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If you think networking is a gross word, you’re not alone.

The word itself conjures up images of businesspeople schmoozing each other in order to get ahead, building superficial relationships and buying rounds of martinis on the company card.

Sure, those types of people and situations exist, but who wants to help out someone who seems fake? And since the old adage of “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is in many ways true, we’re going to focus on how to turn the stereotypical concept of “networking” into the more realistic (and productive) idea of “building positive relationships” with the following music networking tips.

We’ve discussed the importance of belonging to a music community on this blog before, and it’s how you should think of networking: creating your own personal music community. If you’re trying to build a future in the music industry—whether you’re on the creative or on the business side—networking is essential to your success.

Think about it: people want to help people they like succeed. Plus, if a band needs another band to tour with them or a Recording Engineer needs a new Assistant Engineer, they’re going to think of the people they know before looking for cool bands online or placing a job ad on Craigslist.

Where to Connect with the Music Industry

How you meet people working in music will depend on which segment of the industry you’re involved with, where you live, and how big the music scene is. Even if you live far away from an established music industry center, you can still use the internet to connect with people. Of course, an in-person meeting is much better—it’s just easier to remember you when a busy record label exec has a face to put a name to—but this is a good start.

You can find entire websites devoted to Songwriters who want to partner with Lyricists in other parts of the country, and message boards where professional Road Crew members swap stories, jokes, and advice. You can also find musicians who regularly interact with their fans on social media sites like Twitter. If you build up a rapport with your favorite hip-hop artist over time, and if you’re not pushy, they’ll be more willing to give a listen to the remix track you send them of their latest single.

You can definitely build a friendship and a working relationship over the internet, but meeting someone in person speeds up the process. If you strike up enough conversations at local shows and bars or coffee shops where your favorite musicians work, eventually you’ll start making friends, and some of these people will probably be able to help you on your career journey.

However, the best way to get out and meet music industry movers and shakers is by attending relevant conferences, music industry networking events, and industry organization mixers. Which segment of the music industry are you interested in? Attend a workshop for Songwriters or a conference for people working in radio.

You can also use internships or volunteer opportunities at local music organizations to meet people. Even if school is just a distant memory for you, or if you never got your degree, you can meet some incredible people in a variety of industry roles simply by showing up to stuff envelopes, review CDs, or answer the phone at your local radio station or by checking in performers and staffing the info booth at a local music festival.

It’s about staying in touch, and not letting them fall off your radar—or you off of theirs.

How to Make a Connection

It can be a challenge to strike up a conversation with a stranger; everyone gets that. It’s easier when you have a common task you’re engaged in, such as volunteer work. But if you’re at a networking event, chances are the only common task you’ll have is hitting up the open bar. It’s up to you to get out there and meet your peers, which can be scary to lots of people. You never know who could be a super talented musician or an influential industry figure.

Don’t expect people to come to you. If you’re the type who finds him or herself sitting in the corner pretending to text a friend, or leaning against the wall trying to look friendly and open to someone approaching you, set yourself a networking goal in terms of how many people you’ll meet and converse with at the event. Even if you don’t meet someone who could help you, you’ll feel accomplished. It might sound cheesy, but you could even surprise yourself by making an awesome new friend. (True story: this has happened to me.)

If you’re paralyzed at the thought of making small talk, come up with a few things you can discuss ahead of time. Topics will vary based on the event you’re attending; for example, if you’re visiting a new city for a conference, dining recommendations are always a good way to get people talking. If there’s a live music component to the event, ask your fellow attendees about the best bands they’ve seen.

If you’re attending an event which lists panel speakers, exhibitors, and attendees on their website, do a little research ahead of time so you know something about the organizations represented by the people you’re meeting, and have questions to ask them.

In the same way, if you have never heard of someone’s band or if you don’t know a term getting bandied about by industry types, don’t be afraid to ask for a description or explanation. This doesn’t make you look ignorant; it makes you look curious and interested. Plus, it gives you a way to keep the conversation going.

Most importantly, just as your mom told you on your first day at a new school, be yourself. We all have an image in our minds of the stereotypical Networking Guy: someone who’s loud and flashy, who meets people solely to figure out what they can do for him. You’ll probably meet this person at some point when you’re networking, but most of the people in the room are just like you: passionate professionals who have decided to build a career in the industry they love.

That’s why you should consider networking as more of an exercise in getting to know people with similar interests rather than seeing them as intimidating gatekeepers who can make or break your career. People want to help people they like, so take the time to get to know them, and show them who you are. Don’t be the person who enters a conversation and immediately gives off the air of “what can you do for me?” Don’t be the person who talks exclusively about him or herself, then thrusts a business card with a download code into an industry exec’s face.

In fact, there are few things more annoying to industry professionals than the person who pushes their album on you as soon they meet you. If you build a relationship, people will naturally be interested in what you’re working on and be more willing to check out your work. Otherwise, your demo is going straight in the trash.

Industry people just get too many unsolicited submissions to listen to all of them. This isn’t, of course, to say you can’t bring your demo CD with you to networking events. If you make a connection and pitch yourself well, the other person may ask you for samples of your music, or it might work its way into conversation naturally.

Which leads to one of the most important facets of networking successfully: knowing your product. You. Who are you? What, in a nutshell, do you bring to the table? If you’re unclear about what you do, the people you meet will be unclear, too, and they probably won’t remember you. Be confident. If you’re a student just getting started, but you know you definitely want to work in the marketing department at a major label, tell this to the people you meet, and work your experience into the conversation.

Similarly, if you’re in a band, find a specific way to describe your music. Concert Promoters won’t remember they met some dude in a rock band. They’ll remember they met a dude in a blues rock band in the vein of The White Stripes and The Black Keys, and next time they’re looking for an opening act for a band with a similar sound, they’ll know you fit the bill.

Bring business cards with you at all times. If you’re a musician, you’ll want to include links to your website, social pages, SoundCloud or Bandcamp, and possibly even a download code. When you make a connection with someone, give them your card. Ask for theirs, and follow up, even if all you have to say is “great meeting you last night.” If the person you met works in a part of the industry you’d like to learn more about, ask them if you can schedule an informational interview.

Another essential part of building a connection is giving back. Don’t make networking a one-sided deal. Is there anything you can do for your new acquaintance? Can you volunteer at their record label? Suggest a Sound Technician for their upcoming tour? Offer them a guest list spot at your band’s next show, or ask if they’d like to play on a bill with your band. Giving back doesn’t even need to have anything to do with music.

If you’re in Austin for SXSW, give them a list of your top five favorite Tex-Mex restaurants. If someone compliments you on a distinctive article of clothing you’re wearing, email them a link to the website where you bought it.

Who are you? What, in a nutshell, do you bring to the table? If you’re unclear about what you do, the people you meet will be unclear, too, and they probably won’t remember you.

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Staying in Touch

Meeting someone once doesn’t guarantee they’ll remember you. Following up is essential. Keep track of who you meet. Save their business cards. Make notes. You could even start a spreadsheet with contact info for industry professionals you’ve met with data on how you met them, what you talked about, and what they do.

Follow up with them every few months to let them know where you’re at in your career, to congratulate them on any relevant life events, or to send them a new restaurant recommendation if you really bonded over discussing taco joints. Obviously, if you run in the same circles as your new acquaintance, or if you find yourself meeting up regularly at shows or grabbing a drink together, the spreadsheet is unnecessary.

However, if you’re a student who met an industry exec at a conference and want to stay in touch so you’ll have that contact when you graduate, it makes sense. Similarly, if you’re an artist who met some incredible Producers at a networking event, but didn’t yet have enough material to go into the studio, a spreadsheet will make it easier to reconnect once you’re ready to record. It’s about staying in touch, and not letting them fall off your radar—or you off of theirs.

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