Ari Nisman is the President/CEO of Degy Entertainment, an artist booking agency that specializes in booking music in the college and military markets. Ari got his start when he was a student at the University of Michigan, where he got involved in field marketing programs at several major record labels. He went on to work as a marketing representative with Polydor/Atlas Records, and started Degy Management Services, Inc. in 1997, and its booking agency arm, Degy Entertainment, in 2001.
What advice would you give a DIY artist that wants to get into the college circuit?
The college concert market is ruled by two entities: the National Association for Campus Activities (NACA) and the Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities (APCA). These two organizations are working in a cohabitative nature, but I would say to some extent they are also competitors. They both set up the infrastructure for schools and their programming boards to come together to one place. Agents and artists come in on the other side of the fence and work to find a way to book the entertainment onto the campuses.
APCA and NACA conferences give you an opportunity to submit to showcases, which is no different than if you’re submitting to a CMJ or a SXSW, except that instead of having to jockey for attention with 30 other showcases going on at the same time, the only thing going on in the college conferences is your showcase. You’re on stage for 15 minutes in NACA and 10 minutes in APCA. The folks sitting in the audience are the buyers and the people who can immediately impact putting dates on your calendar. It’s unlike any other sort of booking scenario out there. Sitting in that crowd are programmers and college buyers, generally 17-22 years old with their budgets in their left hand and their calendars in their right hand and a booklet in front of them with your picture and your pricing.
These people watch the showcase, and if they like it, a school’s representative can walk into your booth and ask you to fill out a booking slip. And each morning, one person from each school wearing a purple tag – the contract buyer – sits in a room with all their counterparts from other schools, and it’s almost like an art auction. For example, someone comes up that has a form filled out that says, “Degy Booking, International” and announces the artist’s name. And anybody from the college buyers that has interest puts their paddle up in the air with their school name. The agent steps to the front of the room if there are three or more paddles and starts to actually do the booking right there in the room on site. You build a tour right there.
Are artists able to participate without an agent? A lot of them can’t get representation early on in their career.
They can. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a completely level playing field, just because they will be going up against agencies that have folks working there with ten plus years of experience who know the buyers. Obviously people like us have a competitive advantage just having familiarity with the schools and what they have and the people involved and the relationships. However, the nice thing about the market is that anybody can go in. All it takes is signing up for a membership fee and submitting your materials like I do for all my acts.
It can be expensive. Each conference requires you to buy a booth in advance in order to submit. To apply at all you have to buy an annual membership fee, which is pricey. You can submit to these conferences and not get accepted, which means you need to decide whether to still go or not go. All the travel is on you, you have to work your own booth and create all your own marketing materials. It can be a costly experience, and there are many artists that try to do it one year or two years and don’t continue because they are not fiscally able to do it. Another reason the artists try to do it on their own is to hopefully get a sniff from an agency and meet some of the agents in the booths as their counterparts. We see a lot of artists that get snatched up by agencies after they do it well themselves once or twice.
Is it very competitive to win a slot at those conferences?
It is, and NACA and APCA operate differently. At NACA, there’s a panel of selected students and advisors from each region. NACA is divided into seven regions, plus they have a national conference. APCA has four regional conferences during the year plus a national conference. All the regional conferences for NACA have their own committees, and they sit in a room on a designated weekend and watch all the applicants showcase at the conference. Currently for the larger conferences – like NACA Northeast, NACA South, NACA Mid-America – they get about 600-700 submissions. For the smaller conferences – like NACA Central and NACA West – they get about 400-600 submissions. They choose about 30 or so slots. And that’s not just music. It’s a combination of music, comedy, poetry, magic, or maybe even a dance troupe. So whatever type of showcase you can see on stage in terms of entertainment comprises that series of showcases. And they are going to be tasked with picking a diversified lineup – multi-culturally, genre, etc. – in order to fit a wide variety of entertainment that might be booked for that region.
Are there specific qualities you’ve noticed that artists have or things they do that get them into NACA showcases?
I would say the most important element that is consistently used is a three-minute video. In the NACA application process, one of the key ingredients you include with your application is one type of media. And the type of media that is most approved now is a video/DVD. In the first round they watch 90 seconds. In the second round they watch three minutes. And if you pass all the way to the third round, they watch another three minutes. So the video is probably the end all, be all for artists in the college market.
And the best video is probably live, well-filmed, with crowd shots to demonstrate it’s not just you and your mom who are into your band, right?
No question. When you’re competing with 700 other videos, quality, editing, and great audio will be really important. You need to be unique and show yourself well. At the end of the day, I don’t think there’s one kind of video that gets selected to showcase more than others. I’ve seen it work with EPKs and with a combination of live shows. I’ve seen it work against a white wall. I’ve also seen standard music videos – MTV/VH-1 style – get people accepted. I think you can go with any style of video as long as the three minutes show you well, are well-edited, and have good audio.
And what about with APCA? Is that different?
It is. NACA is a not-for-profit entity. APCA is owned by one person, a great individual named Eric Lambert who I consider a friend and I think has built a wonderful organization. Eric has his staff make the judgment calls on who gets selected to perform at an APCA conference. You hear of all these companies today that give priority membership, whether it be an airline or a hotel. And if you’ve been in the organization for years and continue to be a part of his organization, Eric gives some priority in terms of the initial slots and selection. But he wants to see the video, make sure it’s good for the college market and that the pricing is in line. It actually may be a little easier for an artist to get a showcase right away in the APCA market simply because if Eric and his staff like it, they may be able to slot you quickly. I will say some of the costs are a little higher with APCA vs. NACA. I like to consider APCA more of the “pay for play” method. If you pay the fee, generally, if you’re great, he’ll give you a showcase. But that’s one of the distinctions right off the bat between APCA and NACA: with APCA, you’re judged more by Eric and his staff than you are by a diversified group of folks in a room that you don’t know.
Do you have any general advice for people that want to pursue these opportunities? What is the experience of being a musician in the military and college markets like? What’s it like to book a military event?
It’s a completely different world walking into a club and playing a 60-minute set. Firstly, you’re on a college campus where education is their main focus. And when you’re walking onto a military base, military operations and safety of the U.S. citizens around the world are their main obligations. You’re walking into places where their main role is not entertainment. You’re working with people a lot of the time that are experienced at what they do, but are not necessarily professionals at doing it. Students who are 21-years old and who are programming on their student activities board are not professionals at being talent buyers and promoting shows. You have to go in knowing that and knowing the environment you’re walking into.
Also, you’re not paid in cash; you’re paid in checks. Fortunately, with the government and with schools, your checks always cash. But sometimes your checks are sent after the fact. You have to have a W-9 filled out.
You also have to know how to act on a military base and on a college campus. Both have their own different rules. But if you’re walking onto a military base, you better know there are certain guidelines you need to understand. Walking onto a school campus is no different. Everyone is there to take care of students. The show may not be open to the public. It may be closed to everyone but the students. At a military base event, the show might only be open to soldiers and sailors. You basically have to know the rules and regulations. It’s different from the club world, from the Performing Arts Center world, and from the festival world. Knowing the guidelines attached to your particular niche environment will really help you going into it.
How does an artist get booked for military events?
There’s no real showcase that I know of for the military market. They do have their own individual conferences. For example, the Army has the Boss Conference, the Navy has their meetings. A lot of the military personnel actually show up to the APCA conferences specifically in Atlanta for the national conference. So, if you do get a showcase with APCA at the national conference, there are generally a good share of military buyers who are in the audience. Those people are normally just buying for their bases, or sometimes they have some of the folks that book overseas for a series of dates.
To understand the military, you have to break it down into four main entities: Armed Forces Entertainment (AFE); United Service Organization (USO), which is the big daddy everybody has heard of and that Bob Hope made famous; Navy and Army Entertainment, which are the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) divisions; and private promoters, who are companies overseas and even some in the states. Understanding those four entities gives you a better idea of what that market is all about.
AFE is a great organization. Colonel Weatherspoon and her team buy a lot of up-and-coming acts. They’ve been known the past couple years to really take a chance on some of the younger acts that are making a name for themselves but aren’t fully established yet. They pay on a per diem basis, plus cover your expenses. You have to qualify to get into the AFE program. After they accept you into the program, then they look at slotting you for their tours around the world.
Everyone knows about USO of course. They are a third-party entity and are not necessarily part of the military. They get their money through private contributions. The reason USO is so well publicized is often because the more well-publicized you are, the more money and donorship you can bring in. You often get a mailer in the mail from them to help put money into the program. They then turn that money around and buy the talent to bring overseas. They generally don’t pay the artists, and I think it’s part of their credo that they don’t. But they do a great job of paying all the artists’ expenses and then some. But they have been known to bring out the heavy hitters like Bob Hope and Kenny Chesney.
Army and Navy Entertainment generally consist of people that work directly for the military, though they are not always enlisted. They are buying for either their individual bases or bases around the world. And you just have to get to those people and show them your stuff. Some of them have budgets, some of them don’t. Those are a lot of the people I buy for. We have a contract with the U.S. Army Entertainment, and we buy quite a bit for the U.S. Navy around the world. They will use different promoters and middling agents or sometimes go directly to dish out the right style of show to the right style of folks they buy with. They do a great job. And they are a little bit less publicized because they are actually the military, and thus they don’t really need to publicize what they do. Their goal is to take great entertainment directly to the troops. It’s not about fanfare or hoopla; it’s about making sure they bring the best quality entertainment to troops around the world.