Youth Employment Services (YES) – Business Skills for Creative Souls Artists Conference March 27, 2017

by Caleigh Crow

The moderator opens the floor to questions from the conference attendees. A gentleman in the audience raises his hand and a microphone is brought over to him hurriedly by a mic-attendant. He’s tall, broad, grizzled, his curly hair framing his face. “Hi, yeah, so,” he smiles, looking directly at the panelists, “I’m a musician, how can I use social media to get listeners? YouTube?” he asks the panel, “Am I supposed to use YouTube?” They grin and agree that’s a good place to start. “Ok, great,” he thanks the panel. He moves to give the microphone back, but a follow-up question needs asking, and suddenly he puts the mic back up to his face. “Wait, how do I get a lot of followers on YouTube really quickly and easily?” A few sudden guffaws, then the panel up on stage chuckle, and the sound grows louder. I look over to the two women on my right, and they’re laughing, too. The entire audience is giggling away. The mic-Sherpa is even laughing. As a group of mostly burgeoning, independent artists trying to make a living off our craft, this is the question of the time. We’re all laughing is because we have that in common. Is there a magic YouTube subscriber formula I’m missing?  Is there something I’m just not getting here? The laughter is consolatory and friendly – we’ve all been there before.

I’m sitting in the audience with the other attendees of the Youth Employment Services Business Skills for Creative Souls Artist’s Conference, the provided nametag affixed prominently on my blouse. “Theatre & Music” my nametag announces. Someone else’s reads “Dance”, another “Visual Arts”, “Fashion”, and look! Another musician. He’s the one waiting for an answer from the panel, who have been assembled to address the diverse group of artists sitting before them. Those of us laughing in the audience have already reached the point in our careers where we’ve wracked our brains looking for answers to that quintessential social media question. It speaks to the multiplicity of the audience. We’re all at different stages in our careers, and we’re all taking different approaches. Some of us might have finally attained a few thousand Instagram followers, others might have tens of thousands, and evidently, some of us are just beginning to brave the wet ‘n’ wild rapids of running a successful social media campaign.  And the best part is we’re here as comrades, not competitors.

For me, this is what the conference is all about. YES’s tagline for the conference is “the Creative Power of Collaboration” and they promise attendees can “learn to build a sustainable art career from a community of people who ‘get’ what you do”, per the conference program. It’s that bolded “people who ‘get’” it that lives at the heart of this conference, and the format reflects this belief. In all five sessions attendees had the opportunity to ask questions to the speakers and the day is punctuated by ‘networking events’

Yvan Gauthier, representing the Foundation of Greater Montreal, a philanthropic organization that creates endowment funds to support charitable organizations, spoke on the first panel of the day, ‘Diversifying your Financing’, about the importance of community. “Don’t stay in your head,” he advised, “take your art to the community and you would be surprised at what they can bring.” Yvan represents the more traditional grant funding model, and he emphasized an artist’s ability to tell the story of their art as key to a successful application. “You have to know who you are,” he said, “You have to be able to identify what you do.”

Rishi Dhir and Jackie NerdECrafter presented more modern approaches. Rishi explained the benefits of a mailing list exchange platform called Noisetrade, where musicians donate a demo or short EP and in return get access to email addresses of potential listeners. It’s an arrangement he uses as to “cast a wide net” which has seen returns in form of scores of new listeners. Jackie is a YouTuber, and for her collaborating with other channels and getting endorsements was paramount. Diverse indeed.

The conversation took a turn during the ‘Connections Count’ panel when moderator Sonali Karnick, from the CBC astutely asked if the panelists have ever had unhealthy artistic relationships. Panelists forewarned attendees of the dangers of exploitative partnerships and agreed that there is an unprecedented amount of pressure for artists to ‘work for exposure’; a trend that often provides the interested party free labor and leaves the artist with zero compensation. “Stop giving your work away for free,” Bettina Forget, gallery owner, said emphatically, “Don’t let others decide what your art is worth.” I noticed several heads in the audience nodding in agreement.

Our curly haired questioner from earlier in the day probably found Sophie Couture of Phi Centre’s discourse on ‘Mastering the Art of Digital Marketing’ particularly edifying. Her presentation was as well-defined as a one-size-fits-all conference can be. She provided a list of ten golden rules – rules! Finally, a clear-cut list for us A-types to cling to! Something to balance the feel-your-way climate that, out of necessity, undercut the entire conference. Of course, the rules are more like guiding principles, like “don’t take yourself too seriously” and “there are no shortcuts”, but it’s easy for an attendee to apply these tips to tangible professional situations.

During break time, the room immediately starts buzzing. Sonali announces a ‘networking event’ and sets us loose. Chatter between sessions is always a healthy sign for a conference, as friends and colleagues get acquainted, or reacquainted, based on a few excited squeals of “so good to see you again!” that spring up over the lower frequency getting-to-know-you sounds. In hopes of being approached, I move my nametag up a bit on my blouse. Caleigh Crow, ‘Theatre & Music’. A more accurate nametag would read Please Ignore Me, ‘Nervous & Shy’. For those of my persuasion the word ‘networking’ is read ‘public self-beheading’. However, I am emboldened by the ‘creative power of collaboration’ that the program says I’m here to harness, and really, it’s nice to be nice, right? But before I’ve even managed to summon the courage, a cheerful bespectacled face approaches. “Hi, I don’t know how to network,” she says by way of introduction, “so, I just came up to you to say hello and ask what you do.”  Five minutes later, we’ve exchanged business cards, QDF just might have our newest member, and not only is my head attached and still breathing, I actually enjoyed our amicable conversation.

What YES has managed to do here is create a genuinely casual, no-pressure meeting ground where there’s a lack of rigid blueprint that they expect artists to follow to achieve what their barometer reads as ‘successful’, instead they meet the attendees where they are. The speakers provide guidance, cite examples from their experience, and almost always end by saying “but that’s just how I did it, you might find that something else works better for you.” The gist of the panels is that there are no rules when it comes to a career in the arts, only resources and skills that an artist can choose to access and develop or not, and yes, other artists are an invaluable resource. No one wants to feel they are alone, especially in an industry that deals in vulnerability in nearly every sense of the word, and the Artist’s Conference was an affirming and encouraging experience.

The conference managed to be a lot of things at once. It acknowledged that there is a specific skill set required of independent artists and that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. It was a casual place to meet someone new and a high-energy networking event. It was a place to listen, learn, and ask questions. It was whatever an attendee needed it to be. At the end of the day, YES lays the tools of the trade out on the table; artists can fill their own toolboxes, as needed, and in their own fashion.

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