Locking eyes with Ashlee-Jean Trott, Mark Anderson sat down at her table, and they shook hands. They talked about their hometowns – Minneapolis for him and Nashville for her – which led to a brief round of “Do you know ?”
Further talk revealed that Anderson’s band, Monroe Crossing, plays 150 dates a year; frequently passes through Nashville; and would very much like to be booked onto one of the two shows Trott helps book, “Music City Roots” and “Bluegrass Underground.”
Meanwhile, on the microphone in the crowded Raleigh Convention Center conference room, a timekeeper reminded them that time was of the essence. This was, after all, “Gig Fair,” also known as Bluegrass Speed Dating, in which acts get the chance to pitch themselves quickly to multiple agents, festivals, clubs and other talent-buyers.
“We’re not strictly traditional, but we’ve got traditional energy,” Anderson said to Trott, quickening his pace.
“What would you compare yourself to?” Trott asked.
“Hot Rize, Seldom Scene, bands like that,” he said. “We don’t go in for smooth vocals and picking. I come from a punk background, and what drew me to bluegrass was drive and push and energy, like Bill Monroe.”
“Ashlee, thank you very much,” Anderson said, leaving behind a compact disc and band biography.
“It was nice to meet you.”
Gig Fair has been a regular feature of every International Bluegrass Music Association convention. Thursday’s had more than 40 buyers, with well over 100 artists meeting with as many as they could squeeze into 5-minute increments.
Ask anyone who’s done it, and speed-dating is the comparison that comes up.
“It is like that,” said Raleigh’s Joe Newberry, who had 10 appointments Thursday. “Or any other sort of dating, I guess: ‘I like long walks through bluegrass parks; Earl Scruggs ’ You know, the usual. But it’s a great chance to be seen and heard rather than just sending in a kit cold.”
Artists sign up online in advance for slots, and most come into Gig Fair with wish lists. Robert Earl Davis, banjo player for California-based Earl Brothers, had it all lined out.
“California Bluegrass Association, Bluegrass Union, Grey Fox, Podunk,” Davis said, ticking off organizations and festivals he was pitching.
“All the ones with money,” he added with a laugh.
On the other side, talent buyers were seeking acts to fill everything from unpaid opening-act slots to high-profile television gigs. As someone who books two different TV shows, Trott was as in-demand as anyone in the room.
“We’ve dealt with you, you’ve hired us before and we want to do it again! Here’s my card! And congratulations on your award,” was how one band manager opened, referring to the IBMA Momentum Award that Trott won the day before.
Where IBMA can be pretty laid-back, Gig Fair is anything but. Acts without pre-assigned appointment times lined the walls, looking to pounce on an open spot if there were any no-shows.
‘Don’t get weird’
Every body-language posture imaginable was on display, from relaxed to tense huddles. The volume level was at a dull roar throughout. Wandering around eavesdropping yielded a sensory-overload supply of nuggets.
There is etiquette, of course. Trott said that people sometimes whip out an iPad with headphones and demand that she listen to something. But that’s bad form. Better to leave a CD – or better yet, send a link afterward.
“To have someone sitting in front of you as you listen to them is just too much pressure,” she said. “It can be horribly awkward. So just talk to us, but don’t get weird. I got asked out on a date at Gig Fair once, which was pretty comical. Asked on a date at Bluegrass Speed Dating.”
What are the odds?