Backbeat: The Surreal APAP Convention Hall: From Tibetan Monks to Lez Zeppelin, Branson On the Road to Slask

Branson on the Road: From left: Brian Capps, Debbie Horton and Donnie Wright.

Andy Gensler

In many regards the convention hall at the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) in New York City resembles nothing so much as a Fellini movie. Here, Tibetan Monks, Polish folk dancers, bellydancers, balloon sculptors and, of course, a golden praying mantis all man booths as thousands of curators, agents, promotors and others from across the country trod the Hilton New York's carpeted aisles looking to book their 2014-2015 seasons. Laptops perched on tables glow with live performances of every possible stripe imaginable: dance, theatre, music, magicians. DVDs, CDs, APAP performance flyers and business cards are handed out liberally as are lagniappes like candy, pastries and stickers.

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"We joke that we are going through the convention hall and only visit magicians," says Shanta Thake, the director of Joe's Pub and co-producer of Globalfest which every year runs concurrently with APAP. "It's a great time to see all the agents we correspond with all year, get face time with agents who are doing showcases and meet up with presenters -- it's a very active time."

Though APAP are still tabulating the final numbers for this year's conference, which ran Jan. 11-15, preliminary estimates provided by APAP indicate more than 3,500 attendees with more than 1,000 at pre-conference events and some 300 booths which according to the APAP site range in price, depending on size, from $850 - $1,870.

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Don't let the surreal circus-like atmosphere of APAP fool you; millions of dollars in booking deals happen here every year. There's the heavy-hitter agencies like Creative Artists Agency, William Morris Endeavor, International Creative Management and Paradigm as well as smaller but important booking agents such as Windish and Eye For Talent. All are looking to get their artists into performance arts centers (PACs) with sizes generally ranging from 500 to 3,000 seats.

Joe Brauner, an agent in WME who's been coming to APAP since 1988, says the Performance Arts Center market has grown tremendously. "These promoters have traditionally been on subscriptions series, but a lot of them are as competitive as the more mainstream concert promoters and a lot of them will buy special events one-offs." Brauner, whose client roster includes Jackie Evancho, Don Rickles, Johnny Mathis, Norah jones, Chris Issak, and David Byrne, says the PACs can represent roughly 10% to 30% of some artists' tours.

A small, informal and random sampling of musicians who had rented booths revealed artists who thought APAP well worth their expense and time.

Members of the Polish folk music and dance troupe Slask.

"In the three days we exhibited, we connected with over 50 prospective buyers of the show and had fun with everyone who came by," said Branson on the Road's Debbie Horton, who was attending her first APAP conference clad in a  brightly colored nude suit. "We talked to people from all over the world and two attendees from China were even asking if we'd go there to perform. We left New York with new friends and business connections that would have taken years to cultivate."

Steph Paynes is the founder, manager and guitarist of Lez Zeppelin, the female-fronted Led Zeppelin tribute band, and it's the second year she's exhibited at APAP. "Last year we got to play several performing art centers because of APAP," she says. "There was one in Natick, Mass., Fairfield Theatre Company, we were approached by several colleges and we just did a gig at the Brooklyn Museum. They had us play as part of an exhibition on conceptual art from the '60s and 70s and we played for 2,000 people."

When asked to comment on the diversity of the convention hall, APAP president and CEO Mario Garcia Durham says that "diversity is critical to APAP and to all of us in the field. We know the EXPO Hall offers a wide range of performing arts but our goal is to reflect the changing face of America in all areas of diversity such as race, age, gender and economic level."

But what about dinosaur puppets? While discussing the range of acts at this year's APAP, Joe's Pub/Globalfest's Thake lets slip that her fiancé is an agent for a dinosaur puppet show at APAP. "Last year he wanted to bring in the T-Rex but they wouldn't let him." she says. After a certain writer's incredulity, Thake explains that it's "been an incredibly successful show and is currently playing in Times Square."