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.