This is one of those things that I could say to an "industry person" in ten words, but have to explain for you to see why I'm excited about it.
Any place that puts on shows for the public is called a Venue. Often, venues that are associated with cities, counties, or schools (esp colleges) have "arts series," where once a week or once a month they bring someone in to do a show for whoever will come. Many people are familiar with their local "Arts in the Park" shows, things like the Scera Showcase (in Provo/Orem area), or buy season tickets to an Arts Series that puts on concerts, plays, and other kinds of shows. So you buy tickets, go, and enjoy.
Most people never think about all the processes that happen around the concert series/arts series/showcases that venues put on for them. They just hear that, say, the Beach Boys are coming into town, and they go to see the show.
Venues, though, have to come up with all the shows that appear on their stages. We call them "acts." Depending on the venue and their usual audience, they hire anything from cello quartets to fire-breathing magicians--and anything else you can think of in between. All of these acts are made up of regular people (more or less--regular to us, anyway, because we interact with them all the time!) who perform for their job.
When you see a venue's calendar, you see two things on it: acts that are paying to rent the space for as many nights as they want to perform their show (we call this "four-walling," where the artist/act assumes 100% of the financial risk of the show), and acts that the venue is paying to come in (where the performers get paid no matter how many people show up to see the show).
Venues want variety in their "lineup" (the list of shows they're putting on, or producing, each "season" or year). They also want to bring in the kinds of acts that will pull large audiences (and therefore cover the cost of bringing in shows, and maybe make them a little money, too). They need acts they can afford (and, depending on the venue, this might mean acts that cost $500 or less, or it might mean acts that cost $500,000 or less). Lots of arts venues that are associated with cities, counties, and arts-council-run arts programs are also mandated to bring a variety of arts in that will expose the public to great art and also educate them, so they have to walk a fine line between fun-so-people-will-actually-come and legitimately-artistic-stuff-that's-still-accessible. Some only bring in acts that will also do educational "outreach" programs in the local schools.
Performers want to be "brought in" to do shows (so there is no financial risk for them). They want to do shows in established arts series/concert series that are more likely to draw an appreciative audience. They want to be paid. They want to get broad exposure from a show, opening up new markets and getting new fans who will boost their income by buying music, spreading the word about them, and coming to future shows. Really good acts that draw a large crowd are often brought back to the same venues repeatedly, and they like this. So do the venues because it helps them sell out their series.
The trick, of course, is for everyone to find each other. Arts "Buyers" we call them (the actual people who hire the acts for the venues and arts series) are constantly looking for new acts to bring in that still fulfill the requirements they've been given by their employers. Artists are constantly trying to get more exposure to buyers (and therefore more work).
So someone somewhere came up with the concept of a Booking Conference.
When a Buyer hires an act, they "book" the act--schedule and contract the performers to show up on a certain day to do a certain thing (say, a 90-minute show on an outdoor stage with a 10-minute intermission).
A booking conference is a type of business conference where performers (and their agents) pay a fee to set up booths (like at a community arts festival, or a county fair) showing what they have to offer, and buyers walk around collect information on the the different acts that fit into their "mission" (be it all classical ballet, or rock concerts for teens). They take the information back to their offices, often present it to some kind of a committee or arts council, and then book their entire concert series from what they saw at the booking conference. To make it all more effective, the conference organizers usually include at least one "showcase" when for a certain amount of time (2-4 hours, often, sometimes all day), performers who are selected to have a "showcase slot" can perform live for the buyers to show them what the performance is really like. Not all performers at the conference get a showcase slot, but those who do get a showcase slot are considered lucky--performers believe (and rightly, I think) that this "audition" will give them a better chance of getting booked for the year. Often they have to audition for a showcase slot--it's not a given just because you sign up early or did one last year or are well-known. (Usually these auditions are via DVD or CD).
Even performers who get showcase slots always also take materials to hand out free at the conferences. Usually for musicians this includes some kind of information about the act (usually just one page long, called a "one sheet"), pictures of the act that, ideally, give you information about it at a single glance (called "promo pics"), and a CD or, better yet, a DVD that includes a "promo video" (a short video with clips of lots of shows and quotes from people about them) as well as video segments of full songs performed in front of a live audience, and footage of a full show performed in front of a live audience. Performers hand these out to remind buyers of what they saw and to give them "proof" to take back to their committees or bosses or whoever approves the hiring that they really are the ones you want in your concert series this year. The better your "materials" look, the more likely buyers will take you seriously and consider you a) reliable, b) professional, and c) easy to work with. Oh, and d) worth the money they are paying you. So performers try to put some kind of care into the design and production of their materials. Some even have "promo kits" available (folders that include the one sheet, the CD/DVD, the promo pics, and pages of recommendations, quotes, newspaper reviews, bios, ready-made articles called "press releases" to send to local papers to help them entice fans to the shows, and anything else the performer thinks will be effective in convincing the buyers to hire them.).
There are dozens (but not hundreds) of booking conferences in the nation, and most of them are focused. For example, one only books entertainment for colleges. Several focus their attention on regional buyers (say, just the North West, or the South). Some focus on a single state. Some focus on what's called "block booking". Block booking is when all the different arts buyers get together and coordinate their schedules and buying plans to lower the cost for everyone (Because they have to pay travel costs as well as an act's fee to do the show, it's cheaper for buyers if they coordinate with other buyers in the local area and split the reduced travel cost; plus, lots of acts give venues a discount if they can arrange 3-5 days worth of shows in one region vs just one show.)
Tim applied for and got a booth and a showcase slot at a booking conference last month. After years of studying other groups' materials, he custom-designed a new kind of handout that is lightweight, includes one sheet PLUS pics PLUS the CD (which was also custom-designed to fit the overall design of the whole handout), and it relatively inexpensive to produce. It came out so fantastic that a friend who looks at press kits all day as part of his job took one look and said, "You did it!" It was perfect.
Showcases are hard to perform in because you get no feedback as a performer. The entire audience, instead of being there to get into the music and have fun, is there to take notes. So they did their show (both Wonder Voice and Mister Tim Live Looping), and then had to go back the next day to hand out information before they knew if they did well or not.
Bottom line on how well you did with your showcase is if you get anyone booking you from it. So we've been sitting around waiting to see if the calls started coming in.
And yesterday they did. The buyers are booking for next summer and Christmas 2011. And they want Tim and his group on their list.
(Wasn't that the longest way to break a little news ever?!).
And the application for the next booking conference is already in.....