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Charleston Music Confab brings music industry executives to town for panels and showcases

August 23, 2017 GMT

SXSW (South by Southwest) has become a well-known conglomerate conference series in Austin, Texas, featuring film, interactive media and music festivals to showcase not only regional but global talent. The music festival includes a variety of expert panelists, who give advice to up-and-coming bands, as well as an escalating number of musicians each year who perform showcases for industry executives.

Longtime radio show host Dave Stewart is bringing that idea to the Holy City with the New Music Confab, a three-year running event which, as of 2017, has been renamed the Charleston Music Confab. Stewart has staked his claim in Charleston, though he lives just outside of Columbia in Chapin.

“I wanted to recreate what SXSW was like in the early years,” says Stewart. “Just getting bands that were on the way up, maybe before they had been discovered by a ton of people or by a record label or an agent or manager, and connect people on their way up with the people that are looking to find the next thing that’s on the way up ... Charleston reminded me a lot of Austin, the way Austin was in the mid-’90s.”

The way it works

Stewart hand-selects a group of panelists to come speak in Charleston, who then pay their own way here for an extended weekend of lectures and performances, with the perk of a Charleston vacation thrown in.

These panelists are local and national experts in the music industry, from director of the Charleston Music Hall Charles Carmody to Reverbnation founder Lou Plaia. There are record label founders, marketing gurus and studio producers among the mix, from places such as Los Angeles, Nashville and New York.

These panelists then attend a series of concert showcases, scheduled and booked by Stewart, at a variety of venues around town. The bands playing the Confab hope to make valuable connections, find an agent or maybe even snag a record deal. And while bands must also must pay their way here and are unpaid for showcases, most are from South Carolina and all receive a badge to attend the panels.

This year, there will be around 75 panelists, an increase from last year’s 65. There will be 63 artists performing compared with last year’s 38. According to Stewart, there were almost 3,000 band submissions this year, including groups from as far as New Zealand.

The Confab has grown rapidly in size each year, and with that, it has expanded to include more genres, venues and days.

“We’ve always had — if you want to use radio terms — alternative and rock and Triple A bands,” says Stewart. “But then we’ve also added hip-hop this year and a singer/songwriter feel. For the sake of argument, if I had 800 awesome hip-hop bands and only five of the other, to have some representation, I’ve got to spread it around.”

Confab attendees can either purchase an all-access pass for Wednesday through Saturday ($50 for students, $75 for non-students) or attend individual showcases, each somewhere in the range between free and $15.

Hot topics

Panelists for the 2016 New Music Confab included (from left) Omar Colon, Nick Autry, Matt Zutell, Rick Beato, David Barbe and Cory Plaugh.

The panel topics are curated by Stewart and include areas of interest particularly for budding musicians. This year’s discussions will touch on maximizing YouTube, artist branding, streaming, touring trends, social media tactics and more.

There also are genre-specific panels honing in on rock/alternative, country/Americana and hip-hop/R&B.

“One thing I think Confab will help with, in areas of putting a team together, is what should you focus on,” says Stewart. “Like, maybe I should get someone to be my agent and I can still do my social media. Maybe I’m not tech savvy and need to hire someone to do social media. There are certain topics for this kind of a conference that you’re going to touch on every year in an effort to help new artists.”

The goal is to shed light on the music industry’s latest trends and suggest ways for bands to garner success in the modern age.

“Speaking on the panel section specifically, the Confab in my opinion is really useful for new artists,” says Matt Tuton, recording technician for the Confab during both years. “It’s a great crash course in what to expect from the music industry as well as some helpful gems for already established artists. A lot of new artists don’t really understand the structure of the industry and how to get things moving and keep them moving.”

Success?

Speaking of success, there has been some from the Confab, though less than might be expected with so much opportunity in one room at one time. Though record labels and industry game-changers have been in attendance for the past two years, no bands have actually received record deals.

However, some college students have made connections leading to internships for organizations such as the Bonnaroo Music Festival and Voodoo Music Festival, and a some participating musicians have attained valuable relationships.

“No quote unquote record deals at this point,” says Stewart. “The first year, The Steppin’ Stones ended up connecting with an agent— Jeff Howard at APA— and they connected and they’re both going to come back this year and be on a panel and play again. Christina Taylor was also an artist who played the first year who is now on CMT.

“But there have been a lot of connections made for students at College of Charleston in the arts management program. I know a lot of people have gotten connected for internships ... I think, so far, it’s been more of a relationship thing. The thing is, ‘Have you gotten signed by a label?’— that’s just gotten harder and harder for anybody to do.”

Band feedback

There are mixed opinions from bands who have played the Charleston Music Confab. While most agree that it is a great idea with room for potential, some have openly addressed shortcomings that have cropped up during the past two events, from lack of diversity to conflicting showcase schedules.

However, most all speak with the intention of giving feedback to make the Confab a better music conference and ultimately succeed. In fact, Stewart himself has reached out to participating bands each year for feedback to address some issues.

“Ticket price for the public was one thing we were trying to figure out,” says Dave Ellis of Honeysmoke, who played both the 2015 and 2016 Confabs. “Ticket price and attendance. Dave did a really great job of doing the best that he could to really start out with. When it was over, he emailed everybody and asked everybody’s input. What can we do better? What was good? What was bad? What was your personal experience?”

The first two years, ticket prices for showcases were higher, some $20, discouraging local fans from attending shows for which they would normally be able to pay $5 to $10. Stewart since has lowered prices. Some shows are even free, with none exceeding $15.

The conflicting shows is another hot topic, splitting up the already small music-going crowd of Charleston in two, three or even four locations. And, since the submission process uses ReverbNation instead of a local expert, there is some concern involving selection.

“The Confab should hire someone like David Stringer (of Scene SC) for the selection process of regional bands and then have him put the shows together,” says Drew Hadley of The Hadleys, who played both previous Confabs. “He has the knowledge and the relationship with enough regional bands to put together something really special that would enthuse music lovers and help out bands that are hitting somewhat of a ceiling in their local markets.”

Will Blackburn of Stop Light Observations sings at a 2016 New Music Confab showcase.D. Salberg Imaging

Will Blackburn of successful Charleston rock band Stop Light Observations played the Confab last year and also had some input.

“I think it’s a good thing for Charleston,” he says. “The idea behind what the guys who started it wanted is needed. Charleston doesn’t really have a music scene, so we need to all put our heads together to grow things a little bit. I think it shows that if you want to do what Susto does, you can do that.

“The only thing about it that I noticed last year that needed to be improved upon is that no one seems to know about it. The City of Charleston didn’t take it in like the way you would see ‘Austin City Limits.’”

While promotion is one flaw, so is branding — but that comes with any fledgling idea. Many don’t realize what exactly “Confab” is, though that is changing as Stewart has redeveloped the name from New Music Confab to Charleston Music Confab. Lack of genre diversity also raised a red flag and has since been addressed by adding a hip-hop and R&B panel and several showcases.

“It was the first year, so a lot of kinks were still being worked out,” says Daniel Crider of The Dead 27s on playing the Confab in 2015. “Plus, it wasn’t real clear what this thing really was. I remember a lot of confusion as to what exactly this music Confab was going to be.

″... The main thing it was lacking was diversity in music, which I know was a major public criticism last year. It looks like this year, there’s more diversity in the styles of bands that are performing. I’m optimistic about the future of the Music Confab as the powers that are behind it are passionate and knowledgeable about the industry.”

Brave Baby plays at a 2016 New Music Confab showcase.D. Salberg Imaging

Others had more serious complaints of disorganization and discouragement— the opposite of what Stewart is seeking to provide with the Confab.

“As far as the Confab goes, it was less than a positive experience for us,” says Luke Mitchell of The High Divers, whose sister Hannah Wicklund of The Steppin’ Stones was a Confab success story. “We gave out 50 CDs ($500 worth) in the ‘grab bags’ for all of the guest speakers etc., weren’t paid for our set and consequently did not hear anything from anyone we met or talked to during the event. Being that it was the first year, I understood they had a lot of bugs to work out, but it did not leave us with a good taste in our mouths.

“The second year, I went to all of the panels and it was almost a slug-fest of Charleston by panelists from Nashville, Los Angeles, etc. It was pretty disconcerting and a tad discouraging. Seems that not many people are brave enough to move away from the ‘music hubs’ to find real talent ... I appreciate the concept, though, and hope that it develops into something useful for all areas of music here in South Carolina.”

Dave Ellis of HoneySmoke also was concerned about some of the scheduling issues that ended up ruining the showcase aspect for his band.

“We kind of got hurt last year because we were the last band playing at The Royal American,” says Ellis. “On the schedule, we were supposed to go on at 10 or 11, but we ended up going on at 1:15 am. Were only able to play for 15 minutes at very end of the night. A lot of people came out to see us but had to end up leaving.

“We also made no money. That’s another risk the artists have to take. That’s frustrating on my end as an artist. ... There’s a lot of artists who are starving out there already and come and play this thing and they don’t see any actual dollars to supplement the cost that they’ve spent to go to it. And that’s a problem that’s happened with SXSW and that may just be the nature of these kind of conferences.”

Though Ellis praises Stewart’s vision, ultimately saying “even what I take way from it is more positive than negative,” he also points out the flaw of having music industry executives come to Charleston paying out of their own pockets and then trying to get them to spend most of their time at panels and showcases.

“Sure, I shook hands with people,” he says. “And I already knew some of the people in the industry. Maybe one of the challenges can be that these people are meeting so many people it’s hard to remember you. It’s an enticing thing to come to Charleston for music industry execs, thinking ‘We can hang out in Charleston and visit Charleston and have a good time and get free drinks and experience that.’ I’m not completely blind to that aspect of it. We take it all with a grain of salt.”

Stewart has addressed this by cutting the panels off midday Saturday so as to allow the executives to have more free time to enjoy the city after the Confab.

Moving forward

In his first years of establishing Confab, Stewart has realized several of the aforementioned issues as they appeared and worked out many of them. An encouraging note is that he is open and willing to discuss ways to keep improving Confab to hopefully achieve his ultimate vision. In the meantime, each year is expected to improve upon the last. Let’s hope this year is no different.