "big pitch". I'm really happiest when I can get the other person to talk to me so I can gather information that will help me come up with the right match for that venue. Despite the fact I am chatty by nature, I recognize that I don't learn anything when I am talking. It's the other person who will be providing me with new information: what the venue is like, what is important to them as a presenter, clues on what fee they are willing to pay. If you are too focused on getting your own message across on how vital it is that they hire your artist (or yourself), you may miss all the good information that is being conveyed to you.

Remember that this is someone with whom you want to establish a working relationship and that means that, if at all possible, you want to avoid being adversarial. Little is going to get accomplished by arguing with a presenter about their perception that an artist is not right and/or ready for their venue. In general, you will do better by trying to get some specifics regarding what their concerns are which will help you develop a strategy to address those issues. If it is whether people will attend, then you might want to focus on the size of your regional mailing list and so forth. Always assume that a presenter may know more about his/her venue than you do and act accordingly. On the other hand, I have learned that "I don't think this artist is right for my market" is sometimes shorthand for "I don't like this artist's work and there is no way I am ever going to book them." If it begins to look like that is the direction things are going, it might be a good idea to start focusing your efforts elsewhere.

The artist/artist rep relationship abounds with communication issues. In the initial stages, one big area is talking about money. Discussing money in our society is not exactly encouraged and it can be difficult to push past that taboo. Often when I start working with an artist, it can be like pulling teeth to get the fiscal information regarding the gigs they are currently working. I suspect part of this reluctance is a feeling that they aren't making "enough" money. When all is said and done, this is really just another piece of information that the rep needs, not substantially different from knowing whether the room has sound. Other artists are extremely upfront on this and volunteer all necessary information right away. My own bias is that the latter attitude indicates a level of trust and commitment to the partnership that bodes well for the future.

Another obvious area is that the rep is talking to the presenter, the rep is talking to the artist but it is the artist that will eventually have to go do the gig. Unless the rep does a good job of learning what the artist needs and expects, there is some real potential for disaster here. The situation is compounded by the fact that, if the rep slips up, the artist is the one who has to bear the consequences. I have already raised the "sound system that wasn't" scenario. Another example is the time I was talking to a pub and got lulled into complacency by the many remarks the presenter was making about how well they treat their performers. He brought up their new sound system, the hotel they used, the food and beverage privileges, etc. The artist called me from the gig that night to complain about the heavily populated pool tables that were right next to the stage! I don't for one minute think the presenter didn't mention them because he knew it was a problem. He didn't mention it precisely because he didn't see it as a problem. For him, it is an asset to his business and he isn't focusing on it's impact on his performers. You have to remember where your contacts are coming from and, while respecting their interests, also make sure you taking care of your own.

An ongoing issue between artist and rep is making sure the communication stays open and ongoing regarding booking. An artist needs to be current on what the rep is doing. The team approach tends to produce maximum results. However, the artist has to walk a delicate line between being legitimately interested in what's going on (Hey, it's your career - you are entitled!) and obsessing to the point where the rep is spending more time talking to the artist than they are the venues. It can take months from the time of initial contact until a rep actually has a meaningful dialogue about booking an artist with a venue. If the artist starts asking whether you have heard anything every couple of days right after you sent a packet off to the Happy Folkies Club, it can be a long couple of months. Multiply by 50 promo packs times five artists and you have a nightmare. Generally, I send out lists of where promo packs are and try and remember to update my artists on ongoing discussions. Hopefully, they will ask questions about the ones that interest them.

Another question that comes up between the artist rep and those you work with is how much to share of the truly negative feedback that you get. The issue is complicated by the fact that, by and large, I do not think the feedback is something that the presenter would have shared directly with the artist if given the chance. I can't say that I feel like I have found any really satisfactory answer to this one. There are a lot of variables. One concern is how deeply the artist takes such remarks to heart. Some people can see these comments as simply one person's opinion and file it away as possibly useful information. Other artists are devastated by anything they perceive as criticism. Another consideration is whether I am hearing something from more than one place. If four different presenters all say, "Gosh, I love the act but do they always do the same show?", it might be time to suggest a variation in the performance.

Speaking as an outsider looking in, I think some of the worst communication I have ever observed goes on between artist and sound engineer. Part of the problem is that this is often not an ongoing relationship but one where two people have to learn to communicate pretty much on the spot. There is also a wide variation in knowledge levels. Some sound engineers are very well versed in how to use the equipment and how to anticipate what an artist needs; others are someone's cousin who happened to be free that night and thinks gain is the opposite of loss. Some artists are very clear on what is needed to make them sound good; others have trouble remembering to plug in their guitars. By and large, communication is hindered by the fact that they have no common language.

I have watched sound checks where it was clear that people thought they were communicating when it was obvious to the most casual observer that they really weren't. There are some terms that you hear regularly tossed around at sound checks and the problem is whether both parties are working with the same definition. The most frequent one I see (and hear) is "brightness". An artist calls for the sound engineer to "brighten up the guitar". "Brighten" can mean increasing some of the high frequencies or it may indicate a need to bring up the upper mid-range depending on what sound is desired. Add to this that every set of ears hears things a bit differently, not to mention that fact that people who work around sustained high levels of sound, (i.e. some performers and sound engineers) may experience some loss of hearing in certain frequencies. Periodically, I think it is a miracle that any good sound ever happens!

At some point, I think every artist has to take responsibility for either learning enough about what is involved in good sound for them that they are able to convey that in an understandable fashion to a novice or make sure they travel with someone they trust to do it for them. An intermediate step is to do a stage plot and write down anything that might help the sound engineer do a better job. It is important to advance the show and trying to talk with the sound engineer ahead of time is a part of that. That will, hopefully, give both parties some feel for the level of expertise with which they are dealing. Send a CD ahead so the sound engineer can preview your music. Take five minutes before the sound check to sit down with the engineer over a cup of coffee and talk about what you are trying to do with your music. Do not browbeat him/her over the head with what you think s/he ought to be doing at the sound board; leave that to him/her. For both the artist and the sound engineer to leave all this until the night of the show and then try and make it happen during a half-hour sound check is creating the most high-risk situation available. Sure it works out quite a bit of the time without doing anything but showing up but isn't the phone call worth it if it improves things even 20% on a regular basis?

Basically, it's very simple. (Ha!) The more communication you establish with someone else, the more the information you both have. The more accurate the communication, the more accurate the information. The better your information is, the better your decisions will be. Never be afraid to ask. Stupid questions are a whole lot easier to live with than stupid decisions.

© McShane Glover/Noteworthy Productions

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