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The Truth about NACA.
Gigging on the College Circuit.

by Fran Snyder

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What is NACA?
The National Association of Campus Activities, established in 1960, is a non-profit organization that puts on regional conferences where music acts, comedians, lecturers and other entertainers showcase in front of campus activities programmers from around the country. There are 1200 member colleges and 600 associate members (talent or agent) which makes NACA the largest organization of its kind.
Acts like Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Suzanne Vega, and Toad the Wet Sprocket have all used NACA and the college market as a stepping-stone to success. Comedians also thrive on this market, which has helped the careers of Carrot Top, Jay Leno, Sinbad, and many others.

The organization covers the entire U.S. and is divided into 11 regions (Southeast, New England, East Coast, Upper Midwest, etc.) Each region puts on one or two conferences per year, most of them during the fall semester and lasting two to four days. Depending on the size of the region, delegates (students) from 35 to several hundred schools will attend in order to check out 30 to 60 performers who have been selected to showcase.

To participate at these conferences, you must first become a NACA member. There are two membership options in NACA. You can be a regional associate member (one region only) for $265/year, or for the price of two regions ($530/year) you can be a national associate member, operating in any or all regions of NACA. An artist can avoid these fees by getting an agent who is already a member. More on this later.

The best way to get gigs on the college circuit is to showcase at the regional conferences. There are several different types of showcases that take place during a NACA conference weekend. Music acts perform at either Main Stage (for bands or name acts) Showcases or Club (for solo acts and small bands) Showcases. These showcases feature four to six acts with one act (usually a comedian) taking the role of emcee. Each performer gets 20 minutes on a stage with good sound, lighting, and crew, in front of an audience that can range from 100 to 1500 people.

Getting A Showcase
You must submit a showcase application for each conference that you wish to showcase. You or your agent fills out extensive forms and provides a 3-minute sample (video, cassette or CD) along with some basic promotional materials. Showcase application deadlines can be up to six months in advance of the conference and acts are notified months before the conference takes place. It costs $30 per application, and hundreds of acts compete for the coveted showcase slots. If you are selected to showcase, you will have to pay and additional $200 for the privilege. Pay to play? Absolutely. Some of these colleges have tens of thousands of dollars to spend each year on campus entertainment and cultural programs. These colleges send a group of students to their region's conferences to choose which acts and programs will receive that money. A successful showcase can lead to more than $10,000 of income for a club act and even more for a mainstage act.

Colleges need entertainment for weekly and monthly events, orientation week, homecoming, etc. Their entertainment needs are very seasonal, with little or no work during summer and winter break. They use all styles of music, though pop and rock acts seem to fit the bill most often. Some of these acts perform strictly original material but most mix in some, if not tons, of covers.

The venues and audiences for these shows can vary greatly. Concerts are sometimes held in beautiful auditoriums with hundreds of people in attendance, and some "nooners" take place in dingy cafeterias at lunch time with half the audience facing the other way.

It's not necessarily glamorous, but the money is definitely better than in nightclubs. Music groups and solo acts usually perform 75 minutes and gross $500-1200 (solo) and up to $3000 for bands. Schools also typically pay for one night's lodging at a decent hotel, and will supply one meal before or after the show. Performer's pay for their transportation and all other travel expenses.

Marketplace Exhibit Halls
Every conference has a central exhibit hall where agents and artists meet their prospective buyers. Each talent agency or self-represented artist with a showcase must purchase an exhibit booth, and this is the only place where they can distribute their promotional materials during the conference. Many agencies set up a television and VCR to play their artist's videos, and bring stacks of brochures and CDs to give away.

Marketplace usually takes place after each round of showcasing, and students immediately flock to the booths representing the acts that just showcased. After a "hit" showcase, it is not unusual to see thirty or more people gathered at a performer's booth. Students line up to meet the act and to talk to his/her agent. They will also pick up some promotional materials to bring back to their campus.

CO-OP. Possibly the Best Part of NACA.
Performers and agents are expected to encourage schools to "block" dates together. In other words, if several schools from a region are interested in the same act, there is a standard money incentive for them to "co-operate." They do this by booking the act and scheduling each school's show to occur during the same week. This cuts down on travel costs for the artists and these savings can be passed on to the schools.

For example: If one school in Iowa wants to book me as a solo act, my price is $1000. However, if they can form a block with two other schools in their region, so that I can perform at all three schools within a five day period (a 3 of 5 block,) my price drops to $850 per school. Finally, if many schools in one region want to book me, my agent will try to form a 5 of 7 block, and each school will get me at the bargain rate of $750. Some of these blocks will form during Co-Op sessions at the conference, but usually your agent has to follow up for weeks and months after the conference to make this happen.

To Recap:
One School: $1000
3 of 5 (3 shows in 5 days or less) $850 each
5 of 7 (5 shows in 7 days or less) $750 each
This is a standard rate for "Club Showcase" acts and many "Mainstage Showcase" bands charge twice as much or more.

Booking Gigs - Agents Vs Self-Representation
You thought nightclub owners were a nightmare! The campus activities department is usually run by a group of students who are supervised by a faculty advisor. These students usually have short, weekly office hours and sometimes don't show up at all for them. Furthermore, drastic changes in personnel happen every year if not every semester, so many of these programmers are inexperienced at booking and producing shows. Finally, most schools will not book a particular act or band more than once per year. That's a lot of keeping up to do for one act. When you receive your new long-distance phone bill, and after a few of your press kits get lost or stolen, you start to think "hey, maybe having an agent would be cool." For me, it's the only way.

Agents on this market charge 20% off the top and earn every penny. They call schools year after year on behalf of many artists, and they develop relationships with many of these colleges. In this business, as in others, relationships mean sales/gigs. And we know musicians aren't good at relationships!

Agents also bear the costs of membership ($530+ per year,) costs of exhibit hall booths ($300-500 per conference,) and the largest expense, telephone calls. Finally, a good agent makes you look like a pro. After all, "He's great" always sounds better than "I'm great."

How To Get Started
First, get some information from the source. You can reach NACA by phone at (803) 732-6222. The address is National Association of Campus Activities, 13 Harbison Way, Columbia SC 29212-3401. Their website, www.naca.org is also very helpful. Ask for information on how to join and a list of the agents that work on the market (available on the website.)

Second, attend a conference. The Southeast Regional Conference takes place September 23rd -25th in Jacksonville, FL. Ask NACA for the necessary credentials (day passes) to attend some showcases and some exhibit halls. See what you'll be competing with and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are there acts similar to me/us that are having success on this market?
  • Am I unique in some way that could serve this market?
  • Would my show appeal to these college kids? (65%-75% of the decision makers are women)
  • Can I put together promotional materials to be competitive in this market? (video, brochure, CD, etc.)
  • Do I have the patience to persist in this market if things don't take off quickly?
  • Am I willing to travel long distances to perform?
  • Can I be away from home for weeks at a time?

If you can answer yes to most of these, talk to some agents. You can learn a lot by watching and listening to them work the exhibit hall marketplace. Ask them questions when they are not talking to clients. They usually have more acts than they can handle, but the smart ones will accept your promotional materials if you are not obnoxious. Some patient, persistent, and polite follow up over the next few months (yes, months) will produce the best results.

Is There Some Other Way?
There is a smaller, but growing organization that also serves this market. The Association for Promotion of Campus Activities (APCA), now in its fifth year, appeals to schools with smaller budgets due to the lower membership and delegate costs it charges. APCA's membership (200+ schools) is based largely in the southeast, but the organization plans to expand northward next year. For now, they have one annual conference in the spring. The next one takes place February 10th-13th in Charlotte, NC, and will feature 55 showcasing acts.

APCA is owned and run by Eric Lambert "with the performer in mind." Although the conference is run much like a NACA conference, with showcases and exhibit halls, Mr. Lambert is proud to note that his conference leans towards original acts. He screens all tapes and CDs personally - up to twenty minutes of material per act, which "allows for a better understanding of the act." Compared with NACA's three-minute limit, it's hard not to agree. Here are some other differences between NACA and APCA, straight from the APCA website:

APCA exhibit hall booths come with a guaranteed showcase or booth demo opportunity or the applicant will be refunded all conference fees. Additionally, we charge no showcase submission fees, and limit the number of booths in our exhibit halls to give associates a better opportunity to do business with school members attending. Any act wishing to showcase may send in their video and promotional materials so that they may be reviewed for showcase approval.

There are a few other differences to note. Yearly membership to this organization is $99, but it actually costs more ($1000 covers booth and showcase fees) to showcase at APCA. Last year 135 schools attended.

Visit their website at APCA.com. You can also reach them by phone at 800-681-5031 or by email at apcamail@apca.com.

NACA and APCA are not exclusive organizations and many talent agencies use both to work the college market. While NACA is older and has more participating schools and performers, APCA is growing, and is gaining respect as a reasonable alternative to NACA.

A Comparison of College Gigs to Nightclub Gigs

  College Gigs Nightclub Gigs
Money solo acts $500 to $900, bands $750 to $2500, after commissions solo acts $50 to $250
bands $150 to $450
Booking the gig get agent or join NACA, then apply for showcases, then showcase, could be a year to finally get work. Often booked in person and relatively quickly.
Repeat business Unlikely to play same school more than once per year Can play same club weekly, or daily in some cases.
Promotional Materials CD and 3 minute video are standard. Many acts have color brochures as well. Demo tape and good attitude is often enough. Oh, and willingness to work for nothing helps too.
Audiences 5 to 250 students. You get paid either way. You have a contract. 5 to 250 professionals, drunks, or professional drunks. Hopefully your 5 friends drank a lot. You probably don't have a contract.
Venues Cafeterias, student union coffeehouses, or gorgeous auditoriums, usually neon free and smoke free. Trendy bars, beach bars, coffeehouses and the occasional concert club.
PA System Varies; bands usually get decent PA and sound man. Solo acts usually get bare-bones Mixer Amp and two speakers. You can bring your own. Bands usually get some PA and an exhausted sound man. Solo acts usually bring their own bare bones Mixer Amp and two speakers.
Merchandise Sales Can be fair to excellent. Can be fair to good.
Promotion You send posters to the college. Up to you.

My Experience
Summer '94
I found out about NACA from David DeLong, a solo act based out of Tampa. Later that year I called NACA for list of agents. I talked to ten agents and didn't really connect with anyone.

Summer '95
I talked to Andrew Delany from Tomorrow's Party about his experiences with NACA. He recommended I talked to an agent friend of his. I sent Nancy a cassette and she liked a funny tune on it called "drivinman." She's quick to point out that there are already tons of "White Male, Singer-Songwriters" out there, but that humor is a great way to stand apart from the crowd.
(One year passes)

Fall '96
I met Nancy for first time, she came to see me play at a Border's gig in Flint MI. Despite her reservations about the WMSS thing, she signs me and recommends that I make a 3-minute video to apply for showcases in the spring. A few months later I make that video for $400.

Spring '97
I attend the National NACA Conference in Philadelphia without a showcase. I watched other artists perform and hung out in the agency booth. Schmoozing with students lands me one gig for the fall and cements the relationship with my agent.

Fall '97
First College gig. Beaver College. $850 minus airfare and rental car. No monitor, no lighting. 20 people at gig, sold one CD for $5. It's kinda fun flying to gigs.

Winter '97
We (my agent and I) apply to several spring conferences. Selected for two.

Spring '98
I play two spring (smaller conferences) showcases. Great Lakes and East Coast. One goes incredibly well, the other is a disaster. My agent books 13 gigs for the fall.

Summer '98
We submit applications to eight fall conferences. I get no showcases. Devastated, I wish I'd spent more time and money on that video.

Fall '98
First college tour. Three trips to NY and PA in three months, rolled 25,000 miles, earned $10,000.

Spring '99
No College gigs. Reason? No Showcases last fall. Played a small showcase at the National Conference in Nashville.

Summer 99
I applied to 8 more conferences and was selected for two showcases in November '99.

Fall 99
14 gigs in NY, PA, IL, NH, and FL.

Many acts have taken off quickly with NACA. Acts like Christine Kane and Beth Wood each performed 50 shows during their first year in NACA. Several music acts perform over one hundred shows a year (do the math.) However, it's a mistake to expect to make a lot of money right away. In the short run, you are more likely to spend a lot of money. Most acts take a while to fine tune their promotional materials and their showcasing skills. Furthermore, you have to be selected to showcase regularly, and that process is equal parts effort and pot-luck. You never know what college students are looking for at the moment.

It took me a year and a half to get an agent. It took another year to get a showcase, and another 6 months before I finally made a profit. In those first two years I spent over $1000 in showcase fees, application fees and promotional materials. It's taken over three years for me to establish myself on this market.

Why bother? Eventually these college gigs allowed me to profitably tour the country. Also, there is something about hitting the road that makes you feel like your career is going somewhere, too. People always seem to treat you a little better when they know you've come a long way.

With some additional work on your part, you can book some nightclubs and coffeehouses on the way to and from, as well as in between these college gigs. College shows are usually 75 minutes long so it's also feasible to perform two shows in a day. This, along with the better pay, has allowed me to work with backing musicians that I normally couldn't afford to take on the road.

The college market is not for everyone. But if you find yourself in the happy-hour, smoky-bar rut that I found myself in a few years ago (and last week), it's certainly worth looking into. The pay is better, the audiences are typically nicer, and even if you don't become a NACA star overnight, a dozen or so gigs per semester can be a great kick-start for booking your first out-of-state tours.


This aritcle was written in 2001.

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